I should have known better; I should have known that I can’t just say, “we give our cameras way too much credit for their part in the photographic process,” on social media, toss it out over left field without further commentary and not get some yeah-buts and some push-back. My bad. I should have known that there will be those who rush to the defense of technology without hearing what I’m actually saying.
So. Ahem. Let me be less brief (and please take this somewhat light-heartedly, no matter how seriously I mean it). Your camera matters. Ok? It does. And we all make photographs for different reasons. Some make them because they like to perfect a technique or play with a technology. I get that. Knock yourself out with your technique and technology. But no one is going to look at your work and marvel at your mastery of dials and buttons. and think, My God, what a maestro! The things you can do with an ISO setting! Humans don’t work like that. We don’t resonate with that.
The rest of us use our cameras to make something that might vaguely be called art, if not by ourselves, then perhaps by others. We don’t do it because we’re snobs, because “Art” is better than craft, but because we hunger for more. And what we will resonate with, and what will answer that gnawing hunger, is creative expression, among other things. Story. Light. Colour. Image design. Contrast and juxtaposition. Balance and tension. The camera is responsible for none of those decisions. And so when I say we give too much credit to our cameras I am saying, with a very broad brush that might not at all apply to you but seems to apply well to popular photography in general, I am really saying this: we don’t give ourselves enough credit.
“No one is going to look at your work and marvel at your mastery of dials and buttons. and think, My God, what a maestro! The things you can do with an ISO setting!”
It’s easy to say that your 1Ds MkXIV is better than my Pentax Spotmatic, but until you tell me what better means, it’s a meaningless contention, because amazing photographs have been made with both cameras, and both have created their share of mediocrity. It’s not the camera. It’s the photographer. All of these cameras from 100 years ago until now are different and can be wielded differently. Sharpness is not everything. Nor is speed of focus. It can’t be. Because there are images from our iconic past that were made with manual focus and wouldn’t remotely have benefited from a “better camera.” OK, sure, your camera’s better than mine. Now what?
I harp on this with my students for two reasons. The first is this: if you grasp that the more compelling photographs are made, regardless of the camera, by creative, expressive people that recognize a great moment and are ready for it, that understand image design and their own voice in using it, that disregard the rules and show us the world in new ways, you will spend more time honing those things, and mastering your craft with whatever tool is in your hand. The second is this: I worry that the reason so many people put their faith in “better” technology to make “better” photographs, is because to do otherwise is to accept the responsibility for making art with our craft, and to do that means a long (but rewarding and exciting) path of mastery, and the need to transcend the tools we have because no matter what tool we have it will always fall short in its ability to express our vision. That job remains in the hands of creativity, curiosity, and – most difficult of all – a heart and mind that has something to say, and an authentic way of seeing the world. And that path, my friends, is hard. Joyful. Beautiful. Rewarding. But hard. Art is never easy. Compelling, true, vulnerable stories, are never easy.
“OK, your camera’s better than mine. Now what?”
I didn’t say the camera doesn’t matter. I said, or am trying to: you matter more. And no camera in the world will make up for our shortcomings in creativity and in the areas that the human mind and heart resonates. Upgrade all you like. Buy the cameras that work best for you and if it takes a while to discover that, or your needs change, then change the tools as you need to. None of this should need to be said. Take advantage of the changes if they benefit you. Just don’t forget that the hard work will always only ever be done by you. As good as they are, the list of things these cameras can’t do is long – these cameras remain inert black boxes with a hole, lifeless and incapable without the human heart and mind. Want to make bigger, sharper photographs with less noise? Get a newer, better, shinier camera. It should do the trick for 6 months until something better comes along. In the mean time, count how many people your images touch because they’re merely large, sharp, and clean.
“I didn’t say the camera doesn’t matter. I said, or am trying to: you matter more. And no camera in the world will make up for our shortcomings in creativity and in the areas that the human mind and heart resonates.”
Want to make more compelling photographs that resonate with others and express something authentic and personal about this world and the moments and beauty of which it’s comprised? It’ll take so much more than just a camera.
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I agree and the best camera to use is the one you have with you, sometimes this is just a cell phone camera. I also like comparing camera gear to a Cook’s pots and pans. A great cook can use a camp fire and basic tools and make a truly wonderful meal. The camera is just a tool.
I learned on a Canon XTi and currently own a Canon T3i and the new Sony a6000 both work well for me. I would love to have a full frame camera, but have not found that my current cameras hold me back.
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I found your site in a link from ‘A Lesser Photographer’. Your point is well taken. However, this current creed of minimalism needs to have some moderation as well. I’m not a camera club member nor am I a pro. I am fascinated by the entire world of photography, however, and that includes the technical aspects. When I was doing my BFA (with a Pentax Spotmatic F, as it happens) I was loaned the department’s Linhof 4×5 field camera for a weekend. An absolute revelation I still fondly remember. It was different gear used in a different way and that made me look at things differently. The camera, in that case, was important. Equipment is also a conversational opener between we amateurs who encounter each other, much like the weather but better for expanded discussions. Please forgive me for suggesting to Mr. Smith that he not take such pleasure in rudeness – there are lots of people trying to learn about the basics of photography which even now intimidates the majority. The kind of camera could lead to an opinion of cameras which could help someone on more step through that door into the artform we love.
I think it’s important to remember who my audience is – or my intended audience. Your points are well made and right on point. But most of my audience need a voice that gives them a different perspective than the prevailing one in popular photography. Of course the cameras matter on some level, and each offers different creative constraints and opportunities, but where many voices are pushing a gear-centric focus on this craft, I prefer one that’s more about expression and creativity. I don’t look for consensus, just a chance to encourage the asking of more interesting questions. I don’t buy into a creed of minimalism, but of understanding the creative process and being intentional about that pursuit, and doing so with our eyes wide open. For much of my intended audience, a voice that encourages them to eye the marketing and the hype with suspicion and discernment is a helpful thing.
Photos affect the viewer in different, overlapping ways. I have taken to using a Fuji X20 most of the time; it is a small – sensor camera but is very pleasant to use (and to carry). The images are “good enough” (in regard to sharpness, resolution, noise) and the JPEG color is superb – good enough that I rarely revert to the raw file. Nonetheless, sometimes image quality (technical quality) matters. For example, a favorite photo of my daughter from a few years ago has enough resolution to reveal the wonder of her perfect skin, with its tiny pores. It would be less magical without that detail.
You remain on message, David, and more power to you. Some will never get it…or refuse to.
Here a couple of lines I use when people ask me “What kind of camera do you use?”
“A black one.”
“Show me your pictures, not your toys.”
Well said. Although the points you make should be self-evident to any photographer who is aware of the art, particularly the history of photography, and it’s a bit sad if they’re not. I guess there will always be people who are more caught up in the technology of photography that in the actual results. But that attitude is not confined to photography – you’ll find it everywhere. Partly, I feel, it’s being suckered by advertising that works hard to equate buying a product with producing a result. Clever folks, those advertisers.
Your posts are always on point!
I couldn’t agree more – very well said! After all, nobody asked Van Gogh what kind of paintbrush he used – it’s a tool, just like a camera is.
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I’ve always though photography is funny, out of all of the arts, in the focus on gear. You would never hear someone ask a painter, “Your work is amazing! What kind of brushes do you use?” Surely high quality brushes and paints matter, but everyone understands it’s the artist who creates the work. For some reason, that insight gets lost with photography. I think it’s up to is, as photographers, to stop that kind of conversation and focus on what really matters. Thanks for doing that, over and over again.
Thank you! You help me stay on track!
Very well said, during photography meetups members are mostly discussing gear etc… less talk about art and subject…
You’ve nailed it again David.. thank you!
We are all unique beings living on a stunningly beautiful globe, the camera is just a sophisticated machine, it’s from our own individual uniqueness our work must grow. Even the cheapest cameras today are more capable than those available to the greats of the past. It’s always amusing to see the work, in any medium, of those who spend their time talking “equipment,”
What I have been saying since before I read Within the Frame. When was the last time you had dinner at your friends house and after the meal heard someone say “Wow, that was the best meal I have ever had! You must have a very expensive top of the line oven!” And when was the last time you were in an art gallery and heard someone say “Wow, the artist must have used the most expensive brushes on this one!” And yet they still don’t get it.
I saw some photos that were done recently as tin-type of celebrities. The photos were anything but sharp nor did the camera have a blazing fast AF system. But all of the photos were stunning.
David, how could you forget about camera clubs?
Ahem, of course they disguise as photography associations or the like, but quite often the camera club discussions dominate. And just see all those shiny camera magazines… Ouch, wrong again, photography magazines…
One thing I would add is that with digital, I find that I become less immersed in the moment. It reminds of this quote (I don’t recall the source)
“When I shoot film I’m always looking for the next photo, when I shoot digital I keep looking at the last photo.”
Craig – It’s an interesting quote and I certainly resonate with the sentiment – the only push back I’d be keen to give is that I think these technologies – film or digital – give us certain opportunities to play to our strengths or our weaknesses and I can’t blame digital for anything. It has advantages – the speed, the feedback loop, the ease – and it is we who can use those for good or for, well evil isn’t quite right, but you get what I’m saying. It’s not digital that makes us rush through a job, or prevents us from slowing down. Nor is film the great analog panacea that some would have it be. Both mediums can be used beautifully. So, to push back, I’d say digital gives you, Craig, the opportunity to be, or not be, in the moment. With film you have less choice. The choice is ours. 🙂
You nailed it! Powerful words, with perfect timing.
I need to read and re-read this. I know it, I believe it- but, as a hobbyist photographer (and senior citizen, ahem. . .) without the newest and the most expensive gear, I need to be reminded. Thank you!
Yes, but. For the older (75+) photographer it’s critical that the gear be small and light enough to allow them to “be there”
Not just for the older, Richard. I use mostly smaller gear these days. The need for smaller, lighter, bigger, better, faster, newer – those are just the constraints in which the creative process works, among many, many more – they are not the creative process itself. 🙂
I’ve been focusing too much on the technical perfection of the image and not enough on the art. I needed this. Thank you.
David – the few will always understand…
“If selective color is the comic sans of photography, then over-processing is the clown suit.”
Great line, Bob!