Is It Equipment, Photographer, or Both?

It all started innocently enough when a friend e-mailed our group of photography friends asking if he should get a Nikon D600 or D800, and why. Since most of our group happens to shoot Nikon, it was a sensible thing to ask.

For my personal work, I currently use a D800E, and briefly owned a D600 (which is a fantastic camera, but since it’s so close in size to the D800E, I stuck with just the D800E), so I replied with what I saw were the pros and cons of each. Of course, one of the main differences is the greater resolution of the D800, and I mentioned that higher resolution might allow him to create more detailed images, depending on what he was most interested in photographing. But one of the working pros in our group (who currently shoots Canon, but I understand is in therapy for it—-just kidding) took umbrage and said it was the photographer, not the gear, and we were concentrating on all the wrong things.

The ensuing flurry of e-mails has been a really interesting discussion, with no right or wrong, and no definitive answer. But the topic of the importance of good equipment is certainly worth thinking about for yourself.

In his latest e-mail, my Canon Pro friend (henceforth referred to as CP) included a link to a short post on Seth Godin’s blog (http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2012/12/when-everyone-has-access-to-the-same-tools.html) that started by saying, “When everyone has access to the same tools then having a tool isn’t much of an advantage.” Seth ended his post by suggesting that you need to look for other advantages, such as your connections, your expertise, or your attitude.

CP said that, applied to photography, Seth’s post could be taken to mean that survival among working pros comes down not to equipment, but to style and talent.

But I read that blog post and, to me, it said something quite different.

Again, its first few word were: “When everyone has access to the same tools….” To me, that’s what this whole discussion had been about—all tools (in this case, camera bodies) are not the same.

Equipment certainly isn’t the most important element in the creation of a photograph; I’d argue that photographic knowledge is. A novice will always be at a distinct disadvantage compared to a working pro, regardless of what equipment each has.

Throughout this discussion, it is important to keep in mind that the best tool for one photographer or for a certain photographic situation might not be the best for another. This isn’t about the only one absolute best. No such tool exists. But no matter what brand you choose, or what subjects you typically photograph, or in which style you shoot them, there will always be a hierarchy of tools to choose from.

For an example, you can make pictures with both an iPhone and a Nikon D800 (just to choose two tools), but they are not the same tool. Both can be used creatively and effectively by someone who has mastered the craft of photography. In fact, it’s likely that a pro could make a more compelling image with an iPhone than a novice could make if given a D800. Heck, Chase Jarvis and several other pros have published entire books of their iPhone images. There certainly are many unique and creative images in Jarvis’s book that expressly demonstrate his style. But keeping with our current tool comparison, no image from even the best iPhone photographer will ever be mistaken for one made with a D800.

This discussion started with a recommendation that if you’re going to buy a photographic tool, like a camera body, it might make sense to buy the best one you can afford that can make the best quality image, even if that’s not your intended regular use or style. That way, if you ever do want to make the sharpest, most detailed, highest quality image (say, you see Bigfoot or Elvis), you’ll have the tool to do it. I’d much rather have the tools and not always need them, than to need them and not have them.

For instance, if you’re driving along and come across a spectacular scene with glorious lighting, and all you have is your iPhone, by all means, stop and make the picture. And I would suspect that given two people, a novice and a pro, each with only an iPhone, the pro’s image would be better. But I don’t feel that any working pro worthy of the name wouldn’t have wished he or she had better equipment with them at the time. Now if you gave the pro and the novice D800’s at that same scene, it’s likely the pro would once again create a higher quality image. With the same tools—-great or mediocre—-a working pro should regularly produce superior images to that of a novice. But it’s also true that the same pro would be able to make better images with a D800 than with an iPhone.

A photographer certainly can make, and even sell, images made with anything. (And with certain “styles”, using anything works just as well as anything else.) There are books and gallery exhibits of out of focus, unsharp, un-composed images made with Holgas and other toy cameras. But those tools cannot be used to make stunning landscape images, for example, regardless of the skill of the photographer.

Staying in the realm of DSLRs, I have sold images made with my old Nikon D1x with its whopping 5.9 megapixels. I’m still happy with many of those images, but I sure do wish that I could go back and reshoot them with the higher res camera and better glass that I have now. And as great as the D1x was for its time—-it was Nikon’s top-of-the-line pro body for a while—-I wouldn’t go back to now it for any reason. That doesn’t make my old D1x images unusable, it’s just that given the choice, I’d rather start with the highest quality tools I can afford, and keep on learning to master them. (By the way, I still use my older 12 megapixel Nikon D3s every day for my engineering work for its exceptionally clean, smaller files, and its superior low noise at high ISO. For me, it’s the best tool for that job.)

I’ve seen images made with 80 megapixel medium format digital cameras, and am in awe of the detail those cameras are capable of capturing in the right hands (or on the right person’s tripod, I should say). While those bodies and lenses are priced way out of my league, that doesn’t mean I can’t make images I’m happy with, and that are even worthy of selling and showing, using the equipment I currently own. But I’m betting that I could learn to create even better images with the medium format equipment than I can with what I now have.

How’s this for a moral: Spend the rest of your photographic life learning and practicing the art and craft of photography. But do it with the best equipment you can afford, for the photography you want to do, so you can give yourself the best chance of creating superior work along the way.

Makes me think of one of my favorite sayings (especially when I’m trying to justify a purchase): Buy the best, and you only cry once.

8 thoughts on “Is It Equipment, Photographer, or Both?

  1. Dan Thompson

    As someone actively participating in the email banter I would like to say I totally agree with your points here. We should all concern ourselves with the study of making our images better when behind the camera… but when it comes time to actually buy a new camera, be it out of necessity or simply because you want it, it pays (quite literally) to be well informed. Just like with anything else, if you don’t take the time to educate yourself on what you’re about to spend your hard-earned cash on, you run a chance of making a bad decision or one that you later regret. It is an excellent idea to learn as much as you can and then buy the equipment that both fits your budget and your needs (and wants).

    Good stuff!
    Dan

    Reply
  2. Steve Zigler

    Tom,

    Thanks for writing this! You have very thoughtfully navigated the answers to the question, “Does equipment make the photographer?” We recognize that the answer to this question must be a resounding “No!” Yet we also realize that, at least at some level, equipment does matter. I have struggled with this topic, but you have articulated a very meaningful viewpoint here, at least to me.

    Intuition rightly tells us that a photographer can create art with anything that collects light and records an image onto some medium. And we know that each photographic device has technical boundaries associated with it. A good photographer understands these boundaries and makes photographs within those boundaries. A master photographer expands those boundaries and creates art with style and vision. I hope to be in that latter category someday. In the meantime, the unique blend of art and science that defines photography is incredibly exciting to me. As far as it has come, I think digital photography is still in its infancy. The technical boundaries are regularly revised with each new generation of camera, so this discussion will continue for a long time. And, while I absolutely cannot wait to explore the artistic possibilities of a 52 megapixel, ISO 200,000 noise-free sensor with 14 stops of light range in a camera body with built-in interchangeable IR/UV/visible filters for $3000, it is very gratifying to know that the potential art produced by such a device will always live within me, the photographer.

    Reply
  3. Wesley Griems

    I think this is basically the same as asking whether the car makes the race driver, the golf clubs make the golfer, the scalpel makes the surgeon.

    Does the camera make the photographer?? I think the best answer is yes….and no…… A good photographer can make a good photograph with pretty much any camera. But a good photographer can make a better photograph with a better camera they know how to use….all things being equal. Just as a good race car driver can be really, really good….a better car can make the driver that 1/10 second faster around the track, which adds up over 200 laps or so!!! Do the surgical instruments make the doctor…..they can. I think a good surgeon will be a good surgeon with whatever tools they are trained on…but when I go into surgery, I want the best surgeon AND the best surgical equipment too.

    So, with photography I think that if you are an average photographer and are not being limited by your equipment resolution, lenses, ISO options, etc….then a ‘better’ camera will probably not make much difference. However….if, as a professional, that photographer learns how to use the better equipment….I think they will produce better images overall. That may mean they can make an image where they could not before, or it may mean that they produce a sharper image in extreme conditions…….for a simple shot, no difficulties…..you don’t need the latest and greatest camera.

    A race car driver can go to the grocery store in any car….but when they need to driver on the edge….their vehicle better be able to handle it. When a photographer is making standard….no-brainer type images….their iphone will do just fine…..but when we need to go outside the ‘easy’ snap shot and work in poor weather, difficult lighting, or prepare for a 24×30 image, etc…..we need the best camera we can handle to produce the best image we can.

    my 2 cents worth anyway.

    Reply
  4. Ron Heusser

    I believe that the equipment one uses should be driven by the type of work the photographer does and what his final product is. If the area is sports I don’t think a slower frame per second camera would be adequate. And if the sports photographer was publishing on the internet and magazines a high resolution camera would not be needed. Product work and large landscapes would be a different story. That type of work might demand the higher resolution image. A portrait photographer might have differing needs depending on the size of the image he normally is expected to produce and the potential for low light photos. I guess I would look at resolution, frames per seconds, portability, low light capability, and how all this relates to the type of photography one does and what type of image the photographer typically produces. Different work demands different equipment. I think good glass is a given.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thanks, Dan, Steve, Wes, and Ron. Your comments really add clarity to this debate. In fact, based on your feedback, I’ve just added a paragraph to my original post that I hope clarifies my points.
      Just wait until we get into the debate over how much post-processing we should do!
      Thanks, again.
      Tom

      Reply
  5. Val in Real Life

    Great post Tom. I know I’m late to the party… hopefully fashionably, but to me it isn’t a simple equation of camera + photographer = success (or not). It so much more complex and I view it kind of like spheres or facets that when they intersect, culminate in powerful images. So innate ability, equipment, knowledge of the equipment, study, and post-processing jump to mind as the spheres/facets, that when they become large enough, come together to that magical result.

    As the tools become more accessible and ubiquitous, more people are sporting a big equipment sphere from the start, leaving greater variability in the other spheres. So the equipment certainly doesn’t make the photographer but it is a factor.

    Of course, now rereading the comments I guess I’m saying I agree with Steve… (that would have been much easier to say than my diatribe about spheres!)

    In the end, I agree with your summary — buy the best you can afford but know it takes more to make great images so keep practicing and studying. -V

    Reply
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