We Are More Than Our Tools

I have been part of a lot of conversations lately in which other parties have tried to equate photographic skill solely with the tools involved in creating images. These conversations have ranged from simply uninformed to downright accusatory, and the sources range in background from non-photographers to those working at a professional level within the industry. Snippets of anonymous conversations that I have been privy to include:

“I could be as good as you if I had access to fancy equipment.”

“Why should I pay you for retouching? They’re just headshots, and Photoshop is gonna do everything for you.”

“How many megapixels is your camera? We only hire photographers that use professional gear.”

“All you do is push a button.”

“The only reason he is so successful is because he had money to help get him started with buying equipment.”

“I love that picture. What lens did you use for it? At what F-stop?”

Statements like these make a few false assumptions in their logic — assumptions that sadly even some photographers seem to buy into.

mobile image of Chops the Dog

1. That an image must be technically perfect to be successful, rather than entertaining or emotionally engaging.

Have you seen Dead Poets Society? There is a scene where Robin Williams demonstrates to his class that their textbook’s mathematical formula for determining whether a poem is successful or not is utter bloody nonsense. Creativity cannot be measured quantitatively. I have seen multitudes of images that, while they may not conform to the “rules” of photography, are insightful and heartbreakingly profound. Does their lack of technical “perfection” make them any less wonderful to look at?

mobile image of night time scene

2. That technical and equipment concerns define creativity rather than provide a means of control over creative output.

Being well-versed in the technical side of photography and knowing your tools at best means you have the abilities needed to more easily realize your creative vision and to make the informed decisions on how to more accurately make your end product match your initial creative concept. At worst, you will be able to make very well exposed, but very boring images. Creative options can be broadened by technical know-how and gear, but even the world’s most expensive and advanced camera can still take a shitty picture if the photographer behind it doesn’t have a creative bone in their body.

mobile image of bird downtown buffalo 2010

3. That the only way to succeed in photography is to have lots of fancy and expensive equipment; having better equipment makes you a better photographer.

We are not mere technicians. We are greater than the sum of our tool chests. By the logic of the above statement, are all past photographs inferior to current ones because the equipment used to make them was not as advanced? Upgrading your camera system may mean that your images can be reproduced larger, or that you may have a sharper lens, but it will not make you a better photographer. The only way to become a better photographer is to go out and practice, take a ton of pictures, take risks, push yourself, care, make mistakes, fail, get back up, keep trying, and keep learning.

mobile image of clark dever

4. That anyone could reproduce any image if they had identical equipment.

Here are some oils and brushes, go paint the Mona Lisa…. sounds ridiculous, right? We deal with capturing unique moments and sights. Even if someone were to set out and reproduce an image by another photographer, would every detail be the same? One might be able to replicate gear, copy lighting, and achieve a similar aesthetic, but would those all-important intangible elements be there? Would the subject be identical down to the pores, hairs, and micro-expressions? Would the feeling be the same? Could that photographer capture that exact moment again? No, of course not. But more importantly, why would they want to? Outside of an academic exercise or possible parody, one should be pushing to find their own creative voice, to find what works for them, not trying to exactly copy what worked for someone else.

Mobile image, Buffalo 2010

Stop seeing yourself as an operator and start thinking like a creator.

The truth is; cameras, lenses, computers, graphic editing software, pens, paper, paints, brushes, microphones, audio recorders, and any other tool that you use in your creative life is just that, — a tool. And tools are only as good as the people using them. People are so quick to discount modern creatives, especially photographers and others who work with digital and mechanical mediums, as mere technicians whose sole job is the correct technical operation of a machine. The creative forces that go into making an image are so much more involved than just pushing a button. We as artists must begin to promote the idea that we are the ones that make creative images and that our tools are just a medium for recording our unique vision.

Sadly, this has become a commonly held perception that is devaluing the creative industry as a whole. With the number of talented amateurs and professionals growing, the value of being a technically proficient photographer is no longer seen as a differentiating element, but rather as a baseline, a bare minimum that is expected of us. Some photographers, usually those who are trapped in that self-sabotaging negative mindset I have written about so often, will see this as a threat, a dire warning that “The amateurs are coming to steal my jobs!! Oh noes!!!” Conversely, the smart and adaptable photographer will see this increased competition as an impetus to rise above the pack and stand out, rather than as a grim spectre signaling the end of their business. But how will these capable photographers who thrive on competition and self-evolution set themselves apart? The answer is so simple, yet seemingly so overlooked that it pains me to even have to say it.

Above all other factors, we can stand out by demonstrating to our clients every day and on every assignment the unique vision and creativity that we bring to photography. Show them that we have taken the passion and love for the medium that we felt the first time we picked up a camera and that we have cultivated and refined this energy into our own unique take on image making. We have to show our ability to take our technical knowledge, and tools and creative skills and create something more from them, something that is astonishing, even if it breaks the rules or we knowingly choose work outside the perceived norm of technical correctness. And finally, we have to show them that we can take this singular purity of vision and that we can apply it to sell their product or illustrate their concept or capture critical or mundane moments in amazing ways. It is so important to make them realize that the notion of photographers being nothing without their cameras is a misstatement. In truth, the cameras are nothing without the photographers.

(All of the above mobile images were chosen because even though they were not taken on a high-price point camera, they hold no less personal significance to me than any of the images  in my portfolio. These are images I care about.)

We Are More Than Our Tools

14 thoughts on “We Are More Than Our Tools

  1. Dan Robinson says:

    Very well put!!! Just to add to your “snippets of conversation” someone commented to me not too long ago, ” I don’t know why anyone hires a (professional) photographer now – digital cameras take such good pictures.” Well, if you have no artistic appreciation, fine! I want to be appreciated for what I do ( with a camera ) ! I would also like to add that in portrait photography, the relationship between the photographer and the subject becomes crucial. A particular portrait may not be “about” that relationship, but the relationship has to be such that it “allows” for the “display” of whatever character, expression, emotion, even basic beauty, that may be “shown” in a photograph….. Blessings and inspiration to all! Dan Robinson

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    1. Thank you for the contribution Dan. These are all great points.

      The idea that it is the camera taking the picture is one that seems to have gained a lot of ground the past few years with the advent of digital cameras being more readily available. But I am and always will be a firm believer that quality will stand the test of time. It is our responsibility to not let these attitudes drag us down. We need to demonstrate the value of our brand and creativity through our work and interactions. A client that cannot or will not be educated, in most cases, is not a client you want in the long run. Most likely, if their attitude matches that which you illustrated above Dan, than they were never going to hire a photographer based on creative quality in the first place, but rather on bottom line price, some factors cannot be readily altered, we should put more energy into finding the clients that are right for us than worrying about the unconvertible.

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  2. This is great Luke – I deal with this kind of nonsense constantly when shooting weddings. It runs the gamut from people with decent gear literally following me around trying to duplicate my shots, even asking what settings I’m at, as if the outcome will really be the same. Then there are people assuming because I’m young I must be working on a school project and when I tell them it’s my business I get “awww’d” like I’m running a lemonade stand. Then there are “guys from the old school” denouncing my work because I actually process my files with software, “you should be able to get the shot right out of the camera!” Ok buddy, so what you’re saying is you shoot some fancy film and then take it CVS for processing and printing? Ugh.

    It is hard not to question yourself, “if I had more of this gear or more of that would I be any more legit?” But the truth is there is no lens, no software and no set years of experience that can give you a knack for decisive moment, an understanding of how composition, color theory, light, etc. are utilized to communicate a moment, an atmosphere, an idea, a story, etc. We need to remind ourselves of this everyday and know that we are not expendable and that we need to continue to challenge ourselves to rise above this “anyone can do that” mentality.

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    1. It is an attitude that is shared by many, sadly. But we cannot vilify or blame them, we must always try to educate others about the value of what we do, not always through words, but through the constant example of what we can deliver.

      If you look back into the past there have been wonderful photographers in every era. Does that fact that their gear is not as advanced or slick as even some of the most rudimentary cameras currently available invalidate their work? There will always be naysayers and haters, there will always be those just just don’t get it, there will always be those that don’t care. The most thing to remember is that you cannot allow yourself to fall into these traps. You cannot stop caring, you cannot equate gear with creative success, you must always continue to educate yourself. and you cannot allow the attitudes of others to drag you down.

      The best we for us to prove ourselves to others beyond any debate is to create images so great that they CANNOT ignore you, if you keep that in mind you will know that converting those that can be converted is possible and won’t have to worry and stress when you have to leave the unconvertible behind.

      Steve Martin’s quote will always stick with me.

      “Be undeniably good. When people ask me how do you make it in show business or whatever, what I always tell them and nobody ever takes note of it ‘cuz it’s not the answer they wanted to hear — what they want to hear is here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script, here’s how you do this — but I always say, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” If somebody’s thinking, “How can I be really good?”, people are going to come to you. It’s much easier doing it that way than going to cocktail parties.”

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  3. I recently read another article that pertained to this subject matter. The point was made that many new/emerging photographers are simply looking for an excuse to fail: if only I had a better camera or lighting or models or etc. Cartier-Bresson or Ansel Adams didn’t have anything remotely close to the technology that someone with even a point and shoot has today. Bottom line – make great images with what you have and build upon your resources. That being said, I do like my 5D Mark II.

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