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Does the Camera Really Matter and Should You Care

By a considerable margin the most common question I get from students is “what camera should I buy” and the most common question from folk who see my exhibitions “what camera did you take these with?”

There is clearly an assumption with many that the camera is the most important part of the process, and one need only hang around a few of the better known photography forums to get the impression that the gear is more important than the images it is designed to produce. Not unusual at all really, in all sorts of pursuits the equipment is the item of worship rather than its intended purpose, I see it in items ranging from woodworking tools to cars, and I have been known to bow at the techno altars a bit myself. But lets try to put this in perspective as far as photography goes.

So do I feel the camera matters, well yes it does, quite simply some cameras are far more suited to certain jobs than others, a compact digicam has a wealth of benefits for casual shooting and even some more serious shooting, but it is hopelessly compromised for say, sports photography or large scale fine art monochrome work. A DSLR is great for portraits, high quality landscapes, low light images and more but if you can’t be bothered lugging it around with you then it is pretty pointless, and to a degree the DSLR lacks the flexibility of the compact. Large and medium format cameras produce utterly glorious results but are also utterly cumbersome and slow so they are most likely only suited to more contemplative approaches and the depth of field is generally limited, which sometimes suits and sometimes doesn’t.

So in the end the idea of one type of camera being best is, to my mind, utterly ridiculous. You need several cameras if you wish to cover all bases, but assuming that you have decided on a category of device, then what?

Let me say this, generally within any given type of camera style, i.e. compact, pocket, DSLR, super zoom digicam etc the camera really does not matter, unless you buy some odd Chinese knock off they are all pretty much fine instruments. Frankly the only things that should matter are, does it have the features I need and does it feel right to me! That’s it, pure and simple. What does matter is that you learn how to actually use the instrument as intended and that means generally “get it off auto.”

Lets now turn our attention to the more philosophical end of the spectrum, i.e. does one type of camera produce great pictures while another produces rubbish. Well I will state this with absolute conviction, all cameras can produce rubbish and all cameras can produce great images even disposable film cameras.

I find it amusing that when I put on an exhibition so many folk want to know what camera was used for this or that, and in fact many assume that all the images were taken with the one camera. Its a totally wrong assumption to make, for example my current exhibition has images taken with 8 different cameras ranging from pocket compacts to film SLR’s, and the neat thing is pretty much no one can tell the difference in the final prints and before you assume they must be sized according to the camera format, no they are not. The smallest print is A3 and the largest 1.5 metres long, the smallest is actually a film image taken on Tech Pan film, the finest grained and sharpest film ever made and the largest images taken on a pocket compact of 6 megapixels, of which only 4 were used for the image!

The problem is that once people start looking at images and camera swooning they are denying the great photographic truth, which is, great images are not created by great cameras, but rather by artists with great eyes for an image who use great technique and treat the photographic process as a whole.

The camera is really secondary and within any given camera type the differences in the final look of the image is usually pretty minimal, and indeed with appropriate technique an image from a compact pocket digicam can look pretty much the same as one from a film SLR. Now that’s a challenging statement I know but I stand by it because photography is really about technique not gear and those of us who have played with the craft long enough know how to get the look we want from whatever we are using.

The overall issue for many new photographers is that they feel owning this or that camera or lens will give them credibility and make them great photographers, in theirs and others eyes. So many times I have seen people with the most fantastic gear who produce the most banal images with the camera set on full auto, this is a total waste of the gear and money.

This is not to say of course that having really flash high-end equipment doesn’t help, it can if it makes the job easier, or the lens is a bit sharper etc but in the end its all quite secondary.

Frankly I feel the question of “what camera did the photographer use to take this” is a bit ridiculous, for two reasons.

First it gives the impression that the gear is far more important than the skills, experience and vision of the image creator.

Second it leads viewers (prodded by clever marketing) to assume they too would have brilliant images if only they had that new (expensive) camera or lens.

So what can you take away from this little dissertation, and this is just my opinion, you should invest in skills and method first and expensive gear only when you have exhausted the limits of your current equipment. Second, next time you look at a great image and say to yourself “what camera was used to take that” give yourself a stiff uppercut and change that question to “why did they do that and how did they do it”, then you will start to make some real progress.

So do I think the camera really matters, only a bit, basically I just choose the right tool for the job and sometimes that will be film, sometimes compact, sometimes DSLR and so on. In other words the type of camera matters but the brand, lens, etc are of little consequence. And in the end, one type of camera can produce results very similar to another type with appropriate post capture editing.

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