General Observations about Camera Equipment and the enjoyment of photography

The first three images above are swimmers from our little neighborhood pool swim team, the Rollingwood Waves. I've been the defacto team photographer for the better part of nine years because that's how long my son, Ben has been on the team. This summer I made a conscious decision to shoot the whole season with an old Olympus e1 and some older lenses. That's what pushed me into the squishy repudiation of state of the art. Here's why: I was getting so wrapped up in the gear. Do I take the 70-2oo or the 300 2.8? Full frame on the D700 or smaller crop on the D300? What if they get wet? Maybe I should brings some wides for group shots. Now my bag weighs twenty pounds.

How about I just bring a splashproof e1 and a 14 to 54 and a 40-150 zoom? Covers the equivilent of 28-300 and two thirds of the kit is relatively impervious to everything but total immersion (incidently, my favorite swimming book is Total Immersion Swimming...) and the longer zoom can be replaced for around $150. Then I started looking at the Jpegs I was getting and was loving the skin tones so much. One thing led to another......

What I discovered is that when the camera is less important it's easier to make the subject more important and the immersion in the moment more transparent and less contingent.

I just came back from the Creative Photographic Retreat in Dallas, Texas. I was one of eight photographers and Photoshop experts who were asked to participate in the workshops. I put together a one and a half hour lecture on shooting with battery powered flash and gave the lecture twice a day on Friday and Saturday. We played with scrims and reflectors and umbrellas and radio slaves. It was an interesting crowd. Most of the attendees were there to learn better photographic technique to use in creating scrapbooks. I was the only male on the roster of speakers. 98% of the audience were women.

I'm used to speaking in front of groups that are mainly men and I noticed some profound differences. Men tend to be most interested in the process. How things work and why they work. Woman want to know what to do to improve their images. The image is the pay-off. With men the pay-off sometimes seems to be, "look how sharp this is!!!!!". With the women in the CPR program it was more, "look at how beautiful my (grandson, brother, husband, father, best friend, etc.) looks now that I figured out the lighting, photoshop setting or whatever."

It sounds odd but I think being a teacher there changed the way I think about photography by more than a few degrees. Now the question I ask myself is, "why do I photograph?, What am I trying to say? Who is my audience?" instead of pondering which lens might have better chromatic aberration control or corner sharpness.

I learned different ways to explain basic photographic principles and I learned that everyone comes to photography on their own time and at their own level and it's hard to rush it. I've been doing photography for so long that everything seems old hat and technically simple. But I helped a grandmother get up to speed with her new Canon Rebel xtsi and her Canon flash. And here's the deal....I think she'll make better photos than the guy who has everything in his camera bag but no idea why he's photographing...and the difference is that the grandmother has a passion for her subject and not for her gear. Think about it. A passion for the subject, not for the gear. Stops a gear nut like me right in my tracks and makes me look at what I do from a different perspective.

After spending three days with a bunch of motivated women learning to come to grips (and grins) with their cameras I think the thing the field of photography might find useful is a much bigger dose of estrogen....

There were four gear nerds in attendance but they happened to be the instructors. All women under 30, all sporting Canon 5Dmk2's and all sporting the latest Canon "L" glass. No exceptions. All of them were quick to dismiss flash and lighting in general. If it couldn't be controlled with a collapsible reflector then the light wasn't right. At first I was dismissive of them for being dismissive of using lights. But I looked at their work and realized that they had really mastered available light technique to an extent that made most rank and file gear nerds look like beginners. A lot of mental give and take. On both sides of the aisle...

The weekend did reinforce what I had been feeling over the last month as I made my (now famous) transition from Nikon and Kodak gear to Olympus cameras. It was just as I imagined. Once I removed the idea of "superior equipment as the talisman of photographic power" I came to grips with the reality that all the best of photography is about seeing clearly. And feeling strongly about the subject. Which for me is generally people.

The only camera I took with me for the weekend was the Olympus e520 with the sweet little 14mm-54mm zoom. The camera is currently selling for around $350 on Amazon and will surely be discontinued within weeks. It is steadfastly not the "state of the art" but it is small and very light and fits into my hands perfectly.

As I stood in the classes and helped people navigate the menus on their big Canons and a smattering of Nikon D3's I couldn't help but notice that I was outgunned by all of the attendees. And at the same time I felt a tremendous sense of freedom. That I could pursue my own course rather than be a standard bearer for a brand.

Here's a news flash! The e520 gets a bit messy in the noise department above ISO 800. In the old days my mind would start screaming for an upgrade. Now I'm thinking I should just pull the monopod out of retirement and work at ISO 400. When you use the flashes on manual (with various ratios) all hooked up to radio slaves, all the cameras become equal. When you use f 5.6 or f8 all lenses become (more or less) equal.

I found my favorite radio slaves. More important than a cameras or lenses (written tongue in cheek---) is, of course, great remote triggers for my flashes. I recently stumbled across a brand called Flash Waves that are tiny, have ten channels, work really, really well and have an "on-off" switch for the receivers. They run $200 for a transmitter and receiver and have one thing other brands lack----easily and multifaceted connection options. There's a traditional pc sync, a hot shoe and a port for quarter inch plugs and 1/8th inch plugs. Wonderful. I used a set with an Olympus fl50r flash, a Metz 54, two vivitar DF 383's and a Profoto box and nothing gave them pause. They will definitely replace my now morbidly obese, older Pocket Wizards.

Speaking of flashes. When I switched camera systems the one thing that gave me pause was switching out the Nikon strobes. Even if you are a Canon or Olympus die hard you have to admit that Nikon kicks everyones' butts when it comes to flash. At least that's very true if you use TTL. I did some research and, with many reservations, I ordered two of the Vivitar Series One DF-383 flashes from Amazon for $120 each. Fired them up for the workshop. They work well, a little slow in recycling (alkalines....) but the neat thing is that they have built in optical slaves and when you put them in the slave mode it overrides the energy saver mode that usually shuts them down in five minutes to save batt juice. They worked well as TTL flashes on the Olympus cameras. The light is a touch bluer than that from the fl50r..... Nothing some filter gel won't fix.

The guys from Olympus lent me an fl50 and an fl36 for the workshop and I think the Fl50r is awesome but I don't think I'll drop $500 on a flash that doesn't have any sort of sync terminal. It's a choice between hot shoe, Olympus' proprietary (controlled by on camera flash) optical triggering system or nothing. Come on boys, let's get the plugs back on the flashes! Nice looking results, though.

A few thoughts on the business of photography. I think we are at a critical stage in the business of photography and we need to start planning for the recovery. We need to start having meetings and happy hours and breakfast gatherings with all the photographers in our respective areas and get some solidarity on moving prices up. We provide the images that move businesses forward but we act like we're selling commodities like a Walmart and the race to the bottom won't help anyone. Once all the knowledgeable practitioners leave the field clients will no longer have a "good, better, best" choice. All that will be left will be, "I'll get to it as soon as I finish with my real job." or, "Well my wife thought it looked professional!" or "I shot it with a XXXXXX it's got to be professional quality." At some point we have to educate clients about the value we bring to the table in assignment photography. Why is it that the ASMP can't talk about setting ballpark, suggested prices for photography? Why aren't more people using Fotoquote when they bid? Why are so many people willing to leave so much money on the table????? I don't have the answer but it sure is time to start the dialog.


alohadave said...

I would be cautious about your last point. You are advocating price fixing which is illegal.


kirk tuck said...

I'm not suggesting that we all charge the same prices but we should help new photographers understand how to price and let them know what traditional ranges are so that they understand better how to develop a business that is profitable and sustainable.

OT: how does the medical community do it? It seems that most of the prices in that field track from office to office? Don't tell me they are not aware of each others pricing.......

BrownTone said...

Thank you for your updates on your switch from Nikon to Olympus. As your photos so eloquently demonstrate, it's not the equipment that matters, it's knowing what to do with it.

FWIW, I once used an Olympus E-510 and the 14-54mm for several months. I even reviewed the combo for Mike Johnston's TOP blog. I eventually sold it for reasons to long to elaborate on here, bit I still miss it for all the reasons you have expressed so well in your posts. I suspect an E-620 and another 14-54mm are in my future. In the meantime, please keep the revelation (such as the fact that the Olympus FL50R lacks a PC input but that there are plenty of other options) coming.

David D. said...


Where did you get the Flash Waves. My quick browser search dit not hit a source?

I had seen them before but lost the site link.



Kurt Shoens said...

This is a wonderful post and I enjoyed it immensely.

Many medical services are paid by insurers. In some cases (in dentistry at least) there are groups that providers belong to and negotiated rates for various services.

Much medical insurance is paid by employers. So there's a negotiation there for the cost of coverage. Employees have a choice of a few plans, then of providers that accept each plan.

The insurance angle makes medicine an imprecise analog to professional photography because the recipient of a medical service is often at one or two removes from direct price negotiation.

Danny Chatham said...

Like yourself I agonized over camera equipment
for the better part of nearly 30 years,Ive owned every major brand time and again,always
searching for that ultimate lens that would make me a better photographer.All along I was
improving,and although I love cameras,Years and
thousands of dollors into this pursuit I learned it was not the camera at all but me,imagine that.I congradulate you on your choice to shoot with what you like and not what others think you should.By now you and I know a good photographer could take the same
photograph with a dozen different cameras and 99% of people couldnt tell the difference if their lives depended on it.Keep shooting and telling it like it is.

juze said...

You know, this morning, just after I read your newest blog entry, a fearsome debate erupted on a forum I frequent. A girl asked for advice on buying something in the Canon 50D range. Naturally, gearheads completely ignored the fact that girls do not have e-penises and therefore have no need or desire to enlarge them to Pan-like proportions, so they started talking her into waiting a while, because, apparently, Canon 60D and Nikon D700s or x or whatever are just around the corner, and she'd be mad, MAD, I tell you!, to buy something that may not be the latest model in a few weeks. Of course, the only lenses they suggested were L, in case of Canaanites, or constant F/2.8 zooms, in case of Nikononians. Apparently, while they love to shoot at F/11 in order to get the best image quality for their FAP (feline appreciation portraiture) art, you just NEED f/2.8.

I'm a gear head myself, but I can keep it in check. I have two Oly lenses, one Oly body, and that's it. I like looking at stuff, but I can stop myself before buying it.

So yes, some more estrogen would definitely be nice. Unfortunately, in most online gear-oriented photography communities, there tends to be a disproportionate amount of men, and a disproportionate amount of these seem to be incapable of ever talking to a woman in real life, so a single girl in such a community will be the harbinger of chaos. What photography needs is a lot more women. In my experience, their artistic sensibility is markedly different to that of men, and while they can be gear heads, they are usually more concerned with photography and less with the technical aspect.

Timothy Gray said...

How come anytime somebody has the courage to suggest an alternative to current pricing methodologies, which seem to combine black magic with "winging it", the term "Price Fixing" pops up?

I agree. The ASMP should be doing a better job of educating there membership about pricing methodology and/or strategy.

The current "hands off" approach does little to help beginners and seasoned veterans alike, especially in these difficult economic times.

Why can't the ASMP work with some of the leading minds in economics or even mathematics to develop and adopt a highly configurable equation (price calculator) based on market conditions (either current or historical, but specific to the photographer's location) and intended usage?

Additional variables could be factored into this equation, such as experience, specialty, etc., or rolled into a form of CODB calculation.

Whatever the case, the answer lies not in doing business as usual, letting the prices continue to plummet (they can only fall so far), but rethinking how we price our work, and how we educate our clients about what we do.

Elisabeth said...

What a great article, full of absolute gems of truth, as far as I'm concerned!

I'm a female photographer who does not consider myself a gear-head, but I admit to having been lured at times by the siren-song of quantification over qualification. I've resisted that call, for the most part, and am still an enthusiastic user of my trusty Olympus E-1 (along with a new E-30, though neither gets uesed to the exclusion of the other).

I've often thought about how the relationship to one's equipment--not the equipment itself--affects one's photography. For me, it's all about that "transparency" you mention, and of course the passion for one's subject, the feeling of wanting to understand and appreciate the subject more deeply through photographing it. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to read of your epiphany regarding those more intangible factors, and to hear someone repudiate so effectively "superior equipment as the talisman of photographic power." I've got to write that phrase down for future reference, LOL.

I wonder how many readers will have their own ephiphany after reading your blog. What a freeing concept you propose, especially in these financial times, that the best photographic "upgrade" is simply learning to make better use of the resources between one's ears, rather than to chase the latest hardware. (That's not to say that equipment is unimportant, but that one should find and use the equipment that creates the greatest sense of transparency so that the non-technical aspects of photography assume a larger role. My Olympus gear does that for me, but might not for someone else.)

I also enjoyed your comments about simplifying your gear bag for a given outing. I think humans tend to get paralyzed by indecision when faced with too many choices, and creativity is enhanced when using a more limited set of tools. A photographer faces (literally) an infinite number of possible images each time he picks up the camera. Does it make that much difference if one has narrowed down "infinity" to "a fraction of infinity" (which is still infinity!) by leaving most of the 20lbs of gear at home? I'm sure backs everywhere are applauding your sane approach and I don't doubt that better photographs are another, if unintended, side effect.

Finally, I just wanted to say that I'm a newcomer to your blog, but I've enjoyed your current and archived writings immensely so far. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

The ASMP can either take the lead or get the hell out of the way. I've heard that drivel about "price fixing" for years and think it's absolute horse shit. Every profession has de facto ways with which to set price ranges. We need to find ours. And fast before the freebies and wannabes destroy what's left of the market. Kirk is generally right but in this case he is absolutely right. Keep it up. And nice images.

KameraKevin said...

It's great to see people moving away from Nikon and Canon monsters. For some odd reason my equipments get heavier and heavier each year (APS-C, full frame, bigger lens, etc) because I too have a need to want the latest spec'ed equipments-- SWM, VR II, Nano coating, FX with 6400 ISO, battery pack for longer duration, etc etc.

Last weekend I shot a few rolls with my Nikon FE2 and 1957 Leica and was really happy with the results. The best part was I didn't need to haul my usual 24-70mm f/2.8 dumbell, and not having all the weight on me allowed me to move around and take shots very easily.

On one hand, a 2009 camera has all the bells and whistles, but on the other hand, you have to carry a heavy body (with battery pack) and a super fast USM/SWM with IR/VR. In an attempt to out-spec previous equipments, manufacturers keep packing in more motors, more electronics, bigger glass, and batteries to power them up. How much heavier will our gears get in another 20 years?

I am currently waiting to see how the micro 4/3 world is going to play out. It would be wonderful to use the Olympus E-P1+good prime lenses+flash instead of your typical full frame+glass that weigh a ton.

garrett said...

Kirk - have you tried those LumoPro 120s (talked about on Strobist.com)? They've got the built-in optical trigger and a PC jack.

Midwest Photo currently has them in stock.


Also, I learned last week that the optical trigger still works even after the flash gets dropped and the little red cover over the optical slave breaks and falls off and is fastened back in place with clear packing tape.

Thanks for your blog.

Anonymous said...

I always assumed skilled photographers began with a passion for a subject and just got gear that enabled them to get the images they see in their mind's eye. I remember one profile of a combat photographer who liked using small point and shoot cameras to cover wars. He liked their portability, and the results he got were stunning. That's an extreme case, but it taught me that the gear is the route to a destination rather than the destination itself.

Anonymous said...

Also, price fixing requires an agreement to charge the same price. Suggested prices or guidance on "going rates" for services in an industry in a given area should not trigger liability.

kirk tuck said...

David, I got the Flash Waves from Precision Camera here in Austin. www.precision-camera.com or 512-467-7676 Ask for Ian McEnroe. He'll fix you up. Even if you're just looking for info.

I intend to do a write up about them as soon as I've got time.

kirk tuck said...

Elizabeth, thank you very much. I really experienced a change in attitude this past weekend. I'm very happy now to be more responsive to what I want to shoot instead of trying to constantly figure out the most tech nerd way of getting the photo done.

ki said...

visiting from flickr - and enjoying your posts :-)

MyVintageCameras said...

Regarding "Estrogen vs Equipment" my husband decided recently that I needed a Nikon D90. As you can tell by my blog name, I probably don't even want a Nikon D90. I told him to buy what he wants and I'd take the hand-me-down (his Nikon D40). The fact is I am only now beginning to use his old point and shoot Casio Exilim (and mostly to photograph items to be sold on-line). I collect and enjoy making vintage cameras work, and that is as 'gadgety' as I get.

Shawn said...

Well said, Kirk. I do think, however, that there is more to it than just getting over equipment centricity. Your posts about switching from Nikon to Olympus got me thinking. I'd say that photographers often look to different areas for inspiration and whimsy, and sometimes they find it in equipment (even if they are trying to make it less about the equipment).

In some ways, using a different system is like having a muse. You get inspired by it. And the more character and/or soul a system has, the more likely it will capture your imagination. Likewise, the more accessible and liberating -- dare I say bohemian -- a system is, the more it becomes a symbolic vehicle that enables one to mentally rebel against the isolation and inhibition of automation and monolithic appliances that take the directness of interaction and joy of involvement out of the creative process.

I liken it to driving an old convertible with a manual transmission instead of an ultra-refined technological powerhouse like a Lexus LS450 that literally parks itself at the touch of a button. The Lexus monitors everything and auto-compensates steering, throttle, braking, and suspension seamlessly for you through its steer/throttle/brake/suspension by wire systems -- no wheelspin or road-feel allowed, god forbid you feel an expansion joint or have too much fun while driving.

Perhaps a "lesser" camera has the same effect because it forces you to think about its settings to work within its limitations... To be conscious of how you focus to give the less advanced AF system a chance to lock onto the target... To seek better light to avoid the output deficiencies at higher ISO... To walk closer because you don't have a zoom lens.

Rangefinders have become inspirational, liberating devices partly because of their limitations: you're usually limited to one (wide to normal) focal length, manual focus, often manual exposure, and slow sync speed. That it requires you to manually control so many things makes you directly involved and forces you to do photographic problem-solving and physically do something as part of the creative process. After a while, it's that mental engagement and muscle memory of the hands-on involvement that you come to enjoy, like the feel of acceleration and g-forces, unwinding the steering wheel as you step on the gas coming out of a tight corner in second gear, hearing the engine sing its siren song at 5,000 rpm as you fire off a perfect shift into third in that old convertible.

Shawn said...

BTW, just wanted to say that I am glad I found your blog. It's a refreshingly mature and enlightened perspective on photography and equipment, and your ability to write so well makes it enjoyable to read and enables those ideas to take flight.

For my money, yourself and Mike Johnston are two of the best writers on the photographic blogosphere...

Robert Teague said...

Another well thought out post, with a lot to think about and consider.

While I certainly love using large format, there are times when I want to carry around something much smaller. For me, I've never found a camera that can beat my Nikon F6 for that purpose (I will admit, I like big cameras - I have big hands).

Thanks for the thoughts,

kirk tuck said...

Shawn, That last post earned you a free book. Send me your address and I'll send it along. Grab my e-mail address off my website: www.kirktuck.com

Karl said...

Your last comment about "As soon as I get done with my real job" and how people "leave so much laying on the table" got me thinking.

The career path for people getting into photography is not completely obvious to me. Some people clearly buy a bunch of stuff and then put up a sign and hope for the best, while others seem to get sucked in from the opposite direction... their portfolio sells it self and they get jobs based on their work. At least, that's what happened to me...

So, I have no real clue how much my photographic work is really worth. While I know my fees are lower than other photographers, they're also astronomically more per hour than I make in my real job. I take jobs that are interesting, and am eager to see my work in print, and I'm excited to shoot in interesting locations. So, i'm also willing to give low prices to do fun work... There have been cases that I would have done everything except actual prints for free just because of the location alone.

I'm not sure how common my experience is. You interface with people who are trying a lot hard to make a living with photography than I do.

How did they get started?

(I just love taking pictures of things. It's a lot more fun if you don't have a client breathing down you neck. I think the idea of photography as a career is a bit over romanticized.)

I think you have hit the future of photography on the head: gear is becoming very democratized. You could buy a first class outfit without maxing out your Visa. Understanding light and composition, and how to capture it is going to be what gets people hired and admired.

Please keep writing. You're fun to watch.

sarah goodman said...

KIRK....you are a GEM! I had a blast chatting with you at CPR and came home really thinking of so MANY things....it was quite refreshing! I LOVED reading your post and all the comments as well!

There is SO much to be learned from where I stand and I just can't wait to soak up all of the knowledge. I appreciate your candor and true humbleness in which you display yourself and write! You have officially been bookmarked! :)

Chat soon,
Sarah Goodman

Damon said...


I have been reading and re-reading your book I bought at CPR. Life got in the way and I have finally started really playing with my SB-800 and my wife's D90 (until I get my D300s for shooting swim meets) and it all finally clicked. I took a shot by complete accident and I have never been so happy with a photo. I enjoyed your lesson at CPR and have now given my flash new life.

Damon said...


I have read and re-read you book that was on sale at CPR (I was one of the 2%).

I finally have been able to sit an play with my SB-800 and my wife's D90 (until I get my D300s for shooting swim meets) and by pure accident I captured an image of my daughter with a crayon and a piece of paper. With that one accident, everything you were talking about in your session and in your book clicked. My flash has found new life instead of being shunned.