I should be clear up front that I am not a "gear head". And while I think we've been in a kind of golden age of photography equipment, there has been a bit of a fetishizing of equipment over the actual photographs created that has become more and more ingrained in today's shooters.
For sure, gear lust has been a part of photography from the beginning. It's nothing new. And every generation of great photographers is tasked with removing that raw lust from themselves like a tooth from the gum. Most don’t have it in them to overcome the vanity of worrying about their images than their technology, and they spend themselves into debt and wash their photography in mediocrity. They lose their photographic edge.
But where it really shows it's face most in today's world is in the belief that you must participate in the arms race of better and better gear to keep pace in becoming a better and better photographer. And it's just not true.
If you have to pixel peep an image to figure out if it is an effective photograph, you have already lost your way. Pixel peeping is for images that fail to move us to begin with--"oh look, four uninteresting photos of a subway car, I guess we need to pull out a micrometer to figure out which one is superior."
For just one (of so many) examples, I'll point you to the photographer Brassai. He was a Hungarian photographer that photographed Paris in the 1920s and 1930s and is credited, to this day, of being as skilled at capturing the "soul of Paris" as well as any of his peers in his time or since. Better photographs of Paris have certainly been taken since Brassai wandered the streets, but he tapped into the sense of place of Paris in a way that still commands attention. And in general, Brassai used plate cameras and flash powder. While he would use 35mm film cameras in tight spaces and when traveling, he felt that being more careful in only having one shot at a time was a preferred approach over being able to make a whole roll of film full of mistakes.
Most of Brassai's images are less than sharp--as are some of the greatest images that we possess in modern culture. Many are exposed improperly, even for the limits of the technology in his day.
Master street Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (worshipped even today among street photographers for formalizing and professionalizing the style), often created fantastic images that failed to be sharp or clean. And yet they still have power for observers even in today's world of 50 megapixel images.
Consider also Marc Riboud's disruptive 1967 image of Jan Kasmir at a Washington, DC protest of the Vietnam War. It was a powerful image that came to define the idea of "flower children", and assisted in influencing an entire generation in American culture. Yet the image, itself, is deeply flawed from a technical standpoint. Art critics and technology critics the world over could hack it to pieces if they wanted to.
If you see yourself as a photographer, then you should be able to pick up an iPhone and go shoot an essay that can earn the attention of viewers. And yet for plenty of commissions I see a "Must Have" gear list demanded by the client. "Dear Photographer, we love your work and would like to see you consider our project. Please keep in mind to qualify you must possess a Canon/Nikon/etc camera with XYZ lens and...."
Shrug. Wince. Delete message.
Often, I can satisfy these requirements. But that's not the point. When the focus becomes about the technology and not the product generated, things have gone off course.
So why, then, do photographers invest in equipment? I see four reasons why a great photographer should put money into their bag:
1. They need to perform at a high level in very low light.
2. They need to produce physically large prints.
3. They need to fit their equipment to their shooting style and workflow.
4. They need durability for professional reasons (back up equipment, weather sealing, etc).
Each of these reasons are legitimate, and all can lead to a wise investment in additional gear. However, the important theme here for photographers is that gear should make your process more efficient, more effective, and not completely disfigure the powerful simplicity of photography—you see, you compose, you capture, and then you present.
This is why so many photographers seem to get caught in a paradox. It goes like this: “I fell in love with great photography. I was connected to it. So I bought my first camera. It was passion. I got better and better. I wanted to be more versatile, so I bought more lenses. I bought better cameras. Soon, I had this big bag of gear and I wasn’t taking it around with me as much anymore. I was spending more time deciding between, and changing, lenses than I was shooting the scene in front of me. I zoomed in and zoomed out and cropped everything so much I lost touch with the emotion of composition. Then I had to take a lot of jobs I hated just to keep pace with all the gear I kept needing. Then I burnt out. Now I’m trying to rekindle that first passion again…”
This is a story we hear over and over to the point that it’s becoming a type of classic photography "reluctant hero" narrative.
Many photographers have been led to believe that adding more gear is the key that will open the doors to fantastic images and limitless creative inspiration. In fact, the opposite is generally true. Our creativity is borne of our constraints. Great photographers must fight like hell to preserve that powerful simplicity at the heart of their craft. The farther we get away from “I see, I compose, I capture, and then I present”, the quicker our work becomes lifeless.
Part of the intent of this blog is to get away from the gear fetish and to view the craft of photography with a better sense of proportion and to be more rigorous in understanding the difference between photographic technologists and great photographers. Because of the fantastic technology in our phones and computers, many are engaging photography in whole new ways on an everyday level—especially those who would never think of themselves as photographers or as students of the art.
And yet with the swelling numbers of those of us capturing and presenting images, in every field, it seems like the soul of what makes a great photographer is getting further and further away from our thinking and behaving. We are connecting to it less and less, though we’re pressing the shutter more and more as a society.
What really are the ideas that drive great photographers? What are the inside secrets and perspectives? How would we sharpen our photographic minds if we wanted to become better? What are the things that separate those who can pick up an iPhone and influence the point of view of the world from those who have $25,000 worth of gear and cannot create an image that crackles with even a single spark of electricity?
And perhaps most importantly, how can we hit this crazy field of photography with the simple stick and feel empowered to focus on a few things that matter deeply, and then freely let go of all of the other things that just don’t serve us?
Those are the things we’ll be exploring here.