Like many photographers, I must confess to being a bit of a gear junky. There is an allure to the whizzy electronics and well-damped mechanics of photographic equipment that fires-up the pleasure centres in my brain like little else can. It is the same kind of want and desire that sees boys plastering bedroom walls with posters of Ferraris, a feeling fuelled by the combustible mix of ego and imagined experience. I like to think that in my case it is the imagined-experience portion of that equation which drives my yearning for the latest equipment, the thought of the images I might be able to capture if only I could lay my hands on the next deplorably expensive gadget.
Unfortunately, for me and, in fact, the rest of humanity, desire cannot be completely divorced from ego, and I suspect it is for this reason that much has been said recently about the topic of equipment and how it alone cannot make you a ‘good’ photographer. Many influential photography commentators argue their point based upon the hypothetical premise that if you give a ‘good’ photographer an ordinary camera, they can and will continue to produce compelling images. One commentator whose opinion I have high regard for went as far as to compare a camera to a chef’s oven. People don’t typically eat a tasty meal and, having devoured it, turn to the chef saying, “Wow, you must have a great oven!” This analogy is designed to illustrate that a great photographer is not the product of their camera equipment.
The trouble is that, given my experience as both an occasional cook and enthusiastic photographer, I’m not convinced that you can separate the meal from the chef or the oven for that matter. Let us consider the proposed litmus test – a good photographer armed with only their talent and a mediocre camera. Send him or her out to walk the streets – or through the wilderness if that’s their thing – and, given their eye for images, they will undoubtedly return with excellent photos. The difficulty is that the constraints for this test are so loose that it hardly seems like a valid examination of the impact that equipment has. A far more telling contest would be to take two equally competent photographers, one outfitted with bleeding-edge gear and the other with Dad’s old hand-me-downs, both tasked to photograph a very specific subject. Now the difference is only equipment and I expect that Average Joe might find himself struggling.
To be honest, this opinion of mine didn’t formulate until recently, when I was desperately trying to get a ‘good’ image from a challenging position while attempting to cope with even more challenging lighting conditions. It dawned on me during the panic-stricken moments as the sun crossed the horizon that I was indeed using all my equipment to its maximum potential.
The first thing to understand about the photo and indeed the epiphany itself is that I had imagined the scene well in advance of arriving to capture the image. What I did not realise during the hours spent daydreaming in the run-up to the attempt – also referred to as ‘visualising’ – was just how restricted the number of feasible locations would be. When I had finally settled on a spot, I found myself perched atop the only appropriately sized rock in the river and surrounded by a pool of water deep enough to drown any luckless camera that found itself taking a bath. The patch of dry ground was so incredibly small that the tripod legs were pinched inwards and, further complicating the matter, the composition demanded as much height as I was brave enough to concede. The whole arrangement was wholly precarious and there was a lot of money riding on the hope that a gust of wind wouldn’t topple the entire rig over.
The point to be made by all this is that, up until very recently, I lacked a tripod capable of such gymnastic feats and, in this instance, a capable tripod was mandatory. The enormous dynamic range of the scene meant that no single photo could capture all the detail required, and compensating by taking bracketed exposures, as I did, demands a sturdy tripod. This was the first example of how having anything other than the right tool for the job would mean failing to get the shot.
The second example that reinforce my thinking was the field of view. Capturing the image required using my 16-35 mm lens wound all the way back into the stops at 16 mm. The lens was mounted to a full frame body giving it the widest possible angle and while this setup is anything but exceptional, it is not the sort of lens and body combination that photographers normally have when just starting out. Most photography enthusiasts, myself included, set out in pursuit of artistic glory using crop sensor camera bodies which give a considerably narrower field of view. In Canon terms, this would mean that if you as a crop sensor owner wished to reproduce the photo you see, you would have to have access to a 10 mm optic. Having a 10 mm lens is far from extraordinary nowadays but, then again, it isn’t ordinary either and something that I am certain many a gear junky aspires to own.
The final piece in this puzzle was a Neutral Density (ND) filter. In much the same way as a 10 mm lens is not an uncommon piece of kit to find in someone’s camera bag, so an ND filter is not entirely rare either. Furthermore, the blurred effect that the ND filter creates in the water can, technically speaking at least, be created even without the addition of such a filter. The trouble, though, is that if one endeavoured to reproduce the picture without the light-stopping aid of an ND filter, numerous successive exposure-bracketed images would be required and this would have to be followed by many additional hours spent in front of a computer. It’s fair to say that, for most folk, such an undertaking would be insufferable, effectively rendering a filterless version of this photo impossible.
The bottom line is that if you are sitting at home longing to add a new tripod, lens, filter or even camera to your arsenal in the belief that it will improve your photographs, then you are probably justified in your thinking. It is not the only path to improvement, but it is a valid path nonetheless. With the equipment that I owned three years ago, I would not have been able to take the photograph that you see here today. The image is, in no small way, the result of my own insatiable appetite for better gear. How much you are personally prepared to pay for incremental improvements in the probability of getting good images, if at all, is entirely up to you but you can be sure of one thing – regardless of what anyone says, the oven does matter!