Editorial: Elitism in the Online Photographic Community
I’ve been a blogger for many years now, writing both about photography and technology in general. I’ve also been reading and consuming various online content since the early days of the internet (wow, that makes me sound old!) The internet has certainly helped democratise photography, as it has many other fields, but it also has its downsides, with misleading information and social issues ranging from the semi innocent to the extreme. The online photographic community is no different, but there's one unsavoury aspect that seems to be specific to photography, and I’m really sick of it. It’s about camera gear. In case you think you know where I’m going with this, you don’t. I’m not talking about people who like gear or are into gear, or like new technology. No, I’m talking about the people who constantly give out about the people who like gear. I’m talking about those that like to silo whole segments of the community into “real” photographers and those just into gear.
Every other day, I read some article or some blog from a photographer who complains about people who are only into photography because of the gear. It’s usually after some new camera is released, and the person complaining feels the need to patronise their readers by writing a 2000 word piece about how they’re above all that, while simultaneously polishing their Leica lenses or charging their batteries for the high-end Nikon that they just bought.
There’s a whole community of these “elitists” who seem to think that patronising their own readership is the way to popularity. And who knows, maybe they’re on to something. To me, it just comes across as insulting. Sometimes the level of hypocrisy is so blatant, I wonder if it has to be some kind of joke. Just today, I read a piece from a photographer (who I normally like) who was complaining about people being caught up in the hype around a certain new camera and went on to imply that anyone buying it, or camera gear in general, was just giving in to marketing hype. Yet this same person is internet famous because they have a site about camera and lens reviews, where they review all the latest releases and make money off people clicking on their ads to buy said gear.
Another well-known internet troll, blogger and occasional photographer, has a whole section on their site dedicated to what they consider to be “faux photographers” (They use a different term, but I refuse to give them any credence by repeating it). Yet reading it, this person seems to believe that everyone other than himself and a few obscure people you’ve never heard of, are not “real” photographers, and yet all of the things that he lists as being qualifies to be a “faux” photographer, are all things that he does himself, and are what made him popular on the internet in the first place. I know that in this case, he probably is just trolling people, but unfortunately, a lot of people take it seriously.
I really don’t understand the logic behind these arguments. If you follow them to their conclusion, then no one would buy any new cameras, and we’d all still be shooting box brownies. I mean, they believe that no one really needs new gear (except themselves of course) No camera company could possibly exist under these conditions. Except of course for the gear heads and marketing sheep that only buy cameras because of their foolish gadget lust or susceptibility to branding. Because there’s no other reason to buy a new camera according to the way of thinking presented by these articles and the inevitable round of “me too” commentary that it generates.
The idea that anyone who is excited about, or plans to buy a new camera, can’t be a real photographer is frankly offensive to me, and I’m really surprised that there isn’t more of a backlash against these articles, especially when the people who write these the most often, are also the ones who write the most about gear. The lack of self-awareness is shocking. Either that or it’s all a wind up in some elaborate skit.
Here’s another thing that I don’t get. What does it matter if people are into camera gear or photographic technology? I like camera technology. I like technology in general. I also like photography. I’m not only into photography because of the gear, but I do like the gear, and I like reading and following developments in the industry. I don’t see anything wrong with that. They’re not mutually exclusive. Yet, in the eyes of the elitists, this automatically disqualifies me as a “real” photographer. If something new comes out that is exciting and I can afford it, then I’ll buy it. I’ll buy it because I want to buy it. Not because I’m a slave to fashion or marketing, or because I have some non-existent syndrome, but because I am an individual with my own wants and desires. I can do this because I’m a free thinking human being and I live in a free society where people are free to make up their own minds.
What ticks me off even more about these pieces, and the people who write them is that many of these people all shoot using high end, and often the latest gear themselves. You see, they’re special because they know what they’re doing. It’s only that they think everyone else, i.e. you shouldn’t want or be interested in new cameras or gear. Again, the lack of self-awareness when people make these comments really is astounding. Which leads me to wonder, why such cognitive dissonance?
Here's my theory about this: being a professional or serious photographer used to require a lot of investment in gear, but the advances in technology and the changes in the market mean that now anyone can afford what would have been at one time, relatively high-end equipment. So now, all the people who used to feel that they were a cut above the rest of us because they invested in expensive cameras, can no longer use the investment in camera gear as a way to look down on what they perceive as the “non-photographers” encroaching on their turf. And because it’s so easy to get new cameras now, and the proliferation of them, "gear" is an easy target. So now gear is the enemy, and real photographers don't don’t care about gear because they’re above all that, and anyone who is into it, is somehow a fraud. I mean the "real" photographers still buy and use new gear all the time, but because they’re “real" photographers that’s ok. It's a neat bit of mental gymnastics, but it's total bullshit.
At the end of the day, who cares if other people like the technology anyway if it doesn’t affect your photography. Going on and on about how "it's not about the gear" to talk down to your readers, and keep them in their place, is a as bad as being too much about the gear in the first place in my opinion.
What does it matter how people came to photography anyway. So what if people are into photography because of the gear? The more the merrier in my opinion. Photography can be so many things to so many people, and so, why not welcome everyone with open arms, rather than trying to wall off your own little corner with your hypocritical ideology?
I have learned several things being a photography blogger for many years and engaging with my readers. These aren’t secrets, but with the general tone of the dialogue around photography now, you would think that the opposite is true.
First of all, the majority of people who are into photography, like gear. Pro Photographers like gear. Amateurs and Hobbyists like gear. People who say they don’t care about gear, really do a little. How do I know this? The wonderful world of web statistics. Articles on my sites over the years that are about gear, get about 600-700% more traffic than articles about technique or other artistic things. Is it because an army of zombie like gear heads are trolling the internet? No. Is it because the gear obsessed are out to skew the numbers? No. It’s because the majority of people who are into photography like the gear. Now, certain people may like to think that that majority aren't "real" photographers, but I don’t remember putting them in charge of the photographic purity police. There’s no great conspiracy. Sometimes things are just what they appear to be. If you don’t like the gear personally, more power to you. If you’re still shooting with the same DSLR for the last 20 years, that’s great. Does that mean that another person who just bought a new camera or likes to read about new camera technology is less of a photographer than you? No, of course not. That would be ridiculous, and yet, that’s what we’re told on a regular basis.
You see, the “It’s not the camera it’s the photographer” brigade would like you to believe that the only thing that you should be reading as a photographer, is articles about technique, composition and artistry. Except, here’s the thing… those articles have a terrible readership, and they always have.
These subjects are interesting, but at the end of the day, the basics of photography just aren't that hard. There’s only so much you can write about correctly shooting a scene. You aim the camera, set your exposure, and press the button. I don’t mean to sound patronising, and I am being a little cheeky here, but it’s pretty much a variation on that most of the time. I mean at the end of the day, no one really needs another article on the rule of thirds. Sure you can write lovingly about light, and lines, and composition, and shadow and colour, but don’t expect a huge audience. Of course, I’m being a bit facetious here, and I write about artistry all the time, but those articles get very low readership compared to pieces about gear.
So here’s another thing that I’ve learned: You know that phrase that gets bandied about all the time that I mentioned a second ago: “It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer”? Well, the sentiment behind that, while true to an extent, that gear doesn’t make up for technique, and getting a new camera or camera gear, won’t make you a better photographer… well....
… you might not believe me when I say this, but in my experience, almost no serious photographer or person who is into photography actually believes that in the first place. They might think that they may get better quality images, and improved colour, sharpness and so on, but no serious photographer thinks that a new or bigger camera will magically make them a better photographer, or improve their technique. In all my time talking to and communicating with readers over years of writing about this, I have had only one single instance of someone who really did think that the gear was causing their bad photographs. But that person was the exception. I’m sure there are some casual photographers and some beginners who believe that, but the notion that a lot of people believe that a new camera will improve their technique is just not true. And anyway, what does it matter if some stranger on the internet believes that anyway. Let them buy a new camera and learn the hard way. Does it affect your photography? Of course not.
Another trope that gets bandied about is some variation of: “A painter doesn’t care about a paintbrush, so you shouldn’t care about the camera”…or something similar. The thing is, that’s actually not true at all. I know several painters and they care a great deal about their brushes. They will often spend a lot of money trying to get the right brush and they take care of them meticulously. So do carpenters with their tools, and just about any craftsperson.
Of course, I’m sure someone reading this, who disagrees with me and is annoyed at my commentary, will try to turn this around on me and say, that I’m doing the exact same by giving out about the people giving out. Well, you may have a point, but I’m not writing these pieces every other week. I try my best not to deliberately insult and patronise my readers on a regular basis.
I’m writing this because in my opinion, people who like camera technology are getting a bad rap and it’s bullshit. I do my best to keep the rants to a minimum on this blog, but this bothers me because these articles insult wide swaths of people in order to to maintain an elitist air of superiority. They’re spreading misinformation and representing a view of the market that isn’t accurate or true. People go to these sites looking for information, and by constantly putting out these kinds of articles, even if the authors mean well, they are actually misleading their readership. It also creates an unnecessary “us vs them” mentality in peoples minds.
There’s enough of this tribalism in the world right now without photographers having to create sub groups of other photographers to pick on and fight with. I know someone will accuse me of doing the same with this, but that’s not why I’m writing this. I’m sticking up for the normals. I’m writing this because I like gear, and I also like photography, and I don’t think the former nullifies the latter.
But what do I know anyway, because I would love a new D850, so apparently I'm not a "real photographer". Oh well.