I was going to reply to some recent comments about my photography, but it started to get so long that I decided to turn it into a full blown post. A very long post.
First, thank you for the kind words. I think my photography has improved immensely over the years (especially since having kids). It's one of those skills, especially with a vast resource like the internet, that you can develop on your own and at your own pace and see meaningful growth. It's probably one of the main reasons that 83% of stay-at-home-parent-bloggers list photography as a hobby. I figured it's either learn to take pictures or learn to code iPhone apps. (I'll get to that eventually, I'm sure.)
Yes, I'm still shooting with my trusty Minolta. I did my usual months upon months of research when I bought my first film SLR and went with Minolta. Love that camera. Then when I decided to go digital I did more months of research and decided to stay with Minolta (plus I didn't want to buy all new lenses compatible with a different manufacturer's mounting system). It was unfortunate that Minolta sold their camera business to Sony. Sony made many of Minolta's components, so it wasn't a big technological shake up, but something still changed. Sony still makes a great product -- my sister has one of the Sony DSLRs birthed from the Minolta buy and she takes gorgeous photos with it. I think it was mostly the vibe that changed. Minolta users seem to be a fiercely loyal group with great passion for photography. Minolta understood that and had a cult-like following. I think Sony knows that, too, but they are fully entrenched in the SLR pissing contest with Canon and Nikon. They're still making good cameras, just without the warm fuzzy feelings.
My current equipment (and Amazon price):
Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D 6.1MP DSLR (Body Only) ($325 used) - I love this camera. Simple to use, with a great button layout/manual control, she's a 6.1 megapixel wonder from 2005. (Megapixel counts are definitely not the end all, be all in DSLRs.) This camera has taken plenty of abuse and still works wonderfully. One of the reasons I went with the Minolta is the anti-shake mechanism in the body. It works well and means that any and all lenses get the benefit of anti-shake. Canon and Nikon add the anti-shake feature on a lens by lens basis so you pay extra for any lens with that feature. Sony has continued to include anti-shake in their camera bodies as opposed to the lenses. This camera does lack some of the newer DSLR features and is a little on the slow side when it comes to autofocus and metering, but all in all I think it takes great photos.
Sony 50mm f/1.8 SAM DT Lens ($149 new) - Fast (big aperture) lenses can be extremely expensive, even in the thousands of dollars range. But, much like my camera, I went with a less expensive but good enough option. I haven't had this lens very long, but so far I have zero complaints. At the very least, it creates much better images than the kit lens that came with the camera. I could have bought a comparable yet higher tiered lens for almost $400, but I'm not sure how much better the results could be with my camera.
So that's it. No external flashes. No diffusers. Basically, you could buy my current rig for under $500. I have a tripod, but I only break that out for paid portraiture gigs. I have a kit lens and a zoom lens, too, but I don't really use those anymore. I have a long, long, long way to go until I'm a master of my current gear, so I don't really see much point in spending on upgraded equipment. My photos have way more room for improvement due to my skill development rather than better equipment. Ultimately it's the photographer, not the equipment that takes great photos. Sure, at some point I'll probably outgrow my Minolta, especially if my professional aspirations continue to advance. Shooting portraits can definitely benefit from a speedier camera and an external flash is number one on my wish list right now. In the meantime though, I'll stick with what I have until it wears out.
Now about the pictures -- I think my photos have been getting better as of late, which I can attribute to three things:
1) Learning how to process the files. I had no idea how bad of a hack I was until I started researching editing on the internet. I use Aperture to process my RAW files. The software is plenty user friendly, but I had no idea how in depth it is when it comes to editing. I've still got a long way to go in learning how to use the software and how to use it effectively.
2) Buying a prime lens. My old go-to lens had a maximum aperture of f/3.5 while the new lens is f/1.8. That's a ton more leeway on lighting. There's no zoom with this lens so it requires more legwork, but it's so much more flexible when it comes to lighting. That flexibility is crucial since I'm operating with a pop-up flash as opposed to an attached strobe light.
3) Learning how to really use the camera. I've had this camera for 5 or so years now and I'm still learning how to use it to its fullest potential. I typically shoot in aperture priority mode with manual ISO settings (I set the aperture, the camera sets the shutter speed), but there is so much more to it than that. Color profiles, white balance, exposure compensation, metering mode, autofocus settings, bracketing... plenty to keep me busy for awhile.
Now while I've been making great strides on the technical side of things, the real challenge is on the artistic side. No matter how proficient I am with the camera and no matter how sweet my gear is or isn't, the real mountain to climb is developing an eye for composition. In some ways, composing the shot is everything. A great photographer can take awesome pictures with a disposable camera because they have the eye for capturing great shots. There are guidelines and tips that help, but those will only take you to "good." There's no handbook for getting to "great." For all I know, it might be impossible to even train yourself up to "great." Maybe you are just born with it or maybe you aren't. I hope not. I think I know it when I see greatness in other people's photographs, so I'm at least encouraged by that fact. I'm not exactly sure how you personally make the leap up, but my current course of action is to look at TONS of great photos and take lots of not so great photos. My RSS reader is full of blogs that I follow because the blogger takes great photos. On a daily basis I look at dozens of photos from photographers I admire. I examine, I compare, I critique. Again and again and again. I hope it's slowly sinking into my brain. I hope my eye is changing, getting stronger.
Maybe I've peaked. Maybe not. Either way, it's not that important. I love taking pictures.