Are you a technologist, or are you a photographer?
The question may not seem all that clear at first. At a basic level, the venn diagrams of both of these crafts appear to heavily overlap.
But as with all great crafts, in order to become very good, we must connect with the values of the craft itself. We can push rules and boundaries and show productive rebellion, but ultimately, the values of a craft exist for a reason.
Most people pretend they can be great at anything and everything all at once. But to become truly great at something, it takes a profound focus and effort. The musician and the composer have different paths to craftsmanship in their art, as do the architect and the contractor. Their success is intertwined, but their crafts have meaningful differences.
In photography, we have this same tension between the technologists and the photographers. And as we would expect, the values of the technologist and the values of the great photographer diverge as each progresses toward greater depth and mastery.
(As a disclaimer, please understand that I am not saying which is a more worthy or fulfilling path to follow. Or which holds more value. I only intend to provide perspective on the relationship between these pursuits and why it matters for those who want to become great photographers).
It is true that for many photographers, it was the camera itself that became a symbol of the craft to us. Sometimes it was holding a camera for the first time, clicking through the knobs, and hearing that fantastic sound of the mirror slapping during an exposure that first hooked our interest.
And many photographers follow a patterned line of ascent in the art. We shoot on sub-standard gear. We develop a passion. We get better. We make some money (either by our photography or in our real careers), and as our interest grows, we invest more and more into photographic equipment. Anyone shooting seriously for more than 6 years will have whole shelves devoted to different camera bags (there’s never a perfect one, is there?), lighting equipment, camera gear, lenses, flashes, accessories, and etc.
Eventually, these photographers are faced with the unbelievably hard task of needing to elevate their work to a higher level and off of a current plateau. The true way through this is simply to keep shooting, with great intention, and to study and practice in the craft. For every 1,000 images you capture with intentionality and a critical eye, you improve by a meaningful percent. (Sure, all of us will peak somewhere, but most never put in the effort required to reach their level of diminishing returns).
This is where that tension of the technologist and the photographer first begin to limit each other. It doesn’t matter if someone has been shooting for three months or thirteen years, they will come to this point. And the dilemma looks like this:
My photography is not where I want it to be. I want to do better. I DESIRE to do better. Will I choose to push through this plateau by USING my camera and my brain, together, and become a better shooter? Or will I go in pursuit of new technology to get me over that plateau?
Technologists love gear. They love the camera itself. They love buying and collecting lenses. They pixel-peep to determine the innate quality of the photograph. When they want to break a plateau, they look for new gear to acquire. And this isn’t all bad—as a hobby, it can be pleasurable. So long as the technologists don’t spend themselves into poverty (and too many do, actually) and can afford the cost of their pleasure, there is no harm. On the positive side, great technologists drive the advancements that directly benefit the photographers. Having excellent quality lenses, in durable cameras, at affordable prices is something photographers owe directly to technologists. Their role is critical.
But buying that lens will not, with almost complete certainty, make you a better photographer. Nor another lighting kit or two. Or a new studio. The values have diverged.
The greatest photographers in the world can pick up any camera, anywhere in the world, and create images that matter to people. Lens quality, focal length, supplemental lighting, camera brand—these are simply tools in their hands. They are the hammer and chisel of the sculptor or the laptop and pen of the writer. Just as buying the latest computer cannot make you a better writer, the newest gear cannot create a better photographer.
One of the most compelling practical (and academic) examples of this that I know is photographer Michael Christopher Brown (click the name for link to his site). Michael shot alongside brilliant war photographer Tim Hetherington (Tim passed away covering conflict in Libya a few years ago) .
Brown is a gifted combat/conflict photographer. Many of his images are truly moving, and have followed the path of all great photography by becoming symbols that communicate more than just the sum of their technical pieces.
Many of his images, including his combat images, were shot on his iPhone. Yes. His iPhone. Just think about that for a bit.
If there is a more stark example of the divergent interests of the great photographer and the technologist, I cannot think of it. Brown stood alongside photographers from all the major news services, dodging mortars and gunfire, and shot compelling images on his cell phone (and uploaded them via Instagram). And he didn't do it as some naive hobbyist--Brown is a serious professional photographer. His decision to use the iPhone and Instagram were an intentional decision on his part. In order for his choice to work, he had to nail his execution (which he has).
For those wanting to be great photographers, you have no excuse not to shoot. The less time you spend shooting, the slower you will improve. There is no shortcut. There is only study, practice, and learning in an constant ebb and flow cycle. There is no “gear excuse” that is sufficient. I have been to compelling art exhibits that were shot with oatmeal box cameras—literally, cameras made from house materials and a cardboard Quaker Oats container.
But if you spend most of you time reading gear blogs, and dreaming of the day you can buy your new Whizbang9000™ so that you can become a real photographer, chances are that you are a technologist at heart. This is no crime, and you should enjoy the photography you make and have fun with it. You should also, though, be honest about your motivations so that you can better satisfy yourself. I have spoken with so many people who are trying to straddle both worlds and they don’t like their photography OR the gear they use and they are perfectly miserable because they cannot meet their standards in either realm.
Photographers shoot photographs. Anywhere and everywhere. You cannot stop them. Technologists are passionate about equipment and technology . Both need each other deeply to make progress, and both share some foundational interests.
Both must also face the hard question of which path they are on. Their paths to mastery diverge. To become a great photographer, you must click the shutter, with intent and with learning, to improve. There is no other real path to improvement and mastery.
Simple "Photographer vs. Technologist" Test:
1. How much time do you spend thinking about, and collecting, gear as opposed to how much time you spend taking pictures and presenting them?
2. Do you spend more time on B&H, review sites, and DPReview than you do taking photos or sharpening your photographic mind? When you study in the field, do you read more about gear or more about technique?
3. Does your heart beat much faster at the setting up of the set, the hair lights, and the strobes than it does composing the image and communicating with the world via the final product?
4. If you had to go back and get a master’s degree in only one facet of your photography, which area would you choose? Which one immediately jumps to mind and motivates you, and which seems like it would be a living hell? Setting and makeup? Studio lighting? Composition? Sociology? Business? Creative marketing? Photojournalism? Wedding photography? Photoshop/editing?
5. If a wealthy patron walked up and handed you $500,000 and said only, “use this for your photography”, what is your first thought about how you would spend it? Do you think of all the gear you could buy? Do you think of the freedom to travel to places you’ve always wanted to shoot? Do you think of building a photography business that can support your family and get you out of the rat race? Do you think of owning/running a gallery to communicate through the images of others? Freedom to volunteer your time to shoot for non-profits? Do you think, “too bad it’s for photography and not a dance studio…” ? Where does your head (and perhaps, your heart) go when you first think of this question?