We Are More Than Our Tools

(from Luke Copping’s Blog)

We Are More Than Our Tools

I have been part of a lot of conversations lately in which other parties have tried to equate photographic skill solely with the tools involved in creating images. These conversations have ranged from simply uninformed to downright accusatory, and the sources range in background from non-photographers to those working at a professional level within the industry. Snippets of anonymous conversations that I have been privy to include:

“I could be as good as you if I had access to fancy equipment.”
“Why should I pay you for retouching? They’re just headshots, and Photoshop is gonna do everything for you.”

“How many megapixels is your camera? We only hire photographers that use professional gear.”

“All you do is push a button.”

“The only reason he is so successful is because he had money to help get him started with buying equipment.”

“I love that picture. What lens did you use for it? At what F-stop?”

Statements like these make a few false assumptions in their logic — assumptions that sadly even some photographers seem to buy into.

1. That an image must be technically perfect to be successful, rather than entertaining or emotionally engaging.

Have you seen Dead Poets Society? There is a scene where Robin Williams demonstrates to his class that their textbook’s mathematical formula for determining whether a poem is successful or not is utter bloody nonsense. Creativity cannot be measured quantitatively. I have seen multitudes of images that, while they may not conform to the “rules” of photography, are insightful and heartbreakingly profound. Does their lack of technical “perfection” make them any less wonderful to look at?

2. That technical and equipment concerns define creativity rather than provide a means of control over creative output.

Being well-versed in the technical side of photography and knowing your tools at best means you have the abilities needed to more easily realize your creative vision and to make the informed decisions on how to more accurately make your end product match your initial creative concept. At worst, you will be able to make very well exposed, but very boring images. Creative options can be broadened by technical know-how and gear, but even the world’s most expensive and advanced camera can still take a shitty picture if the photographer behind it doesn’t have a creative bone in their body.

3. That the only way to succeed in photography is to have lots of fancy and expensive equipment; having better equipment makes you a better photographer.

We are not mere technicians. We are greater than the sum of our tool chests. By the logic of the above statement, are all past photographs inferior to current ones because the equipment used to make them was not as advanced? Upgrading your camera system may mean that your images can be reproduced larger, or that you may have a sharper lens, but it will not make you a better photographer. The only way to become a better photographer is to go out and practice, take a ton of pictures, take risks, push yourself, care, make mistakes, fail, get back up, keep trying, and keep learning.

4. That anyone could reproduce any image if they had identical equipment.

Here are some oils and brushes, go paint the Mona Lisa…. sounds ridiculous, right? We deal with capturing unique moments and sights. Even if someone were to set out and reproduce an image by another photographer, would every detail be the same? One might be able to replicate gear, copy lighting, and achieve a similar aesthetic, but would those all-important intangible elements be there? Would the subject be identical down to the pores, hairs, and micro-expressions? Would the feeling be the same? Could that photographer capture that exact moment again? No, of course not. But more importantly, why would they want to? Outside of an academic exercise or possible parody, one should be pushing to find their own creative voice, to find what works for them, not trying to exactly copy what worked for someone else.

Stop seeing yourself as an operator and start thinking like a creator.

The truth is; cameras, lenses, computers, graphic editing software, pens, paper, paints, brushes, microphones, audio recorders, and any other tool that you use in your creative life is just that, — a tool. And tools are only as good as the people using them. People are so quick to discount modern creatives, especially photographers and others who work with digital and mechanical mediums, as mere technicians whose sole job is the correct technical operation of a machine. The creative forces that go into making an image are so much more involved than just pushing a button. We as artists must begin to promote the idea that we are the ones that make creative images and that our tools are just a medium for recording our unique vision.

Sadly, this has become a commonly held perception that is devaluing the creative industry as a whole. With the number of talented amateurs and professionals growing, the value of being a technically proficient photographer is no longer seen as a differentiating element, but rather as a baseline, a bare minimum that is expected of us. Some photographers, usually those who are trapped in that self-sabotaging negative mindset I have written about so often, will see this as a threat, a dire warning that “The amateurs are coming to steal my jobs!! Oh noes!!!” Conversely, the smart and adaptable photographer will see this increased competition as an impetus to rise above the pack and stand out, rather than as a grim spectre signaling the end of their business. But how will these capable photographers who thrive on competition and self-evolution set themselves apart? The answer is so simple, yet seemingly so overlooked that it pains me to even have to say it.

Above all other factors, we can stand out by demonstrating to our clients every day and on every assignment the unique vision and creativity that we bring to photography. Show them that we have taken the passion and love for the medium that we felt the first time we picked up a camera and that we have cultivated and refined this energy into our own unique take on image making. We have to show our ability to take our technical knowledge, and tools and creative skills and create something more from them, something that is astonishing, even if it breaks the rules or we knowingly choose work outside the perceived norm of technical correctness. And finally, we have to show them that we can take this singular purity of vision and that we can apply it to sell their product or illustrate their concept or capture critical or mundane moments in amazing ways. It is so important to make them realize that the notion of photographers being nothing without their cameras is a misstatement. In truth, the cameras are nothing without the photographers.

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