Friday, April 18, 2008

Confessions of a young gear-head and how he found his way to photographic freedom

Jamie Fullerton lives and works for a growing computer software firm in Redmond, Washington; and he takes his photography seriously. His story may sound familiar, but as you'll soon agree, it's a story worth repeating. What's more the fine images he sends along help assure us he's now cured... for a while at least.

"Ever since I began photographing some four or five years ago," says Jamie, "I've been highly concerned about what photo gear I own. More accurately, I have been concerned about what gear I do not own. As a geek and techie, I became sidetracked by a certain degree of gear fetish.

"My first digital camera purchase was a Konica Minolta DiMage Z5. Within 3 months, I had purchased a Canon 10D dSLR. Six months later, I upgraded to a Canon 20D. The following year, I upgraded again to a Canon 1D Mark IIN. To supplement this, I required a backup body. I purchased a Canon Rebel XTi. Along the way, I picked up lenses covering 10mm to 500mm and tripod systems to support them. In addition, there were camera bags, filters, light meters, CF cards, batteries, binoculars... you get the idea. To be fair, I was using all of this equipment. But somehow, my camera bag never felt complete. It felt heavy!

"In 2007, I attended a photo workshop on the Olympic Peninsula. It prompted some intensive one-on-one time between me and my gear. I spent days shooting and really understanding what worked for me and what didn't. Weather conditions were miserable and tested both me and the contents of my bag. Then and there I committed to optimizing my kit.

"I thought about the gear I wished I had owned during that workshop. I thought about what gear simply didn't work out. I thought about what delivered really great results for me. Then, carefully, I restocked my gear, reminding myself of what I had learned. Some interesting things began to happen inside my camera bag.

"First, I replaced my old metal tripod with a carbon fiber model. The reduction in weight was shocking to me. My cheap ball head was replaced with a model that could bear the load of any lens in my kit. This had a huge impact on my work. The frustration of using a fidgety support rig is a distant memory to me. I now enjoy using my tripod! This factor alone has had a serious impact on the quality of my images.

"Next, the prime lenses that I once cherished for their premium optical quality made way for half the number of zoom lenses. It was the versatility and lower weight of the zooms that fostered this decision. I noticed an immediate change in my level of patience and shooting efficiency. My bag was much lighter now, so I could spend more time in the field before experiencing any fatigue. The overall quality of my images rose sharply.

Finally, I purchased three Singh-Ray filters. The first was an LB Warming Circular Polarizer, which I had the pleasure of trying out during that Olympic Peninsula workshop. The possibilities offered by this filter were immediately realized. While the obvious choice might be to reach for this filter when shooting landscapes involving water or sky, I also find myself applying it to my close-up work as well (top photo). For instance, I almost always use this 'lighter, brighter polarizer' when photographing mushrooms, which tend to grow in dark places. My polarizer was also used to capture the waterdrops and grasses image (below). I now depend on this filter to reduce glare and increase color saturation in wet, rainy weather as well as in more sunny weather.

"Soon after, I purchased two Galen Rowell Graduated Neutral Density filters -- a 2-stop soft-step and a 3-stop hard-step. The 2-stop ND Grad was used for the two seascape images seen here. As a result of my filter purchases, the quality of my landscape images has increased significantly. What's more, I now spend much less time fiddling around in Photoshop. I had become quite comfortable merging multiple exposures in the digital darkroom, but now I have the option to get things right while I'm in the field. This is immensely satisfying to me. I'm now hand-holding these filters while I shoot, sometimes moving them slightly up and down during an exposure.

"By this process, I have come to understand a concept I consider to be of great value. A piece of gear that eliminates frustration, adds to the pleasure of shooting, and truly helps me to make better images is a piece of gear that I will keep in my bag. Armed with this new approach to gear management, I am much more excited about new techniques than I am about new equipment.

"This summer comes with a week-long shoot at Crested Butte, Colorado. With my more functional and much lighter kit, the focus is now on learning more ways to make my gear work for me. Spending more time developing my style and vision and less time feeling like a pack mule. For the last few months, I have been telling one of my shooting buddies, 'I am so happy with my gear! There's not a single lens on my wish list right now. Sure, if a 300mm f/2.8 fell from the sky, I wouldn't complain.'

"But seriously, folks... there's nothing on my wish list. I am, for the first time, completely satisfied with my gear. I have no cravings. I have no itches. I have no credit card debt! And most importantly, I'm free to spend more time photographing in the field."

You can continue to follow Jamie's recovery by visiting his website. Our thoughts go with him.