Sometimes, It's the Gear.

When it comes to camera gear, a lot of photographers will tell you that it's not about the gear. They'll say that the person behind the camera is more important than the technology. I don't think the relationship is that lop-sided. Let me explain.

Mt. Hood

Take this shot of the summit of Mt. Hood I made a couple of weeks ago. I shot it with my Sony A7R Mark III camera and the Sony FE 100-400mm lens. I was zoomed in all the way to 400mm and was enjoying the way the light was working on the glaciers and rocks atop the volcano. I wasn't trying to make anything technically astounding, instead I was just popping off shots having fun with my clients on a private workshop. 

When I got home and had the chance to look over the images from my trip, I began working on this shot and when I zoomed in to sharpen it in Lightroom I was surprised to find that I could see clearly the skiers and snowboarders on the Palmer Snow Field in the lower center of the frame. Click on the shot and look closely. There are dozens of people there enjoying the August sunshine on the slopes. Now take into consideration that this was shot handheld at 400mm from the shore of a lake over 6 miles from the people on the ski slope. Six freaking miles! 

If I am being honest, (I try), anyone with my camera and lens combo could have nailed this shot. Just follow a few simple rules... keep you shutter speed faster than the focal length (in this case 1/640") and make sure you don't blow out the highlights. Composition isn't anything masterful here, in fact the shot above is a vertical crop from a horizontal frame. In this case, the photographer behind the camera takes the backseat to the technology. The incredible resolution (42MP) of the Sony combined with the clarity of the G Master lens to get me results that stun me. If I had been standing there with my old Canon 5D Mark III and the Canon 100-400mm L lens, I doubt you'd be able to see those people waaaay up there. Maybe you could, but I doubt it. The clarity and precision of this camera and lens combo has knocked my eyes out many times and I just don't remember feeling that way about my old gear. I used to enjoy the color rendition and contrast of the Canon glass, but I don't ever recall sitting in front of an image on my screen and saying, "Holy Shit! Would you look at that!" That, my friends is all about the gear.

Crater Lake Rim

Move ahead a few days and now I'm standing on the flanks of another Cascade volcano with my Sony A7RIII and 100-400 lens. This time, I'm locked down on a tripod shooting very deliberately along the inside slopes of Crater Lake's caldera rim. Wildfire smoke has blanketed the mountain and muted the lake's famous sapphire blue waters, but the smoke has rendered the tree-covered slopes in mystical layers of hazy goodness. I was captivated by the way the weather beaten trees had taken root on the crumbling slopes of the rim. For centuries these tenacious pines have endured crushing snowpacks and howling winds. They look amazing, especially in silhouette. I wanted to capture them with maximum clarity while playing with the composition of the ridges fading into the distance and smoke. The Sony A7RIII has a function that previous cameras I've owned could never do, pixel shifting. By physically moving the sensor over the course of three exposures, the camera can capture minute details by using the three color channels (Red, Green and Blue). Back home, I combined them using some software to create a 42MP image with more clarity and detail than a single shot from the camera could produce. Processed into Black and White and cranked in Lightroom and Luminar, the shot above has all of the crunchy contrast and moodiness I hoped from when I made it. Could I have made the same shot with one of my old cameras? Nope. Could I have made a shot just as good? Maybe, but to my eye this is something the technology provided, not my prowess with camera settings or image processing. If the details aren't on the card, it's really hard to make them appear later. Again, technology matters. I won't say it was everything on this shot, but it enabled me to capture something I couldn't before and having great tools allows me a greater breadth of creative freedom. 

Sparks Lake Stars

Let's take this though train further down the tracks. Check out the above shot of South Sister, (yet another Cascade volcano!) and Sparks Lake under the stars. I shot this on my trip with my Sony A7RIII and the lovely Sony FE 35mm f1.4 lens locked down on a tripod. We had shot the sunset at this spot on the lake shore and stuck around for the star show. I made the exposure for 10 seconds wide open at f1.4 with an ISO of 2500. I was able to leverage the brightness of the lens to grab a well-exposed shot at a fairly low ISO, thus keeping the noise down to manageable levels. Again, the technology here allowed me latitude to create something I'm happy with. My friends who were with me on this trip were shooting the same scene with their Nikon, Canon and Fuji cameras and they were being forced to crank their ISO's to keep the exposure times down and avoid star movement in the shot. They got several keepers, but the noise levels and lower dynamic range in their shots are more pronounced than in this one. Am I the better photographer in this case? Nope. Just the guy with the brighter lens and more capable camera. And that's the lesson here. When people say it's not about the gear they are usually covering for the fact that they either can't afford to purchase more capable equipment or they aren't willing to part with the thousands of dollars that fast primes and high-MP cameras demand. It's a compromise and when we make compromises, we often make excuses. 

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not bashing the decision to keep using gear that isn't on the bleeding edge of technology. If I hadn't spent so much on this camera and these lenses, I'd have more money for other things like travel. I also have to carry all of this stuff, and that's a conversation for another time. What I'm saying is this... we need to own our choices. If you are truly happy with your gear and you have no desire to have the latest and greatest, that's cool with me but you need to own that and accept the limitations that older gear imparts on your creativity and craft. The other end of the spectrum is worth tapping on here too. If you have money spilling out of your pockets and you upgrade gear at every opportunity and keep you place on the cutting edge, that's great but you had better be working your ass off to use those shiny new tools to their maximum potential. If you are buying the latest big camera because someone you admire uses it, that's just fine but you need to own your part of the deal. You need to up your game when you up your tools. Otherwise you're just in it for the toys and no one want to stand next to "that guy" when the sun is setting and the light is going off and creativity kicks in and the joy bubbles up and you start making the best shots you can and that fool starts bragging about how great his kit is. What I'm saying is, old or new, use your kit and push it to the limit. If you find yourself continuously crashing up against the ceiling of your gear's capabilities, it's time to look at better tools. My clients on this trip are in this space. They have lenses that just aren't sharp and bright enough for the finely-detailed work they are ready to create. Their cameras in some cases are holding them back from getting the shots they see in their heads. That's a tough place to be, but it's oh so much better than having the finest tools and lacking the vision to use them well.

Lava River Cave

Take this shot of the pitch-black interior of the Lava River Cave in Central Oregon. By setting up my Sony A7RIII and Sony FE 12-24 f4 lens on a tripod and light painting the inside of the lava tube for the duration of a 30-second exposure I was able to balance the bright lights of the flashlight-wielding hikers in the cave with the rest of the towering cavern. I set my ISO at 400, which was plenty given my long exposure time and ample artificial light. My f-stop was 8.0, which helped keep everything sharp in an area where autofocus misses as much as it hits. In this case, having a camera with a great dynamic range and a high resolution sensor allowed me to experiment with light painting in a huge space. Having a really bright LED flashlight helped, but frankly many of my shots with that light were blown out. Even with all of the best technology, I had to cover my butt with lots of shots before I got the one I wanted. In our 3 ½ hours in the cave, I made 70 shots. 6 of those I like. 

Photographers enjoy an art form that marries the two halves of the human brain. One side gets to geek out on the technology and pixel peep and go nuts over equipment specs while the other side dabbles with the nuances of light playing on color and texture. When you have great gear that inspires the artistic side of your creative process instead of hindering it, you get to make magic happen. When the two sides balance,  the results are incredibly compelling and satisfying. I am fortunate to have great gear in my kit. I'm not naive enough to think that amazing Sony camera makes me a great photographer, but it does help! Thanks for reading this and please let me know in the comments what you think about the relationship between gear and creativity.