Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Photographer And The Camera

“it’s the photographer, not the camera” has been advice issued by experienced photographers to the wanabe masses for years. I still remember a “Father Knows Best” or some such show episode in which the son wanted to play the trumpet and the “banger” he was using couldn’t play a decent note. Onto the show came somone like Al Hirt, who proceeded to blow them away with his virtuosity on this beat up old instrument.

Photographers who have a lot of experience have been trying to explain to new and some not so new photographers disappointed with their results that a better camera would not have made any of the images the newbie photographer made any better.

Of course, there were always dramatic changes in quality when one moved from 35 mm. film to medium format and from medium format to large format. So it is true today that images made with consumer grade cameras tend to look poorer than those taken with 16 megapixel cameras and those lag somewhat images made with 39 MP digital backs.

They only look poorer though in a few specific ways, to do with tonality, shadows, resolution and so on, while the mre important issues of subject matter, composition, lighting, and so on don’t even come into the issue as all being photographer driven.

Print size largely cancels out the inequalities of imaging - make a nice 5X7 image from 35 mm. slow film, well printed and the result can be wonderfully rich, so too can a consumer level digital camera make nice small prints.

But what is forgotten in all this discussion is that a huge number of struggling photographers are so convinced that it is their cameras that limit their work and who not only spend big dollars to buy cameras they don’t really need, they also waste time experimenting. In the old days it was films and developers. Now it’s raw processors and sharpening tools and Photoshop plug in’s. They change cameras so often they never become proficient with any of them. Frankly “the good worker doesn’t blame his tools” is still worthwhile advice.

The average photographer would be far better to buy an $800 Rebel than a $3000 5D and use the $2200 difference to take workshop, buy books of fine images, subscribe to one or more of the better magazines or do some reading about the artistic and creative side of photography (slim as the pickings are).

But this isn’t the real world - new equipment and big lenses are sexy, they feel good in the hand, they are impressive to look at. There are few of us who have not succumbed to the bigger/better/more philosophy to one degree or another.

To argue that the camera doesn’t matter, when we are talking about a population of photographers who shoot wildlife or football games, do studio work or landscapes is just silly. What might be a better statement is something along the lines of “the photographer still matters more than the equipment”.

After 40 years of photographing I’ve becme fairly competent at recognizing what will improve my photography more. But you know what - I have a big expensive shiny sexy camera. I’m human.


Gary Nylander said...

Good post on your blog George, I always have loved my cameras too, I try to concentrate on my "vision" then use that to get the most out of my equipment.

Jakub said...

You are right, but not completely. I know many people being limited by their father's Zenit cameras. They can really use shutter times longer than 1/30 and faster than 1/500, more reliable shutter, faster synchronization time and much more.

Anonymous said...

Here are some links on the topic:

mkinsman said...

In the Chicago area this week - on Comcast cable - the Ovation channel - they are running a wonderful series of shows on photography - various aspects. One of them is a feature on 4 photographers: Albert Maysles, Sylvia Plachy,Andrew Moore, and
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. It is called Close Up: Photographers at Work. I am especially moved by Albert's and Sylvia's segments - Albert on the street with a P&S capturing wonderful images of the people in his neighborhood. Sylvia has a great personality and I love her work too - using a variety of cameras - Twin Lens reflex, etc. Timothy & Andrew are equally great, but in a different way, using large format cameras. In all cases, the images are wonderful. What struck me most about this show was the spirit of the photographers using a variety of old and new technolgy to create images that just are and images that speak volumes in their own silent way. Without the photographer, the tools are idle. Without the tools - the photographers in this case - still see images.
Henri Cartier-Bresson - stopped active photography several years before his death, but was quoted as saying that he still kept taking images in his mind....if only we could have seen them. That camera is priceless and the one I work on fine tuning every chance I get. Of course, a new tool would be nice too, but not having it won't stop me.