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The question comes up a lot. Which is more important for getting quality photographs, a talented photographer or great gear? Of course, it seems obvious to anyone with even modest intelligence that in photography as in any art or craft there is no art without the artist and no craft without the craftsman. But, it is also no less obvious that for any particular task a certain minimum level of tool capability is required as well. And, some tasks are more technically demanding than others, requiring a more capable tool set -- a point that is often overlooked.

Wherever photographers gather to discuss the merits of gear, someone is almost certain to answer the most innocent of gear questions with a sanctimonious putdown: "it's the photographer, not the gear." Or, "You ought to be out shooting rather than asking about such-and-such gear." The implication of this undeserved response is that if the original questioner was anything other than a hopelessly inept thumb footed boob he would be out taking award-winning pictures with his Kodak disposable rather than asking irrelevant questions about unnecessary gear.

Perhaps it's muddled thinking, perhaps it's a desire to hear the sound of their own voices or perhaps it's a somewhat darker urge to inflict a verbal ambush attack on some innocent passerby. But, whatever the reason, this blast is a sure sign of imprecise thought. Really, the situation is quite easily understood if one approaches it analytically -- but then in an era of mass public education designed more for social purposes than to foster clear thought who can be surprised that the point gets missed. In analyzing the relationship of two such variables, there are four possible directions to take -- and only four (expressed, we admit, somewhat tongue-in-cheek!)

  • Neither photographer talent nor gear capability matter. Great photographs are random events and no one understands how or why they happen. Maybe it's cosmic rays colliding with random neurons in the brain, or maybe it's the fluoride in the water. . .
  • Only gear matters. Anyone can make a great photograph if they buy sufficiently expensive and complex gear. Imagine an infinite hall of monkeys, each with an expensive, high-quality typewriter. Supply plenty of bananas. Wait long enough and all of Shakespeare's works will be reproduced. Likewise, give those same monkeys a container ship full of Linhofs and they will reproduce all the works of Ansel Adams -- if they can find enough sheet film, that is. Talent is for dopes.
  • Only photographer talent matters. Gear is for dopes. Any great photographer can take great pictures of any possible subject with any old camera that falls to hand. That's why St. Ansel hiked Yosemite for decades with a highly portable pinhole camera made from a lightweight cardboard cereal box. (It was certainly easy on the knees.) And, that's why the sidelines of today's fast-paced sporting events are populated with highly maneuverable cell phone cams rather than nasty old lumbering big glass and heavy high frame rate bodies. No, wait. . .
  • Photographer talent is a prerequisite -- as it is with any other creative undertaking. And, depending on circumstances, there may be tools more suited for the task at hand than other tools. Thus, sometimes gear confers advantages that are worth having.

Stated with some degree of structured thought, there really is no controversy here. Would that quieting the crazies was that easy!

Michael Reichmann Strikes Back

Some time ago Michael Reichmann, a respected landscape photographer and publisher of the popular web site, Luminous-Landscape, posted an article protesting this oft-repeated slap-in-the-face to people wishing to learn more about the tools of their interest. Mr. Reichmann's article, "Your Camera Does Matter," took a decidedly negative view of the usual sanctimonious putdown. His essay immediately drew praise from those frustrated by the recurrence of such rude, clichéd slams as well as condemnation from those determined to project on Mr. Reichmann's piece opinions that cannot be found therein.

The misrepresentation chosen by some was the claim that his article asserts that gear can somehow compensate for a lack of photographic talent -- where talent here implies the artistic variety. This would be a grievous indictment indeed if true. But of course, nowhere does Mr. Reichmann say anything remotely akin to this howler of a strawman. Nor is this a view held by any serious photographer I know. Here is what Mr. Reichmann actually wrote:

"Whether a home-made pin hole camera or the latest Nikon D3, these are all cameras. Of course where they differ is in their technology, and that difference translates into both difference in convenience of use and ultimate image quality."

and

"Tools have merits, good ones and bad. Tools have so-called personality as well. What suits one person's needs may not meet the needs of another.

"And, herein lies the crux of the matter. We all have different needs. A photographer walking the streets of an urban environment doing street shooting has very different needs than someone on the Serengeti photographing wildlife. A photographer looking to create large prints of extremely high quality landscape work will of necessity need a different set of tools than a teenager wanting to record her sweet-sixteen party."

Nowhere is the claim made that equipment substitutes for talent. The article never suggests that creativity, photographic vision, composition, understanding of lighting, or even determination in the field or studio to create something memorable are irrelevant. Instead, gear is said to provide advantages in "convenience of use and ultimate image quality." The latter point must, by context, refer specifically to technical quality, not creative or compositional quality (except, perhaps, to the degree that technical limitations prevent the full expression of the creative impulse).

The message is that equipment acts as an enabler for the expression of talent in the pursuit of some photographic goal -- and some equipment may enable better than others, depending on goals and circumstances. We add that those who seek to provide themselves with gear well adapted to the task at hand should not be assailed because they wish to avail themselves of this advantage.

Knocking the Stuffing out of the Strawman

Opponents of the view that gear has an influence on outcome like to paint a scenario where multiple photographers of differing talents are presented with the same equipment and circumstances. Then, they contend, the better photographers will produce better images. In fact, they smugly intone, even lesser equipped but talented photographers will do better than well-equipped inepts. This latter case is the real strawman, set up to be knocked down. How so? Because, nobody claimed otherwise. That wasn't the original argument. Instead, the original statement was that a difference in gear technology "translates into both difference in convenience of use and ultimate image quality."

In logic, this technique is called the fallacy of the strawman argument. A thesis entirely different than that advanced by the original writer is substituted and then refuted while the original issue is completely sidestepped. Compounding the fallacy, the misstated (and thus irrelevant) premise (that good photographers will do better than not-so-good ones) is so obviously true (Duh!) as to not be denied by any serious observer -- and is therefore hardly worthy of discussion. To borrow from information theory, its actual information content approaches zero. Therein lies its effectiveness despite being fallacious -- if one fails to recognize and throw out the initial irrelevant but oh-so-enticing premise it is difficult to cope with the remainder.

Here is a situation more in keeping with the original thesis. Give gear with significantly different capabilities to multiple photographers of comparable ability -- or to the same photographer during similar photo sessions at different times. Depending on the nature of the challenges presented by the circumstances vs. available gear, the photographers with gear more suited to the task at hand are more likely, on average, to produce more suitable images. Of course, for some circumstances differences in gear may make little difference in the outcome and for others quite a lot.  It seems sad that such an obvious statement must be made. This is not rocket science. Gear is an enabler, no more. Horses for courses.

How About Constructive Responses Instead of Putdowns?

What set Mr. Reichmann off, it appears, is not the incontrovertible truism that, all other things being equal, better photographers capture better images (both technically and creatively) but rather the mind-numbingly repetitious restating of the blindingly obvious as if it were newly revealed wisdom from on high, writ in flaming letters on tablets of stone and brought down from the mountain like a prophesy of ancient times. Many who post such responses to gear questions (on gear forums, no less!) come across as smugly superior know-it-alls fairly dripping with the expectation of winning a Pulitzer Prize for rhetorical erudition -- an expectation that will undoubtedly remain unrequited. Mr. Reichmann again:

"Come on folks. Don't they teach analytical thinking in schools any more? Enough clichéd rejoinders that serve no ones interests other than to inflate the egos of some, and confuse and embarrass others. When a person asks these type of questions let's be generous instead of snarky. Let's ask them the type of photography they are doing, or plan on doing, and then if we have anything worthwhile to contribute, do so. But to spout holier-than-thou clichés one more time is simply the sign of either a lazy or an angry mind."

It seems to me that the whole "it's the photographer, not the gear" mantra is profoundly insulting. Whether intended or not, the between-the-lines message comes across thusly, "Unlike the savant that I am, you're a worthless, inept fool, and no amount of high-priced gear is going to make you a good photographer so shut up about the gear." While this may even be true, it is an inappropriate comment in a civil conversation -- and might be admissible even if rude only if the original correspondent falsely claimed to be a good photographer. Otherwise, it is downright rude. Not to mention that fact that it fails to answer the question originally posted -- which, after all, dealt with gear. Which is also rude.

Referral to Authority -- i.e. Real Professional Photographers

One always likes to know what respected practitioners think. In an article of several years ago that I can no longer find on their HootHollow.com web site, Joe and Mary Ann McDonald explained why they switched from Nikon to Canon.  (Cited here for illustration only; not to re-ignite that debate!)  Repeating from memory (inexactly, no doubt), they said that the switch did not make them better photographers (in the artistic sense, undoubtedly) but it did help them capture more and better images of the type they wished to capture. George Lepp has long used the tag line, "optimize the possibilities" -- a statement not directed specifically at gear but that certainly encompasses the advantages that suitable gear can provide in fulfilling one's creative vision.

To me, these statements by respected pros make the case very well. For a given level of talent, gear is one factor in optimizing the chances of getting the images one sets out to capture. Finally, and for the record, no one is denying the benefits of working hard and educating oneself in order to refine one's skills -- not so that one can "be anything you want to be" -- which, for a given level of innate talent may be unrealistic unless one's expectations are modestly placed -- but rather to enable one to "be all that you can be."

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