I recently overheard a teenage customer asking the clerk of a local camera shop about some gear. He wanted to buy a lens to replace his kit lens, but he couldn’t afford the one he thought he needed to make great photos. He spent the next few minutes actively lamenting the fact that his friends’ photos were better than his, and he was sure that this was because they were shooting gear that was much more expensive than his.
Eventually, he asked the clerk to show him a lens within his budget. The clerk did so, and when the kid asked if it would let him take the style of shots his friends were posting (here he showed the clerk some photos on his phone), the man behind the counter said that it wouldn’t. I overheard the clerk talking about large apertures and shallow depth-of-field, red rings and aspherical elements, terms that scrunched the young kid’s face into wrinkles of confusion. He left the shop with a pained expression of disappointment.
The whole thing bothered me.
I keep catching myself thinking back to that dejected-looking kid. I wish I’d gotten his attention as he walked out the door and asked him what type of subjects he likes to shoot, and if he had an Instagram account where I could check out his shots. I wish I’d shown excitement that he was a new photographer, and encouraged him to keep at it. I wish I’d asked to see his camera, and been impressed by the machine he’d have pulled from his bag – whatever that camera might’ve been.
But I didn’t do any of that, and that’s a shame. But it’s made me think long and hard about photo geek culture, and the way we talk about gear.
There exists in this hobby a preoccupation with names and numbers that could easily be considered unhealthy for photography. Some shooters look down on all but a select few brands of camera, ignoring the fact that even the cheapest cameras would be regarded as pure sorcery to human beings from any time other than our own. Even though any camera is capable of freezing and documenting the photons shooting through our universe (think about that), some people turn their nose up at certain models because they lack a certain name, or were made in a certain country.
So what, if some people are obsessed with gear? It’s not hurting anyone, right? We could argue that. But it’s been difficult for me to ignore the deflated posture and look of disappointment worn by that young photo geek as he exited the camera shop entirely sure in his mind that he couldn’t make a good photo unless he could afford the best lens. Processing this thought one step further, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which many potential photo geeks decide that photography is just too exclusive, or that the pursuit of good photographs is a waste of energy unless one’s privileged enough to shoot a Leica or Hasselblad.
It didn’t take long to realize that I’m not innocent of gear snobbery as well. Just one month ago I caught myself straying onto this very same path; a path paved with pretense, excess, and elitism. I fell into the trap when browsing eBay’s film photography listings. The Zeiss Planar 50mm F/1.4 looked gorgeous, and the price was excellent. I was vaguely aware that it came with some kind of Contax SLR (the 139Q), a carrying case, and a couple of garbage 3rd-party zoom lenses. These pack-ins meant little to me.
A cheap, electronic Yashica with the Contax name stamped onto it. Whatever. I’m here for the Zeiss, and that salacious 3-D pop I keep hearing about!
But here’s the thing- thirty days later I’m convinced that those who proselytize over Zeiss “3-D pop” are clinically bonkers, and the Contax 139Q is the best camera I’ve shot in years. This truth led me to question how I could have been so automatically and blindly averse to a camera I’d never shot. I take pride in publishing opinions unbiased by the crowd. I often say things that aren’t entirely popular, even if those opinions and articles don’t generate for Casual Photophile the exposure that might come from repeating what everyone else is saying or rehashing the latest trends.
What are some of the unpopular things I’ve said? That Minolta’s CLE is the best M-mount camera, that Hasselblads aren’t that good, that German things aren’t inherently the best, and that I’ve used TLRs that are better than the Rolleiflex. It’s true. So how could I so flippantly disregard a camera I’d never used?
Don’t get me wrong – I love the M2 and the Rolleiflex is so pretty it makes me want to dim the lights and pour some wine. But I’ve used both and I’m just as bad at photography with those noble cameras as I am with the bourgeois Canon A-1. And hell, I’m just as bad with an A-1 as I am with the downright plebeian Kodak VR35. My point is that no matter what name your camera has stamped into (or painted onto) it, your ability to take good photos will be entirely dependent on your creativity, your willingness to put in extreme effort, and above all else, whether or not you’re having fun. And stressing about gear is not fun.
No, that kid in the camera shop didn’t need the exclusive, expensive lens his friend had in order to make good photographs. But that’s not even the most important thing to remember. The most important thing to remember is that he didn’t need the expensive, exclusive lens to enjoy making photographs. What did he actually need to enjoy photography? It’s pretty simple. He needed to remember why he got into photography in the first place.
And this is where I’d like to send a message to kids like him, who may have recently discovered this hobby of ours and are finding themselves bombarded by a pervasive culture of gear worship.
If you’re just starting out, ignore everything and everyone. Shoot whatever you want, however you want. Ignore the “show your gear” posts that populate the most popular websites. Don’t worry about the fact that your friends have a lens with a capital “L” or a red asterisk painted on it. Don’t compare your gear to the gear of others, especially when those others might be professional Instagram personalities, money-making photojournalists, or studio fashion shooters with thirty years of experience.
And it should be said that new shooters will be wise to take Instagram with a grain or two of salt. It is, after all, a marketing platform built for influencers, with algorithms designed to make you want things. Especially ignore those wretched accounts that post a continuous stream of unrealistic and pretentious “what’s in your bag” photos. Come on guys. Do you really think we believe you’re carrying two DSLR bodies, four fast primes, a classic film SLR, a medium format monster, a GoPro, a box of Pocky, a Moleskine with fountain pen and India ink pot, a pet hedgehog for moral support, and a DJI Phantom? Get real.
No. You don’t need twenty cameras to enjoy photography. You don’t need a Leica to enjoy photography. And you most certainly don’t need a Leica, an espresso, a hewing axe, a plane ticket to the Pacific Northwest, a rented cabin, and a pair of artistically weathered, grass-fed-leather hiking boots to enjoy photography.
There are lots of people taking lots of pictures with lots of cameras, and having a great time doing it. Don’t buy into the mythos of the Instagram photographer. Don’t obsess that your gear isn’t sexy enough. Don’t worry that your photos aren’t good enough. Just practice with what you’ve got, and don’t give up.
If you’re just starting out, remember that every photographer was, at one point, just a person holding a magical box about which they knew absolutely nothing. So shoot what you have, shoot what you can afford, and don’t worry about it.