We've all heard of it: Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.). I'd wager that a fair few of us have suffered from it at one time or another. I mean, really, what Nikon portrait shooter doesn't want the new Nikkor 105mm f/1.4? When that wanting turns to lusting and the all-consuming G.A.S., we have a problem that goes well beyond the boundaries of our wallets and begins to affect the most important aspect of our photography itself: our craft. I'd like to share with you a story from when I first began photography in the hopes that it may help some of you avoid one of the biggest mistakes I made.
As photographers, we have a duty to our craft. We should be diligent about learning it and honing our skills for our clients as professionals and for ourselves as artists. As such, each photograph we create deserves our attention, and we should work hard to make it the best it can be. Even if only for the sake of the photograph itself, we should work hard on making it visually represent our subject to the best of our ability. We should focus more on expressing the content of our image through composition, color, light, and moment than on the tools used to do that.
In 2007, I made a trip to Syria to visit a friend of mine. The thought of visiting one of the oldest continuously inhabited cites on the planet, a temple of Bel, a Crusader castle, and Saladin's castle were exciting to say the least. At this time, I was (just) beginning photography. I was beginning in the sense that I'd seen beautiful images all over the internet that I drew great inspiration from and studied the metadata of.
I had purchased a Nikon D50 with a kit lens, but none of the numbers I was seeing in the metadata were possible on my camera. So, I did what I thought was right: I spent money on some flashy gear. I picked up a Nikon D200. I'd seen the results from a beautiful wide angle by Tokina, the 12-24mm. So I purchased one of those as well. Then I saw some creamy backgrounds in portraits and picked up a 70-200mm f/2.8. I felt I was set to be making the photographs I was dreaming about.
I thought I was on my way. I had a great camera with more features than I'd ever need. My memory cards were high quality so I wouldn't lose a single image. The lenses would allow me to get those beautiful portraits I'd been studying. I took along lens cloths, cleaning fluid, and spare lens caps in case I lost them. Each lens had a protective filter on it, as advised by the store. I'd even bought a CPL filter that I didn't know how to use, but I'd heard was a great addition to your bag. I could use f/2.8 to shoot in some low-light situations and to blur the background like I'd seen online. However, depth of field wasn't my problem. I was taking the wrong part of photography very seriously. My images weren't saying anything.
This really hit home recently when I saw a collection of before and after style images of Syria being shared around the Internet. Though there were not particularly artistic photographs in the collection, seeing it refreshed the idea that if I had been more focused on the things in front of me and how to best capture those, I would have had a valuable record of the people and places I experienced. It reminded me of the duty we have to learn the craft of of photography and create images with meaning.
Learning the basic aspects of our craft, such as light and composition, is much more important than the gear we use to record those things. We need to learn how to best frame and light the subjects we photograph in order to convey what we want to say about them. Learning to connect with a person in a way that draws out a photograph not just of them, but about them, or how to use light to bring out the features of a landscape that make it unique, these are the skills we should focus our attention on.
Before going to Syria, I did not spend anywhere near enough time focusing on my own vision and how to express that. This has become one of the few things I regret. Many of the things I saw and the people I met are now gone. There is no way for me now to go back and make those photographs. This, I feel, is the perfect reason to get out and actively improve our craft. The things we photograph may at some point be an important historical record.
Reflecting now, I wish that I had put my time and energy into learning the craft rather than lusting for gear. Thankfully, G.A.S. has taken a backseat for me, and I'm happy to be concentrating on what I feel are the more important parts of image-making. All of this is not to say that equipment isn't important. We know that without it, we cannot make images. However, by not making it our focus, we can focus on making stronger images of the subjects we photograph.