The Right Tool for the Job

A few weeks back, we discussed the idea that you really need to know your gear so that it will get out of the way for you. The next step is to know what to use when. The old adage goes that you can't fit a square peg in a round hole. As much as this applies to misfits or carpenters, it also applies to the art and craft of making images. The idea that certain tools or ways of thinking are not a fit for the task at hand is a powerful one. It can help us make purchase decisions, technical choices, and even post-processing choices.

Personal Choices

You may not think that there can be wrong or right when it comes to personal preference, but I would argue that there is. Like our very own Lee Morris, I am a Windows user. This is the right choice for me, as it allows me to get my work done in the way I like to do it. Likewise, many of our Mac-using colleagues will become irritated and unable to work in Windows.

The same applies to camera brands. Despite what people may tell you, intuitiveness is a personal thing. While you may find Canon cameras simple and easy to use, I feel that they are inside-out and upside-down in terms of usability. And, when it comes down to it, Nikon is just better — for me. I work well with their cameras, I enjoy the process more. This makes them the right tool for the job. You should always be comfortable with your tools so they can get out of the way and you can make the choices that will allow you to make better images.

Cameras

While we're on the subject of cameras, let's talk a little about the camera you use. Certain subject matter requires certain equipment and choices to be made. Let's face it: not everyone can shoot the Olympics on large format. Most of us mere mortals are required to create a certain type of imagery dictated by our clients. For photojournalists or sports shooters, this means a high-performance DSLR body like the brand new Nikon D5 or a crop body like the Canon 7D series.

I talked last week about choosing a new camera body if you're in the market for one. Or, perhaps you already have a few to choose from. Either way, when choosing your tool, narrow it down to the cameras that will do the job well, and then decide which one works for you. The key there is that the tool must work for you.

Lenses

You might be a prime shooter or a zoom shooter, and there is certainly a place for both, as there is for every focal length they provide. I spoke about the effects of focal lengths in a previous post and the implications they have. You may or may not want to get close to your subjects with a 24mm lens; that is entirely up to you and your desired result. Personally, whenever I am able, I love to be working between 24mm and 35mm, but I don't shoot tigers in the wild. This is not always appropriate for the subject matter or the situation, but for me, it is the range where I create frames that keep you in the moment with me.

Do you want the compression of a 300mm lens, or would you rather emphasize your foreground with a 16mm lens? This is a choice you can make about how you want to show your subject. For me, this is where lenses truly become interesting. 

With the lead image of this post, I chose my Fujifilm 90mm to compress the scene and bring the mountain in the background closer. However, a few minutes later, I switched to the 16mm so the man in the foreground would be emphasized.

What You Shoot

How you want to show your subject matter should ultimately be the starting point for your decisions. All of the above stem from that. Of course, you can make great images using almost any of the tools on the market nowadays, but different tools are capable of different visual representations of the same subject. The way you wish to work and the way you wish to show your subject should dictate the tools you're using.

I personally use two digital systems and three film systems. Each of these systems has a place in my work. I use my Nikon D750 for most of my day-to-day work with families and corporate events. When I have more time to work, I will use the Fujifilm system as it is a pure joy to work with. On days when I am taking a day off to clear my head and shoot for myself, I will choose my Nikon FM for quickly documenting the street, or my Hasselblad for slower and more methodical work. Finally, I have a 4x5 camera for when I really need to work in a different way. Each of the systems has a purpose and the type of work and my feeling on the day guides which camera I will use.

In Conclusion

Keep asking yourself questions as you make your images. Are you using the right tool? What would happen if you used a different tool? Could you make a different image? Would it show what you wanted in a more effective way?

It would be great to continue this discussion with examples of your own work that show a time when the right tool for the job was used.

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2 Comments
Owain Shaw's picture

My weekend's activities serve as an example of this.

On Saturday I was shooting a performance by my volunteer organisation; mostly singing but also later some shots of games and interaction with the audience. I took both a 5DII with 50mm lens and a Fuji X-Pro with 18mm lens. I shot everything on the DSLR/50mm in the end because of the nature of the space and the activities (and also the need not to show the faces of members of the audience for legal reasons). The SLR and a fast lens were the right tools for the job.

Yesterday I went on a day trip to another part of the country to eat cheese and drink wine. I only bothered taking the Fuji because it's small and light (perfect for traveling) but very capable of taking the pictures I wanted. A DSLR with equivalent lens would also have got the same results ... but would have been less comfortable and I might not have bothered as it was just a trip to eat cheese and drink wine ... I have back problems and carrying a DSLR all day irritates my lower back; carrying the little one all day did not.

Ralph Hightower's picture

I have a DSLR and two film cameras, Canon A-1 and F-1N; one is loaded with B&W, the other with color. Depending on the overall forecast of the day or my mood for the day, I may choose B&W instead of color. But the 5D III is limited in lens choice since I just have the kit lens for that camera.