The Physics to Better Photography — Is It the Photographer or Gear?

It’s an age-old question dividing photographers again and again. What’s more important. The photographer or gear. We all know the answer. The photographer. Or is it? When the shot does well, it’s the photographer. When it sucks, it’s the camera. All things being equal, the better photographer will usually get better shots while better gear will improve the shots of a less gifted photographer.

For those with money, massively expensive bodies and pro lenses allow many to keep up with far superior photographers working with much less costly and more basic equipment. That’s why not everyone holding a camera should be called a photographer, right? Skill and technology are obviously not enough to excel. What about “having the eye,” knowing the “decisive moment” and the flair to be at the right place at the right time?

For less able photographers, the best gear in the world wouldn’t help in the least against a pro with a point-and-shoot for portraits, landscapes, etc. They will still not see the picture. Because either way, the photographer always trumps the camera. The great paradox, however, is this one:

To take good photos you need to like your equipment. Photography is the one medium where using and more importantly wanting to use the best possible tools is seen as making one an inferior artist while in the end the type and quality of the tools used are not as important as many try to persuade themselves.

Of course, to come back to the question this post is all about, neither the photographer nor camera is more important. It is a “of both.” You need both things to make photographs. Some images depend more on the photographer, others more on the equipment.

Fact also is, the camera doesn’t matter until it does. Which is why there is truth in clichés such as: “It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer” — a cliché used to downplay the importance of technology and emphasize the importance of skill. Well I’d say in 90% of all cases gear doesn’t matter all that much.

On the contrary I think “less camera” can be quite more — such as the voluntary restriction of camera functionalities, for instance saying no to all the bells and whistles of a camera does help improve photography skills more than access to all the functionalities (I’m talking filters, automatisms, whatever).

Yes if you’re a sports photographer you need fast fps. If you’re a wedding photographer you want excellent low light capabilities. Certain camera functionalities do matter for people who make a living from photography.

For the majority of people cameras are a hobby, and many of the new functionalities digital imaging technology provides are nothing but marketing gimmicks and a distraction. Which is why gear is of much overrated importance for many photographers. But that makes enthusiast photographers not less dependent on the “physics of photography”:

The more demanding the conditions, the more capable the gear has to perform, meaning under difficult conditions it’s easier to perform for a less gifted photographer with better gear than for a good photographer with less capable gear.

So, if a photographer acquires more capable gear, the additional capabilities can allow that photographer to improve and expand his or her skills. Which doesn’t mean that a less able photographer gets better shots with better gear than a better photographer with lesser gear.

Whether gear is to blame or not depends mostly on the shooting conditions. The less demanding conditions are, the somewhat more inferior gear can be. Better gear a) allows to shoot in a wider range of conditions; b) improves skills over time; and c) guarantees overall better images.

Now that’s the mathematical mind analyzing. You’ll say photography is not an abstract something. Photography is about real world issues determined by unquantifiable factors such as intuition, moments, the interpretation of shadows and light, and so forth. So where does gear come in? Or asked differently: do my skills warrant the Leica I’m dreaming of? The supposedly “better camera”?

Looking at it differently, given sufficient time, effort and motivation, most of us could greatly increase our photographic ability with “better” gear.

But what is a “better” camera? The camera used by Erich Salomon was an Ermanox, one of the first miniature cameras equipped with a high speed lens which by today’s standards was extremely rudimentary. Even so, Salomon produced excellent pictures within the limitations of that camera.

Modern photography is entirely based on a foundation of excellent, memorable photographs made with crude cameras. It isn’t a stretch to say that excellent photography has been made in spite of cameras since the 1820s. Why are many old photos so memorable even though they lack the sharpness and resolution today even an iPhone can deliver?

Might be that advancing technology is pulling photographers along, but Salomon and his Ermanox still outclass many of today’s “overgeared” photogs. Because once you understand the relationship between aperture and shutter speed things are pretty easy, one would think. Gear becomes secondary.

Take Ansel Adams, how did he capture that famous moonrise? It all came down to knowing exactly what he was doing, whatever camera he’d been using:

Just imagine, eyeballing the exposure… Or check out this Chinese gentleman‘s work, a philosopher with a now half a century old Rolleiflex SL66 and some Polaroid…

What makes one photographer a highly respected professional is clearly not his equipment because that equipment is available to all of us — and clearly we are not all great photographers.

For almost all situations, any further advances in equipment will offer trivial advances in the ability to generate better photographs. Photos still today are judged on the photographer’s vision, not on the camera’s capabilities.

Or why doesn’t the current state-of-the-art technology produce much more state-of-the-art photographs? It takes no special skill these days to order up equipment that would be the envy of past masters. And technology is well on its way to being commoditized — they even shoot whole movies with smartphones these days!

One of Miroslav Tichý's homemade cameras: as basic as his gear was, Tichý puts many modern-day photographers with top gear to shame.
One of Miroslav Tichý’s homemade cameras: as basic as his gear was, Tichý puts many modern-day photographers with top gear to shame.
Meaning in today’s world, any restrictions posed by gear are dead. Blaming gear is history. Take Miroslav Tichý who took nearly a hundred photographs a day with his, yes, homemade (!) cameras.

Tichý’s cameras might look like a pile of garbage, but surprise, they actually worked. Well the Czech was a peeping Tom, but that doesn’t diminish his achievements. Despite all his gear being homemade, he produced some respectable work that would put some of us to shame…

Tichý made his camera bodies from things he had on hand, including plywood, road asphalt and thread spools.

His lenses would be created from toilet paper tubes with custom lenses created from plexiglass that had been sanded with sandpaper and then polished with toothpaste and cigarette ashes.

For his enlarger, he used sheets of metal, two fence slats, a light bulb and a tin can. If Tichý can, why can’t many of us spoilt by super-duper gear?

The only restrictions we face are we ourselves.

To start with, if I don’t respect my limitations I don’t get anywhere. I might have seen totally amazing images shot with a D4. But what’s the point of a D4 in my hands when I’m not capable of properly using the more demanding equipment.

The wrong equipment in the wrong hands is a bigger evil than a better photographer having to work with a camera beyond its capabilities, say in certain shooting conditions. The better photographer will always be able to find a workaround by the simple mastery of light and speed. The more able photographer is able to match his or her vision to what the gear will allow while the inept photographer is at least never worse off for having better gear.

The best gear will hardly turn a lack of skill into skill. Better gear can add fun and excitement, but inspiration? The mastery of light and speed will.

But again, what means “better.” How to define something that’s highly subjective. Or is a “better” camera mainly going to have “better” resolution and sensitivity with more options, thus more buttons and/or a more complicated menu?

A crappy, poorly composed image taken by a cheap or obsolete camera is still a crappy, poorly composed image taken by a top of the line pro camera.

Many photographers operate cameras. Some use them to create images. There is a difference.

Add the boon to today’s photography, the digital darkroom called post-processing.

Post-processing can make up for the next-generation camera you might be tempted to buy. Better noise removal, better sharpening, better color and tone controls… what’s the point of upgrading hardware when a simple software can do? There is a difference between photography and playing with gadgets.

The more imaging technology develops, the more important image processing becomes — that’s one of the main reasons why to me at least the camera doesn’t matter that much. It’s more how I approach photography, the handling, the feel and experience, the way I talk someone into a portrait, how able I am to “see” shadows and light, the composition, the moment, and so forth.

The camera is a simple means to an end with post-processing of no lesser importance the less able the camera is.

Conclusion?

Go for the “best” gear you like, feel comfortable with and can afford. And stay with it for some time. It’s too easy to succumb to GAS a.k.a. gear acquisition syndrome. Or go find the famous grass that’s always greener on the other side.

  • Bengt Nyman

    The photographer and the gear.
    Give a zero photographer the worlds best gear and ask hen for 100 pictures.
    90 of the pictures will show that hen is no photographer. 10 of the pictures are just fine. One is excellent.
    Give Ansel Adams a run of the mill camera and ask him for 100 pictures.
    90 of the pictures will make you envious. 10 of the pictures will be lacking in detail and sharpness. Pixelpeeking will make you wonder how he does so well with so little.

  • Sam Kanga

    The photographer. – A good photographer will get you a great shot or story no matter what they are using.