Thursday Tips: Equipment Familiarity and Once In a Lifetime Trips

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So, you’ve got the photo trip of a lifetime planned—Antarctica, perhaps, or the Galapagos Islands or a photo safari in Kenya or Tanzania. Wherever it is, since it’s the “trip of a lifetime,” what better opportunity to finally break down and splurge on that new camera or new lens or new tripod that you’ve had your eye on for so long time. Since it is the photo trip of a lifetime, why shouldn’t you have the best? The top action camera that you’ve been drooling over, to best capture the animals on the Serengeti…the most resilient camera to stand up to the cold and wet conditions in Antarctica…the exotic prime lens to photograph the wildebeest or the penguins or the albatross or the cheetahs or whatever.

Right?

Let me just make one suggestion about taking new gear on an expensive trip—don’t do it. Ever. I understand the temptation; I’ve essentially laid out the appeal in the first paragraph. Don’t give in.

Trust me, the very last thing you want to do when you’re faced with once in a lifetime photo opportunities on a once in a lifetime trip is fumble around with unfamiliar equipment and—again, trust me—when your equipment is unfamiliar you will fumble around with it.

A new camera is the worst because it’s the nerve center for everything you’re doing out in the field. That new camera will have some new features—which you won’t be able to easily implement because—you guessed it—you won’t be familiar with them. It will also have some new ways of implementing pre-existing capabilities…and you’ll struggle to execute them because—that’s right—you’re familiar with the old way of doing so. There will be some new buttons, possibly some new dials, certainly some new menus. And when you’re out in the field, trying to remember where the exposure compensation button has moved to, the cheetah will disappear from view. While you’re fighting with the new autofocus system, the albatross will fly off. While you’re trying to remember how the new auto ISO system works and is implemented, the wildebeest will gallop away.

You get the idea.

While a new camera has the largest number of potential pitfalls, other new equipment can have its own issues. For instance, if you’re not used to using long, prime lenses, you’re going to flip and flop around trying to get used to finding objects with a very, very small field of view…to say nothing of the difficulties you’ll have getting used to obtaining sharp images with a big, heavy (here it comes again) unfamiliar lens. (A hint—it requires different support and/or technique.)

Even something as seemingly innocuous as a new tripod or head can cause problems. Each tripod model has its own system of extending and retracting the legs, with different kinds of locks. Heads have their own quirks—different types of quick release systems, different sized knobs and different levels of tension. A lack of experience with all of these things will slow you down in the field and lead to the frustration of missed shots. The same principle applies to other accessories as well.

The point of all this is not to suggest that you shouldn’t get new (better?) equipment. The notion of having better tools to accomplish a task isn’t a bad one. But the key is to obtain this equipment, and familiarize yourself with it, long before heading off for that “once in a lifetime” trip. Do so and you’ll surely return home with once in a lifetime images…which was surely the purpose of the trip in the first place.

Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.