Equipment Lust

by Ellen Anon

Today I'm going to take a step back and share some thoughts about the process of our art rather than specific techniques. Photography attracts a lot of people who love gear (including me). Impassioned discussions of which is better, and suggestions for what someone should buy are common. Many folks eagerly search the web for hints of the next great product and are anxious to be the first to get the latest/greatest. Lively discussions follow as to what's best - the latest camera from Canon or Nikon? Aperture or Lightroom (...those of us here know the answer to that one don't we?) Anyway, I readily admit that I love my gear and at times have "equipment lust."

Equipment lust isn't a problem per se, but I suspect it diverts energy away from the art of photography, focusing it more on the acquisition of gear and less on ability, technique, and ultimate expression. I began thinking about this last week when someone sent me a forward about Itzhak Perlman, the great concert violinist. I won't quote the entire email, but the gist of it is that Perlman, who had polio as a child, walks with great difficulty using crutches and braces. At one concert he had just begun playing when a string broke on his violin. Rather than getting up and going off stage to get more equipment - a new string or a different violin - he simply paused, closed his eyes a moment and then nodded for the conductor and orchestra to continue. He played the entire symphonic piece using only three strings, with "...such passion, power and purity as they had never heard... You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head. At one point it sounded like he detuned the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before. When he finished there was an awesome silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered ... He (Perlman) smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said - not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone - 'You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.' "

The author of the email concluded by commenting, "So, perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left."

There is great wisdom in that. Perhaps we need to spend a little more energy focusing on understanding our equipment inside and out and improving our abilities, as well as knowing just what it is that we're trying to express in each image we make. Then we too can make magic happen with what we have. The latest/greatest gear may make it technologically easier to do something or enable us to do something we currently can't do with what we have. But the soul of our images comes from within. Sometimes having less makes us work smarter and better.

Don't misunderstand - I'm still eagerly anticipating the rumored Canon 1DsMKIII- but I suspect that what will matter more to my photography is ensuring that I use the tools that I have not only to their full potential, but even creatively to meet the demands of a situation. We need to understand the nuances of the equipment we already have - both hardware and software - and then exploit those tools to create images that express our passion and vision.


Michael Rothfeld
2007-05-16 08:33:27
Well said.
2007-05-16 10:28:31
I agree wholeheartedly.

I've actually lately been doing more work with my film SLR; I find digital has let me get lazy and take many variants of a picture I want, until I get the perfect one. Being limited to one roll of film and no little on-screen-preview forces me to think more carefully.

Digital's still a big part of my photography, but sometimes it's nice to try something different for a while. And to my surprise, I've been finding it very refreshing to go back to basics. It's almost freeing to know you have 36 exposures and no more. No swapping out a card, nothing like that.

Steve Simon
2007-05-16 10:35:17
Very well said. The tools themselves are often beautiful works of art in their own right. But that's the difference between collectors and users. It's smart to keep things in great condition, but in the end, what you produce from these tools will endure--digital equipment will likely end up being recycled i hope, or in a basement or landfill somewhere.
2007-05-16 11:12:04
I think your sentiment is a clue to the resurgence of toy, pinhole,holga, lomo, or old dusty film cameras. It's nice to get back to the essence of what we do.
Ellen Anon
2007-05-16 11:19:50
Thanks for the positive feedback. I agree Rachel that it's easy to get lulled into complacency, and whether it's by using a film camera or a different camera like a pinhole, holga, etc, or whatever tool, our energy needs to be spent on using the tool to express what we're seeing and feeling. I've maintained for a long time that equipment should be purchased because it enables you to do something that you can't currently do with what you already own, rather than just because something new is available. For me digital is an advantage because I use the instant feedback to nurture my creative efforts. I'm glad others share my sentiments.
2007-05-16 13:13:33
Well put, and in part why my equipement interest includes the forthcoming Sigma DP1 because I have concluded "less is more" for some purposes. But that camera aside, you are spot on here - can always learn more by pushing what we know and can do with our existing kit.
Joe Samuels
2007-05-16 14:18:44
The photographer's eye will always be the most important equipment here. And then comes the photographer's hand.

When it comes to the camera, there are advantages and disadvantages with every piece of equipment. Photography, like life, is made up a series of compromises.

In my view, a fine digital SLR will always offer at least the following big advantages over a film camera----
1. The ability to see the image immediately for creative purposes, to enable adjustments that one wouldn't know are needed without seeing the image. In the "old" days, some fine art photographers would set up their view camera, or other camera, and then take a first shot with a Polaroid, to get a feel for the resulting image before shooting on straight film. The digital SLR provides that "Polaroid" image on screen.
2. The ability to choose your "film speed" from frame to frame, without having to carry a bunch of films and swap in and out, or having to carry several bodies, each loaded with a different film.
3. The ability to shoot one RAW image and then produce a fine print in color or black and white. Some of us see the world in color and also in black and white, and we'd like to be able to choose the best result after the shoot. In the old "film" days, a conversion was never as good as the original. If you shot in color, the black and white print was not as good, and vice versa.

And these are all creative advantages which have little to do with equipment lust just for the sake of the equipment.

Having said this, in my view, we've now reached the point where the digital equipment available can handle virtually all of our creative demands. The manufacturers may add a feature here and there, but very few of these new things will genuinely add to our creative abilities.

Dominique James
2007-05-16 17:54:52
Gear lust. It's a natural thing for a photographer to want the best tool that he can afford to own, and then hopefully, not just to use but to make the most out of. Today's economics of abundance allows us choices that were previously not available. However, it can reach the point of distraction. Instead of focusing on the art and craft of photographic image-making, we consider acquisition as a panacea or as cover-up for lack of creativity. While there will be obvious improvements in our work by using better tools, the more important improvements is how much better we can create photo images with our imagination and translate them to photographs the way our mind saw them. Acquiring new gear is good. Learning how to use them is even better. Developing a creative photographic eye is best.