I'm Constantly Being Chased

Someone asked me recently why I was always so focused on camera gear. It's not a terrible question to ask. Indeed, it's one that a lot of us pros have been dealing with for quite some time. 

Back in the film world (pre-1999 and the start of the DSLR era), the cameras were cruder tools in that you needed a great deal of training and practice with to get the very best images. 

We all shot with the same image sensor back then (e.g. Kodachrome, or maybe Velvia later in the SLR era). But the quality of what was on the celluloid was how well we composed, exposed, focused, and timed our shots. While the cameras slowly got automated help for those things, that help was often fairly crude. Problems in images were always the photographer's fault. 

Moreover, there was the learning curve problem. Take some photos, run the film to the developer, wait, get the film back and see the problems in what you did, go back out and do it again. At one point in my early sports career, I didn't even have the best-case hour or two processing delay before seeing what I shot. That's because in order to meet my big East Coast client's schedule, I had to shoot a West Coast game, drive immediately to the airport, put my undeveloped film in a courier bag on a plane, and then I'd only see what was actually published the next morning, or sometimes a day or two or even a week later.  I didn't see my mistakes, so couldn't analyze and attempt to correct them.

Thus, good pro film photographers ended with a buffer between them and even serious amateurs (of which there were fewer then, too). That was mostly because of that long learning curve necessary to improve. Few took the time to do that right, but a pro had to do it to stay a pro. 

Digital cameras changed that. Suddenly, everyone was able to immediately chimp and see the shot they just took. Make a mistake, look at it, learn from it, change something. Over and over, as it only takes seconds to do this in the digital age. 

Teaching photography was great in the early digital photography era. That's because as amateurs coming to workshops were transitioning to DSLRs from SLRs, you could rapidly help them to correct mistakes they had been making all along. Suddenly things all began to connect for them. "Aha, that's the reason why I was getting that result sometimes."

As amateurs got far better faster, the cameras were getting better, too. The advanced and automated features did a better job in the first place, allowing everyone to concentrate more on other things than basic exposure, white balance, and even focus.

Because amateurs got better, the Law of Numbers started to work against us pros. 

I can only be in one place at one time. I've described this before, but here's the situation I kept finding myself in early in the century: the dirt road that is the sole motorized visitation conduit in Denali National Park is 92 miles long. If I'm stopped at mile 62 (Stony Hill Overlook) hoping to find something interesting going on with the wildlife, it's pretty much guaranteed that there is some animal action going on somewhere else along that road. And there's a bus with dozens of cameras passing by that other spot every few minutes.  

The odds of me getting the best shot of whatever's going on in the park on any given day are low. The odds of some amateur getting the best shot are nearly 100%, particularly as the amateurs all started carrying more and more sophisticated cameras.

Aside: I've written this before. I'm still gobsmacked that the camera makers don't get it: the ubiquity of smartphones means that serious shooters actually need cameras that are faster at delivering results, not providing more dynamic range or pixels or whatever the engineers think is the next big thing. For pro photography to stay relevant, we need to deliver images to our media outlets and clients in less than 15 minutes after any big news event these days. For sports and a few other things, certainly within an hour or two. For event clients, such as weddings, within a day. I can't think of a single camera maker that helps me do this without having to buy awkward accessories and jump through hoops, and even then it's not easy to do. Not one camera maker gets this right. Not one. You want me to pay US$5000 for a camera? I'd pay US$7500 for the right camera. 

What started happening is that stock libraries shifted from being "all pro" to being "pro plus serious enthusiast" to "mostly serious enthusiast" to "lots of amateurs plus some enthusiasts and pros." The sheer numbers of images that were usable for stock rose dramatically. With that prices had to drop (supply exceeded demand), and the one that suffered the most from that was the pro. To put numbers on that, I've heard stories from fellow pros that were making solid six figure incomes just from stock all seeing that drop to low five figures. Lots of stories.

We were being chased (though I didn't do a lot of stock licensing; it was never a primary source of income for me). 

To salvage what you can in that situation, you have to get better. You look to your imagery and technique. Galen Rowell, for instance, was well known for putting his camera (and body) in places where others weren't (or couldn't get to), but he found he was having to double down on that plus find other income sources. Some pros specialized and went higher end, which often required improving the quality of the gear they were using. 

Which brings me to what prompted me to write this article. Two things:

Consider this quote from a consumer with the latest Sony A9 firmware update: "real time tracking is incredible! It made everything so easy!"

Those last two words mean I'm being chased again. I believe that one of my strong abilities has always been to make my gear track focus on tough subjects. Not only do I make money off of putting that into practice for clients, I also pick up some money by describing how to do that to consumers (via web articles, books, and workshops). 

To stay ahead of customers that think that "focus is easy" I'm going to have to get even better, not just at precision of focus with really fast lenses on erratic objects, but at other things as well, such as locking down composition and how the image looks (e.g. post processing). If amateurs can easily take an in focus picture of a bird in flight, I have to do better: I have to take compelling pictures that tell us something about the bird, the flight, or a story, and are timed perfectly.

The second thing that prompted this article was someone posting a pretty good looking image of a bird using a superzoom. No, not something like the Sigma 60-600mm. I mean from a 28-200 type of lens. They got close enough, they managed to focus through the bush, the composition and exposure were good. 

But a really close examination of the image showed the usual thing I see with the true consumer lenses on today's cameras: that little bit of edge acuity loss. It's really tough to "fix" that using traditional sharpening techniques, as if you take the blur off the edge you end up with slightly artificial-looking edges (due to the contrast adjustments that happen around the edges). Now, stepped back from a print on a wall, you won't see that. But I want my images to sizzle with edge acuity, because...

If you've ever had a top photo editor from a place like Sports Illustrated or National Geographic or one of the other image-driven publications look at your photos, you'll know what I mean. They miss nothing. When they look at an image with low edge acuity, they'll just look up at you and tell you to get better gear. Don't dare miss an exposure, or white balance, or anything basic. They'll think you're incompetent and stop hiring you. Next they start tackling your composition and question everything about it: why this, why that, what motivated this, that, and the other thing?

Still, if amateurs are getting sharp (but not acute) images with consumer lenses, I'm being chased again. I was actually happy when the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8E turned out to be the best telephoto zoom lens I've seen at that focal range: it pushed the fundamentals underlying my images just a wee bit further than someone who might be using an older version on an older camera.

45mp? Bring it on (I'll even take more). Another half stop of dynamic range? Love it. Better and more reliable focus performance? Won't reject that. The list goes on and on. (But note my aside, above.)

You might notice that I'm talking gear in a section of this site that's not really about gear. There's a reason for that, and it's the thing you need to take away about being chased: yes, having state-of-the-art gear helps, but it is what you do with that gear that's going to make it really stand out. In other words, keep your gear current, but push your technique capabilities as far as you can. Every year I try to take workshops from other photographers or attend things like Photoshop World in order to keep learning.

Those two things—better gear and more learning—go hand in hand. As many people found out, when we moved to 36mp image sensors suddenly a lot of folk were seeing that their technique had gotten sloppy. Just having a better camera wasn't enough, they had to improve their technique, too. 

That exactly where I've always been in this chase. Best gear, and always pushing myself with technique. Always re-evaluating my style and eye towards composition. 

I mentioned semi-tongue-in-cheek awhile back that I felt that I had improved two stops in the past decade or so. By that I meant that if I hadn't upped my photographic game as the gear got better, I would have been caught by the average shooter. 

The great photographers are always pushing themselves, pushing the boundaries their gear constrains, and looking for ways to stand out. 

Someone's chasing you. It happens at every level. If you're truly serious about photography and want to get praise for what you do, you have to always try to run in front of those behind you. 

In 2018, there were over 1.5 billion smartphones sold. The number of people behind you is huge. 

Don't let them catch you.

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