A photographer went to a dinner party where he showed many of his photographs. The lady of the house said, “Those are very nice pictures. You must have a great camera.” He said nothing, but when leaving for home offered the following compliment to the lady of the house: “The meal was very nice. You must have great pots and pans.”
The anonymous quote above perhaps best illustrates this point. The lady of the house doesn’t compliment the photographer; she compliments the camera that he is using. However, even if you give the best possible camera to someone who does not know how to use it, the camera isn’t particularly useful.
Yes, better equipment can certainly be useful, but only when put in the right hands. I’m still an amateur photographer trying to learn the ropes, so even if you gave me the much more expensive camera, lenses, and other equipment used by someone like Tomasz Wagner, I certainly wouldn’t be able to replicate his results. On the flip side, if you gave Tomasz a cheaper camera, he would likely still be able to produce some breathtaking photos.
Interestingly enough, there is a great video series on YouTube that explores this very concept. Give a cheap camera to a pro photographer and see what he can do with it. The same idea can be adapted to just about any craft. The best stove and pots aren’t going to make you a world class chef. The best computer isn’t going to make you a great programmer. The best golf clubs won’t make you beat Tiger Woods.
Recognize that the best way to get better at something is to get better at that something. The equipment and tools are secondary. Without the right skills and talent, the best tools aren’t going to make any difference.
Side note: In case you’re wondering, the photo at the top of this post is from the Julie & Julia movie with Amy Adams.
UPDATE (09/02/11): I have come across a credited quote that is a variation on the one at the top of this post. I’m not sure if this is the originator of the quote, but here’s the line from one Sam Haskins:
“A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said, ‘I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.” He said nothing until dinner was finished, then: ‘That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific stove.'”