Yesterday, I hiked the Dipsea Trail with my sister, Jessica. It was a beautiful, warm, Bay Area day, perfect for a long, ambling hike toward the coast. The Dipsea Trail, best known for hosting the second oldest foot race in the U.S., is a 7.5 mile trail that goes from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. There are two steep hills along the trail, totaling about 4,000 feet of elevation gain, which is one of the reasons why the annual race is known as the “Race from Hell.” Hiking the trail, though, is not so bad if you take it slow.
I had a good reason to take it slow. Groupaya recently acquired a DSLR, the Canon Rebel T2i, and I wanted to take it for a spin.
Choosing a DSLR
I’ve had a Canon S95 point-and-shoot camera for a few years now, and I absolutely love it. It has a large sensor for a point-and-shoot, which means it takes pictures in rich colors, even in relatively low light. Its compact size has made it perfect for travel, for casual use, and for work.
However, despite its relatively large sensor, we were starting to run into problems when using the camera to record meetings, where lighting conditions are often less than optimal. It was particularly bad at capturing large artifacts, including the beautiful graphic recordings our designer, Amy Wu Wong, was creating in some of our meetings. Furthermore, it’s nice to have a camera with a big zoom lens and large depth-of-field for photographing individuals in conversation, which is something you just can’t do with a point-and-shoot.
We decided that it was worth investing in a DSLR for the company. Not only would this address our meeting capture requirements, it would also give us a high-quality video recorder as well. All we had to do was choose a camera.
To do this, I went to my go-to place for crowdsourcing recommendations — Twitter — and made sure some of my go-to photographer friends — Eugene Chan, Justin Lin, and Andy Wang — saw my post. Everybody came through with some really good advice, which allowed me to triangulate quickly and make a good decision.
Interestingly, Andy was the only person who took my original question literally, and we ended up going with his recommendation, the Canon Rebel T2i. The key word, in this case, was “starter,” and if I had had room to spare in my tweet, I might have clarified that this would be a company camera, not a personal one, and that others in the company would need to be comfortable using it.
The reason this would have been a useful distinction emerged from Eugene and Justin’s answers. Both of them suggested purchasing a great lens and not worrying as much about the body. Justin suggested getting a used Canon 20D, 30D, or 40D body, older (in the case of the 20D, almost 10 years) professional camera bodies. If I were getting a DSLR for myself, I probably would have went with this advice. But, I wanted to be sure that the camera we purchased would have great auto modes and good usability, so that anyone at Groupaya could easily take solid pictures with it without having to take a photography course. I essentially wanted a DSLR-equivalent of a point-and-shoot.
Choosing Obsessions Carefully
That said, the discussion — and Eugene and Justin’s assumptions in particular — made me wonder about my own skills and commitment as a photographer. I like taking pictures. I take a lot of them, as my large Flickr stream suggests. I also have a soft spot for tools and for craftsmanship. I’ve framed my career around treating collaboration (and the tools we use to collaborate) as craft, and I frame a lot of my personal interests (such as cooking and even sports) the same way.
However, I’m not obsessive about my obsessions, or I’m disciplined about them at least. I choose my obsessions carefully, simply because I know that I cannot possibly go deeply down all of the paths that interest me.
For example, several years ago, Justin and his wife, Cindy, turned me onto Santa Maria-style BBQ, which is tri-tip grilled slowly over red oak, a wood that’s native to the Santa Maria Valley. Of course, upon learning about it, we had to try recreating it, which meant that we needed red oak logs. At the time, I convinced some friends who were driving down to Santa Barbara to take a side trip to Santa Maria to find some red oak. That led to a bit of a wild goose chase, but we got our wood. Then, of course, we had to do a side-by-side comparison with a different kind of wood (in this case, mesquite) to see if the red oak version was better or even detectably different.
Some might call this behavior obsessive, but to me, this was only mildly so. If we were truly hardcore, we would have driven down to Santa Maria ourselves to get the wood, rather than depending on serendipity. Heck, if we were truly hardcore, we probably would have harvested the wood ourselves. We also would have done a better job of controlling our variables when cooking and comparing the different versions of tri-tip.
Which brings me back to photography. I love to take pictures, and I’d like to get a lot better at it. However, I’m not sure I want to go down the path of obsession with it, and so I’ve been careful to pace myself. I’ve felt ready to take another leap for a while now, but I never had the push until this professional need came up.
And so the question I found myself asking was, if I had decided to purchase a DSLR for myself, would I have taken Andy’s advice, or would I have taken Justin and Eugene’s?
Tools vs Craft
In a way, my adventures yesterday with the Rebel T2i would be a way for me to explore this question. Would I take better pictures with the new camera? Would I even know how to leverage the capabilities of the new camera? What would a better lens or a better body enable me to do?
At minimum, I knew that I should be able to take better low light pictures, but I didn’t expect to see that taking pictures outdoors during the day. My Canon S95 has a plethora of manual controls, but they would be easier to manipulate on the bigger body of the Rebel T2i. Similarly, the quicker trigger on the DSLR meant I would be less likely to miss a shot. The main difference I expected would be from the lens. It was a stock 18-55mm lens, nothing special from a DSLR point of view, but certainly better than the lens on my S95.
I’m happy about the pictures I took, but I’m not sure they were significantly better than what I would have taken with my S95. As expected, the main difference was from zoom and depth-of-field:
Last week, I went to Pop-Up Magazine, where I saw Aaron Huey preview his upcoming photo essay of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for National Geographic. It was absolutely stunning, an amazing example of how a technical master can use his craft to tell a moving story.
I clearly have much more to learn about the craft of photography (especially lighting and composition), and so I’m not sure that investing in an expensive lens or a better DSLR body (used or otherwise) would have been worth it for me. I also don’t do any post-processing right now, which doesn’t require any equipment I don’t already have, so I know I’m missing out on a lot of possibilities there.
That said, I’m curious about what I could do with a better lens, and I might try renting one to play around. I loved Sohail Mamdani’s recent essay on this topic, “Gear Doesn’t Matter — Except When It Does.” I’m looking forward to more learning and playing… in a non-obsessive way, of course!