Rule 13: It’s Not The Gear

Sleepy Hollow 9
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

There’s an anecdote (likely apocryphal) that’s circulated among photographers for probably as long as there’ve been photographers. A famous photographer goes out to eat, and is spotted by the chef, who raves about the photographer’s work and says, “Your photographs are lovely. You must have a very nice camera.” A short time later, after a delicious dinner, the photographer asks to see the chef. After being ushered into the kitchen, he tells the chef, “That was a wonderful dinner. I just wanted to see what kind of pots you use.”

That little story speaks to a truism among many photographers: It’s not about the gear. The reasoning is similar to what you hear from artists and craftspeople of all stripes; if you gave a master the most rudimentary tools, they’d still find a way to produce something of worth. It’s not the camera that matters, in other words, but the person behind it.

It’s a useful thing to remember, especially when you’re starting out. It’s easy to fall into a mindset that our photos would be better if we had a nicer camera, faster lenses, expensive software for post processing, and maybe a speed light or three. Admit it, you’ve said – maybe aloud, or maybe just to yourself – “Y’know, if I just had a (fill in the blank with this week’s photographic object of lust).”
The gear isn’t the only thing making those photos. You are. Think of it as a collaboration with your camera; each of you needs the other to get the results you’re looking for. A camera’s not going to be much use without someone to call the shots, and the photographer is likewise at loose ends if she’s got nothing with which to take the photograph. The problem is, any collaboration’s only as good as its weakest link; if your skills aren’t equal to your gear, you’re just going to be taking rather more expensive crappy photos.

McMain Building, Rutherford, NJ

Let’s take this out of the theoretical and into the practical for a minute. One of the photos accompanying this post was shot with my recently deceased Kodak point-and-shoot, and one was shot with my Nikon. Without peeking at the EXIF data, you want to take a good guess at which one’s which? And for that matter, does it matter?

The shot from Sleepy Hollow was the one taken with the Kodak, and remains one of my favorite shots I’ve taken (if I may be so immodest). The other one, taken with my Nikon, isn’t one of my favorite shots, and wouldn’t be anybody else’s either. There’s technically nothing wrong with it; the lighting and exposure are acceptable, the composition at least isn’t awful, but at the same time, it doesn’t really have anything to say. I could have gotten the same shot with the Kodak, and could also have gotten the same shot no matter what lens I’d put on the Nikon. More to the point, any other person could have gotten the same shot; there’s nothing that makes it uniquely “mine” or anyone else’s. But it’s not the camera’s fault it came out that way, it’s mine.

So the next time you’re contemplating plunking down money on some doodad or other, think about it first. Ask yourself one simple question: “What’s the issue here?” Be willing to honestly assess your own skills, since the problem may not be with the camera, so much as what’s behind it. Sometimes we’re the ones that need the upgrade.

Postscript: Next week, we’ll revisit this question from a bit different perspective.

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