Most Photographers Don’t Have a Clue

John P. Manning
9 min readFeb 24, 2021
Fashion image of model in fog.

They aren’t even photographers.

This includes almost all amateurs and many pros. One group it excludes are people who use their camera or phone to take photos of family, kids, pets, etc. They just want to take pictures, and taking pictures is what photography is all about.

Maybe it’s surprising, but these people are actually more authentic photographers than the serious camera buffs who spend thousands of dollars on photo gear and spend a lot of time reading about it, talking about it, and worrying about which pieces to choose.

My beef with this group is that although they profess to be about photography, they are actually totally engaged in photographic equipment or sometimes photographic technique. Maybe even both.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. People should pursue activities that interest them. They are photographic specialists, but it is a mistake to consider them photographers. If they’re good at it, these equipment specialists would make great assistants and advisors on shoots. Many times I could have benefited by having such people on my team.

I’ve attended many seminars given by some of the best and most famous photographers in the world. Many knew little about technique, and less about gear. Fortunately they had great assistants who could help when needed.

However, what the great photographers lacked in equipment and technique, they more than made up for with photographic skill, insight, and taste. They knew how to capture or create great photos.

Someone could be fascinated with paints, brushes, and canvas stretching. But it does’t make that person a painter. Most arts require some tools and materials, the accoutrements of the art. But to actually engage in the art itself, you need to move beyond those tools.

A Sad Story

Many years ago I took a few workshops with a very well-known photographer. He was sponsored by the best photo equipment companies in the world. He sold video tapes teaching his techniques, and although they were expensive, I bought a bunch.

I learned so much from this man. He was funny and talked like a machine gun that never stopped. We would always get two hours of info from every one-hour lecture. He seemed to know everything there was to know about photographic technique.

Suppose you were shooting a portrait. You want a key light on the left, a fill light on the right, a light on the background behind the subject, and a hair light to highlight the hairdo. But you don’t own four lights, only one. This guy would show you how to do it. Although it was quite a bit of trouble, it worked delightfully.

I have tremendous respect for all that knowledge. But here’s the sad part.

I saw many of the samples he used. He had a lot. He started shooting almost 20 years before I did. But of all his samples, I didn’t like any of them. There wasn’t one I would be willing to put my name on even though I was still a beginner.

This is what’s wrong with focusing too much on gear or technique.

There’s an old saying among pros in the field–“Gear is important, but everything else is more important.” The same could be said to a lesser extent about technique.

It makes me wonder what would have happened to the photographer I mentioned, if he had instead concentrated on the more photographic elements of the field.

It’s possible, of course, that he was cut out to be an educator rather than an artist. His mission might have been to take ignorant young photographers like I was and teach us how to do the technical work required. We’ll never know.

But if you actually want to be photographer, even if you have lots of money to spend on equipment and lots of time to spend learning about it, you are making a big mistake if this becomes your focus. Your energy and attention, both of which are limited in all people, are being dissipated on things that will have little impact on your picture making.

Most of the Information Out There is Misguided

Everyday in my news feeds, I use Flipboard, I come across many articles that disguise themselves as being about photography. Few are. Instead they are about equipment 80% of the time, technique 15% of the time, and actual photography 5% of the time.

Here’s a typical article topic, one that shows up every few days. “What’s the best lens for street photography?” Does anyone really think this article will show them how to be a better street shooter?

Which lens works best for portraits? How to use flash outside. The stream never ends as other people respond with their own take on the question.

Then there are the articles on whether an 18 or a 24 is better for landscape photography. Here are some other recent stories:

• Why The Power of Medium Format for Portraiture is Unreal

• Best LED ring light for vlogging, TikTok, and selfies

• Sony Reveals the FX3, an A7S III in a Compact-Focused Body.

This information can be important and useful, but very little of it will show you how to get better at photography.

How to Focus on the Art

Here’s the question I would ask any of these “photographers”. The last time you saw a photo that caught your attention, moved you, or inspired you, what was it about that image that did it?

Were you able to tell if the shooter used a reflex or mirrorless body? The lens choice? Was it the equipment used that really grabbed you? I doubt it.

Maybe it was a beauty shot with a model who had an interesting, stunningly beautiful face. Or eye contact that seemed to look right into your soul. Maybe it was color contrast–She was wearing a bright yellow dress in front of a deep purple background. Maybe it used analogous colors–Her dress was a striking green and everything in the background was bright blue.

Or it could have been the light that glided across her face from left to right. Or where she stood in the frame in relation to the other elements in the picture. She was standing motionless in the foreground, while smaller figures scurried behind her. Or just maybe it was the mood the image evoked.

These are the kinds of things photography is about.

Where does the misdirection come from?

I thought about this, but I’m not sure. A major factor is obviously the commercial influence on the field. If I write an article on the artistic use of color or composition, there are few opportunities to monetize it. But if I persuade you to upgrade to this new body or lens, money will change hands.

Many times I’ve seen ads in photo magazines of a famous photographer in a gallery standing next to a giant blow-up of a great image he created. In his hand might be a new camera body or super long telephoto. The implied message is that this gadget is somehow responsible for that awesome image.

OK, but that shooter could have created great images with a $20 camera, because he made himself into a great photographer. And the average shooter with that delicious piece of gear could hope for at best a mediocre photo.

Another factor, especially true with male photographers, is the toy-like quality of photo gadgets. When we were young boys, we wanted toys under the Christmas tree, not another dreaded sweater. For most people a camera is just more fun than learning about how to see or how to use color, composition, or mood.

How many times has this happened to me? I’m waiting in a camera store to buy something I need, so I can hurry back to the studio to do my next shoot.

The person in front of me is salivating over some new piece of equipment that he wants but maybe cannot afford. So he talks on and on, bombarding the poor salesperson with an unending stream of questions about the piece. He will maybe do this a few more times before he finally either buys it or passes on, all while I’m trying to get out of the store to do some actual photography.

He’s having an experience he enjoys, but does it have anything to do with photography? On one occasion, one of these episodes seemed to last forever. Then he finally decided that he would buy the piece, but would wait a few more weeks until the version with the black body came out. Maybe it would look cooler!

How can abstract, artistic considerations compete with the seductive joy of opening a well-designed package containing some enticing piece of equipment?

How to Actually Become a Better Photographer

After 34 years of full-time professional shooting for a wide range of clients, it is clear what clients and ordinary people care about when it comes to images.

It’s what’s in the frame of the image. Period. They don’t usually care about your equipment or your technique. In most cases clients are using your images to sell something. If it works, they’re happy. Personal clients want photos they like. If they get that, they too are happy.

I have little experience with fine art photography, but I suspect that buyers and exhibitors also care mainly about the image itself rather than the tools and techniques employed to achieve it.

Ask yourself what you can do to make the image you’re creating and your images in general look more interesting. If you’re working for a client, as I do most of the time, your choices will be more limited. If they’re paying for your image, they will usually want some say in how you create it.

Some things to consider when planning an image

And yes, it works better when images are actually planned before you make them. To oversimplify a bit, there are two main approaches to image making. One approach is about capturing images, taking pictures. This is what is done by wedding photographers, sports photographers, event photographers, photo journalists, and most amateurs.

The other approach is about creating images, making pictures rather than taking them. This is what is done by fashion photographers, advertising photographers, portrait photographers, etc. This is what I do mostly.

Although both approaches allow for planning, making images needs planning much more than taking them. How do you plan them? Here are some things you should consider.

First is your subject and second is how you’re going to treat it. If you have choice in what will be your subject, find one that’s interesting. And even if you don’t, as for example, a portrait photographer who usually can’t pick the subject as a fashion photographer can pick the model, you can still choose what to do with the subject. With this, the choices are unlimited. It is your choice that makes or breaks the image.

When shooting people, you must consider hair, make-up, styling (wardrobe), mood, lighting, camera angle, background or setting, colors, tonality, etc.

If you’re shooting a landscape, consider where, when (time of day, season, weather, etc.), angle, what to include in your composition, what to take out.

With all types of images, there is the issue of postproduction, i.e. Photoshop and Lightroom. What you do after you capture the photo can make or break the image. Much of it can be planned before you click the shutter.

These and similar considerations are things I call ‘photographic’ and should be your primary focus. With experience, equipment usage becomes almost automatic.

If you use too short a lense for portraiture, you might end up standing too close to the subject, enlarging the nose and distorting the shape of the head. If you use too long a lens for a landscape shot, you won’t be able to include as much of the subject as you might want.

The point of this article is to direct your primary focus from the tools of the trade to the trade itself.

Begin again and re-create yourself as a photographer.

Whether you’re an amateur or a pro, it might be time to step back and look at your work.

My practical advice is to concentrate on the image and how it looks. Don’t even think about the equipment until you are compelled to do so by your image making. Once you make photographic issues your primary focus, your image making will quickly reach new heights.