The goal of this post is to help other aspiring photographers understand the role that gear plays in the learning process, so they can avoid some of the mistakes I made. Had I understood more about photography, I would have been better able to make the right gear choices. In the end, I probably would have used fewer cameras and made less costly and unnecessary changes.
First Camera: The Point and Shoots
I owned a series of point and shoot cameras from 2002 to around 2007. It started with the Pentax Optio S, then the , and then more than a few Canon Sd400s. I really felt the need to capture the world around me in photos, but I had no understanding of photography, and I didn’t want to carry anything big.
The learnings from these cameras was that rarely would I ever get a usable photo. Photos were often blurry, too dark, or that people looked deathly white when I took a snap with the onboard flash. To be honest, I don’t know why I continued to shoot after the awful early results I was getting.
- I didn’t like the photos I was taking. Lots were blurry, and on camera flash was not a viable solutions
- I started to realize that low light situations where a real problem
My First DSLR
I don’t know what I was thinking, but my only guess was that the more serious cameras must work better. I saw some cameras had lenses that you could swap out, so I wondered if that might be what makes the difference. There was just so much knowledge that I was lacking…
So I went out and bought a much more expensive camera that I had no clue how to use, and I got equally bad photos, which made me even angrier.
I went with the Canon Rebel T1i because of cost and the smaller size. I went a step further and bought the nifty 50 from canon, but then hated the focal length. It wasn’t until much later that I would figure out that on a crop body the 50mm acts like a longer lens, and in the long run my preference would be for wider lenses like a 35mm or 24mm.
- I didn’t like lugging around a big camera
- I still didn’t understand any of the mechanics of photography
- Lenses won’t make all the difference in the world
- Coming from a point and shoot with a screen, I didn’t understand the optical viewfinder, and was totally confused when my photos came out looking different from what I saw through the viewfinder.
My First Mirrorless Camera: The Panasonic GX1
Then micro 4/3rds cameras came on the market.
I can’t remember which other cameras I was considering at the time, but the thought of interchangeable lenses in such a small package was really appealing. What pushed me over the edge was that I found the GX1 on sale at B & H for something like 250 or 300 dollars, and was able to get some lenses like the 45mm 1.8, and the 20mm 1.7mm,.
How did it go? Well, it was by accident, but this was the first camera that I finally got some decent shots from. This was what I had been working towards. I wasn’t getting a ton of keepers, but out of each session I’d get one that looked decent, and that got me hooked.
- I finally started to figure out focusing modes and how to get the right things in the photos in focus.
- I loved the size, and took the camera with me everywhere.
- I liked the small prime lenses
These Second Mirrorless Camera: The Olympus OMD-EM5 mk I
So why did I switch again? Well, first, I had a friend who wanted to buy my Panasonic camera for what I paid for it. Second, I had been struggling to figure out how to use the Panasonic on my own, I just didn’t find a ton of resources on the internet explaining how it worked, and I wasn’t technical enough yet to figure out the user manual.
A good buddy of mine, had an Olympus OMD EM5 and it was revolutionary at the time. The image stabilization was incredible for low light, and after reading up online, I saw that a lot of people where writing and sharing tips about this camera.
I made the jump and this is where I really started to get an understanding of focus modes, exposure modes, shooting manual, etc. I started consuming every bit of content online, found a book that helped unpack the mysteries of the camera. And made the first real steps that I would now consider to be an actual understanding of photography.
I had the camera for 3 years, and ended up buying lenses like the 45mm 1. 8, the 25mm 1.8, the 75mm 1.8, the 12-40, and the 45-150mm.
This camera got me so sucked into photography that I even shot a friends wedding as an excuse to get better at shooting.
Some key learnings here:
- Buy a camera that is popular and well documented online (these days, youtube has tons of information about most of the new cameras), it really makes the self learning experience that much easier
- Having a camera with manual dials made it way easier to learn about manual exposure settings and to use them while shooting. The previous cameras I had put some of these things on some strange buttons (or buried within menus) that were not feasible to operate quickly.
- Live view! I figured out that I could get the LCD screen on the OMD EM5 to reflect the exposure settings that I had dialed in. I could watch in real time how my aperture and shutter speed effected the final image. This is when everything clicked for me.
The Rentals: Anything and Everything new on the market
At this point I was making progress in my understanding of the camera, and some very basic photography technique. I just didn’t have enough grasp of that technique or understanding of light to get consistent great shots.
The idea that other people where getting great shots because they were using full frame camera kept creeping into my mind, at which point I learned about lensrentals.com.
I rented the following:
- OMD EM5 Mk I and Mk II
- OMD EM1 Mk II
- Sony a6500
- Sony A7rII
- Panasonic GH5
What I learned:
- Ergonomics matter, I really struggled to shoot photos at all with the a6500 because it didn’t have enough dials and physical buttons for all the controls I used for shooting.
- Menus matter, I struggled with sony because I couldn’t find any of the settings, and they called the settings completely different names. (in hindsight I’d say sony has the worst menus, but Olympus was only slightly better)
- The full frame cameras didn’t focus as fast as the smaller ones ( at that time). The Olympus EM5 was actually pretty fast for the time, and the EM1 was screaming fast.
- I was getting better shots, but not a noticeably larger amount. Maybe 10% more, and mostly because the full frame sensor of the A7rii allowed you to bring so much of a photo back in post product, that I could salvage a photo with an ok exposure.
And I was sold the second I rented the GH5. I really wanted a full frame camera for low light shooting, but ultimately I realized I didn’t shoot enough of that type of photography for it to make sense. I also realized that I hated the ergonomics of the sony cameras, and they weren’t as quick as the Olympus or the Panasonic (the A7rII was close). The nail in the coffin was video, which I had started to do more and more of. The Panasonic is the absolute king of video, and made it so much easier to shoot from a settings and from an ergonomics perspective. The menus in particular where an absolute pleasure to use compared to the Olympus and the Sonys.
My Current Camera: The Panasonic GH5
So what has this camera taught me? This is the first camera where the usability was so good that operating the camera just became subconscious and for the first time ever I was thinking more about the composition and artistic exposure of my shots. Things started to flow smoothly and I was able to make photos that looked more and more like my mind was imagining the scene to be.
The lesson that’s actually starting to sink in now is “seeing light”. When I had my previous camera (the Olympus), I had learned a lot of the theories about light but I couldn’t apply those theories in the real world because I didn’t understand them enough, and I didn’t have the skill with the camera or the eye to make it happen.
I’m just at the point where I spot good light and then work around that to make images that I love.
So there you have it, a long arduous and expensive journey to learn how to shoot reasonably passable photos. The clear lesson at the end of this is that it does not have anything to do with the gear you have, and it’s got everything to do with how you use it.
Check out GAS. but its a real misconception and something that is worth you spending time thinking about how to avoid if you are still learning. Every time I heard or read an article about GAS, I discounted it. My reasoning was “Of course you can say this, you have the luxury of fancy gear that can do everything”. I thought I was conceited and a little annoying.
So now I’m on the side of having nice gear and fully understanding why everyone said that the gear isn’t what matters, am I a hypocrite?
The key here is the learning journey and figuring what gear is going to help you make the journey the short or the least expensive. Buying more gear or nicer gear will not automatically do those things for you. Buying gear that works the way your mind works, or gear that is well documented so you can learn faster with free resources? Well that just makes sense.
- Find a camera that you enjoy holding, and that has enough free learning resources online so that you can learn how a camera actually works.
- Master that camera to the point where you can control it without thinking about it. Until you can do that, you don’t need a better camera.
- Now that you are not thinking about the camera, start thinking about and learning about light. Learn to see good light, and then apply your knowledge of the camera to capturing that good light.
- Once you’ve made it through that process, you’ll have learned what you want and don’t want in a camera, and you’ll be in a position to make educated gear acquisition decisions 🙂