The Limited Role of Equipment and Technique

In Photography

7 min read by Dan K.

Note from the editor.

This article first appeared on the Japan Camera Hunter website. Republished on Analog.Cafe with the author’s permission.

Dan K is a prominent camera collector and is a keen supporter of photographic traditions on Twitter.

-d.

I have often admitted that I am a camera collector first and foremost and a photographer second. My photography was initially a way to justify the purchasing of lovely shiny things. Later it became a way of recording memories that would otherwise be lost.

Recently, I have started to take my photography a little more seriously, to treat it as a serious art form and a way of self-expression through a visual medium.

Along my journey, my equipment requirements at first intensified as my standards rose. I then leaned towards convenience as my improved technique allowed me to work effectively with cameras that offered less automation.

At this point, I have taken pause and came to the realization that neither equipment nor technique can make up for inspiration, vision and message.

The limited role of equipment.

Inspiration, position, composition, rapport, timing, emotion, expression… None of these are found in the camera, yet these are precisely the factors that separate a great picture from a poor one. I love great cameras as much as the next man; given the size of my camera collection, I think it’s fair to say that I probably love a great camera more than most! However, it’s not a prerequisite to great photography.

We need to bury all this rubbish about Canon vs Nikon, film versus digital and DSLRs vs smartphones and move on with our artistic lives. I have seen more compelling photographs taken with a plastic toy camera straight out of a “My First Detective Kit” than many people, myself included, are likely to produce in a lifetime.

I love great cameras as much as the next man, probably more than most! However, it’s not a prerequisite to great photography. I think the people who understood this well is Lomography. Their core message was to ignore the camera and stop overthinking; trust in your instinct and shoot.

Unfortunately, as the company grew, Lomography and its disciples have obscured the gospel in the gaudy trappings of religious icons. People are led to believe that they can buy a certain camera and SHAZAM! Suddenly they’ll be transformed into an artist with the vision and talent.

Certain cameras and lenses indeed render in unique ways, but vision and talent are not included in the package. My criticism’s not limited to Lomography; all major brands bestow a fair helping of hype upon their products. True Photography is not about a retro-styled camera that omits video capabilities. True Photography is having something to say and the means to get that message across.

After collecting more cameras than any sane man, I can tell you there is no such thing as an ideal camera. For a start, everyone goes about photography in their own way. We all depend on features like metering and focus to a varying extent, and so we will each have a different ideal package. Indeed, unless you’re a specialist in a particular kind of photography, then you will be best off with different equipment on separate outings. I may be a street photographer one day and a landscape photographer the next; I’ll take the camera and lenses that suit that genre better if I have the choice.

When selecting a camera, remember that my advice on camera selection is highly biased by my own preferences, style and way of working. That’s why I state my kind of photography and my preferences in my reviews. For this reason, I prefer to write round-ups of a genre of cameras than nominate one camera that represents my ideal.

A professional photographer working to deliver a high-quality product reliably and to the specification must choose his equipment carefully. Still, as an enthusiast, I find the primary purpose of a camera is to motivate me to get out shooting. It doesn’t have to be a rare or superior camera. An engineering marvel or a quirky plaything is equally likely to inspire me.

Nor does the camera have to look the part, nor inspire respect in others. A camera is like a partner; packaging is great, but does it complete you? At least cameras are not jealous, and trading up from bad camera is cheaper than a divorce. Play the field and find your true love before you settle down and become one with it.

If you’re going to spend money on your gear, spend it on glass. Why? The lens’ job is rendering. The camera is a box whose only purpose is to facilitate the execution. A shoebox with a hole is the minimum requirement.

At the same time, you don’t have to spend serious money on lenses with superior corner to corner sharpness and perfect rectilinear projection. Within limits, you might call a lens’ defect a “character.” My favourite lens of all time is an early Leitz Elmar, for which I paid $230. By modern technical standards, this lens is a pig, but the images it produces are spectacular. When the lens was updated, Leitz were careful to preserve its unique and desirable signature — a sharp centre with crisp definition but a gradual blurring of detail towards the periphery.

Technique is not the be-all and end-all.

Really? I don’t care if you drew your picture with a broken crayon. If it makes me feel something, it’s done its job.

In today’s world, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t taken a photo or two. At some point, many feel the need to improve. They may read up on the internet, buy books, or attend courses. All these are useful, but it seems that most beginner’s books and courses are focussed on explaining the technique of photography — rather than the art of photography.

In the past, I became somewhat obsessed with mastering all the relevant techniques, including studio lighting, things that have little relevance to my photography today. It matters little if you know how to focus the attention of a viewer by dropping the background out of focus if the subject is not compelling. Worry less about sharpness and more about feeling and message.

The other day, one of my friends turned up to a gathering with a T-shirt that proudly exclaimed in great bold letters, “I SHOOT RAW.” Really? I don’t care if you drew your picture with a broken crayon. If it makes me feel something, it’s done its job.

Developing an Artistic Vision.

Only a lucky few are born with a fully developed artistic sensibility, but talent can be learned through study and experience. I myself am a journeyman, I have figured out most of the technique; I am working methodically towards a point where I can produce art, rather than pass off happy accidents as deliberate talent.

You’d be astounded to see how many lousy photos an expert will have made in their early career. It takes persistence to learn how to see.

If I were more serious about my art, I’d spend more time studying the great photographers and artists and improving my sketching. There was a famous fashion photographer here in Hong Kong who was, at one time, the highest-paid in his profession. Eventually, he realized that photography has its limits; the camera captures only what it is presented with, and his artistic vision had grown beyond that. He gave up photography and took up painting. At first, his technique was amateurish, but he improved till his skills were the equal of the images hitherto only seen in his mind’s eye.

We may not all progress to this point, but it would not hurt to take the time to look at the past masters or oils, watercolour and charcoal. Learn how they saw and used light, how they conveyed layers upon layers of message and subtext, how they artfully manipulated the eye and the mind. Then return to photography and bring these same skills to bear with new impetus and inspiration.

I suppose that in the end, I shall indeed find myself sketching with a broken crayon, instead of photographing with a Nikon FM3A and Noct-Nikkor.