When it comes to photography, all that truly matters is the end result: the image. That single item that you spend sometimes countless hours working on, from set up to capture, to post processing to display. We take images so that they can be seen. To get that final product, a photographer must sift through the countless ways of creating that image. The two main items are the location and a photographer's gear. Sadly, many of us get way too caught up in the gear aspect of this equation and spend more time looking at photography forums than actually going outside and taking some damn photos. As a result of that, many photographers have way too many items of erroneous equipment. You know who you are... I'm guilty of having way too many bags, which is apparently a common vice amongst the photographic community. The real killer though, simply because it's the most expensive one, is glass AKA lenses.
There are so many choices, and unfortunately there are few Do-It-All lenses. Those that exist and produce good quality are freaking expensive. I don't know about everyone else, but I can't afford to grab a tremendous volume of lenses. If I make a lens purchase, it better be used a lot, or replace another lens in my kit as an upgrade. Such was the case when I bought the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art.
I've always been a zoom lens shooter. Just how I started. I didn't like the idea of being limited to a specific focal length, especially when I got my start shooting sports and wildlife. I didn't have a need or desire for super shallow depths of field, the big advantage of most prime lenses besides weight savings. Ever since I got into portrait photography though, and now most recently weddings, I saw the advantage of those prime lenses. Fast shutter speeds in crap lighting specifically, because it's very rude to fire off a flash during a wedding ceremony. When the Sigma 35 Art came out and the glowing reviews starting pouring in, I decided to snag it. Especially at the offered price point compared to the Canon equivalent!
The Sigma 35 Art has been in my gear bag for about a year now, and I can honestly say I love this lens. I really like the perspective and look of the images I get when using it. It's my go-to lens for environmental portraits, and is the one I leave on my camera when I'm just walking around. It’s not just usably sharp wide open, it is sharp wide open. The images I’m getting at f/1.4 are wonderful, but the images from f/2.0 and up just scream. Autofocus has been solid, though it does miss pretty awfully in low contrast and/or backlit situations. I generally have to go into LiveView and massage the focus a bit in those situations. I’m officially in love with bokeh after using this lens. Shooting between f/1.4 and f/2.0 just melts the background away into a smooth, creamy, bokehlicious (curse you DigitalRev) painting. It’s making me seriously consider picking up an 85mm prime to compliment it for headshot style portraits.
So I’ve got this prime lens and it performs great, but how good is it for me and what I do? A lot of photographers like primes because they force you to think. You have to zoom with your feet, which means you better want that particular composition if you're going to take a few steps forward or back. It makes sense too. Zooms allow us to be lazy and just adjust our focal length based on our current position relative to the subject (if you can control that distance). You can get away with "being complacent" and thinking that a simple crop in Photoshop will fix it or make it better. Since I picked up the Sigma 35 Art, I've really thought about my shots more. I'm a very active photographer, in that you'll usually see me changing my position and perspective constantly during a shoot, whether that means going from standing to lying on my stomach, to moving from left to right. Using a prime lens has escalated that habit and I think it's for the better. It certainly makes the shoot more entertaining when you're putting yourself in obnoxious shooting positions.
Another piece of gear that people contend with is the camera itself. Canon has done a decent job of staggering the technical features offered with their hierarchy of cameras. For the longest time, I’ve wanted to move to a Full Frame sensor. The 1DX was immediately ruled out because that’s just way too expensive for what I do at $6,799. Yes, the feature set is amazing, but I don't need 12 frames per second (fps), the extra processor dedicated to Auto Focus (AF), nor the full body shape. I wanted a camera that I could hold just as a traditional body for light travel. So that left the 5D Mark III (5D3) and the 6D. For me, the decision was easy - I needed a powerful AF system, usable outer focal points, and I preferred a joystick over a D-pad. The 5D3 had those attributes over the 6D, and unfortunately, I paid a premium for it.
I am not disappointed at all though. Coming from a 7D, which had a very robust AF system upon its release and has a crop sensor, I was blown away by the performance of the 5D3. The new AF system is sick, and I really don't mind the 6 fps of the 5D3 versus the 8 fps of the 7D. The biggest thing I got from the 5D3 was confidence. Yes, I know that's a strange thing to say when it comes to a piece of gear, but it's true. I feel more confident as a photographer while using the 5D3. The reason? There are no compromises with that camera. With a crop sensor body like the 7D, I felt I could handle any situation so long as it was in good light or I had a flash. Put me in a tricky lighting situation though, and I got scared because of the poor ISO performance of a crop sensor. I hated that my images were complete grain at ISO 1600 and higher. With the 5D3, I don't get scared until ISO 6400. I've only used ISO 6400 once, and it still kicked ass. Because of that, I don't carry a flash anymore. I prefer naturally lit scenes, and the 5D3 allows me the confidence to produce clean, beautiful images in damn near any situation. I also love the resolution that comes with a Full Frame sensor. With a crop sensor, if my subject is 20 feet away as an environmental portrait, there really isn't much fine detail. The 5D3 produces excellent detail at that range. Of course I'm accounting for the change in focal length because a crop sensor multiplies any focal length by 1.6, which means my 70-200 is more like a 112-320, and that's great for sports and wildlife when I can't get closer. But if I can control that distance, I'll use the 5D3 every time.
Since I combined the 5D3 with the Sigma 35 Art, I've gotten numerous comments about how much my images have improved. I truly attribute that to the increased number of jobs I've recently had, but also to the confidence I've gotten from moving to Full Frame and using a prime lens that makes me think more. The combination just works so beautifully, and I love it. So much so that I want to get more prime lenses, as I previously mentioned. Unfortunately, I shoot a lot of different niches, so zooms still hold a major place in my lens arsenal, and I have to think about the overlap I may incur in lenses and their respective specialties. I think it's a good problem to have though. It says a lot about the stage I'm at as a photographer. Renting will probably become my new favorite thing!
I think the thing to gain out of this post, is that gear shouldn't be the ultimate thing that decides the images you can achieve, but the right gear certainly helps or at least makes it easier for the right jobs. If you feel stagnant with your images, try renting a prime lens and see what happens, or grab a zoom lens if you mostly shoot with primes. For those that can afford too, and are serious about their photography, I highly recommend moving to Full Frame. It's kind of inevitable if you're serious about photography, but it shouldn't be what holds you back. Lenses will make the most immediate difference though. Just don't go gear crazy and buy lots of expensive things based on someone else's recommendation. Rent the gear, try it out, and see if it fits or makes a difference. Always consider how often you'll use that equipment to decide if renting it may be enough. But for those who decide that primes with Full Frame is the route to take, then I say Congratulations. You are about to embark on a very fun photographic journey.