Nibbling on another Photographic Sacred Cow…”The Tool Does Not Matter”

I just caught myself parroting one of the current accepted wisdom comments that (and this was specific to photography but I think should be expanded) the equipment is irrelevant.  The normal line goes that it doesn’t really matter what one shoots with, what lenses one has, artists, real artists, can make art from anything.

What caused me to think about that is I was just reading that view by an acquaintance of mine who makes his living giving photo advice but who then turned around and said real photographic art is only made with film cameras.  No, no, you can’t have it both ways; you can’t say on one hand it is never about the tool and then turn the other direction and say but if you use the “wrong” tool you cannot, as if by definition, make art.

Others go further and maintain passionately that equipment is just a crutch and not really important.  The more I’ve thought about this the more disingenuous I believe that position to be.  Do not misunderstand me here: the most important tool in the artist’s tool kit is the artist themselves.  No one could argue that a true work of art cannot be made with nearly ANY camera or camera type.  Well, some do try to argue that, but it is nearly always safe to ignore them.

The problem is, people hear that statement and nearly always misinterpret it to mean that the equipment used, the “tools” available for use, is not important and therefore you should not give much thought to whether or not you need that new camera or lens or whatever.  Let me give you an analogy or two to see if I can make better sense of the issues.

Let’s start with golf.  Obviously a master golfer can take nearly any club and make it perform better than amateurs with a whole set.  But… could even a master perform as well if they were, in fact, limited to only one club for an entire game?  Obviously not unless you are playing miniature golf.

Or take an auto mechanic as an example.  Could you tear down an engine with a pair of pliers and a screw driver?  Is there a single tool in the chest that could do everything needed?  Of course not.

And I would submit it is the same in the arts and especially in photography, as practiced by a deliberative, purposeful, professional or fine art photographer.  And let’s take lenses as our exemplar part of the overall tool kit.

What is it that lenses do for us?  The amateur’s answer is that they help keep us from having to walk or move, that is, they allow us to crop the world as we wish from a single location.  And that is why they are amateurs, will remain amateurs, and in many cases why, for them, it really does not matter what they use.  But the professional’s answer is different… very different.

For the professional those various lens focal lengths allow us to control the spatial relationships in the universe of our image.  By playing with the variables of focal length and focal distance, we can completely alter how foreground and background objects relate to one another in size and visual importance.

“So what?” you ask.

Well, when I am stopped in my perambulations by some scene, some visual event happening before my eyes, I try to analyze why I am attracted to it.  What emotional and intellectual impact does it have on me that will inform the message I wish to convey to the viewer about it?  If I pre-visualize a final image, hanging on the wall based on that analysis, I will see it in my mind, just like any other type of artist will, with a unique set of relationships between the various picture elements.  Some are critical to my story, some are supportive, some are distracting or diluting of the main subject, the focal point.

I have several chores now facing me.  The first is one of selection and isolation in determining what elements need to be included and emphasized and what elements need to be excluded or downplayed.  The next is vantage point where I seek a point of view that best allows me to select and isolate elements and to use existing lines,  shapes, colors, tones, etc. to aim the viewer’s attention where I want it and to transmit an emotional response based on some nearly universal compositional guidelines.

The answers arrived at in that process will also be encouraging me to play with the spatial relationships of those objects.  For example, do I want the foreground object to dominate and live apart from the background, or do I want to compress those planes to emphasize the connection between them?   To create an image that conveys my pre-visualization of the scene requires me to do two things:  find the exact location for the viewer’s eye, the camera, and the exact focal length that will create the relationships I wish.  With the foreground remaining the same size in a final picture, shooting from far off with a telephoto lens or close up with a wide-angle lens will give me VERY different images even though the crop on the main subject is the same.

If the best rendition, i.e. the one that yields the relationships I want to portray, is produced by a 100mm lens at spot X, the reality is that I could not have produced the same image with a 50mm lens at spot W or a 200mm lens at spot Y.  Sure, I could have found a location where the crop on the main element was the same, but the relationships between that element and its environment would have been very different.

So I suggest that despite all of the attempts to diminish this conclusion and argue that equipment is not important, such simplistic views are wrong if — IF — the photographer is concerned with maximizing the conveyance of their own cerebral and visceral responses to the viewer.

And if they are not, then they are simply producing happy snaps for some undefined use other than to demonstrate they were actually “there,” wherever that was.  Could they produce an attractive  image with any system?  Of course.  But unless they just happened, by the dumbest of luck, to have the system that allowed them to truly capture and convey their own responses to the scene, then the final picture leaves out the one truly critical element in a work of art… the artist.

A photograph can contain no more than the artist puts in it.  If they put little into it then there will be little to see and feel in the results.  It might be “pretty” because the colors are inviting and the locale exotic or strange to us.  But even that is, to a large extent, pure luck.

So I believe choices of equipment — the tools — matter very much for professionals and fine artists because both are doing the same thing: infusing their final images with the characteristics that elicit, in the viewer, both reflective thought and emotional impact.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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1 Response to Nibbling on another Photographic Sacred Cow…”The Tool Does Not Matter”

  1. Adam Johnson says:

    Great write up David, good topic to bring up. I think developing artists need to hear that their “equipment doesn’t matter” in order to push them to properly prioritize their photography education, in whatever form that may be. For example, READING opinions on a forum about which lens gives you the best corner to corner sharpness with minimal distortion is useful. But where does that knowledge rank when compared to what you gain by studying and EXERCISING compositional techniques? and PRACTICING creating your visions? I’ve always felt that technical knowledge is complimentary to artistic knowledge, and for the serious artist they eventually become symbiotic, with artistic desire driving the need for technical know-how, and technical know-how expanding ones abilities to capture an envisioned look.

    I can see another reason for minimizing the importance of equipment is to vaccinate the developing artist from the relentless marketing machine that is trying convince them that all this new and expensive stuff will help them create better photos. Because an artistic foundation is not a physical possession and you don’t hold it in your hand – its importance can be easily forgotten in today’s world where its all too convenient to point to an immediate remedy and say “There! That thing, that lens! That will help me get better!” If one believes that equipment isn’t the main ingredient of great imagery then they may be much more inclined to diligently study and practice, and in time come to their own conclusions that a specific tool is now needed or warranted.

    I personally don’t consider myself a photographer. I consider myself an artist that happens to use a camera. I’d be curious to hear how David’s other readers see themselves. Regardless, I’m sure we all see art as the goal, rather than a technically correct photographic capture. Remember, an artist without a camera is still an artist… and a camera without an artist is part of a security system.

    -Adam Johnson

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