PetaPixel

Technically Obsessed: Why “Gear Lust” and “Pixel Peeping” Are Good for You

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I came into still photography by way of video. Throughout my younger years I was always playing with video cameras, and when I graduated college I set out to buy one of my own.

Like so many others, I turned to the Internet for guidance. I got lost in a whirlwind of blogs, forums and tutorials. As a recovering technophobe, it was overwhelming and scary. This was to be my first major post college purchase, and I wanted to research the subject diligently.

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Finally pulling the trigger on that camera, I often still found myself visiting those same websites and forums. This had become a daily habit over the past few months, and the compulsion never seemed to go away.

I read up on every detail, rumor and review about new cameras and old. I became obsessed with the technology of photography. I understand the reason some people see this as unhealthy, but let’s try and comprehend the positives that go along with this obvious case of “gear lust”.

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For one, it helped me learn and understand the technical side of photography. Remember, our art is half science too. Soon after getting that first video camera I became entranced by still photos.

The only problem was I couldn’t tell you the difference between a point and shoot, SLR or rangefinder, 35mm or 120mm, medium format, full frame or APS-C. It was all Klingon to me.

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I made it a point to absorb everything I was reading. If a blog was talking about a “wide angle lens” I needed to know exactly what that meant. I know, for an experienced photographer, this may sound rudimentary, but think back to those days before you could explain the process of Debayering. Back before you knew what “stopping down” a lens meant.

These forums and blogs helped immensely. Not only in answering my questions, but raising the questions in the first place.

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Reading about new cameras and techniques also helped me understand how some people were getting the results they were. I know we’ve all heard the phrase “It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer.” While true, no photographer can take a smart phone and make it look like 120 slide film.

Reading up on different cameras helped me understand you have to use the right tool for the right job. If you envision a project or a shoot, you’ll know what’s at your disposal to bring that idea to fruition.

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Having a healthy curiosity of what tools are out there keeps you up to date with present and future trends, but it also might lead you towards trends of the past. I never would have thought I’d be shooting and developing 120 film in my bathroom, but the more I read about older cameras and lenses, the more I wanted to experiment. And I’m better for it.

You’d be surprised how shooting with old equipment and dabbling with older methods helps you understand and appreciate what we have today (not to mention, 120 film is a beautiful and unique tool).

Pixel peeping, like many other vices, can be an extremely destructive habit if not done in moderation. That said, a healthy dose of obsession can actually benefit one’s eye.

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There was a time in my life where I spent hours looking at 400% cropped in images of soup cans and color charts, analyzing the detail, the noise and grain structures and lens distortions. If a layman walked by and saw my face pressed against a blurry screen of pixels they’d think I was a maniac, and to be honest, most of us pixel peepers are a bit crazy.

But by dissecting lens and camera tests I’ve grown a more discerning eye. There’s a practical reason to keep up with new and emerging technology too. Much like older photographers might read about new film emulsions from Kodak and Fujifilm, in the digital age we must keep up on new sensor technology.

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It’s been said before and it’s worth noting again: When we buy a new camera we are essentially committing to one type of film, for lack of a better analogy. In the old days you could buy a camera and switch films in seconds. Now, we have to make sure we are making informed purchases because we are more or less stuck with what we have until our next camera.

I believe there is a distinct difference between gear lust and Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Obsessing over these cameras and visiting the websites, forums and tutorials that indulge that obsession has been beneficial to my craft. I love learning about new devices, cameras, and technologies and how they are affecting the industry.

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Looking at new designs and reviews and tests grows my love and appreciation for not only the artistic side of the art, but also for the technicians and ideas that make it all possible. Gear Acquisition Syndrome is something that comes from this and you must fight it with all your might.

You don’t have to own every new camera. It’s not necessary and it’s not recommended. It’ll take an enormous amount of willpower to keep from buying everything you see (especially if you can swing it financially), but it’s better for you in the long run.

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I agree with the old Orson Welles quote, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” The common misconception about the hours one spends reading up on gear forums, blogs and magazines is that it keeps you from getting out there and actually taking pictures. While this certainly is the case in some circumstances, it’s most surely a whole different issue.

If you need to be told to stop looking at camera websites, to get off forums, to go out there and practice your art, your problem isn’t gear lust. You’re just not that interested in being a photographer. And that’s okay.


 
  • rz67

    Here we go.

  • http://twitter.com/simnw Simon wardenier

    Very strong quote to end a great piece of writing. Enjoyed this thoroughly.

  • jbae

    He does not have gear lust- just lust for knowledge. Gear lust is… shooting less and wishing you had the latest bling drooling over your keyboard.

  • http://ja.mesbrown.com/ James Brown

    Great article

  • Dick

    He should learn how to take a decent photo before you guys publish an article written by him.

  • Banan Tarr

    Some thoughts:
    - There’s no such thing as true absence of limitations, only absence of imagination.
    - There are other ‘enemies’ of art that are a lot worse than fewer limitations.
    - This is a long-winded way of saying something pretty basic.

    Maybe I’m being cynical but I don’t see a need to give this subject so much weight. Yes, a good photographer will benefit from understanding the technical side, but it’s hardly a requirement in today’s day with technology that helps ensure each photo is technically sound.

    A less-technically-capable photographer with incredible creativity and imagination will trump a very technically capable photographer who has no eye or creativity. Today’s technology helps ensure that. And that’s a good thing.

  • Dikaiosune01

    3 years later, I am still reading those same photography forums almost daily. The difference is that I read them while I’m at work, and not while I’m shooting.

  • Joseph Campanella

    I agree that creativity trumps technical ability a majority of the time, but technical abilitly plays into photography more than most other art forms.
    Also, there are many times where I’ve seen piece of work done by a talented creative person, but was let down by the way the work was presented or created.

    The other points I tried to make through the article was that cruising blogs and forums isn’t just about technology. It’s about seeing how things are done, possibly in ways you never thought about. This can lead to new and interesting projects you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

    Thanks for reading!

  • Anon

    Popcorn ready

  • http://www.facebook.com/duke.shin1 Duke Shin

    Shitstorm in 5… 4… 3…

  • slvrscoobie

    People that say that technical merit in photography is overrated are just compensating for their lack of knowledge. As a graduate of Imaging and Photographic technology at RIT, i can tell you that the more you know the better. And just because ‘the camera can do it for you’ doesnt mean its ‘technically sound’. Its just allowing people who know how to do it to push other places even further.

  • J. Dennis Thomas

    Spending too much time on blogs and forums is also a good way to “learn” a lot of misinformation.

  • Banan Tarr

    I like the way you wrote that second paragraph – makes a lot of sense to me.

  • Mansgame

    Nothing wrong with pixel peeping if it’s done for the right purpose. Many people have bad habits – think their shots are stable enough for instance. With a 6 MP camera, you don’t notice that stuff much, but the picture is not as sharp as it could be. If those same habits are carried over to a 24 MP camera, you better believe it will show when zoomed . Pixel peeping can help you see what you’re doing wrong and fixing it.

  • Rabi Abonour

    I totally agree that understanding one’s gear fully helps make good pictures. But you say pixel peeping trains your eye without saying how. I’m not sure if there is really any utility to staring at test charts for hours.

  • http://twitter.com/ralphhightower Ralph Hightower

    Joseph,
    When you mentioned about “pixel peeping”, I thought that you were talking about this megapixel “arms race” between Canon and Nikon.
    I don’t chimp my photos. I can’t since I still shoot film on my 33 year old Canon A-1.
    But I do want to get two medium format systems, Mamiya 645 and the RZ67. The 645 has a supertelephoto lens that would be a telephoto on the 67 system.

    Yea, I got GAS: Mamiya 645 and RZ67. Plus, I want to get a Canon F1N to complement my A-1 and my investment in FD lenses.

  • Joseph Campanella

    Ralph. I learned 35mm with an AE-1 and a few FD lenses. I also have a Mamiya 645j (which was quite reasonable actually!).

    Both cameras are a lot fun. Especially the Mamiya because it lacks a meter!

  • Joseph Campanella

    I came to notice things like chromatic aberration, banding and things of this nature. Perhaps I should have been more specific.

    Noted!

  • Gary

    An enlightening post, Joseph. I’m guessing you’re around 25 or so, as, by college age, you would have found digital video and photography well established and micro four thirds and APS-C formats established, as well. I’m 60, but I went through much the same thing you did at the same age, although film was still very much the medium, at the time, and no one had even thought of digital video or photography, yet. In fact, I was in my early thirties by the time I finally realized it’s the photographer, not the gear that makes the photo, and this was as true with film as it is now in the digital medium.

  • Kodachrome64

    I agree. In a few years, they might introduce a feature in cameras that allows the camera to automatically detect the best composition based on geometry, and it takes the photo for you. What will the fauxtographers say then? “I don’t care about technical stuff like composing my shot or timing, all I really need to know is how to hold the camera out in front of me.” Real creative.

  • Howard

    Bert Hardy, a great English Photojournalist, showed that a great photographer can take great photos even just using a Box Brownie but a great photographer also uses as a norm, great equipment. Ansel Adams used the right equipment for his images. Great photos require great creativity married to the right equipment. BUT great equipment does NOT make a great

  • thomas

    Maybe you should use ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ – your experience is not universal

  • thomas

    I become a little obsessed with the technology I need to express myself, but after I make the (well researched) decision & get it, I totally lose interest in worrying about alternatives… Unless I find a limitation that is detrimental to what i am trying to achieve, my focus (excuse the pun) is on creating work, not on the tool…

    I’ve always thought WHY is far more interesting than HOW – some people put all their energy into HOW (gear junkies etc) and never actually get to the WHY part…

  • Ricardo

    You’re fired!

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    Problem with this argument (or the reverse argument) is both are only part of the equation.

    Sure, the more you know the better, but knowing the tech is only a small part of it.

    I’ve known RIT grads who were technically proficient, but crap storytellers or artists.

    It takes a combination of technical knowledge, artistry, craftsmanship and skill at telling a story that makes for compelling photography that others will care about.

  • http://twitter.com/JoeCampanella Joseph Campanella

    Glad to hear you liked it Gary!

    I’m a bit older than 25 but still let than 30. It’s funny to think digital photography was still in its infancy when I was in high school/college and most of my picture from the time are from film cameras (mostly the disposable kind).

    I agree with you and everyone else, it’s most definitely the photographer that makes the picture. And this is why even with cameras that basically do all the exposing and focusing for you, having a creative vision behind the lens is key.

  • http://twitter.com/JoeCampanella Joseph Campanella

    While I 100% agree with slvrscoobie’s point, your point is just as valid Bob.

    A combination of skills is key.

  • Eugene Chok

    sport science has shown that thinking positively about the sport helps performance, why not for photography as well? if Malcolm gladwell is correct we need 10 000 hours to master something, im hoping thinking about it also contributes

  • http://www.facebook.com/igor.kennn Igor Ken

    well put! I feel the same..

  • Mike

    I have a degree in photography and I’ve never even heard of ‘debayering’.

  • http://www.nickbedford.com/ Nick Bedford

    I’d say it’s more like: GL, GAS and TFK/TFL.

    Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) is the one to decidedly stay away from. This wastes money on devices that won’t change much at all about your skills as a creative, visual person, unless they are things you will make good use of and will definitely help technically.

    Gear Lust (GL) is the lesser evil, and is probably more practiced by those who can restrain themselves or just can’t afford the gear. Yes, I would love a D810 after seeing how insane the raw file resolution is, but I can restrain myself since the 5D Mark III I use is perfectly fine for the task.

    Then there’s Thirst For Knowledge (TFK) or some might say “Thirst For Learning”, which I would say is a very healthy thing to have. I love reading about new camera technologies, discovering new information about the practice of taking pictures, listening to a podcast here and there about photography, analysing the light, colour and composition in photos.