You must forgive my ramblings on this age-old debate. And for many of us, it may seem like the chicken and egg quandary. Should I get a better camera to make me a better photographer? Or has my skill evolved to the point whether I need a better camera to fully realise my potential? If someone hands me an airplane do I automatically become a pilot? Or do I need to go to flight school first?
We’ve all read many times that your camera doesn’t matter; that attention to composition and lighting are more important for making images than the technology. For sure, certain cameras make it easier to capture certain subjects and achieve a certain look, but by and large it’s just a tool. Sounds very familiar, right?
For professionals, their camera is essential. It has to perform reliably and deliver the functionality they expect of it. Perhaps that means evermore pixels for billboard prints; or robust autofocus, high frames per second and a deep buffer for sports. Ergonomic ease can mean the difference between a missed shot and a perfect moment. Excellent high ISO performance will allow shooting of events indoors or in the dark.
But within the hobbyist community, very few of us require such tall demands of our gear. What we want of our gear may not be necessarily what we need of it. There are many of us who primarily take an interest in camera and lens technology and there are many of us who primarily take an interest in the photographic art (most of us take a healthy interest in both). Now, let me say for the record that I believe people are perfectly free and entitled to be interested in whatever aspect of photography pleases them. No one should belittle anyone for their interest in technology anymore than for their interest in photographing a particular subject. And although I place myself in the latter camp of taking an interest in the art, I will happily and honestly admit to reading as many gear reviews as anyone else. The evolution of our species and its countless accomplishments is a long and continuing history of technological advancement. No high horse mounted here.
However, often when I read the palpably giddy remarks that many people leave after a review, along the lines of how they can’t wait to get that latest camera, I cannot help but ask if they really believe it will improve their photography. Is it enough to acquire a technological marvel and then try to justify it to oneself with the promise of delivering better photography? Will the upgrade in technology automatically beget an upgrade in photographic ability? Or will they produce the exact same quality of images but with a newer, superior camera that no one would have realised they had bought anyway?
Conversely, how many people have said to you after you showed them a great photo that you must have used a good camera? Same here. Societally, we’re hard-wired to assume that technology plays an irrefutable part in our progress.
I am not the first to deliberate on this dichotomy between technology and art, and I certainly won’t be the last. But just for this moment perhaps I can offer the idea that for a large contingent of us who don’t make a living at this but merely pursue it for pleasure, the camera itself won’t make as much of an impression as the work we produce with it.
Presented in this article are a number of images that I have printed on request (I realise there’s no accounting for taste!) at some point in the past to A1 size, around 33 x 23 inches. The cameras used to make them vary from my phone to a variety of bodies and formats, with resolutions ranging from 6MP to 24MP. I’m not decorating billboards for a living, and A1 is pretty large for me, but how many of us hobbyists will print this size that often? Or even A2, or A3? How many of us with 24-36MP cameras print at all? (Remember that Nikon’s first professional digital SLR, the D1, had 2.7MP, and I sure some of its users made large prints from it.)
For the point of this article, it shouldn’t matter which camera was used for which image, so I have deliberately left out that information here. Furthermore, they have been reduced in size for this site, so you will simply have to take my honest word that at full resolution they print to A1. And look absolutely fine. No one questioned the resolution of the camera when they received the print, nor was it perceptible as to which image was made by which camera and with how many pixels.
Now, there are certainly technological factors at play here. Lens sharpness plays its part, too, but for these shots I have used anything from the lens in my phone to a consumer zoom to a prime. I had to use a relatively low ISO to avoid a noisy print, particularly with my phone.
Technique, however, seemed to matter more. I had to be in the right place at the right time; I had to anticipate action or wait for the right light; I had to judge how to frame the impending shot and steady myself. Shot discipline and absolute focus accuracy is not as crucial at 6MP as it is at 24MP, but it is still important for a large print from any resolution.
But the question I ask myself when I look at these images is simple. Would a newer, more sophisticated camera have enabled me to make a better image? Or would I have had to see things differently to accomplish that?
You probably all know the answers to these questions. A great image captured with your phone is far better than a mediocre one captured with a Hasselblad. A great image made with 6MP will far outsell a poor image made with 36MP. A newer or more sophisticated camera might have made it easier and quicker to get the shot. Perhaps there wouldn’t be so much menu involvement for changing settings, or perhaps the metering and white balance abilities would be more accurate. But would we not have worked around the limitations of our cameras to create the image we wanted?
In thinking about this article, I concluded that the dichotomy between gear and skill might not be so clear-cut as the purists would have us believe. Better technology will always continue to make our lives easier. Our ability to realise our vision improves with technology, not in spite of it. But ultimately, technology cannot substitute the creativity and imagination that is innate to all of us regardless of which camera we use. So, whatever camera you use, get out there and keeping shooting!