Debunking the Myth that Gear Makes the Photographer: Part I

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?

©Darwin Wiggett - Is Frans Lanting a great photographer because of the gear he uses?

©Darwin Wiggett – Is Frans Lanting a great photographer because of the gear he uses?

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.

©Darwin Wiggett - Its the grey matter behind the camera that matters most.

©Darwin Wiggett – It’s the grey matter behind the camera that matters most.

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.

©Darwin Wiggett - Where you point the camera and what you decide is worth photographing is not up to the camera!

©Darwin Wiggett – Where you point the camera and what you decide is worth photographing is not up to the camera!

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.

Too much gear limits your ability to 'see'.

Too much gear limits your ability to ‘see’.

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.

©Samantha Chrysanthou

©Samantha Chrysanthou

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.

©Samantha Chrysanthou

©Samantha Chrysanthou

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.

How much camera stuff do you own?

How much camera stuff do you own?

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.

How much do you invest in your photography education?

How much do you invest in your photography education?

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.

©Samantha Chrysanthou

©Samantha Chrysanthou

About the Author

Photographing the incredible beauty of natural things, filming quirky videos, trying new foods with unpronounceable names, curling up with a good book, sharing ideas on how to live lighter on the Earth...these are a few of my favourite things!

9 Comments

  1. The true cost of becoming a better photographer | Oscar Hanzely Photography
    May 21, 2015

    […] recently read the post how better gear doesn’t make you better photographer by Samantha Chrysanthou. That article was bringing to attention that the cost photographer invest […]

    Reply
  2. Jeff Sinon
    May 21, 2015

    Excellent article! It gets right to the point I keep to tell those, “nice pictures, you must have a really nice camera,” types.

    Reply
  3. Mike Moats
    May 22, 2015

    This post is right on, I’ve been telling photographers this for years. Photographers spend way to much money on equipment and not enough on education to make better images.

    Reply
  4. Anne Jutras
    May 22, 2015

    Great article, Samantha! I agree with your statement, vision is important and we know what’s please us as photographer also!

    I must say I’ve spend a lot of money on online courses, books and e-books, in fact my first online course was with Darwin, few years back, and I’ve learned soooo much! Since then I practice a lot, but lately I feel kind of “no inspiration”, “no vision”, maybe because I’m trying too hard to make the perfect shot, you know when you stuck on trying to please others and not yourself… Is that makes sense? I know you wrote about it, so you’ll understand why I’m stuck. 😉

    Looking to seeing you guys and pump my vision!

    Reply
  5. Carl D
    May 22, 2015

    Really? Aren’t you “debunking” something that doesn’t exist? I’ve never heard, ever, anyone claim that “gear makes the photographer”.

    Must be a Canadian Myth. LOL

    For another perspective. Gear matters.

    http://www.skolaiimages.com/journal/photography-gear-matters/

    Cheers

    Carl

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      May 27, 2015

      People never claim that gear makes them better, but their actions with their wallets show otherwise 😉

  6. Lynn
    May 23, 2015

    Great article.

    Reply
  7. Doug Keech
    May 25, 2015

    So true. Some of the most valuable photography skills I’ve ever learned were from attending workshops/webinars, and spending a year carrying around only a 35mm rangefinder. I also continue to amass a collection of books from photographers covering many different styles.

    Wonderful article!

    Reply

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