The state university where I work includes 30 campuses spread over the whole state. I visit them and make pictures regularly, but there are so many places and so many projects that I often need to contract local photographers to provide pictures. On top of that, I’ve been teaching photographers for 10 years and have interacted with thousands of photogs making millions of pictures.

One thing I have learned through all this time and interactions is that it doesn’t matter how much you spent on your tools, they simply don’t make good pictures.

The above image was shot with a Nikon D700 and 135mm lens at f/2.8, 1/250s, ISO 160. Straight out of the camera.

Photogs make good pictures, not lenses

I was working with a photog this week who has a $2,000 camera body and a $1,500 lens. $3,500 is more than I spent on my first two automobiles, but those expensive tools didn’t help this photographer make great portraits.

In fact, he was making very basic mistakes. The white balance was fluctuating from picture to picture and was usually wrong. Most of the pictures were overexposed (very common when the objects in the background are black or dark-colored). There were strong background objects intersecting with the subject’s head and body. And not one of them was level, which matters when there are strong vertical lines in the background.

Please understand that I’m not saying this person is a bad photographer. I’m saying that this person is learning photography, but the money for education may have been spent on costly tools.

Nikon D700, 135mm lens, f/4, 1/250s, ISO 200. Straight out of the camera.

The one thing B&H doesn’t sell

There are so many ways to learn facts about making pictures right now. Thousands of hours of free videos on YouTube, highly quality classes on LinkedIn Learning, topic-specific classes from our own ThinkTAP Learn and in-person training at trade shows and with local teachers.

But learning all the facts about photography — the facts about pushing buttons and arranging people and lights — just isn’t enough. You’ve got to practice. You’ve got to practice so much.

Don’t purchase; practice!

If you only practiced without attending a single class or watching a single video, you’d still figure out how to make a decent picture. Practice is the most important thing in improving your photography. And it’s the only thing related to photography that you cannot buy.

Nikon D700, 135mm lens, f/2.8, 1/250s, ISO 160. Straight out of the camera.

By their fruits ye shall know them

In the Bible, Christ taught that you can know a person based on what they do, not what they look like. That’s why I can’t hire contractors based on their equipment, and it’s why you don’t need to list your tools on your website. It’s also why you don’t need to be intimidated by the lens on someone else’s camera or the gear they talk about on forums. And you don’t need to be worried that your tools aren’t good enough because of their price.

Does your lens make a good picture for you? Then it’s a good lens. Does your camera do the things you ask of it? Then it’s a good camera. (The pictures in this post were all made with a 13-year old camera I bought for $250 and a 40-year old lens you can get for under $100 on eBay.)

Are you getting better at your craft today than you were yesterday? Are you making better pictures than you did before? Then you’re a good photographer.

By the way …

While you’re learning, head over to our new Photofocus Community and share your photos with us there — it’s not Facebook, and we don’t do a rights grab on your pictures or your information. Just a place to share and discuss with like-minded folks. See you there.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.