Rule 14: Of Course It’s The Gear

Horses of Instruction

If you haven’t heard it a million times before, wait for it. “It’s not the gear!” I’ve said it myself, including in this space last week. But just how true is it? And really, is it ever the gear?

The common wisdom among a certain class of photographers (incidentally, often the ones whose bags are chock-a-block full of expensive stuff) is that it’s more about vision than gear. After all, Ansel Adams, who knew more about photography than most, said that the most important part of the camera was the twelve inches behind it, and he must be right, right?

Not necessarily.

If it had nothing to do with the gear, we’d all still be shooting large format cameras that used glass plates. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… we could even bring back the camera obscura. If the gear has nothing to do with it, what use do we have for wide-angle or macro lenses, carbon fiber tripods, speedlights, reflectors, diffusers, Lightroom, full-frame sensors or Velvia?

Of course that argument falls apart if you give it more than a minute’s thought. The gear evolves sometimes for the sake of convenience; I don’t know anyone, including those who still shoot with the aforementioned large-format cameras, who wouldn’t argue that 35mm roll film isn’t a lot easier to carry and work with, for instance. Other times, it’s a case of technological advancement (Lightroom versus chemicals in a darkroom), expression (a landscape photographer’s going to get a lot farther with a 12-24mm than with an 85mm), quality (if you think an iPhone’s going to give you the same image quality and capabilities as a Mamiya, have your eyes and/or head examined, please) or necessity. These things exist for a reason, in other words, and gear – the right gear, let me emphasize – enables us to do things that we couldn’t do otherwise.

So where does the “It isn’t the gear” conventional wisdom come from, and am I suggesting we throw it out? Second question first: no. First question: experienced photographers (and some of us who aren’t so experienced) realize that the gear is just that; it’s a tool that helps you get things done. A skilled carpenter isn’t skilled because he’s got an expensive hammer; he’s skilled because of the time and effort he’s put into his craft. Whether his hammer was forged by Vulcan or cost $12.99 at Sears, he knows it’s just a tool. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s got a belt sander ‘cause there are some things you just can’t do with a hammer. It’s just as likely he’d tell you that the belt sander isn’t what’s making him a good carpenter.

What’s that got to do with you? Take the same approach to your photography (mentally, at least) that you would to anything else you do. Get the right tool for the job, but realize that the tools are a supplement to, and not a substitute for, experience and vision. If you’ve got a D3X because you need it for low light, great; but if you bought a D3X because it’s what the pros use, and after all, they make such lovely photos, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Remember, the camera can’t make the photo without you. The right gear makes it much, much easier to realize your vision, but without the vision, the gear (however good or bad it may be) is immaterial.

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