“You must have a great camera…”

There is one topic that comes up more than any other when I am at a photo exhibition or I’m doing a weekend sale- – Camera Equipment.  There certainly is much discussion regarding the subjects and where I was when I shot something, etc.  But the longer conversations are always about camera equipment.  How new?  How many megapixels?  And occasionally the following phrase is spoken (though I suspect it is far more often thought than said), “If I had a camera like that, I could probably make really good images, too.”

I will not deny the fact that I am blessed to have reliable cameras and lenses to work with and they aid in the images that I make.  Canon’s R&D crew have consistently produced excellent camera bodies and glass and I have supported their efforts with many purchases over the years.  But there is more to making a good image than just having a good camera.

It is much like the often told story about a couple who is dating.  The young man is over at his date’s apartment  and she has beautiful pictures all over the walls.  He asks who made them and she says, somewhat humbly, that she was the photographer.  To which he replies, “Wow, those are really great images.  You must have a great camera.”  She’s slightly offended but she keeps it to herself.

The following week they’re over at his apartment.  He fancies himself to be a bit of a gourmet cook and is pretty proud of it.  As they’re eating the meal, she says, “You’ve made a great meal.  You must have great pots and pans.”

There is a mindset, thanks in no small part to the advertising agencies that try to sell cameras, that you will instantly become a world-class photographer if you just buy the latest greatest camera on the market.  It speaks well to the effectiveness of advertising agencies and the creative people who write and produce the ads (not to mention the social scientists who work with them).  If I just had the new Whizbang 3000, then I too could take a picture that makes it on the cover of National Geographic or Sports Illustrated.

I would be a fool if I said that the camera doesn’t matter in the equation.  The R&D folks at the big brands of cameras have done incredible jobs of creating newer, faster, and more capable cameras over the years.  The leaps and bounds by which digital photography has improved is nothing short of a revolution in image making.

But the camera and lens are just tools.  If you handed me the finest woodworking tools and an infinite supply of lumber and told my new job was to make furniture, I would not be able to consistently make quality pieces on the first day on the job.  Nor in the first year.  Nor probably in the tenth year.  Maybe after a couple of decades of trying and failing (assuming I still had all of my body parts attached) I could consistently make great furniture.

It is the same way with photography, though I believe that for some the learning curve is shorter.  Picking up the latest, greatest camera is not going to turn you into an award winning photographer overnight.  The tool is but one part of the equation.  Hundreds if not thousands of hours of reading is another part of the equation.  Hundreds if not thousands of hours behind the camera and making images is still another.  And now more than ever, thousands if not tens of thousands of hours in the digital darkroom is another part of the recipe.  Sprinkle in vision, natural talent, and physical attributes  and you have most of what the essence of consistently making good images is all about.

So, I haven’t answered the question yet… what do I shoot with?  In comparison to what is on the market today, my photographic tools are modest and unremarkable.  Since moving to digital, I have never bought the latest-greatest model available.  I have always purchased the prior-year model.  If folks made good images with it before the new body came out and I can get it at a significant discount, I’m going to do it.  A couple of megapixels is meaningless when I can make a very fine and sellable 16″ x 20″ from 6 megapixels.  I actually had a long discussion with a Canon pro rep once about this very topic, but I guess that is a story for another time…

My main body is a Canon 30D… now 3 generations of camera old.  My backup body is a Canon 10D… now 5 generations old.  I do own a little bit of professional glass, with my baby being my bird lens–the 300mm f/4.0 L IS USM lens that is usually paired with a 1.4x teleconverter.  But if birds are not my target of interest, I am just as likely to use my 24mm f/2.8 or my 50mm f/2.5 macro–neither of which are particularly expensive in the big scheme of things.

Yes, the latest and greatest cameras are wonderful tools and I openly lust after the Canon 7D and will lust after the prosumer body that comes after it.  But the camera is still but a portion of the overall equation of making good images.  The tool on your shoulders is far more important than the tool in your hands and you can’t buy one of those (yet).

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~ by Jim Miller on Sunday, 31 January 2010.

4 Responses to ““You must have a great camera…””

  1. hehe, people always have an excuse. Why am I not a movie director? Because I don’t have a nice camera. Why am I not a good photographer? Because I don’t have a nice camera 😛

    • I don’t think that it is as much an excuse as it is an overestimation of the power of the camera as opposed to the underestimation of the investment required to use that tool to the fullest. What I didn’t mention was that of the first five images I’ve had published, four were shot with a Canon AE-1 (vintage 1976 camera with manual focus, limited exposure help) and an Olympus D-220L (.3 Megapixel digital camera with a fixed focus lens and very little in the way of in-camera adjustments). If you include the calendar project that I contributed images to, 9 of the first 10 images I had published were shot with the AE-1.

      The most important interface on any camera is the one that connects the lens with the human eye, regardless of the make or model of the camera.

  2. I guess Monet was a great artist because he had good brushes.
    Bob Zeller

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