Towards Mastery. Again.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted a desktop wallpaper, I’m hoping this makes up for the absence. Enjoy! Photographed this morning on the Maasai Mara, Kenya.
In a few days, or so, I’ll publish some thoughts about my mirror-less experiment in Africa. This is the preamble: none of it will make you a better photographer. Collect all the gear you like. Gear’s good. And it’s necessary. But isn’t it possible we’ve passed the point of diminishing returns and our hunger for gear is outpacing our hunger for beauty, compelling stories, great light, and amazing moments?
The other day someone left a comment on my Facebook page, an astute observation about this constant gear chase – the pursuit of new, better, shiny – some of us wrestle with so much on what we hope is a path to something like mastery. It’s had me thinking since then, bouncing around the Maasai Mara, making photographs and considering my own process and the place gear has within it. The comment was along these lines: that the more we chase gear, upgrade to new cameras, etc., the less chance we have at mastering our tools.
“Isn’t it possible we’ve passed the point of diminishing returns and our hunger for gear is outpacing our hunger for beauty, compelling stories, great light, and amazing moments?”
What would happen if we stuck with one camera for 10 years instead of switching it up every 2 or 3? How comfortable would that tool become in our hands if we’ve held it, and used it day-in and out, for longer than the now predictable cycle of planned obsolescence? And in that comfort, how much more would that gear get out of the way and allow us to do our work, making photographs? How much better would our images be if we remained in the moment instead of trying to remember which damn button or dial or menu setting we needed and where to find it on the new camera with more options than most photographers will ever, ever, need.
The best tool is the one that does the job you need it to do, in a way that’s so intuitive, or learned, that it now feels like a natural extension of our bodies. I know I’m setting myself up as a technophobe here but: enough already. Our ISOs are high enough. Our sensors large enough. Our glass sharp enough. The biggest lie we can listen to, or worse, tell ourselves, is that a bigger, newer, shinier, camera will make better photographs. If my photographs are made that much better by less noise, wall-sized prints, or slightly less chromatic aberration, then either my photographs are already so profoundly moving that I don’t need better gear, or they’re total rubbish. I suspect the latter.
I’ve said before that photographers have an unusual relationship with their gear. It’s true, better gear (define that yourself) can make our lives easier. It allows us to deliver what clients need, or think they need. In some cases, it allows us to make a photograph we might not otherwise have been able to make (rarer than some people think). I get that. But I am so sick of people telling me it’s always the pros with the fancy gear preaching these sermons, and therefore implying that the argument is ironic at best and irrelevant at worst. Sure, it’s easy for him to say, he’s got a _____________. If a photographer you respect has fancy gear and tells you he’s spent thousands on that gear and it only makes his life easier, not his photographs more compelling, then he’s exactly who you should listen to. I don’t have to be the one to say it; plenty have said it before me, so I’ll get in the back of the line and just add my voice to the choir.
“The biggest lie we can listen to, or worse, tell ourselves, is that a bigger, newer, shinier, camera will make better photographs.”
The constant acquisition of gear in the hopes that it will be the magic wand that makes it all better is not only unnecessary and expensive, it can get in the way of the path most of us hope to tread. I like cameras. I like to play with them. I like the gear and I’ve got more than enough of it. My recent experiments with smaller gear have come mostly from necessity because I just can’t haul the big gear everywhere I go anymore. I’ve had fun with the Fuji XE-1 and Leica M that I’m traveling with right now. But I am under no illusions that this gear will make my images better in a way that means anything to me. And every time I get new gear the learning curve means I’m busy learning new gear, not how to be a better photographer: the difference is immense.
What will make my images better is more time with my cameras in my hand. Using my tools until they just fit and do what I want without a thought, the way my Leica already does because it’s so similar to cameras I used years ago that I feel like I’ve just put on an old pair of jeans – and that’s worth more to me than the ability to make a 48 megapixel photograph at ISO 16ooo. What will make better photographs is studying photographs themselves, not the ads for gear in the latest photography magazine. Photographs are made better by curious, patient, passionate, people with vision and imagination, not sharper glass. To paraphrase Ansel Adams – if the idea is crap then it doesn’t matter how big or sharp it is. Nobody cares how much damn chromatic aberration there is in your photograph; we care if there’s no heart.
So buy a Fuji if it makes your life easier as it has for me. Buy an old film camera or a Phase One if you’ve got the cash for that, but if you expect it to change your photographs more than the longer path of becoming a better photographer, save your money. How much better would our work be if we stopped relying on new gear and put our creative energy into new work, and new ideas. The best work of the last century was made on cameras that don’t rival the advancements of all our new technology. You have in your hands more tech than Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray and Karsh and Lange and Weston and Rowell combined. If you’re not making work that moves others like the work of those that went before you, having so much less gear, and so fewer options, perhaps it’s not about the gear at all.