“I want to get serious about photography. What camera should I buy?” I get this question all the time, whether it’s from friends or from people in online photography groups.
Until recently, I would ask the person a few questions about the kind of work they wanted to do, make recommendations based on the answers, and guide them toward any special equipment that was applicable to their situation. After all, it helps to have the right tools for the job at hand.
I now think of that as mostly wasted effort. When I came across this question today, the asker also happened to mention that the Nikon D750 had been suggested to them. Now, the D750 is an excellent camera. I’d put its image quality up against any full-frame camera on the market in most situations. However, like most high-end cameras, it’s got quite a learning curve, so I hesitate to recommend it to someone new to photography. I suggested the asker find a nearby store with a decent camera selection and get the cheapest camera/lens combo they were comfortable with.
So why did I try to talk this person out of splurging on a fancy camera?
One of my favorite bloggers, James Altucher, is fond of saying that people have a good reason and a real reason for everything they do. An example of this that he likes to give is his teenage daughter says she wants to go the library. The good reason is to study. The real reason is that boys will be there. I’ve definitely found this good reason/real reason gap to be true in my experience, so it’s worth examining my motives in this situation. The learning curve issue is a good reason not to buy anything top-of-the-line for your first serious camera. But it’s not the real reason.
This person actually mentioned a couple of things they wanted to use the camera for. In both cases, I realized there were factors other than the camera that would significantly affect picture quality, like lens selection and lighting quality. Upon further reflection, I realized that’s actually the case for most photography situations.
But if that’s true, then why do I recommend cheaping out on the lens, too?
Because for a new photographer, I think good lighting will improve their chances of getting a good shot more than a better camera or even better lenses will. To get the most out of high-quality cameras and lenses, you have to know how to make the most of those things. But if the lighting is right, you can make a great image with the camera in your phone, even if you don’t know an f-stop from an f-hole.
The misconception often exists that you can get top results just by having the best equipment, even if you lack experience. While you might get lucky, the truth is that generally things don’t work that way. And if you think about it, things don’t work that way in other fields, either. If you give me the same painting tools that Pablo Picasso used, I’m not suddenly going to be able to paint like him. As sophisticated as some cameras can be, they’re still ultimately just tools. The great work, like any creative work, starts in your head before it reaches the screen, canvas, or whatever.
Another practical reason for not investing too much in gear at the beginning is that hobbies and interests can be fleeting. What if you find out you don’t really enjoy photography after a few months? You can sell your gear in any case, but you’ll take a less significant loss if you didn’t spend so much in the first place.
So again, if you’re just starting out, don’t worry about getting a camera with the latest features. In fact, you don’t even need to buy new. Places like Adorama and B&H have been in the camera business a long time and back their used gear. If you want to be more hands on, go to a store and see which brand has the better feel in the hand for you.
The thing that has improved my photography the most hasn’t been any gear I’ve bought, or classes I’ve taken, or books I’ve read, although those things have helped. The biggest improvement in my photography has come from going out and shooting as much as I can. I try to shoot a little bit every day, even if it’s just going outside the building where I work for a few minutes and taking some pictures of flowers with my phone.
Use the first several months of your time with a camera to build your photographer’s eye and learn to identify those situations when the automatic settings on your camera get it wrong. Learn how to correct for those kinds of situations. Building that experience will help you more than just about any gear purchase in the beginning.
Note: this article was originally published on daniellegaitherphotography.com.