Of late, I've been reflecting a great deal upon my progression in the field of photography, thinking both about how I viewed the subject in the past as well as what I'd like to pursue in the future. Of particular interest is how the things I once viewed as most important have gradually fallen away, while the things I'm most concerned about today would simply never even have occurred to me when I was a complete beginner.
If anyone had asked me when starting out what I thought mattered most in taking a good photo, I very likely would have said the camera one used. A year or two after that and I would have responded that the lenses were what counted most rather than the camera with which one used them. Still later on I would have said the lighting was what counted above all, not camera bodies or fancy lenses: when one looks back at most of the greatest photos of the last 100 years, the nature of the light - its softness or hardness, its directionality, its intensity, its interplay with shadow, etc. - stand out to the eye far more than any special optical properties obtainable only by the use of any particular lens rather than another.
One might think that with the realization of the importance of lighting, one's evolution as a photographer would be complete, but what I've increasingly come to see, at least as far as photography of people (my primary interest) is concerned, is that the awareness that there is more than this to photography is precisely what separates the technically-proficient journeyman from a true master of the subject. In particular, I've come to realize that the technical aspects of photography take a back seat (or at least, ought to take a back seat) to questions like "What is the subject of this photo?", "What am I trying to express?", and "What mood do I wish to convey?", and that the choice of location, wardrobe, hairstyle and make-up, as well as the ability of the photographer to establish the rapport with the subject required to draw out precisely what he or she wishes to capture, are of even greater importance than any of the technical, gear-oriented minutiae with which the frequenters of many photography forums prefer to concern themselves. One has only to spend a little time browsing a site like PBase to realize that being able to afford very expensive equipment does not mean that one will be able to do more than churn out worthless dross, and while mastery of the technical side of photography is indeed important, it is best considered a foundational requirement rather than sufficient in itself, just as, say, memorizing all the words in a French dictionary does not equip one to outdo Marcel Proust.
I am not going to pretend that having good equipment doesn't matter in photography, much as I often wish otherwise; to compete commercially at the very top ranks of game one will need to be able to stand up to the best in every technical aspect, and that means spending eye-watering sums of money. Having said that much, however, the top photographers did not get to where they are by spending small fortunes at the beginning of their careers, but by working their way up the food chain, and the most important ingredient in doing this is to have a clear, unique aesthetic vision of what one wishes to accomplish: with this in place, even a tiny, highly-compressed image can grasp a viewer's attention
Now, as for what all of this means for me personally, perhaps the first consequence is that I am essentially done with buying new cameras or lenses for the next 9-12 months. While there are always things I wouldn't mind getting if they were to somehow fall into my lap cost-free, I capable of enough objectivity to recognize that the equipment I already have is more than sufficient for almost any purpose I'd have in mind; to get appreciably better images I would have to spend considerably more, and as we live in an age in which most pictures are only viewed online - let alone printed at larger than 8x12 inches - it is highly likely that hardly anyone would notice the difference anyway.
Of greater importance in my plans right now is acquiring better lighting equipment, and yes, that means spending a considerable amount of money on my part, enough that I probably won't be traveling abroad for at least half a year afterwards. The thing to note, however, is that I will not be buying all this lighting equipment simply in order to tick off some imaginary box on a list of things a "pro" [sic] photographer "ought" [sic] to have, but in service of clearly defined goals which I already have in mind, and which I can achieve only by making these purchases: I can already see in my mind's eye the exact photos I wish to capture, and now it is just a question of doing the work (and spending the money) to turn my mental images into pictures anyone can view. Indeed, it is precisely this confidence in what I've visualized which makes it possible for me to commit to spending so much in the first place, and I have in fact already begun reaping the fruits of this way of thinking in a small way, as the pictures below demonstrate.
I had the idea behind the photos 2 weeks before I actually took them, and in service of that idea I both arranged to rent the equipment I needed to realize, and worked out with the model precisely what I wanted her to convey through her outfit, her hairstyle and her makeup. Humans being what they are, not everything worked precisely to plan, but enough did go by plan so that what you see here is actually a decent approximation of what I visualized in the beginning. The point here is not that I regard these pictures as attaining to lofty heights of perfection others cannot reach - I was already thinking of several ways to outdo them in future even in the course of the shoot - but that there was no way they would have come about if I'd simply been aimlessly walking around with expensive equipment, shooting randomly, and hoping for something good to turn up in the process.
To bring this long-winded article to a close, I guess what I've been trying to say is that photography at its best is an art requiring creative imagination, not just a skill to be mastered by endless practice and the expenditure of limitless amounts of money. "Well, isn't that obvious?" you may be tempted to say, but if it really were that obvious, it wouldn't be the case that at least 99.9% of the pictures one runs into online - even on more "artistic" sites like Flickr - are little more than sterile exercises in technical perfection at the very best, and boring kitsch or utterly forgettable snapshots in the more typical case.