Shot on a Canon Rebel T1i
I am often asked what camera I use, and I never know how to respond. Sometimes I feel like I’m being asked because someone is ready to upgrade and they genuinely need my advice, but more often than not, I feel like it’s because someone truly believes better gear is the key to taking better photos.
Spoiler alert: Sinking a bunch of money into a new camera setup does NOT guarantee better photos.
So, what kind of camera do I use? Yup, I’m gonna make you read through this ridiculously long post if you want to find out.
I’ve been a Canon user since day one, but I’m not going to talk about why I think Canon is “better,” because that’s totally subjective. Nikon cameras just don’t make sense to me. I have been tempted to switch to Sony because I love the idea of a lightweight setup, killer low light capabilities and being able to shoot 4k video. But ultimately I value battery life, weather sealing and the familiarity factor, which is why Canon is the best choice for me. As far as image quality, the focus and colors always blow me away, and that’s what matters most for my pictures. So, please bear in mind that these are my recommendations solely for Canon DSLR users.
I started dabbling with photography in 2005, but I’d often go years without touching the shutter on my 35mm. After realizing how much money I was spending on developing film when I DID use my camera, I finally traded the analog in for a Rebel in 2009. I still think these are some of the BEST intro DSLRs on the market, and I always recommend them to my friends. You can shoot the stars on them, and if you pick the right lenses, you can capture professional-grade images and even blow them up as prints. I had a 18-55mm and before I went to Africa in 2010, I purchased a lens that went up to 200mm. I don’t remember which one it was, but it was probably the cheapest one available. I was able to capture a number of wildlife shots that were portfolio worthy, including the leopard shot above. Yup, that was shot on on a Rebel with a lens that cost about $280.
By the end of 2010, I was shooting a lot more in my spare time and I had the money to invest in a better camera, so I upgraded to the 7D. You know, because it seemed like the logical thing to do. That was a HUGE mistake. There were so many buttons and menu options I was completely lost, and I felt like my images suffered as a result.
It took close to four years before I actually felt like I knew how to use my new camera.
Shot on a Canon 7D
I bought and sold several lenses with that camera, and eventually found my groove with a Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 (permanently borrowed from an ex), a Canon 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 (purchased used for $200) and a Canon DO 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 (which cost more than my camera body). And guess which lens got the most use? The scratched up 18-135mm, which was in such bad shape, the lens lock wouldn’t even hold, so every time I walked around with it, it would fall out at its maximum length. But it still did Yosemite Valley justice one foggy afternoon (pictured above), so why get rid of it?
Despite the fact that I had to ‘shop out scratches shot on the 18-135mm, I brought my trusty 7D to 4 continents and put it through all kinds of abuse. I dropped it in Two Jake Lake in Alberta and I don’t even know how many thousands of photos I shot on it, but I can tell you this: I knew how to use it in the dark. Even after drinking an entire bottle of pinot noir during a wild camping trip in the Utah desert, I could confidently set it up on my tripod, and though the artistic direction with my photos that night might have been debatable, I had the mechanics down cold. And that’s how you need to be with your camera. Know how to use it drunk and in the dark. I'm kidding. Actually, I'm kinda not.
It doesn’t matter how “good” or "expensive" your camera is — what matters is how well you know how to use it. Learn it, love it, trust it. And it might just be the best relationship you’ll ever have...
I didn’t start shooting “professionally” until 2016. However, I realized that it was time to upgrade when I noticed that the low light capabilities of my 7D weren’t quite hacking it. Some of my images had lots of grain, and though they were fine for Facebook and Instagram, I was especially aware of how bad the high-res files looked. So before I went to Iceland in March of 2016, I went for it and purchased the Canon 5D Mark III with a 16-35mm f/2.8 II USM and a 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM. I also picked up the Lee Filters Big Stopper, Little Stopper and .6 soft grad, along with a meFOTO Globe Trotter, which was slightly bigger than the meFOTO Road Trip I had been using. I wanted the 70-200mm f/2.8, but since I already had a 70-300mm and I was running out of money, I decided to stop there.
Shot on a Canon 5DMIII
Because I was SO well versed with the 7D, switching to the 5DMIII had a pretty minimal learning curve. Shooting the northern lights for the first time was a challenge, but I made it work. And I'm pretty sure this photo would have looked exactly the same on my old camera, because I was too busy yelling at the sky to pay attention to where I was pointing my lens, let alone what settings I was using. The camera itself is great and all, but what blew me away was the glass. In my opinion, the 24-70mm is the best lens Canon has ever created, and I use it for the majority of my photos and videos these days. From sun stars (thank you, lens elements!) to being able to crop in to a fraction of the original frame, I was blown away by the capabilities of my new setup. But more importantly, I was ready for it.
I had truly outgrown my old setup. I didn't feel challenged -- I felt like it was time.
I also got better at processing my media. I got better at scouting. I found a style that I liked, and I stuck with it, but I wasn't afraid to try new things from time to time. Rather than wide landscapes, I'd occasionally shoot magically-lit dew drops on a fern, or take a tripod selfie somewhere epic, when no one was looking. I edited a few shots in black and white, just to see if it still turned me on the same way it did back in 2005 when I first picked up a camera. It did. I started shooting video. I started liking it, because it offers you something dramatically different from still photography. This is all part of the creative process, and it's not possible to push yourself as an artist unless you feel confident in your tools.
I still keep my 7D and 18-135 around as backup, and I recently traded in my 70-300mm for the big, beautiful 70-200 f/2.8 IS II USM. I'd love to get a DJI Mavic, but I think a 100-400mm is next on the list. As far as processing, I use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop for stills, and Adobe Premiere Pro for video. And there you have it. But please, don't assume that someone's gear is the reason they capture something like this. This is 40% luck, 25% light, 25% processing and probably only 10% camera:
Shot on a Canon 5DMIII
**Update: In January 2018 I upgraded to a Canon 5D MIV, but I still use the same lens setup.