It happens all the time. Someone sees a photo I’ve shot that he thinks is good and he says, “Wow. You must have a really great camera.”
Many people believe great photos come from great cameras and that good art of any kind comes from superior tools. I never know quite how to respond to such people, because that attitude reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between an artist or craftsman and his tools.
A good photographer can make the most of a cheap camera and an untalented person can make horrible images even with a great camera — but that doesn’t mean a talented photographer doesn’t crave a great camera. And it doesn’t mean he can’t do better work with great equipment.
There’s an old adage that says, “It’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools.” And it’s true.
On the other hand, a good craftsman doesn’t use lousy tools for his work, at least not very long, because he knows the difference. So which matters to doing good work? Is it the artist’s talent or the tool which matters?
All I know for certain is that I’m in love with the tools which allow me to do a better job of the things I’m passionate about. I believe talent and tools both matter, but my experience is that only those with the talent to use them can really appreciate great tools.
A great tool won’t make a mediocre artist or craftsman do great work. In fact, a mediocre user probably can’t tell a substantial difference between great tools and mediocre ones. And a talented artist or craftsman can produce good work with mediocre tools when he has to.
The big difference to me is that a person with the talent to really make use of great tools is changed when he has great tools in his hands. Something about those tools changes how he feels about himself.
I’ve recently been able to upgrade some tools that matter to me. They don’t make me any more talented than I was before, but I think the tools somehow change me.
For instance, in the past couple of years, I’ve taken thousands and thousands of photos — and made thousands of dollars from freelance photo assignments — with a Canon T3i which I bought used for $335. Compared to a smartphone camera or a fixed-lens point-and-shoot camera, it’s a nice piece of equipment, but it’s a low-end consumer model — not something a professional wants to use.
One of the best photographers I know — who does absolutely amazing work — has been using a Sony A7 for several years. After I saw the quality of his work with that camera and started doing some research, I decided that was the camera I wanted. But the newest version of the A7 with even a basic lens is about $3,500, which explains why I continued to use my $335 consumer model. I simply couldn’t afford the good tool.
But after my friend upgraded to a new model, he graciously gave me the body of his old Sony A7. It was a generous gift, to put it mildly. I found a used lens for it — which was about $250 for a low-end lens — and I suddenly had a camera which was far better than what I’d been using.
I’ve tried to explain to others why it’s a better camera. They want to know whether it’s more megapixels, because that’s what advertising has trained people to understand. But it’s far more complicated than that.
The camera has a full-frame sensor rather than the small sensor of a consumer model. It handles low-light situations with ease. Its color fidelity is amazing. It allows me to do complex editing in Lightroom and Photoshop which would make the images from the T3i unusable.
It’s truly an amazing piece of technology, but there are few measurable things I can point to which a normal person can understand. So most other people don’t understand why it’s been a big deal to me. They like the photos I’m shooting with it, but they mostly don’t seem to notice that what I’m doing now is better than what I was doing a month ago.
But I know. I feel it.
I know that I’m doing photos I couldn’t have done a month ago. But there’s something else which is just as important. Having this camera in my hands changes the way I feel about myself.
Upgrading to this camera gives me the same feeling I had when I upgraded from a Volkswagen to an Acura years ago. It’s the same feeling I experienced when I upgraded from using a Windows PC to using a Macintosh when I discovered the difference.
Having better tools gives me greater technical capabilities, even if I have trouble explaining them to others. But my heart and soul know the difference. I feel the difference.
I see the difference in my confidence about my work. I feel the difference in what I allow myself to attempt and in the scope of my ambitions.
Whatever the art or craft — whether it’s a carpenter or stone mason or painter or sculptor — quality tools change everything.
I think I’ve become a pretty good photographer, at least at times. I’m leaps and bounds better than I was 20 years ago or even five years ago. I’ve been pushing my technical skills in the last two years. I’m making better images.
A decade ago, I wouldn’t have been worthy of the camera I’m using right now. I wasn’t advanced enough and I hadn’t developed my skills enough. I like to think I’m worthy of the tool now. I like to think it’s helping me make better art. I like to think I’m going to keep getting better and better images. The camera is changing the way I see myself.
So if you see a photo of mine that you think is good — and I hope you will — and if you say, “”Wow. You must have a really great camera,” you’ll be right. I do have a fantastic camera, thanks to the generosity of a friend. But please don’t think the camera took the picture.
I’m working really hard to take better photos and edit them in superior ways. I’m learning. But this fantastic piece of equipment changes how I see myself. So if you ask me about my camera, I’ll probably just agree that I have a fantastic camera and leave it at that.
But the truth is far more complicated — for every artist and every craftsman.