11.26.2012

Why choosing a subject is more important than choosing a camera.


I have two friends who both read VSL (and take me to task regularly :-) ) and they both suffer the same affliction. They are both convinced that there is a holy grail in the camera world. They are of the intellectual opinion that all that matters is the final image but they are of the emotional opinion that there is one perfect camera for them and the creation of their ultimate images is dependent upon them finding and mastering the one camera fate has put into their path, somewhere in the labyrinth of photography.

How do I know this? Because I sat down with each of them, individually, this week and listened to them. One friend switched systems (sort of) this year and bought the redoubtable Olympus OMD camera (actually two...) and all the really juicy m4:3 lenses. He hoped that they would kick start his enthusiasm and inspiration to create more and better photographs. But the thrill of that purchase is wearing off and now (six months later) he's considering buying into the Sony system in the form of the a99 full frame body and "just a few of the better lenses."

My other friend bought a Hasselblad digital system (many lenses!) this year to upgrade his photography business. He wanted to differentiate himself by offering his clients the best possible image quality that can be purchased on the market right now. After the initial excitement wore off he orbited back to doing most of his work with a very practical (and very well performing) Canon 5Dmk3 and assorted premium and esoteric optics. This week he's been buying up Leica M gear and a little bit of Leica R gear. The buying high wears off quickly. And the ebb time frame seems to accelerate with each subsequent purchase.

I watch my hobbyist friends and a lot of my pro friends and the cycle they go through looks like this: Identify new camera that may bring inspiration and spark to photography through research and the reading of forum tea leaves. > Purchase new miracle camera and begin the process of learning all of its tricks and getting a sense of mastery over the machine. > Find some things that are not optimal about the miracle camera and/or the miracle lenses. > See greener grass in another company's new catalog. > Begin the research process again. And again. And again.

There is a fear that leads one to believe that no good photographs can be taken until and unless one has selected and mastered a tool that one superstitiously believes they have been ordained by photographic fate to use. But it really is cover for the fear of getting started.  And the fear of getting started comes, usually, from the fear of having to come to grips with not really knowing the thing you really want to say with your photographs. Because at some point, if you want to make art, you have to come to grips with what it is you really want to say with your images (subject) and how you want to say it (style).

(none of this particular blog is aimed at casual photographers who just want an enjoyable pass time or professionals who just want to make a few bucks with their cameras. It's aimed at people who've studied the work of current and past masters and have been intrigued and engaged by that work. Now they want to make their own work and have it be really good.  It's written for artists waiting to blossom.  Yes, you can just go have fun with your camera but you really don't need me to tell you how to do that...).


The fear that paralyzes most practitioners is the fear that they'll waste time and resources using a camera that isn't up to the task of their specific creation and that they'll spin their wheels until they find out that their inadequate tools have sabotaged their best intentions. There's also a subconscious fear that by not choosing cameras vetted by the herd they will not be taken seriously by people who know and they may not even take themselves seriously. Heavy stuff to lay on someone. Even heavier to lay upon yourself. The over riding fear is that no matter what kind of gear one ends up with you still might not be able to perform and you'll have to deal with your own sense of failure. But the failure is always an inability to connect. It's almost never a breakdown of the technical steps...

The secret of artists (good or bad artists) is to ignore the tools as best you can and figure out what your subject matter is. For me it's portraits. I love the process. I love the give and take. I love finding out just a little bit more about an interesting person. But most of all I love translating what I learn about my portrait subject into something that is a representation of my photographic voice. My point of view. My original way of showing someone.

I like my Hasselblads because I feel safe with them. But if there's an interesting, alluring, provocative, prickly, sensual, sinister or beatific person that triggers that part of my brain that wants to make a portrait then the cameras became totally secondary and my focus is on working with them to get the images.

What both of my friends are looking for, each in his own way, is the subject matter that gets them excited, that makes them need to use any camera instead of just wanting to use a new camera.

Both of my friends are pretty smart. Pretty soon they'll realize that there's no pot of gold at the end of the gear rainbow and they'll find the stuff that makes them rediscover the all encompassing addiction of having to make images because the subject in front of them is something they care about and need to share. When that realization clicks in the camera lust will fade into memory and they will both get on with the work of making a different sort of work.

If you are planning on researching new cameras on the web after stopping by here for a dose of my curmudgeonly and primitive philosophy please try a new tack. Sit or lie down on the floor in a comfortable spot. Turn off your phone. Breath in and out slowly and deeply and just let your non-gear brain tell you what it is you love to see and shoot.  Then hit the sleep button on  your computer, and go out in search of that subject. When you find the subject matter that causes a visceral reaction for you just look for a while instead of jumping right in and photographing the crap out of it. Really look. And then decide how you'll use your visual voice.

Then come back with any old camera and an overwhelming dose of intention. It may be harder than shopping but long term it may be a lot more satisfying.


20 comments:

Dave Jenkins said...

Poor Edward Weston and his ratty old 8x10. Who could make a worthwhile photograph with junk like that?

Neal said...

Yeah despite having a really bad case of G.A.S (Gear acquisition syndrome) I find that any of my cameras are a magic bullet, nor am I chasing for one.

I just wish I knew what I wanted to concentrate on most of the time, my collection of photographs are as in tune with each other as a cowbell and a concert piano.

I am always missing fantastic opportunities in photography, because I'm driving or my camera is in it's bag, or...

I can have a fantastic rapport with someone and make a beautiful portrait that speaks volumes, but then have my breathe taken away by a gorgeous landscape vista. It's so hard to focus on one type of photography when the world is filled with beauty. I wish I had the determination to ignore so much to make so little that means so much.

if that makes sense.

AlexG said...

I have cameras that I am content with, any new purchases will be additive not instead of as they do what I want them to. The most modern camera I own is an EP1 and my main digital is a Fuji S3 when was that 2005? a few primes and Im set don't feel the need for ultra wide or ultra telephoto. Time is better spent looking at photographs than the latest cameras, you will get more out of it and improve your eye.

Neal said...

An edit to my comment
"I find that any of my cameras" should be "none of my cameras"

Bill Danby said...

“It’s a poor workman who blames his tools;”
but poorer he, who fails to exploit those he has.

Frank Grygier said...

Forever in your debt.

Michael said...

The real issue is that there isn't a magic bullet for every situation. Every tool has strengths and weaknesses and it's all about finding the right compromise.

But for most people, any old DSLR with a couple cheap prime lenses is capable of producing outstanding work. So why waste time doing gear research?

Michael said...

And one more thing - the real reason people obsess over gear is because it provides the perfect excuse for not doing good work. If you can blame your creative and technical shortcomings on not having a certain piece of gear, you never have to consider the possibilities that you suck.

Not that I'm anything great, but I've been getting better little by little using the same Canon Rebel I've owned since 2009.

John Krumm said...

My daughter (15) asked for a film slr for Christmas, so I've been satisfying any of my usual gear urges by reading up on different options for her. Finally bought a fairly cheap Nikon FM2n at KEH and a couple cheap lenses at a local dealer. Now my wife says I need to turn our spare windowless bathroom into a darkroom... the local camera dealer says to just build a plywood enlarger platform that fits over the toilet, use the tub for chemicals. Anyway, another distraction from my own photography, but better than gear obsessing just for me.

Robin Wong said...

Thanks Kirk for sharing this, I cannot agree more that subject content/choice matters more than gear choice. I recently bought into a very old Sony camera, just mainly to be sacrificed for my own personal use (I shoot very heavily). Everywhere I go to, everyone I meet, I get that stare, as if I have committed one of the largest sins in gear purchase, that I would regret it and will soon discard the old camera in favor for newer and better ones. It gets tiring to explain myself again and again the reason why I got the camera, it was so cheap (it almost cost me nothing), and it did not matter if the high ISO performance was not on par with whatever camera there is today.

From now on I will just direct whoever that questioned me and my awkward gear purchase, to this beautifully written article of yours, and hope that will knock some sense into them !!

Ian said...

Yes!

And of course artists have always taken a tool or object built for a particular purpose and used it for their artistic purpose. So, explore the possibilities of the tool rather than be focused on its limitations.

Dave Jenkins said...

Count your blessings, John. You are a lucky man.

Claire said...

I do get very severe and acute GAS attacks, BUT I've long learned to identify them for what they are. For me satisfying a gear addiction is walking towards better pictures one little step at a time, each new camera/lens renews my interest and does spark some inspiration.
If I hadn't gotten into the NEX system (and you, Kirk, getting the 7, was the tipping move), I wouldn't have fallen in love with MF lenses and the process of MF, which in turn, has better my photos by about 80%.

I'm slowing getting where I want to be with my pics, and outside viewers are confirming this. I know the camera does little else than motivate me, achieving the good stuff lies within me, not the plastic box.

Kirk Tuck said...

And yet we all do it. Even those who say they never consider it. Human frailty I expect.

Kirk Tuck said...

I think it's so cool that your daughter wants to do photography "old school." More power to her. Don't forget to put an exhaust fan in the little darkroom.... and stock up on Tri-x.

MartinP said...

I am currently realising that the most 'oooo' and 'aaaah' reactions about stuff I have made recently comes from some 10x8 contact-prints from pinhole negs. The camera is a box made of re-used foamcore, and duct-tape.

MartinP said...

Oops, finger trouble with the post, sorry.

I meant to add that this (the reaction to some pictures) is both disappointing and also rather nice, simultaneously. A sort of odd feeling, and your post makes it much clearer, thank you.

Winwalloe said...

Kirk,

What a great article, on a significant topic. Thank you very much for having taken the time and effort to write it.

Kirk Tuck said...

The whole cycle/circle is weird, isn't it? Never like a straightforward business deal...

Neal said...

Awesome stuff mate, My son (10yo) has been getting interested in it as well, although a bit young to get into printing just yet he has expressed interest in shooting on film, So I pulled out an old Pentax K1000 cleaned it up and re-leathered the body and he is shooting with that. as he gets a little older I'll get him doing some more stuff in the darkroom. He has been in a few times to watch me work and is fascinated watching the print appear in the tray.