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I was reading something the other day and came across this blog by Ken Rockwell (a photographer that posts frequent opinions on equipment) about How To Spot an Amateur. I should note that I don’t make it a habit of reading blogs of other photographers or so-called “equipment gurus” (I don’t even like creating my own blogs) but this one caught my attention.  While the post: http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/how-to-spot-an-amateur.htm, does highlight some (key word here being SOME) aspects of what amateur’s do in the field, I have to say I disagree with several of the comments Mr. Rockwell stated in his blog, primarily:

KR: “Backpacks are not for carrying anything you need as you’re walking around, like cameras or lenses. Bag makers sell a lot of expensive packs to a lot of people new to the hobby. Don’t fall into this trap.”

– I find these comments ironic and grossly incorrect! Peter Lik, arguably one of the best landscape photographers of this century, uses a backpack to carry his gear in the field. Are you calling him an ‘Amateur’?  Never mind that he makes infinitely more money than Mr. Rockwell and has a well known name, outside of online blogging…. I use only Tamrac Expedition series bags.  I like to put duct tape on mine to distract would-be thieves from thinking it’s full of expensive equipment (which it is).  I’ve also painted my bags with spray paint to further give the impression that my bag belongs to a bum!  Frankly, my gear isn’t there to impress, it’s there to help me get the shot when I need it and lugging a Pelican 1510 hard case simply isn’t practical for many of the places I go.

Backpacks are more practical as they are simply easier to carry and get around in the field. I would NEVER take my gear on long hikes without a good backpack as there are simply too many obstructions like rocks or boulders that you may need to climb over, tree branches (which have wreaked havoc on my mechanical shutter releases) and mud, rain, sand and dirt.  I own several older prime lenses (Zeiss Flektogon 35, Zeiss Flektogon 20, Super Takumar 28, Pentax-A SMC 50….).  These lenses can be bought for $40-$300 in most cases.  They are relatively cheap to own and yet I still protect them like my children, as they are no longer made and not so easy to replace.

Anyone that carries a $2000 camera with a $1000 or $2000 lens into the field without ANY protection other than a strap and his armpit should get a mental wellness checkup!

What I find is most amateurs or novices buy a ‘cheap’ backpack or worse use a plastic grocery bag (my brother-in-law did this), a ‘cheap’ tripod (if any) and an expensive DSLR with even more expensive lens. Now that’s the sure sign of an amateur. I use only Tamrac bags for one reason: durability! They make the strongest, most photographer friendly bags available, period! Companies like CLIK use clever marketing to make you think their bags are well padded but I’ve not been impressed with their products.  My Tamrac Expedition 8 has literally been used and abused and it always keeps my gear safe in rain, heat, mud and hiking!

KR: “It’s Ok To Buy And Own Everything Ever Made, Just Never Try To Bring More Than A Camera And Lens Or Two Anyplace At Once. People With Less Experience, Just Like Inexperienced Or Infrequent Travelers, Bring Everything Out Of Fear That They Might Need It.”

– This I partially agree with as my idea of bringing one lens means a good prime lens and that makes sense when shooting landscapes. However, if you shoot both film and digital as I do, you may want to take both. Why two cameras?  Perspective!  I typically will take my Fuji GX617 in a lot of instances where I also have my Nikon 800E.  The panoramic look of the 617 gives a whole different expression than the 2/3 format of a FF digital. I can have one composition with two completely different images.  One can even be suited for stock with the other is suited for fine art.  Why limit yourself?  If you’re making the effort to hike a distance, why not take full advantage of it.

KR: “It’s inelegant to put a polarizer over a UV filter. You might get vignetting with a wide lens, and you’re inviting extra ghosts and flare from the unneeded UV filter that should have been removed before you placed any other filter over the lens. The UV is just a mechanical prophylactic, it doesn’t do anything optically today. Only use a polarizer if you need it, which is rarely. If you don’t need it, it costs you about two stops of light, meaning you’ll have to shoot at larger apertures, slower shutter speeds or higher ISOs to get the same result as you would if you took off your polarizer and replaced it with your UV filter.”

– First, I don’t give a rats-butt about elegance when I’m out shooting (though he is right about using a UV filter – I never use them).  However his comment of, “only use a polarizer if you need it, which is rarely…” Really? If you plan to shoot landscapes much and especially during daylight hours between 9 a.m. and 3-4 p.m. (in most regions) you will want to take a good CPL with you. Shooting in strong sunlight, the polarizing filter is invaluable to a landscape shooter, in fact I know several professional photographers that regularly shoot their models using a polarizer for effect. I use two types of filters, the first are screw-on of which I have two: a B+W Kaesmann CPL and a B+W ND Grad. I also use Schneider square filters. I’m sure some 14 year old kid in a small room can claim, “I can do all that with Photoshop… dude”. To which my reply would be… how would you know? Have your ever gotten up from your desk, left your room, hiked to a mountain top and stood behind a film camera or DSLR and used a good set of hard filters??? Sadly, that would be rhetorical question as I already know the answer… NO!  Kids these days are all consumed with iPhones, iPads, laptops and blogging on social media networks.

Relying heavily on Photoshop, in my opinion, is a poor excuse for failing to get the shot right in the field. Ansel was a master of the darkroom however he was also a master of technical application behind the lens.  CS5 and Lightroom 4 were designed for post-processing, not inventing something that wasn’t there. I get that painting in a sky is easier than waiting for the right weather condition to form however taking a super-crappy image, shot through a plastic lens and then adding layer-upon-layer of vignetting, digital blur and wizardry doesn’t make you a great photographer!  Digital filters do not have the same effect a good hard filter offers. I use Graduated Coral, Neutral-Density, Polarizing and Warming filters to add effect to different compositions, depending on the time of day, location and how I feel about the shot.

KR: “Pros use their gear so much that it gets thrashed. Here’s what my friend Karl Grobl’s gear looks like. He earns his living with this gear every day, and by now it looks even worse than when he took those photos. The surest way to spot a hobbyist is that all his gear and tripods look brand new, and they probably are.”

– There is truth in this statement. There is also stupidity in it as well! The term “PRO” refers to anyone that earns a living or part of their living by taking photographs. This can be many things to many people. My brother-in-law used to be a wedding photographer. His equipment was thrashed. Mostly because he was broke and couldn’t afford better equipment. His lenses, some of which worked, some not so much… his camera a Canon 5DII had issues: the light meter and histogram were way out of calibration… he struggled to get the shot right even though after much post-processing (remember the 14 year old with his PHOTOSHOP), his work always came out looking good. How did he do it with beat-up gear? He spent 3 times the effort post-processing his images. That’s not professional that’s just dumb! My gear shows wear, certainly but if you don’t take care of your gear it won’t take care of you.  Whenever a piece of my gear breaks I either fix it or replace it.  I don’t have time to screw around with hoping my gear will work when I need it to.

My good friend Vince Tanzilli is very particular about his gear.  He photographs celebrities and people daily and gets paid for doing it. Vinnie’s let me borrow a few things in the past but only because he’s seen how well I keep my gear and knows he’ll get it back in as good of shape or I’ll buy him a new one.  Making sure your camera’s in good working order, making sure if you have zoom lenses that they actually zoom (even manually… my brother-in-law’s didn’t) and making sure your batteries are charged and your storage cards are reformatted after each shoot. I recently trashed two mechanical cable releases for my Fuji camera at a cost of $30 each, from climbing over boulders and getting them caught on tree branches.  It sucks, believe me, but whenever that happens I continue working and replace them later.

KR: “Someone shooting with a DSLR on a tripod in daylight probably has a few screws loose. VR further eliminates the need for tripods. If I shoot a 15-pound 400mm lens, I use a monopod; not to steady it, but just to hold the weight.”

– I’d like to address this statement in particular.  Sure, a good DSLR with a fast lens and shake-reduction (which very few lenses, and even fewer camera bodes have BTW) can get a good image at a shutter speed between a 160 and 1000 shutter speed, but daylight is subjective and what about shooting a vista, in daylight, while the sun is at 90 degrees to you, with a film camera and an F5.6 or even F8 lens… Handheld? Monopod? I don’t think so!  I don’t know about you but film is expensive to buy and process and can be quite unforgiving if you’re camera isn’t still.

Can you shoot a Medium or Large Format film camera handheld? Some, certainly. However, the image quality won’t be the best. Take my old Hasselblad H2 with 50-110 zoom lens.  That camera was a beast at 10 pounds.  Good luck handholding that sucker!  The fact is, light is subjective to the camera and lens. If you are using a DSLR and F4 or faster lens, certainly you can use a monopod or even handhold your camera and get a pretty decent image. However, if you are trying to shoot an old barn, skyscraper with clouds moving above it or if you’re shooting in a windy condition for example, you might need a tripod. Monopods are great but they are not a ‘cure all’ for every situation.

Understand this, a Full Frame-35mm equivalent DSLR can record less light than a Medium or Large Format camera.  Large format cameras on the other hand, like the Wista 45SP film field camera coupled with a Schneider 90mm lens can record infinitely more light than a DSLR however the depth of field is much more shallow, requiring smaller F-stops.  As a result, the lens is slower and requires a tripod… even in good daylight.  Even most Medium Format camera’s are much heavier than their DSLR counterparts.  More light (larger format) and a slower lens = less noise (but requires a tripod).  Less light (smaller formats like FF digital or APS-C) and a faster lens = more noise and potentially no tripod or just a monopod.  Which is better… it depends!  Action, Sports, Photo-jouranlism… go with a fast zoom on a DSLR.  Landscapes, Architecture… may be a good DSLR with a F3.5 or slower prime lens or you might want to go MF or LF here.  When you walk up to the life-sized pictures that Ansel Adams photographed, you will see why he used large format film over 35mm.  The detail is simply stunning.

You see, photography isn’t just about “being there” it’s about being there at the right TIME of day (or having a good lighting kit or reflector kit), understanding how to compose your work, having good knowledge of your equipment and knowing how to control the available light.

My intent here is not to discredit the better key points that Ken has laid out but help people to realize that having good working equipment, a solid tripod and a good backpack is NOT the sign of an amateur but actually a common sign of someone intent on getting the shot correct while protecting your gear, which should be your goal when you’re in the field.

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