Being a moderator at Fred Miranda, involved with camera clubs, and just being out in public shooting brings a lot of questions to me about gear.
"What lens is that?" or "What kind of lens should I buy to shoot...?"
Most people are looking at taking the best pictures they can and are focusing on the gear to do that. The thing I think is funny, in a sad way, is when people will go out and spend close to $10,000 on gear and then get mad that they do not get great photos and blame the gear because the lens is backfocusing, or the autofocus is too slow, or a number of other reasons. Now malfunctioning gear can be an issue, but in my experience, 90% of the problems hobby photographers have are not gear related, but a lack of photography knowledge. A lot of people come into digital SLR photography from point and shoot film and digital cameras. Going into a camera store and asking "What camera will give me the best results" is not the best way to go. The sales person does not know or really care what your background is, just what you can spend.
Recently, I was asked by a hobbyist photographer to look at his shots. He bought a Canon 20D and had the kit lens and a inexpensive zoom to 200mm. His shots were blurry from camera shake, exposed poorly, and not post processed. Talking to him a little I got some much needed information to help him, but he was not happy with my answers. He had shot for a few years with a Sony point and shoot digital camera, and he did a fine job with snapshots. His chief complaint, although not his main problem, was that the images are not as sharp or colorful as his Sony. He was planning on upgrading his lenses to Canon L lenses to fix this problem. I let him know not to do this.
"Your problem is not your gear. You have a good little set up here that will produce as good or better shots as your old Sony camera. You really do not need to upgrade anything at all right now."
His response to me was "But you use all those Canon L series lenses and your shots are tack sharp. That is what I want."
As I told him, and want to share with everyone is, do not spend the money on equipment to become a better photographer.
First step. Take classes. So my shots are tack sharp? I also have the knowledge learned in numerous photography classes in both high school and college. Just understanding the basics of Single Lens Reflex cameras can greatly improve your photography. Community colleges, high schools, on line, where ever there is a photography class that is available for you to take, spend the money you would spend on the pro series lenses on that. It will help you with focus, composition, camera operation, and if the class is geared towards digital photography, that is even better because it will cover white balance and all those digital goodies.
Second Step. Take classes. Not photography classes, but computer classes. Find a digital imaging course that will cover Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. Most cameras, at least Canon, comes with a free copy of Elements, and for a time, offered a great deal on upgrading to the full version of Photoshop. I tell people to take a digital imaging class because every image from a DSLR camera needs to be processed in some way or another. Exposure, Colors, sharpness. All these things need to be adjusted in some way or another after the photo is taken. Point and Shoot Digital Cameras will do this in camera, but not always for the better. Now learning how to do it correctly will not only make your photos look better, but will make it easy to do. You can teach your self by trial and error, but I find the best way to do it is to learn from those who know. There are some great online courses for digital workflow which will help, but one on one with an instructor is much better in my opinion. One way to look at it is, Point and Shoots are like Polaroids, DSLR files are like negatives and need to be processed. Process them incorrectly, you will not be happy, process them correctly and you will be very happy.
Third step. This is actually a group of things to do. Start off by reading your manual and learn your camera inside and out. The last thing you want to do is have the camera out and be put into a position where a great shot is right in front of you and you have to stop and read your manual to figure out how to set something specific. Read the manual, and re read it. Even though you end up memorizing it, keep it in your bag with you for those times when you go blank. Also, pick up some books. Look at books of photos that are of the same style you want to shoot, or in the same subject matter. This will give you ideas of what to look for when you produce your own photos.
Finally, I suggest getting a very good and sturdy tripod and a cable release. This will help greatly when doing fine detailed shots and will be much, much sharper than hand holding the camera.
One thing to keep in mind, there are very few things you can do well without knowing the basic fundamentals. You can cook from scratch with out knowing much about what you are doing, but to make something that can be eaten and taste good requires you to know what you are doing, and you do this by learning and practice. You can drive a car with little to no knowledge, but to drive a car well and within the law, you must take classes and practice. A team of baseball players may know and understand a game, but before playing it they go out and practice practice practice. Same goes for photography. Anyone can pick up a camera and take a photo, but understanding the abilities of your camera, understanding the art of photography, and understanding the art of digital imaging will make your snapshots look like photographs.
The top pros out there today did not one day pick up a camera and start taking award winning photos. Most of them went to school and learned the craft. Many learned from the top pros of their era, and a few are self taught. But not one of them has stopped learning. Everyday we learn something new. It might be what to do or how to do something to what not to do or how not to do something. But it all boils down to, do you need the top rated pro gear? It really depends on two things. Do you really need it and why do you really need it. As a professional shooting Canon gear, I choose my equipment by what I need, not by the name on it. I shoot 95% with a Canon 1D. Not a Mark II or IIn, but a 4 megapixal 1D camera. Why? Because that is all I need right now. I would really like a MkIIn, but at this time, I do not need it. I shoot outdoors all summer, no need for the high ISO quality of a newer body. I shoot 90% of my indoor sports with a strobe set up, so again, no need for the high ISO quality. When I do need high ISO performance, I use a cheap, Digital Rebel Xt, which I also use for remotes. The images I shoot with a cheap consumer camera and a 1st generation pro body that has seen two upgrades since it was released are regularly published in local papers, used in promotional material for various businesses and groups, and sold through various wire services, like Corbis, in the US. I shoot primarially with a 300 f4. I would like a 2.8 version, but I do not need a 2.8 version. I also shoot with a 70-200 2.8, not the IS version. Do I need the IS version? No. So why buy it if I do not need it. I shot for newspapers with a 18-55 kit lens and a third party 2.8 zoom lens for over a year and sold plenty of photos with this combination. At that time, having Canon Pro lenses would not have made any difference in the photos I was taking, so there was no reason to spend the extra money on those lenses. Anyone can complain about a product, but those who complain the least are those who know what the product is capable of.
Take some classes. Learn what you are doing and then decide what gear you need and what gear you do not need.