Is it about the equipment, or about the art?

Photography, by its nature, is rather more equipment-heavy than many of the other visual arts.

There is a risk, though, of obsessing over the equipment to the point where the art itself is secondary- or forgotten.

The Internet is a place of trends, and photography trends are now inextricably linked with Internet popular opinion. For a while it was all about cranking up the megapixels- "Look how big it zooms in on the computer, you can see the cat hair on his shirt!" And there was Instagram- "My phone took a technically excellent (but artistically pointless) 8MP shot and made it look like a bad Polaroid from 1977!" The higher end of the market is far from immune, being subject to the flash addicts ("Sure, these new SB910s were six hundred bucks each, but now I can light things up so much better than everyone else did with last year's SB900s!") and the crowd of reviewers who are always touting the newest \$1600 lens as the best thing since sliced bread, or at least since the five-year-old, \$1200 version of the same lens before they replaced Super Multi Coating with Nano Crystal Coating.  The wonders of affiliate marketing ensure that there's profit to be made by constantly stirring the pot, reviewing the latest gear, and convincing people that what you told them to buy 18 months ago is just not good enough anymore and they need to sell it and upgrade (using this convenient link to a favourite vendor, of course).

I'm starting to think that an important skill, for a modern photographer, is to be able to look at all that and say "you know what, I really don't care."

The equipment is, after all, just tools. Owning a compound mitre saw does not make you a master carpenter, any more than owning a 70-200 f/2.8 telephoto makes you a master photographer. What matters is what you do with it, and I think it's rather telling that at the top levels- such as the Sony World Photography Awards- nobody outside the marketing teams even notices what equipment you used.

The guy who got me hooked on this in the first place, Ian Cowling, insisted back in high school that we learn the art of photography, rather than just the techniques of photography. A roll of Agfa APX 400, a 50mm f/2, and whatever light we could find- that was it. The lessons were on composition, on artistic intent, on telling a story and conveying an idea. Yes, there were the requisite lectures on how to use a light meter, how to hook up studio lamps and how to tell that the ethanoic acid stop bath needed changing, but the technical bits were just a means to an end- never an end in themselves.

It's easy to lose track of that under a constant barrage of blogs explaining exactly why you need to ditch that Canon 5DII in favour of the (new! improved!) 5DIII, parting with a few thousand dollars in the process. But, once it's good enough to not get in your way, the equipment really doesn't matter. Henri Cartier-Bresson, after all, did most of his best work on 35 mm film with a fixed 50 mm lens and no post-process manipulation. It is far more important to know how to use what you have, than to obtain what you don't have.

Start with an idea. Or with a story. Or perhaps with something interesting that just happens to be there. People remember how an image made them feel, or what memories it brought back, or what new insight it offered them. That's what matters.

There are a handful of equipment-related articles on this site, and I don't intend to completely denigrate the role of the gear in making a photo. I do occasionally feel the need to point out something equipment-related (like how you don't necessarily need to spend a fortune to shoot birds), and I do appreciate good gear. I chose my Nikon D7000, after all, precisely because it stays out of my way where its lesser siblings throw up endless menus that distract from the photographer's main task. But do I see any real need to spend thousands of dollars a year keeping up with the latest and greatest gadgets? No, and I hope I never do.

Further reading: Kirk Tuck over at the Visual Science Lab had an interesting essay on this a few days ago, as he re-boots his site with a focus on why, rather than with what, we shoot.



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