The Camera Depends on the Photographer

Don’t want to turn into a moralizer, but here we go. To paraphrase a famous quote, “Ask not what your camera can do for you, but what you can do with your camera.” The difference at stake is whether you use your camera like a photographer, more like a scientist or — worst case — like a plain gear head. Are you zooming in 200% to detect imperfection? Right, photography is an art and a science. Yet a lot of photography today has little to do with photography. It often is the preoccupation with details that don’t matter.

How much more sharper is lens A over B? Oh my god, aberration. Circle of confusion?! Confused… Mammum, not mammary aperture. And so on. The idea of creating images appeals for many different reasons. With ever more complicated, computerized cameras competing for attention we nerds are easy prey. I would go as far and say: quite a few who buy shiny new camera toys don’t even use them. Once bought, interest wanes and research starts what’s next on the wish list.

A lot of the photography discussion these days is not about photography. It’s about science. Sure thing one needs to understand exposure, aperture and focal length to understand how photography works, in the same way that a painter needs to understand how to mix colors or use what kind of brush.

Cameras change, photography stays the same. | Miguel Yatco
Cameras change, photography stays the same. | Miguel Yatco
Much of photography these days though is about overly technical matters. No wonder. The constant discussion about what camera will come next, what features are missing and how everything is obsolete the moment it is invented, well, who wouldn’t feel depressed and blame, well, gear!

A simple means to an end becomes the center of attention while the end product, the image, gets lost in all the questioning about and yearning for the latest and greatest equipment.

Alright, I’m in a privileged position testing new cameras for a few days, only to give them back and get another new one for a few days. But that’s not what cures GAS affliction.

Relentlessly exposed to breaking news and rumors alerts (loving it!), I had to consciously cure myself of GAS. I waited. And waited. And waited until I felt a certain camera and lens are the right ones. No more gimmicks, no video, no clutter. Just what I need.

Doesn’t work for everyone, a one camera, one lens setup in this day and age of abundance. Certain jobs require different equipment, so I’ll use that equipment, but at the end of the day I’m coming back to my one camera, one lens, and gone is the lusting for more. At least for the moment…

In the end, none of the newest cameras allowed me to do spectacularly new things that older ones prevented me from doing. Images get cleaner, speed and responsiveness increase, yet it doesn’t mean that photography is so much better and more fun today than it was in the past.

Why reinvent the wheel. Even when technically the camera isn’t up to the task, say for sports that require lighting fast AF and a mighty zoom, most times one still manages to get nice images, even with an older smartphone.

Somehow this voluntary reductionism is a catalyst for creativity. Wait, another game changer approaching! Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of new gear. It’s perfectly legitimate, if based on reason. A good friend of mine who works for a large glossy magazine makes it a habit to skip a generation of cameras. The company would pay for the fanciest gear. He still works with the D3. Ignores the D4S. Waits for the D5. And travels the world with his trusty old D3, two primes and two zooms, making good money.

He is a very good photographer. The D3 is a very good camera. Old, yes. My friend doesn’t depend on the camera. The camera depends on him.

  • Kirk Tuck

    Love the final line: “My friend doesn’t depend on the camera. The camera depends on him.” My take on all this is that you have millions of people trying to make photography into a measurable, mathematic equation so they can quantify it. When really, all the technical heavy lifting was done years ago and the only moving target is really the aesthetics and imagination of making the art. Cameras got “good enough” by 2005. Everything else has just been sales bait.

  • Personally I reckon there were a few cameras that were “good enough” well before 2005. Oh, wait, you mean those digital thingies ? :-)

  • Jack Anders

    Very true, most cameras are better than the user nowadays. I am the first to admit that when I take a shot that is not ideal, it is the loose nut on the end of the camera that caused the issue, not the camera. I used the first M43 bodies with primes for over 3 years before updating to the EM1 with the pro zoom. I quickly learned that although a zoom provided more flexibility, the results were not that much better.

    As I steer more towards black and white photography, I understand that monochrome conversion is the skill I must attempt to master to achieve good results. A RAW file from any modern camera where the lens is stopped down is sharp enough for most outputs (even a kit zoom). IMHO the PP is what can make the biggest difference.

    Having said that, humans all lust after something. I still read far too many gear forums and need to remind myself of what I have typed above. It is not easy at times.

  • Dave

    Thanks! This and the post before are amongst the best writings about photography. Allow me to suggest not only to reduce gear-wise but also to try to limit oneself to one photographic topic only. Such a limitation avoids distraction and provides awareness for all the little things that make the difference between an expert and a highend-snapshooter.

  • Spread the word Dave! Am a bit worried to write too much of the same over and over again, but glad to know the message sticks… So you’re suggesting the one camera one lens one topic approach — photographic asceticism, not sure I’m yet ready!

  • Rich

    Great post, Dan! This is the reason I used my Nikon D2H bodies as a news pj for 10 years. Did I lust after the D3 with its ISO6400 capability? Sure but my D2H just got the job done and plugged along for a decade exceeding the 150,000 clicks that the

    shutter was rated at. Now that I am retired, I shifted to lightweight mirrorless (Fuji X-System) and, for the first time since lightening the load last year, I went on a walkabout yesterday and truly enjoyed what I am finally seeing with just a 35mm and 50mm FOV. I am not a one camera, one lens guy yet but maybe in the near future.

  • Andy Umbo

    Plus One for David…If I didn’t have to depend on photography to make a living, I’d still be using one Rolleiflex with it’s lens, one tripod, one lightmeter, one 120 processing tank, and Tri-X.

  • Rich

    I hear ya, Andy. When I was working for a newspaper the DSLR eventually became a necessity along the assortment of lenses to cover all types of events. Now that retirement has hit I am trying to decide if I want to stay with digital (a Fuji X100S and X-E1) or film (currently just a Yashica Electro35 GS). As I look through old Tri-X images I really like the look I was lucky enough to achieve.

  • nick

    I’ve never heard someone describe photography as butter before.