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.
Tell the World, Share this Post.