The Photographer’s Tools

In Creativity and Inspiration, Pep Talks, The Craft by David13 Comments

I believe now more than ever in this beautiful craft. I love its democratic nature, I love the way it uses such elegant raw materials: light and time. I love the mechanics, and the way the cameras feel in my hands. And I adore the final print. In fact the moment I’m done writing this I’m going to run some overdue prints, just for the joy of seeing them emerge in the real world in dark black and graceful greys.

I believe we can experience photographs in a way that we don’t experience other mediums. They stick in a unique way. Or they can. But that stickiness isn’t innate. We have to put it there. And the tools to do so are not the camera and the lens, much as I love them.

The tools of the photographer are her language and not the camera itself.

I mentioned this in my last article, The End of What it Looks Like, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this between this post and the last. You know, we talk a lot about writing with light. It sounds poetic. But we talk so seldom about what we write and how we order the words to best say the thing we envision. We know our f/stops by memory, and we can talk for hours about the latest advances that make it easier than ever to make sharp and well-exposed images, but ask us about balance, tension, colour palettes, and other elements of the visual language and we’ll look at you like you just licked our sensor.

Our cameras are not our tools. The elements of the visual language are our tools. The craft of photography matters deeply and you need to know how to use the mechanics, but that’s just the price of admission. It is assumed that you will learn how to use the hardware. But using the hardware is not the same as saying something. It’s not, as I said, where the stickiness comes from. That comes from someplace deeper, and it comes only through the use of intangible tools like contrast, scale, repetition of elements, and the way we use the frame itself. It comes from how we create energy and mood and story.  Your Nikon can’t do that. Only you can do that.

We will always have room to grow in terms of our craft. Over 30 years on and I am still finding new ways to use the fundamentals of the mechanics of this craft. But that is not the goal. The goal is more; it’s bigger. The goal is to learn every day to see in new ways and experience this world with wider eyes. It is to find new ways to express that, and new ways to tell stronger stories. So here is my challenge to you because it might be time someone told you: stop screwing around with your gear and start to learn the language. You’ve got something to say, I know you do.

Learn why the orientation and ratio of your frame helps tell your story. Learn how to use scale and proportion. Learn to tell stories. Learn about colour. The mechanics are the tools of craft, but the language is the tool of art. Get fascinated by that. Go to a gallery and learn about the visual arts. It might be intimidating, learning always is. But find out why Van Gogh did what he did, and why it worked. Pick up a book about Picasso and learn about his use of line and shape, or about Rothko and his use of colour. Or about graphic design. Buy a visual art or graphic design magazine next time you’re tempted to buy yet another photography magazine. How many Tamron ads can one person absorb, anyways? Consider studying my book Photographically Speaking, or Molly Bang’s Picture This, or Michael Freeman’s excellent book, The Photographer’s Eye.

You’re probably pretty good at focusing and exposing. You’ll always get better. Now it’s time to study the harder stuff. Who’s in?


Share this Post, Share the Love.


  1. David,
    I’m stalled as an advanced beginner slogging along mostly on my own, in fits and starts. If you had to back up and make a recommendation or two about video resources to improve mechanics (for frustrated technical types), what would you suggest? I’m so grateful for your generosity of spirit encouraging vision. Please point some of us to trusted craft. 💕

  2. Thanks David, always up for a challenge, I’ll check out Michael’s book, already have yours 🙂

  3. I’ve recently begun spending time absorbed in Michael Kenna’s Images of the Seventh Day, and Sebastiao Salgado’s Genesis, trying to learn why I like the images so much and how to put it to words. Not sure I’m there yet, but it’s a process I’ll continue. I’ve also been feeling the urge lately to get back up to one of the great art museums in the area. They really can be inspiring, though I don’t think I’ve spent nearly enough time trying to learn from them, versus simply appreciating them.

    I love your image, by the way. My first thought was how lonely it looked, but then I thought not lonely at all, instead a quiet first dance between two tentative partners. It’s the vastness of the framing that does it. If you’d cropped in more on the subjects I think the feeling would be lost.

  4. Very inspiring! I was at my godson’s wedding this weekend and due to the horrible lighting in the reception hall (complete with multi-colored dance lights) I switched my Canon 20D to b&w mode. The images were surprising better than expected and it reminded me of how much I enjoy taking b&w film photos. I hear our wet darkroom calling!

  5. A welcome Challenge David, thank you for all you do. This post makes me want to grab my old 40D and Nifty 50/1.8, and shoot nothing but black and whites until I feel I have some grasp of simple storytelling. The only question is, will I actually do it?

    1. Author

      Ah, now only you can answer that one. 🙂 So why don’t you create some constraints and make it happen. Want accountability? Let me see a body of work by the end of the month. 12 images. Black and white. On a theme. Don’t let me down. You in, James?

  6. Gosh! Forgot to mention what a fabulous image! Have you seen Martin Clune’s documentory on the Manta Rays? You would probably enjoy it. ?

    1. Author

      Thanks, Tom. I haven’t seen that doc but I’m going to look for it now. Thank you!

  7. I have always believed that studying the great masters in art, all the way back, like Goya, Velaques, Turner, etc., to the present is truly the best wat to learn composition, color and relationship. Plus studying Japanese and Chinese artists can really help a person understand the power of “less is more” and the value of negative space. Indigenous artists can help with the power of symbols.

    The best part is that it’s a fun and exciting adventure to do so, and eventually the scales begin to fall from our eyes and the mind expands.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.