Saturday, December 20, 2014

Photography & Money

Setting Sun Over Tejon #1 - Stallion Springs, California
I was listening to the radio yesterday, and this financial expert said something interesting. He was talking about how most people tend to live above their means. People will spend all of the money that they have and all of the money that they can borrow. This only hurts them long term.

What specifically he said (and I apologize for not remembering his name) was, "In our society, people want others to believe that they are rich."

I recently had someone tell me that my camera was not good enough. He said that I should have saved a little more money and bought a higher-end DSLR instead of the Nikon D3300. My camera was "ok" for beginners (although, even for that, it wasn't ideal), but it was most certainly beneath someone more experienced.
Mystery Drive - Stallion Springs, California
This person thinks that my photography is good. My photographs are not the problem, it is my equipment that he has issues with.

I was really confused by this. How is it that my photographs are good but the tool used to create them is not? The image is what matters in photography. What the viewer sees is what matters. Why should it make any difference what was used to create it? The viewer certainly doesn't care. He only cares if the image strikes him or moves him in some way. Either he'll find something to attract and interest him or her and the person will spend time looking at it, or he or she won't and the person will quickly move on to something else.

Photographs are what makes photography meaningful, not cameras.
Evening At Tunnel View - Yosemite National Park, California
Over at The Luminous Landscape (which sometimes posts gold and sometimes posts rubbish) they published an "equipment of the year" article. In it they said:
"One word before we start--whenever a discussion of cameras comes up a cliche proclaimed among some self-appointed web forum thought police is--'It's not the camera, it's the photographer.' Right. We get it. You've now impressed us with how insightful you are. But in the world of music, there are few serious musicians, let alone performing pros, who wouldn't prefer working with a Strad or a Steinway. Good artists are made better through the use of the best tools. Enough said."
I guess Ansel Adams was part of the "thought police" when he said, "The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it." The fact is that good artists can use any tools to create good art.
On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
I think of David Burnett and his famous photograph of Al Gore. He used a cheap plastic camera called Holga to capture it. This camera is quite literally the opposite of "the best tools." Yet it was in fact the best tool for the image. If Burnett had used the latest Canon, Nikon, Leica, etc., the photograph would not have been the great image that it is.

I think of Michael Chrisman and his famous one-year-exposure photograph. He used a home-made pinhole camera to capture it. Again, this is the opposite of "the best tools" and yet the perfect tool for the photograph.

I think of Chase Jarvis and his cell phone photographs. "The best camera is the one that's with you," he said. That's also the title of his book that features nothing but cell phone images.
Gold Above The Valley - Stallion Springs, California
I could go on-and-on-and-on with examples. I could even give examples of successful musicians using instruments that many would not consider "the best tools." It doesn't matter. I don't need to justify the use of "lesser" tools. My photographs speak for themselves.

What I find is that those who spend gobs of money to have "the best tools" seem to have a need to justify that. And those who say that equipment doesn't matter get in the way of that justification.

The funny thing is, though, that "the best tools" that they're talking about are not, in fact, the best. The "best" digital cameras today cannot match the image quality of a large format film camera from 75 years ago. Photographers are continuously choosing convenience over quality. That's the history of photography: convenience often trumps pure image quality.
Cathedral Spires From Cook's Meadow - Yosemite National Park, California
Camera technology moves us forward with smaller, lighter, faster and more automatic. With each advance comes a sacrifice to image quality. Once upon a time what we now call large format was the standard format. The cameras were big and heavy and the film (or glass or metal) difficult and expensive. So along came what we now call medium format. And then 35mm (which some now call the standard format). Then APS-C. Then micro-four-thirds. And so on and so on.

But here is the truth: pure image quality is not an essential element to successful photography. That's why having "the best tools" is not important.

Those who spend tons and tons of money on photography equipment often have G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrom). They seem to have a need to acquire more and more, and are never truly satisfied. I know this because I also had G.A.S., but found relief.
Purple Thistle Blossom Macro - Stallion Springs, California
I think there are three basic reasons why people have G.A.S.

First, camera manufacturers and camera retailers do an excellent job of convincing us that we need the latest and greatest. There is some new innovation that will somehow transform the photographer into an even better photographer. However, there is no end to innovation. Every few months there will be something new. One can chase this indefinitely and never find satisfaction.

Second, as the financial expert at the top said, people want others to think that they are rich. If you have expensive equipment, you must be talented and successful. And if you don't, you must be a hapless amateur. The tools you use say a lot about who you are and your station in life. However, they say nothing about your images, which is what is supposed to matter most.
Wind Turbines - Tehachapi, California
Third, there is a misconception that price equals results. There are some who think that great photographs can be bought. Great photographs can indeed be bought... by collectors. But no amount of money thrown at equipment can create a photograph that a collector wants to purchase. Art is in the mind and heart, and not in the tools found in the artist's hands.

Great photography is about one thing: photographic vision. With vision, a photographer can use crummy equipment (like Burnett, Chrisman and Jarvis above) and create great works of art. Without vision, even "the best tools" will fail to produce anything of value.

The Luminous Landscape said that good artists are made better through the use of the best tools. But I have found that limitations improve art and less is more in photography. Photography should be uncomfortable.
Flag & Flare - Barstow, California
Maybe I am cliched. Maybe I am acting as the thought police. Or perhaps those guys at "LuLa" (as they sometimes call themselves) are bloated with G.A.S., and by not limiting themselves, by saying "more is more" in photography, and by seeking convenience, maybe--just maybe--they are actually stifling their own art. Maybe with more focus on vision and less on gear they could achieve even greater photographic success.

It's not for me to change their minds. I can only work on my own art and share my own thoughts here.  But perhaps these words will ring true for someone, and they'll be found beneficial.

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