Inspiration Over Gear. Always.

Inspiration Over Gear. Always.

I am a photographer. I love to shoot. I live to shoot. But I am not a gearhead. I'll use anything available to me. From film to toy cameras to digital cameras, I've shot on it all. But today, with a case full of professional photo gear, I still use whatever tool I have available to me to take pictures. This includes my phone.

In 1997, when I began my photo education, that tool was a 35mm Nikon FM that was handed down to me by my father. My favorite photography course in college was Alternative Camera, which included everything from pinhole to toy cameras. By the time I was graduating from The Ohio State University in 2005, digital cameras had almost completely taken over the industry. So I took out a small credit card loan and bought a Canon 20D with a kit lens. That camera and lens were the only gear I used until 2009 when I could afford the 5DII.

Recently I have been using the Hipstamatic Tintype filter on my phone. It's a lot of fun for a portrait photographer like me, and I'm really impressed with the resulting images. But the other day I received a message through my Facebook group page where a local photographer whom I had never met, told me that I lost him with my latest iPhone images. He was shocked that I was including these images on my blog with my other pro-gear images. When I asked what he meant by "lost him" he said that these camera apps are "destroying the profession of a professional photographer." I can't say I was surprised at his comments. After reading many of the comments written in response to the article that FStoppers wrote about my last iPhone photo shoot, it seems like the photography world is firmly against the recent influx of phone photography.

This argument concerning the importance of the right gear is not specific to photography. Any field of technique has its share of experts. Musicians probably face this more than anything. You need this guitar or that amp or this digital software to succeed. This reminds me of the brilliant intro to It Might Get Loud, a documentary on rock guitarists. The scene opens up with Jack White, guitarist of The White Stripes, building an electric guitar out of a plank, a wire and a coke bottle. Jack White has probably never taken the stage with this primitive instrument. But he could. And who am I to fault him for it. He is able to make music with it that compels me.

This gear-elitist mindset begs the question "Why did you become a photographer/musician/filmmaker/creative?" Is it because you love using the latest technology? Maybe you chose to be in this line of work because you thought it was an easy way to make a buck. Or perhaps you are like me and you feel compelled to create. You can't go a day without creating something. You feel less than whole if you do. So when someone questions my motives in using my phone to take pictures, I am not sure what to say. Why wouldn't I use my phone? Especially since it's with me all the time. And with technology at the point it is now, my phone actually takes decent pictures.

Don't hear me wrong. I have whittled my gear list down to the bare essentials and wouldn't go to a job without every light and lens. But it won't be too much longer until I can confidently go to a job with nothing more than my phone.

I can hear all the collective *gasps* of all the gearheads reading this article, and I am anticipating a flood of hate mail. But mark my words. Just like the film shooters who were reluctant to make the switch to digital, those who fight the progression of digital technology will find themselves not only drastically behind everyone else, but possibly completely obsolete.

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42 Comments

Daniel Silva's picture

100% agree. It's not what you have in your hand it's what you have inside your head that makes the difference.

Good words Nick! Freeing to read from someone who LOVES photography and is very technically challenged. I love to create and that's what got me started and keeps me going. You strike a great balance of both worlds. Keep doing what you are doing.

LOVE that you made the point of writing "THE Ohio State". +100 points for you.

Andrew Griswold's picture

Just fantastic Nick! I have said it before and I will say it really isnt all about the gear, its about the person and their drive and passion towards a true goal of creating something beautiful. I personally f%^$ing love the fact I can snap a pic, edit then upload it to thousands of people online in just a few seconds. All on something the size of my wallet! Haha. Technology simply amazes me on a daily basis but its just that, simply a tool to create. 

Nick you are by far one of my favorite photographers and a true inspiration. Just sitting on the edge of my seat for the next thing you discover, create and publish. Keep it up man!

-gris

Jason Vinson's picture

i agree accept for when the gear is needed to fulfill the vision! 

Agreed. If your inspired idea calls for certain gear, go for it. My point was that it is okay to pick other tools for the job, should your idea call for it.

Jason Vinson's picture

 glad we can agree!! :)

Patrick's picture

I agree to some extent. But try to take great star photos with a 20d or an Iphone and you will fail miserably:-) 

Star photos as in celebrities or outer space?

I agree... and to tell you the truth, we have beaten this dead horse enough. I am a gear head to an extent but there has to be a balanced ratio of geek to chic. That means that don't let your "geek" take over and make you forget that it is you that captures the image. Good Stuff Nick.

i'm with you... I shot for years with a Canon S3IS because it was all I could afford. I won Photo Contests with my images 3 times. It is not about the Gear in all cases. I have seen people with great gear take bad pictures because they do not poses "the eye".

These words were mine,coudn't explain with the explanation,but he did.

i agree with dan , i also had a canon s3is and also won competitions with it...most cameras with manual controls give good enough results for most people

ps I must admit that i now have a mamiya 7 , and it just smokes everything else..

Paul Jay's picture

Blaming tools = Protectionism. In this technological era any talent can get great hardware. Musicians, Young directors, Photographers etc.It's more about talent. And less about tools.If you don't develop yourself. You're done.
Now all we need is a more critical thinking audience...

Photography is constantly evolving and has been since its creation. Let your final images speak for themselves. Many pro photographers produce "instagram" style pictures with pro tools and many instagram users produce pro quality images.

I think it is sad that we always have two camps. The first being that gear is all important and key to making a good image and the other camp that claims that gear doesn't matter at all. I think both are wrong.

I don't think you need any special gear to be able to make a great image but I do think you need special gear to make a SPECIFIC great image. For example: No matter how good you are an iphone camera is not going to be able to capture a tiger on the other side of a valley prowling through the grass. You NEED an expensive long lens to do this. The same applies to virtually every type of photography, there are many things you might need to do as a pro that requires specialized gear. It doesn't mean that you can't make a good image without that gear, it just means you can't make the DESIRED image.

I think this is the crucial insight. It's not about whether or not you CAN produce a good image, it's whether or not you can create an image with a very specific aesthetic. Each format has its limitations, and this is inherent to its format. 

I use DSLRs not because they're necessarily better than my phone, but because they can afford me a larger creative arsenal. 

Agreed!

Ray King's picture

Im curious what photographers reactions were when digital came out.  Were they just as against it as many photographers are about phone photography?  

Didnt a main stream magazine just use an image captured by an iphone recently.  I just read an interview in shutter magazine in which a photographer is shooting weddings with his iphone and it is catching on.  Would I do it?  Probably, but not exclusively.  My background comes from sales and in sales you have to be fluid.  You have to think outside the box.  phones are going to get smarter and with better cameras.  Makes you think what photographers If the market went to video and pulling out stills from video.

The video thing concerns me.  Only because I don't have any interest in video, but love still photography.  I don't think video will ever eliminate still photography, for completely non-technical reasons (can you imagine an online magazine where EVERYTHING moves?  It would induce a seizure!)  But there's no doubt that advertising is moving in that direction, since movement catches your eye.  Even in portraiture, I can imagine Harry Potter-ish portraits using video, although I suspect it would only be a fad.

I agree, however, with the accessibility of high quality cameras (esp. phone-cameras), it has made more people think they can be photographers.  How I see it is, no matter what gear is used, the vision and the inspiration is what separates amatures and pros.

Melanie's picture

Many photographers have fought against clients saying things like, " Your camera takes great pictures". We know it's not the camera it's the photographer. So for photographers to specify it has to be a certain type of camera, a certain dollar amount spent on one,etc... makes no sense. As a photographer I want to be creative and think outside the box! I don't want someone saying it has to be a certain type of gear to be considered a professional image. Maybe those photographers can't see it takes the same talent to produce a great image from pro-gear as it does to produce and image from an Iphone. I know I don't have that talent..LOL. So more power to you!! Make great images with what ever works for you!! That's what it's all about!

I agree, no one would fault a surgeon for using what he had available on a plane in mid flight to save a life. I know we've seen many movies and shows where a doctor has to put a straw in a person throat so they can breathe. Was that person upset that the doctor didn't have the latest scalpel or was he/she happy to be alive.. Something to think about IMO

This is ridiculous, in your scenario the surgeon have no choice in an emergency, they have to try with anything they could get their hands on on the spot.

Unless you arrive on set totally unprepared without your gear, or clients pops out of no where while you are having lunch at a restaurant demanding you to produce image on the spot, I don't understand how you could even compare the two.

Tobias Solem's picture

Well, if gear doesn't matter then why would I pick a D800 to shoot a landscape if I also had an iPhone? Probably because gear does matter, if you have it.

for me its not so much about only taking pics with gear but more about control over how i want my pics :) and after having good glass you take a phone pic and its just not the same!! :P

Ashley Fisher's picture

I understand where you're going, and I definitely agree...but you can't possibly tell me that my crappy droid camera takes just as good of pictures as my D800. :)

The difference between film > digital and progression in digital tech is that film to digital was a change of medium, it opens up many doors and changes the game completely.

However, as long as it stays digital, DSLR or whatever the alternative would be in the future will always be better than a phone.

The point isn't that you NEED all the gear to produce the result, yes there are many ways to get around things, but when you are on the job you should be providing the best quality you can within the shortest time, those expensive gears are what makes the difference.

Your last sentence spells out the basic reality:  stay up or fall out.  No one is obliged to spend what you do on gear, but you're both fighting for the same job.  Technology advances, no amount of hand wringing can stop that.

Having said that, I enjoy DigitalRev TV on YouTube.  I just watched two of their videos, one where a highly skilled professional had to shoot with a Lego camera, and another where a model (who had never been on the back side of a lens) was asked to shoot with a high end camera.

The pro had to borrow a speedlite, and then snag the ND filter off of the videographer's camera, in order to get ANYTHING.  And in the end results, the model's pictures were better in my opinion.

So yeah, gear does matter.  It's just that today even "mediocre" gear is good enough to get the job done in most situations (which usually means the Web).  Most.

There are some pros that like to use a cheap piece of plastic Holga.  Fancy equipment just makes taking the picture easier, not necessarily better.

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