When my son was born, I got all kinds of offers of advice. Some good, some not, but all well intentioned, I'm sure. My grandfather, though, told me a little joke about the three stages of a man's life:
- You believe in Santa Claus
- You don't believe in Santa Claus
- You are Santa Claus
When you're a small child, you believe in the literal Santa Claus; the fat, jolly guy who somehow magically squeezes all that bulk down the chimney to leave presents on Christmas Day for you and every other child on this planet. How does he do that? You don't really care; it's magic! Then of course, either through your own conclusions or because someone else spills the beans… *cough* your sister… you come to the realization that this is all just another way for your parents to get you to bed and to buy time so they can figure how to put the damn EasyBake® oven together before the next morning. At first, you're crushed, but then you come to look at the other kids who still believe in Santa and shake your head at their naiveté.
When you become a parent yourself, though, you inherit the mantle of Santa Claus and continue the tradition with your children. Not just because you need time to figure out how to get the Nintendo Wii® set up, but because you want your kids to feel the same way you did when they run down the stairs to see what "Santa" brought for Christmas. You do it because you once again believe in Santa Claus. Not the fat guy, but Santa as the embodiment of the joy on the faces of your kids.
This, to me, is exactly what happens to photographers and this obsessive fascination we have with gear.
We all know how the story goes at first. We buy an "entry-level" DSLR and a kit lens because that's all we can afford and we're just not sure this photography thing is worth the money for the "pro" gear. A little later on, if we've stuck with it, we "upgrade" to an "enthusiast" or "prosumer" camera body. Of course, now we need equivalent lenses, so we get a couple of those, selling our old stuff on eBay to make a few bucks and make us (or a spouse) feel better about the upgrade. As this trend continues, we eventually end up wishing for the "pro" bodies and lenses. In the worst cases, it becomes an obsession and we sink deeply into the "if only" syndrome. "If only I had a Canon 5D MkII, a Nikon D3x, a 600mm f/4, I could…" and on and on. We're sure that that next piece of gear will magically make us the photographer we've always dreamed of being.
While we long for that "perfect" camera or lens, we might read about how a photographer made incredible images using only a $25 toy camera, or how another one went back to using film and now develops her own negatives and makes her own prints on paper she makes from pulped seaweed (yikes!). We begin to feel a sudden backlash against gear. We walk down the path of self-righteousness and shout from the rooftops that "gear doesn't matter!" "Real" art is made using any camera, even ones you make yourself. It gets to the point where we'll begin to ridicule those who are still obsessing over gear, telling them that they're wasting their time and money on stuff they don't really need.
One of these two stages seems to be the place where a lot of photographers are these days. They either still believe in a literal Santa Claus (gear will magically make me better) or they've dismissed him as a fantastic waste of time (gear is irrelevant). It's become "gear vs. vision," and sadly, it's become yet another way for us to divide ourselves from each other and push the discussion away from what really matters: the photographs.
We still need to believe in Santa Claus. Gear is important and it's okay to think so—not as the mystical way to photographic mastery, but the right gear for the photographs you want to make. Making the photographs you want to is a good enough reason to buy any piece of gear you need, whether it's a $25 Holga or a $10,000 600mm f/4 lens. Of course, each photographer has different means and different priorities, both for their photographs and for the gear to make them, but how much that gear costs should only influence when you're going to buy it, not if you're going to buy it. In other words, if an 85mm f/1.4 or f/1.2 lens has that perfect shallow DOF and killer bokeh you're looking for, don't "settle" for the f/1.8 version simply because it's cheaper. Wait, save your money, and get the one you want when you can. Not "if." When.
(Yes, we need to do that responsibly. Going into debt, both financial and otherwise, is almost never a good idea. If you want to be sure about a particular piece of gear, try renting it or borrowing it from a friend. You might discover you really don't need it after all because you were simply flirting with making a particular kind of photograph. But if you do… buy it.)
We should be far more interested in your photographs than we are in the camera and lens you used to make them, but make no mistake, gear is important—when it serves your vision. Use the tools you need to make the photographs you want. Do it responsibly, but do it. Don't let settling for lesser gear make you create lesser photographs. You deserve to believe in Santa Claus.