End of the Year Reader Challenge

Ah, the year end "best of" compilations are all proliferating like rabbits on the Interwebs. I've seen all kinds of these articles, virtually none of which make any useful sense (unless you follow the affiliate links to order something, thus rewarding the compiler).

Let's take this in pieces.

Is there a "best camera"? Sort of. If you're a sports shooter, there are probably only three cameras that let you achieve top level results (D5, 1DxII, A9). If you're a wildlife photographer, there are a handful of cameras that do a bit better job than others (D500, D850, A7RIII, the sports trio, and maybe the EM-1II). If you're a landscape photographer, the list is larger (the MF cameras, the 5D models, D8xx models, the A7r models, the K1, and more). If you want a well-rounded but not specialized camera the list grows considerably, adding virtually all the other m4/3, APS-C, and full frame cameras out there. And let's not start down the video path... Still, I've already named more than a dozen cameras. Nope, none are best.

Photographers make photos, cameras are a tool they use. 

Is there a "best lens"? Not really. Lenses allow perspective control, so you can't really compare a 16-35mm lens with a 70-200mm lens. They also control depth of field, and thus it's difficult to compare an f/5.6 lens with an f/2.8 one, too. The image on the front page right now was taken with an f/5.6 lens (as is the one at the bottom of this page). I'd defy anyone to show me how a 300mm f/2.8 would render that image differently (I deliberately wanted the boat/cactus slightly out of focus to provide depth cues). 

Photographers make photos, lenses are a tool they use.

There's no best processing software, either. Frankly, not a single software product does what I want it to do out of the gate. And by the time I'm done in any of them, my images look like my images ;~). 

Photographers make photos, software is a tool they use.

Okay, you catch my drift. Where am I going with this?

The number one question I get this time of year is about which gear to buy. The number one question you should be asking yourself this time of year is not about gear.

Oh. Really?

Yes, really.

Here's the question you should be asking yourself: what did I do this year that improved my photography? What lesson did you learn and apply? What technique did you learn and apply? What process did you learn and apply? What new knowledge did you attain and put to use?

Because if you didn't do any of that, it won't matter what camera or lens you buy this holiday season. New gear won't help you.

Now for me, I spent most of the year pushing boundaries both ways on focus depth. I'd gotten lazy and formulaic with how I approached aperture selection, so I spent much of the year pushing both extremes (extremely shallow and deep DOF), testing differences, and examining the results carefully. I've adjusted my shooting a bit because of this. And yes, it has changed my lens selection slightly, though maybe not in the way you'd expect. I'm less afraid of the slower aperture lenses now than I was at the start of the year, though I still make sure I have faster options for when I need them.

So what was it you worked on this year photographically? 

If you are now stuttering and trying to figure out something to say, don't despair. Now's the time to fix that problem for next year. Do a soul search on your photography. What are you truly good at? What still stumps you? What do you mess up from time to time? 

Too often we make shortcut decisions where we think that gear will make us a better photographer. It doesn't. I've noticed that really great gear makes us a worse photographer, at least until we improve our techniques in able to use it correctly. I'd be massively afraid of my landscape techniques right now with a true MF camera—not the half format MF models we've been getting—as it might reveal that I'm not as on top of the landscape game as I used to be. 100mp with a large sensor is unforgiving, and I don't want to be cropping out pixels to fix compositions if I'm using such a camera. 

Most of my work in 2017 was wildlife and sports, with a few event/portrait sessions mixed in. Thus, I'm comfortable in saying I'm ready for any action camera the camera companies can come up with. But landscape? I need to spend some time in 2018 restoring and verifying my techniques if I want to say I'm on top of my game there.

Having just taught a big two-week workshop where we were evaluating images daily, I can tell you that the camera/lens never was the issue on any image we debated. We had a mix of everything. Some people shot a few shots on smartphones, we had Olympus Tough, AW1, Sony RX100's, and a host of ILCs ranging from Olympus m4/3 up through the D850 beasts. The winning shot of the little competition I set up for the students was taken on an RX100. 

The camera didn't matter.

What mattered was what you did with the camera. Composition. Technique. Processing. Get those right and the camera is just a tool. 

bythom int ecuador gal 11-17 d7500 45290

Taken with a consumer camera and a consumer lens. (D7500, 70-300mm AF-P, cropped to 16:9.)

So, go ahead and buy that new toy for yourself this Christmas—and I hope that you'll consider starting your shopping with one of the B&H links on this site to support my exclusive site advertiser. But what I want you to do that's more important is figure out what skill, technique, or knowledge item you're going to work on to improve your photography in 2018. 

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