A recent vlog by Ted Forbes starts with a quote saying that every famous image taken in the past was shot with a less advanced camera than we have today. Although this is definitely true I wonder whether this has any relevance for the notorious gear matters versus gear doesn’t matter discussions?
I think it is important to distinguish between two different levels of argumentation here. One level deals with the most suitable tool one needs to get a certain image, be it a macro shot of a tiny object, a portrait of an animal in the distance or a long exposure in bright sunlight, to name only a few. Without special gear like a macro lens, a telephoto lens or a neutral density filter you won’t be able to do it. The same applies to the highly acclaimed photographers who produced the famous images quoted above. They were often using the latest gear of their time and e.g. a Cartier-Bresson would not have been able to produce some of his most famous images without his 35mm rangefinder Leica, which was so much faster to use than any other contemporary camera. But all this has nothing to do with the resulting photographs. You can easily use the right equipment for your purpose, but still shoot crappy images. And here we’re coming to the second level of argumentation. If the photographer knows his/her equipment, can “read” the ambient light and has a feel for image composition and the subject of interest s/he can produce great images irrespectively of whether s/he is using a self-made pinhole, a point-and-shoot or an expensive DSLR camera. The “gear” which in this case matters is the ability of the person using the camera to its best performance and not the quality of the equipment s/he is holding in front of his/her eyes.
I recently watched a documentary on dying trades in Germany featuring the last person to master a special technique to grind knife blades made of carbon steel to their greatest possible sharpness and durability. The processes involved were invented more than a hundred years ago and so were some of the tools he was using. The consistency with which he was producing one high quality knife after the other was amazing. Despite being used for ages, his tools were the best – if not the only – fit for the purpose. No modern machine-based workflow is able to deliver comparable results. But still – the perfectly suited equipment in the wrong hands and a day’s production would go down the drain. I thought that this story had a lot in common with photography and how the combination of the best tool for the job plus the highest possible knowledge and craftmanship leads to famous results.
In the end it all depends on the job itself, i.e. what you are going to express or say with your images and what you think is the best tool or gear or material to transport this. Here, and probably only here, gear matters as it is part of your creative process. However, mastering your craft may provide some independence of the latest gadget in the field. And what’s definitely true is that the most sophisticated development on the camera market in the hands of a photography fool won’t turn him into a candidate for Magnum.