What Do You Shoot?

“What do you shoot?” It’s a common question that I get asked as a photographer. A simple, perhaps logical first question to ask a photographer, right? Not necessarily. It depends on who’s asking. “Well”, I’m inclined to say, “My first love is urban landscapes. I also shoot live music, sports and portraits.” The average Joe will usually smile, say that sounds interesting, like to see your work, etc. If it is a photographer asking, more often than not these days the response is something along the lines of, “Oh. Yeah, that’s cool but I meant what do you shoot with. Nikon? Canon?” It has happened so often that when asked what I shoot by someone I know is a photographer, my first response lately is to return a question, “Subject or gear?”. Might as well cut to the chase.

The focus on the gear among photographers is troublesome. Sure, cameras and lenses are important (kind of need them to take a photo, right?) and gear is getting better and better at an amazing pace. The gear is far from the most important thing about the craft of photography though. If I’ve learned anything in my years of serious photography, it’s the mind of the photographer — his or her vision, passion, and creative desires that matter most. You can look at a photo and tell when it comes from a skilled and passionate photographer. I’ve seen folks share images that I can feel in my soul, taken with everything from pinhole film cameras, to cell phones, to the latest greatest bazillion pixel cameras on the market.

The manufacturers are pumping new cameras and lenses into sales channels in steady waves. Yeah, this gear is good and it’s getting better all the time. That model XYZ you’ve been shooting with is so last year! You need the model YYZ (Rush fans will get that). Or do you? Is that new model really what is holding back your progress as a photographer? Will whipping out that credit card for the latest camera body really result in more amazing images? Gear lust can be crippling when it detracts from what is really important in image making. It’s hard to talk with other photographers these days with conversation ending up on the subject of gear — comparing this piece of hardware to that one ad nauseam. Instead of portfolios we pull the latest gear acquisition out of our bags and proudly offer them up for other photographers to ooh, ah, and fondle over. The latest whiz bang camera or lens. Various kit, contraptions, and widgets. More megapixels, lower noise, thinner wallet.

Blogs by lot of photographers I respect and follow have become very gear heavy these days. It’s no surprise really. Amidst a flurry of comments on one gear focused post on a popular blog I follow, someone mentioned that it was interesting how a gear post really gets people talking. It’s true. Posts on my own site where I talked about the gear I use are by far the most popular. Posts about the art of photography or even a good collection of images seem to pale in comparison to gear posts when it comes to generating attention and stimulating conversation. Blogging photographers have caught on to that and shifted their content accordingly. Can you blame them? I can’t say I haven’t been tempted as well. Gear is indeed a powerful traffic driver. At the same time, I have to ask what is wrong with this picture (no pun intended).

Am I saying that gear doesn’t matter at all and that we should all shun that expensive digital gear in favor of cheap film cameras of yesteryear or dinky point and shoot cameras or cell phones? No, not all all. Gear needs to be capable of serving your particular needs. There are lots of cases where particular minimal gear is required: sports, low light, architecture, panoramas, etc. Depending on what you’re trying to photograph, you’ll need certain gear. Having that gear doesn’t mean you’ll be a better photographer for it. No gear is going to be that magical panacea that vaults your photos onto the covers of magazines. Believe me, I’ve been there — countless hours reading reviews and memorizing camera specs thinking that I just need to find that next bit of kit to take my photography to the next level. That’s bullshit. Funny how we look for hardware solutions to software problems. Gear can be bought; skill and mastery of a craft can not.

I’m saying that pursuit of gear should be secondary at best to the pursuit of finding your vision and mastering your art. Don’t let gear lust cloud your mind. Shoot what you have with passion. When you starting hitting walls that hinder your creativity due to gear restrictions then you’ll have good rational for considering a purchase of the next big thing instead of constantly fretting over whether what you have is good enough. Chances are what you have is just fine and your time will be better spent shooting the hell out of it than agonizing over the specs of the endless supply of new gear that floods the market continuously. It will all still be there when it becomes obvious that you really need an upgrade.