Knowing your gear

Over many years of studying photography & learning the basics of capturing photos, the one thing that keeps coming up as a topic is the discussion about camera gear. Folks… old or new to photography often debate over their gear. Which lens is sharper? Which brand is better? Do I need that rig, flash or tripod? This is all good so as long as you don’t obsess over the topic & go overboard into buying the best of everything & anything.

Indeed those who know me know I have an array of good glass & equipment. They are there because of years of accumulation & some good management of gear & finances. The one thing is I will never let a situation which challenges me resort to the need of having to buy new gear to compensate for it… not without a fight that is. In fact less is often better because it forces you to compensate for the lack of equipment to make the best of the situation. Very often it will make you a better photographer because it forces you to previsualize the outcome of an image before you capture it, making your images much stronger & more captivating for the audience. Therefore you will find means & ways to get to the solution you want before you resort to going to the camera store & succumb to spending on more gear.

But I don’t have the flash trigger to do strobe?

I don’t have a macro lens, I can’t shoot macro…

I need that steadicam so I can do those cool “flying” video shots…

If only I had that lens, my photos would have looked better…

Let’s step back for a moment here. Part of the reason you don’t have the things listed above probably means they cost quite a bit of money & you don’t quite have the cash in hand to get them just about right now. But whole notion of, “I can’t do something because I don’t have something”, really sickens me!

So I don’t have money… What can I do?

Don’t have a flash trigger? Do something else, use a 50mm for your portraits. No macro lens, well… while your friends are off shooting bugs, take a moment & observe your surroundings & shoot nature at a more manageable distance. Think out of the box. No steadicam? Think of alternative solutions, use your existing tripod. Open the legs & balance it using the center column. It’s doable & it works.

Know your gear

One way to stay away from obtaining new gear to compensate for your short comings is to learn to know & understand your gear. Understand what your equipment can & cannot do will help you compensate for its weaknesses allowing you to make fine adjustments to your shooting style to make the final image work. It’s like knowing that your sedan can’t go off-road, you’d like to but you don’t. So instead of taking the trail roads, you take a less challenging route & go on some safe but at the same time scenic routes for your trips. It’s the same thing with your camera.

Let me share with you some personal experiences

We were out for a morning sunrise shoot at the quay a couple of years back. One of my friends recent got a spanking new tripod & wanted to get some good morning shots with it. Just as we arrived & everyone was setting up their tripods, he could not figure out how to extend the center column to increase the height. Decisive moment was coming… decisive moment came… decisive moment gone… everything gone! All the gear in the world is not going to get you anything if you didn’t spend some time to learn about the piece of gear you obtained & read the manual.

I got myself a 50mm couple of months ago & was pretty happy with the results. While test firing it one night I discovered that in low tungsten light, the AF would sometimes back focus slightly. Under normal circumstances it would focus normally & you would not notice anything. Also at the widest aperture, it is given that any slightest moment will render the image out of focus towards your intended subject. Without a tripod at times I need to compose, focus & shoot… a couple of times before I can capture an image I can be truly satisfied with. Also at the largest aperture, it wasn’t very sharp.

Since I am aware of some of the “issues” with this lens here is how I compensate for them…

  1. AF back focus – Since this happens only in low tungsten lighting, I don’t worry so much about it. In the event I need to shoot under such conditions, I activate the fine tune focus function on my 7D to add a +10 to the AF. Worst case scenario, I activate live-view & manual focus with a digital zoom x5 so I can fine tune the focus manually.
  2. Out of focus due to shallow DOF – Easy… I preview the image after each shot & zoom in to approx. 100% crop. If the image is not in focus, I’ll delete it & shoot again.
  3. Sharpness – If this is such a big problem for you, then shoot using a smaller aperture! At f/8 pretty much all lenses are tact sharp. Sharpness isn’t everything & a sharper lens doesn’t mean a better lens. Folks use prime lenses because they offer an aperture of f/1.8 or greater. The whole idea shooting using a large aperture prime is to get nicely blurred background & a dreamy effect or soft focus.

Some common questions…

Why would you settle for a lens which has AF problems? Shouldn’t all lenses be perfect?

I think the fact that there is a focus fine tune setting on the pro level DSLRs speaks for itself. No lens manufacturer, especially large aperture lens makers will ever able to make their lenses focus 100% accurately in all situations especially at their largest apertures. It is foolish to think that this is possible. We are talking about manufacturing variables for both the lens & DSLR bodies.  No camera manufacturer would dare proclaim that their lens mounts on all their DSLR & their lenses are exactly identical 100%. Slight shifts in even the reflex mirror, viewfinder or even the usage of filters will alter auto-focus systems one way or another by perhaps a micro millimeter. It’s just not realistic to expect lenses especially large aperture lenses to be perfect all the time.

Shouldn’t 50mm primes be super sharp? I heard from articles over the internet that primes are usually sharper than zooms?

They are! At equivalent apertures! You can’t expect the prime to be sharp at f/1.2!! We still have to work within the boundaries of optical physics. If you want sharp, shoot at f/8.

Don’t blame your gear for your inexperience

My lens story is just an example of the importance of understanding the limitations of your own gear. An inexperienced photographer would have just write it off as a bad piece of glass & then went to buy a new one to replace it. Later on will he realize his foolishness & find out the hard & expensive way that it really had nothing to do with the gear, but his own ignorance. I’ve been in these shoes believe me. I feel foolish now, believe me. I’m sharing this piece of experience in hope that you would not do the same yourself. Whether you will listen, that really is your choice.


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11 responses to “Knowing your gear”

  1. Aaron Lee says :

    I agree with most of all that you’ve written. But it’s a fact that you really can’t do something if you don’t have something. Sorry if that sickens you LOL

    • Adrien says :

      Perhaps you’re missing the point. Think of it this way… Your car breaks down the night before but you call into work to tell your boss you can’t come to work because your car is broken. But what about the subway? The bus? Did you call a friend to help pick you up to go to work? Crude I know to have to resort to taking the bus, but it gets the job done. We can all choose to be victims of ourselves but at the same time you can choose not to be.

  2. Aaron Lee says :

    Yes. Those are good alternatives. However in the end it all still boils down to where you are going and the urgency of getting there. If you have already planned your destination and to reach there at a certain period of time the breakdown during midnight could be an issue. Of course if it’s a short ride then getting a friend or spending a little more on a taxi is easy, provided that you are in the area where your friend and the taxi can reach you. But what if it’s gonna be a long distant ride at midnight? As said, it all depends on where you are going and the urgency of doing it. It’s all about the situations.

    To me if you really can effort something to ease your task then just go for it. There’s no harm done. Furthermore those gears are there to help you.

    That’s my personal opinion. I could be wrong.

  3. Aaron Lee says :

    alamak… why did I type “effort”, it’s supposed to be “afford”. Sorry for the typo.

    • Adrien says :

      What!? You lost me there… An analogy on top of an analogy skews things. The car example was meant to be rhetorical.

  4. Aaron Lee says :

    I don’t think that’s a correct analogy anyway.
    Let’s give mine a try.

    Say I dream about traveling to the USA. But I do not have the time and dough to do so. Then someone approaches me as says “well lad. You still can travel. Instead of going to the USA what about travelling locally? It’s cheaper and it doesn’t take much of your time.” I reply, “you are totally right there. But it’s the USA which I would like to travel to.”

    Coming back to the statement “I can’t do something because I don’t have something” I believe it suits the situation well. Likewise, I wish to have a good sliding effect for my movie making. To do that a slider is a good tool. But at this point of time I can’t afford to have one. And if not mistaken you are urging us to use other methods like borrowing it from a friend, or using other less effective methods but yet which give you the result. I agree. But we have to also consider if you have any friend who has it. If yes, will he lend it to you considering how often you need to use it and how expensive the tool is. If no, what is the other option? Using a less effective methods as suggested? But what if that’s not what I want? What if I want the cool “flawless” effect, which only the slider can do the magic?

    In some way I thought that my car breadown analogy contributes to what I say here. “It all depends on where we are going and the urgency of getting there.” If we going to USA we need to take a flight or a boat. That’s costly yes, but there’s just no other way, which is cheaper. If we can wait we’ll wait. If we can’t that’s just sad. But changing the destination easier to get to is not making your dream com true, but rather changing your dream altogether.

    Than;’s just my personal point of view.

  5. Aaron Lee says :

    Anyway, thanks for your insightful article. It’s a good read by the way. And I apologise if I’ve unconsciously inflicted a personal attack against you. I really don’t mean it.

    Thank you once again.

  6. Manuel says :

    We may be loosing some of our creativity by using so many gear and so many software to perform pictures

    • Adrien says :

      Yes you’re right. Most of the time, less is better!

    • Aaron Lee says :

      mmm. I don’t think it that way. You can turn it another way and say “with extra gears you can do generate more creativity than when without”.

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