The question

When you photograph routinely and you manage to produce some decent shots every now and then, there comes a time when people come to you popping THE QUESTION. And no, I do not mean people kneeling while holding a box revealing a ring, asking you to marry them (although, I have to admit, it would be nice…). What I am talking about is the question that every photographer loves to hate – “what lens do you use?” or its even more annoying derivative “what camera do you use?”

I get it. We are all curious people, especially when we see something we like and want to reproduce it ourselves. Nevertheless, when a photographer displays his hard work, the last thing he wants to hear is praises about his equipment. You will find many rants about this phenomenon, written by photographers who are tired of hearing that “it is so easy to press a button”. It seems common for people, whether knowingly or not, to devalue photographers’ work by downscaling their actual involvement in the process of taking a photo. Very recently, I showed a lab mate several photographs that I took. In sheer excitement he exclaimed “That is one great camera you’ve got!” It was not the first time I heard this statement, and for years I have been collecting potential responses for such misled beliefs – “Thanks, it is a good camera. I taught it everything it knows”. Photographers should not deal with this sort of commentary, in the same manner that we do not hear people tell a chef that he must have a great stove or a painter that he must have expensive brushes.

Some of my photography gear. I know what you're thinking - "Does that scorpion come in a Nikon-mount as well?"

Some of my photography gear. I know what you’re thinking – “Does that scorpion come in a Nikon-mount as well?”

This strange behavior does not skip photographers (myself included), even though they have better-phrased versions of THE QUESTION – “what settings did you use?” and my personal favorite “what setup did you use?” What I like about the questions coming from fellow photographers is that unlike most people, they understand that there is a person behind the camera, even though it is the camera that ultimately records the photos. A living person, by implementing his experience, plans the shot, the composition, exposure, and presses the shutter at the right moment. Knowing which camera and lens model were used tells you nothing about how the lovely image you saw was obtained, but knowing the setup gives a greater understanding why the photo came out the way it did. Still, setup alone will not convey anything about the time spent preparing for the shoot, researching and observing the subject, or about composition. Each photo has its own conditions and therefore the capturing process is different.

The reason I am ranting about it is that I am too tired of hearing THE QUESTION. Maybe one day I will put up a webpage detailing the gear I use, but at the moment I see no reason for randomly advertising products. And please, stop asking me which camera or lens I think you should buy. I do not know what YOU need. Oh well. I guess the only way to deal with it is to laugh about it.

6 thoughts on “The question

  1. Thanks Gil, I’ve definitely got various versions of “The Question” quite a few times and statements about how they wish they had a camera like mine. I just wish I could hand my camera set up to all these people who laud gear and not the photographer and say “go ahead, now you got the gear, take me some great insect shots” They would fail miserably and learn their lesson 😀

  2. You could always use it as an opening for marketing. “Well you know, I first started on still subjects, like this amblypigid moult right here…as you can see in my calendar, my setup has changed over time. Of course there’s a full list of my equipment at the back of my coffee table book”.

  3. I would say, be kind. I have been guilting of asking THE QUESTION myself. Why? Because I’m not in photography. I have no idea of the inner workings. Nor more than I could, on the other hoof, have you ask me about a general result from my work (like a finalized webpage design or a really well-designed CO2 aquarium research experiment), and then get huffy about not being asked how I managed to get that exact #808080 hex code color match, or the PHP5 tweaking with internal hidden database trees to get the alignment to work and not throw CSS code into the wrong segment or just upend the entire website page.

    People ask, “Wow, what camera did you use?” or say “Wow, in my tank the mollies always eat the endler fry.” To try to get some shorthand idea of what effort you put into your work. I’ve tried my hand at macro photography -with a cellphone- (go ahead and spit some blood at the idea, I’ll be right there with you, lol) and it is HARD. It can’t make sense of the miniscule details, I honestly don’t know where to start to even learn as a super-amateur’s hobby, but it does make me greatly appreciate gorgeous Macro art all the more.

    An earlier comment had the bit of sarcasm of handing the other person the equipment and telling them to go forth. Which seems a bit mean-spirited to me. I can understand why it might be frustrating to get the question over time. In my case, when I get someone who’s asking me about my technique to get a result, or how I set up a study. I take it as appreciation that someone is acknowledging that I put in work to come up with a design or buy expensive tools! to create my results. It’s much nicer than the alternative, where they think the effort isn’t there because I’m “just using a template” (that I created, probably), or “just built off of X’s previous data”.

    Just wanted to comment to show another side of the leaf, from someone who’s also asked The Question, but meant absolutely no insult by it.

    • It’s always nice to hear another point of view, and I appreciate your take. However, I believe you missed the point of the post. THE QUESTION is an empty question that will clarify nothing about the end result. To take your own background for example, it would be like me asking you which motherboard you use to do your webpage designs, or which brand you use for lighting your aquarium systems. Can the information be helpful to the person asking? Absolutely. Will they learn anything from it to achieve the same result? No.
      Macro photography is hard, but that also wasn’t my point. I have my deepest respect to people taking macro shots using only their phones or compact cameras – I tried and I really suck at it. Some people out there take amazing photos with minimal gear. And that’s the point – it’s not the gear. It’s understanding how to use it and practice that makes for the pleasing result that others would like to replicate.

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