Yesterday I went to a camera swap meet and didn't buy anything.
It wasn't because I was penny-pinching or being frugal; it was because there was nothing there I wanted. Note that I used the word "wanted" instead of "needed".
I went to the swapmeet mainly because its one that happens every year and I am usually busy and can't go, but this year the weather was so bad (even for me) that I couldn't get out and shoot so I thought this was the time that I would actually go to the swap. I had a list of a few items that if they were there I would buy them, but none of those things were to be found on the sea of tables there. I did see a few things that I thought might be "nice-to-haves" like some additional A-12 backs for my Hasselblad or a 180mm lens for my C220, but nothing made me crack open my wallet and spend the $$. At one point I was having a conversation with myself over the fact that I had spent $5 for an admission fee so I HAD to walk out of there with something, but ultimately I made the "mature" decision of leaving empty-handed.
During my 45-minute drive home I started thinking about gear and how it relates to my photography and a few things came together that made me want to put this down in my blog, even if for no other reason as it being something I can refer to later.
Gear doesn't matter. Or does it?
You could argue the fact that a good photographer could take a good photograph even if you handed them a cheap camera. And I'd agree with you. It's where things get specialized that gear does matter. Wildlife photography? You need a long lens if you want to get close. Wildlife doesn't just come up to you and allow you to fill the frame with your 50mm lens. Macro photography? That bug isn't going to appear huge on the screen and draw someone in unless you have a macro lens, tubes, or some other gear that lets you get in really close. Architectural photography? You aren't going to get good interior shots that a realtor will pay you for unless you are shooting with a wide lens that shows off the space and makes it look bigger than it is.
I could go on but in general I would say that gear matters to a point. You could have the best gear in the world, specific to whatever genre you are shooting, but if you don't know how to use it or have the vision, its not going to make for a good result.
How do you get there then?
I've referenced a few times the fact that I have a background in cycling and bicycle racing, and there's a parallel to be drawn here. The great Eddy Merckx was once in an interview where he was asked about his specific training regime and what he did to be at the top level of his sport. Remember that this was at a time (1960's) when pretty much all of the bikes and gear were the same and hadn't changed much over the years. His answer?
He rode, trained, and raced more than nearly any other competitor in his day. He lived on the bike, to the point where it became almost just an extension of his body.
The same holds true for photography. You need to be out there shooting. A lot. Making a lot of mistakes and (hopefully) learning from them. Knowing the camera like it is part of you. Wear out that shutter on your digital camera. If you aren't wearing out gear you aren't getting your value out of it or growing as a photographer.
This is where I will break with the purists that think you need to learn on a film camera because that's the way they learned back during the times of Eddy Merckx.
Yes, I shot film when I first started shooting in the 80's like everyone else. Was I good back then? No. Film was expensive and paying somoene else to develop it meant even more cost. So I would guess that the number of exposures I made during my first several years of photography was less than 5,000 images. That's probably being generous. Fast-forward to a few years back when I really picked a camera up again and started shooting; I was shooting digital. I took a lot more crap photos, and my number of exposures went WAY up. I was shooting over 50,000 shots a year and that's probably conservative. Did I process all of them? Nope. But I made a lot of mistakes in a short amount of time and learned from it.
I'm not saying I'm anywhere close to the level of an Eddy Merckx in photography terms, but I know my way around the camera, any camera, because the basics are now ingrained into my mind. Exposure, composition, good light, bad light, anticipating the scene - all of that comes to me much more naturally now to where I don't really need to think about it. This is freeing and allows me to focus on what I'm trying to make from an artistic standpoint. And I don't think you can get to that point without shooting A LOT and making A LOT of mistakes. And you just can't do that with film. From a purely monetary standpoint, and also from an instant feedback standpoint. With digital, you can sit in one spot and take the same image over and over, changing things in terms of exposure and shutter speed, and get instant results and see how your image is affected. You can't come close to that with film.
That being said - I shoot a lot of film at this stage in my photography journey. Why? It's a choice of medium that adds another aspect of control to what I am doing. Certain films and lenses add a "look" to an image that I like to experiment with. And having the basics built into my head already means that I don't need that instant feedback. It helps that I develop and scan my own film so that I see my results often the same or next day after shooting. But still I'm shooting film often as a choice and only for my personal projects. Any paying work is digital and done with redundancy to two memory cards. The last thing I want to do is lose something and tell the client their special day was never recorded.
I see a lot of bad film photography out there. There are several facebook groups where often times someone will post an image that has no point of interest, no composition, and nothing to draw one in - but because it was "shot on film" somehow that makes it more interesting.
So this comes back full circle to point out that gear (film, lenses, cameras, digital, etc) just doesn't matter. Its what you do with it that counts.
So get out there and "shoot lots".