Credit Where Credit’s Due

An amateur professional

My friend recently asked me if I make money selling photographs. Suffice it to say, though I’m immensely grateful for the vote of confidence, I think she has a bit of an over-inflated opinion of my photographic abilities! 🙂 The revenue streams available to photographers these days are extremely limited. If you’re very good, you may be able to make money as a portrait photographer or as a wedding or event photographer, but I can’t think of any other revenue stream today that will reliably put food on the table here in the UK. If you’re a photographer these days, you most likely are a hobbyist like me.

Most hobbies are something of an expense. With photography there is obviously some cost involved in purchasing a camera and suitable lenses. Unlike most hobbies, however, the cost of digital* photography is front-loaded and the ongoing cost these days is negligible provided, of course, that you don’t suffer too badly from “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” – commonly known by the acronym G.A.S. Of course, camera and lens manufacturers love it when photographers get G.A.S.

Yes, my camera takes good pictures

All camera companies are of course in the business of selling equipment and trying to strike the balance between making a user base feel positive about having bought in to their systems while also attempting to convince them that they should upgrade. It’s a delicate balance on a precarious tightrope.

In 2011, Nikon famously laid bare this marketing tension with what turned out to be an uncomfortable post on Facebook:-

A photographer is only as good as the equipment he uses, and a good lens is essential to taking good pictures! Do any of our facebook fans use any of the NIKKOR lenses? Which is your favorite and what types of situations do you use it for?
A photographer is only as good as the equipment he uses, and a good lens is essential to taking good pictures! Do any of our facebook fans use any of the NIKKOR lenses? Which is your favorite and what types of situations do you use it for?

Intended to be classical community engagement, Nikon’s unnamed social media representative made an unforgivable error, asserting that a camera or lens, rather than a photographer, makes a great photograph. The objections to Nikon’s assertion came swiftly. Indignant followers of Nikon’s Facebook page vehemently disavowed the company’s suggestion that great photography had anything to do with the equipment used, or in fact that anything but the skill of the individual photographer played any role at all.

Vision versus optics

Nikon’s social media gaffe did nothing for Nikon’s immediate reputation for how it viewed its own customers. Arguably, what it also did was expose an overt sensitivity and insecurity in the photographic community. There appeared, on some level, to be something of a paradox at play. At the same time as the collective covets and collects the best equipment that its constituents’ budgets will allow, it simultaneously appears to deny that this same equipment has any discernible – or at all mentionable – role to play in an image’s greatness.

But as much as Nikon’s statement was triggering for so many photographers, there’s a kernel of truth to Nikon’s very badly made point. While it may not be the photographer who is only as good as the equipment he uses, there really are circumstances where the quality of the resulting image is limited by the equipment that the photographer uses.

Horses and courses

Photography is a pastime of many genres and many motivations. From street to landscape, from macro to wildlife, architectural to portraiture, there are a multitude of different styles of photography and an inordinate number of different hardware requirements to achieve them.

Here is my back-of-envelope list of popular photography genres, and the equipment requirements for good imagery based, not on what camera and lens manufacturers assert but rather on the commonly implicit, and occasionally explicit, expectations of advocates in each genre:-

  1.  Street photography probably depends least on the quality of the photography equipment, leaning far more on the vision and creativity of the photographer. Despite the enormity of advances in technologies in the last 20 years, street photography is still popular with film photographers using cameras dating back to the 1970s, 80s and 90s. In fact the genre “lomography”, which initially sparked the resurgence of film, quite explicitly focuses on photographs taken with low quality equipment and is very much oriented towards street photography. This is not to say that equipment is not important in this genre, but rather that it is entirely different qualities in the equipment that carry significance. In lomography, the poor quality of the photographic equipment is at the heart of the genre.
  2. Architectural photography typically requires wide angle rectilinear lenses. While these are not necessarily expensive, they are non-standard and often specialist lenses. Also popular in architectural photography are tilt/shift lenses. These really are highly specialised and typically quite expensive. While it’s possible to take architectural photos without these more specialised lenses, this doesn’t negate the truth that on balance the specialist kit will result in better architectural images within the genre.
  3. Landscape photography is probably the most equipment-heavy of the popular photography genres, though the equipment doesn’t necessarily need to be expensive. As landscape can involve fields of view from super-wide to super-telephoto, landscape photographers typically have two or three lenses to cater for their hobby. It’s still the case, however, that landscape photographers pursue higher megapixel images with very sharp lenses, and it’s also the case that these don’t come cheap.
  4. Portrait photography tends to lean in, to a great extent, on two main qualities: sharpness, and bokeh. Both of these qualities can be rather expensive to achieve. Though taking portraits with kit lenses is certainly possible, portrait photographers will always give consideration to the sharpness of the image and the quality of the out of focus background. Although exceptional portrait lenses, in the typical range from 85mm to 135mm, are not necessarily extremely expensive (though they can be), image sharpness and beautiful bokeh are qualities of the equipment and not qualities of the photographer.
  5. Macro photography is another genre in photography that doesn’t need to be expensive in order to achieve impressive results, though it does require some specialised equipment to achieve true macro. Like street photography, macro photography is heavily dependent on the skill of the photographer, though I would argue that macro photography leans more heavily on the technical skill of the photographer while street photography leans more heavily on their artistic side.
  6. Wildlife photography is, aside from landscape photography, probably the most equipment-dependent genre. Like portrait photography, other than subject/content, the principle aims in wildlife photography are sharpness and background separation. However, because wildlife photography leans heavily on telephoto equipment, and sharp telephoto equipment which allows for good background separation and soft bokeh is extraordinarily expensive, it is extremely difficult to make the case that a good wildlife photographer does not depend on the equipment being used.

But a great image is also not merely the random result of a talented photographer with the ideal camera and lens for the task. A great image is also the result of setting up and executing an idea – frequently a complex and meticulous plan.

I’ve discussed the distinction previously, between the art and the craft of photography. A good lens will not improve composition, but a good eye will. I think the responsibility for a photo can be found in the decision to choose a camera and a lens, to choose a location or venue, to identify a subject and to capture it successfully. The photographer is the artist and the choreographer, the producer, director and stage manager. Without the photographer as the instigator, there is no photograph at all. But without a camera, there is also no photograph either. And without the combination of all these elements and all these components being brought together by the photographer, there is no great image either.

Part two: It’s a Set-Up!