Artists or Gearheads?


As a response to my last post on sensors, a contributor to the Soundimageplus Blog Readers Group wrote a piece that I have some sympathy with, about endless debates on photographic forums concerning minor technical issues. While agreeing with much of it, I think there is a realationship between art and science in photography, and while endless gear orientated discussions may seem to have little scientific basis, in essence that is what they are.

So is the gear we use important, even fundemental to what we produce? or just an interchangable unimportant tool that is totally subservient to our artistic intent? If this is of interest, have a look at the original post by Marcus and my replies, which I've included here. Edited so they make sense as a stand alone pieces. As ever peoples views on this are welcome. It is an interesting debate and one that will proably run and run. Like the title says - are we Artists or Gearheads? Or maybe a bit of both.

"There are just as many great photographers who see the technical as contributing to the aesthetic. Ansel Adams (pictured above) and Stephen Dalton being obvious examples. Plus many of the early pioneers of photography had no choice but to get involved in it, since they were pretty much creating everything.

Yes many photographers just pick up what they have to go out and shoot pictures. But its an amazing thing that many of them seem to choose Leica or Nikon, meaning that either they, or somebody else has done the research that dictates that these are 'good' tools as opposed to "bad" ones. They may do what they need to assess this once and thats enough, but at some point I suspect all photographers have posed the question "Is this the right camera for what I do?"

I also disagree with the statement "Photos come from the mind and the heart, not science or tools." because without science and tools we wouldn't be able to use our mind and heart to create images. Unless we are capable of building our cameras then we have to rely on someone else doing that for us, and it is surely in our interests to check out the alternatives and work out what is best for us. Again - "Is this the right camera for what I do?" A simple comparison is with music. Do composers think about which instrument is right for each part? or do they think, it doesn't matter, its the notes that are important.

"Bayer works, X Trans works, Foveon works - they all work" Well actually no. In many cases they don't work which is my point. I may be a photographer who uses my mind and heart to create images but there are occasions when choosing innapropriate gear will render my "vision" pointless, because the tools I chose were wrong. Anyone who chooses a Foveon sensor for low light photography may have all the requisite requirements of passion and commitment but the results will be so bad as to make those attributes irrelevant.

People have always been into gear, its been going on as long as I've been photographing and I'm in no doubt that it will continue. Plus there is a genuine interest in it. I only have to look at my readership to see it. Articles about the "art" of photography and about why I photographed something etc. and "think pieces" about photographers I admire get very small numbers of page hits, whereas articles in which I compare cameras, show examples, blowups etc. get huge numbers of hits. Its pretty obvious that this is the same across the photographic internet. My theory is because its an easy way to share an interest in photography. There are all sorts of dificulties in getting into the aesthetics of photography, since taste varies so much and those twin monsters of pretension and pontification tend to rear their ugly heads. Its easier to get involved in a discussion about whether one lens is better than another than a discussion as to whether Martin Parrs images are the work of the devil.

I'm not interested in the minutae of technical detail and the moment I see an equation I rapidly take myself somewhere else, but I have no problem with seeing what things can do, where the limitations are and arming myself with information so that I can make the right choices in the future. Certainly for me as someone who makes a living from photography, I'd be a fool if I didn't. I don't have the luxury of being an "art" photographer with a trustfund or an agent who can basically follow whatever idea I have in my head and find an audience, I have to compete in very crowded marketplace. Anything, and I mean anything that gives me an edge in that marketplace is something I'm happy to explore.

But I must admit, some of what I see and read, and pretty much ignore, strikes me as taking things too far, and as far as I'm concerned takes the "soul" out of photography. But I'm happy that I personally am far from that stage. However that doesn't stop me from undertaking an investigation of what I'm using when I think its appropriate. I do think that the craft of photography is important and again personally I'm much more at ease thinking of myself as a craftsman rather than an artist. And to paraphrase the old cliche I want to be the craftsman who gets the job done because I checked my tools out first, so I don't have to blame them or anything else for the work I produce."


"Professional photographers are no less prone to being gearheads than amateurs. I've known quite a few and a lot of our conversations have tended to revolve around this camera, that lens. It seems to be some "fine art" photographers who come out with the "gear isn't important" view, but by no means all.

I understand what Marcus is saying, and there are photographers to whom the comparison of brick wall photographs to measure distortion makes them purr with pleasure. But then there was Leonardo de Vinci, artist / scientist / inventor, the model of renaissance man.

I mentioned Stephen Dalton in my previous post. An academic who designed and built his own high speed flash units to capture some of the most remarkable wildlife images ever. A scientist who produced art most definitely.

And there has always been a relationship in photography between Science and Art and in its early days it was probably more the former than the latter. Black and white developing and printing has an awful lot of chemistry in it.

In many ways I think modern digital photography encourages a kind of "knowledge is bunk" attitude and attempts to reduce photography to some kind of "whats in the frame and what my intentions are when I pressed the shutter is the important thing, how that gets achieved is irrelevant" The problem is that when I look at the photographs from people who write 10 page essays about their motivation and artistic intent and don't regard what they used to create their images as important, those photographs often turn out to be total c**p. Anyone who has ever seen the infamous Two Blue Buckets image will know what I mean.

Going back to my original post, the differences between sensors are exaggerated certainly, but there is a fundemental difference between what I can shoot with a Fuji X-Pro 1 and a Sigma DP1 Merill. And that difference is science and technology and yes little coloured diagrams with squares in them. We applaud camera functions we like and criticise those we don't, but very view of us have an understanding of what is really going on beneath our itchy shutter finger. Is it important? I dont really know, everyone I guess has their own answer. However personally it is important to me to know how my cameras and lenses perform, so that I can make an informed choice as to what the best option is for me in any given situation. And just on a final note I make no apology for being interested in how cameras and lenses compare with others, nor do I make any apology for wanting my cameras to look aesthetically pleasing. For me, its a whole package, Art, Intellectual intent, Science, Technology, Design et al. I would be disappointed if it wasn't."

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