If You Want to Make Great Pictures, Get a Junky Camera

28 04 2011

One of the main topics on photography message boards, letters to photo magazines, and photo podcasts revolves around what equipment is the best. Of course the latest equipment splashed around the pages of the photo mags is super sexy, but it may not be what you need. If you are just starting out as a photographer, you may be better served by using inferior/older gear. You may not want to hear that if you are hoping to get the new Superultimax 5000 to improve the quality of your photography and are looking for someone to tell you that is what you should get.
My experience in most things, including photography, is that it is beneficial to start with something simple and learn to overcome its limitations. When you focus on the process of the art rather than the equipment, you will find that you gain a more solid grasp of the fundamentals of photography instead of learning to be a D3x operator. Learning to use more complex professional equipment is light years easier if you already understand what it is that you need the camera to do. My first SLR (film) was a Nikon N5005 with a 50mm lens — no photographic powerhouse, but I was able to learn how to control every aspect of it and sell a lot of pictures using it while the other photographers I worked with were using N8008s or N90s. I was selling just as many images as they were even though my equipment was technically inferior. I purchased an inexpensive Nikon 35—105mm lens and was able to get an understanding of a range of focal lengths and still create lots of saleable images.

When I moved to digital, I got the modest Nikon D50. My knowledge gained from my film camera transferred neatly and my learning curve was a very low angle. I was able to focus on the difference between film and digital instead of learning how to operate a complex camera. I still occasionally shoot the D50 and get great results from it. After a few years with the D50, my understanding of digital photography filled out nicely and I decided it was time to move to a full-frame camera.

Over the years of using equipment that was less than the latest and greatest, I learned how to improvise and make shots work without the benefit of vibration reduction, a high frame rate, fast zoom lenses or 51 focus points. Now, when I pick up my D700, I know that all of the advanced features are icing on the cake and not necessary for me to make a great image. My foundation of photographic knowledge is solid, so that I can get the most from my equipment rather than missing shots because I am trying to program a supercomputer with a lens.

Don’t get me wrong, I made purchasing decisions for my first cameras based on my limited funds at the time and if I had been rich, I might have gotten more advanced gear from the start. My point is that the fact that I started with lower-end gear and learned how to make it work in all situations has probably made me a better photographer in the long run. Likewise, if you feel like your gear is holding you back, challenge yourself to make great images despite its limitations.

Just Back from the North Pole–Photography at the Top of the Planet

26 04 2011
The biggest dog EVER

Scott providing the perimeter security from polar bears on our training trip in Svalbard

This year’s trip to the North Pole was a success, with unprecedented (for me) drift of the pack ice due north and fantastic weather between -20 and -27° C. Our training trip on the archipelago of Svalbard in Norway went off without a hitch and no polar bears were seen around camp, thanks to our 143 pound alarm system, named Scott (above). We were delayed a few days getting out on the Arctic Ocean when the runway on the ice developed a crack shortly before we were to land on it, sending our plane mercifully back to Norway rather than to Davey Jones’ locker. A few days later the runway was repaired and we made our landing at ice base Barneo near 89° north. Our ski to the Pole was beautiful and benefited from the pack ice drifting north, directly towards our goal. This would have been among my very best trips to the Pole, but I developed a respiratory infection on the first day, and felt like my sled was filled with lead and I was breathing through a straw. With the help of my incredible teammates, I still managed tot have a great time.

Our ride to the Arctic Ocean

The Antonov-74, a Short Take-off and Landing Powerhouse a.k.a. Our Ride to the Arctic Ocean

My photography quiver on this trip was small, but adequate. I think I will tweak it next time a bit more, but I can’t complain. My main camera was a Nikon D700. This body is small enough for remote, self-contained travel, with powerhouse, pro features and a full frame sensor. The magnesium body can take a lot of abuse like a sled rolling over on top of it, but that metal sure is cold to hold at 20 below zero. I usually stick a self-adhesive body warmer (a big version of the disposable hand warmer) around the grip to keep my hand and the battery a little warmer, but the friendly folks at the TSA confiscated all of my body warmers when I was leaving O’Hare Airport in Chicago. I always bring these, but for some reason, they didn’t get through this year. My lenses included a rented 15mm f/2.8 fisheye Sigma, a Nikon 105 f/2.8 VR macro, a Nikon 20mm f/2.8, and a Nikon 70—210 f/4–5.6. I think in the future, I would bring a 14-24mm, a 50mm f/1.4, and an 85mm f/1.4. I didn’t find that I craved the reach of the longer telephoto with the sweeping panoramas that are up there. I think an 85 would do the job. The 105 wasn’t bad, but a bit big (then again, the 14-24 isn’t exactly petite). I didn’t find I had the time to do macro shots anyway. I was there as a guide and not a photographer, so I had to shoot quickly and not compromise my main job of getting to the Pole safely with the team as priority one. That conflict is a good topic for a later post. I carried my gear in my ever-faithful and ancient Lowepro Orion beltpack. This is the most simple camera bag ever, but provides great protection with low weight and a good carry. It has been my go-to shooting bag for years. I carried a Canon G10 in my pants cargo pocket in a sleeve I made from a cut up foam sleeping pad and some duct tape. The G10 is great for a second camera. For outdoor shots with good light, the image quality is super primo. Indoors, with natural light–not so much. But I was outside, and the G10 loves the low ISOs with 24 hours of sunlight each day. Plus you can shoot OK video, even though it isn’t HD. I considered a G12 for the HD video, but I think the body seems less rugged than the G10 and I know I would snap off that flip out screen climbing into a helicopter or trying to pull it out of my pocket with clumsy gloved hands. I brought 4 extra EN-EL3e batteries for the D700 , a blower and a lens pen. That is pretty much it. I did also bring the so-simple-it-seems-dumb-but-is-actually-freaking-awesome Think Tank AA battery pouch for my spare GPS batteries. Speaking of Think Tank, I brought all my camera gear, satellite phone, GPSs, cell phone, card reader, audio recorder, chargers, batteries, laptop, hard drive, cables, and an iPad in a Think Tank Airport Antidote 2.0. I have never moved so much electronic gear through airport security with so little hassle before. This is one fantastic bag. Think Tank has earned a loyal customer in me.

1st Annual North Pole Poetry Slam

Mr. Huang Nubo recites a poem at the first ever North Pole Poetry Slam

We celebrated our arrival at the Pole with the first North Pole Poetry Slam. Mr Huang Nubo is a respected and accomplished poet from China and recited his poetry in Chinese. The words were not understandable to me, but listening to him, I felt like I could understand what he was saying through the tone of his voice. Our friends from Iceland brought with them the dubious gift of Icelandic schnapps and “cheese shark,” which is putrified Icelandic shark. It needs to rot in the ground for six months to become “edible.” Yes it is as bad as it sounds. They admitted later that the shark was something of an excuse to get drunk on the schnapps.

Putrified Icelandic Shark

Putrified Icelandic shark, or "cheese shark"-only a (drunk) Viking could love this stuff

I needed some fresh air after the Icelandic sushi. Here is a video of the scene outside the tent.

I love to talk about photography and travel in the high(est) Arctic, so post a comment or drop me a line if you have any questions.

Dirk Jensen Photo blog is LIVE!

25 04 2011
Skiers near the North Pole

Skiing towards a beautiful halo around the sun on the Arctic Ocean near the North Pole

Thanks for dropping by Dirk Jensen Photo blog! This is a place for me to share stories and ideas about photography and how it relates to my life. I will have some good tips for your photography that I have picked up along the way that are yours for the small fee of reading them. Let me know if you ever have any questions, or give me feedback on my posts–I love hearing from others who find photography as addictive as I do.

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