The Limited Role of Equipment And Technique In Photography

Posted on by Bellamy


The Limited Role of Equipment And Technique In Photography by Dan K
Dan K shares with us his thoughts on equipment and technique. This is a good read and sure to generate some discussion too. Come and read for yourself.

The Limited Role of Equipment And Technique In Photography

I have often admitted that I am a camera collector first and foremost and a photographer second. My photography was initially a way to justify the purchasing of lovely shiny things. Later it became a way of recording memories that would otherwise be lost. Recently, I have started to take my photography a little more seriously, to treat it as a serous art form and a way of self-expression through a visual medium.

Along my journey, my equipment requirements at first intensified as my standards rose, then I leaned towards convenience as my improved technique allowed me to work effectively with cameras that offered less automation.

At this point, I have taken pause and come to the realisation that neither equipment, nor technique can make up for inspiration, vision and message.

The Limited Role of Equipment
Inspiration, position, composition, rapport, timing, emotion, expression… None of these are found in the camera, yet these are precisely the factors that separate a great picture from a poor one. I love great cameras as much as the next man; given the size of my camera collection, I think it’s fair to say that I probably love a great camera more than most! However, it’s not a prerequisite to great photography.

We need to bury all this rubbish about Canon vs Nikon, film versus digital and DSLRs vs smartphones and move on with our artistic lives. I have seen more compelling photographs taken with a plastic toy camera straight out of a “My First Detective Kit” than many people, myself included, are likely to produce in a lifetime.

I love great cameras as much as the next man, probably more than most! However, it’s not a prerequisite to great photography. I think the people who understood this better than most were Lomography. Their core message was to ignore the camera and stop overthinking; just trust in your instinct and shoot. Unfortunately, since then Lomography and its disciples have obscured the gospel in the gaudy trappings of religious icons. People are led to believe that they can buy a certain camera and SHAZAM! suddenly they’ll be transformed into an artist with the vision and talent. It is true that certain cameras and lenses render in unique ways, but vision and talent are not included in the package. My criticism’s not limited to Lomography; all major brands bestow a fair helping of hype upon their products. True Photography is not about a retro-styled camera that omits video capabilities. True photography is having something to say and the means to get that message across.

Alpa

After collecting more cameras than any sane man, I can tell you there is no such thing as an ideal camera. For a start, everyone goes about photography in their own way. We all depend on a features like metering and focus to a varying extent and so we will each have a different ideal camera. Indeed, unless you’re a specialist in one kind of photography, then you will be best off with different equipment on different outings. I may be a street photographer one day and a landscape photographer the next; I’ll take the camera and lenses that suits that genre better if I have the choice. When selecting a camera, remember that my own advice on camera selection is highly biased by my own preferences, style and way of working. That’s why I state my kind of photography and my preferences in my reviews. For this reason, I prefer to write round-ups of a genre of cameras than nominate one camera that is represents my own ideal.

A professional photographer working to deliver a high quality product reliably and to specification must choose his equipment carefully, but as an enthusiast, I find the main purpose of a camera is to motivate me to get out shooting. It doesn’t have to be a rare or superior camera. An engineering marvel or a quirky plaything is equally likely to inspire me.

Nor does the camera have to look the part, nor inspire respect in others. A camera is like a partner; packaging is great but does it complete you? At least cameras are not jealous and a trading up from bad camera is cheaper than a divorce. Play the field and find your true love before you settle down and become one with it.

If you’re going to spend money on your gear, spend it on glass. Why? The lens’ job is rendering. The camera is a box whose only purpose is to facilitate the execution. A shoe box with a hole is the minimum requirement.

At the same time, you don’t have to spend serious money on lenses with superior corner to corner sharpness and perfect rectilinear projection. Within limits, you might call a lens’ defects “character”. My favourite lens of all time is an early Leitz Elmar that I paid $230 for. By modern technical standards, this lens is a pig, but the images it produces are spectacular. In fact, when the lens was updated, Leitz were careful to preserve the lens’ unique and desirable signature, a sharp centre with crisp definition but a gradual blurring of detail towards the periphery.

Technique Is Not the Be-all And End-all
In today’s world, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t taken a photo or two. At some point many feel the need to improve. They may read up on the internet, buy books, or attend courses. All these are useful, but it seems that most beginner’s books and courses are focussed on explaining the technique of photography, rather than the art of photography.

I became rather too obsessed with mastering all the relevant techniques, including studio lighting, things that have little relevance to my photography today. It matters little if you know how to focus the attention of a viewer by dropping the background out of focus is the subject is not compelling. Worry less about sharpness and more about feeling and message.

The other day, one of my friends turned up to a gathering with a T-shirt that proudly exclaimed in great bold letters “I SHOOT RAW”. Really? I don’t care if you drew your picture with a broken crayon. If it makes me feel something, it’s done its job.

Developing Artistic Vision
Only a lucky few are born with a fully developed artistic sensibility, but talent can be learned through study and experience. I myself am a journeyman, I have figured out most of the technique and am working methodically towards a point where I can produce art, rather than pass off happy accidents as deliberate talent.

You’d be astounded to see how many lousy photos an expert will have made in their early career. It takes persistence to learn how to see.

If I were more serious about my art, I’d spend more time studying the great photographers and artists and improving my sketching. There was a famous fashion photographer here in Hong Kong who was at one time the highest paid in his profession. Eventually he came to the realisation that photography has its limits; the camera captures only what it is presented with and his artistic vision had grown beyond that. He gave up photography and took up painting. At first, his technique was amateurish, but he improved till his skills were the equal of the images hitherto only seen in his mind’s eye.

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We may not all progress to this point, but it would not hurt to take the time to look at the past masters or oils, watercolour and charcoal. Learn how they saw and used light, how they conveyed layers upon layers of message and subtext, how they artfully manipulated the eye and the mind. Then return to photography and bring these same skills to bear with new impetus and inspiration.

I suppose that in the end, I shall indeed find myself sketching with a broken crayon, instead of photographing with a Nikon FM3A and Noct-Nikkor.

Past articles that I’ve written on this topic:

What Do You Have To Say and How Would You Say It?
http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2013/09/13/what-do-you-have-to-say-and-how-would-you-say-it/

Lomography for Newbies
http://www.japancamerahunter.com/2013/06/lomography-for-newbies/

Dan K is a life-long enthusiast photographer. He celebrated his return to film by collecting just about every quality camera and lens that he could lay his hands upon. Along the way he has developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of film cameras and film processing. Follow him on twitter for a humorous look at photography techniques and technology from all eras. Follow him on Tumblr for his images, journey of photographic discovery and a generous helping of gear-porn.

Tumblr
Twitter
He was also on ‘In your bag’

Text and images © Dan K. All rights reserved.

25 Responses to The Limited Role of Equipment And Technique In Photography

Nina December 20, 2013 at 5:51 pm

10 years ago I started fotogrphing with a digital one. After a while I felt that something is missing and I got no idea what Im doing. So I sold the digital one and got an film camera and a darkroom. Now I was closer to art which I did study. 2 years ago I startet with Bromoil prints and Im closer to art than ever. Its not the equipment , it is what you do with it. Yes is a partner. Today I work with digital and film and dont feel stupid anymore! The most important its enjoying it , love it, and having a nice equipment helps a little!

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    John Lockwood March 13, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    Great article Dan. Tried to mentor a young photog recently and realized how complex photography has become since the film days for a newby. The poor thing wanted to know about every camera setting and then postprocessing nuances. Most photo mags are supported by camera companies so sadly don’t talk about vision either.

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Frank December 20, 2013 at 7:20 pm

Of course, you’re right!

But there’s always this urge to buy better gear, even if I understand that gear does not make good pictures.

Lately I sold my digital camera (just have my iPhone for quick snaps that need to get treated immediately). Reverted to film, like in my youth and till now I don’t regret it. I use simple cameras XA2, Trip 35 and soon perhaps a Canonet and / or Oly 35SP again and they can do everything my limited skill demands. Meanest thing I have is a nice Canon A1, but it stays home most of the time.

A camera I can keep in my pocket is ideal, as it’s always with me and can get the shot the SLR can’t as it sits in it’s bag at home.

Basically any camera can do it for you, but you still need to have that special bond with it that makes it feel good in your hand.

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    ZDP-189 December 20, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    As most of you know, I am obsessed with gear and technique. That will never die. Sometimes, it all comes together and the result is magical. Unfortunately, I often end up with rolls and rolls of well executed but uninspiring dross. This article represents a dawning realisation of what it means to create art, rather than capture “Kodak moments”.

    I still don’t have it fully nailed down. I probably never will, because my artistic appreciation and my standard of acceptibility will evolve. What I am doing more these days is experimenting, taking pictures with lesser quality gear and less focus on technique. It’s a start.

    I will bring it back together as I gain understanding. I do recommend people buy reasonably capable kit and learn technique till it’s second nature, but this article points the way to the next level; a mastery of artistry and technique, where we can make the most out of our fabulous gear.

    Dan K

    Reply
Wouter Brandsma December 20, 2013 at 8:40 pm

I totally agree Dan. I guess for most photographers gear and technique is the easy and understandable part. Some may never outgrow that, but when you ultimately seek to become a better photographer the answers won’t be found in a new camera, lens or better technique. Be inspired, and find the answers within your personality. That in the end is the most rewarding journey, sad though that many never get there.

Thanks for posting Bellamy and Dan.

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Vernon December 20, 2013 at 10:13 pm

This is a great article. While I too enjoy camera reviews and new gear, I sometimes marvel at the shots I see on flickr or other sites which used cameras I would have considered inferior to mine. This is why I got rid of the previous equipment I had and now exclusively use the X100S for my photography. One camera and one lens.
Thanks for the article!

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Tom Higgins, Florida December 20, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Brilliantly written, an expression of my own feelings after a lifetime of photography. My Uncle Jim taught me B & W darkroom at age 13 and now at 78, I am still at it. What Dan says here is exactly what it took me a lifetime to learn.

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Alexandre December 20, 2013 at 10:58 pm

that’s what you learn browsing the “what’s in your bag” section of this site:
overdose of Leica and not so many great displays of pictures…

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Xiao Lu December 21, 2013 at 12:03 am

Thanks for the inspiring comments, Dan! I too strive to move beyond my addiction to equipment acquisition and immerse myself in the core artistry of the rendered image. It’s an ongoing struggle, to be sure, and I do find myself slipping every now and then. So I’m certain that you will understand my request: when the day does eventually come for you to exchange your Nikon FM3A and Noct-Nikkor for a broken crayon, I’ll be happy to facilitate the trade! ;)

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Brian Dunlea December 21, 2013 at 6:00 am

Excellent article Dan. I’ve been studying/practicing photography for two years. I’ve been a musician for a lot longer than that. So I’ve had the gear lust experience of instruments and understand how it can cloud what really matters, vision, expression, and emotion.

These are the kind of articles that beginners and experienced photographers need to read if they want to take themselves beyond the average mundane photograph. I know there are plenty of photographers who are happy buying lots of gear and plodding along, and that’s fine. But there are some of us who want more out of photography, either privately or publicly, and that’s why your words are so important.

I love the part about the HK photographer. It’s just like music. There’s no end to the learning, there’s no final destination. I think that’s what catches some people out. You’re never finished, and to be honest, it would be terrible if we reached a stage of creativity where we could sit on our laurels and say, “that’s it, I’m done.”

As long as we’re growing and learning as photographers, we should be happy. It’s natural that over time we become more discerning with our choice of images. And studying great paintings and photographs is a wonderful experience, and a great way to provide inspiration. I like what you said about technique, it’s important to learn the basics of exposure of course, but it’s like learning how make a chord progression work, it doesn’t make a great song/photograph.

I’m rambling on a bit, as usual, so I’ll finish up. All great art starts in the mind. If we concentrated more on that, and less on equipment, we’d be a lot better off. You can see a beautiful picture anywhere you are, wether it be real, or imagined. We just need to look harder, get all the unimportant stuff out of the way.

Thanks again for a great article and for sharing your thoughts with us. BTW I love the photograph of the man sitting, leaning against the wall.
Brian.

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John Rocha December 22, 2013 at 12:24 am

Hi

I certainly agree with the main thrust of this article. I’ve been a photographer for almost 60 years and have never had the gear obsession. I’ve had a lot of trouble telling my friends, some who take photos, that you don’t need a camera at all to take photographs.

The reason why many photographers who teach, including myself, concentrate on technique is, I think, because technique can be taught. I try to get people to look at great photos and paintings..

Last year I was in Cornwall, England, and went to Saint Michael’s Mount before sunrise. When I got there there were a couple of other photographers there. One was a pleasant nurse from Yorkshire and we got chatting. She asked me what gear I had. I told her that apart from my Camera – a Canon 5D Mark 11 – I had two extra lenses.

She seemed surprised and said, “Oh most of the blokes I know seem to carry a lot more stuff around”.

Perhaps gear obsession is more of a man thing.

Anyway, the best thing is to love your photography.

John

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Steinar Knai December 22, 2013 at 12:53 am

What a bunch of obvious truths. Is this supposed to be the be all and end all about phothoraphy? It is easy to philosophise about the uselessness of equipment when you have a lot and have no intention of selling it off. Likewise it is frankly suspicious to say that tecnique is not necessary when you master it. You need both and we all know it!

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    ZDP-189 December 22, 2013 at 11:50 am

    It’s true, what you say.

    :-D

    Equipment, technique and eye all contribute to a great picture, but the eye is more important.

    I have a friend (Phoebe), who bought her first proper camera, a cheap kit DSLR. I had to show her how to set ISO, she had no idea about technique. She went out on her first weekend and took the more jaw-dropping group photo that I have ever seen. She does this time and again, and while her technique has improved, it’s not a big factor.

    Look at a good photo and ask yourself would it have worked if it wasn’t so sharp, beautifully rendered, or artfully presented. Squint. Look at it out of the corner of your eye. Consider you first and lasting impression and how it has affected you. If it depends on some kit or technique and would have no impact otherwise, then it is nothing but a well executed failure.

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peter December 22, 2013 at 3:51 am

I really enjoyed reading this, great piece and inspirational.
The only think that lets it down is proclaiming how equipment is not important and then at the end telling us you use a £3500 Noct.

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    ZDP-189 December 22, 2013 at 11:44 am

    I came to photography as a collector, but I have come to the realisation that the equipment matters a lot less than I gave it credit for when I bought my cameras and lenses.

    In case you’re curious, the middle picture was taken on a HK$24,000 Noct-Nikkor, the top with a HK$3,500 Nikon Nikkor 55mm 1:1.2 S.C. and the bottom one with a HK$1,500 (slightly wonky) Fujifilm GA645. The reason I didn’t mention it in the article was that it doesn’t matter a jot. I could have used a Zorki and pulled off essentially the same shot. The rendering and out of focus transition would be a little different, but the challenge of getting it just right would be lower with a wider maximum aperture, so who knows, maybe it would have been better with an ‘inferior lens’.

    At the end of the day, it’s the picture, not the process that matters.

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Daniel December 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Great article with many insightful ideas, especially to the realization that gear matters less than vision. One of the most enlightening things I’ve discovered recently, is how to stop worrying so much about the equipment, and focus more on what really matters, light, composition, and subject. Sure I love gear, and have many times marveled at super sharp images or fabulous bokeh, only possible with highly priced lenses, but just as often, I’ve been captivated by so called “lo-fi” or “Lomo” shots, which often look like snapshots from a nostalgia dream.

I used to venture out with several bodies and a huge bag of lenses, often returning with few if any interesting shots, but feeling the freedom now to just grab a simple FLR is liberating and make shooting so much more relaxed and fun. Some of my best shots have been taken with either my Olympus XA or Minolta HiMatic E, both of which cost me less that $40 each, and sport surprisingly sharp glass.

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Chase Reeves December 25, 2013 at 5:05 am

I fully agree! Technology and also technique to some extent is overrated. A painter is not judged by the brush either and typically does not consider his ability be limited by the brush! Terence Jones has an interesting perspective on this http://terencesjones.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/why-photography-is-not-dying/ I wish this whole discussion about gear and equipment would end. But I understand it is way easier to discuss gear and potential than actually creating something new and unique! Look at the old masters – did they got psycho over their gear? (Surely some did) many creates stunning and deep work with minimal equipment!

Happy holidays

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Jerome December 27, 2013 at 8:58 am

I’d like to comment on the meat of the article but just a little critique of the editing of this article:

“I love great cameras as much as the next man; given the size of my camera collection, I think it’s fair to say that I probably love a great camera more than most! However, it’s not a prerequisite to great photography.

We need to bury all this rubbish about Canon vs Nikon, film versus digital and DSLRs vs smartphones and move on with our artistic lives. I have seen more compelling photographs taken with a plastic toy camera straight out of a “My First Detective Kit” than many people, myself included, are likely to produce in a lifetime.

I love great cameras as much as the next man, probably more than most! However, it’s not a prerequisite to great photography. I think the people who understood this better than most were Lomography.”

That first paragraph and the third are essentially the same. Just an FYI :-).

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    ZDP-189 December 28, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Yes, the article was thrown together from a series of tweets I did one day recently. I submitted the draft with the intention of re-writing it from scratch, but Christmas and end of year responsibilities got in the way and I hit the submission/publication deadline and told Bellamy to go ahead and publish as is. I’m not proud of the writing, but like the title says, it’s not an exercise in the application of writing technique; it is the message and how it engages the reader that matters.

    - Dan K

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Michael December 27, 2013 at 7:06 pm

The point of any art is that you have the skills to use your equipment.
So beginner books starting with photogrphic technics are right.
You have to learn the basics about ISO, aperature, speed. THEN you can go on and learn how to see and transform something seen in a photo.

The camera realy doesn´t matter as long as you feel comfortable with it and this tool give you inspiration. That´s why many of us have a small or large collection, to decide which tool is right for the planed use. I wouldn´t chose a RF for macro work or an old plate folder for sports ;-), but when you find the place where your cam is your helper to create your vision, then you have found the perfect cam for yourself and this special use.

I rate some of my cams over Leicas and Nikons, while I love to use them and hopefully know where to use them right. this rating is just my feel and doesn´t fit to anybody else.

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Greg Williamson March 13, 2014 at 4:44 pm

I don’t agree. I like definition, and cheap cameras don’t give it. And as for technique, well… Poor technique produces poor photos most of the time. Of course you can get lucky, but starting with the right stuff means there is less hinderance to your expression.

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Phillip Qin September 8, 2014 at 9:50 pm

Photography itself is a personal journey. I think it will always start off with the gear and the techniques although the ones that delve deeper into this art will eventually come to discover what you are saying. I too started off wanting all the best cameras and lens I can buy and only recently realized that a Leica won’t increase my keep rate. But that’s not to say I won’t eventually buy one. The gear is apart of my inspiration and identity as a photographer. Many are geeks at heart.

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