Skill over tool – let’s leave the gear discussion behind #nogear

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I wrote the following blog post a little more than two years ago and I happened to read it again today. I found it more relevant than ever and so that I decided to repost it. Enjoy and let me know your perspective. 

The end of the year provides ample opportunities to meditate on the state of photography and current trends. This year’s obsession with gear (was it worse than before or only my perception?) gave me quite some food for thought. Runners are not judged by their shoes, cooks not by their spoons, and painters not by their brushes. Why should we judge photographers by their cameras?

The democratization of photography via the availability of high quality imaging technology at very low prices is one of the key trends that is going to revolutionize photography and one of the current hot topics. So hot, that the British Journal of Photography just launched the smartphone photography magazine FLTR. I think this is a great idea because it further manifests that it is about the picture. One company that really understands this is Leica. If you go to their shops (so far I have seen those in Frankfurt, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore) you will mostly find photographs, like an exhibition. There is also a small glass shelf somewhere displaying the M and its glass, however it is almost like a secondary aspect. This made a huge impression to me when I visited them the first time and it emphasizes that it is about the photograph and not so much about gear; let’s not get into the discussion whether this is deliberate marketing.

Another strong trend is film photography. Many photographers go back to film to find passion and escape the gear mania. To slow down and get more soul rather than ending up in pointless fights over sharpness, micro contrast, etc. I do not question the importance of technical aspects. However these technical aspects should be understood as an envelope of possibilities and not as critical conditions that make or break a shot. I understand the flight into film; I am guilty myself. The promise of going back to the basics is very tempting. We get exhausted from electronics and feature overloaded cameras. Nikon’s recent Df tries to scoop up some of the users from this segment and I could imagine that it could be quite a successful move; while being digital it emulates a film-esque experience. Film offers purity. It is clean, meditative, slow, simple, and very rewarding to work with. You really need to slow down and think about your pictures. You will also end up taking way fewer shots at an increased keepers rate.

As so often when alternatives become desirable, a strong silo thinking kicks in. Now it is digital vs analog: the digitals only accept work from people with ‘proper’ (as in expensive) gear, usually the Nikon D800 and Canon 5DM3 category; the analogs accept work only from people that shoot analog DSLRs or rangefinder cameras that are at least 20 years old using expired film. This is of course a (dangerous) generalization however I am sure you understand what I am getting at. From a marketing perspectives this all makes perfect sense. For those of us that have read Seth Godin’s Tribes (a very insightful read) we immediately recall one of the rules for forming a tribe:

Exclude outsiders.
Exclusion is an extremely powerful force for loyalty and attention. Who isn’t part of your movement matters almost as much as who is.”

Staying in the realm of Tribes the core question however is whether the separation via digital vs. analog as a purported proxy for technical vs. artistic ill-defined? The discussion of photographic output and articulation should be separated from the tools that were used. Many photographers like gear and I am also guilty of that. However, this love for the tool should not extend to constituting photographic limitations via absence. The culmination in gear-induced discrimination, as in “my shots are better than yours because my camera is better”  is a cheap trick to protect the status quo. We need to leave the gear discussion behind, separate photography as photography from photography as a technical endeavor. These two should not be mixed: a photo is not captivating because it is film/digital and shot with a 28mm lens. This is not part of the photograph’s message. Gear should not matter: let’s go #nogear. In particular, in the end, do I really care whether I took a shot on digital or film? Does it really affect the photograph in any profound, meaningful way that goes beyond dynamic range, exposure latitude, noise vs. grain, etc? I am willing to accept that it determines or influences my style of  shooting. In fact, it does so quite a bit: for example, I often use small compact cameras to be able to blend in, allowing me to get ultra-close without freaking out people assuming the role of a guy with a camera. This influence on style, or more precisely, the choice of tools matching style is perfectly fine. Different styles, use different tools and techniques – but none should be considered superior or inferior to another based on tools (alone).

Surely I am not the first one thinking hard about these issues. There are two recent, excellent posts by Bellamy discussing the limited role of gear and technique and by Dan K. about shooting digital and film. I could not agree more with those two. Also, it seems that we are observing a broader phenomenon here: a rebellion against the marketing driven short product cycles that essentially try to convince you that your old camera cannot deliver anymore once a newer version is released. The reason why this works stems from a single, wrong premise: that standard and quality are relative to the best available tool and not absolute. This encompasses the flawed notion that the quality of your shots can actually change over time (as a function of gear), which is completely ridiculous: your photo is not getting worse just because a new camera has been released which might have given you a more accurate rendering of the scene. Quality must not lie in tools but in the actual, metaphysical qualities of our work that we struggle so hard to grasp.

Have a great start into 2014 — TSJ.

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23 thoughts on “Skill over tool – let’s leave the gear discussion behind #nogear

  1. Somebody remembers Miroslav Tichý the photographer? Ok he had his obsession but he showed me one thing, something simple: people always forget that the gear does not do the photos, but the photographer does. You want to tell a story? Use whatever you have at your range the rest are excuses. Happy 2014!

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  5. Nice article Terence, I like to think I got off the “gear train” a few years ago. Completely agree that many of us get caught up in the manufacturer’s marketing of cameras and accessories. In the end it’s all about the photography rather than the latest news on gear….completely agree

    • thanks! If you think about it, it is so crazy. We made the process of taking photos very technical. I shoot a lot of film those days, but also digital. I try to stay away from the gear train as much as possible. not that i do not love my leica and how well it is crafted but i do not need to upgrade regularly to keep my photography going. One thing that helped a lot, was to stay away from all these review sites… I actually started a magazine on flipboard that is only about photography and no gear.

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  7. loved the post. I think new photographers, like you noted, sometime get the perception that to get the better means to get more, better and more expensive gear. Honestly new and better gear improves a shot, but many times it’s like driving automatic gear then manual gear.

    I’m a broke, novice photographer, and I just try to go out and experiment – and I think it’s working.

    I’d love if you get a chance to check out my new blog and pics I took – would appreciate your experienced eye and your help 😉

    Ram

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