Golf, Gear and Wishful Thinking

It’s an interesting dilemma I face on a regular basis. I love telling stories, and I love telling them visually. Even those little snippets of life that I capture and post on one of my other sites, they’re just my way of triggering memories. Little ironies, little slices of a life that’s still racing by me, a life I’ve enjoyed living immensely. A life that gets better with each passing day.

So, for me, it’s about the image, it’s about the story. But … I’m also a gear geek (yep, it’s official). I like stuff, I like to try new things, to experiment with equipment but just to see how it can help me tell better stories, tell stories that matter.

Many, many years ago as a poor college student, I sat on a bench in my university’s photo lab talking with its manager about cameras and lenses. We both agreed the perfect camera bag for us would have a pair of Leica M6s with 35 mm, 50 mm and 90 mm lenses to choose from. Maybe we tossed in a 21 mm, it was a long time ago so I’m not sure.

We were momentarily convinced that that was all we needed to get better, to raise the level of our craft well beyond where we were. I don’t know how long this conversation went on, but eventually he turned to me and said this was idiotic, that whenever we talked we always about gear when what we really wanted to talk about was minimizing it so we could concentrate on the stories.

He was right. We never talked about gear again, though I know we both remained enamored with it.

Why bring this up? Two reasons.

I’ve worked pretty hard to create a program at my university that eliminates financial barriers to taking the class. If you can get into the university, into the college and into my class, I’m going to make sure you have the same opportunities as everyone else there – I am going to give you a camera kit to use for the semester. Every kid gets the same kit (and it’s a pretty good one, too) and assignments will be tailored to it. Being able to afford the latest and greatest won’t help you in the class, nor will showing up with just the camera you found at Goodwill last week.

We are turning over some of that gear this summer so I was in my lab unpacking yesterday. I tweeted out a photo of the new camera bags, a pile of lovely Domke F2s in classic tan. And then the responses, via Twitter and email, started coming in, people saying, usually jokingly, that it wasn’t fair the new kids were getting new bags … at least, I hope it was jokingly, right guys?

The second trigger comes from Mike Johnston over at The Online Photographer from a post about, of all things, golf clubs. How every summer he goes through a short phase where he believes that getting some new clubs would make him a better player. But the clubs he wants are the purists models, the ones that require a higher level of skill to master.

It had me thinking back to that photo lab bench conversation some 20-plus years ago. Years later, I did get a Leica. But I am really glad I didn’t. It is such a specialized tool that I don’t know if I would have gotten very good with it had I started there. By shooting with more generic gear, never top of the line, but gear that was more forgiving I did okay.

So this is for all the kids coming back this week. Some of the tools I’ll be loaning you are state of the art but not top of the line. They were chosen for specific reasons. Some of those were budgetary, but mostly it was because these tools will let all of you get better. Use them well, let them disappear in your hands so you can tell stories that matter.

Mark E. Johnson

1 Response

  1. The XTi has been a workhorse for me over the years, so I’m more than happy with the upgraded XSi you’re providing. I was planning on dropping my summer savings on the 5D II for the video and full frame.. and considering I wanted top notch quality for the PJ class I was entering at Grady. But the XSi has video, and I can make do without the full frame. So I’ll hold off til December, maybe beyond. Enjoyed your rant on equating equipment faves with “religion”. So true. This post kind of aligns with that. Thanks for pushing for a decent product for your students.

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