Today I’m going to take a step back and share some thoughts about the process of our art rather than specific techniques. Photography attracts a lot of people who love gear (including me). Impassioned discussions of which is better, and suggestions for what someone should buy are common. Many folks eagerly search the web for hints of the next great product and are anxious to be the first to get the latest/greatest. Lively discussions follow as to what’s best - the latest camera from Canon or Nikon? Aperture or Lightroom (…those of us here know the answer to that one don’t we?) Anyway, I readily admit that I love my gear and at times have “equipment lust.”
Equipment lust isn’t a problem per se, but I suspect it diverts energy away from the art of photography, focusing it more on the acquisition of gear and less on ability, technique, and ultimate expression. I began thinking about this last week when someone sent me a forward about Itzhak Perlman, the great concert violinist. I won’t quote the entire email, but the gist of it is that Perlman, who had polio as a child, walks with great difficulty using crutches and braces. At one concert he had just begun playing when a string broke on his violin. Rather than getting up and going off stage to get more equipment - a new string or a different violin - he simply paused, closed his eyes a moment and then nodded for the conductor and orchestra to continue. He played the entire symphonic piece using only three strings, with “…such passion, power and purity as they had never heard… You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head. At one point it sounded like he detuned the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before. When he finished there was an awesome silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered … He (Perlman) smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said - not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone - ‘You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.’ ”
The author of the email concluded by commenting, “So, perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left.”
There is great wisdom in that. Perhaps we need to spend a little more energy focusing on understanding our equipment inside and out and improving our abilities, as well as knowing just what it is that we’re trying to express in each image we make. Then we too can make magic happen with what we have. The latest/greatest gear may make it technologically easier to do something or enable us to do something we currently can’t do with what we have. But the soul of our images comes from within. Sometimes having less makes us work smarter and better.
Don’t misunderstand - I’m still eagerly anticipating the rumored Canon 1DsMKIII- but I suspect that what will matter more to my photography is ensuring that I use the tools that I have not only to their full potential, but even creatively to meet the demands of a situation. We need to understand the nuances of the equipment we already have - both hardware and software - and then exploit those tools to create images that express our passion and vision.