A Simple-Minded Photographer’s Guide to Gear

Forty years as a working photographer have taught me that keeping my equipment and methods simple amplifies my joy. Time has worn down any fascination I may have felt with gear-for gear’s sake. More and more, I realize that the deepest creative joys of photography come from the heart.

Comfortable as an old coat, simple equipment is good company. With that in mind, though, I’m forced to concede that many advanced cameras—such as the high-end Nikons and Canons—meet the definition of simplicity. They are high-tech marvels, and they cost a fortune, but they do the basics—focusing, exposing, and being quiet—so well, that you can simply forget them and focus heart and soul on taking pictures.

I hope this collection of personal tools and techniques will help you expand your joy in photography.

These are the books that have inspired me for their practical, enthusiastic, creative spirit, as well as for their authors’ generosity in sharing their trade secrets.

People in Focus: How to Photograph Anyone, Anywhere, by Bryan Peterson (Amphoto, 1993). This is the best book I’ve found for learning to take pictures of people. Peterson answers the big question that troubles newcomers: how can I overcome personal shyness and make contact with others, so that I can take their pictures without treating them as mere “subjects.” Peterson’s photos are wonderful, and for each one, he reveals how he broke the ice and made contact with the person behind the face.

Photographing People for Advertising, by Nancy Brown (Amphoto, 1986). Nancy Brown left the glamorous world of fashion modeling to build a highly successful stock and beauty photography career. Nancy is plucky, intelligent, adventurous, and abundantly generous in revealing the secrets of her success. The book is out of print, but you may be able to find a copy in a used bookstore, or at the library. I haven’t shot much fashion, stock, or beauty, but I’ve had remarkable success adopting Nancy’s methods for studio portraiture.

For pure inspiration, I resort to David D. Spitzer’s Jazz, as well as well as some weird coffee-table books, such as Ray Gun–Out of Control, the inspiring and sad Journals of Dan Eldon, David Carson’s 2nd Sight, and Robert Peacock’s touching Paradise Garden. Weird art shakes my brain and helps me see the world with fresh eyes.

I must mention photo.net, Philip Greenspun’s wonderful and immensely popular Web resource for photographers. Another inspiring site is Barry Beckham’s. Visit the Galleries.

On my living room wall is a stunning 8×12 photo of tidepools and surf at sunset, with yours truly standing in ankle-deep water, photographing sea urchins while a line of pelicans fly past. A former girlfriend took it with a $9 Fuji disposable film camera. Also hanging on my wall is an 8×12 of trail ultramarathon runners clambering over rocks in the high Sierras, above Donner Pass. The photo was published full-page in a Running Times magazine. The fact that I’d taken it with a tiny Olympus Infinity Stylus pocket camera made no difference at all to the magazine’s photo editors.

To get good pictures indoors in low light, you’ll need to choose between flash, tripod, and monopod. The built-in flash units of most pocket cameras perform poorly in the dark—the flash is underpowered and harsh. Pocket cameras can be nearly useless for available-light, flash-free photography, since most have slow lenses and limited ISO speeds, resulting in blurred pictures. Few pocket cameras have a focus-assist beam that enables them to take sharp pictures in the dark, with or without flash.

My digital equipment choices for beginning amateur photographers would be the Canon PowerShot SD 700is or a low-end Canon or Nikon digital SLR. Canon or Nikon? It’s a toss-up—Canon does a much better job of smoothing-out the grain in high-speed photos (ISO 800 and above), but I like Nikon’s lenses better.

If your budget is limited, my advice is to buy a cheap body and good lenses. You can certainly get by with two zooms; e.g, an 18-35 and an 80-200.

Find subjects that open your heart, and let the equipment follow. When you shoot what you love, photography becomes magically simplified.

“When do I really need to use a tripod?
“Every time you take a picture by ambient (not flash) light indoors. The exception, of course, is when your camera has built-in image stabilization. I was initially very skeptical of the IS feature, until I bought the Canon Powershot SD 700is. I’m sold—image stabilization really works. Nevertheless, if you plan to take pictures where a tripod is practical, why not have the insurance.

“Why is a tripod essential?
“Because blur due to lens movement is inevitable at any shutter speed slower than 1/1000 sec., and because it promotes greater care in composition. Handholding is strictly for dead photographers: A human pulse beat will cause 200 microns (about 0.008 inch) displacement for 1/10th second. Assuming a shutter speed of 1/250th sec., this movement alone will cause a 22% loss of resolution with a system that is otherwise capable of reproducing 100 lines-per-mm (lpm). And at a shutter speed of 1/125th sec., this performance would degrade to only 53 lpm—a 47% waste of what you purchased.” (Reference: John B. Williams: Image Clarity, p. 191)

Flash Photography
Canon’s flash units emit a softer, more pleasing light than Nikon’s. With Nikon flashes, it helps to soften the light with a Sto-Fen Omnibounce diffuser. The Omnibounce is a translucent white plastic box that you push onto the flash head. You can find it at most camera stores. The next time you watch a White House press conference on TV, watch the photographers—many will be using the Omnibounce on their Nikon and Canon flashes.

Better still, bounce the flash off a light-colored ceiling or wall.

Available Light and the Magical Monopod
In my worst photographic nightmare, I’m forced to shoot fast-moving subjects in a dimly lighted room where flash is inappropriate or forbidden—for example, at the ballet. But my fears have vanished since I discovered the monopod, a wonderfully simple and inexpensive gadget that has revolutionized my indoor photography. (Note: This was written before digital cameras with image stabilization. Nevertheless, if I want the best possible sharpness, I’ll still use a monopod.)

Last weekend, I was forced to shoot under precisely the horrifying conditions I’ve just described. Children were doing art projects in a large, dimly lighted room with a high, dark ceiling. I wanted natural-looking pictures, so I ruled out flash—yet I got outstanding results. If you had told me, 10 years ago, that I would ever be able to shoot with 85mm and 180mm lenses at shutter speeds of 1/30 or 1/60, while moving through packed crowds of squirming children, and have all but two or three of my pictures come out razor-sharp, I’d have said you were loco.

A monopod is basically what it sounds like, a tripod with one leg. The Bogen 3245 is called “automatic” because you can change the height of the camera quickly by squeezing a hand grip and sliding the head up and down. The optional but essential Bogen 3422 ball head lets you tilt the camera at any angle. This is extremely useful, because it allows you to shoot close to the floor.

It gets better. The Bogen 3422 head includes an angle brace that swings out to the side. The side arm is wonderful, because it lets you “make” a tripod in places where tripods are prohibited (concert halls, etc.), or in dense crowds where banging a tripod around would be rude, at best. Simply swing the brace out sideways and lean the rig against a wall, table, railing, or the floor. At a recent concert, I braced the camera against walls and railings and got sharp pictures with an 80-200 lens at shutter speeds of 1/25-1/40.

The Bogen 3245 automatic monopod with the 3422 ball head costs about $80 by discount mail order, or around $110 at local stores. It’s money you won’t regret spending.

Simplify, Simplify
Photographic equipment can become a spiraling obsession. The more time you spend thinking about cameras, lenses, flash, tripods, and light meters, the less time you’ll spend taking pictures—and your creative satisfaction will proportionally diminished. I know, because I’ve been there. If you turn your attention to photographic questions of the heart, all your questions regarding equipment will be answered.

Of all the photographic gear I’ve owned, a simplified attitude has accounted for the best pictures.

Simplicity is an art that you can cultivate. Try this. On your next photographic outing, refuse to take any pictures that are born of too much rational thought. Be especially wary of “ought-to” pictures. “I ought to take that picture because it looks like a postcard.” “I ought to take that picture because it looks like an Ansel Adams print.”

When I vow to take only the pictures that feel good, and stubbornly refuse to take “mind-born” photographs—even if it means I risk coming home empty-handed—I’m nearly always rewarded. It’s mysterious, because often I’ll feel attracted to take a picture for reasons I can’t begin to explain with logic. Yet those will be the pictures that grow on me. Days or weeks later, I’ll bring them up in Photoshop, and I’ll feel refreshed to spend time in their company.

That, for me, is enough. I don’t much care if my pictures are clever or complicated, or if they impress others—or even, within cautious limits, if they’re technically perfect. It’s enough to experience the simple joys of photography.