There's not many brick-and-motor camera stores left these days. The vast majority have been pushed out of business by online merchants that can sell at much lower prices. Physical merchants no longer hold a lock on product knowledge because even that is abundant on the Internet with deep reviews by qualified writers, and even average camera gear buyers who review based on first-hand personal experience. However, there is a lot to be said for taking a day trip to a camera store and being among all that neat gear, touching and feeling the stuff Santa couldn't afford to bring you, not to mention getting a good product lust-buzz going.
So, off to the store I go with a friend. We went to the last all-camera retail merchant remaining in Connecticut that carries photography merchandise manufactured within the last twelve months. This camera store down along the Connecticut shore does indeed have really neat stuff, and I and my friend had our American Express cards tuned, oiled and polished just for the occasion.
Upon arrival we asked for a specific store representative who came recommended because of his longevity with the store. My friend and I had a very specific photography project and we needed the correct gear to get the job done, so we wanted the best consultation available and we wanted to walk away with the gear we needed, which could reach up around $2000 that day.
Our discussion began well enough as we described our project. But it didn't take long for the Rep to inform us that what we wanted to do couldn't be done. Now, this wasn't what we wanted to hear because we had already experimented and determined that we could accomplish our project goal, we just needed the correct equipment. The Rep insisted that there was no way, which is when hints started to be dropped that perhaps we didn't know enough about photography to be the best judge of our success with the project, let alone using up his time. From there the discussion went downhill faster than a lead snowball.
Now, I'm not going to entertain you with the details, although I'm sure you would enjoy hearing the details about all of the technical incorrectness we were entertained with, not to mention the merry-go-round word play. Rather, I want to tell you about the lesson that came out of this for me; it's risky to assume that a person doesn't have knowledge in a particular discipline. That's a dangerous game because you can't know the level of experience of another, or their particular skill level, and certainly not in ten minutes. The person may have unique insights that you are not aware the person has. Aside from all that, the party receiving such indictment may not be too fond of such treatment.
I think the dynamics at play in this soap-opera episode stemmed from two factors. First, the Rep had the power position because he was assumed the expert (at least he assumed he was the expert) and he held coveted real-estate behind the counter. Second, the Rep most surely interacts with low photography knowledge customers on a regular basis, so we must also have been afflicted with low photography knowledge because we were on the side of the display case that doesn't have sliding doors by which to extract the product you really want. These dynamics set up a situation that was doomed to fail, and it did. Needless to say, our shiny American Express cards never saw the light of day on that particular voyage to camera heaven.
The lesson to take away from all this is that it is important to make no assumptions about what skill level a fellow photographer possess. The reason is actually quit simple; everyone can learn from each other if there are no Power Players. A PP tends to take the stage and people don't want to compete. One of the reasons I respect photographers is because the vast majority know they still have much to learn and would rather have a give-n-take relationship with other photographers than a one-way exchange. Photography is also a personal pursuit that has many variations and many areas of study. A landscape photographer, for instance, develops a different skill set over time than a portraiture photographer. Some photographers engage in the entire processing workflow, some don't. Some photographers focus on the technical, others the artistic, others the enjoyment. The point is that there is an infinite variety of skill possibilities, making it impossible (and risky) to assume any skill level. Still, this kind of PP nonsense goes on all over the place perhaps due to the inability to recognize that others have skills as well, or as a way of bolstering one's own sense of self-worth.
A week after the shopping disaster at this camera store, my friend and I took a trip down to B&H Photo in New York City. Over a period of 4 hours, we enjoyed conversations with no less than six B&H Reps, all of whom we're respectful, informative and never once showed a single hint of contempt toward us. In fact, they were all are very interested in our project and became thinking partners while we were in the store. We left there having spent just under $2,000 with another $6,000 within two months following. The photo project that couldn't be done went on to become a phenomenal success.
When you have the privilege of meeting a fellow photographer, it would be best to make no assumptions about his or her skill level because you may find that you have the potential to learn from that person. If, however, it turns out that you have a higher skill level, then by refraining from assumptions you preserve the opportunity to enjoy a relationship in photography with that person where they can give what they have. I myself have not once been in a situation where I did not learn from another photographer, and that includes people who were not advanced in photography. In fact, someday I'll tell you what I learned about photography from an 11 year old.
P.S. You didn't really think I was going to reveal that camera store's name, did you?
Update: As of April 2016, the project mention in the above blog post has required the purchase of just over $65,000 in camera gear (with more to come). Yes, that's sixty-five thousand! On that cold February day in 2014, that last-standing Connecticut camera store was essentially being given the opportunity to be the primary gear supplier. But, as it turns out, B&H Photo earned the position of supplier, and got all the orders, with no reason to look elsewhere. This story illustrates how businesses commit suicide when they allow employees with an attitude to represent them.