Tools vs Skills — Don’t Be “That Guy”

Tools vs Skills — Don't Be That GuyWhy oh why does the tools vs skills debate still continue? In so many debates, I’ve noticed people taking extreme views, all or nothing, dismissing balance for the sake of needless arguing. After all, a balanced perspective is boring and it often ends the discussion, but that’s no fun, is it? For photographers, it’s pretty simple: a “really good camera” isn’t going to do much for someone lacking skill and vision (it COULD even hamper them). Likewise, the most skillful photographer in the world, confined to the wrong tools or shabby equipment, will likely come up short in the final product. This is a universal philosophy in any art or trade, and it’s really not that complicated. People polarize the debate to death with, “tools don’t matter,” while others cling to their brand or tool, being the ONLY thing to use.

The Right Tools for The Job

Years ago, I often had to use slow consumer grade lenses for smaller media press work — low-light concerts, for example. No matter my skill, my images were NOT going to be as clean on grain as those with brighter, sharper glass. I got great results through lots of shooting, editing, and skill development, but more appropriate tools would’ve made a difference. As well, a refined pro or artist with a sharp eye can often see the subtleties between one lens and another (especially a low-grade consumer lens, versus a high-end optic). This counts for fulfilling their vision, as well as consistently meeting the standards required by various buyers and agencies. It can be equated to a master musician hearing the slight subtleties of one hand-crafted woodwind instrument vs another; two identical clarinets produce a slightly different tone. Tools matter.

The Camera Doesn’t Make the Photographer

On the other hand, I know some photographers — very renowned for their work — who swear Nikon or Canon is the only system to use. Nonsense. Nikon and Canon BOTH dominate the pro market because of their vast support of gear, service, and establishment, which is an excellent reason for a working pro to choose one of the two, but the higher end products from most any other brand are spectacular in quality, as well. This is where skill and vision count over tools.

And then there are non-photographers who think they’ll get MUCH better results by having a “professional” camera. Easy access to tools has become the disease of the modern DIY movement. A “really good camera” is only as good as the photographer behind it, and some of the most brilliant images have been photographed with the most basic equipment. When I photographed nightclubs in South Florida, one of my favorite cameras to use for the awesome club lights and personalities was the drop-dead simple Olympus Stylus Epic — a $100 film camera with a fixed, bright, sharp lens. It had basic capabilities, and I knew how to manipulate the club lights to get some edgy images. The camera was also very concealable, and while it was more of a consumer camera, it probably sold to more pros as their pocket camera due to its no-frills, basic, quality design. Unlike the bells and whistles mega-zoom point and shoots of the day, it was more about technique. Skills matter.

You can’t nail a screw into a wall — at least not very well, no matter how skilled you are. No, the tools don’t make any craftsman, but the right tools for the job DO count. A mediocre carpenter drilling a screw into the wall will likely outdo a master carpenter trying to hammer the same screw. Skill, vision, and tools — they’re ALL essential. Do you get too hung up on your lenses and cameras, or are you holding yourself back because you’re overly determined to make the job happen with inadequate tools?

Photo credit, top image:


I photograph headshot and architectural photography for a living, but I also love shooting street photography, abstract architecture and landscapes - more of it lately with my phone. I've had a camera in my hands for the past 20 years, and I currently work for clients in Indianapolis and throughout the Midwest.

  • erikdeckers

    I didn’t become a really good writer until I bought an expensive pen and fancy notebook. It took me 18 years of writing every day, reading books by other good writers, and practicing new writing techniques before I finally realized that all I needed was a good pen and notebook.

    • That’s very true, and thanks for the comment, Erik! The gist of my thoughts are that it’s all about context and goals, and the ability to know what’s really lacking in the results (skill or the wrong tool). I believe it’s skill and technique – by far – first. But I also know there are jobs I couldn’t take right now – regardless of my skill – without bringing the right gear. I hate it when beginner photography students bring in the bells and whistles cameras to learn on. When I sold cameras in the film days, I always recommended the stripped down, all manual SLR and a fixed, sharp 50mm. It forces one to learn their craft and the context of their basic tool. But then, if photography is in the heart of the student, it shouldn’t feel “forced.”

  • Daniel Thomas Pryor

    Let me start by saying raw talent starts the ball rolling, and with that, even mediocre equipment will help the talent find its proper place in media. That’s why you could always take great shots, Josh. You have the talent. Skill then enhances the talent. The kind of pictures you used to have on the wall in your apartment, when you lived down, here used to blow me away. You always took a bit of an “aww shucks” attitude about it, but they were amazing shots.

    There has always been a great debate about whether skill and equipment are a necessary combination for a great work to be produced, and I submit to you the answer is no. But the greatest equipment will never make an artist of anyone. Artistry and skill, when properly balanced, make it possible for the equipment to perform at its best. Great equipment, at the hands of a person with amazing talent and skills, brings out the best in the artist.

    Of course, those without skill or talent, who accidentally stumble upon a few good shots, will always believe their “camera takes great shots,” and the reason is they just don’t know any better. You can take a great shot with a camera, but your camera will never take great pictures, no matter how much it cost.

    I’m not sure that aids the discussion, but there it is.

    • Thanks so much for your good words, Dan – very appreciated! I think the issue of tools gets a little deeper. Some tools make a photographer and their client’s life easier, and other tools, you can’t do without. For example, I finally went to radio slaves for my studio lights, getting rid of the long sync cord that confined my camera to the power pack. My images are no better, but life is easier, and not as disrupted in the studio. I can move anywhere I want. Most photographers consider Pocket Wizard radios to be a Godsend. On the other hand, if I had to suddenly rely on my wide angle lens exclusively for corporate headshots, I’d need to find another career. That’s where the right technique, requiring the right lens and focal length, is a necessity for the job. This post below shows why I say this about the wide angle and headshots. I simply couldn’t sell corporate headshots with this kind of barrel distortion and other properties of the wide angle. Of course, a wide angle is great if it’s being used for the right application:

  • Laura Neidig

    I agree with Daniel that talent comes first! Even though talent may be first, it needs accompaniment. There are a ton of talented – but lazy – people who don’t put the time in to become a skilled artisan. Then the other problem is there are a lot of people in charge of budgets who settle for ‘good enough’ and throw a camera at the new intern.

    As far as the tools taking precedence, I’m surprised there are people who come down on that side of the debate. It’s like telling an artist that his painting is so beautiful – and wow, he must have had great brushes!

    The perfect storm is talent, an inquisitive mind to keep learning, discipline to keep honing ones skills, and then the best tools with the know-how to use them. In that order!

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Laura – glad to have your insights! I feel talent is often mistaken for years of learned skill and experience. To me, talent is simply a natural ability to understand a craft. It allows one to create good work with little or no training, thus having natural skill. For commercial work, learned skill and experience can produce top-notch results. I feel most craftsmen get most of their ability through constant skill development, looking to the right inspiration, and living their craft as a way of life. That’s not necessarily talent – just lots of passion and hard work. Anyone can learn to photograph an interior like a pro, provided they put all the dedication into it of those who’ve come before them, while learning from the best. A lot of it is just learning technical aspects and inspiring oneself with great work.

      As for the artist’s brushes, it’s very common in peer critiques and in art schools to discuss the improvement of a piece through refined technique, which often includes using a tool differently, or using a different tool altogether. It’s akin to using a different focal length or ISO.

      If the craftsman is skilled, they should know their craft, and they should understand whether it’s skill, technique, or tools they need to improve for better work. It could well be any or all of these things.

  • Randy Clark

    Great post Josh. I frequently wonder what John Steinbeck or Hemingway would’ve made of spell check. And Erik, thank you. I’m rushing out to buy a fancy pen and an expensive notebook or is it the other the other way around?