Photography, maybe more than any other creative pursuit, has a strong dependency on the quality of the tool you have available and the scope of artistic outcome you can achieve.
In other words, you CAN do more with better kit.
Even though the relationship between “what you can do” versus “what you use to do it” isn’t a linear one, far from it, there certainly IS a relationship. Another inescapable truth is that we are repeatedly bombarded by the message that “gear doesn’t matter” and “it’s the brain behind the lens which really counts” or hat we need to focus on chasing our creative vision. Hell I’ve been guilty of saying this in the past plenty of times in one form or another. Recently though I’ve been feeling like this attitude of prefacing all discussions about gear with the “photographer most important” cliché is not only annoying as hell but it could actually hurt others’ ability to grow & improve as photographers. Certainly there are plenty of ranty evangelists online who are not shy in telling you what you should think. A couple of recent experiences recently made me rethink the way I personally react when asked for advice about camera gear and how more experienced photographers can do better than simply dismissing gear as an irrelevance because we know the "sacred truth" about what really counts…
Most recently, I was contacted by a photographer who clearly knew their stuff. They were using their 5D mk 3 to produce lovely macro images of everyday objects, mostly plants, beautifully presented in monochrome and occasionally producing large palladium-platinum prints. The photographer had clearly found a subject & style that worked for them and their results were great. The question to me was whether an upgrade to the 5DSR would be worth it, and if the extra detail afforded by the high-megapixel sensor and lack of a low-pass filter would mean the resulting pictures would be more detailed. My immediate, instinctive reply – which I typed then deleted – was that the person was already producing fantastic work and although the 5DSR was a great camera, they were doing just fine without it thankyouverymuch, don’t waste your money. Although not written in those words, I felt like our standard “it’s the photographer not the camera” trope was just making me sound like a tool. Instead, I decided to tell them where I thought the camera might be useful and where it might be of less benefit, and also why I hadn’t made the purchase myself (they asked). I ended up just giving advice I felt was truthful & accurate, no caveats or waffling. I stuck to the gear, not the metaphoric lessons. I suggested that while the 5DSR would definitely allow for the large prints needed and would also produce more detailed images, was that really important when their style was all about a sliver of DOF and tons of lovely bokeh? They wanted my opinion on the camera, not on whether I thought their photographic eye was good or not.
Another experience was much more casual but essentially very similar – a friend of mine was frustrated that their phone and old point & shoot cameras were just not giving them “what they wanted”. They wanted a better camera because they assumed it would mean they could “make better photos” and I’m their photographer friend. Again, I began by talking about how they could achieve a lot with their existing gear, how good phone cameras were these days and how it might be more useful to learn the basics so they could improve without spending a ton on new kit.
As I began the same earnest, tired spiel, that the camera is just a tool and they were the key element, I physically saw their eyes glaze over. They began to disengage – they wanted advice, not a decree that I knew exactly what was best for them. I was trying with the absolute best of intentions to answer a question they just couldn’t care less about. Immediately I changed my approach. Instead of telling them how they should think, I told them the truth about their options so they could make their own mind up. Rather than suggest “the camera doesn’t count” I followed it up by offering how to teach them how to use it. That worked a million times better. My intentions were very sincere in trying to help but the actual message doesn’t work. I don’t actually think it works on anyone.
Personally, I despise arrogance in all forms. When I’m asked for advice I try to be honest about just how I think new equipment might affect someone’s photography I’m not going to lie and I try not to tell them what they should or shouldn’t be doing in their hobby. I think we need to extend this out to stop telling people how the equipment is less important than what, how & why they shoot. Assuming that the person asking for advice doesn’t already know this, or not caring and saying it anyway is supremely arrogant. I’m sick of seeing “experts” preach about how gear doesn’t matter even during their gear reviews. Though I like to think I was fairly subtle in how I’d caveat recommendations, I think it’s ultimately a harmful attitude to asterisk every piece of advice and I’m not doing it anymore.
First of all, it makes you look like a tool. Experienced photographers know about the value of skill & a trained eye but also when they need new gear for their needs. Beginners serious about photography also just want to know what they need to get started – they want help in choosing a tool that isn’t a waste of money and they can grow into. Absolute noobs just want the reassurance they are buying something to do a specific job. Spouting off about how it’s not the camera it’s the photographer just isn’t something anyone needs to hear. It’s easily an attitude that can be misinterpreted as insulting. Telling someone that a good photographer gets good results with any gear could be seriously demoralising to someone who is struggling with the wrong kit. Telling a newbie they should be spending their time on refining their creative vision sounds hugely elitist. Most people are playing with a limited budget and seeking reassurances from experts that they are making a worthy purchase, not asking if they are worthy or ready for the purchase.
Even if you argue that it’s an important lesson they need to learn, think again – experienced togs have learned it already and it’s better for beginners to learn it themselves, experiencing the reward and satisfaction that comes when the principles of photography finally click and they “get it”. Noobs are still not going to care. When you have experience about a piece of gear and people ask you about it, they want to know about the gear and not whether you think the person is better than the gear. They want help justifying a purchase or understanding the capability of the gear, not whether you think they have the capability as a photographer to get the most out of it. Listen to what they want to do and advise. Be honest, even if it means telling them why you think it may not meet their need, but stop short of disrespecting them simply because you think a good photographer can get good results from pretty much anything.
The photographer IS the most important part of the process and it IS more important to think about your creative vision...but we need to encourage people to understand that for themselves. This does not mean ramming the same, tired old rhetoric down their throats at every opportunity.