Why Gear Matters (or, The Curious Case of Tokyo Camera Style)

“Jeep” – Fargo, ND

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.

“Coffee News” – Saint Paul, MN

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.

“Sintra Selfie” – Sintra, Portugal

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.

“Analog Couple” – Lisbon, Portugal

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.

21 Comments

  1. I wanted to elaborate a bit more last night but… here I am again.
    I’ve been debating this same issue on Photo.net and, of course, there are always two sides about it. The ones who say that gear is just a tool and talking about gear can take out value of what’s really important, their photographic work, and others who feel (I dare to say) like us. That gear does matter.

    To me, personally, I like cameras, they are important and once I hit a winning combo I keep it and, above all, I use it! Last love affair, the G2 with the 35mm lens.

    I also like to share my recipes of different combinations of films and developers. To me, all of this matters. It’s all part of the process that will lead to the final outcome. To me, this passion made me search for “soulmates”, sharing experiences and yes it has lead to my own community. A closer one where we hang out and talk about all of these issues and a distant one of people I never met but makes me feel that what we feel about this is not an isolated event. It’s a global scale one.

    On the other hand, sometimes we are only “spectators”… sometimes we are just guys looking at someone else’s pictures, either printed on a book on hanging on a wall. In those moments do we think about gear? Let me give you an example.

    Imagine you are facing a Sebastião Salgado photograph, I mean, the real deal, a 100x70cm print.
    I bet everybody’s first reaction would be an emotional one. Either it touches you or it does not. Either way it’s going to be an emotional response. No gear concern involved so far🙂

    After a while, on a second look yes, at least I would start to think: hey, is this film or digital? What camera did he use? What lens… and so on…

    As an amateur photographer and a passionate person about photography, yes! Gear does matter.
    As a spectator, and on that first “level” of contact with a photograph, it does not.

    Please forgive my poor English Trevor, my Portuguese is way better🙂
    Again, very nice article with many interesting points.

    Thank you
    Paulo

    Reply

    1. Thanks for your great comment. I agree, the first reaction is emotional. But after that, with ever great photo– analyzing depth of field, grain structure, composition, exposure, etc. I want to know how it was made so that I, too, can create art like that!

      Reply

    1. Yes but as I mentioned…to me it’s about a bond with the gear, which can engender a sense of community. That’s what is at the heart of the photographic community and assists in making art with a camera.

      Reply

  2. Very clear and thoughtful article; has anyone considered the anthropological value of “Tokyo Camera Style”? Haven’t you noticed any differences between Japanese or American camera owners (Ref. “New York Camera Style”)? I think all this adds up to the cleverness of such blogs.

    Reply

  3. Great article and nice approach to this topic😉
    I recommend you to watch the movie “It might get loud”, where three awesome guitarists talk about music, but also about guitars – so this gear “issue” isn’t just a thing between photographers, it’s present in other art forms as well!

    Sorry for the crappy english, and btw – greetings from Lisbon!

    Reply

  4. great blog and idea about equipment. i love my equipment.Thanks to Digital, i have acquired so many things, i never could have afforded.Most was free.
    A Canon AE-1P system..lenses,bag,dedicated flash,filters..A pair of Minolta SLR with 45 and 50mm lenses. A Chinon SLR all plastic wonder SLR, that is a copy of my “cheap” Nikon F3.
    Everything in same place except the mount. It is K-mount.i have seldom traded equipment, “Death till us part”. Using different boxes and lenses, gives one a new perspective, new realities and new vistas
    .Could i work with one camera?
    Yes. i mostly do. A P/S digital, a Canon Powershot s590 and now a Canon Powershot 1200 simply ’cause the former no longer has flash. 70,000+ images plus numerous gravity shock tests..
    Are there cameras, even at a small or donation price, i’d say NO?
    Yes. The Mamiya TLR or RB/RZ systems, Pentax 67 system and Bronica.Their weight and in terms of calamity, the last one mentioned.. Weight a problem as i get older, have a heart condition but am fit and healthy otherwise.
    Dream of equipment? Gear that for me is unaffordable. i can say too expensive for “features”. i can rant like some Anti-American for hours on the USA, about Leica MM,M9 whatever and lenses set in Bankster $ numbers.Give them a Green Card and 35 mins later, packed, ready to travel. So i would use such a camera and lenses.
    Enjoy looking at TCS.
    Enjoyed this..

    Reply

  5. I’ve been following Tokyo Camera Style for a few years, and was pretty happy to have one of my cameras featured in it. It’s just fun to see what others are using, as well as to see if you can see what they see when they frame their shots. I learn a lot that way. Sort of like when I was a vollie (volunteer firefighter) – I spent a lot of times talking with other vollies from other fire departments about the things they carried and the way they carried it. In both cases a good idea can mean an awful lot.

    Reply

    1. Like you, I enjoy the insight into people’s lives. Like most photographers, I enjoy “camera porn” from time to time. But it’s the fact that people open up the most intimate parts of their art-making selves that I find fascinating.

      Reply

  6. Of course it matters. You can’t take a detailed landscape with a miniature camera. And it’s difficult to shoot candid street with a 20×24.

    Listen to a group of water-colour artists talking over coffee. They talk about paper, brishes, paint. No-one ever gives them a hard time about gear talk.

    Reply

    1. Honestly, I think it’s us that gives us a hard time about gear talk. Non-photographers expect it, I think. It goes hand-in-hand with the hobby and making art from photographs. You’re bound to become attached to something you spend so much time with and out so much of your own emotional energy into.

      It’s not about the gear in a technical sense. It’s about the human aspect; it’s the emotional, artistic aspect that matters to me here.

      Reply

  7. Well-said. I like the way you connected gear to the people that use it. Take a holistic approach, right?

    Reply

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