Our Obsession with Gear

This article was previously published in Outdoor Photography Canada several years ago. To get these articles when they first come out please subscribe  to the magazine. 😉

We’ve all heard the old saying: “It’s not the camera that makes the picture, it’s the photographer.” Why in music isn’t there a similar refrain? “It’s not the piano that makes the music, it’s the musician.” Or in art? “It’s not the brush or the paint, but the painter.”  We rarely care about what brand of brush an artist uses; we care about the art produced. So why is it that, invariably, the first question asked of photographers is, “what kind of camera do you use?”

Photographer with King Penguin at Fortuna Bay, South Georgia Island ©Darwin Wiggett - oopoomoo.com

Photographer with King Penguin at Fortuna Bay, South Georgia Island
©Darwin Wiggett

We think the problem with photography is that photographers use a tool that records images directly from reality.  There is no implied ‘interpretation’ in using a camera. It’s seen as a device which objectively records the ‘real’ world. As such, we think that the better the recording device (the camera), the more accurate the reality, and therefore the better the photograph. And so it goes. As photographers we become obsessed with getting better and better gear. Our camera, lenses and accessories become the ends to the means and the means to an end. We become slaves and lovers of the technical aspects of the endeavour. Art is forgotten if even acknowledged at all.

©Samantha Chysanthou - oopoomoo.com

©Samantha Chysanthou

In photography we are less likely to think like an artist. An artist uses his or her tools as a means of inner expression. Art is about telling the world who you are and what you think. Art is not reality; it’s an interpretation of your personal reality. Photographers mistakenly believe that the more they know about gear, tools and technique, the more accurate their representation of reality. Of course, nothing is further from the truth. Obsession with gear and goodies only gets in the way of communicating any message whether that message is journalistic or artistic. In photography we spend precious little time developing vision and voice. Mostly we just want to play with goodies.

sam5871

Aspen Trees and Abraham Lake – ©Samantha Chrysanthou

For photographers who want to advance beyond gear obsession into the realm of artistic expression, we recommend several approaches:

  1. Take a bare minimum of gear with you on photo outings. We have written about this before but remind you about taking only a camera and one prime lens like a 50mm lens to help you hone your ability to see and express yourself with a single tool.
  2. Think of your photography not as a hunt for single trophy shots but instead in terms of a project. Pick a topic (e.g. garbage, trees, puddles) or a conceptual theme (isolation, power, contrast) and develop a body of work that speaks to the topic or theme. Project-based photography will help you concentrate more on the message than the medium. Gear quickly becomes secondary and diminished in importance compared to artistic expression.
  3. Take a course in photography that is about leaning to see and expression. Avoid courses that discuss technique or gear. You want to exercise your creative expression and not your wallet. Buying more gear, software or camera goodies will not help you. Invest in discovering your creative eye. One option is our Resolve: Discover Your Creative Self  eCourse which is targeted so that you discover what makes your creative clock tick.
  4. Instead of reading on-line reviews of cameras and lenses, book off a day a month to go to art galleries and check out paintings, sculptures and visual installations. Take a notepad and jot down why the art appeals to you or not. Relax and really look at the pieces. What is the art telling you about the artist?
  5. Don’t try too hard; let your subjects speak to you. Don’t force a technique or a conscious attempt at style. Just respond and soon your photos will be created from within and not as a result of blindly jabbing at the shutter of your high-priced optical recording device.
  6. Get off the camera control crutch. Go back to fully auto or program mode in your camera and just shoot intuitively. Don’t think, just respond.

Of course there is a lot more you can do, but hopefully these little exercises will get you off the obsession with gear and on to the discovery of your self!

Ripples on Horseshoe Lake, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada ©Darwin Wiggett - oopoomoo.com

Ripples on Horseshoe Lake, Jasper National Park
©Darwin Wiggett

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

6 Comments

  1. George Clayton
    October 7, 2016

    Hi Darwin, thank you for this reminder of why people photograph and how to grow. As I am winding down on my 366 photo-a-day project, mainly to become technically better and intimate with the camera, I am starting to think about what to do in 2017. I will use your sage advice to develop a 52 week project for 2017 in addition to continuing the Mentored Project we set out to do in August. I say we with laughter as you and Sam pushed me to a place that would not have happened without you. I can see the impact of this knowledge in posts on Oopoomoo from your resolve and the mentored projects students. You and Sam deserve a big thank you.

    Reply
  2. John James
    October 7, 2016

    For years, I have been following you both on your wonderful camera adventures. I am continually wishing I enjoy more of my time with my cameras and their benefits; I envy you both. I have no intention of chasing the latest/greatest camera and gear as they constantly evolve and appreciate you suggesting folks to chase less and enjoy more; you guys rock!

    Nature shots almost always surprise me as they seem to be ‘perfect’ or just so darn beautiful and perhaps sometimes surreal. The shot you closed this article with is one of those…a person might say, ‘is that really what the water looked like’? I have seen a lot of water and it is surely magical frequently. The three color juxtaposition in that shot is certainly remarkable…ah nature and the ‘eye’ to ‘see it’ or ‘find it’ later in review. Thanks for all you do for all of us.
    Sincerely,
    John

    Reply
  3. Dennis Murphy
    October 7, 2016

    Your comments are right on target. To often photo gear dominates the photographic process and artistic expression takes second or third place; almost an afterthought.

    Reply
  4. Ian McKenzie
    October 7, 2016

    I’m not sure the initial premise in this post is accurate. I think G.A.S. exists at some level in most artistic and craft disciplines. Else why the need of celebrity endorsements? 😀

    I’m a brass musician, and I know people that check the current horn or mouthpiece of the latest noted performer, and then run out a buy the same for themselves. I’ve been at art shows where aspiring artists ask the question, “what brush did you use?” I have a friend who does great woodwork and he’s always being asked what tool he used for a particular effect.

    It’s true that clients, buyers, listeners, etc. rarely care what tools you used to get to the end creation. There are however, lots of wannabes that think the latest piece of gear will lift their work to a new level.

    That’s where the rest of your very-good points come into consideration.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      October 8, 2016

      The appearance of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show saw musicians everywhere going out to buy the same instruments as the Fab Four used. In particular the sale of Ludwig Drum kit that Ringo Starr launched that company to the stratosphere. So I agree that other arts suffer from gear envy 😉

      http://beatles.ncf.ca/ludwig_ringos_drums.html

  5. Sam
    October 8, 2016

    Thank you! I appreciate the reminders about gear, art, keeping it simple, and resolving to find my creative self. You have strengthened my resolve to do so.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Top