We’ve probably all heard it at some point when showing our images, that insidious insult dressed up as a compliment, “Wow, you must have a really good camera!” Why is it that people think a good photo is the result of good gear? And why do photographers rush out to upgrade to the latest camera body yet drag their feet when it comes to investing in photo education?
We think it’s a big fat myth that buying more and better gear will make you a better photographer, and yet that myth is alive and well out there. We are going to try and debunk this myth using our final photography workshop this spring, Learning to See: Developing Your Creative Vision in Montreal, June 5-7 as a case example. Tell us if we’ve convinced you. So here goes.
The Camera vs Your Brain
A camera is really just a black box made up of plastic, glass and metal. Your brain, on the other hand, is a marvel: coils and folds of squiggly grey matter are infiltrated with a network of delicate neurons that charge and fire and create – thought! Your life experiences shape your thoughts and interests, and your interests and thoughts create your images. A camera is by nature inert. It takes you, the photographer, to point the camera’s eye to something you deem worth photographing. It is you who decides which settings to use to portray your subject and it is you who pinpoints the split second to press the shutter.
In other words, the camera is like a helpful slave that carries out your bidding. True, a camera can help the photographer by ‘guessing’ at some of the settings required to make certain photos such as is found with certain program modes, but even if you shoot on Auto Everything, you are the one who decides what to photograph. There is always a mind behind the shot, so insinuating that it is the camera that makes a good photo ignores the mind behind the photo.
Three Things Make a Good Photographer
What then makes a good photographer if not gear? Essentially, there are three skills that make a good photographer, and we’ve built our Montreal seminar around all three. First, a skilled photographer is one who can translate his thoughts, interests and experiences about a subject matter into an image. Remember that squiggly grey matter perched atop your spine? The germ of an image starts there, in those firing synapses. For example, in Montreal this June, our first topic in the Saturday seminar is Learning to See: The Art of Perception. This talk covers that crucial skill of being able to quickly perceive photographic potential in a moment in time. If you sometimes think there’s nothing to shoot here, then this is the skill you need to work on. Quite frankly, in our experience teaching photography for years, this is an area where many photographers are weak. No amount of gear is going to tell you what is a good moment to capture. In fact, we sometimes see an inverse relationship between the amount of gear a photographer carries and his ability to see! Gear can be a barrier in the way of true seeing.
Second, not only do you have to be able to recognize the photographic potential in a split second, but you also then need to use every tool at your disposal to churn that moment into a final, complete image. This means understanding the creative power of camera controls such as aperture and shutter speed, and are fluent in the language of photography – composition. Do you know what the elements of visual design are? If not, get thee to an educational seminar! And guess what we teach in Montreal…you guessed it: Harvesting the Power of Tone for Compelling Images and Working Advanced Compositional Patterns in the Landscape.
Third, photographers need to understand themselves, what makes them tick. This is the key to developing personal style. If you don’t know and understand what motivates you to shoot, how can you follow your own creative vision? Do you find yourself copying other photographers’ work? Or are you comfortable with your own way of looking at the world? Creative Vision and Personal Style, our final talk on Saturday, addresses this important topic. By the way, in this talk, we reveal which is more important, vision or style, and why.
Take the Quiz
We’re going to end Part I of this topic with a little test. Grab all your camera gear and accessories and lay ‘em out. Make a list of your gear and its retail value at time of purchase. Now make a list of any dedicated computer equipment and software (e.g. special, high resolution monitors, photo processing software, extra hard drives etc.) and note the cost of this equipment at time of purchase. Tally it all up.
Now think back to this year. What photography talks, seminars or workshops have you attended? Write them down and note their cost. Write down any educational eBooks you’ve purchased and their cost – but only if you’ve read them! Unread educational material does not count nor do photo tours with no educational component. What about the year prior? Tally up the amounts you’ve spent on photo education in the last several years.
Compare the two columns. Does the gear/software column greatly outnumber the photo educational column? Have you spent more than $2000 in gear over the last year or so? More than $5,000? $10,000? If so, perhaps it’s time to invest in yourself, and stop lining retailers’ pocketbooks. The only way to be a better photographer is to invest in quality education. The Montreal weekend ranges from $75 – $95 per event. That’s a steal, folks.
Stay tuned for Part II where we level the playing field in our outdoor sessions and get serious with photo feedback.