Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Does Equipment Matter?

There’s a kind of online debate going on at the moment that will be of interest to photographers. It’s about the importance of equipment. Ken Rockwell wrote an article called, “Your Camera Doesn't Matter,” and the title says it all. Michael Reichmann, the guy behind the excellent site Luminous Landscape, offers a counter-argument called, “Your Camera Does Matter.” Click on the titles to read those articles.

Rockwell offers a ton of clichés and clever one-liners, not to mention redundancies and downright bizarre statements, to support his view that photographs are made inside a photographer’s mind and not in the camera and that the camera is inconsequential to how well a photo turns out. Well, in my experience, the camera and lens and all the dozens of decisions and choices made along the way have a definite effect on any resulting photographs. While it may be true that if you can’t “see” an image in the first place you won’t be able to capture it even with an excellent camera, to pretend that equipment doesn’t matter is just not being realistic. It’s like all the other choices a photographer makes in creating an image, the equipment you choose impacts your images in a very real way.

Reichmann’s point of view is that photography is a craft (not just an art) that uses equipment to produce its images. It’s hard to argue with this statement and matching the equipment to the subject matter is a very important part of being a photographer. After all, you can’t make professional quality architectural photographs with a disposable camera. You can’t make a formal portrait with an old Polaroid camera. That’s why black-and-white landscape photography is almost always done with 4x5 and 8x10 view cameras or more precisely folding field cameras, or at least it used to be. But it seems like Reichmann’s leaving out or downplaying the photographer’s creativity—the mental process that happens in making an image. And frankly it’s true that having the best equipment is no guarantee for getting the best images.

Over the years, I’ve known plenty of photographers with all the latest expensive equipment who can’t make a decent image and I’ve known many who use cameras I wouldn’t even pick up on a dare, but manage to create wonderful images just the same. I believe it’s a matter of matching the photographer’s working methods or personality to the equipment and the subject matter. When these three qualities are aligned with each other, excellent images are the result. But in my experience, better quality equipment can allow a photographer to achieve even greater results. Good equipment makes the job of photographing easier, and it’s just that simple.

It seems like Rockwell and Reichmann are both trying to separate the art from the craft (coming from different directions) and that’s not something you can really do with photography—art and craft in photography are way too entwined. So in a way, they are both right and wrong. Does equipment matter? Of course it does. Does creativity matter? Of course it does. They all matter just as much as any of the other variables that exist in photography. And like I usually say, the art of photography is found in the choices you make in creating a photograph.

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