Talent, Tools, or Time?
Posted on 16 May 2012
This is another in a series of posts lifted from something I posted in a photography forum elsewhere. For some reason there has recently been a larger than usual number of discussions about the relative importance of “gear” versus other things when it comes to making good photography. I certainly do not think that equipment is unimportant, but I think that people often focus more on this aspect of photography than necessary, often at the expense of some other things that really have far more potential.
In any case, here is a lightly edited version of what I posted. (Do keep in mind that forum posts do not necessarily represent fully edited and carefully considered work – they are more like a sort of written conversation.) I’ll start with an italicized excerpt of the message to which I was responding. My comment follows that.
All the talent and the world and all the equipment in the world isn’t going to overcome a lack of time to practice…
Absolutely true. This has always been clear to me from my background in music where a thing called practice was the most important tool for becoming very good and maintaining that state. And it was also very, very clear that no amount of “hardware” (e.g. – “better instrument”) was going to replace that or even make more than the tiniest, insignificant difference without that fundamental thing that results from practice.
Practice develops a whole series of closely interrelated attributes without which good stuff won’t be made with any consistency. Some of these attributes are fairly objective – in photography the ability to quickly and almost intuitively “know” the right way(s) to deal with a given situation, to a large extent based on making the technical and mechanical stuff almost intuitive. Others are highly subjective – the development of a style, a way of seeing, and a deep familiarity with what does and doesn’t work visually.
Gear is not unimportant, but its effect on the overall quality of what we do – in photography, in music, in cooking, in just about anything that involves the use of tools to produce something of affective value – is quite small relative to the giant, glaring thing that really does make a difference.
In some cases – perhaps too many cases in some circumstances – an obsessive focus on the “stuff” used by people who make/do interesting and cool things (cyclists, photographers, musicians, race car drivers, chefs, etc.*) reveals at least two things about those with the obsession, one of which is positive and one of which is potentially much less so. The positive is that the interest in the people who do those things and what they manage to do is evidence of a hopeful belief that each of us can be more than what we are and that we want to grow and change. The less positive thing is that we can be sidetracked by the superficial things that we take to signify such admirable people – their bicycles, their cameras, their musical instruments, their cars, their cooking tools – and divert our attention from what it is we really wish to experience or achieve, namely the powerful human quality of what they do. In the end, tools are just tools – only a potential means to that end. In and of themselves they have very, very limited value.
The only reason anyone cares about what Ansel Adams (who was quoted earlier in this thread) said about gear is because we care a hell of a lot about what he did with it. And the latter is the important thing to look at, wonder at, think about, and perhaps even try to emulate.
More attention to the tools will not get you very far in the grand scheme. Appropriate attention to tools is important and can make a difference at some level, but only in a significant way insofar as primary attention is focused on these other things that the tools allow you to do. In photography, that other thing is the nature and quality ofphotographs and how they speak to us.
(* Note: Some of the specific things mentioned in this post related to things mentioned in previous messages in the thread where I originally shared it.)
G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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