3.04.2013

When the tools trump the art we all go home.

Sarah. A photo created for one of my book covers. Rejected.

In the last few days I stepped over my own limit and wrote too much about gear, which made my head hurt. But then I was in the swimming pool and as I swam up and down the lane, keeping the black line on the bottom just over to my left, I started thinking about the nature of the tools we use to do various things. 

Since I was in the pool the first thing that came to mind was swimming. How dependent are we on the tools of swimming? Are there any tools for swimming? We have goggles to keep the chlorine out of our eyes and we have our swim suits. The goggles don't really serve any ancillary function and most people find a pair they like in the $15 to $25 range and use them for a long time. I'm on my third goggle strap with this pair. I think I've logged about two years and maybe 120,000 yards with them so far. Not a bad return.

I've been wearing my Speedo brand endurance jammers for the better part of a year and they still have at least another year of life left in them before they become disgraceful... Then I'll have to bite the bullet and spend another $45.

That's about it in the tool category for swimming. And you know what? No one I know ever discusses goggles or swim suits. We might talk about stroke mechanics or how to train better or swim more efficiently but never about the gear. The deal in swimming, if you do it competitively, is that the clock tells you all you need to know about performance. And no matter how great a pair of $1500 goggles might be you'd still have to do all the training and put in all the effort to go fast.

I write a lot of stuff. And for a lot of it I use notebooks. For a while I bought those cute, Hemmingway-esque, Moleskin notebooks and used a Mont Blanc fountain pen. But those tools didn't make me any smarter or make my writing any better. The pen did, from time to time, make my hands all inky and stained but I didn't see that as a critical performance benefit. I've since switched to generic notebooks and anonymous and less precious ballpoint pens. In a pinch I'll even use a pencil.

I spoke at a writer's group once. We talked about the "arc of the narrative" and the "use of voice" but we didn't compare notebooks or fountain pens. Hell, we didn't even compare word processors. We all seemed to know that there's no literary "magic bullet" that will allow us to dodge the daily drudge of sitting alone translating brainwaves into squiggles. 

I like the image at the top of this blog. I should, I spent the time finding the model and setting it all up. It was supposed to be for the cover of my third photography book. The one about lighting equipment. I used an old film camera for the shot and I used two old monolights and some worn softboxes as modifiers. But to me the important part of the shot wasn't the sharpness or the resolution or the lack of noise (all things that photographers do seem to talk about). The important part of the project to me was to get that insouciant look on Sarah's face. That's what it was all about. And none of the tools provides any sort of mechanism to create, augment or facilitate the look.

I guess I write about gear when I'm bored. I write about it when I've forgotten to schedule beautiful people to come by the studio and play with me and sit for fun portraits. I write about gear when I'm afraid. I might be afraid that my competitors have newer gear and will provide something I can't to a client (not likely). I might be afraid that my clients are well versed in the technical aspects of photography and that they are judging my choice of lesser gear (as rare an occurrence as unicorn sightings). I might be afraid that I'm not inspired enough and that clients will sense my lack of depth or substance. I might be afraid that I'll never work again if I don't have the shiniest bling. 

But mostly I buy the gear to use as a child uses a comforting blanket. It's a security blanket for my (yours?) raging insecurity. Why raging insecurity? Because we're in a business and an art where everything is subjective. There is no objective measure. Our compulsion to move the technical game forward is an admission that we constantly seek a metric. A means of gauging value. 

But in the end all the insecurity does is to drain our resolve to see more clearly and to be more transparent. And in being more transparent transcend the gear. 

New goggles never made me faster. New laptops never made me smarter. And I can pretty much guarantee that new cameras never made me a better photographer.

The short circuit to all this soul searching? The idea that the NEXT camera might be the one we've all been looking for. You know... the one with all the magic.

28 comments:

Nick said...

Ha. I just switch off when you write about gear. There's other blogs for that, and I don't read them. Gear discussions are for people that have too much time :)

Glenn Harris said...

Kirk, please promise you won't write a blog post about your next pair of Speedos.

Eric said...

Just curious, why was the photo of Susan rejected...?

billstormont said...

Kirk, don't despair over your "gear" posts—when I read one I think about the reasoning behind choices made or rejected. As you describe your day-to-day real business uses of equipment, and your goals (including FUN), you're not comparing Nikon v. Sony, et cetera, and that's what keeps you fresh and matters. I do agree with Glenn, however—leave any Speedo comments to the appropriate reviewers.

Oh, and although I'm not a swimmer...I would use "goggles" instead of "googles" if I were. It's amazing how words sneak into our thoughts and pens.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

I absolutely *love* that photo. Oh, and of course Susan looks great as well! Typical Kirk Tuck moment - time- and priceless.

RichardEby said...

I enjoy your gear posts, a lot. Please don't feel that you ought to stop posting them.

Kirk Tuck said...

At one point I think my publisher was enamored over the word "digital" and the concept that everything in photography (including books on lighting) was being driven by the conversion to digital imaging. They wanted something more studio and more digital.

Kirk Tuck said...

What? You want to hear more about my selection of Speedo's? Well.....

Soeren Engelbrecht said...

Ahem, Kirk - I respectfully suggest that you visit this page:

http://www.penciltalk.org/2007/11/staedtler-mars-lumograph-100-pencil

It might change your view on other "enthusiast communities" :-)

That being said, I actually agree with all that you have said above. Unless a camera or lens puts a specific limitation on your ability to create a picture in accordance with your inner vision (e.g., not the right focal length available or no shutter speed fast enough to freeze motion), we shouldn't care about the gear.

Gregg Mack said...

The photo of the model is great! The look in her eyes, combined with the lighting on her face is beautiful to look at.

I like your gear reviews, even though I haven't been swayed to joing the Sony tribe - not yet, anyway. Your gear reviews are not anything like DPReview, and I mean that in a very good way.

I don't really care if you want to tell us about your Speedos - but please don't post any photos with you wearing them. :-) OK, maybe a photo of you in an actual swimming competition would be worth showing to us someday!

Anonymous said...

Master.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who rejected Susan wants their hormones examined

Bruce Rubenstein said...

Tools, for the vast majority of people, are more accessible than talent and skills. It's something you can just throw money at. Even if you don't have money, you can parrot techno-babble on forums, that you don't understand, and and virtually no one else does either. Actually owning gear and taking pictures become optional.

When my younger son was 14 he became serious about playing the saxophone. I joined forums to learn about instruments and learning to play well. It was no different than photography forums, so I wasn't overwhelmed all sorts of gear minutia. Learning to play well pretty much came down to getting an instrument that was in good mechanical condition, played in tune, fining a teacher who keep you pointed in the right direction for learning the fundamentals, use a sound recording device (so you can hear what you actually sound like) and practice 6 hours a day. easy peasy.

Anonymous said...

Here is my favorite passage from Vincent Versace's "From Oz To Kansas":

"Photography is the only art form in which many artists first fall in love with an image, and then spend the rest of their time pursuing its technical aspects, as if it is there that they will find the secret to successful imagery. Painters do not have 'Popular Paint Brush' magazine, and sculptors to not go to 'Chisel World' and sit around discussing bit depth".

Bob
http://www.deinfaces.com/

Carlo Santin said...

I've included my search for the perfect camera to include older DSLR's that are now dirt cheap, as well as 35 and 120 analog cameras...mostly due to my very limited budget. I could drop 2k on the latest technology but I also am aware that other than my file sizes, nothing will change, so I haven't made the purchase. The new cameras are wonderful but I find so many menu options and shooting parameters actually get in my way, give me too much to think about and fret over, and simply burden me with too much choice. I love simplicity with most things and that extends to my cameras. Give me a digital Nikon FE, with only ISO, shutter speed, aperture and a few other buttons like AE lock and don't make me pay 6 mortgage payments to own it (Leica), and I would happy. I know I'm in an extreme minority here (and yes I do shoot with my Nikon FE very regularly and I love it). In the digital realm, I'm still pretty pleased with 6mp.

Chaz L said...

This kind of post is a whole lot more interesting and insightful than any gear-based conversation can ever be. I'm amazed when you (and Mike Johnson, and others) report that their gear postings always generate their highest page views.

One question-- did you actually provoke that insouciant look on Susan's face by calling her "Sarah"? (See paragraph 7).

Anonymous said...

"The idea that the NEXT camera might be the one we've all been looking for. You know... the one with all the magic."

Ain't gonna happen! A better camera is always just around the corner, waiting to trip you as you pass by! :)

Michael Matthews said...

Your postings on gear are actually quite helpful. When combined with the sample photos shown the narrative gives me an impression I can't afford to experience on my own. That adds up to a lot of test drives at no cost. Thank you.

arg said...

"afraid that my clients are well versed in the technical aspects of photography and that they are judging my choice of lesser gear (as rare an occurrence as unicorn sightings)."

Well you did have that client who made you go back to full frame DSLR....

Kirk Tuck said...

Yes. That's one in twenty six years. About on par with Austin unicorn sightings...

Ed Posthumus said...

I keep telling myself that if Kirk can take the time to write missives that reach into my soul and force me to pull it out and look at it, the least I can do is send some feed back to tell him that he has to stop. I just want to spend time on the web sites searching for that perfect lens/camera/soft box/light stand etc. The one that win me all the awards and accolades, the one that everyone one will clamour for and allow me to buy my own island.
Thank You Kirk from one of your new, loyal and hopefully now, not so silent readers.

Kirk Tuck said...

Ed, Welcome to our very exclusive club. I think you'll fit right in. KT

Anonymous said...

The pedant in me (evil man that he is) wants to point out that Susan is referred to as Sarah in the text... Though this post does remind me that my own swimmers are verging on the indecent.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's her eyes...I can't take my eyes off of her!
The rest of you may discuss gear all you like.

Steve Miller said...

I had to laugh when you mentioned Speedo Endurance jammers. When I got back into swimming I bought a pair of non-Endurance Speedo jammers. Didn't think twice. Why pay 15 bucks more for the same suit.? Well, the non-Endurance pair ended up lasting a few months. As you know, the Endurance pairs last what seems like forever - at least a few years in my case. You gotta like a sport where the annual gear outlay per year is under 50 bucks.

Sorry, back to photography...

Anonymous said...

Having said all that, if all you have is a cameraphone, go ahead and read the reviews and gear blogs. It is good to learn technique, but there is nothing wrong with selecting a nice camera, a good set of golf clubs, or whatever other tools you want for your hobby.

Same goes for swimming. Buy the gear that you need to win over your client. Nothing wrong with old goggles and trunks, unless you show up to race against someone who shows up with a nice new 420 class sailboat. Then it might be time to re-think your gear choices.

Kirk Tuck said...

Put the sail boat boy in the water and swim mano a mano and you instantly level the playing field. Any idiot can buy a boat it takes good practice to swim fast.

Nick N. said...

I think part of the problem lies in the fact that photography is tied to its tools in a way that's different than for other art forms. Pretty much anyone can pick up a camera, press the button, and get a result. Even if it's not great, they can easily produce something without much effort. Not so with musical instruments or paint and brushes. Hence, anyone can be a photographer (or think they're a photographer.)

In addition, many of these People with Cameras are often nearly visually illiterate. The ability to see a scene in terms of light, shape, line, form, etc., is an underdeveloped muscle. Also missing is any facility with a language with which to discuss images in a way that gets to the real core of the image-making process—the artist's intent, the way they analyze the elements of the scene, the decisions they make in rendering the scene (only some of which involve the equipment), etc.

The People with Cameras tend to home in on the equipment bit of the process, because gear is something tangible and easily quantifiable. They can pore over test charts, lens specs, and such, deluding themselves into thinking that if they only buy the "right" lens and camera, meaningful images will magically result.

If they'd take just a portion of the time they spend obsessing over this or that piece of kit and used to to focus on the aesthetic, mental, and analytical aspects of the image-making process, they'd fare far better in their pursuit of their craft.