It's the age old question. Is it gear? Is it experience? Is it education? Is it location? Let's take a look at some of the things that make a photographer great....and some of the myths that surround the industry.
Websters dictionary defines photography literally as the art or practice of taking and processing photographs. So what is photography? In it's article on the birth of photography, Napolean.org states, "The word “photography” literally means “drawing with light”. The word was supposedly first coined by the British scientist Sir John Herschel in 1839 from the Greek words phos, (genitive: phōtós) meaning “light”, and graphê meaning “drawing or writing”. So what we have in photography is then defined as drawing with light. There are specific tool we use to do that drawing, namely a lens system to draw the targeted light into a sensor and the sensor itself to capture the light.
In days of old, we would utilize a photosensitive medium to capture the image and process it as a negative image and turn into a positive in the darkroom. This was the format we grew up with in grandma's shoe boxes of old pictures we would rummage through and reminisce. But how good were the images with that ancient technology and equipment?
Here we see an image captured on the battlefield of the first battle of Marne in World War I. Now, all things being considered, the fact that this image was created on a battlefield, in active combat, in 1914, with rudimentary equipment and captured such a stunning image, I am going to go out on a limb and say that the equipment wasn't the deciding factor in this shot being so profound. Yes, he needed to know how to use the equipment and what exposure and settings to have on his camera to snap it correctly. But with bullets flying by, artillery exploding, wounded screaming and other sounds of battle do you think he paused to remember what he was taught in school about aperture, shutter speed and which film to use for what lighting conditions? I would suggest that this photographer was so well versed and practiced in his art that most of those decisions came as second nature to him.
DigitalRev (YouTube photography channel) used to do a bit called Pro Photographer with a cheap camera where they would send a professional photographer out with a cheesy, kids toy for a camera and have them capture their best images possible. And surprisingly, they were able to do it quite well most of the time...when the camera functioned. Now, of course and generally speaking, having good equipment should enable you to take a somewhat better picture, or sometimes allow you a little more leeway in capturing your best shot. But the best camera and lens system on the planet in the hands of someone who has no idea what they are doing or how to do it, will garner utter trash! Pros buy pro gear not necessarily because it can do something a basic camera can't, though admittedly, they sometimes can. No, pro gear is generally built to a tougher, higher standard to withstand the rigors of hours of daily use and abuse. Tougher material, stronger frames and grips, coated lenses, more precision parts to last a little longer. All of this is because usually a pro will use these tools daily in all kinds of conditions and put these things through scenarios your average hobby shooter would never run into.
For example, in the image of the boaters shown here, I needed weather sealed gear to make trip from the USA to South America, make the flight, the cab rides, the boat trips and the hikes through the jungle and still function properly in order to capture this image. Could I have done it with a point and shoot camera tucked in my pocket? Probably. Would I have decreased my chances if being able to snap that pic relying solely on that one piece of consumer grade equipment? Most definitely! I knew it would be a trek. I know from experience how airlines (especially international and third world countries) handle gear. I knew from experience the types of terrain and weather I would encounter in the jungles of the Amazon. So, I packed multiple weather sealed camera bodies and lenses into rugged, water tight and pressure relieving cases to ensure they would make the trip and remain perfectly functional in any scenario I might encounter. This preparation cost me thousands of dollars to ensure I got the shot when it counted. And in the interior of Guyana, on a backwater river, en route to a local village market, on a water taxi, my preparation enabled me to capture this image that I might have been able to otherwise. Equipment is nice...if you know how to use. Invest in quality gear for what you need it to do. Education is fantastic and builds a good foundation, but practicing what you've learned makes it second nature when time is of the essence. Know the places you would like to shoot, but be prepared for the unexpected to creep and adapt quickly to it. The best gear, in the best location, with the most educated photographer who hasn't put it into practice will give you missed shots all day long. But, any gear, in any location, with a skilled and practiced photographer will give you pleasing results the overwhelming majority of the time. When you are looking for a photographer for your next photo session, think about this things. A friend with a camera is nice, but do they know what they are doing? Do they have the patience and experience to when the time is right, or more importantly when something is NOT right? Can they react in the moment with enough skill and knowledge to not miss your perfect shot? The question is then are they pushing a button on nice gear or is your photographer truly painting with light as the artist they are claiming to be?