How I (really) use my camera

Over the past week, a number of different ideas, sources, and comments have been rattling around my brain before finally coalescing into a single, hopefully coherent thought. This is a little long-winded, so bear with me.

I’ve been thinking about how I use my camera. How I really use it, the features and settings that are my regular, every-single-time choices. And I’ve been thinking about how these compare to the marketing, the popular conception, and how they apply to what I actually need (and want) in a system.

There is a lot of snobbery among photographers, and I’m including everyone in that group, from hobbyists all the way to professionals. Some is overt and some is implied. It comes from every angle; from the manufacturers and retailers, from the bloggers and forum members, and even from the photogs we know personally. Subtle or otherwise, opinions on gear are pervasive and everyone else is judging you, at least initially, on the camera hanging from your neck. Always.

And we buy into this. In some regards, I suppose it’s impossible not to – after all, if it’s constantly surrounding us, how can we possibly dispute it? Here’s a short list of things we are told, which must be true:

  • full frame sensors are the epitome of imaging technology
  • ISO 240,000 is the new standard
  • the 5D Mk III makes any image amazing
  • fast glass is essential to any photographer
  • you’re not a professional without a pro-grade camera
  • you must always upgrade to the latest and greatest gear

I maintain that these are fallacies. We are being sold a bill of goods, a continuation of the age-old desire to “keep up with the Joneses.” We do not NEED most these things, as a collective – although individuals with specific needs might. And here’s the proof, at least from my standpoint. This is how I use my camera 90% of the time:

  • Av or M mode
  • ISOs between 100-800
  • shutter speeds between 1/15 and 1/1000
  • apertures between f/4 and f/11 (zooms); f/2 and f/3.5 (primes)
  • images smaller than 800px posted to the web
  • prints 11×14 or smaller for clients
  • AI Focus, continuous mode, evaluative metering

The lists don’t match up. Or rather, my needs don’t include most of the latest offerings.  In fact, you could argue that I’m only using a modest subset of my camera’s total features. Despite the “improvements” they keep packing into each new model, I’m still shooting more or less the same way. Does this mean I’m not keeping up with the tech, or not making the most of my tools? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I’ve come around to LiveView, I’m interested in EVFs. Rather, I think it means that I know how I use my gear and that the conditions therein are consistent. I’m not shooting higher than ISO 800 because I rarely work in environments that require it. If I shot sports, then maybe I’d want super ISOs and frame rates. But I don’t. As a professional, I primarily photograph people, in controlled environments, where I bring my own light.

So what’s all this mean? We’re being marketed to. And we’re buying into it. That much should be obvious. After all, that’s what corporations do. But what’s worse is, we’re doing it to each other. We’re judging other photogs, and ourselves, based too much on what gear we own and too little on the actual images we produce with it.

During the past couple of years, I feel I’ve fallen into this trap. I suddenly had an entire cabinet full of cameras, lenses, and accessories. I have L lenses and fast glass, special lenses for special cases. And yet, during the past 3 months, I’ve hardly used any of it. I’m simply not having fun with it. It’s an anchor. Just too much crap that I’m “supposed” to have in order to be a good photographer. And I’m tired of it.

So with all of this in mind, I’m looking to step out of the “space race.”  I’m going to buy a camera that is fun to use, that meets my own needs and desires.  I’m going to equip it with lenses of the same.  And I’m not going to give a damn what anyone else says about it, or thinks about it, because at the end of the day, if it makes me happy, that’s what matters.  In the 6+ years I’ve spent on this odyssey, I’ve learned enough about both the creative and technical sides of photography that I can make the most of any gear. And as history has taught us, you don’t have to have 50 megapixels and an f/1.0 lens to make incredible images.

Time to focus more on making photos – and having fun doing it – than on keeping up appearances.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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  1. Donna and I did a Citifari photo walk in NYC last December and we shot all afternoon in M mode. It was a life changing experience. I had tinkered around with M before but after shooting all afternoon using only M I get it and neither of our cameras have moved off of M mode.

    • Brent Pennington

      M is great, especially for dynamic conditions, where the light keeps changing, or you’re walking in and out of shadows. I sometimes find it easier to make manual adjustments, as opposed to constantly fiddling with the exposure compensation.

  2. It’s definitely a hard lesson to learn, turning away from the bright lights and sirens that come with the new products. It’s great to own cameras that allow throwback lenses at such moments, so it feels new but costs so much less. I just picked up a Ricoh SLR from the 1980s for $20 with a lens attached that sounded like an interesting addition to my kit – so I have something ‘new’, the bank account and family are happy, and I can look at my collection with much less regret.

    Well done, Brent!

    • Brent Pennington

      Thanks Jim! The bright lights from Canon/Nikon are hard to turn away from, but I feel like it was the right choice for me. The E-M5’s ability to work with legacy lenses is going to be great, and you’re absolutely right: it lets you get “old” toys that feel new, for much less. I am definitely going to have a lot of fun with this new system!

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