Marco and I were recording the Inspiration Podcast on the Photofocus Podcasting Network and he reminded me of an old Edward Weston quote:
The fact is that relatively few photographers ever master their medium. Instead they allow the medium to master them and go on an endless squirrel cage chase from new lens to new paper to new developer to new gadget, never staying with one piece of equipment long enough to learn its full capacities, becoming lost in a maze of technical information that is of little or no use since they don’t know what to do with it.
This quote describes the current state of the photography world so accurately that it gives me chills. Why? Anyone who’s paying attention now can see this is the truth. Why would this be so impactful? Simple.
The quote is NINETY YEARS OLD!
Edward Weston said this in the late 1920s! Imagine that. Nothing has changed. Photographers still seem to think that if they chase that next new camera or lens things will get better. If only they had THAT lighting setup or THAT macro lens, things would get better. If only they had Joe McNally’s gear, or Annie Leibovitz’s gear, or Anne Geddes’ gear, things would get better.
You get the point. Photographers have (for at least the last 90 years based on the timing of Mr. Weston’s quote) been chasing gear as if it will be the ONE thing they need to become better photographers. And yet, they can’t master the gear they have today.
Need that new lens do you? I have a saying that has gained some traction. “98% of all lenses are better than 99% of all photographers.” Chances are VERY good that you’re not getting every drop of performance out of the lens (lenses) you have right now. Same goes for cameras, lights, etc.
I understand this. I really do. When I was younger I had the worst case of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) in recorded history. I chased gear like nobody’s business and it never did me much good. And that’s why I am writing this. What’s the advantage of getting old, if you can’t pass on lessons from the mistakes you made in order to help others?
It took decades (yes decades) of practice, and study, and trial and error and wisdom and experience to get to the point where I finally realized that no matter how many new cameras or lenses or lights or accessories I bought, it just boiled down to having a good eye. That was it. Knowing what I am looking for, being wise enough to spot it when I see it, being wiser still about knowing how to capture it to get the result I want without thinking – THAT was the Holy Grail. Not the next piece of gear.
Sticking with Edward Weston here I’ll take this to the next step by talking about what WILL make a better picture.
As great a picture can be made as one’s mental capacity–no greater. Art cannot be taught; it must be self-inspiration, though the imagination may be fired and the ambition and work directed by the advice and example of others. – Edward Weston
Ultimately success or failure in photographing people depends on the photographer’s ability to understand his fellow man. – Edward Weston
The photographer’s most important and likewise most difficult task is not learning to manage his camera, or to develop, or to print. It is learning to see photographically – that is, learning to see his subject matter in terms of the capacities of his tools and processes, so that he can instantaneously translate the elements and values in a scene before him into the photograph he wants to make. – Edward Weston
As you can see, the master didn’t talk nearly as much about gear as he did vision. Mr. Weston found out – as have I, that the gear chase is a misguided one. If you can’t feel anything in a photograph it doesn’t matter what camera was used to make it. It’s all about your own creative vision and what story you want to tell. It’s about the photo(s) YOU want to make. And lest you think Mr. Weston isn’t relevant because – well he’s one of the old masters and times have changed, let’s move on to a newer master.
David duChemin has a saying. In fact it’s what he’s mostly known for.
Gear is good – vision is better.
David seems to be saying the same thing as Mr. Weston only more short and to the point. You need vision first, gear second.
I remind you that I am pleading guilty here. I have learned this all the hard way. I have seen first hand that buying lots of gear won’t make me a better photographer. It’s okay to buy lots of gear if you just want to, but just understand it isn’t solving the problem you think it is most times.
I still buy lots of cameras and lenses but I have an excuse. I need to be familiar with this gear so I can help out here at Photofocus and on the workshops I teach. But as for my personal work, I am trying to stay pretty true to the same sorts of cameras and lenses I have always used. As I get older, I get more and more comfortable with one camera and one lens and an hour or two of exploration. In the old days I carried car loads of gear everywhere I went. I learned over time that all those cameras and lenses were actually holding me back. I am at my best photographically when the gear disappears into the background, and when I don’t have to think about how to use any of it. When I am photographing what my heart tells me to, relying solely on muscle memory to operate the camera – that is when I am at my best. Maybe you should think about that the next time you want a new camera. I am not saying you shouldn’t buy it. Nope – not saying that at all. Just saying you probably don’t need it and if you stay in that cycle of perpetual upgrades you’ll never, ever get your money’s worth, let alone your best images.
Of course, that’s just my opinion. Your mileage may vary. Good luck.
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