The deluge of camera gear review videos on YouTube has charmed us into believing that technology is the most important part of photography.
You know which videos I’m talking about: those pixel-peeping image quality experiments where the reviewer zooms into a photo of a brick wall at 500% to see how sharp the corner millimeter is; those jack-in-a-box videos where the host jumps in front of the lens to test focus breathing and eye-detect autofocus; those dime-a-dozen camera reviews that regurgitate the same talking points sent to them by a marketing team; etc., etc., etc.
These videos brainwash us into believing that a good photo, or an interesting one, is a clinically perfect one made with the newest and best gear.
They lead us to believe that our old, 26-megapixel camera — the one with an “inferior” APS-C sensor — cannot produce beautiful images.
They seem to reinforce the notion that the camera matters more than the creator.
How many of us enlarge our photos to a size where we need to have every freckle in an iris sharp and resolved? How many of us really need a lens with clinically perfect optical quality, one in which nuances of distortion, chromatic aberration, and corner sharpness will make or break a photograph? For how many of us is it really important that our cameras shoot 120 frames per second instead of 15? For how many of us is it important that the autofocus system locks onto the pupil a few milliseconds faster than the nearest competitor? For a minority of people, these issues matter. But for most of us, they don’t.
The real question should be, to what extent does our obsession with gear, incremental “improvements,” and technical specifications distract us from what really matters?
To be sure, shooting an assignment or a wedding on a 1-megapixel camera might not be sensible. And using a camera that you like to use, one that feels good in your hands and inspires you to shoot, is an underestimated factor in selecting which system to use. But most of the modern cameras and lenses we can buy these days are capable of producing beautiful, interesting, and worthy images.
And, when we think about it, we don’t hold a work of art or literature in esteem because of the paintbrush or typewriter used in its creation. The chisel cannot promise the sculptor beauty any more than a keyboard can promise a writer an interesting story. Likewise, a camera doesn’t promise a photographer an interesting image.
Yes, a tool can and does have a role in a work of art’s output. But we tend to overestimate its importance.
If our photography diet is too rich in social media — fast photography, most of which lacks substance — we may not notice the false narrative getting rammed down our throats: the beauty and value of a photograph is calculated using measures like the way a camera focuses, how many frames it can shoot a second, and how big its sensor is.
This is why it is important for us to be good students and study photography. We need to wean ourselves off fast photography and explore the photography of the past. This is more than an academic exercise; it is the antidote to the brainwashing, the vaccine against the influencing.
Studying the history of photography will show us that beautiful images aren’t necessarily ones with zero noise or grain. It will show us that a beautiful or interesting photograph doesn’t necessarily need to have a pupil that is razor-sharp. It will show us that photography is an art as much as a craft, and that accidents are often happy. If we look and think hard enough, it will also reveal to us the names of many photographers who made beautiful and interesting images with objectively inferior tools to the ones we all now carry in our pockets. Above all, it will show us that what really matters is the individual and not the instrument.
Sure, we all like to admire gear. I’m guilty as charged. But we’d be fools to believe that better gear is what’s standing between us and doing interesting work.