Photography gear that hasn’t changed my life

Not every camera, lens, or accessory I’ve bought — even expensive ones! — has been right for me. But don’t call them mistakes.

Last month at ’Thew’s Reviews I posted an omnibus of the various camera gear I tried out over the course of last year.

To promote it, Matthew noted:

To that good advice, I would add this: trust any reviewer who owns up to their mistakes. Or at least admits that not every new toy has been life-altering. I’ve seen some of that on other photography sites that I frequent.

While challenging his readers to think about gear that truly improved their photography, Thom Hogan admitted that in the past twenty years, “only 6 out of hundreds of cameras actually truly impacted my work for the better”:

Your story will be a bit different than mine, as what you value and the thing that bettered your photography will be a little different. But I’ll bet you’ve acquired more cameras over the years than ones that made you a better photographer.

He backs up his own bona fides in his this post, where he admitted that the D4, a $6,000 über camera, didn’t really make a difference:

Even I get caught up from time to time and end up with gear I thought would be photographically useful to me that turned out to not pass the “prove it” test. I’d have to say that the D4 worked out that way for me, for example. I can’t really prove that the D4 does a better job than the D3s for the work I use that type of camera for. […] Now I’ve got a more complicated workflow (have to carry two card readers with me, for example), had to buy new batteries, and so on. I can’t really prove I’ve gained anything other than the extra pixels, which I didn’t need.

Meanwhile, over at The Online Photographer, Mike Johnston admitted that he should have spread out his camera purchases a little more over the past few years:

So what really should have happened here is that I should have used the GF1 I bought in 2009 for five years rather than three, and then upgraded to the E-M1. Had I done so, I would have bought two small cameras since 2009 rather than, um, five—and stayed with the same lenses. My mistake? Not waiting long enough. I should have been more patient.

You don’t see that kind of honesty often enough. He’s now advising that you should wait longer before upgrading:

[I’ll be advising] others to keep their main digital cameras for 4–6 years rather than 3–5. To wait a bit longer rather than a shorter time. Be patient; get your money’s worth out of your old camera; and make sure the upgrade is really worthwhile (and noticeable!) when you do jump.

We’re reaching the point where this is much safer advice than it was ten years ago…quality has risen enough that most options are adequate, and progress has slowed enough that most new introductions don’t trump older equipment very easily or by very much.

(This all mirrors advice he offered in a different form a few years back with his hilarious and biting “Letter To George”.)

Anyway, I’ll join in and ’fess up to to some of the stuff I’ve bought that I don’t think made a huge difference for me.

Mind you, I don’t think of these as true, screwed-the-pooch “mistakes”. New gear can open up new possibilities and ways of thinking; it can also expose strengths in your old stuff or introduce new roadblocks. You don’t learn unless you try. And there’s so much cool gear out there that you’d almost be stupid not to play with as much of it as you can. Almost.

Sony 70–300mm f/4.5–5.6 SSM

Buoys in the reservoir
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Also don't trust anyone that says you can't use a telephoto for landscapes

This is a fine lens, excellent throughout its entire range. It was the third lens I bought (after the kit lens and a Minolta 50mm f/1.7) and was my first and only big telephoto. And I mean big; it’s designed for full-frame cameras, but I was using it on a cropped-sensor A100 so it was larger than it had to be. I definitely used the 300mm end, but the majority of my favorites are closer to the 70–150mm end, so I was schlepping around more lens than I needed. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time.

I took a bazillion pictures with it—I think it has more images in Lightroom than almost any other lens—but I can only point to a handful of keepers. I attribute the abysmal hit rate partially to unclear thinking, partially to poor editing, partially to unwillingness to haul it around, partially to self-consciousness at whipping at it out when I did have it.

While I liked its rendering and its focal length range for both landscapes and portraits, I didn’t love pointing the bazooka at people. And it was too slow to use indoors, so I had to use a flash, which made the camera and lens even more conspicuous and intimidating.

Not for me.

Olympus E–30

A pretty yellow flower
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Yellows and purples

The real mistake I made here was buying too much at once. Almost immediately after I bought this camera I found a deal on a refurbished Panasonic G1 and 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens that I couldn’t refuse.

I ended up using the crap out of the little G1 while the E–30, with comparable image quality in a larger, bulkier box, gathered dust. I sold it when I started to get the sense that the Four-Thirds line was on its way out. Pity: the 11–22mm and 50mm f/2 combo I had was an awesome two-lens kit.

Manfrotto carbon-fiber tripod legs

I have proven stubbornly unwilling to haul a full-sized tripod around. Even with carbon-fiber legs, which are sturdy but relatively light, it’s still big and awkward.

I do use my tripod around the house, but it doesn’t leave the house unless it’s in the car. Which means that light weight doesn’t really matter. Which means I could have gotten something heavier and more sturdy than carbon-fiber, like this fetching wooden tripod or, I dunno, a pile of bricks. Which means I could have saved a pile of money. And I haven’t even factored in the ball head.

Also, my tripod legs have one of those expanding center columns. Don’t get that: it’s awkward and less stable. Get longer legs instead.

The tripod I use the most now? A $15 Joby Gorillapod Micro. Turns out I will use a tripod if it’s tiny, unobtrusive, simple, and, uh, always attached to the camera.

(Tentative) Panasonic 7–14mm f/4

A wide-angle photo of a shark statue in front of a surf shop
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Tourist trap

This lens is one of the big game-changers for the Micro4/3 line. It’s ridiculously wide (14–28mm equivalent, not a fisheye) and only a touch larger than the kit lens that came with my G1. The closest comparable lens from any system is the Nikon 14–24mm f/2.8 at twice the price and many times the size.

I’m about to call it; I wasn’t ready for this lens. Ultra-ultra-wide photography definitely isn’t easy. You need to be ultra-ultra careful with framing and alignment. Worse, there’s few suitable subjects, and even if you think you’ve found a subject the results are not even an iota like the view in front of you.

I think it’s better to ease yourself into wide-angle. Start with 35mm and play with the interaction of subject and background. Then maybe you’ll start seeing situations where you want to get closer or where you have a fore/middle/background situation where a 28mm or wider could be appropriate.

I think in practice I could see reasonably frequent use of a 24mm (12mm on Micro Four-Thirds) lens and occasional use of a 20mm, but wider than that and I really struggle. But, again, I wouldn’t know all that unless I had bought this lens.

Am I doing it wrong?

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