Aimlessly Pontificating on Photography

The camera that took the picture.

My blog has moved, see the new site at http://blog.badlightgoodlight.com

Quite often someone sees a photograph of mine and the comment that follows is some variation on; “Hey that is a great photo, what camera do you use?” Different photographers take this question differently, some take great offense, others are more pragmatic.

The reason some take offense is because this is the equivalent of asking Michelangelo what brush he used to paint the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. The analogy is exaggerated, of course, for effect. Even the most unrealistic photographer would hardly be likely to equate his latest photo of a butterfly or rosebush with the Sistine Chapel. The Mona Lisa, maybe, Sunflowers, sure, Guernica, almost definitely. But comparisons with the Sistine Chapel, why that would just be absurd.

I don’t take offense at the question. I sigh a little, if only internally, but I don’t take offense. And I will let you in on a secret, the camera does matter, so the question isn’t entirely unfair. It is likely that a good photographer with a crappy camera can take a good picture, but given the exact same scene that same good photographer will have an easier time taking a good photograph, and may take a better photograph.

A camera cannot produce a good picture without a triggerman to direct its point of aim. So when someone unwittingly implies that it is the camera that is responsible for the good photograph that they are admiring, it can cause a degree of irritation even if unintended.

The point is, a camera is a tool. Some tools are better than others, but the bottom line is no one looks at a nice house and asks the carpenter what hammer he used. So if you see a nice photograph, do the photographer a favour, don’t ask her/him what hammer s/he used.

Rest

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11 responses

  1. Adeelah

    I have heard the one where a lady invited some folks over to dinner and told one of the guests that he took some great photographs, what kind of camera did he use? So at the end of the dinner, he said to the hostess, that was a great meal, what kind of pots did you use?

    June 7, 2010 at 7:37 am

  2. As much as I am in agreement with you on this one, I think that Ken Rockwell has said it as best as I’ve heard it. I think I may have to do a follow up blog on this one 🙂 camera ownership has become so easy that I think many people beleive that the “art of photography” is also common, and that the only difference between “photographers” is the camera itself.

    June 7, 2010 at 8:04 am

  3. Good call, Nik! I get a little irritated when people see my pictures and say, “WOW, you must have a REALLY good camera!” lol! I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that one. . . Here’s another analogy–although good shoes are important to a ballerina, one would never have said to Anna Pavlova, “Wow, you did that dance really well. . . You must have REALLY good shoes!” lol! Cindy

    June 7, 2010 at 10:16 am

  4. It’s the same story all around, for example, someone sees a design you might have done and says “Cool, you must have a really good computer” or something similar. It is the ‘triggerman’ as you say, that makes the difference.

    June 7, 2010 at 10:33 am

  5. Pingback: The camera that took the picture. (via Bad Light, Good Light) « The Michael Lam Collection's Blog

  6. Cecil Beharry

    Hi Nikil
    “Buy you must have a good camera”. People say this to me sometimes. I am taking decent quality pictures with my Sony Cyber-shot, 5.0 mega pixels point and shoot. All because I attached the Sony Slave Flash on the camera.
    Before I did so, I had become very frustrated taking pictures with fair skinned and dark skinned people together in groups. The builtin flash could’t do it. So you see I know when people say to me ” you must have a good camera” I know they have a point
    I enjoy receiving your photos and I read your comments. I am learning from you and Mike all the time
    With thanks
    Cecil

    June 7, 2010 at 11:48 am

  7. Hemraj Muniram

    Of course, the camera is important. But, as you said, the triggerman is the real thing. As for this shot, it does convey a moment of rest after a rainstorm. And it triggers nostalgia; I long to return to one of those seawall benches in Georgetown, to feel the cool breeze on a hot Guyana afternoon, to look across that vast expanse of water with all kinds of thoughts.

    June 7, 2010 at 12:45 pm

  8. Oh, if I had a dime for every time someone told that to me!

    This is my interpretation of why people say that: Marketing by camera companies has utterly succeeded in programming people to believe that the camera takes the picture. Without having been exposed even to a minimal form of artistic training, the average person has no idea of the level of active involvement required for understanding and capturing your surrounding with a camera.

    By the way, I saw the above image in horizontal format and liked it, but in vertical format and in B&W, it is much better!

    June 7, 2010 at 10:00 pm

  9. nicola

    I go to the seawall all the time and it never looked so good. You must have a reallllly good camera. Im gonna get me one or at least ask your advice on which one to get. Peeps, chill, being asked what tool you use is a compliment in itself. You take great photos, you can advise me on how to achieve same, including advice on which tool to use, camera, lens filter whatever. And, the quality of your POTS can make a huge difference to your meal and the ease of preparing it. Im going to buy me a new knife.

    June 8, 2010 at 4:06 pm

  10. I never ask or comment on what camera was used to get a great photo because I am from the school of “Photographers take great photographs, not cameras.”

    I do volunteer work with video camera operators and editors and this debate exists even among video cameras as well. These debates remind me of the poem “The Touch Of The Master’s Hand” about an old battered violin at an auction that sold for $3000 instead of $3 because a master played it in the middle of the auction. Cameras are the same way (not old and battered) but able to be do more depending on whose hands they are in.

    June 14, 2010 at 4:27 pm

  11. Hi Nikhil,

    I’m enjoying discovering your pictures – sometime we’ll have to meet up! Meanwhile, I took interest in this post because I’ve had some camera thoughts in the back of my mind for a while now.

    In the old days of film the camera was important for some things, but the second you pressed the shutter the camera was gone – there was nothing between the film and the lens. You could own the most basic, beat up, second hand camera (and I did!) but buy the exact same film that a pro-photographer used. If you got the settings right and were in the right place at the right time, then you could get the exact same image. The only way you could improve the quality of the image was to invest in quality glass.

    Now there is no getting round the fact that the camera is an integral part of the image. People compare cameras by pixel count, but in fact there are so many more issues at stake. For example, if you buy a more expensive camera the camera can cope with a wider range of light. A scene that will result in overexposure and lost shadow in one camera will be fully captured by another. Another example is noise at ISO. An expensive camera will produce noise free images at high ISOs allowing the photographer to handhold in lower light taking images that might not be possible on a cheaper model.

    Despite this, the one element that makes a really great photo is the eye of the photographer. It can’t be bought, I don’t think it can be taught. It’s just there. Composition, and more importantly imagination, are the real elements that make a photo. Seminal images have been taken on awful cheap cameras.

    But we are all, as photographers, chasing some form of perfection. Photography is a mix of art and science. Our imagination has to be matched by technical ability. And our technical ability has to be matched by quality equipment if we are going to get a whiff of that perfection that we are chasing. But, it is also true that manufacturers need to sell new cameras and most people already have one!

    Personally, my camera is better than my ability, and that’s pretty depressing!

    July 3, 2010 at 1:53 pm

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