The Best Camera?

In GEAR, The Craft by David12 Comments

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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Comments

  1. I cannot agree more with your comments here, David. For two decades, I used Olympus film cameras progressing from the OM-10 to the OM-4T. I shifted to Nikon for autofocus and soon shifted to digital. In the end, I used a pair of Nikon D2H bodies for 10 years while working for a small weekly newspaper. I knew exactly what those cameras would produce. Now retired, I shifted to Fuji to try and lighten the load. I also shifted to prime lenses for the same reasons. Now, after almost four years with the X100S and X-E1, I am just beginning to reach a point where I am beginning to feel comfortable with the cameras. I do wish somedays I had kept my Nikons mainly because they were second nature to the job and the way I had shot for almost 35 years. But with my health today, the thought of carrying a D2H with a 2,8/300m or even a 2,8/80-200mm would wear me out probably.

  2. Great stuff, David! It is so hard to recommend a camera to someone because we all have completely different learning styles. We respond differently to the different operating software found in each system, and some can be more intuitive than others. People get too hung up on the tech specs of their camera and don’t focus enough on what kind of image they focus on pulling through the lens. If I know how to manage the settings in order to properly expose my image, any tool I use will give me approximately the same outcome. Once that differentiation can be recognized, it is time to dive into your artistic preferences and determine which model makes you happiest. Be yourself and keep shooting!

  3. I know what you mean about the necessity of of the camera getting out of the way – I shoot Pentax which is a terrible mistake as I spend far too much time having to explain to people why I don’t use a Canikony (;D) – otherwise it’s great.

  4. I love this post. I can say my favorite photog moment was walking into a room for a shoot and observing the various light sources and reflections and immediately knowing what lens, lights, camera I needed to get the right shot. The camera didn’t matter any more. On the surface no one saw the price of that moment, but I knew. Lots and lots of shooting.

  5. Absolutely agree. i have found staying with one brand of camera for many years has helped, but still there are changes with new models and different cameras within the brand.

    I know I have mentioned it before, but it seem appropriate to this post. Most cameras have the ability to save settings. Mine allows three of four saved settings. I shoot mostly in Aperture priority mode, so I have a very basic setting saved for that. I always reset before going out on a shoot and from there its easy to make quick adjustments. I also have a basic setting for Shutter priority and Manual, so I’m ready to go in an instant. Really is helpful for getting the shot.

    I am one who cherishes spontaneity, so this really helps.

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  7. Speed Graflex 4×5, Kodak 7″ Aero Ektar f2.5, Fuji Acros, tripod….. Venice, Italy ,12 o’clock midnight,April 22nd, 2017!!! :)….

    My “Best Camera”!!!

    Be well David!

    Craig

  8. Enjoyed the lead photo – My first camera, back in 1973, was a Pentax Spotmatic. You learned what shutter speed and aperature meant with one of those cameras in your hands, and, like you, the Fuji X system brings back old memories – and muscle memories that I have used for more than 40 years.

  9. Most of what we see on YouTube is about the choice of the best camera , the right lense or the best filters which will allow of course the best photographies. Imagine that you could be Van Gogh just because you use the same brushes and the same colours! Thank you David for insisting on searching what we want to show and express and of course the necessity of dominating the technique through work and practice.

  10. Couldn’t have been said better.

    I’ll add one other thing to the conversation, which is often you find out what works (or doesn’t) by getting one, and then going out and shooting and shooting and shooting. There’s just no substitute for doing it and analyzing the results. I’ve owned so many cameras in the last few years just trying to find something I like. And finally after a lot of experimentation, I’ve found it and I’m not giving it up.

    Side note: it surprised me to find out what kinds of low ISOs it’s possible to actually shoot at. I mean, if some of the most iconic photos ever were made at ISO 64-400…

  11. Your article helps crystallize a concept. A challenge for today’s cameras is that manufacturers seem to create cameras that can be capable of doing “everything”. In other words, the belief the the same camera can be the ideal for sports photography, wildlife photography, landscape photography, video, etc. is preposterous. It’s the concept of “jack of all trades and master of none”. I submit that the mechanical characteristics that make a great landscape tool vs. wildlife are completely different. If the manufactures built more specialized cameras, they would be less complicated (and more robust and trouble free) and more intuitive to use for their intended purpose. That doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be a place for the generalized camera for the casual photographer, just make more phocused cameras in the line and state their intended purpose. They already male a gazillion models but the differentiation is primarily on price (which has nothing to do with photography, per se).

  12. once upon a time I was like everyone: dragging around a great amount of gear: camera’s, lenses tripods…
    life went easier the moemnt that Sony created the first real compact systemcamera: the Sony Nex 7. Half the amount, even less then half the weight, what a relieve…
    I kept on downscaling: I work nowadays with a bridgecamera: the great Panasonic Lumix FZ2000 (called FZ2500 in some countries). Just a camera with one lens (24 – 480 which is 20x zoom and still a reasonal iris: 2.8 to 4.5 which is not too bad for an almost 500 mm lens. Okay, te chip is ‘only’ 1 inch but still big enough to created sharp and clean images and while zooming in thersa nice bokeh as welll.
    Try to imaging yourself in a hilly forest with all your gear, stuffed in a backpack which you must take aoff everytime you need another lens…
    Now image me: just the camera on a tripod on my shoulder, two batteries in my pocket… who’s more flexible: you or me? Who has never ever the wrong lens o the camera. Who has never trouble with dustspecs on the photo’s? And who will have no hernia 😉
    You might still think that this is limiting your creativity… I don’t think so: i do a lot of trainings with photographers. The less equipment the more productivity. Still not convinced? Take a look at http://www.wildvannatuur.com and see my work.

    A collegue once told me that no-one would believe that I’m a photographer when i do not drag around bulky and impressively heavy gear… But the truth is that since i downscaled my collection of equipment, my creativity flourished…
    Highly recommended… free yourself and move like a human, not like a camel 😉

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