While shopping the local camera store, I happened to overhear a teenage-looking customer inquiring about some gear. He wanted a certain type of lens, but was actively rueing the fact that the lenses his friends were using cost more than he was able to spend. He asked to see a lens he could afford, listened to the clerk tell him it wasn’t as good as the glass his friends were shooting, got discouraged, and ended up leaving the shop with nothing.
I must admit, the whole thing kind of bothered me.
It’s been a few days now, and I keep catching myself thinking back to that dejected-looking kid at the camera shop. I wish I had gotten his attention as he walked out the door. I wish I had asked him what camera he was shooting, what kind of subjects he likes to shoot, and if he had a Flickr account where I could check out his shots. I wish I had shown excitement that he was a new photographer, and told him to keep at it. I wish I had asked him to see his camera, and been impressed by the machine he’d have pulled from his bag- whatever camera that might’ve been.
But I didn’t do any of that. And that’s a real shame.
Thinking on it since then, it seems that there exists in photography an almost unhealthy preoccupation with names and numbers. Some folk look askance at all but a select few makes of camera, even though any camera would be rightfully regarded as pure sorcery to human beings from any other era than our own. Even so, to some shooters these incredible machines capable of capturing the photons of our universe just aren’t all that good, on account of their lacking a certain name, digit, or engraving.
Normally, I’d think about the whole situation for just a bit, shrug, post our next review, and carry on. To each his own, and on we go- so what if some people are obsessed with gear. It’s not hurting anyone. But then again, it was difficult to ignore the deflated posture and look of disappointment worn by that young photo geek as he exited the camera shop.
Extrapolating further, it wasn’t hard to imagine a scenario in which many a would-be shooter decides photography is too exclusive or that the pursuit of good photographs is a waste of energy, lest one be privileged enough to carry a Leica or Hasselblad.
As I continued to mull this all over in my mind, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I’m not innocent of gear snobbery myself. Just one month ago I found myself straying onto this very same path; a path paved with pretense, excess, and elitism. I fell into the trap when browsing eBay’s film photography listings. The Zeiss Planar 50mm F/1.4 looked gorgeous, and the price was excellent. I was vaguely aware that it came with some kind of Contax SLR, a case, and some garbage 3rd-party zoom lens. These pack-ins meant little to me.
A cheap, electronic Yashica with the Contax name stamped onto it. Whatever. I’m here for the Zeiss, and that salacious 3-D pop I keep hearing about!
But here’s the thing- thirty days later I’m convinced that those who talk about “3-D pop” are clinically insane, and the Contax 139Q is the best camera I’ve shot in years.
This truth led me to question how I could have been so automatically and blindly averse to a camera I’d never shot. This site [and its founder] takes pride in publishing opinions unbiased by the crowd. So how could I so flippantly disregard a camera I’d never used?
I often say things that aren’t entirely popular, even if those opinions and articles don’t generate for CASUAL PHOTOPHILE the exposure that might come from repeating what everyone else is saying or rehashing the latest trends.
What are some of the unpopular things I’ve said? That Minolta’s CLE is the best M-mount camera, that Hasselblads aren’t that good, that German things aren’t inherently the best, and that I’ve used TLRs that are better than Rollei’s. It’s true.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my M2 and the Rolleiflex is so pretty it makes me want to dim the lights and pour some wine. But I’ve used both and I’m just as bad at photography with those noble cameras as I am with the bourgeois Canon A-1. And hell, I’m just as bad with an A-1 as I am with the downright plebeian Kodak VR35.
Digressions aside, my primary point is that no matter what name your camera has stamped into (or painted onto) it, your ability to take good photos will be entirely dependent on your creativity, your artistic vision, your willingness to put in extreme effort, and above all else, whether or not you’re having fun. And stressing about gear is not fun.
But actually, that’s not really my point. My real point is that the kid in the camera shop didn’t need the exclusive, expensive lens his friend had in order to make good images. And more importantly, he didn’t need the expensive, exclusive lens to enjoy making images.
So what did he actually need to enjoy photography? It’s pretty simple. He needed to remember why he got into photography in the first place.
And this is where I’d like to send a message to kids like him, who may have recently discovered photography and are finding themselves bombarded by an online culture of gear worship.
If you’re just starting out, ignore everything and everyone. Shoot whatever you want, however you want. Ignore the “show your gear” posts that populate the most popular forums. Don’t worry about the fact that your friends have a lens with a capital “L” or a red “T-star” painted on it. Don’t compare your gear to the gear of others, especially when those others might be Instagram personalities, money-making photojournalists, or studio fashion shooters with twenty years of experience.
I should also add that it might be helpful for new shooters to take Instagram with a grain or two of salt. It is, after all, a marketing platform and a place full of lustful, covetous gear porn. Especially eschew those wretched accounts that post a continuous stream of “what’s in your bag” photos. Come on guys. Do you think we actually believe you’re carrying two DSLR bodies, four lenses, a film SLR, a medium format rangefinder, a GoPro, a box of Pocky, a Moleskine, a fountain pen with India ink pot, a pet hedgehog for moral support, and a DJI Phantom? Get real.
No. You don’t need a Leica to enjoy photography. And you most certainly don’t need a Leica, an espresso, a hewing axe, a plane ticket to the Pacific Northwest, a rented cabin, and a pair of artistically weathered, artisanal work boots to enjoy photography.
There are lots of people taking lots of pictures with lots of cameras, and having a great time doing it. Don’t buy into the mythos of the “live folk” generation. Don’t obsess that your gear isn’t sexy enough. Don’t worry that your photos aren’t good enough. Just practice with what you’ve got, and don’t give up.
If you’re just starting out, remember that every photographer was, at one point, just a person holding a magical box about which they knew absolutely nothing. So shoot what you have, shoot what you can afford, and don’t worry about it.