The Worst Question to Ask a Photographer

* I’m going to try and make a habit of updating my blog with longer features each Monday from now on. I won’t always be able to do this, of course, but I’ll do my best. If I have anything else to add during the week I’ll do that, too.

** My second piece for We have some exciting stuff coming up and a huge announcement due in the next few days. I hope you’ll check us out!

Now, down to business.

“What do you shoot with?”

Few questions make me want to collect my gear into a big bag and dump it all into the river like this one. Let me answer in the most sarcastic manner I can; I shoot with everything. Anything. A camera.

That is my knee-jerk reaction to this infuriating question, though I suppose it is not the question itself that enrages me but what the question infers. The question, this horrible, silly question, implies that there is some secret to photography locked in the equipment one uses to produce images.

“Nice picture. You must have a good camera.”

“I want to upgrade my camera and take better photos, too.”

I am here and now and forever about to dispel that rumor and answer this question, for once and for all, thoughtfully and the best way I know how. So let’s begin anew, shall we?

What do you shoot with?

I shoot with what’s between my ears.

There is no physical mechanism better for making images than the human brain. I use my brain to process, visualize and create. The gear I use simply allows me to share it with the world. Don’t buy into the theory that the camera makes the photographer. It does not. It never has. There are plenty of people out there making great images on their iPhones, their point-and-shoot digitals and their Holgas. There are an equal number of people out there shooting with top-end Nikon, Canon and Leica SLRs and rangefinders creating junk. This is common sense stuff; everyone knows this and everyone has heard this… yet it rarely ever sinks in.

Want to make photographs like me?

Sorry. You can’t.

Want to make photos like Ansel Adams?

Nope. Not going to happen.

Want to make photos like Terry Richardson?

Take off your own clothes first.


Before you label me a colossal jerk, allow me a moment to qualify these remarks. As sure as you cannot make images like me, I cannot make images like you. I cannot make photos like Ansel Adams. We are born unique and we see the world in different ways. You don’t want to shoot like me! I don’t want to shoot like you! The world would be a boring place if we all shot like one another. That’s why the gear doesn’t matter.

Your camera and your lenses and your lights and your tripod are tools, nothing more and nothing less. Some tools make your job easier. Some tools allow you to capture what you’ve visualized in your mind, yet they remain tools, objects of total and whole inanimateness.

If you need recommendations on how to shoot something you are specifically visualizing, I can help. This is why I teach, after all, and why I do the Flash Light Expeditions thing. If you’re keen on shooting seascapes, crashing waves and sunsets but you’ve never handled a wide-angle lens or used a graduated neutral density filter before, I’m more than happy to help you out with a few tips and tricks on how to get the most out of your equipment. If you want to utilize a specific lighting style to create the most dynamic portrait you can think of, I can help you put your lights in the right place. I’m more than happy to help you see your vision become reality. When I started taking photography seriously, I leaned on a number of people for tips and inspiration. Most photographers are more than happy to share the insights they’ve gleaned while out in the field.

But you have to do the heavy lifting yourself.

If you ask me to recommend a camera you can buy to make you a good photographer, I’m going to put you in a burlap sack and push you off a bridge. As a photographer, I can advise you on technique and convention, but I cannot show you how to see this world. That’s your job, and you do that from the inside. You do this by consuming information, studying and shooting. Then you go out and you shoot some more.

Michael Jordan did not become the greatest clutch player in the history of sports because he wore Nike shoes. He became great because he trained hard and was coached well.

When my first novel was published, no one asked me what type of pen I used to write it or what weight paper it was printed on.

No one credits the cast when a doctor wraps up a broken limb.

If Tiger Woods let anyone else use his driver, I doubt the ball would fly 400 yards.

Likewise, the best photographers are only as good as the work they put into their craft before (and after, when shooting digital) they press the shutter. Jordan’s shoes carried him to the rim; they didn’t put the ball in for him.

“What do you shoot with?”

This question makes me want to get out of the creative game altogether and become an accountant. Before you ask me or anyone else this question ever again, you need to audit your creative sphere.

You will become the photographer you want to become by training your mind’s eye and sharpening your skills. Technique can be taught, skills can be refined, style can be studied and emulated. None of this has anything to do with your camera.


– Flash


Post Script.

Of course, I’m doing a little Devil’s Advocate work here. Asking what type of camera someone uses isn’t any type of sin; often it is done more out of curiosity than anything else. What I’m really trying to do here is inspire everyone who might read this to think past their equipment and look deeper into their own way of shooting. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


2 thoughts on “The Worst Question to Ask a Photographer

  1. You should do a set with a very low end camera to show how using your mind and creativity can make gear less important when it comes to taking “good” photographs.

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