It was at a party a few weeks ago here in Istanbul that I asked a working photojournalist what she shoots with. Given that she’s worked in conflict zones, I was curious about her equipment. “Canon,” she told me. I pushed the line of inquiry a bit further and asked, “5D Mark II? Mark III?” She replied, “Yeah, 5D.” That essentially ended the conversation, and it wasn’t the first time a photographer’s given me a vague answer about gear. On many occasions, I’ve heard that it’s not about the camera, it’s about the person holding the camera, and that’s true. Yet, without the camera, we would all just be folks with an eye for composition and a natural sense of light, and the visual record of the past 150 years or so would be virtually nonexistent. The subtext underlying the resistance to talking about gear seems to be that it’s somehow amateurish and unimportant, and that notion is hogwash.
What you shoot with can say more about you than you realize
In my time working for this site, I’ve spoken with many photographers who work in a variety of mediums, and as a reviewer, I’m naturally interested in what’s in a photographers bag. Are you shooting full-frame? APS-C? Micro Four Thirds? Do you work strictly with primes, or do you favor the flexibility that zoom lenses afford? Or do you ignore sensors entirely, and shoot film? Did you buy your camera indiscriminately or do you have a well-thought out argument for why you chose one camera over all the rest? Barring the last one, these are the questions that can help me, or anyone who’s technologically inclined, suss out, in part, who you are as a photographer. Perhaps you’re the working professional who uses “non-professional” cameras, and while that lends support to the idea that it’s not about the camera, it doesn’t make the conversation moot. It just makes it more interesting.
Not talking about gear doesn’t suggest a lack of technical skill, it suggests a lack of interest, which, at the very least, doesn’t make any sense. If you cared enough to buy a certain camera, then let’s talk about it. Why did you go for the 5D Mark III over the 1-D X or the 6D? Of course, this ties into the work that you do, and we’ll get to that. But for the while at least, let’s talk shop.
And hey, there are folks who do amazing work with rudimentary gear, and there are folks who make mediocre work with amazing gear. There’s a scene in the show VEEP in which the president’s liaison, Jonah, asks a photographer, Ken, what he’s shooting with, and is somewhat baffled when it isn’t a 1D. Jonah owns a 1D, and that’s the only reason he has for owning a 1D. Ken then takes Jonah to task in a few seconds by reasoning that unless he’s shooting sports or hundreds of photographs of herons catching fish, he has no need for a 1D. “Right, but I have a 1D,” is all Jonah could offer.
You’ll undoubtedly encounter a Jonah-type who’s only reason for asking you what you’re shooting with is to say what he’s shooting with, and I’d wager that it happens more with who buy above their skill-level. Granted, you wouldn’t necessarily ask a painter what brush (s)he’s using or a writer what type of pencil (s)he uses, but when so much R&D goes into the creation of a camera, it merits more than a passing mention. And lenses, too. But when the conversation ends at “Yeah, 5D,” I can’t even broach that topic, which can lend itself to some lively discussion, if it’s given the time and space to happen organically.
The gear in no way makes the photographer, but without it, the photographer doesn’t exist. Whether you shoot film or digital, I’m interested. Whether you’ve chosen large format, medium format, full-frame, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, 1″, or anything smaller than that. Whether you’ve chosen Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Fujifilm, Panasonic, Sigma or any other company, I’m interested. A well-made camera is a thing of beauty. Whether it’s a $20,000+ Leica S2 or a $15 Yashica Electro 35 GSN, it’s worth talking about because how you regard your equipment can say loads about who you are as a photographer.
“It’s not about the camera, it’s about the image.” Yes, that image is beautiful, with its excellent composition and attention to detail throughout the frame, but without the camera, the image wouldn’t exist. So let’s give it a fair shake.