Anyone who has been paying attention will have noticed that this is a bit of an obsession with me. I love gear, and suffer from frequent bouts of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), but I also love art, and am constantly struggling to keep the two in balance. Going beyond the gear so that it exists only to facilitate and support the art is a theme that underlies just about everything I do. So as a reminder to myself, and perhaps to others who might need reminding, I have compiled a few points that I think are keys to going beyond the gear, “becoming one with the gear” if you prefer, and producing better images.
1: Stop Babying It
As long as you’re organizing, polishing, accessorizing, and coddling your gear, you’re not using it. If you’re not using it, you’re not creating. There’s no reason to deliberately bash it around, but being overprotective sets up psychological barriers that can prevent you from getting it out in situations that might provide some great imagery. A scratch here and there won’t hurt. The amazing images you get will make it all worthwhile.
2: Know It Like the Back of Your Hand
You can learn the names of things and what they do in theory by sitting down with the equipment and reading the manual, but the only way to really understand what all of those features and functions do is to get out and shoot. You can understand that the exposure compensation dial reduces or increases exposure by the specified number of stops, but how does that make your photos look? There is only one way to find out. The concept that larger lens apertures reduce depth of field making it possible to produce background bokeh is easy enough to grasp, but how large, at what focal length, at what focusing distance, and at what subject-to-background distance? It depends on the lens, and you just have to try it and see. Getting to know your gear at an intuitive level takes time and effort, but is a prerequisite for being able to consistently produce impressive images.
3: Try to Think in Images, Not Numbers
Making an adjustment based on theory without being able to visualize the result might produce the desired effect, or it might not. It isn’t easy at first, and theory is certainly a valid starting point, but once you’ve learned to visualize the results you’ll get in various situations with various camera settings (see “Know It Like the Back of Your Hand,” above), your chances of capturing the awesome image you’re seeing with your mind’s eye will be much greater. The same applies to knowing how the colors you’re seeing in the viewfinder will translate into black and white, if that’s what you’re shooting. Or how the wide tonal range of a harshly lit scene will look when compressed into digital image space. Visualization is an important skill that can only be learned through experience.
4: Understand That the Camera is Not Always Right
The camera doesn’t know what artistic effect you’re trying to achieve, and will try to expose/focus images in a way that produces “normal” results. Any variations from the norm, and remember that pretty much all “art” is a variation from the norm, are up to you. Don’t be afraid to underexpose, overexpose, defocus, use odd angles, or whatever it takes to go beyond the gear and deliver your artistic vision.
That’s already more than I can remember at once, so it’s time to go shoot!