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What gear should I buy to take great photographs?

A reader asks,

Dear Photodoto,

I want to take great photographs. What gear should I buy to improve my photography?

Dear reader, to take great photographs you only need one piece of gear in addition to any camera: a photographer. Haha. No, seriously.

One of my favorite stories on this topic is about a photographer talking to a writer. The writer, admiring the photographer’s work, asks, “I love your photographs. What kind of camera do you use?” The photographer replies, “I love your writing. What kind of typewriter do you use?” (If anyone knows the source of this story, please speak up.)

No one ever asks what kind of typewriter (that’s a mechanical keyboard for you youngins) Hemingway used. Admiring David, no one asks what kind of chisel Michelangelo used. That’s because everyone knows that typewriters don’t write novels and chisels don’t make beautiful sculptures. So, why does everyone think that cameras make photographs?

There’s no simple answer to that question. I lean towards the direction that photographers make photographs. At the same time, I realize that there is a technical side to photography. Autofocus, for example. Without autofocus, more photos would be blurry. The equipment does matter in some measure.

In honest answer to the question: save your money. Practicing with attention to what you are doing is more valuable than all of the equipment in the world. If you don’t already have a camera, buy one modern camera and one lens. It doesn’t even particularly matter what kind of camera or lens you buy but I’d recommend something simple (and digital). Either a short to medium length zoom (18-70mm) or a medium length prime (28, 35, or 50mm). Even a simple point and shoot with an integrated lens can be used to make beautiful photographs.

Then (and here’s the tough part) shoot about 10,000 photographs. You want digital because it’s the only way most of us can afford to shoot that many photographs. That’s about 28 photographs per day for a year. In film terms, that’s a roll per day. But don’t just shoot randomly to burn exposures. Think about what you are doing. Look at the results of your work and think of ways to improve your composition and exposure. Try to do it a little better next time. Learn from your results.

And that’s it. I guarantee you’ll be a much better photographer at the end of that year.

There are a few things that better equipment can give you. Autofocus, as I already mentioned. Expensive lenses allow you to shoot with less light and with shallower depths of field. Specialty lenses let you shoot extreme closeups and macros. Off-camera flashes will improve lighting. Different films and processing give different results. The thing is, you can own all that gear and still take crap photographs. Invest in yourself first.

John Watson

John is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you're interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.
  • Well said! I’d just add: watch the settings of your camera and learn what they mean so that you can use those actively (don’t trust the automatic settings blindly)…

  • Philip Lindborg

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. But the thing about going digital must be true. I bought and old analogue camera for a couple of years ago trying to learn, but it went all too expensive. Now I’m saving up for a digital SLR (Nikon D50, I think) and I’m pretty sure that piece of investment will make me a better photographer because then I’ll be able to afford actually taking pictures. (I have an uncountable number of undeveloped film rolls.)

  • what about compacts “SLR- like”

  • Pingback: DSLRBlog | Adventures in digital photography()

  • Stew

    “But Daaad! I *really* need a bubble level to make my panoramas!!!” :-)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/stewstryker/220698017/

  • Though it doesn’t matter what kind of camera you use, it does help if a) it’s not broken, b) has tight light seals and a working shutter c) has a nice clean lens that isn’t scratched d) has a working light meter. This article makes it seem like I can go to any yardsale and take great photographs with the 50 yr old $.50 tank of a camera.

    Of course, you do mention digital which obviously isn’t going to be _that_ old.

    Good article, and I love the 10,000 photograph advice.

  • Stew

    Andrew – Not a “50 yr old $.50 tank of a camera”, but…

    I ran into a friend who was sporting a new (to him) camera and it was the EXACT camera I used to own, a Minolta Maxuum 7000. I told him I’d just sold this old kit complete with 2 tele zooms, flash and case) on Ebay for $212 to get the money to buy my current digicam (Panasonic FZ30). He told me he just bought this setup recently from, believe it or not, a yard sale. How much did he pay?

    $2.50!!! Actually he said he had to buy it as a set with other stuff, new Nikon binox and another used pair of binox, for $10!!!

    The gear all looked in excellent condition and he said the photos were perfect.

    So it looks like you CAN do almost what you said!

    But if it was me, I would have sold them on Ebay for a couple hundred bucks and bought a good digicam, and probably exactly what I got now! :-)

  • Stew

    Oops, I forgot to comment on the “take 10,000 shots in a year” advice. While I generally think it’s excellent advice, doing exactly that, thoughtfully with post-shot analysis, would require at least 2 hours a day, I’d guess. That’s a pretty solid commitment to improving! But that may be what it takes, eh? :-/

  • Stew: My point was simply the fact that you need to be careful that the camera you buy at a yardsale is in good condition. No where did I say, it’s not possible, I was just using it as an example. Though, I guess i can see your misunderstanding of my comment, I guess it does pretty much say, no yard sale tank will be suitable. I apologize.

    I’m glad that he got an awesome setup with tight lightseals and nice sharp lens for so cheap, that’s an excellent deal.

  • I’ve been using a point-and-shoot for three years now. Would love to get something better, like a Canon Rebel, but can’t justify the expense right now. But I have noticed over the years that some of the best pictures I’ve taken have happened simply because I had my tiny point-and-shoot camera in my pocket. The ability to carry it everywhere I go (something difficult to do with an SLR) produces big results. So even when I do get that Rebel, or similar, in the future, I’ll probably continue carrying a point-and-shoot just to get those spur-of-the-moment shots.

    The two pieces of advice I always give to people are: Take multiple shots of the same scene, and CROP CROP CROP. In my book, people are afraid to crop their pictures, yet you can dramatically improve an image if the crop is done right.

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