Hiding Behind Shiny Pillars?

In GEAR, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, Vision Is Better by David33 Comments

I’m re-reading Hugh MacLeod’s IGNORE EVERYBODY. Great book. You should read it. Seriously. But that’s not why I bring it up. I just posted about shooting with a little less gear and then I sat down with a glass of wine and this book and a pen and read the following. I think it applies.

There’s no correlation between creativity and equipment ownership. None. Zilch. Nada….

A fancy tool just gives the second-rater one more pillar to hide behind.

Which is why there are so many second-rate art directors with state-of-the-art Macintosh computers.

Which is why there are so many hack writers with state-of-the-art laptops.

Which is why there are so many crappy photographers with state-of-the-art digital cameras.

Which is why there are so many unremarkable painters with expensive studios in trendy neighborhoods.

Hiding behind pillars, all of them.

Pillars do not help; they hinder. The more mighty the pillar, the more you end up relying on it psychologically, the more it gets in your way.

Ouch. And yet it I wonder if it hurts because it’s more true than not in this particular neck of the woods. Some photographers seem to escape this. I’m sure they have their own pillars to deal with. But the gear thing, man can it get in the way. I’m going to leave you with Hugh MacLeod’s words because I don’t think they need elaboration, but feel free to discuss. I know, I KNOW, we need good gear, etc, etc. But once you lay down all the excuses and the reasons, seriously, when’s the last time that new piece gear really truly made better, truer, more honest photographs for you? I’m a fan of the What If…question. So in the spirit of that…what if our hunger was less for new gear and more for images that were more deeply personal, more honest, more powerful, more subtle, more emotionally compelling, more beautiful, more luminous?


  1. Pingback: New Beginnings. « bang | Photography

  2. Art’s post is excellent…well said. OK, well written.

    Largely more personal wealth or more debt, you chose, has meant that the high end DSLR has become a much more achievable prospect to own. Couple that to instant feedback and it’s never surprising that armed with the new CanNik D3xMark9 many photographers suddenly have a belief that creating compelling images is now just a shutter click away. Surprise then abounds when the results were as poor as before.

    Rather than invest on the new whizz-bang camera invest time, energy and cash on learning how to shoot. Increase your ‘keeper’ ratio of images by having an intimate understanding of how your camera works/meters. And unless you shoot for a living where having the newest body may actually mean you need a new body to counter potential mechanical faults, love what you have now.

    Aspire to purchase that new equipment but only when you think you’ve outgrown what you already have.

  3. My observation over the years has been those who say “it’s not the equipment” usually have the most equipment.

  4. This is one terrific book. It’s way more valuable for one’s creative journey than most of what we photographers tend to read.

  5. I don’t think the point is that gear is bad, just that no amount of gear will make you good, or great.

    A good or great artist can get by without the best gear, if finances dictate, the mediocre can have the best gear in the world, but….

  6. Oh, I wish I had the money to buy some of those pillars! I’ve been shooting on the same old XTi body for 3 years now, paired with my one and only big investment lens.

    The thing is, I do get most of the shots I want, and I also know that the main barrier to getting the shots I would LOVE to get is generally me (and sometimes a stop or two that my lens doesn’t give me).

    Doesn’t stop me hankering after lots of shiny toys though. I keep telling myself the limitations are good for my creative growth. And of course they are. My photography is improving even while life dictates that money has to be spent elsewhere at the moment.

  7. Well, gear IS the first thing you need in our craft, because it’s hard to take a picture without a camera.

    Having said that, gear will never be more than just a tool, a mean to an end. Camera-phones prove that, because even with all limitations, they can capture the frame YOU make in YOUR head. (Case in mind: Chase Jarvis)

    As a NY speedlight-junkie summbitch once wrote, Make the picture. Then grab your gear and shoot it.

  8. There’s no doubt that expensive gear cannot compensate for a lack of talent, passion or vision. One of the things that has changed in the past few years is that many people (myself included) have the money to buy gear that is beyond their capabilities. The correct order is to develop the talent or ability first using crappy gear and then, and only then, to take your art to the next level by using advanced gear.

    Wayne Gretzky, Theo Fleury, Steve Podborski and practically any other top tier athlete that grew up in the sixties or seventies or came from an inner city neighborhood followed this path, not by choice, but by necessity. They wanted to play and the only way to play was to use whatever tools were available. In his autobiography “Playing with Fire,” Fleury describes using dull, loose-fitting hand-me-down skates and still making fools of the other players. These guys did it for the love of the game, not because it allowed them to strap on expensive, new equipment.

    I think those of us who learned our craft with a simple 35mm camera, a 50mm lens and black and white film remember when you were forced to learn the basics. Sure it would have been nice to have 5 frames per second, autofocus, and specialized lenses, but you didn’t and it forced you to get creative. If you wanted to do action photography you had to master pre-focus, tracking your subject and timing your shutter release. It was tough, but when you nailed the shot you had something that few others had and boy did it feel good! It made you want to go out and do it again, and again.

    After you master the basics, progressing to better equipment just builds on an already strong foundation; increasing your confidence.

    Ironically, using fancy gear too soon in the process of developing your craft can actually decrease your passion and your confidence. Did I get that great shot simply because I have a $5000 lens that few other people have? Would I have been able to do it with a cheaper manual focus lens?

  9. Author

    Randy. I agree with the spirit of what you’re saying, but have to disagree with the notion that we need to stay current. Some might, in order to please clients. Others might want to because they work better in one way than another. But I don’t believe a photographer needs to be current – hell, they don’t even have to be digital – in order to create breathtaking work that resonates on a deep level and is seen and loved by the masses. There is absolutely no reason you need to abandon film, pinholes, or even glass plates in order to be relevant to anyone other than die hard geeks. Ideas will get out into the world through digital means, most certainly, but they needn’t be created with the latest and greatest any more than painters need to work in anything other than the medium they choose. Thinking otherwise is just another smokescreen.

  10. I’m in the middle of putting together a book of images from a museum’s archives. Want to see if this theory holds true? Take a look through an archive. Some images are stunning, and the stories they convey are amazing. Many of these images were made with cameras that were pretty much one step up from a pin-hole. Forget about the gear. These photographers knew how to see!

  11. This idea/theory is most evident in the golfing industry; “Boy, if I had that new wedge/putter/ball/etc, I could hit the ball closer to the pin”. Never mind the fact that great golfers of the past didn’t have technology the guys on tour have today. There’s a ton of crappy 100+ golfers out there with very expensive tools.

    You can flip through any photography/golfing magazine (and most websites) and there’s usually about 90% ads and only 10% actual discussion on skill and inspiration. I guess it’s easier to spend money on gear than taking the time to actually get better at photography or golf.

  12. Great discussion. I feel the true path is everything in moderation. I know it is an old statement, been said a million times before. Yet it is relevant to photography. Creating art is wonderful, but needs to be somehow dispersed to the masses and thus shared. Without getting involved in the continual expanding digital photography evolution, with the newly evolving DSLR’s, software and computer hardware. How do we continue to be relevant and best disperse our art to the masses. It is important that we stay current with equipment that keeps us able to create and show art to today’s audiences. However, and here comes the moderation part, I know many photographers that don’t use their equipment, instead they lust after the latest lens, camera body and other equipment, instead of making images. We need to keep current and still fully utilize our equipment to make images. Moderation is the key to this discussion the way I see it. Without updating our equipment, our newly evolving ideas will have more trouble getting out into the world.

  13. True for photographers, true for others. I also play guitar and there’s always another instrument or amp or effect that will make me a better player (or so I think). In my day job as a university professor, there’s always another book I need to buy or a journal/blog I should read that will make me a better teacher (or so I think).

    Having recently read The War of Art, looks like I need to read Ignore Everybody as well. ‘Cause that will make me better! 😉

    (All kidding aside, I’m sure it will make me better. Really.)

  14. A number of years ago I read an interview given by a remarkable female photographer. Sorry but I have forgotten her name. It was in the film days and I believe she shot with a Lieca SLR; but she used only one lens. The interviewr asked her when she would buy another lens. Her answer very simply was: “Just as soon as I exhaust all of the potential of this lens”.
    I may have forgotten her name but that answer comes to mind whenever I find myself lusting for the latest super zoom or sharpest and fastest prime lens.
    In my view her words sum up this discussion very well.
    Dick Kirkley

  15. Author

    Good discussion. Yes, this is all a gross generalization and, as Gordon points out, there are times a new piece of gear will allow you to do new things. Of course it does. Denying the role of gear in achieving your vision would be like denying a painter his brushes. It’s more a question of our own industry-wide insistence that how creative we can be is limited to how recent or shiny or large or whatever, our gear is. This isn’t about the commercial concern of meeting your customers needs – sometimes you need the fancy gear to get the job done. This is about creativity and the fact that many of us – not all of us all the time – get tempted to hide behind our lack of new gear as a fog for our lack of creativity. In fact more than that I’d guess our lack of creativity could be chalked up to just not getting out there to shoot and shoot and shoot some more. I’m guilty of it. Heck, it’s been weeks since I released a shutter to roll across a sensor on anything but an iphone.

    Commercial needs aside, for those of us that shoot that way, i still think Pressfield’s comment warrants heeding – there is no relationship between how good your gear is and how creative you can be.

  16. I agree with the basic thought, but try & tell your client that you didn’t want to use that 200mm F2 “Pillar” in a low light Gym to get that action shot he payed you to get.

    Hey this guy wants to make money too. So if he gets you thinking about why are you using these lenses & cameras. Then he has down his job.

  17. Sadly the industry is promoting More gear. The most prestigious contest, BBC Wildlife Photographer of the year has just changed it’s rules so you can only enter images taken with a 10 meg camera. I still have my 1D Mark II and love it, but now I would have to think twice about using it.

  18. I’ve been playing the piano for 18 years, and make my living as a musician. After all that time, and a serious ‘gear phase,’ The only insturment I own right now is a $600 Yamaha keyboard.

    I perform on much more expensive instruments, but at the end of the day, I’m far more limited by my lack of practice time than the quality of my instrument.

    If I had to break it down, I’d say time spent should be <1% choosing gear, 5% mastering the technical use of your gear, 95% practicing your craft.

    [Full disclosure: I make my living playing pop music. If I were a classical pianist it'd be a different story, though I'd still just pick a piano and get to practicing.]

  19. I wonder how many of us would improve in our craft if we reduced the equipment we carried: replaced the fast zoom with a small fast prime.

  20. Last year, two books I bought made me speechless and gave me much food for thought: Ignore Everybody and The War of Art. Two books that are now in my schedule for a re-read.

  21. I fully agree with the premise but…that, as all generalizations, the problem is that…there are indeed great photographers with the latest and most expensive gear and great directors with Apple gear.
    Well…actually most of the great use good gear also…the thing is…that’s not what makes them great!

    I’m just pointing this out because I think that if you have the money and/or opportunity and give good use to your gear that is great! The truth is that I don’t believe that a great artist is a better one with crappy tools than he would be with the best tools.

    That’s why even if completely agreeing with “There’s no correlation between creativity and equipment ownership. None.”

    What I see is the problem in going from that to a dangerous rant on ownership.
    Actually this always reminds me of the opposite…the so called artist that say they are artist because they live in some artists neighborhood and live a life of decay.
    One can be artistic as one can live life…in a million different ways!
    And…that’s a good thing!

  22. “when’s the last time that new piece gear really truly made better, truer, more honest photographs for you?”

    Actually, very recently. I’ve just picked up a set of pocket wizards recently. I’m still playing and learning, but I can tell you now, nothing will ever be the same. This will change how I am able to express my self more than anything I’ve ever bought, short of the first camera I ever owned. I’m also more motivated.

    Sometimes you need less gear and more vision. But occasionally you get gear that opens doors and expands your vision, and that is a good thing.


  23. I agree, to help unhinder you of this burden, you should send me one of your more recent cameras maybe the 1D… it’s got all those fancy buttons and stuff, you’re not used to them and it might get confusing.

    Seriously, though, this post is timely. I’m heading into my first booked wedding season and there’s no shortage of prime lenses, full frame cameras (maybe medium format is the answer!) and random remote grip things I believe will make my photography better.

    If I got half the stuff on my wishlist I wouldn’t be able to bring it with me, and half of that still would distract me so much in setting up I’d miss every shot.

    No – what I need is my camera (two, really cuz if one goes… well that’s not good for anyone), a couple lenses, a couple flashes, and a couple “Hail Mary” moments.

  24. I’m a long time fan of Hugh’s blog and when he gets it right, he gets it very right.

    I face this all the time when people see my music studio. Everyone *expects* a big mixing desk. But, these days and for the way I work, it’s an optional extra. Still, I waste time looking at the catalogues and fear one day I’ll cave in and buy a big electronic white elephant.

  25. My father was a mechanic for over 50 years. His toolbox was about 3 feet high, 3 feet wide and about two feet deep. All the young mechanics had these huge rolling toolboxes some 5 feet tall. The tool salesman came around every other week and went straight for the young guys, order book at the ready, and he never left without sales. My father could fix everything the young guys could, faster, without all the latest tools.
    Of coarse, the young guys were hooked… there had to be a magic tool out there, they couldn’t take the chance to miss is.
    Both approaches worked, but one cost the vanity price.

  26. I can agree with the basic premise of this idea but the truth is that I know a lot more mediocre photographers shooting with mediocre gear than I know mediocre photographers shooting with state of the art gear. Don’t you?

    I worked hard with limited gear for years, forcing a large vision into a small budget. That was probably a good way to learn but improvements in gear have definitely improved my art time and time again over the years.

    A great chef can probably flip an egg with a spoon that’s been flattened with a hammer but he is going to have to put a lot more thought into the tool than the egg to get consistently usable results. Some times the best thing you can do for the quality of your work is to buy a spatula that you don’t have to think about.

  27. How true, these observations about shiny pillars – and hiding behind them.

    Yet, there are also those who began working behind pillars, then around them – then finally, out of them. 🙂

  28. I completely agree with Matt, but I also think that the metaphorical ceiling needs to cave in for us to realize our true creative potential. A bird might be able to fly, but it cannot truly be free until it has access to the sky…

  29. I agree with MacLeod’s statements, but I think some people are afraid that if they remove the pillars the roof will cave in. I know I’m guilty of inventing excuses and diversions (Resistance if you will) on occasion simply out of fear of taking some next step.

    Also, you are a voracious reader!

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