A recent spate of camera purchases has indeed improved my photographic skill, but perhaps not in the way you may be thinking.
I’ve said it a million times before, and I’ll say it a million times again. Your gear is not what makes you a good photographer. Your creativity and personal voice are what will determine the value of your work. Not megapixels, but artistic vision. No matter how long we may save up to buy that one piece of gear that all the vloggers and camera companies have promised us will make us into the next Annie Leibovitz overnight, unfortunately, art just doesn’t work that way. Creativity can’t be bought. It has to be earned.
So, how can I say that and then title my article in a way suggesting the opposite? Well, first, a bit of perspective.
I’ve always felt like there are two types of photographers in the world. There are instinctive artists. It’s not that they don’t care about things like megapixels, sharpness, and critical focus. It’s just that they care a lot more about the emotional feel of the image and the experience involved in taking the image. They read and react. They cherish the experience and the feeling of photography as much as, if not more than, the technical aspects.
Then, there are the technical artists. It’s not that these artists don’t create great art as well. It’s just that a large part of their enjoyment of photography comes from the technical aspects. They pixel-peep every image they take. They observe every corner of their images to ensure that the lens they choose is resolving ultimate sharpness edge to edge. They find as much joy in creating an image that is objectively speaking technically perfect as the instinctive photographer takes in capturing what they feel is the perfect moment in time whether or not it’s even in focus.
These are obvious generalizations, and there’s a broad spectrum in-between, but I’m guessing you can identify yourself comfortably in one of those two categories.
Personally, I’ve always been in the instinctive category. It’s not that I don’t comprehend or appreciate the technical aspects of my chosen profession. It’s just that, for me, the technical aspects have always come secondary to expressing a feeling or an emotion. I love lighting, large sensors, and shallow depth of field as much as anyone. But, to me, those things are only as important as the role they play in getting my images to the emotional pitch I’m trying to convey. Being a professional photographer does require a certain level of technical mastery so that you can adjust to your client’s demands. But I’ve always actively spent as little time as possible thinking about the mathematics of the process in favor of developing the aesthetic.
So, why am I telling you all of this? Well, in the process of going through multiple stages of artistic development, one thing has always been a constant. I’ve always shot with a Nikon (since the dawn of digital at least). Specifically, I’ve always shot with pretty much the same Nikon body, starting with the D200, then moving to the D700, then the D800, and now, the D850. Very early in my career, I saved up my funds to purchase a Profoto lighting kit and an Acute 2400 pack and head system. That camera and lighting combination is pretty much the only thing I’ve needed for the duration of my 15-year career. It’s always worked. It still works. And, if I’m being honest, there’s little reason I couldn't go on using this combination for the rest of my career.
I’ve spent so much time with that Nikon body in my hand that operating it is second nature. I learned how to use it 15 years ago and haven’t thought about it since. This has a lot of benefits. As I strongly believe that the best camera is one that gets out of your way, there’s no more willing accomplice as a machine that feels as native to the end of your hand as the tips of your fingers. The Nikon allows me to put the technical aside and focus on the art. Perfection.
Of course, there’s a flip side to perfection as well. If you find a perfect-fitting pair of shoes, what is the impetus for you to ever go looking for another pair? But, if you never go up a size in your shoe selection, you may also be preventing your feet from having the room they need to grow.
Recently, I’ve begun using Fujifilm cameras for much of my work. This is not going to be a comparison between Fuji and Nikon, nor any kind of suggestion that one is better than the other. I’ve written about both cameras extensively in the past. Essentially, it boils down to me picking up a Fuji X100S for travel photography that I enjoyed so much that I bought an X-T2 for walkaround photography, that I loved so much I bought an X-T3 that ended up being so good that I found myself wanting to work it into my professional workflow. That love, maybe more of an obsession, for Fuji design led me to purchase the Fujifilm GFX 100. And my camera bag now sports all three: the GFX 100, the X-T3, and the D850 all side by side in corresponding compartments.
Aside from having a little more in my gear closet and a little less in my bank account, this recent fondness for Fuji cameras has brought with it unexpected consequences. Positive consequences for my photography. And, yes, having 102MP can be a perk, but that’s not the benefit I have in mind.
One of the reasons I fell in love with the X-T3 design is the dials (absent on the GFX 100). While seen by some as a gimmick, photographers like myself of a certain age tend to wax poetic about the sheer functionality of being able to operate a digital camera in the same way as we once operated the film cameras that first allowed us to fall in love with the art form. From a sheer practicality standpoint, being able to manipulate my exposure triangle without ever coming into contact with a digital screen allows me to operate more quickly and instinctively. When paired with an electronic viewfinder, the shooting experience simply demands that I shoot in full manual mode and take advantage of all the creative power Fuji has literally placed at my fingertips.
So, ever since I bought into the Fuji X system (the least expensive in my kit), I’ve found myself shifting to wanting to shoot fully manual at all times.
Sure, I’ve always shot manual with my Nikon in-studio with strobes. But, once you figure out your optimal flash settings, it’s very easy to just coast on that knowledge and leave your camera permanently set to the same shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Outside of the studio, I went years never leaving aperture priority. Depth of field is all that really mattered, so why not let the camera choose everything else?
Well, starting to shoot fully manual with my Fuji X series cameras, it forced me to think about things beyond basic exposure. Yes, I still have preferred f-stops, but the camera encouraged me to experiment with under- or overexposure to achieve different artistic results. And, sure, I could shoot in aperture priority, but the new system also encouraged me to experiment with shutter speed to control the amount of blur (or lack of blur) I wanted in my images of moving subjects. What is the perfect amount of motion blur to suggest a runner’s speed while still keeping the product you are photographing tack sharp? How do you maintain tack sharp appendages when shooting strobes outdoors mixed with ambient light?
I can’t say that I was necessarily having trouble with these things before. But, by being forced to concentrate a bit more on them now by shooting manual at all times, I was granted a deeper control over the image I was creating. And even for me, a less technically oriented artist, being able to control every technical detail is a massive weapon to have in my arsenal, as that technical control allows me a greater emotional control over the content of my output.
This shift to Fuji camera even had an impact on my lighting approach. As I mentioned earlier, my purchase of the GFX 100 was driven less by the megapixel count, and more by my desire to find the X-T3 experience with a larger sensor. In many ways, the camera provides just that, with very notable differences mentioned in my previous articles.
However, one of the main things that I’ve always wished were different on the GFX system is that the flash sync speed is only 1/125th as compared to the 1/250th I’m used to using with my Nikon. This doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of difference for stationary subjects (or shooting relatively close in, where you can use high speed sync without worrying about power loss). But when shooting fast moving subjects in open spaces is your specialty, as it is mine, you definitely will notice the difference in motion blur when not shooting in a completely dark environment.
Now, freezing fast moving motion with strobes is actually more a function of your flash duration rather than shutter speed. But, while this is something I knew, it wasn’t really a massive issue for me with my Nikon plus Profoto Acute setup. The 1/250th of the D850 combined with the flash power generated by the Profoto Actue 2400 (usually shot at minimum power/shortest flash duration), was more than enough to mask the majority of undesirable motion blur. It would occasionally be an issue, but rarely a major one.
As soon as I started shooting with the Fuji GFX system and was limited to 1/125th, that unintended blur became more prominent. This, in turn, led me down the rabbit hole to learn more and more about flash duration. It even led me to studying the dreaded spec sheets of the various types of strobes on the market. This led me to a better technical understanding of what was actually occurring every time that bulb popped. I understood it in theory before, but now, I was learning about it in principal. Being able to better control my flash duration gave me a better control over my photography. It also encouraged me to think about investing in a newer strobe kit with a far shorter flash duration, but that is a story for another day.
Investing in the Fuji X system, originally more of a purchase for fun than practicality, actually ended up changing the way I shoot and shifting me into manual mode. Being in manual mode encouraged me to better understand not only what my preferred settings were, but why they were my preferred settings. This encouraged me to experiment with alternate settings and challenge my own preconceived notions about the best ways to achieve the images I wanted to create. This led to even more education as I sought to better understand the nuts and bolts behind the techniques I needed to elicit the emotion I wanted. All this learning, searching, and experimenting has, in fact, made me a more effective and efficient photographer.
This type of experimentation is not limited to Fuji, of course. It is simply their beautiful design that really clicked with me and encouraged me to think in a slightly different way. But, having learned those techniques, I now use the same approach even when holding my trusty Nikon. Oddly enough, learning all the new bells and whistles available with my Fuji has even made me explore my Nikon even more. Who knew there had been so many advancements in autofocus in the last 15 years?
The Fuji X system made me a better photographer not because there was something magical about the camera itself that made my photographs any better. The purchase made me a better photographer because it inadvertently led to me experimenting and learning more about the art form and, as a result, provided me with additional tools to make better images, regardless of what camera I’m holding in my hand.