Now, the title of this post may stir up some emotion among photographers. Perhaps in some flippant sense, that is the point–after all, marketing is half the battle, and I do want you to click and read the entry–but it is also very true. There seems to be a fad of saying that gear doesn’t matter, or it’s not the camera, but the photographer who makes the image, and I agree with this whole-heartedly. Then again, there is ample evidence to the contrary. First, let me clarify what I mean by “photographer”: I mean someone who regularly makes images with a camera (digital or film); has used/tried a variety of cameras, even if they haven’t owned them; is at least somewhat active in the online photographic community (and in case you’re unaware, it’s HUGE); and enjoys looking at, and talking about, photography in some sense and probably does so in some fashion online (because yes, for most of us, life is increasingly lived online). This is an incredibly broad working definition, but the point here is to be inclusive, not exclusive.
Most of the photographers I am talking about obsess about gear in some way. Now, that isn’t to say they are collectors in the strictest sense–though there are a good many of them too–but that they are interested in photography gear (yes, part of this has to do with advertising and the capitalist need to sell more in search of profits, but let’s leave that alone for now). They enjoy looking at it, playing with it, and making images with it. They wonder if the newest digital camera is an improvement worth upgrading for, consider if that f/1.4 lens is something they need, and marvel at the beauty of the latest lens by _____ (insert preferred camera manufacturer here). Many of them troll the internet for reviews on a wide variety of gear before the buy, or just if they’re interested. There are always pronouncements by various bloggers or photographers that gear doesn’t matter. As I will explain later, I disagree.
There is, in the photographic community, what has come to be known as Gear Acquisition Syndrome (or GAS for short). The most vocal of the “gear doesn’t matter” crowd is usually trying to dissuade his/her own impulses. We all have them, and that’s fine. GAS affects all of us and drives people to buy the latest f/1.2 lens, that shiny new body with the clean ISO 25,800, or whatever else is released.
A quick search on flickr found that there are over 60,000 images tagged with “in your bag”, and over 1,400 groups about the contents of your camera bag. People interested in photography are almost inherently drawn to gear, partly because photography is a very technical art; it’s also just part of the hobby. Even genuine professional photographers (a classification that barely holds meaning any longer, but that is a different article) are interested insofar as how something can make their job easier, and deliver a better product to their consumers/clients.
I am not saying that there is anything wrong with focusing on gear. In fact, to each his own: if it makes you happy, then who am I to say it’s wrong?
All of this is to preface what I really want to talk about. One of the sites that I really enjoy online–along with many others around the world–is the somewhat ubiquitous Tokyo Camera Style. This website, run by an American living in Japan, has been copied repeatedly and now there are “_____ (enter a city) Camera Style” sites everywhere–just try google and see how many there are (the original TCS also lists a few on the sidebar of the site). Why is Tokyo Camera Style so interesting, and why has it become so popular? That is really the central theme of this post, and what I have been thinking about, off and on, for quite some time. What is it about snapshots of people’s analog cameras that draws so many viewers and imitators? Why would anyone go through page after page of this stuff? To anyone not interested in photography, it makes no sense. In fact, many of those who are interested in photography might turn up their noses at this stuff, too. On first glance, it can appear as cheesy consumerism, appealing to the basest impulses: buy more stuff.
In fact, I think it’s much more than that.
Tokyo Camera Style, is in fact, about people. Despite the fact that the only human element present in the vast majority of the snapshots does not change this fact. TCS shows people and some of their most prized possessions, the items they carry and use everyday, and are more than happy to show others. Some of the cameras and lenses are astronomically expensive; others are not. The site doesn’t only photograph the luxury Leica-branded cameras, though there are plenty on the site. There are rare cameras, cheap point-and-shoot cameras, and cameras of various formats on display. There is even the odd digital camera to be seen. But the human element shines in every image. The people who are featured on the site have allowed TCS to photograph them at their most intimate. The owners are tremendously proud of their cameras, and the internet is not a very forgiving place–they are opening themselves up to scrutiny from a large and diverse group of online members.
What strikes me most about the TCS gallery is the level of customization on some of these cameras. From stickers to other adornments, people have customized these cameras, since they have become an extension of themselves. People who are passionate about photography use photography as a way to see the world and experience life; as a result, their cameras are more than simply a device for capturing quick shots for sending to facebook–hell, anyone with a phone can do that nowadays. They are crating art, and living life, through the viewfinder. It might sound hokey, but people are really passionate about their art, and it is a piece of themselves. Their camera is the way they do that and so they have a very intimate bond with it. It is not uncommon for photographers to have emotional attachments to a camera (or more than one) once they find one they really connect with.
Another word that comes to mind with the Tokyo Camera Style site is community. There is a real sense of community here, not least because the vast majority of the non-photography world has no idea about the difference between the Hexar AF and the Hexar RF, or why some prefer the M2 over the M3 (yeah, I don’t get that last one either, but to each his own). But this site is full of people who bond over photography (like this couple).
So let me get to the point of this essay–gear does matter. As someone who takes photographs, and wants more than phone snapshots, what you’re making images with matters. Now, there are certainly photographers who use simple-enough equipment. Does an $8,000 digital Leica with a $7,000 lens take wonderful images? Almost certainly, in the right photographer’s hands. Could that same photographer make beautiful images with a second-hand Nikon SLR/lens combo from a thrift store? Of course they could. There are also plenty of good images made with phones (I use my phone camera often), since the best camera is the one you have with you. But a camera has to connect with its owner and allow its user to make images without the camera becoming a hindrance. With time and practice, the user and the camera become a single process and work together seamlessly. Ideally, the camera becomes an extension of the photographer’s hand and eye, and functions the way it should to assist in capturing the vision and creating art. At least, that’s the goal.
So gear does matter. One’s relationship with the gear matters, and a sense of community can develop over a piece of gear. I think a relationship could develop over a great image, or book, or gallery too–but those aren’t things we carry with us each day. The countless forums and groups online that host regular “meet-ups” for locals to get together and talk, drink, and make images together underscore what I am saying. One of my favorite places to visit online has become Rangefinderforum.com, a place that has discussions about a wide variety of topics, all of which are not centered on photography, but most are. The title of the forum itself is centered on gear, so people have come together over a love of a certain type of camera; there are forums devoted to Nikon, Canon, Leica, and other brands, as well as formats like compact cameras or micro-four-thirds. I have been approached on several occasions by people who noticed a particular camera I was carrying and struck up a conversation around the world. The French couple I met in Lisbon this past March exchanged a few words with me after we each noticed the other carrying cameras. She had her trusty Nikon F3HP/Nikkor 50/1.8 AIS and he had a Leica M3/Summicron 50/2 DR.
I will use a personal example to help illuminate my point that gear matters to me. I make a lot of photographs using a lot of different cameras and formats. I use both digital and film cameras, and I enjoy both for their own reasons. In a nutshell, I love the ease and speed of digital, but I love the process and longevity I get with film. There are other considerations for me as well. One thing I love is using rangefinder cameras. I have used a host of them, ranging from a $20 Canonet QL17 G-III to a much more expensive Leica MP, over the past half-decade. I enjoy using a rangefinder, and though it isn’t the fastest camera to use, that doesn’t matter to me. Generally when I am doing paid work for a client (like sports or wedding photography), clients demand digital output, which works for me since it involves fewer overhead costs and speeds up delivery of the images. For that I have a DSLR. I don’t particularly enjoy using a DSLR, however; I find them too big, bulky, noisy, and they seem to have more in common with my laptop than my Leica. The process isn’t enjoyable, but they don’t really disappoint when it comes to the final product. Shooting film on a rangefinder sometimes involves missed shots, which I don’t know about until I get my film back (usually it’s my fault, but sometimes it has to do with not being fast enough to focus or see a scene, not having the right film speed, or exposure problems). However, the process is much more enjoyable, and honestly, for a hobby isn’t that the whole point?
So, in this photographer’s humble opinion, gear does matter. It can help to engender a sense of community based on a common interest or sub-group of that interest (such as Tokyo Camera Style’s primary focus on analog cameras, or a forum’s particular focus on a certain brand or format). I think that photography is inextricably linked with photographic equipment and it isn’t likely to change anytime soon, but that’s okay. GAS can become unhealthy, so I am not saying that people should buy gear until they are blue in the face or in debt up to their eyeballs, but it would be equally ignorant not to admit that there is nothing wrong with a healthy interest in, and focus on, photographic gear. Not anyone can make good images, but a good image can come from any camera. But to qualify that, I will say that the likelihood of a good image coming out of a camera increases if the photographer and the camera are in sync, and work together to produce the vision of the person holding the camera.
Your camera might be as expensive or flashy as can be, but if it gets in your way at all, it’s no good.
If a piece of equipment helps you to realize your vision and create art, then it matters. If a piece of equipment helps to strike up a conversation, create a friendship, and bring you joy in use, then it matters. If it limits your creativity or constricts your vision, or gets in your way with idiotic menu layouts, then it matters.
Ultimately, gear does matter. And Tokyo Camera Style shows us how we are with the things that we are most passionate about.
And for that, I’m thankful.