Sometimes receiving the best answer is about knowing to ask the right question.
If there is one question I get more often than any other, it is "What camera do you
use?" The easiest answer would be, of course, to provide the make and model
of what happens to be the camera I own right now. But as an educator, I realize
that while the inquirer may walk away thinking they received a piece of useful
information, in fact the opposite is true. Not only is this information by itself
entirely useless, it may be detrimental to their progress if not accompanied by more
The reason for the question is quite obvious. Camera manufacturers spend their
marketing dollars trying to convince potential buyers that an extra megapixel,
frame per second, nifty acronym, or engraved lettering is the only thing standing in
their way to producing great images; online discussion forums are dominated by
overnight experts waging gear wars and spewing reviews; and magazine articles
speculate on whether Ansel Adams would have made the leap from 18 megapixels
to 21. But one simple and obvious fact is drowned in the melee: great photography
is ultimately not about cameras; great photography is about great photographs.
When you think of great photographs instead of great gear, what comes to mind?
Ansel Adams's impressive western landscapes? Henri Cartier-Bresson's perfectly
timed street work? Galen Rowell's adventure photography? Robert Capa's powerful
war images? Pick your favorite classic and chances are even your entry-level DSLR
will score higher on the spec sheet than the gear they used to make some of the
most striking and memorable images ever made.
In order to progress as a photographer, it is worthwhile to put things in their
proper perspective (literally and figuratively). Rather than asking, "What camera
should I buy?" ask instead, "How can I make great images?" With this simple shift
in priorities comes a sea change in perception. Rather than thinking in objective
technical terms of numbers, acronyms and meaningless model numbers, you are
now ready to consider subjective things such as light, composition, emotion, timing
and aesthetics – the things that actually do have the potential to take your images
from (technically) "good" to "great."
There is no doubt about it: a camera is one of the most amazing and inspiring tools
ever invented. If you remember the experience of holding your first "real" camera
for the first time, as I do, you no doubt recall the sense of fascination and magic and
the overwhelming urge to run out and make great images. And perhaps one of the
greatest spoilers for new photographers is visiting a photo forum for the first time
to find their new prized possession maligned by "experts" whose sole qualification
is an obsession with technical minutia. If you are new to the world of photography,
here's a piece of practical wisdom: the value of any photographic advice should
always be examined in the context of the portfolio of the person offering it. Find
their web site (if they have one), review their work for creativity, meaning and
emotional appeal, and ask yourself how well their wisdom served them in their own
pursuits. And when you discover work that inspires you, don't stop at finding out
what camera was used to make it. Ask the photographer if the same image could
have been made with equal success using other brands of equipment. It is doubtful
that the answer will be anything other than a resounding "yes."
Undoubtedly, some features of some cameras may come into play in specific
applications. Still, these are of secondary importance to the photographer's
creativity and vision, and a far second at that.
Why, then, do some photographers vehemently favor one brand over another? For
the most part, they can't help it. In his book "The Naked Brain", Dr. Richard Restak
discusses the neuroscience behind brand loyalty and describes the famous Pepsi vs.
Coke test. When subjects are not aware of the brand, they consistently favor Pepsi
as the better tasting cola. When the brands are known, though, they overwhelmingly
prefer Coke. The truth is that the brain associates certain traits with certain brands,
based on the promotion and marketing associated with it. In reality, however, these
perceived traits might be entirely untrue or even opposed to common sense.
Speaking from my own experience, I have seen the same attitude in photographers
who tend to praise any work made with, say, Large Format equipment, as opposed
to more common formats. Just tell a photographer that an image they see on
the web (where the difference is impossible to tell) was made with a 4x5 or
8x10 camera and they immediately think highly of it, no matter how poor the
composition, light, or processing. On several occasions when visitors to my gallery
asked about the camera I used, I explained that the narrower prints are likely from
35mm digital, while the more "squat" ones are generally from 4x5 Large Format. In
almost every case these same people will then wander to one specific and popular
image, printed to 20"x24", and praise it for the obvious qualities of the 4x5 format.
It just so happens that the image in question was cropped from a 35mm digital
To answer someone asking about your camera with just the brand and model
is doing them a great disservice. The path to a great image does not end with "I
paid $X for a brand/model, pointed it at a pretty scene and pushed the button."
There is creativity and subject matter and composition and visualization and field
technique and light and processing and any number of other factors that are far
more important than the literal answer to the question. If someone ever asks you
what camera you use, do the right thing and go beyond the simple answer. Help
them instead to ask the right question and to find the correct balance of priorities.
A great photographer is a person who makes great photographs, not necessarily a
person who owns a great camera.
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Guy Tal is a professional photographer and author residing in the state of Utah, in the heart of a unique and scenic desert region known as the Colorado Plateau. Guy teaches and writes about the artistic and creative aspects of photography and guides private workshops and individuals seeking the beauty and solitude of the canyon country. More of his works and writings can be found on his web site and blog at guytal.com. You may also follow Guy on Facebook or Twitter.
Comment posted by Kory Lidstrom on 05/07/11 at 1:24 pm
To keep my take unbiased, I don't read others' comments before posting my own.
Registered on 11/19/08, 40 Posts, 872 Comments Comment posted by Kerry Leibowitz on 05/08/11 at 12:00 pm
And when you discover work that inspires you, don't stop at finding out what camera was used to make it. Ask the photographer if the same image could have been made with equal success using other brands of equipment. It is doubtful that the answer will be anything other than a resounding "yes." I couldn't agree more, Guy. Whenever I'm asked about equipment--and I get that question a lot--I tell people what I'm using, but always provide the caveat I'm sure I'd be just as happy/frustrated in my endeavors using a variety of other photographic platforms.
In my view, it's not that gear isn't important; it obviously is. We, as photographers prove this regularly by digging our credit cards out of wallets. But it simply isn't nearly as important as many people seem to believe.
Registered on 11/01/03, 167 Posts, 5800 Comments Comment posted by Clayton Musgrove on 05/09/11 at 12:22 pm
Great article Guy. I was well into ownership of my second DSLR and several lenses before I realised my photos weren't improving at the same pace with my gear upgrades. It's all about learning to use what you have to it's fullest potential. I was guilty of paying too much attention to the gear snobs on some of the other forums. Now while they are busy banging out partisan reviews at all hours of the day, I'm out shooting and learning, and at peace with my gear. For now anyway!
Beautiful Central Oregon
An ignorant person is one who doesn't know what you have just found out.
Registered on 02/06/10, 55 Posts, 235 Comments Comment posted by Bill Chambers on 05/09/11 at 1:50 pm
“You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” - Ansel Adams
Registered on 04/10/05, 667 Posts, 19768 Comments Comment posted by Sam Chrysanthou on 05/26/11 at 11:54 am
Very true and useful words, Guy! I always feel a bit frustrated when, if I take out my Nikon -- which is a big-ish camera -- I hear people say, "That's a good camera!" The assumption being that it takes good pictures. I don't get that when playing with a point-n-shoot. It's all baloney as you explain. But why would people who don't even own DSLRs think that big, black cameras take 'better' images than a point-n-shoot? It's in the marketing, I tell ya.