Forget the gear, it's the Idea that counts!

Will Goodlet

It's fairly common for photographers to spend an awful lot of time talking and thinking about photographic gear and techniques. The topics range from the merits of various cameras and lenses to post-processing and editing workflows. In fact, I surveyed 10 or so books about nature photography on Amazon and I found something quite surprising to me; they all started with chapters about equipment.

I think that is a pretty strange place to start with regards to photography. Kind of like a book about creative writing starting with a chapter called 'Choosing the best typewriter' or 'Essential Word Processors for beginners'. Riveting stuff!

There is a famous quote sometimes attributed to Arnold Genthe when he photographed the Author Jack London.

London supposedly praised Genthe's portrait of him and remarked that Genthe must have a wonderful camera.

Jack London Genthe

After the session, Genthe's pithy response was: "I have read your books, Jack, and I think they are important works of art. You must have a wonderful typewriter."

We are photographers who are interested in creating photographs right? Shouldn't we start off by looking at the visual components of an image, how they are constructed and what visual language is behind them rather than rabbit on about equipment?

I know I am a little odd but in this respect I appear to be odder than most! Making images, for me is about expressing ideas, experiments, views and stories in a visual language that, unlike most spoken languages, almost the entire world can grasp and understand.

Perhaps we make a mistake in discounting the visual construction of the image in favour of the techniques used to bring it into being because, to most of us, the visual language appears obvious while the technical process can be fairly opaque to beginners.

Let me draw an analogy. Most of us can look at a painting but very few of us can paint a good one. However, there is more to painting than access to materials and equipment. Not only do we need to understand the technology and mechanism of painting, we also need to clearly visualise what it is we wish to paint.

I think, that rather than being obvious, it is evident that visual language is not as well understood as we may think. While most of us are reasonably adept at 'reading' a photograph, we can be less adept at understanding how to construct or 'write' it and I don't mean in terms of camera settings! I mean we don't always understand how, why and when to produce a particular visual construct in order to convey our intent.

Beyond that, we could add a lack of understanding about our audience. What constructs do they find attractive or meaningful in an image? I've noted for some time that images are never universally appealing. They are always preferred more by one segment of the audience and liked less by others depending on various factors.

Why is that?

Well, my theory is that photography serves more than one purpose. One of many possible purposes is to record a 'truth', observation or fact, while another is to serve as an artistic or interpretive statement. An image might also just be a commercial artefact with it's success or failure based solely on converting a sale.

I think photographers often regard a work as good or bad based on another completely different set of criteria. Perhaps, the enjoyment of the moment of capture, the rarity of the subject or event or the story/context surrounding it?

Sometimes we forget that our audience wasn't privy to the same context or moment. They have to draw on their own experiences to derive any meaning from the photograph.

Images can be complex things!

How does all this relate to camera gear?

I feel that camera gear becomes a red herring and sometimes a crutch.
Speaking for myself, I used to think that better camera equipment would mean better images. But now, I think that sentiment was quite narrowly expressed. I think it is more useful to say that better camera equipment offers more opportunity.

'Opportunity' is different to 'Better'.

Opportunity can also be offered by other things than equipment. Think of access to interesting subjects or the ability to spend more time with a subject for example. These are both opportunities but they don't necessarily guarantee a great shot.

In order to create a better image we have to understand how to structure or build it using the opportunities at our disposal and we also have to understand what appeals to our audience, even if that audience is only ourselves.

Confusing The Technical with The Creative

I think it is fundamentally important to understand the visual concepts in a photograph and instead of merely snapping a picture, to intentionally create one to suit our purpose.

I think that treating photography like a manual of instructions, or a recipe book has a place , it is a technical pursuit as well as an artistic one after all, but I feel there is not enough emphasis on the creative and too much on the technical.

I feel that seeking inspiration and ideas in images should be right out the front of the process of learning photography. Discovering how to achieve them technically should come as a result of the drive to create what one visualises.

The Director, Steven Spielberg spent a lot of his youth making movies without any expensive equipment or effects. He became a master at improvisation but he also pioneered ideas that were possible on the equipment he had.

One of his great hallmarks is the uncut master shot where one scene evolves with both the actors and the camera moving at the same time, offering different viewpoints, movements and framing in one long and interesting sequence. Spielberg is a master at these because he only had the budget for one camera and it's a technique that saves setup time and covers a lot of story in one go.

An uncut master shot in Spielberg's 'Catch Me if You Can'

Spielberg made the lack of big-budget equipment work in a spectacularly creative and new way because he knew what he wanted to achieve first.

Technology as a means to an end

If our only camera was a pinhole could we still take a great image? The answer is absolutely YES!

Voigtlander Pinhole: Grand Traverse Bay - Image by  Matt Callow  ( CC2 Licence  no changes made)

Voigtlander Pinhole: Grand Traverse Bay - Image by Matt Callow (CC2 Licence no changes made)

With a pinhole camera, we can control four things: The choice of subject, the framing of the scene, the degree of blur in the scene and the brightness of the scene.

If we add some extra technology to that camera, let's say a lens and an aperture, we have the added ability to control the depth of field.

If we go on to add interchangeable lenses, we would find that we can alter compression, and decompression in an image.

Let's say we add a digital sensor next. We would be able to take many shots without cost.
Add a focus system and we are able to focus quickly on moving subjects. Add a fast frame rate and we can catch rapid movement more reliably. Add a meter and we can more reliably determine an exposure.

My point is that we don't need all these items of technology to take a wonderful photograph instead we have to understand how we want to characterise a subject in a photograph and determine the best items of technology to achieve that vision. Alternatively, we have to understand the opportunities afforded by the equipment we do have.

We will always be limited by our equipment and have to adapt but we should always choose not to let our equipment define our style and shot.

In some situations, the equipment might not even exist and we might have to make it. Will Burrard-Lucas ground-breaking remote vehicle shots or Paul Bruins multi-camera panoramic rig come to mind.

I feel that this approach, that of knowing what we want the image to look like first, will almost certainly yield more consistent results and a wellspring of inspiration.

I often go about without any camera at all snapping images in my head. It's quite a liberating learning technique because it clearly defines what I want out of the image and how I would achieve it without anything else screwing things up.

The portrait photographer, Richard Avedon had similar views.

He said, "I hate cameras. They interfere, they’re always in the way. I wish I could just work with my eyes alone... I immediately know when I’ve got the image I really want. But to get the image out of the camera and into the open, is another matter."

So, do I want a shallow depth of field? Perhaps, I'd like to introduce some flare? Would I like the image to be compressed? What about movement, how do I want to portray it, with shutter duration or stacking? Would I use tilt or shift, or a filter? Perhaps I'd like to blend focal lengths?

Sometimes I have ideas months or years in advance and then set about building the tools, opportunities and technical abilities to achieve that idea later on.

I hope that this approach helps to direct my photography rather than allowing my gear to narrowly prescribe the shots I take.

The idea, for me, should always comes first.

© Will Goodlet