What gear should I buy to take great photographs?

A reader asks,

Dear Photodoto,

I want to take great photographs. What gear should I buy to improve my photography?

Dear reader, to take great photographs you only need one piece of gear in addition to any camera: a photographer. Haha. No, seriously.

One of my favorite stories on this topic is about a photographer talking to a writer. The writer, admiring the photographer’s work, asks, “I love your photographs. What kind of camera do you use?” The photographer replies, “I love your writing. What kind of typewriter do you use?” (If anyone knows the source of this story, please speak up.)

No one ever asks what kind of typewriter (that’s a mechanical keyboard for you youngins) Hemingway used. Admiring David, no one asks what kind of chisel Michelangelo used. That’s because everyone knows that typewriters don’t write novels and chisels don’t make beautiful sculptures. So, why does everyone think that cameras make photographs?

There’s no simple answer to that question. I lean towards the direction that photographers make photographs. At the same time, I realize that there is a technical side to photography. Autofocus, for example. Without autofocus, more photos would be blurry. The equipment does matter in some measure.

In honest answer to the question: save your money. Practicing with attention to what you are doing is more valuable than all of the equipment in the world. If you don’t already have a camera, buy one modern camera and one lens. It doesn’t even particularly matter what kind of camera or lens you buy but I’d recommend something simple (and digital). Either a short to medium length zoom (18-70mm) or a medium length prime (28, 35, or 50mm). Even a simple point and shoot with an integrated lens can be used to make beautiful photographs.

Then (and here’s the tough part) shoot about 10,000 photographs. You want digital because it’s the only way most of us can afford to shoot that many photographs. That’s about 28 photographs per day for a year. In film terms, that’s a roll per day. But don’t just shoot randomly to burn exposures. Think about what you are doing. Look at the results of your work and think of ways to improve your composition and exposure. Try to do it a little better next time. Learn from your results.

And that’s it. I guarantee you’ll be a much better photographer at the end of that year.

There are a few things that better equipment can give you. Autofocus, as I already mentioned. Expensive lenses allow you to shoot with less light and with shallower depths of field. Specialty lenses let you shoot extreme closeups and macros. Off-camera flashes will improve lighting. Different films and processing give different results. The thing is, you can own all that gear and still take crap photographs. Invest in yourself first.

By John Watson

John is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you're interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.