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:

  1. You believe in Santa Claus
  2. You don't believe in Santa Claus
  3. You are Santa Claus

Santa's Camera

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.

5 CommentsPost a comment

It's no secret that I love winter. Other folks bemoan the cold and the ice and the snow but as a photographer, I revel in it. Winter gives me many photographic opportunities that simply don't exist during the rest of the year. To walk on an ice-bound lake or pond. To visit places that no longer attract crowds simply because it's "too cold." Did I mention I love winter?

Winter in the Canadian Rockies

Well, one of my favorite photographers has released a Craft & Vision ebook about one of my favorite things. Darwin Wiggett, a truly gifted landscape and nature photographer, has published Winter in the Canadian Rockies, part of The Print and the Process series at Craft & Vision. Darwin takes us on a journey to some astounding places in Canada using his terrific photographs. Some of the photographs are recent images and some are from the late 80s and early 90s, when he was first starting out as a photographer. Both are beautiful and inspirational.

Following the established format of  The Print and The Process books, Darwin initially shows us a series of images ranging from broad, sweeping landscapes to intimate frozen details of the season. He moves from color to black and white; from bold colors to subdued tones, all of which show us the sometimes different world of winter. He presents his own version of a leaf frozen in the ice, as well as my personal favorite: ice-capped rocks seemingly floating in a smooth, cotton-like water flow.

The Process section of the book goes on to talk about the challenges—and the rewards–of making photographs in the snow and cold, along with some tips about how to keep your camera functioning and yourself comfortable. The biggest takeaway for me, though, comes from the section on cultivating the right attitude. As he says, "Winter is full of glorious rewards; you just need to seek them."

Winter in the Canadian Rockies spreads

Darwin also offers some excellent practical tips on how to dress properly for winter photography and how to keep your equipment happy (the same as you, keep it warm!), along with some real "insider" tips on winter photography. For example, did you know that if you're handholding filters, such as ND grads, you need to hold them at the top? Darwin tells you why.

Finally, the last section of the book presents Darwin's commentary on each of the photographs from the first section, including exposure and lens data. It's also interesting to see the range of cameras, both film and digital, that Darwin has used over his career.

Craft & Vision's Print and Process series is a great way to learn more about a particular photographer and their photographs that inspire you. For me, Darwin Wiggett's Winter in the Canadian Rockies pays homage to a photographic subject I dearly love and shows us a beautiful place in via his inspirational images.

Special Offer for the PDF Version of Winter in the Canadian Rockies For the first five days only, if you use the promotional code ROCKIES4 when you checkout, you can have the PDF version of Winter in the Canadian Rockies for only $4 OR use the code ROCKIES20 to get 20% off when you buy 5 or more PDF ebooks from the Craft & Vision collection. These codes expire at 11:59pm PST January 22nd, 2011.