Musings on Photography

Do Lenses Matter? (part one)

Posted in aesthetics, equipment, the art world by Paul Butzi on February 21, 2007


Mike Johnston, in his blog The Online Photographer, makes the claim:

Apropos of yesterday, I hate to say this, y’all, but whether you shoot with this lens for $2,795 or with this one for $25 really doesn’t matter. In this game it’s pictures that count, and what you do with those pictures, and how you publicize and market them. You get very little extra credit for which lens you happen to choose.

I disagree with Mike on the lens issue, but I’d go farther than he does, and say that in the ‘game’ (by which I presume he means gathering up wealth and acclaim) the pictures don’t really matter much at all, and they certainly matter less than the lenses.  In fact, I’ll claim that if you want to gather fame and wealth with your photographs, it’s all about how you publicize and market them.  And, given that that’s the case, the more outrageous and different your equipment, the easier and more effective your marketing will be.  If everyone else is making photographs with 22 megapixel cameras, differentiate your work by making photographs with equipment that gives you 22 gigapixels.  And your work be viewed as different and it will be easier to market.  Same thing with lenses.  If everyone else is making photos with lenses that cost a mere $600 dollars, make yours with $6000 lenses and clearly your work gets the benefit of added cachet. 

Or, you can invert this, and if everyone is using $5000 camera bodies and $2800 lenses, you can go out and make your photographs using a camera made from a cast away condom box with a hole drilled in the side by using a used hypodermic syringe you picked up from the discard pile at the local syringe exchange. Lots of cachet there.

That’s because, in the marketing world, it doesn’t matter if they buyer can’t tell the difference.  That’s the basis of 99% of the ‘golden ears’ audiophile market.  It’s not that people need to be able to percieve the difference, what matters is that they believe that the difference is there.  After that, it’s all about social status and the emperor’s new clothes.  Or, if the difference actually happens to be perceivable, it doesn’t matter if yours are better or worse, as long as you have a persuasive story about why yours are better.

Face the music – millions of people buy Coke or Pepsi not because one is superior to the other but because they’ve been marketed a story about how Coke or Pepsi (or Dr. Pepper, or whatever) will make you sexy, enigmatic, youthful, happy, and ineffably cool.  Marketing works, and the important thing to remember is not that the product needs to be good but that the buyer must be convinced that the product will improve them somehow.

Face it.  Go into the world, and see how much boring photography is out there for sale, propped up by artist’s statements that talk about ‘capturing the awesome detail of nature by using a camera that makes negatives with 100 times as much area as a 35mm camera’ or similar stuff.  That work is not being sold based on the merit of the photograph, it’s being sold based on the equipment used.  Heck, the half of the large format photographers in the world subscribe to the notion that the very fact that your camera is big and heavy and hard to use means that you’ll get better photographs.  I believed myself for a considerable length of time.

So Mike just doesn’t go far enough.  In the ‘game’, it’s all about marketing.  The photos don’t matter, but the equipment used can be used by a canny marketing person to craft a persuasive story, and so it actually does matter.

4 Responses

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  1. Darrell Klein said, on February 21, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    Paul, the sad thing is I think you hit the nail on the head here. It is all about the marketing. I have come across countless websites and seen mediocre work that has sold simply because it is marketed well. Maybe that is the way it should be. That still doesn’t mean I have to like it though. I just consider myself lucky that photography is my hobby and not my profession. This allows me to do it my way with whatever equipment is within my financial limits.

  2. Brian Chapman said, on February 21, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    Fantastic post! Marketing is key – no doubt about it. But Diet Pepsi really is better than Diet Coke…it’s so light, crisp, and refreshing!

  3. Ed Richards said, on February 22, 2007 at 4:25 am

    Coke and Pepsi are also about branding, specific marketing strategy. It assures the customer that she is getting a uniform, dependable product. This counts even more in the developing world, but is important in the US. Gursky seems to be the contemporary master, combining the special equipment angle, the giant print angle, and very effective marketing to create a high end brand. This lets rich collectors buy a Gursky and display it and know that it will be recognizable and acceptable to those who see it that they care about. I enjoy Gursky to the extent that I see him as pulling off a cosmic joke on the art world. He does very high quality commercial photography – few of his images would look out of place in an annual report for a big company. I could see 99 Cents II in a report for a wire rack company. But he has effectively turned them into high art through marketing.

  4. Peter said, on February 22, 2007 at 10:13 am

    couldnt understand Mikes article especially as the following one basically ruled that one can only use digital lenses for DSLRs

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