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Gear Acquisition Syndrome

Luke White explores the paradigm, or lack thereof, when it comes to the theory that expensive equipment always captures masterpieces

4 January 2016

Luke White explores the paradigm, or lack thereof, when it comes to the theory that expensive equipment always captures masterpieces

Photography is a fad well-nigh on its last legs, thanks principally to the bicycle craze
— Alfred Stieglitz. 1897

There is a little talked-about condition which affects almost all photographers and film-makers at one point or another. This condition stifles creativity and means that many ideas never make the transition from Moleskine notebook to reality. We now know that this condition has a name — Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS). 

Photography is a pretty great hobby. In fact, it’s the second most popular hobby in the world — after fishing. It’s a wonderful thing to make a cool photo and show it to friends as a print, or on your Facebook page. Those same endorphins are triggered when you think about making more great photos. Things begin to go downhill fast when shopping gets mixed in there, the feeling that your work will improve if you buy gear, followed by the dopamine reward when you buy that gear. Suddenly, you’ve tricked your brain from feeling joy when you create good work, to feeling joy because you’ve bought some shiny gizmo.

Since the birth of photography, enthusiasts have sought out new technology to better communicate their vision. In recent years we have reached a point where there is a constant flood of new gear being announced and released. For professionals, and even people with a passing interest, it is hard to keep up, and the promise of magical new gear can kill creativity. “Why bother taking a road trip and shooting landscapes with your 650D and 50mm f/1.8?” GAS whispers. “You should wait until you’ve bought the 5DS and a Zeiss Otus. That equipment is worthy of your artistic ambition.”

I often hear photographers complaining that their lack of expensive equipment holds them back and means they can’t create the work they would like to be making. Of course, this is complete rubbish — masterworks have been created with old and cheap equipment, while unequivocal garbage is produced on the vast majority of $7000 cameras made from olive wood and brown Tuscan leather.

Miroslav Tichý made cameras with cardboard tubes, elastic, asphalt, and a bit of plastic. Think about Tichý (and the controversial photographs he made, which were critically acclaimed the world over) next time you’re complaining about the crummy camera on your $149 smartphone. Tichý’s cameras were literally trash, and he managed to shoot some damn good work.

In a few short weeks I will hold in my hands the world’s greatest DSLR — the 50.6MP Canon 5DS R. One thing I can guarantee is that the photographs I make with it will not hold a candle to those made by André Kertész in the 1920s, with his relatively primitive camera. My photos won’t be as good as David Burnett’s either. Burnett is a veteran photojournalist and National Geographic contributor, with many awards to his name. Some of his best images have been made with a $20 Holga. The Holga isn’t a top-end camera — it has a choice of two apertures, f/11 and f/8, and a fixed shutter speed of approx 1/100s. The lens is made from plastic, and it takes 120mm roll film. Burnett has taken this camera to several Olympic Games, and on US presidential campaigns, shooting iconic images along the way.

In fact, being a poor student with just one camera and one lens can be a huge advantage when it comes to creativity. When studying at the Hochschule für Künste in Bremen my lecturer, Peter Bialobrzeski, ordered that all first-semester students could only photograph using 4×5-inch large-format cameras with black-and-white sheet film. This limitation ensured that new students concentrated on composition, form, and theory without getting wrapped up in which camera to use. 

If you have the option of buying and shooting with any gear you like, then the choices can become overwhelming when you try to think of what you will shoot. I recently gave a group of students an assignment of watching Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, and then making a black-and-white film noir–inspired studio portrait using three tungsten fresnel lights. From these ingredients, each photographer created a unique image.

It is just as bad with film-makers, we are living in an extremely exciting time for new and innovative technology to make movies with. There are cameras which see in the dark, rectilinear lenses, cheap and simple steadicam rigs, digital follow focus, incredibly powerful video-editing programmes, and more. The problem is that new gear is constantly being announced, meaning would-be Tarantinos and Scorseses decide to hold off on their next project until that 6K camera has been released, or until they can afford that motorized dolly system.

I filmed an event this week — a fantastic studio-lighting workshop with Urs Recher from Broncolor. Recher is an excellent teacher with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject and, as he lives in Switzerland, he is almost never in Auckland. In short, I wanted to film the workshop but also to be present, and take in what he had to say. Having access to the Kingsize Studios gear room with dozens of top-end cameras, lenses, and camera support options is not always a good thing, and in this case, I chose to shoot with our cheapest camera, lens, and monopod. This whole set-up — Canon 7D Mark II, EF-S 24mm lens, and Manfrotto fluid monopod — cost less than the tripod I would usually use. And it was excellent, the dual-pixel autofocus technology in the 7D Mark II made my job easy, and is a feature not present in its bigger brothers. The cheap 24mm pancake lens was sharp and very fast to focus. The fluid monopod had seemed flimsy to me when I first tried it, but it was the perfect tool for moving around unobtrusively, getting steady shots as well as pans and tilts.

The next time you have an urge to buy some camera equipment, have a think about whether the item in question is a necessary tool, which you will use to execute your vision more accurately. If it’s not, and that cash is still burning a hole in your pocket, think about what you could spend it on that might directly benefit your work. Buying a copy of Irving Penn’s Passage or Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is unlikely to cause buyer’s regret. Neither is a place in a workshop. Or a couple of airline tickets.