As photographers, we often worry about gear. I certainly have … trying to find the perfect camera, lens, or other tool.
I have been focusing on film photography and thought I would not go back to digital. Well, this wasn’t so. I have been shooting much more digital lately, for a few reasons. First, I wanted to do night street photography. For low light situations like at night, digital cameras typically perform extraordinarily well, especially modern digital cameras. Secondly, I wanted to capture a large amount of images in more experimental fashion (including photographing in high speed mode). Again, this is something I can not do with my current analog cameras. Thirdly, and while perhaps least important, I enjoy photographing in weather (snow and rain), and again, my digital tool is superior for that over a vintage analog camera (weather sealing). Of course, I could do all that experimentation with film (well, I have), with the only true major limitation of lacking high-speed capture. But in the long-run this is becoming too expensive and too frustrating as I am accustomed to a high keeper rate with my film photographs. So, at the moment, the best tool for me for my current photographic direction is digital.
Yes, we photographers do care about our gear. Photography is a craft that requires some technical aptitude, but I would also argue that it is a fairly simple craft (from a pure technical standpoint).
What do I mean by gear doesn’t matter?
Once we choose (and master) our the gear that gets the job done, then this gear no longer matters. What really matters to create art and great photographs is the art of photography: our vision, our eye for seeing things, our creative process, the way we compose, the way we use light, the light itself, what we include, what we exclude, the moments, the way we tell story and evoke emotion and so forth. All we need the gear for is to help us realize our artistic vision easily and reliably, and to not get in the way.
Let me ask you this. Can you tell which one of those two images below was shot on film? If you can, congratulations. I think I couldn’t, but I happen to know which one was which.
The Best Camera for You
I think there is way too much of an emphasis of photographers highlighting the gear we should use as photographers. Click bait titles like “Best camera for street photography”, “Best lens for portrait photography”, and so forth lure photographers to that particular piece of content. Just look at thousands and thousands of photography related content on YouTube, and determine how much emphasis is placed on gear versus the art of making images. I see this emphasis on gear both in the film community, as well as in the digital community (in my view, both communities are equally guilty of creating more photographers suffering from GAS – gear acquisition syndrome; the film community with reviewing vintage cameras and lenses, and the digital community the latest and greatest cameras and lenses).
The film community also has a creative problem where we see, in my view, way too many average images that get attention because of their imperfection, the notable film look, and a cliche subject like a vintage car. The problem is two-fold in the film hipster scene: emphasizing film imperfections (versus its artistic rendering), but more so using cliches. The former is probably fair game, although I would argue as I will in a future podcast, that images will not be exhibit at art galleries because they are first of the roll or have other imperfections due to the film process but solely due to the artistic value. The cliche problem (a huge problem especially with the advent of social media) really pervades all genres of digital photography, and I have been guilty of this myself, in large part because of social media (although of course I am responsible to fall into that trap). Social media is a different topic that I will tackle in my podcast soon with David duChemin (more about him below). I digress, so let’s get back to the gear …
Not All Photographers are Gear Heads
Fortunately, sometimes gear just doesn’t come up. For example, I’ve been working with several highly talented Swiss street photographers on a new initiative over the past few months called swissstreetcollective. Not once did camera choice come up. We might have discussed focal length, but only in the context of sharing our preferences for a blog post. If we discuss something, it is the images themselves or how to graphically design our website or what images to choose for what reason. This focus on the art form vs. gear has been very refreshing.
Why Do We Talk So Much About Gear?
Gear is the easy part. And (the craft of) photography is easy. So why do we talk so much about gear? The sad thing is that there are huge incentives for creators in particular on YouTube to generate content with keywords that result in lots of clicks, for example using camera brands like Leica, Sony, or Fuji in the post titles. I know that if I wanted to generate more traffic to my own blog (or even podcast for that matter), I should add Leica or Sony or Fuji in a blog title and even better, one of their latest offerings or for film shooter, one of the more popular film camera models like the Leica M6. Those brands are a way better click bait than topics like “negative space” or “creative block”.
This gear obsession is a big reason why I started my own podcast which is entirely focused on the creative process, on making images, and not on gear. If we talk about the craft, then it is typically in the context of creating images.
The Art of Photography Is Hard!
So we should worry way less about gear, and way more about the art of photography, and the creative process. Creating great images is hard, especially doing it consistently. And especially while being authentic, not copying anybody and truly creating art from your heart that is genuine and 100% you. As David duChemin, a photographer, blogger, and workshop instructor said in one of his podcasts: [the creative process] is a fight. But the creative process is largely ignored in the majority of online forums, blogs, and social media with very few exceptions (one of them being David duChemin’s blog and podcast, both highly recommended).
The WHAT in Photography is More Important than the HOW
It is our artistic vision that helps us create that photograph that hopefully genuinely reflects us, the artists. This photograph is our creative output, and that’s the WHAT in photography.The WHAT (the photograph) in photography is SO much more important than the HOW (camera, lens, sensor, film stock)! Yes, depending on our artistic vision, post-processing of images might be important although that ranges from almost non-existent to of upmost importance … ultimately the artists choice. The great Ansel Adams was a magnificent darkroom image manipulator and for sure would have loved Photoshop. He also used filters in the field widely, again to create photographs according to his vision (and not according to reality in his case). Documentary photographers like Swiss Magnum photographer Rene Burri tended to err on less or very little post processing, in part as they are much more interested in representing things as they are (although through their own eyes, and this is once again, where the art comes in).
Focus on Creating Art That Is Genuinely You
In the end, what matters is a creative process that results in a piece or body of work that is genuinely and authentically us. The tools are there to help us realize that artistic vision, but they do not really matter. I know the statement gear does not matter, is an overstatement, but I think you get the point. (And I do fully understand, if you are a portrait photographer, you may want that fast 85mm lens to get the blurry background, or if you are a professional architecture photographer, you may want a tilt-shift lens. But in either case, I’d say, once you made that decision, and got that gear, you use it and in a sense then, it won’t matter anymore … again, I think you get the point).
If your tools are digital, great. If they are all analog, great. If it’s a hybrid process, great. If you use the kitchen sink including Super 8, polaroid, and pin-hole cameras, great. It should not matter to the viewer what tools and gear the artist uses and it should not matter to us (or very little). I don’t care what brand of paint brush Da Vinci or Monet used for their work, do you?
Yes, we photographers care about cameras, lenses, sensors, and digital and other processing, but we should only care about it as a tool to realize our artistic vision.
Gear Does Not Matter
In summary, gear does NOT matter. We might think it does. But it is only us that do, not the viewer / our audience. You use a $7000 dollar Leica camera with a $5000 Leica lens? We don’t care. You use a 70 year old film camera with expired film? We don’t care. You use the latest Sony camera with 50 megapixels and a 0.9 super-fast lens? Again, we don’t care. You use a pinhole camera that you built yourself? We don’t care. But you make a stunning strong perhaps emotional images that are genuinely you: we do care or at least we might. We may want to know the story, perhaps how you took it or the circumstances, and so forth. How many photographers have bought gear because famous photographers used it or some YouTube guy recommended it? I certainly have. But do you realize that Henri Cartier Bresson would have taken similar photographs with his iPhone nowadays or perhaps another small digital camera?
And by the way, have you figured out which of the images below is the digital one? (I will give you a hint at the end of the post, just scroll down).
The WALKER one is 35mm film (Kodak Portra 400).