The Cost of Amateur Photography

It’s a fact that many like to gear-up very expensively. It’s nobody’s business but theirs how much gets spent or why, but it doesn’t do any harm to sit back and think about how much money an amateur can effortlessly waste. I know from hard experience that it’s all too easy to buy into more than you’ll need — even long-term. Overspending happens, even among those on more modest incomes.

Something that’s got under my skin over the decades are the exaggerated claims made about top quality gear, lenses in particular. “Great shots need great lenses,” is an ideology that has more to do with opinions on photography forums than the tangible results amateurs can get in the real world. Here’s a classic example: “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 commented: “You will find that better lenses do help take better pictures.” In some specific contexts he may have a point but generalising is unhelpful, and common. Someone else said, “It’s generally held that DSLRs need the best quality lenses to produce the perfect results.” And a pro wrote in a photo magazine: “…many amateur photographers forget that great shots need great lenses” (Digital Photography User). How about this from lens manufacturer Sigma? “A photo is only as good as the lens it was taken with.” Really? What’s the balanced criteria for such statements and how will it affect those on a tight budget? It’s exactly what the manufacturers of expensive big-aperture lenses want dedicated amateurs to believe.

So we’re left with the feeling that if we can’t have great lenses, pro cameras and software, we can forget about getting “great” results. The truth is, advice like this can be a significant blow to the hobbyist’s morale. Of course it would be ridiculous to claim that it’s wrong to prefer and buy pro lenses. If you can afford the best gear and honestly believe you’ll use it to its fullest potential, then you’re making a carefully considered choice that makes sense.

It’s a fact that many amateurs, especially those shooting within financial restraints, don’t need top quality glass. They can get great images and prints and online presentations more cost-effectively. Are you an amateur photographer shooting on a tight budget? How much do you have to spend to get quality prints? 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.

Over the years I’ve come across examples of photographic elitism, with inner circles within inner circles where you’ll find talented pros (and somewhat deluded amateurs) who have spent a fortune on equipment. 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 fully understand what some of these terms mean exactly and how they are linked — I don’t either. And I’ve no reason to care.

My current Fujifilm gear, and I’ve stopped there. My X-T1 was purchased used. Would I take better images with the X-T3 — or X-T7?

Let’s consider the advanced amateur who buys a very expensive top quality high resolution prime lens, often recommended if their camera’s MP count exceeds 30 or thereabouts. The slightest failing in technique will show up at 100% resolution. By consistently using a tripod, live view, mirror lock-up, and “sweet spot” mid-apertures he should be able to enhance his small format SLR image resolution. But in the real world we should ask ourselves, how much of this improved “fine detail” will actually give the image content more impact? Will it even make it through to the print? Printing standards vary, both at home and commercially. On each and every photo forum, top quality lenses engender excessive praise and irrational desire in equal measure.

Consumer and mid-range equipment in the hands of someone who’s a good photographer and an accomplished image-editor will result in strong image content that’s been properly manipulated. 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.

In actual practice a big 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 or severe 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 SLR story.

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

1) Buy a very good pro or semi-pro camera and the “best lenses you can afford” that have reassuring lpmm and excellent spectral transmission and contrast qualities.
2) Use outstanding technique: tripod, MLU, live view, cable release, appropriate DoF, metered exposure…
3) Be sure to always use the RAW format so you will have maximum control over tonality, noise, colour-correction and colour strength.
4) Invest heavily in Photoshop and Lightroom, etc, so that anything’s possible.
5) Process images until they’re inappropriately sharpened, inordinately saturated, tonally imbalanced and include halos here and there.

It happens.

I’m not belittling those who need top gear for their trade, but in too many cases pro equipment doesn’t guarantee impressive results. In my opinion too many wedding photographers produce humdrum work, though they have to be commended for having the guts to do it. And I’m reminded of a pro medium format photographer who took a precious family 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 amateur gear.

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

Let’s not get carried away here: we must remember that beyond doubt some lenses from some manufacturers in some contexts are best avoided. Struggling with them simply adds disadvantages the amateur photographer could well do without. Similar amounts spent on another brand may well produce better quality. Generally however, in recent years especially, many less expensive lenses can deliver very good results even in larger prints, particularly after the careful application of excellent SLR techniques in the field and the intelligent use of corrective image-editing tools at home.

I’m not qualified to give professional advice, but in my opinion I believe amateurs shouldn’t feel left out because they can’t afford or justify pro glass and the top-end mirrorless cameras and SLRs we 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 humbly suggest a better overall plan? Get out there and work on your technique like a person possessed. 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 genuinely admire.I’m enjoying the results from my older Canon gear and the Fujifilm equipment I’ve recently invested in for outdoor shooting. The software programs I use — now mainly ON1 — which I’ve built up over time give me all the options I need, and I’m pleased with the results. I edit on an average custom-built computer and mid-range Asus monitor. Nothing high end here, but it gets the job done. As you can see in the image farther up the page I’m shooting with a modest range of XF lenses on the Fujifilm X-T1 (bought used) for stills, and using a single XC zoom lens with my X-E2 (also bought used) for video. Job done.

Why Gear Doesn’t Matter by Ted Forbes.

May also be of interest:
Can Composition Be Taught?
Content Over Sharpness
Shooting Video On the Fujifilm X-E2

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