There seems to be this cycle of topical blog posts that are put out by some of the heavy-hitter photo pundits out there. These topics usually result in galvanized readers who further stoke the flame by leaving their own comments, all of which translates into a spike in traffic to that particular site. I often joke with my friends that a surefire way to boost traffic to one’s site for a day or two is to post a thread about why HDR is or isn’t photography.
But the topic that most often interests me is the one where you are being told that photography isn’t about the gear. Most interestingly enough, I notice who it is that preaches this. Usually, the authors who are offering this sage advice really don’t have an issue with getting the gear for themselves or they already own it.
I will agree with one unequivocal and indisputable truth: no amount of gear can be a substitute for raw talent and vision. Just because you have the newest camera with the sharpest lens will not give you a guarantee that all of your shots will be memorable or provocative or even marginally good. But, I can guarantee you that it will help.
Take this example as a way for me to illustrate my point:
You are standing in a breathtakingly gorgeous expanse of nature. The elements are perfect, the light is just right, and you want to share this moment with everyone that you know. About a foot in front of you, there is a fantastic boulder that would make for an ideal foreground element. You have a vision of exactly how you want to frame the shot and how you’d like to separate your foreground from your background. But you don’t have a camera. And it isn’t about the gear?
Granted, that is a bit hyperbolic but please follow along.
So, now you have a camera. It’s a basic point-n-shoot. So you take the camera, hold it at that awkward arms-length position, and press the shutter button. You now have a picture of the scene. But, because of the limitations with the camera’s focal length and the total lack of aperture and shutter speed control, you are left with a ‘marginally ok’ shot. It’s not anywhere near what you had envisioned. Still not about the gear?
Ok, you know that you need more control over the image. You now have a basic dSLR with a kit lens. It affords you some versatility with camera control but the shot that you took is really noisy and the focal length of that kit lens is actually not true to spec because you have a cropped sensor, so you’re still not getting quite as wide as you’d like. Plus, the lens doesn’t have an aperture that is large enough to get you just the right separation that you had envisioned . You also notice all sorts of soft edges and chromatic aberration throughout the contrasty parts of the image. But everyone says that it isn’t about the gear, right?
Fine, you decide that in order to really capture the shot exactly how you had envisioned it, you get yourself a beefy full frame camera that provides a nice, clean, noise-free image. The high-end glass that you also bought is ultra-wide and has a large aperture, allowing you to create the exact amount of separation to make that boulder pop right off of the screen. So, what was that you were saying about the gear?
Notice one constant theme throughout this example. The photographer had a vision of how the image should be crafted. Technically, you could have achieved a photo of the scene with any functional camera. No one would dispute that. But, to be fair, having the optimal gear with you will contribute to you realizing your particular vision much easier. It is for this exact reason that Canon has three different types of 50mm prime lenses ranging from $100 to $1500. It’s why there is ‘L’ series and Tilt Shift glass. It’s also why there are $17,000 medium format digital-back cameras. Sometimes, you simply cannot achieve your vision in a shot with ‘just anything’.
And it’s not a criticism of the photographer at all. A lot of this gear is very, very expensive and can be difficult to justify as an expense. What I take umbrage with is when photographers who seemingly have all the gear in the world tell you that it really isn’t necessary. That is a bit of slanted truth, a good dose of doublespeak. I see it simply as this: To be a [great] photographer, you must have vision. This is non-negotiable. To realize that vision, you must have gear. As you use your gear, and eventually start to plateau with its capabilities (and limitations), you will reach an impasse. You will hit a point where your vision can no longer necessarily be realized with the gear that you have. This is when you will decide whether it is worthwhile for you to invest in better gear.
I’ll end this Ed. Op. post with my own personal experience. I’ve been shooting for a long time now. I am not an academically trained photographer – I’ve learned to use my experiences and failures to shape my vision. I started with a very basic film-based point & shoot, moved to a basic digital point & shoot, and onto the entry level Canon Digital Rebel (300D) w/a kit lens. I used that kit to the point where I had the camera serviced twice for exceeding the max rating of actuations. One day, I realized that it was time to invest in some better glass, a more capable camera body, and a tripod. The direct result? I was able to foster my vision and allow it to grow. Later on, I realized that I loved shooting architecture. Non-stop. But, the glass that I had wasn’t giving me what I wanted in terms of clean, straight lines. So, I invested in what is now my most expensive piece of gear, the Canon 17mm Tilt Shift lens. In doing so, that single lens blasted open the doors for my own creativity. It allowed me to take my sandbox of fun and expand it 10-fold. I was ready for the gear and for what it could help me achieve.
And the more that I thought about it, the more I understood that the gear is really a lot of what it’s about.