What We Mean When We Say “It’s Not About The Gear”

This post was instigated by a post a friend of mine made. Brian Matiash’s blog post, “It’s not about the gear?” takes a well written hit at many of us who state that being a good photographer is not about the gear. I think he has some valid points, but I also think he may be missing some points in his main hypothesis. It may be a bit of a different approach, but it needs to be stated: When I say “It’s not about the gear” I am NOT saying that gear doesn’t matter.

Many of people who commented on Brian’s post seem to take a black and white approach to the saying… if it isn’t about the gear then why do people shoot great gear? Sorry, that is a non-starter. Stating that making a good photograph is not about the gear is in no way stating that the gear doesn’t matter to make a specific image.

We will examine the question of whether it is or is not about the gear after the jump.

First up: Links around the web.
APhotoEditor has a great guest post by Jess Dudley, Wonderful Machine Producer, “Real World Estimates – Publicity Pricing and the Value of Subject Follow-Up”. This post examines how a photo rep puts together a price quote for an editorial shooter. Very granular and vital reading for photographers.

“Ask an Art Buyer: Targeting and Evaluating your Promotion” at Heather Morton’s Blog looks at a promotional card by a photographer and makes some suggestions. Luckily we get to watch and learn as well.

This great little series by the folks at APA and Selina Maitreya starts a 6 month challenge for photographers. You should take part and learn how to make a more successful book, and create your style. It’s free and there are even prizes. “The View From Here Video Challenge” is here.

This very introspective post by Rodney Smith gives us all pause to think about what it is we want. “Rule from the Center” at The End Starts Here.

Next up, Workshop Information:
Denver next weekend (July 10, 11, 2010) and we have a few openings there. Denver is a wonderful place to be in the summer. Great light, wonderful talent… come on over and join us. Learn to Light has all the information. We are also headed for Toronto for a workshop, Flagstaff, Arizona and other fun places… see the site for more information. If you have a place you would like to have the workshop come, let us know.

Personal One-On-One Workshops:
I am doing some very specific, one-on-one workshops in July and August. They are a bit limited in how many I am going to do, but if you are interested in spending two days working on the specific things YOU need to learn, see more here. It will be in my studio in Phoenix, and it will be intense.

On to the discussion of whether gear matters.

I think there is a disconnect when we use the statement, “It’s not about the gear” and it is the root of the challenge we face here.

Look, gear is cool. Gear is fun. And there are some pieces of gear that are definitely needed to make imagery. And better gear makes it easier to make specific images. But when we are talking about general photography, I think that making an image is so much more about the vision. Gear is about the technical, and there are times when the gear can make creating the image a smoother, easier operation.

Brian states it this way: “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.”

I agree with the this statement with a couple of important caveats… Brian is stating this with the end product in mind. He is expecting a specific outcome. So when he states “I can guarantee you that it will help” he has already set the parameters of acceptability. He is referring to specific outcomes without taking into account that those outcomes are artificially determined by his statement.

What if the photographer doesn’t care about sharpness or has a different view of what ‘good’ is? What if the photographer wants to make moody, incredibly dark, muddy images that have a totally different point of view? What if the “best gear” for making that shot is a Holga ($28 at Amazon)? Great gear? A plastic camera? Not when compared with a D7, or a 5D MKII? But they would suck for doing what that photographer wanted to do… so the RIGHT GEAR is substituted. And to know what the right gear is, we have to know what the vision is.

When we say that vision comes first, that means that before you even know what gear you need, you should be finding out what you want to shoot. How do you want to shoot something? What do you want to say about the subjects you are photographing? What is the outcome you want to achieve with the work you are doing?

Vision.

Here is my scenario on gear.

Can a photographer who is competent make an image on any camera? I think they can. I think I could hand a Holga or a Canon S90 or a P&S Kodak $80 camera to Chase Jarvis, Jake Chessum, Andrew Hetherington, Joe McNally and Brian Matiash and they could make images that would be remarkable. They would already have the vision, they would now simply apply that vision to the limitations/parameters of the camera they are using. And they would make remarkable images.

However, I could give a 1DS MKIII with a 70-200MM L to someone who was a ‘snapper’ – a GWC… – and I am not convinced at all that their work would improve. The images may be sharper, and the colors cleaner… but the vision would not have improved. My point is that the guy who was previously shooting crap on his Rebel is now shooting crap – but needs a whole bunch more storage to keep the images. Nothing will improve.

Now that may sound like I am saying that gear doesn’t matter at all.

Nope, gear is important. For the vision that is created – and the ability to further that vision. Here are a few examples:

A photographer whose style includes shooting natural light headshots may naturally evolve toward a camera that would provide the best capture, and those fast lenses would be something that would help bring the vision forth. (And I bet that photographer was making good photos with what they started with, or there would be no evolving.)

A photographer who wanted to shoot architecture, or still life would greatly benefit from having a couple of tilt-shift lenses. They aren’t cheap, they are specialized and they are pretty darn well important for those choices in work. (And I bet if I gave those photographers an assignment and a P&S, they could get some cool shots.)

The argument that photographers who espouse the philosophy that “It isn’t about the gear” also have great gear is to miss the main point. If one has great vision, one can become as successful as one wants… bringing with it the perks of the best equipment. A photographer like Joey L may state that it isn’t about the gear while shooting a Hasselblad in Africa. They have nothing to do with each other. Joey has earned the Hasselblad… and could also do great work on a 5D MKIII. Does anyone think that the images Joey brought back from Africa are simply good because of the camera? I hope not.

Those images are a result of Joey’s vision. The gear makes it easier. The gear makes a bigger file. The gear is simply wonderful to use… but the vision is there first.

I am frustrated sometimes. I meet photographers with tens of thousands of dollars worth of cameras and lenses and absolutely no idea of what an image is. Not a capture… click the button – capture. Focused, accurately exposed, and somewhat framed. But without any vision at all. The vision is the thing that separates the capture from the image. I think it comes from the new tools not requiring pre-vision to make the image. We don’t choose film any more, nor do we work the focus with our hands. We don’t have to make choices on development, or processing, or what paper to print it on.

And we start to then put more emphasis on the gear – because the gear does so much. And maybe we should start to think more of the image than what it was created on. That may not be a popular thing to do, and God knows what would happen to the hundreds of forums out there where the discussion of the best lens dissolves into name calling and more… sigh. (Best lens… for what?)

“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.” – Brian.

Yes. This is exactly right. But I think it goes farther to bolster my argument than Brian’s. With the vision, the work grows. As it grows, the “Right Gear” begins to make sense, and make the vision go even farther. But it is worth noting once more, that the vision preceded the ‘gear’.

I am not a gear snob. I shoot Profoto, Dynalite, Norman’s and Canon. My lenses are “L’s” and my accessories are the best that I can get. I have C-stands, booms, and a ton of modifiers. I also have a studio with a full coved cyc, big enough to shoot a pickup truck in – with a full cove ceiling. I also have Hasselblad, Toyo, Bronica, Mamiya and Deardorff cameras. I shoot on all the cameras… sometimes because of a reason… and sometimes because it is simply fun. And no one will take my beloved Nikon’s from me. I rarely shoot 35MM film, but I love those cameras. I think the whole bag is worth about $100… heh.

I also shoot on my iPhone (which I just use for the camera… no phone service. I have Droid for the phone.) And I shoot Holgas, and little Kodak P&S’s.

My vision doesn’t require a specific camera… unless it does. That make sense I hope. It means that I love to take images on a camera that gives me very little latitude. And I love to make images on cameras that give me the specific needs I must have to make those images. I love shooting with my Profotos, but I can make images on Home-Depot work lights with a shower curtain. And do on occasion. Brian points out that as his vision for HDR grew, the need for a camera that would handle the demands was necessary… and he has that just right. The vision led to the gear.

So to wrap up, yes… gear matters to make the technical side better/easier/diverse. But that gear is a response to the vision. And the vision only comes with making more and more images. With whatever camera one has.

—-

Thanks to Brian for writing the original article and getting the discussion going.

I hope if you are considering a workshop this year that you take a few minutes and check out Learn to Light. We are heading all over the country for the rest of the year. See if we are coming to your town. We have kept the cost to a minimum in order to reach more people. I have a FaceBook page here, and you can stalk my every move at Twitter.

See you next time.

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About 

I am in love with light.

Also known as Don Giannatti, photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amherst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and ezine with a slightly different slant than most photography related blogs. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out www.project52.org. Thanks for visiting.

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