A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous…er.. Expensive Thing.

Today’s post is brought to you by my good friend Eleni. We had spent a couple of days together trying to come up with a solution to a complex and common problem in photography. There is only one hole in the bottom of a camera. She wanted to use a speed strap with an Arca-Swiss plate, and attach a safety harness to her big lens and have her tripod which fits a QS -60 plate, all vying for the one hole in the bottom of her camera. She was frustrated and upset. “I wish I could write a gear gripe on your blog about the lack of standardization in camera equipment.” So, I said “Why not? Go ahead.” And so leads us to today’s post, a guest blog feature. She surprised me with a different subject for the blog ….

Eleni Markoulis
You’ve heard the saying “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”  For a photographer, it can also be a very expensive

Karen and my sister, Mary-Ann, were out shopping for the PERFECT camera bag.  Sue and I were along for the ride. It got me thinking about how many cameras, and how many lenses and how many camera bags I have.  Suffice it to say, I could probably have paid off the debt of a small third world country by now.

I used to think that I was a pretty good photographer.  That was before I actually knew anything about photography.  People generally had a good reaction to my photos, so when I walked into a camera club for the first time, my head ma-aay have been a little swollen.  I can assure you, it didn’t last long!   I remember the first photo I submitted for Competition at the club. It was the photo below of a squirrel eating a slice of pizza.  I thought, for sure, I was getting a gold.  Nope.  Not even a silver.  Not even an Honourable Mention.  Not even close. WTH?? Don’t they care that I got a picture of a FREAKING squirrel sitting in a tree eating a slice of FREAKING pizza?!?”  Apparently not.   It was a lucky capture, but that was about it.

Eleni's Squirrel
Photo by Eleni Markoulis

I was absolutely BLOWN AWAY by the images that received golds.  I got sixes across the board (and have learned since then, that sixes are about the lowest you can go.)  And the comments from the judges were, I thought, harsh and I didn’t understand them.  “Not sharp enough.”  “Could be cropped better.” “Blown out highlights.”

It got me thinking and questioning. The first thing I wanted to know was, “What’s a blown out highlight?” So started my journey into learning about photography.  Until then, I had merely been pointing my camera, (on automatic mode, I might add) and snapping photos.  I stuck with the camera club, bought magazines, read books and started taking classes, all of which cost money.  I learned about white balance, exposure and depth of field.  I learned about aperture and about bokeh.  I learned to use my camera in manual mode.  My photos improved.   But my scores did not.  Okay, maybe a little.  I actually got some silver scores but still, the constructive criticism from the judges burned.  “Not sharp enough.”  “Too soft.” “Too much noise.”

That’s when that little bit of knowledge I had acquired started to get expensive.  “Too much noise” happens when you have to push up your ISO in a dark room so that you can still catch sharp images.   I learned that a full frame camera, opposed to a cropped sensor camera, handles higher ISO much better.  (Ka-ching!)

I learned that a lens with a larger aperture was faster and helped to avoid motion blur, and gave nicer bokeh.  I learned about sweet spots and lens compression.  I learned about different kinds of glass and different coatings.  (Ka-ching!)

Turns out that the “all purpose” lens which I loved and had paid, what I thought was a ridiculous amount of money at the time, (which now makes me laugh!) wasn’t necessarily the best lens for any of those “all purposes!”

If I wanted to do portrait, I needed a prime (Ka-ching!)  If I wanted to do macro, I needed a macro lens (Ka-ching!).  If I wanted to do landscape, I needed a wide angle lens (Ka-ching!)  If I wanted a good “general lens”, I would get better results with a 24 – 105mm lens.  (The 24-70mm was out of my price range! – double KA-CHING!)

My photos improved.

But there’s another truth that I’ve come to understand and believe.   “It’s not the Paintbrush.  It’s the Painter.” The Mona Lisa wasn’t painted by paintbrushes.  It was painted by DaVinci.  The Sistine Chapel wasn’t painted by paint brushes.  It was painted by Michael Angelo.   Now, when people say “You take great photos, oh, but you have a great camera” I roll my eyes and laugh because I used to I believe that!

Yes, my photos have improved, but so has my knowledge and my experience.  Sure, the photo of the butterfly is better with the macro lens than it would have been with my multi-purpose, but I’ve learned about depth of field and what aperture to use to get the whole butterfly sharp – and I’ve learned to use a tripod!

Yes, the photo of the skyline is better with my wide angle, but I’ve learned to correct for perspective and to wait for the “Blue Hour” (and to bring my trusty tripod.)

Yes, the portrait of my mom is better, but I’ve learned to pose people better – 45 degree angle, drop the front shoulder, turtle your neck!

Photography got very expensive, very fast, when I believed that better, faster, shinier equipment was the solution to the criticism from the judges.  I’ve since learned better.  Now, I’m jealous of those people who seem to have a natural eye for capturing the photo at the right moment and from the right angle.  (Damn, I wish I could do that!)

I still love to shop for gear.  Like a fishing enthusiast looks for that perfect lure to catch “the big one,” I am searching for that one piece of equipment which will take my photos to the next level. If I were rich, I would want a whole room (or studio) dedicated to my equipment.  I would want walls of shelves to house all the “perfect” camera bags and “super sharp”  lenses and “ultra light” (but sturdy!) tripods that I will buy in my lifetime. I would want a place to house all the boxes of toys that I will use once and probably never need again.

In the end, I’ve learned that there are only two things that matter.

  1. Love what you do.
  1. Do anything for 10,000 hours, and you will become proficient – so get out there and shoot.

Oh, and that “perfect” camera bag that Karen and Mary-Ann where shopping for?
Karen needed something that could handle her DSLR, two or three lenses, and that would secure her new (and VERY cool!) monopod.
My sister needed something that would hold her small mirrorless camera, one small lens, her wallet, her jacket, a water bottle and her iPad.

And they walked out of the store with the exact same bag.

And they both returned it.

Eleni Markoulis

Special thanks to Karen for letting me be a guest blogger on her site!

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