First in a series of posts inspired by conversations at the photo studio. First up: gear- it doesn’t make you a better photographer. Or could it?
We’ve been discussing gear a lot lately at the photo studio. No big surprise since most photographers are gear geeks to some degree or another. Someone releases a new camera, lens, light or widget and we’re going to pore over its reviews, arguing over whether this new bit of equipment is “worth it”. Zack Arias calls it Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) and I tend to agree with him. Most new gear doesn’t solve a problem, unless that problem is too much money in your bank account. Even very basic equipment can be used to create great images.
So I thought the discussion over gear was done, but I ended up turning the question over in my head during a morning run. It’s a time when I can focus on a problem in a non-direct way; with my body busy with the run, the mind slips into an intuitive mode of thinking. It was in this way that I started to realize that I had it wrong. Equipment can improve your photography- not as a reagent but as a catalyst.
Let’s take artificial lights. These are two of mine:
Nothing fancy, just pretty basic older generation strobes. I use them in combination with Einsteins* in the studio to add color accents to small areas. But it’s not the strobes that made my photography better, it was learning to use them. By learning to control artificial light, I came to understand light: how it worked, how different types of light move across contours and how light can be manipulated. As a result, I was able to create some of my favorite natural light images:
Without knowledge of how to utilize and manipulate artificial light, I would not have seen the potential in these images. So lights and (more importantly) knowing how to use them is good.
But what about other pieces of equipment- lenses for instance? We debate lenses a lot. What’s the right combination of faster, sharper, lighter; zoom vs. prime; what’s the “best” focal length for a type of image? But sometimes a lens is about changing what you see. Meet Tank.
I call him that because I’m pretty sure this lens was made from surplus Soviet tank parts. Sturdy does not even begin to describe Tank. Tank is a Helios** 40-2, 85 mm f 1.5. Everything on Tank is manual; you even have to stop the aperture down by hand! Focusing is manual and S-L-O-W. The elements are, near as I can tell, uncoated and he color fringes. But what Tank can do…
See, Tank is a bokeh monster. Shot wide open, backgrounds become swirly bizzaro patterns. I have to use an adapter to mount Tank on my Nikon, which means infinity focus is somewhere around 15-20 feet. But all of these restrictions force me to take a moment and see differently. And it’s that seeing that lets me create something unique. Tank’s eccentricities force me to engage and transform what is before me.
So in the end yeah, gear is good. But it’s not the gear itself, or even what you can do with it that matters- it’s your artistic vision. If you want to become a better photographer, ask how your purchase- be it a lens, a camera, software or a workshop- will drive you to expand your vision. Once you change how you see the world, that’s when you become a better artist.
*I have no affiliation with Paul C. Buff or any other photographic company.
**If you want a Tank of your own, they can be found on E-bay. For the swirly bokeh I’m told the ones to get are the “made in the USSR” versions in english (not cyrillic) script.
Lucas James is a fine art photographer based in Manchester, NH.