Camera Angst

This affliction strikes every time I book a once-in-a-lifetime trip. It is a particular variety of angst that involves the nagging doubt that my camera equipment will not be up to the task of doing justice to the destinations and experiences that are in store. Invariably, the temptation to buy a new camera builds.


Onset and Symptoms

I was plagued by a chronic case of camera angst for months leading up to the South America trip. It seemed unlikely that I will visit Easter Island again in my lifetime, and possibly many of the other places on our itinerary as well. As travel is my livelihood, I need to capture amazing images and video of my trips. These days one cannot just be writer anymore. One must be a “content producer” catering to a variety of different media and formats. On the other hand, as a geek, it does not take much to induce a serious case of technojoy that will have me pining over some gadget or other, convinced that it will change my life if only I had said gizmo. Having plowed waaaay to much money into whizbang tech toys whose ability to revolutionize my life was underwhelming in the end, I’ve learned to treat these pangs of technolust with a great deal of skepticism.

$500 hat
Sporting my $500 hat in Bray, Ireland

For instance, take my $500 hat. In the late 90s I convinced myself that a knitting machine would be the key to my salvation. I was into knitting but had developed a repetitive stress injury in my wrists. I had also accumulated an enormous stash of yarn. The logical thing to do was to acquire a machine to do the knitting for me! I got the machine and was eager to use it, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to cast on with it, no matter how many times I watched the blasted orientation video. A year or so later I decided to take a workshop on how to use it. I got the hang of it and made a very warm winter hat. Then space grew scarce in our apartment and I didn’t have room to set it up for months and months (my cat also peed on the pattern book, but that’s another story.) It didn’t take very long for me to forget everything I’d learned in class and be back at square one. That hat remains the only thing I have ever knit on the infernal knitting machine and therefore I have dubbed it the $500 hat.

My camera takes good pictures and is by no means at the end of its useful life. It is an 8MP Canon Powershot S5 IS and I bought it in the January sales in 2008. It was the best point-and-shoot that I could afford at the time and it has served me well … most of the time.

The Ghost of Camera Failures Past

Digital photography was just starting to become mainstream when I was chosen to participate in an Antarctic expedition in 2002. I took my trusty 35mm Minolta on that trip, but a colleague also convinced me to take the company’s digital camera along.

Dublin Spire
Spire of Dublin in heartbreakingly low resolution

It turned out that the Minolta was too bulky and awkward to take with me during our shore trips. I had to scale the railings of the sailboat (our humble abode in Antarctica) every time I went to or from shore and having several pounds of camera gear around my neck didn’t help matters any. I also didn’t want to get salt water on it, as seawater is lethal to cameras and electronics. So whenever we went ashore I relied on the little digital camera that fit in into the pocket of my foul weather gear. Imagine my horror when I arrived home to discover that the memory card had melted down, and none of the digital photos I had taken could be retrieved. I lost well over 1,000 photos and it still pains me to think about it. Shortly after that I paid a ridiculous amount of money for my first digital camera.

2012 was the biggest travel year I’ve had in a long time. I took four trips — Boston, Dublin, Denver, and British Columbia. It was only after returning home from the last of those trips that I discovered that partway through the Boston adventure the settings on my camera got changed somehow, and all of the subsequent photos were the lowest resolution. This actually made me cry as I had taken some shots I was pretty proud of and this essentially rendered all of my photos useless.

My Irrational Fears About DSLRs

I’ve known for a long time that I will eventually need to graduate to a DSLR. I have always been blessed with an eye for composition and a keen interest in taking beautiful photographs, but the technical side of photography intimidates me. I have been extremely reluctant to venture outside my point-and-shoot comfort zone. However it’s reached a point where I probably won’t ever get any better at taking photos if I don’t make the leap to DSLR and get technical about it. But what if I’m too dumb to understand how to use it?

I worry that a DSLR will quickly become a technojoy money pit. With point-and-shoot cameras, once you’ve made the initial investment there’s very little upgrading you can do, and few gadgets you can blow money on other than perhaps a spare battery, a tripod, and a couple memory cards. Not so with a DSLR. There are all kinds of expensive lenses to drool over, there are flashes and battery packs, there are gadgets to control the camera with, filters, ginormous memory cards, monopods, GPS receivers… you catch my drift. With so many things to spend money on and lust over, would it ever end?

What if I don’t know enough to pick the right camera with the right features? It’s daunting being faced with buying equipment before you know how to use it. My fear is that once I start learning about photography in a serious way that I will realize that the camera I bought doesn’t have the features or functionality that I need, or that it will be limited in some way that I’m too ignorant to look out for now.

The Decision

In September I decided to buy an expensive new laptop. In doing so, I resolved that I wouldn’t be getting a new camera for the trip to South America. I needed a computer to travel with and the only portable one I had, a little netbook, was starting to become unreliable. The MacBook was a better investment and that settled it. I was also glad that I would be travelling with a camera that I knew how to use and was comfortable with.

Then the camera angst came back.

Partly it was the residual anger over the low resolution debacle. Though it was entirely human error, the camera was tainted with negativity. What if it happened again and I got no usable photos out of this really expensive trip? Then there was obsolescence. My phone has more megapixels than my PowerShot. For obvious reasons, I read a lot of travel blogs, and the photos I was seeing on them started to majorly outshine the ones I was taking. What if the camera simply wasn’t capable of doing these destinations justice and taking pictures that stand the test of time?

Finally, in the run up to Christmas, I broke down and bought a DSLR. I had spoken to several people I know who use them, and who know me well enough to assure me that I would be capable of learning how to use it. I hadn’t actually looked at DSLRs for a few years and had been operating under the assumption that it would take an investment of $1,000-$1,500 to get started. I soon discovered that if I caught a good sale, I could get a kit for just under half that. I researched my brains out and settled on a make and model. I have been impressed with the Canon cameras I’ve owned over the years, so I chose an EOS T4i and took the plunge.

The Outcome

Over the Christmas holidays I gave myself a crash course in learning the new camera. You really can learn how to do just about anything from YouTube. With quitting my job and all, my mind was a bit too scattered to retain a lot of knowledge from reading the manual, so videos were a godsend. I also made a nuisance of myself to all of my friends who know anything about photography in that time. I experimented a lot.

Lots of experimentation
Lots of experimentation

By the time we departed Toronto on January 8th I was at least comfortable with the new camera, if not supremely confident. I had used it enough to know what the different modes do and to realize that even if I left it on Auto the whole time it would still take really good photos. So off I went, hell bent for leather, and determined to take amazing photos of South America. You can be the judge of whether the gamble paid off.


So, if you suffer from Camera Angst, you are not alone! What’s your story?

P.S. Anybody want to buy a knitting machine?


  1. Ha! Call yourself a geek?

    I have a P&S one step below DSLR. It does me very well, but yes, I wonder if I would do better with something bigger and bulkier and more expensive.

    1. Darn it, Pete! You’ve reminded me of a couple of points I had floating around in my mind and neglected to include in the post (which I admit was already getting a bit ramble-y)

      The first is that I never want to become a snob. I have always been a firm believer that more expensive is not necessarily better quality, and flashier gear doesn’t necessarily make you a better practitioner of your chosen field.

      The other is that bulk and conspicuousness were major factors that have deterred me from switching to a DSLR. The size and heft is definitely a nuisance, and I have resigned myself to looking like a tourist.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting.

  2. You are never a snob. Except in the quest for quality.

    I had a dinky little cheapo digital ten years back when I toured New Zealand. It took photographs, but they weren’t very good and utterly failed to do justice to the magnificent scenery.

    Being able to choose the appropriate lens is the thing that raises DSLRs above the pack. Smaller cameras have multipurpose lenses which do kind of okay for everything, but are rarely going to shine. Not when you want to capture some splendid wide angle landscape, or zoom in on a distant peak.

    And for that quality, my little P&S I can tuck in the seat pocket just won’t do.

  3. I could have written this post myself – camera angst and the ever accumulating pile of knitting supplies that result in two scarves and a lot of unfinished projects.

    Glad you made the dive to DSLR and have invested the time working out how to use it. Love youtube for that!

  4. You’re definitely not alone. I actually just bought the T4i for very similar reasons. My adventures being closer to home but still once in a lifetime.

    1. Thanks Samantha. You’ve made a good point. When you think about it, every moment of every day of your life is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

    1. Thanks hon. It really is quite an awesome hat. I’ve worn it at least 500 times on at least 3 continents, so actually the ROI isn’t too bad now that I think about it.

      Since I wrote this post I had a brainwave that if I can teach myself to use my camera from YouTube videos, by golly I bet there are videos on there that will enable me to learn to use the knitting machine!

  5. Awesome post Steph! I’ve definitely suffered from camera angst, and Becki and I actually just had a bit of an argument over whether we were going to upgrade or not. It’s amazing how I can go back and forth again and again on the topic.

    The funny thing is, I agree with your comment about not wanting to become a snob, but I think it’s important to not become a reverse-snob either. It’s just as easy to say that having a better camera doesn’t make you a better photographer, and to this I largely agree. Buying a $5,000 carbon-fiber bike when you’re 60lbs overweight doesn’t make you a Tour-de-France contender, nor does a set of $2,000 knives make you an Iron Chef.

    However, at the same time, you don’t see people winning the Tour on $100 steel-frame bikes, and professional chefs don’t use $10 knives from the bargain bin, and there’s a reason why.

    I think it’s important to take away the possibility of your tools holding back your abilities. As long as you’re achieving that with what you purchase, you’re okay. But I do also agree that you shouldn’t out-purchase your abilities, cause the high-end gizmo won’t make up for your lack of skill.

    1. Great points Andy. Just goes to show how easy it is to get tied up in knots about something like this. 😉

      On some level I think what made me upgrade after all was the realization I had reached the point where my old camera was indeed going to hold me back. I’m really happy with the purchase (although I already know I need a zoom lens and some other bits and bobs for it) and the only thing holding me back at this point is my skill level 😀

  6. I bought a spare battery and huge storage card before leaving for Scotland. I have already returned my Nikon P7100 twice, once as an exchange and once for repair.

    I do not like big, bulky cameras, nor do I like itty bitty puny ones. I have had exactly the same experience as you with photos ending up on the wrong setting with a Canon; the little dial was flimsy. But I will not buy Canon point and shoots again due to the E7 error that ultimately finished mine off.

    The P7100 is fabulous in every aspect but the lens; I no longer dare use it outdoors in anything but a windless day as grit gets into the lens and jams it. Nikon has an F-rating, which I experienced during my dealings with them, on the BBB.

    What I want, one day, is a micro four-thirds camera–a fairly solid body, but compact-size, with the ability to swap lenses in and out.

    Anyway, I understand the angst thing, because photos are my memories when I travel; I never have enough time to write at the time. I needed the spare battery on my first day in Edinburgh.

    Latest post: Afternoon Tea

    1. That sucks about your Nikon lens. Not the most useful piece of equipment, especially when you like to visit Britain, which is often windy!

      I bought two spare batteries for my new camera and I was glad of it. I didn’t need them often, but it was huge peace of mind. I was able to get generic ones so it was a very small investment and it was very freeing to know that it was practically impossible to run out of battery power. There’s a fancy grip I could get for my camera with all kinds of extra battery power, but the bulk factor is too much for me.

      Anyway, I hope you got lots of good pics in Scotland despite the Nikon nonsense.

  7. I should qualify that statement. Wind in the UK doesn’t usually bring up vast clouds of dust. Wind in the desert, where I spend most of my time, does. So, not a great camera for the desert, and my warranty’s run out.

    I believe I took more than 3,000 pictures over the 17 days. Some of them were even good, but mostly I was going for snarfage. 😉

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