Photography; gear matters

Bald Eagle Portrait, Homer, Alaska.

An adult Bald Eagle silhouetted headshot, on perch, Homer, Alaska. (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). This photo was taken with photo equipment, by a photographer. The 2 worked together. The eagle co-operated only briefly. Pesky eagles. Click on the image above to view a larger version of this photo.

Hey Folks,

I read it again last night. This nonsense has to stop. Why do photographers so often have such a hard time simply acknowledging that what we do is inherently technological? As such, technological advances (i.e., new gear) can (and typically do) play an enormous role in the work we produce. Perhaps much more so than most other art forms.

You’ve all seen the kind of commentary I’m talking about; another piece about how painters don’t talk endlessly about their paintbrushes. Or, even more inanely, how if Art Wolfe were to shoot with a P&S camera, he’d still produce a remarkable portfolio. It’s the photographer, not the camera, that produces great work, blah, blah, blay.

Right?

Wrong.

While it’s true that no camera ever went out and took a photograph by itself, it’s also true that no photographer ever went out and took a photograph without a camera, either. Clearly, then, things are not quite as simple as some folks would have us believe.

Photography requires both photographer AND photography equipment. The relative weight of the role of each varies, for sure, but to deny the significance of the equipment in photography, and particularly wildlife photography, is to deny reality.

Even a cursory examination of photography illustrates how valuable the technology is to what we do. Recent advances such as Image Stabilization/Vibration Reduction, Auto-focus and focus tracking, High ISO, etc, etc play a critical role in much of what many of us shoot. It’s always amusing to me to hear Joe Schmoe talk about how secondary the gear is to taking photo, standing there with $20 thousand dollars worth of camera hanging off his shoulders. I’d invite Mr Schmoe the present his portfolio of images taken without any gear sometime.

But let’s look at some of the common arguments heard, such as those presented above.

a) Painters and their brushes. Wrong. Talk to painters sometime. Here’s just one example:

“Make sure you have the best possible brushes you can afford. While it is possible to save money on paint and canvas, one should never work with cheap brushes. In my experience, cheaper brushes are simply not worth it.”

Serious painters often spend years studying not just composition and form, but even paint makeup, etc, of the old masters.

And even though we can see the argument is simply incorrect, what if it weren’t? So what? We’re not painters, we’re photographers. Writers don’t look to dancers for direction, why should photographers mimic painters?

b) Art Wolfe and his P&S camera. Art’s one of my favorite photographers. Amazingly talented and hard-working man. And he knows his gear, wonderfully well. And, he doesn’t use a P&S, but typically is carrying some of the most advanced, technologically involved camera gear available. Here’s just one example from his blog. This post, from 2 years ago, lists his basic kit. The fact that he lists his sponsors liberally across his website supports the idea that his gear is, at least to Art, critical.

Secondly, and more importantly, what highlights how silly this argument is, is that it ignores the most fundamental point about all ‘gear’; one has to know how to use gear, regardless what kinda gear we’re talking about. Hand Mr Wolfe a P&S that he doesn’t know how to use, and I’ll wager he doesn’t produce much worth a damn with it. Hand him one with the camera manual, and he’ll do much better.

3rd point; offering Art Wolfe as an example to make a point is like suggesting we might all become wealthy by running fast, and then pointing to Usain Bolt to support your case. Statistically speaking, those people don’t even exist.

4th point; hand Art Wolfe that same P&S and his current DSLR system for a week, and I’ve little doubt with which system he’ll produce a stronger portfolio.

c) It’s the photographer. Sure, it is indeed. A great photographer produces great photographs. But I don’t know very many at all who don’t use good, or really good, gear. And I know quite a few photographers. And I’ll suggest that regardless of what they might tell their workshop clients, or write in their articles, they use good gear, if not the best they can scratch out, because they know they’ll produce much better results with it.

Gear matters. And I spent a helluva lotta money on it last year, so I damned well better be right. 🙂

Cheers

Carl (wishing he had a D3s)

Like it? Share it. The world needs more sharing.

11 thoughts on “Photography; gear matters

  1. Andreas

    Hi! Good gear matters of course, but only if one are able to use it as you point out. The eagle photo is awesome – one of the best I have seen in a long time 🙂

    Br Andreas – Norway

  2. Dave Griffin

    I think what you are writing about is less a dismissal of the value of equipment (which you argue quite successfully for) but a backlash against the primacy of that equipment in the discussion of photographs.

    It is not that painters don’t talk about brushes – or woodworkers don’t debate the merits of tablesaw X vs. Y — it’s just that when someone walks up to a fine piece of furniture the first question typically isn’t “what kind of saw did you use to cut the wood?”, but that’s typically what happens with photographs and I guess some photographers feel a bit insulted that this all too often is the first question.

    Most people who are asking that question are just trying to find a common base for a conversation — and I’m guessing woodworkers are used to hearing “what kind of wood is that” so much that it drives them nuts.

    Many who make photographs consider themselves artists (and rightfully so) but many of us consider our work more like craftsmanship, where the skill of using the technology at hand to create something (beautiful) is what brings us joy in life. No one view is more correct, but I can see where folks are coming from either way.

    Enjoyed your article. It’s good to kick tired aphorisms in the butt once in a while..

  3. Greg Russell

    Great post, Carl. I think the common theme I see running through your argument is hard work. If Art Wolfe works hard enough, he can use either a P&S or a dSLR proficiently (although still producing “better” images with the dSLR). Its true that you can spend a ton of money on camera gear, but not working hard enough to gain a good understanding of it will continually return less than optimal results. The same is true for the digital darkroom (there, subtlety is key). The flipside is that you can produce good images with less than the most expensive gear…if you work hard enough.

    I made good images with my 30D for a long time; upgrading to the 5D Mark II last year, I noticed an increase in image quality, despite what I thought were good images with my old camera.

    Cheers,
    Greg

  4. Carl D Post author

    Hey Folks,

    @Andreas, thanks for the kind words about the photo – much appreciated.

    @Dave – it’s an all-too-common idea, IMO, that I see posted and written about a lot. Commentary about how upset folks when they show a photo and someone says ‘wow, you must have a really good camera’, etc, etc. Like the person meant the photographer is no good, they just have a fancy camera. What’s so silly is, and I’ll wager a dollar, the photographer in all likelihood DOES have a really nice camera. Someone shooting a D3x ($8grand) and a 500mm f4 VR lens ($9grand) off a thousand dollar tripod setup has no business getting so uppity about such a comment.

    Photography requires equipment. And that equipment can make an enormous difference in how well we photograph.

    @Greg – I think you hit the nail on the head with your closing statements. Gear matters. 🙂

    Cheers

    Carl

  5. Mark

    Surprised you ~settled~ for a D3s in that closing remark Carl. You need to have higher aspirations my friend. 😉

    It’s a good and rightful gripe to have.

  6. G Dan Mitchell

    I think that we make two errors when we approach this question – it is perhaps one of those thesis, antithesis, synthesis things.

    One error is to imagine that gear makes the photographer or the photograph. That is the thesis that those who you argue against are arguing against, if that makes any sense. 🙂 More on this in a moment.

    A second error is to follow the realization that gear does not make the photographer or the photograph with its antithesis – the idea that gear doesn’t matter. This line of thinking illuminates an important truth (what makes a photograph great is usually related little to the specific equipment it was made on) but it goes over the top and is interpreted by some to mean literally that equipment (and other technical issues) are unimportant.

    A useful model of a synthesis of these two extremes is found in music, in particular instrumental music. The quality of the instrument is, in fact, important and technical mastery is also critical. But the instrument does not make the musician. Ideally, the instrument and the technical mastery simply make the instrument get out of the way so that the thing we care about, beautiful music, can be produced. The technical stuff is roughly speaking the admission ticket, but it is not the main act.

    I’m uninterested in a musical performance that is heartfelt but full of wrong notes and missed entrances and the glitches of a poorly adjusted instrument. I’m equally uninterested in a heartless but technically perfect rendition of a piece on the worlds greatest instrument. What I am interested in is the expressive, individual, and heartfelt voice of a great performer whose wonderful instrument and technical mastery simply enable the expression.

    In the end, this is not an either/or proposition. It is a synthesis.

    Dan

  7. Carl D Post author

    Hey Dan

    Great response, thanks.

    I’m not sure how the instrument might ‘get out of the way/; how about electronic instrument? Ever play a high end digital keyboard? The sound itself is a function of zeros and ones, regardless how magical the “pianist’s” touch.

    I think, in general, as technology advances and we fall into this digital realm even further, things change. We can create music without actually “playing” any music. Some folks can create without tripping a shutter.

    Further, I think the musical instrument analogy doesn’t hold up so well to photography. One can play music without any instrument at all .. rhythm, melody and harmony exist for us, organically. Photos, not so much.

    As an aside, I grow older, I’m more inclined to dismiss the technical side of music and just role with the passion. Kurt Cobain, for example, was a ‘horrible’THAT was some great music. 🙂

    Cheers

    Carl

  8. G Dan Mitchell

    Carl, funny you would mention digital keyboards – turns out that my degrees are in music and I’ve taught electronic music at the college level for longer than I’d like to admit!

    When it comes to making music, there is always some “technical” aspect – even when the instrument is as organic as your own voice or beating on your chest or whatever. Like any analogy, it is less than a perfect fit, but it works quite well the deeper you look.

    The “disappear” part doesn’t have anything to do with whether ones and zeros of strings and bows are involved. It is that you “get past” the technical matters only by first mastering them to the level where you can produce the thing that carries the emotional weight.

    I’m not with you on _dismissing_ the technical side of music – to me that is sort of like dismissing the camera part of photography or the car part of driving.

    Dan

  9. Charlie

    Fun read. I agree with the underlying premise. But I do enjoy seeing photographers use shitty cameras to get cool pictures on digital rev. But I imagine in most cases better gear would work better. I believe you need a balance between taking time to master your camera, gain experience, using the right gear….the right balance for you.

    I am tired of all the rants. It feels like people are constantly going to the extreme to push new gear for you to buy or they are trying to make gear irrelevant so you’ll buy their new book or attend their workshop. But I guess they have to pay the bills lol

  10. Pingback: How to photograph the northern lights | photographing the northern lights in Alaska

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *