Probably the most frequent question I’m asked about my photography, is “What camera do you use?” For some people it may seem like a logical question to ask, but once they know the answer, then what?! The implication, is that somehow, the camera was responsible for making the photograph, and that anyone else with the same camera could obviously have taken the same photograph.
We’ve all heard the un-truism that, “Clothes make the man” (or woman, to be PC) and it’s the same for photography, painting, cooking, or master carpentry. While the camera may contribute to the quality of the photograph, or the canvas, paints and brushes may contribute to the painting, or the pots, pans and ingredients might contribute to the taste of the meal, or the lathe might have helped produce the furniture, we all know that much, much more is involved in the final piece of art, meal or furniture. In fact, the artist or cook or carpenter merely increased the probability of getting their desired outcome if they used the most appropriate tools. But it is those tools PLUS their skills, training, experience, and sometimes luck, that helped them accomplish their ideal outcome.
Since 2001, when I sold my film cameras and darkroom equipment and ventured into the realm of digital photography, I have tried to become knowledgeable about the equipment possibilities that would enable me to produce the type and quality of prints that I desired. Over the last 11 years much has advanced with the equipment (cameras, printers, computers, software), and I quickly realized that having the “best” equipment for my purposes didn’t necessarily result in the quality of photographs that I wanted. A critical factor was ME. Well, not exactly me, but rather my level of knowledge about how to use the various tools. That’s when, in addition to having purchased the highest quality pro equipment, and constantly reading books and web resources, I realized that wasn’t enough for the level of photograph that I demanded of myself. So I began taking photography workshops and master classes with some of the finest practitioners of the craft of photography.
As I gained knowledge about the tools and software, I once again realized that there was more. Much, much more. For me, trying to produce photographs that approached my goals required abilities beyond just the “craft” of photography. I had to also hone my skills and knowledge about the “art” of photography. Some of the master classes I attended were specifically focused (no pun intended!) on the “art” of photography and were very helpful. Also extremely valuable was spending more and more time looking at, and studying the work of photographers who I admired. Analyzing and critiquing others’ photographs helped develop my ability to analyze and critique my own work. I strongly believe that self-critiquing is one of the most valuable assets good photographers practice every day.
Every artist needs to develop (no pun intended!) a vision and photography is no different. That vision should be seen and felt when looking at an artist’s work. The vision may be seen in individual photographs, in bodies of work or portfolios, or across the photographers many, many images. The vision can evolve and change over time, but in most cases the vision and style should be recognizable. Think about the work of famous photographers. Think about their photographs. Every one of them has a recognizable style and you can probably name the photographer with a 5-second glance at one of their photographs.
Developing a style and vision requires going beyond taking “record shots.” It has to be more than taking the “perfectly composed, technically perfect” photograph. Photographs should express the vision, the emotion, the point of view and the excitement of the photographer. The “equipment,” including the camera, the lens, the tripod, the ball head, the processing, are all just small, but important contributors to the final print. Whether the photograph “succeeds” is more about the photographer, and his/her vision and the ability to convey that vision to the viewer.
Over time, photographers develop a “style.” That style is a amalgam of the photographer’s vision, subject matter (possibly), color palette, including black and white (possibly), handling of light, compositional preferences and the mood or emotion that the photographs convey. Often, beginner or advanced amateur photographers emulate photographers whose work they admire. This is good! However, only in time, will their photography begin to be their own – reflecting their individual tastes, their skills and how they interpret and convey the world around them.
No, great photographs are not the result of great equipment. Do you even know the brand and model of camera that produced some of the greatest photographs in the last 100 years? Probably not! Does the equipment matter? Absolutely. But there’s much, much more involved in creating memorable photographs.
Footnote: I recently purchased a new, amazing camera – the Nikon D800e. I have owned a series of Nikon pro digital cameras, the Nikon D1x, D2x, D3, D3x as well as other Nikon cameras. The Nikon D1x (circa 2001) was a 5.3 megapixel camera. The D800e is a 36 megapixel camera. Are photographs all about the number of pixels? No, but the camera companies marketing staffs will try to make you believe that. Will my new camera help me make photographs that get closer to my ideal print. I hope so. But there’s no guarantee! Much of my photography is about the fine detail of the scene and I often print very large. This camera is an ideal tool for my photography. Now it’s my challenge to get the very best out of that tool, utilizing my knowledge, skills, experience and vision.
If you actually read all the through this blog post to this point, you might be interested to know that the image at the beginning of the post was taken with my iPhone 4. Remember, the camera is just the tool!