Posted by: kerryl29 | April 15, 2019

A Photographic False Choice

While recently perusing a nature photography message board I read the latest iteration of the “how much does gear determine how good your images are” debate.  The dialogue typically goes something like this.  Someone makes a statement that essentially states “it’s the photographer, not the camera.”  Someone else counters that the the gear actually has a lot to do with it, and in so doing cites all the features added to cameras (and lenses) in recent decades that have helped photographers improve their imagery, including:  autofocus (and the refinement thereof), autoexposure (and the refinement thereof), image stabilization, and a plethora of digital era developments (instant feedback, usable high ISO performance, the ability to change ISO shot-by-shot, in-camera HDR, etc.).

Sunset, Cannon Beach, Oregon

Given how long this discussion has been going on (i.e. seemingly forever), it seems clear to me that, to the extent that no consensus has been reached, it’s function of people more or less talking past one another.  I say that because it’s obvious, at least to me, that both sides are correct, depending upon how the question itself is posed and interpreted.

Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

During the nearly 10 years that I’ve written this blog, when I’ve attended to matters pertaining to the art and craft of photography (as opposed to, say, relating my experiences on photo trips and that sort of thing), I’ve spent more time talking about the art of the endeavor than the craft.  It’s not that there haven’t been craft-related posts–there certainly have.  But I haven’t spent a great deal of time discussing technique.  That’s not to imply that the technical side of things isn’t important to successful photography; I simply prefer to talk about aesthetics.

Mooselookmeguntic Lake at Sunset from Height of Land Overlook, Franklin County, Maine

But both the aesthetic and the technical sides of photography, like any visual art form, are significant.  (And yes, protests to the contrary from the cognoscenti notwithstanding, photography is a form of visual art.)  And it’s my contention that the degree to which your photographic interest tends to focus more–not exclusively, just predominantly–on left-brained or right-brained aspects of things, the more likely you are to emphasize the role of gear over the photographer or vice versa.  And this makes perfect sense, if you think about it.

Two Jack Lake Sunrise, Banff National Park, Alberta

Advancement in photographic equipment has primarily improved–or made it easier to master–the technical or craft aspects of photography:  getting the exposure right, obtaining sharp images, maximizing depth of field, and so forth.  I say “primarily” because there are ways that technical advances can enhance creativity, such as being able to instantly see the results of experimenting with different shutter speeds and aperture settings, for instance.  And to the greater extent that one’s photographic oeuvre is underlaid by comparatively stiff technical requirements, the more one is likely to–properly–credit gear improvements with one’s perceived success.

Merced River, Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

But for the most part, gear improvements have had very little effect on the artistic part of photography for me…but keep in mind when reading that statement the kind of photography I (mostly) engage in:  landscape photography.  The practice of landscape photography is mostly about seeing and, with few exceptions, the advancement in gear over the years hasn’t improved my ability to see in the field.  Now equipment improvements have, in some very important ways, helped me realize my vision.  But aiding the ability to see itself?  I don’t believe so.  That has come (to the extent it has come at all) from copious time in the field and personal development, not from the advancement of photographic gear.  I do believe I “see” better now that I’m using a D800 series camera than I was when I was using a 35 mm film camera 20 years ago, but I don’t think the cameras themselves have anything to do with it.

Spruce Knob Sunrise, Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

So what’s more important, the camera or the person behind it?  Both, for different reasons and in differing amounts, depending on the photographic style under consideration.  Give me a 35 mm film camera today and I’ll make better images with it than I did 20 years ago.  But I’ll still make better images today with a D800 series camera than I would with a 35 mm film camera.  Both I and my equipment have improved over the years.  And I think that’s reflected both aesthetically (me) and technically (my camera).

Clingman’s Dome Sunset, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina


  1. Wonderful photos! Definitely both are important 😊

  2. I agree, both the person and the camera are factors and you have expressed that well here. Your images provoke evocative moods and the forest of trilliums take me back to my home province of Ontario..

  3. I totally agree that it is hard to distinguish improvement as a photographer resulting from advancements in the gear vs advancements in the ability to “see.” The two go hand in hand for most photographers. I would love to return to some locations I visited 15 years ago in order to come away with a better set of images, but I know the improvement would be due to a combination of better gear (and knowing how to use it), but even more so, an increased awareness of light, composition, subject matter…i.e., the aesthetic elements.

    • Thanks, Ellen!

  4. And it will go on…. It does help to stand and look, think and most of all have an eye. From a printing point of view the equipment does matter – I think!

    • Thanks. I’ll reassert, I think both equipment and the photographer matter, but how much varies depending on the style and aspect of photography in question.

  5. Full ack!

  6. Very nicely expressed!

  7. I loved your post. I’m brand new here. Gear, technology, dark room chemicals, the red light and more. the artist was small, young and new to monochrome adventures, both pencil and Kodak Agfa Illford and more. The teacher, old then in my minds eye, very ancient at 50 or so, said…. your art will grow with you vision of life. your pallet will change in time, my instamatic 110 transformed to a Brownie, to a Konica and at last a Canon. The biggest change was yet to come. and now a camera is in everyone’s hand , instantly sending visual memories worldwide. Gear and vision. The journey getting there to the right place at the right time in the right company is everything. Becoming part of the scene sublime.
    And i loved your portfolio so much. Thank you. Keith.

    • Welcome to the blog and thanks very much for the kind words. I appreciate your taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

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