I am one of the least technically minded people I know, so although the title for this post is ‘kit’ I’m not going to be discussing the hyper-focal distances of various lenses or the merits of the latest Lee Big Stopper filter, because I wouldn’t have a clue about either 😉. Instead, I thought I’d share my views on whether or not the kit you own is a vital component to becoming a successful photographer, because a common perception seems to be that it is.
I have some quite serious health problems, so am only able to work part time which means I have very little disposable income to spend on photography gear. When I started out 7 years ago, I bought a little Olympus four thirds sensor E-450 camera 3rd hand off some bloke on Ebay. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and chose this camera because I have tiny, child-size hands and it was the smallest DSLR I could find. I also thought that if I bought a ‘proper’ camera I’d take award winning photographs like the ones I’d seen on Flickr and Instagram. Turned out not to be quite that simple!
I had a bit of a mare with that camera it has to be said. I live in a part of the UK with the dubious title of the ‘wettest place in England’, which means it is dark, cloudy and overcast for much of the year. Four thirds cameras are known for not performing well in low light conditions such as this and I couldn’t wack the ISO up any further than 800 to increase my very slow shutter speed before the images became so soft and grainy they were unusable. In addition, the camera had no image stabilization, again not the best choice for a budding wildlife photographer who took pictures on the hoof without the use of a tripod under almost perpetually cloudy, grey skies!
Despite the now obvious drawbacks to this camera, however, we eventually called an uneasy truce and together we won various beginner’s competitions beating off top-of-the-range and state-of-the-art Nikons, Sonys and Canons 😊. What I’ve realized with the benefit of hindsight is that my little camera equipped me with an intimate knowledge of using aperture, shutter speed and ISO to get me the pictures I wanted. It also taught me how to stand when taking pictures, how to brace, how to breathe and how to get sharp images in less than ideal conditions. In other words, it taught me the fundamentals of photography, which have become so ingrained in my psyche they will stand me in good stead for the rest of my life.
So how important is a camera body and can you become successful at photography with a cheap or old one? Yes and no would be my answer. With knowledge, skill and patience you can get some images which are perfectly adequate for beginner’s competitions. However, they will probably not be of good enough quality for advanced or professional competitions, or to be blown up over A3 in size as a print. But they are a good starting point.
I now own a brand new Olympus micro four thirds sensor EM-1 MkII (which I managed to find half price in a sale). It thankfully has excellent image stabilization which has helped my wildlife photography no end, but it still only has a small sensor no matter which way you look at it. Which has huge pros and huge cons. It’s tiny and lightweight which I absolutely need, but inevitably still does badly in low light conditions (though not at badly as its predecessor!) and printing anything over 50 x 40cm still requires upscaling and a corresponding loss of image quality. Can it technically compete against top-of-the-range full frame Nikon, Canon and Sony? No. Have I beaten photographers in advanced competitions who use top-of-the-range Nikon, Canon and Sony cameras? Yes 😊. Because being a good photographer isn’t all about which camera body you use.
My first little Olympus came with a kit lens (ie a 14-44mm wide angle lens). At the time I had no idea that you could take off the lens and put on a different lens and the first time I did that I thought I’d break the camera 😆 It was also absolutely no use to me for capturing wildlife up close and personal. Having said all that, I used it for beginner’s portraits and it helped me win a trophy at UK regional level!
For wildlife, though, I needed a zoom lens so again I went on Ebay and bought a 2nd hand 100-300mm (200-600mm full frame equivalent) M.Zuiko telephoto lens. It’s OK. Not great but OK. It’s not ‘fast’, in other words when fully zoomed out the widest aperture is f/6.5 which means a slower shutter speed (which can result in blurry pictures) and higher ISO (which can result in soft and grainy pictures) than is ideal. But it’s all I can afford and all the weight I can cope with, so I make do.
Can I compete with professional photographers using full frame, fast, professional lenses? No. I don’t care what anyone says, a fast professional lens will out-perform a slow, standard lens every time in every situation and if I had the cash for a professional lens to go on my camera I’d buy one like a shot. But I don’t, so I make do. And I still win competitions so all is not lost 😉.
And by “other stuff” I mean things like remote shutter releases, flashes, tripods, filters and all the other gubbins you need as a serious photographer, all of which I buy as cheaply as I possibly can. Firstly because I have no money but secondly because, for the most part, it performs as well as branded kit which is 3 times more expensive. My dirt cheap remote shutter release, which I use constantly for my selfie composite images, is still going strong after several years and a shed load of abuse 😆. My little Nissin i40 speedlight isn’t as powerful as some others, but it does what I want it to and that’s all that counts. My Manfrotto BeFree tripod isn’t the most stable in the world, but it’s so tiny and lightweight that I can carry it round with me all day.
For amateurs, even really good amateurs, peripheral kit is an aid to good photography but not the be all and end all. At least that’s my opinion for what it’s worth.
So how important is kit?
There is no doubt that a good camera body is important if you are serious about photography. It will make your life easier, make tracking moving subjects more probable, your images will be sharper and your prints larger. But having consistently beaten people who own the latest, really expensive, full frame camera bodies with my little 3rd hand small sensor ancient Olympus it’s clearly not vital.
For me, lenses are more important and a good quality, fast lens will definitely impact your images in a positive way. Which isn’t to say you can’t take good pictures with standard, older lenses because you can – it’s just way harder and the resulting photos might need substantially more work in Photoshop.
So kit is important. But I know people who own thousands of pounds worth of the latest high tech camera gear and they still aren’t good photographers, because they don’t have ‘the eye’.
‘The eye’ is a creative vision. It’s being able to see light. Compose artistically. See the extra-ordinary in the ordinary. Lines and patterns. Stories and expressions. Beauty amongst ugly. It’s your own unique way of looking at the world, which allows others to see through your eyes. For me, it’s ‘the eye’ which separates an ordinary photographer from a great photographer. And a good eye is something money simply cannot buy.