Gadgetitis and Photography’s Big Spenders

‘Gadgetitis’ is a psychological condition induced by the desire to compensate for an inferiority feeling… I believe that photographers should pay far more attention to studying photographs than apparatus.

Emil Otto Hoopé

Before we get into this relevant subject, a word to the wise:

The meandering point-of-view expressed here is simple enough: many amateurs, especially those shooting within financial restraints, don’t need high cost cameras and top glass. They can get great images and prints more cost-effectively.

This post is mainly directed at those who have at least two bothersome issues to deal with:

1) They may be influenced by the flawed rationale of the gearhead who parrots the mantra, “Great shots need great lenses.”

2) They simply can’t afford a set of very expensive pro lenses.

I’ve been there.

So the conclusion is obvious, isn’t it? If you can’t have great lenses and pro cameras and exorbitant software programs, you’ve significantly reduced your chances of getting “great” results. Well, this is baloney, for want of an unprintable word or two. Advice like this can be a significant blow to the hobbyist’s morale.

But just to keep things in balance, it would be ridiculous to claim that it’s typically wrong to prefer and buy pro lenses. There are those who can afford the best gear and are confident they’ll use it to its fullest potential. But right here, right now, in the average enthusiast’s real world, we should enjoy our photography without constantly feeling the need to expensively expand our gear. Many of us can succeed with what we already have.

So, let me ask you: Are you an amateur photographer shooting on a tight budget? How much do you have to spend to get images and prints that please you? Is it possible to create impressive images using less expensive equipment? Yes, it’s possible, although much depends on your goals and even your style of photography.

Since I went online in 2000 I’ve come across what seems to be a kind of photographic elitism where we find talented pros (and somewhat deluded amateurs) who have spent a fortune on equipment. The signatures in their forum posts list a lot of gear. Too many amateurs are needlessly referring to detailed charts, graphs and the associated ins and outs of MFT testing. They get hung up on sharpness, contrast, colour correction, relative illumination, spectral transmission, distortion and lp/mm. Don’t worry that you don’t know what some of these terms mean exactly—I don’t either. And I’ve no reason to care.

Don’t get me wrong—I know that there are circumstances where more money needs to be spent. There’s a context for professional top gear for glossy images in classy coffee table photo publications; high megapixel full-frame SLRs and top lenses, or quality medium format cameras, for specialised subjects demanding large presentation prints or posters; l-o-n-g fast lenses for breath-taking wildlife and sports photography; Nikons and Canons in protective housings for crystal clear underwater images; and so on…

But beyond all of this, and of equal importance (and much more common), are the masses of dedicated amateurs who love their hobby dearly but are strapped for cash. At times it must seem to them as if there’s no chance of getting impressive results with their mirrorless cameras or consumer SLRs and their less expensive zoom lenses. After all, those lenses just aren’t sharp enough and the cameras not robust and fully-featured enough.

Will you get great results without top quality lenses? Yes, of course you will! Will your camera shoot impressive images you can print to 18×12 and frame, and even sell? Yes, in fact it will. The absence of eminent sharpness and glass contrast doesn’t mean that a print will lack impact.

If we believed all we read we might assume it’s almost impossible to produce impressive images and prints with consumer cameras and independent lenses. There are times when new amateurs need to immunise themselves against the “I’m-in-the-top-gear-club” snobbery that they encounter here and there. We need to be aware how much this nonsense about pro equipment dependence can make it seem like there’s no other way to get impressive images. There are plenty of talented and creative photographers who have already shown by their images that great shots are possible without top-end pro gear. I can remember seeing a website in 2004 full of fantastic scenic images captured by the EOS 300D and being sold in large sizes.

There’s something else we should think about too. In reasonably priced image-editing software, to an extent, we can manually override noticeable chromatic aberrations, such as red/cyan fringing. We can usefully counteract some image softness caused by mid-range lens’ deficiencies. (You may get these in an expensive lens, by the way.) Dedicated amateurs can subtly enhance images using a variety of corrective software techniques and then go on to produce large prints that look excellent at typical viewing distances. Achieving this is not particularly difficult and often it’s not even necessary.

Now, before we go any further, there’s no point in anyone saying, “Yes, but shoot the same subject with pro gear too and put the images or prints side-by-side.” Apart from the fact that it’s probable that there wouldn’t be a definitive gulf between the two, this line of reasoning proves nothing since the amateur may not be able to justify buying very expensive gear. And besides, the viewer won’t be thinking about irrelevant comparisons he or she can’t make.

Excuse the cliché while I quote Ansel Adams: “…in discussing mechanical or optical issues we must not lose sight of the much greater importance of image content…” (The Camera, p.73). “True resolving power,” he went on, “is the ability of a lens (or a film) to render separate, fine detail distinguishably.”

With that in mind let’s consider the advanced amateur who buys a very expensive top quality high resolution prime lens. By consistently using a tripod, mirror lock-up, and mid-apertures he should be able to guarantee excellent image resolution. But we should ask ourselves how much of this “resolving power”— the “fine detail”— will actually give the image content more impact? It’s debatable at best. Will the detail and contrast even make it through to the print? My comparisons over the years have shown me that commercial standards vary. On each and every photo forum, top quality lenses engender excessive praise and irrational longing in equal measure.

I’m not belittling those who need top gear for their trade, but surely it goes without saying that in too many cases pro equipment alone doesn’t guarantee impressive results. No offence intended and hopefully none taken, but there are plenty of wedding photographers who produce humdrum work. Technically excellent perhaps, and they have to be commended for having the guts to try. I’m reminded of a pro medium format photographer in the 90s who took a large group photograph and gave us shots that were focussed on the tree behind where we stood. It’s very significant that nobody noticed but me. Seriously, on the day I could have produced equally acceptable and better focussed results with my 35mm amateur gear.

Some time ago I was paid to regularly shoot glass objects, and it was usually very demanding. But I’ve seen the work of a professional who spent several hours photographing glasswork and charged an absolute fortune for rubbish shots. And I do mean rubbish. I still have access to the images and dearly wish I could share them here. To crown it all I recently I saw a pro scenic calendar with a landscape shot that included a large cardboard box in the foreground (that could have been lifted).

Someone on a photo forum wrote: “We’ve compared photos back and forth many times and it does take top of the line lenses to make The Photo happen.” Someone else wrote: “You will find that better lenses do help take better pictures.” And another: “It’s generally held that DSLRs need the best quality lenses to produce the perfect results.” And a pro, who’s evidently not on the same planet as me, wrote in a photo magazine: “…many amateur photographers forget that great shots need great lenses” (Digital Photography User). How about this nonsense from lens manufacturer Sigma: “A photo is only as good as the lens it was taken with.” Can you get your head around that? It’s exactly what the producers of expensive big-aperture lenses would have us believe.

Can glass resolution and contrast in small format photography really take us this far? For me as a dedicated amateur, this somewhat outdated and questionable reasoning only reminds me how relative everything can be in the context of image-editing techniques and how prints actually appear at typical viewing distances. The true professional has unique priorities, of course. For example, top of the line lenses are better constructed and will tolerate heavy use in testing contexts.

But we must remember that beyond doubt there are lenses from some manufacturers in some contexts that are best avoided. I once had a beefy 24-70mm Sigma lens that was little better than a doorstop. Struggling with duff lenses simply adds disadvantages the amateur photographer could well do without. Similar amounts spent on another brand may well produce better quality. Generally however, many less expensive lenses can deliver very good results even in larger prints, particularly after the careful application of excellent techniques in the field coupled with the use of corrective image-editing tools at home.

Under average to strong contrast conditions, a less expensive lens will almost certainly cause red and blue fringing around the edges of the image. But, as we have already mentioned, if a shot is particularly important, fringing can be removed. Fringing, especially at wide-angle settings, is also caused by light striking the image sensor at a steep angle. Barrel and pincushion distortion are quite noticeable with cheaper zooms, especially at extreme focal lengths. Independent zoom lenses need to be assessed in context — they will never outperform prime lenses from leading manufacturers.

But in actual practice a bag of top lenses can add up to very little. Keen amateurs should take note that there are pros and too many amateurs working with top equipment who fail to make the most of their investment primarily because their image-editing skills are lousy. You may well find examples on their websites of garish colours, inappropriate sharpening, poor contrast, drab B&W conversions, and so on. Their prints could be interesting. You can see this anomaly for yourself on photo forums when some ‘more experienced’ photographers share their images or try to help newcomers with their editing skills. Shooting is only the first part of the digital camera story.

Falling at the last hurdle can make a total nonsense of expensive preparation:

  • Buy a very good pro or semi-pro SLR and the “best lenses you can afford” that have reassuring lpmm and excellent spectral transmission and contrast qualities.
  • Use outstanding technique: tripod, MLU, commendable DoF, metered exposure…
  • Be sure to always use the RAW format so you will have maximum control over tonality, noise, colour-correction and colour strength.
  • Invest £/$ heavily in Photoshop and Lightroom so that anything’s possible.
  • Process images until they’re inappropriately sharpened, inordinately saturated and tonally imbalanced.

Yes, it happens.

Consumer and mid-range equipment in the hands of someone who’s a good photographer and image-editor will result in strong image content that’s been properly manipulated, and crucially it may not need a lot of manipulation. Excessive colour and unusual tones can of course be part and parcel of Artistic Expression—whatever that term may mean—but it’s an exception to the rule.

Here’s something else to think about. If you’re shopping for a new lens should you “buy the best you can afford”? This advice is rampant on forums, ad nauseam, but it’s not very clever. In truth it’s too easy to buy into much more than you will ever need, especially if money isn’t a problem.

For most dedicated amateurs the best solution is to keep our brains in gear and think realistically about what we actually need. What we want is a different matter and manufacturers know how to get us hooked. But what are your goals? What direction are you taking with your amateur hobby? Do you really need long lenses with big apertures? What will the final product be? An online album viewed on laptops and tablets? Are you going to exhibit or sell really large prints?

Image content is key. Software manipulation can play a significant role here for the dedicated amateur who, for whatever reason, will not be buying the best gear. It is possible to create an excellent image that catches the eye at typical viewing distances. Let’s face it: how many will get nose grease on an exhibited print just to assess critical sharpness? Is that why the shot was made? And, if side-by-side comparisons are made, the difference is not critical.

The bottom line? Learn to identify elitist forum prattle and shut it out. Don’t be feeling left out because you can’t afford the pro glass or top-end heart-stoppingly-priced cameras you hear mentioned daily on the photography forums. Don’t be browbeaten into thinking that you must have costly accessories and unbelievably expensive software others espouse. And incidentally, images aren’t “Photoshopped”—they’re edited in whatever software you can afford and need.

May I suggest a better overall plan? Be obsessed about getting out there and working on your technique. Depending on your style, you probably don’t need to shoot hundreds of shots week in, week out. Take your time and hone your skills. Use your equipment to its fullest potential, and there’s no doubt that if you have a photographic eye, you’ll soon be delivering results that others will admire.

The Top of Ireland

Carrauntoohil, 1,038 metres (3,406 ft). Ricoh GR1

I’ve hoofed it all over Ireland but my best experience was travelling along the Black Valley (see below, taken very early in the morning) and parking where the lane became a track too broken up to drive on. From there it took several exhilarating hours to reach the top of Ireland. And what a fantastic view. I’ve been lifted up to the top of Mont Blanc (15,781 ft) but give me an Irish or Scottish panorama any day.

The beautiful Black Valley.

The beautiful Black Valley on a calm summer’s morning.

I asked this man if he would strike a pose for me with his staff. He said, “We’re looking down on everybody now!”

The view on the way back.

The view on the way back.

Some years ago my late father-in-law flew me over Northern Ireland’s highest peak, Slieve Donard. As we circled around I could see a photographer bent over his camera and tripod. I wonder what his shots were like. Visibility was perfect.

Under the Christmas Day Moon

The considerable contrast range between landscape and sky can be managed in various ways. But we don’t always have the gear we need when we see what we like. Sometimes we don’t even have a camera!

On this occasion I had brought my Canon PowerShot G9 with me. Even without graduated filters and/or a tripod, with software solutions in mind it’s sometimes possible to take a few shots that best capture the tonal range we want for the finished image.

The shooting solution for this particular scene is illustrated below. Set to auto the camera well and truly messed it up by averaging out the contrast range. The sky has blown and the moon has disappeared. It’s not even close to what I saw. So composing as consistently as I could frame-to-frame, I ran off a few hand-held shots that were exposed for the landscape and the sky. It was important to get good detail in the moon too.

You can see below some of the adjustments I made in layers in my software program. In this way I used the best of the tones from each JPEG shot to produce a final image that satisfied my vision. As an afterthought I brightened the winter gorse in the foreground (see opening shot above).


The same morning under the Christmas Day moon.