On Chasing Rainbows And Unicorns

This is another guest post by David Jackson, a Wisconsin-based editorial portrait photographer and an international award winning wedding photographer. His first guest post for Tiffinbox was controversial and inspired a lot of debate within the photography industry. I hope this latest salvo also provokes thought and civil discourse in the comments section. Follow him on Twitter and connect with him on Facebook. Read his blog.

As a kid, have you ever wondered why you couldn’t get close to a rainbow? Ever get frustrated over trying to figure out where the hell that little green dude with suspenders left the pot of gold? Yep. That use to be me …

David Jackson | Chasing Rainbows

I never take myself too seriously. And those who’ve met me can attest that much of what spews out of my mouth needs to be taken with a grain of salt and an ounce of humor. I have this uncanny knack for unleashing my opinions amongst the photography community, much to the chagrin of others. As a result I am occasionally met with resistance and the random individual who walks away feeling personally offended by the nature of my tone. Yet at the same time there are others who get me and understand that sometimes we as photographers can take this career way too seriously, especially given the day-to-day stress of freelance entrepreneurship.

In the year long wake of my first guest post here on Tiffinbox, affectionately titled “An Open Letter to a Local Photographer,” I have seen a wide range of emotional reactions to the article. The night before my August 2011 Breaking The Rules workshop here in Appleton, I had the chance to sit down with Seshu over a few beers and talk about it’s interesting and rather impacting aftermath. Throughout our discussion, we talked about the comments left on the post and the cyclical rounds it’s made with both the industry’s newcomers and the seasoned veterans.

The conclusion I made was that for 95% of those who responded were left with a general feeling of self-introspection, the need to step up their game and in some ways, find true inspiration within themselves when the odds seem against them. The remaining 5% of those people clearly didn’t read all the way to the end of the post and prematurely reacted with distain, overall abrasiveness and at times, opted to make personal cuts directed towards me.

The newcomers were able to either drain the post’s intended inspiration or use it as backlash for personal feelings of a romantic camera-toting career void of any foreseeable struggle ahead. The veteran shooters had more middle-of-the-road reactions, yet some looked at me as a ‘newb’ in the industry, trying to forge my path with closed eyes. But I get it. It was either received or rejected. That’s how it was intended; nothing more, nothing less. An honest view of an emerging photographer struggling to find my place in an increasingly over-saturated professional field.

With the explosion of new photographers hitting the market every single day all around us, I occasionally find myself filled with the desire to offer up my unsolicited opinion, not to specific individuals, but rather the general mass of photographers who follow my strategically placed rants.

Kinda like having a crush on your zit-ridden high-school sweatheart; it’s played-out, awkward and kinda gross.

Over the past few years as I’ve kept my eye on the photography industry as a whole, I’ve seen an enormous amount of emphasis and value being placed on disposable gadgets rather than the much needed furthering of our creativity, never-ending need for education, the development of raw talent and successful growth as a business. You know, the stuff that builds an actual career? This whole feeling hit me in the gut this past week as we’ve seen the announcements of some pretty kick-ass and somewhat revolutionary camera equipment being unveiled in the marketplace. If you are a photographer who has spent any amount of time on Facebook and Twitter recently, I’m sure you’ve seen the non-stop updates related to new gear and bad-ass spec sheets, accompanied by an unhealthy dose of gear gushing. Kinda like having a crush on your zit-ridden high-school sweatheart; it’s played-out, awkward and kinda gross.

I suppose you could say this mentality began around the year 2001 when the first prosumer digital SLR’s hit the photography market, drastically changing the way photographers work on a daily basis. Film negatives began transitioning to digital files and computers/software took a front row seat to the darkroom. Back then we all thought this would be an amazing leap forward. But what we thought we’d save with this new digital revolution occurring in the photography world would eventually end up multiplying, costing us fat stacks of greenbacks simply as a means to stay relevant. With this ‘coming of age’, the need to buy faster computers, more hard drive space, better software, larger monitors, higher capacity compact flash cards and gajillionbillion megapixel cameras surmounted. A newfound hunger for the newest and best crap available was, and still is, the name of the game.

As a result, these technological advances have allowed more people to enter the creative industry at an alarming rate than ever seen before. As the ‘ole saying goes, ‘everybody’s a photographer.’ The ways in which we produce our work, ability to reach new markets and seemingly earn a paycheck with a camera looks rather appealing and easy these days. On the other hand, clients now expect dramatically faster turnaround times, put less value in creating honest art and a whole slew of mediocre talent has now surfaced with a website and a pair of shoes.

But the shift I’m seeing is this: We as a whole FEEL we need to stay relevant by purchasing the newest, best gear because we either feel it changes how well we do our job or will drastically boost the quality of our work. And not to mention, all these new gadgets delivered to our doorstep in bright, shiny boxes have now seemingly filled our photographic journey with a false sense of validation.

“I’ve had the same camera for three years now and it’s no longer up to par for the work I need to create for my clients. TIME TO UPGRADE!”

I call bullshit.

David Jackson | Fake Cover Image

I posted the above photo as a fake “magazine cover” to my blog last week. Yep, it was fictitious (read below). The high-res photo is available for all you nerds to download and print HERE.

As much as I would love to get paid my day-rate to shoot this photo for a publication, I did not. I shot it specifically for this blog post using my old 3.1 megapixel Canon D30 (that hit the market in 2000) that I pulled off the shelf at my studio. It was lit with a Canon 580EX speedlight, an AlienBee 400 and a homemade beauty dish.

• Used Canon D30 = $50.00
• Used Canon 580EX = $150.00
• Used AlienBee 400 = $200.00
• Used Pocket Wizard Plus II Transceivers x 2 = $125.00
• Homemade beauty dish = $12.00

I would have rather shot this photo with a Phase One 645DF, P40+ digital back and a few Profoto Acute II’s. I mean, who wouldn’t? Hey, it excites the ladies and gets us hired for HUGE shoots! Instead, being the duct tape dude I am, I opted to use $537.00 in gear lying around the office merely for the purpose of illustrating my point. I could have just as easily shot it with the aging Canon 1D bodies that reside in my gig bag and I still would’ve attained nearly the same results as a $25,000 system.

David Jackson | Unicorn

You could say I’m comparing apples to oranges, sure. That’s the case with comparing the Canon D30 to my Canon 1D. But what about comparing that awful old-school first generation 5D or 5D Mark II, to the new-fangled 5D Mark III? Or what about that Phase One MF digital system that everyone is blogging about these days? The lines of technical differences between gear starts to get very blurry. The D30 in a real world scenario, however outdated, is still relevant and can accomplish a publication job just the same as the rig I walk out the door with every day.

Of course that 3.1 mp D30 is no longer viable in today’s industry, as seen with newer gear that provides better focusing abilities, high resolution for large format printing and nearly noise-free images. Yet when faced with the option to make small incremental upgrades, we can easily fulfill our vision with a three year old set-up that exists in our bag and reallocate our hard earned money to areas within our businesses that both improve our quality of work, builds a marketable portfolio and garners us better paying clients.

So often I see photographers getting caught up in the hypnotic gear-gaze and the lust for expensive toys. And when I hear about a failing business model or a struggling photographer, my immediate reaction is to examine the priorities (or lack thereof) such folks place on themselves in a tough economy. The art and craft of photography are all too often thrown under the bus in order to make way for gear, websites, branding and designer camera bags.

Recently, I took to a local Facebook photography group in which I’m a member and challenged my friend Craig Stodola about gear acquisition. We have differing opinions on essentially disposable goods in the midst of art, but we seem to meet somewhere in the middle. He had the following to say about it:

“As much as I love gear, I don’t buy into it lightly. I go into it with a predetermined purpose. It always stems from envisioning a look I want to create and/or a style/manner in which I want to work, then getting the appropriate gear to achieve that vision as closely as possible, and more importantly, with as little effort as possible. It’s the opposite of ‘buying small’ and trying to cultivate a look/style/method I can create within the limitations of the gear.”

I can definitely align myself with what Craig is saying. I, however, come from the school of thought in which I only acquire and upgrade gear after I have exhausted the use of my current equipment and the need to spend money is solely based on attaining a very specific result. Start simple, buy smart, learn to use what you have and gradually grow into new the stuff. Talent should outgrow your gear.

Until I updated my portfolio one year ago, most of the work on my old website was created using a couple of Sunpak 383’s, a few umbrellas and beat-up Canon 1D Mark II. As my work began to get better having learned about lighting, composition and interacting with clients, I kept my wallet closed and my sights set on evolving my craft. I didn’t jump to the biggest and best lights, I bought into what was functional and economically realistic. On the flipside, embracing new developments in technology certainly makes the job more convenient and, well … fun. But that only last for so long.

If you’re considering dumping hard earned dollars on new gear, ask yourselves these questions:

Is your current gear broken, taped together or currently deemed outdated by today’s industry standards?

Do your clients really care what’s in your gear bag?

Examine the most pressing financial obligation with your business: Is it paying your mortgage, feeding your kids, developing marketing strategies, or paying business taxes as a legit entity?

Does buying gear put you in debt?

Have your skill sets and job demands evolved to the point where you require upgrades?

Will a new camera body or studio strobe define your voice as a photographer or tell a story within your work?

Where do your priorities stand in the hierarchy of your art? Is it the gear? Or can we use what’s at our disposal to make a masterpiece. Countless photography icons before us did just that and changed the face of art as we know it today.

So buy away folks! Please. Because when everyone heads over to the big photography retailers online to purchase that sweeeet stuff hot off the press, I’ll be waiting on Craigslist to buy your perfectly good, barely used and definitely “outdated” equipment to fill my gig bag … all at a nice discount.

Oh, and about that rainbow I was talking about? It sure looks pretty! It’s loaded with vivid color and by all means it makes us feel happy. But without understanding why it occurs in nature and how we can find ways to appreciate it, it’s nothing more than an optical illusion.

David Jackson

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  • http://twitter.com/justinvl Justin Van Leeuwen

    THIS. ALL OF THIS YES!

  • http://profiles.google.com/hoddo1812 Paul Hodgson

     A good article…I’m wondering who decides this —> outdated by today’s industry standards?  What standards are we referring to here?

  • http://www.facebook.com/nicholas.gonzalez3 Nicholas Gonzalez

    Wonderful post. And the Canon d30 image looked awesome! 

  • http://twitter.com/coreyann Corey Ann

    +1 to everything here.  Puffy hearts to you David.  

  • http://melissanykorchukphotography.com/ Melissa

    As a newer photographer, I’m always being encouraged to get better and better gear.  Although I am a bit of a lens whore, thanks for reminding me that I don’t need everything to create great work.

  • http://twitter.com/Joy_Squared Lisa Joy Merrill

    I agree!

  • willwohler

    Every time I feel my gear is inadequate I end up reading a post like this and reminds me I have all the gear I need right now, for the things that I want to do. Once my skills and knowledge are held back by my gear, or heaven forbid my camera takes a sure-death tumble, then it will be time to upgrade. Thank you for slamming me back to reality, out of the “it’s new and shiny, I want,” depression. It’s all what you make of it.

  • http://twitter.com/scott__williams Scott Williams

    where do I get 2 PW’s for $125?  :)

  • http://www.nuwomb.com Scott Webb

    This is amazing. Friggen amazing.  I wrote recently on my own blog about photographers needing to beware of debt. It was the day of the new iPad being announced.  With all of these tech gadgets releasing at the same time, it’s going to make people go deep in debt or be depressed. Actually it would result in both as the spending euphoria wears off.

    I love that you talk about all of this.  My D300 doesn’t do video but oh friggen well at this point.  What if I save up for 3 years like Zack and buy a sweet medium format digital with quad performing video 3d footage.  That is the difference here too – planning this all out ( creating the rainbows and breeding the unicorn) instead of chasing.

    Oh and on that note, I’m off to switch systems from Nikon to Canon and back ; )

  • http://www.smudgedphoto.co.uk/ Harrogate Wedding Photographer

    I think a lot of the GAS that Photographers have is down to trying to appear as a pro as opposed to actually being one.  Guests at wedding for example often can afford better/larger cameras than the official photographer which in turn (if the photographer isn’t comfortable in their craft) make them feel uncomfortable.

    By having the very latest gear you’ll feel you appear more professional in the eyes of the guests/subjects.

    As a photographer you need to look past that and be confident that your skill as a photographer will always produce good results.  Difficult to do sometimes though!

  • http://www.nuwomb.com Scott Webb

     Totally agree. This is much like the debt problem in general. People trying to impress others and trying to appear the part with spending. 

  • http://twitter.com/_david_moore David Moore

    Thanks for this – always worth remembering. I was poised to buy a shiny new lens over the holidays – the Canon 35mm f/1.4 to replace my buzzy (but perfectly working) 35mm f/2. Then I paused and realized I’d probably get so much more improvement in my craft by putting that money towards taking a workshop instead. The class starts on Wednesday. I’ll be using my 35mm f/2 in it, and will be very glad to be there.

  • alim

    Well said Dave! Gear is useless without vision. 

  • http://www.joelc.com.au/ Joel C

    Any cheap triggers would do the job.

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  • http://twitter.com/andreanay Andrea Nay

    So very true, David. I’ve made the most per-shot income from a photo I took with a point and shoot. Yes, I know how to develop film in a darkroom. Yes, I have a DSLR which was ahead of its time when I purchased it three years ago. But as Nick Devlin says, “The best camera is the camera that’s there with you when the light happens.” I take pride in creating art rather than creating profits for gear manufacturers, and I applaud you for your sensible post.

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