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on Jun 4, 2010 in Friday Thoughts

Get Your Career in Gear

It was a gorgeous day, the shooting in the marsh was great. I was photographing the endangered Belding’s Savannah Sparrow and had captured  a great shot in the pickleweed. The light had gotten hard and the tide was rising so we headed to another marsh to see if the water level would bring out any clapper rails. It was June, 1987 and the three of us, Sharon, Brent (just a couple of months old) and I were enjoying just a great day. The tide didn’t produce any clappers so I decided to drive back the twenty minutes to where we had been earlier that morning. I have a personal rule when working locales in Southern California, had it then and have it now, never return to somewhere I had already shot that day. Big lenses get too much attention. We returned to the marsh and I suited up with the 800f5.6 on a tripod with body, 400f5.6 with body on gunstock and Brent on my back in a pack. Off we went to enjoy the last few hours of sun and photography. When we returned to the wagon, we found that it had been broken into, every piece of camera gear I owned, other misc gear, even Brent’s diaper bag were all gone.

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I’d spent seven years up to that point building up my gear inventory. I had a pretty nice inventory of gear I felt I needed. And in a heartbeat I had been reduced in my mind to nothing, just two bodies and two lenses. How was I going to keep producing images, grow my business, support the family? It was a very long drive back home, those two hours stretched on for an eternity.

You ever get spam? I’m always bummed to find out that my uncle who died in South Africa who was so kind to leave me all that money turns out to be the uncle for a couple million people. Who still believes that spam that encourages these idiots to keep sending it? While my spam filter works really well, every so often an important email ends up in the filter so I check it once a week. I was writing up the posting on the 200-400VRII this week when I saw this spam in the filter with the subject line, Get Your Career in Gear. What was their solution for getting the career in gear? Selling porcelain dolls on the internet! Then I read their subject line with a little different twist since I was writing at the moment about camera gear and scratched my head for a moment. Do photographers get their career in gear?

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Back in 1987 in just a flash I had been reduced to just two lenses and two bodies. What two lenses did I have, a 800mm and 400mm. What is my “profession,” wildlife photography. And since we don’t need the aid of a crystal ball to see the future to determine how things turned out, it would appear that Sharon & I were able to make things work out OK with just those two lenses and two bodies. This leads me to the next twist on that spam’s subject line, does it take gear to make a career?

Lets look at that question by talking current events. There is the 200-400VR & 200-400VRII, which one to buy, which one do you need, which one do you want and to the point, which one makes a difference in the business of photography? The original 200-400 (not the VR or VRII) was a monster of a lens compared to today’s version. It was razor sharp, really slow focusing, push-pull zoom and a rare bird. A couple of shooters had made the lens incredibly famous and even though Nikon couldn’t give the lens away when in the catalog, the moment it was discontinued the price flew up to $10k ($2k when new) and everyone wanted one. Why? The combination of “if the famous photographer had one, the lens must make a difference” and “no longer available” just drove photographers nuts. Today, that original lens is forgotten even by current Nikon employees. And the 200-400VR, today which is a week after the VRII hit the office, still captures beautiful images.

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Is there a piece of photography gear you think you must have to move your photography forward? We’ve all been there, thinking that if we just had that one lens, this body or that flash we could change our photography and fortunes. I was there when my gear was stolen and before that but after that and a little time had passed and I was still making images, gear took on a whole different role in my photography. While I never want to relive that experience back in 1987, the lessons it taught me still remain. One of the biggest being that the gear didn’t make the photographer, the photographer makes the gear and the career.

This is not to say that you can make a living as a photographer with the camera in your iPhone (though TrueHDR is magical). And the other extreme, you don’t need an equipment locker like I have acquired either. The gear doesn’t make the career! Can the right piece of gear rocket a career forward? Of course it can but it’s not the piece of gear by itself. It’s the marriage of that piece of gear and the photographer that rocket the career. But buying all the gear you think you need will not kick your career in gear. Buying gear for any reason other than you need it guarantees your career will go nowhere. So while I feature pretty heavily those new pieces of gear that make their way into my camera bag (which is not every piece that comes out), in no way am I saying you need to own them to be successful. Actually the opposite, I want to prevent you from buying gear you don’t need or more importantly, won’t move your photography down the road by learning from my good fortune what will or won’t work for you.

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What is the best piece of gear? Actually, this is one of the top ten questions I receive, “If you could own just one lens, which one would it be?” (bloody stupid question). This supposes that there is one, great lens that does it all. Once, I was forced to just two lenses and with those two I was able to grow my photography and business to encompass more lenses, but the variable here to growth was not “just that one lens” but rather, just that one mind, heart, imagination, all those things that make you, YOU! I am very serious that the best piece of equipment you can continually invest in is yourself. We never know everything which means the door is WIDE open to learn and with knowledge comes power. The power to be creative, the power to make that camera sing and the power of making a photograph that grabs heartstrings. And most importantly, the power to change the world with our images. Now to me, that’s how you get your career in gear!

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