When, a couple years ago, Chase Jarvis popularized the idea that the best camera was the one you had with you, I was totally on board. I still am; there is much truth in the idea. But if someone is asking the question, “which camera should I get?” it’s less helpful. And this is a question I hear too often to ignore. So without taking away from the truth of the one idea, I want to propose that for this discussion the best camera is the one that gets out of the way as quickly as possible.
“The sooner photography is about photographs and not camera and settings, the better.”
Muscle memory is incredibly important for practitioners of this craft. Our brain is constantly making shifts from one side to the other as we consult both the technical and creative hemispheres. The less attention we have to give to the one the more attention we can give to the other and the less jumping back and forth we have to do. That’s where muscle memory comes in. I will make better photographs if I can put my camera to my eye and never take it away, never have to consciously think, “Oh man, I need to dial my aperture down, now which dial is that and which way do I turn it? Nope, that’s the ISO. Sh*t, that one was my white balance…oh, forget it, the moment’s passed. Maybe next time” This is probably the biggest reason I use the cameras I do. The Fuji X system feels right in my hands in the way a Nikon or Leica does for others. I know where everything vital is, and because of years using analog cameras with the same aperture rings and shutter speed dials, I can photograph without having to be conscious about what my hands are doing, I can stay in the moment. I can put my energy to creative concerns: my composition, choice of moments, point of view, and the energy needed just to be present and receptive. Get the camera that lets you do that, whatever the brand.
For most photographers, especially those just starting out, every current camera out there is capable of doing what it is told and rendering a sharp, well-exposed photograph. The question is how easily can you tell it what to do? How much effort and second-guessing do you need to go through to make that happen? Photographs are made not by cameras but with them; they are made by photographers. So go to the camera store and get the camera into your hands, get a feel for the dials and the buttons. Some cameras work better in larger hands. Some will have button and dial placements that feel intuitive to you and others will not. Get the one that feels right.
And if you’ve already got your cameras and made your choice, then get to muscle memory as fast as you can. Spend the time memorizing the important stuff, your aperture, shutter, ISO, and anything else you use often as you photograph. Make it second nature. If you can do it without thinking, in the heat of a passing moment, or changing light, you can pay attention to those latter things, not the former. The sooner photography is about photographs and not camera and settings, the better.
“Get the one that feels right.”
There are other considerations when choosing a camera. Of course there are. But see, if you already know you need certain things, like a specific megapixel size, or the ability to do kick-ass night photography, then you aren’t just starting out, and you should know what your needs are. You should also know that if you can’t use even the best, sharpest, fastest, low-lightest camera intuitively, and if it doesn’t get out of the way quickly for you and just let you do your thing, it’s not the best camera for you. And if you don’t know those things, if you don’t have a list of must-have features, then you don’t need them. Like the idea that the best camera is the one you have with you, it doesn’t answer every question or serve every circumstance. But while the geeks are arguing about this stuff on the forum you’ll be out making photographs with a camera that lets you focus on the things that are ultimately truly responsible for making photographs – being present, seeing in new ways, making creative decisions about interpreting your scene and finding the best expression of the thing that has captured your imagination. Don’t let your choice of camera, no matter how big, shiny, or well-branded, get in the way of that.
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