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!
I had certain queries on the subject, which were addressed. Thanks M.
Hi to all
Like everybody doing pics seriously I am taken regularly by the technology in such a way it makes me for a moment believe I would be a better photographers. I fall on earth everytime after looking at Francis Toussaint (engineer) that die at 55 years old near 10 years ago and the beauty and art he achieved with just a Canon D60 with its mere 6 MP pics. Its photos are still displayed on Pbase.com and he achieved just before his death over 11 millions hits. I recommend to any of you to visit its galleries on pbase.com regularly. Looking at its galleries will give you the answer to the question.
Have a nice day
What an extraordinary process. I tried contrast masking with film and found that all too exacting for me.
You’re right, there was never any point doing your own development unless perhaps you were pushing the film. It would be a relief with the photo stacking not to have to do the printing. Doing your own fine art prints is one thing but the precision of an exercise like this….
That’s another thing too. Printing quality is so much more easily attained these days in a digital environment.
When you compose on the ground glass screen in large format it’s a slow deliberative process with the image upside-down and back to front. One curious side-effect of that is that I think my practice in that has given me a facility to instantly and accurately compose for street photography, for example in this thread: murrayfoote.com/2014/…ning-walk/
Murray, I’m down here.
I didn’t try to purchase 4×5 film from eBay as there are some items I don’t trust from that service. I called B&H and a couple of other retailers and found that my price for Velvia to be $109 for a 10 sheet box. Yes, focus stacking is extremely difficult with film. Precise measurements need to be taken and the subject marked for camera focus. Great care must be used not to move anything when the film pack is placed into the camera back and then each film pack has to be marked as to position. When the film is unloaded from the holder a tag needs to be added to each sheet of film that can be handled in processing so as not to get the film out of alignment. I usually take three shots of each marked position. As for developing, no, I’m not doing this myself. There are still a number of labs that can do a great job in developing roll film and sheet film. As to the registration, that job goes to the printer with cooperation from me and the lab that developed the film.
You are quite right, it no longer pays in time or money to accomplish focus stacking with film and I’m not sure I want to take on another assignment of this type without renegotiating the payment contract. It took 96 hours to photograph four specimens and I think I made about $5 per hour for my time. I did it because I get a lot of work from this one entomologist accounting for about $45,000 per year from his grant and it also got me another client which has turned out to be very lucrative.
You are correct about the MP equivalents of film relating to digital. It takes masters of lithography to get the detail from film that an image from a D4-D3 or even D800 can offer. I don’t know why these few printers insist on not switching but then it took me a long time to move to digital.
You always surprise me with your posts! Thank you for the excellent article.
Thank you Ravish! :)
Thank you to Alpha Whiskey for the nice article, I really like all the points.
For photografers on budget I want to put my two cents: buy from your local Craigslist, you might see that in many cases price is to high, but you can also find the barging, just be patient and act quick when you see the deal. In my case I bought Nikon D600 for $1200 Cad ( I am in Vancouver, BC ). The camera was still on warranty, the gay just needed the money ( of course I cheeked the id, receipt was included ). The kit lens Nikkor 24-85 f3.5-4.5 G. VR original price $600, I bought also from Craiglist and I paid $250 Cad. Camera and lens in brand new condition.
If I found these two deals, you can do the same.
All the best,
Thank you Oleg :)
D600 is known to have an issue with oil so you may wish to have your D600 checked for this issue….Good luck!
BTW, at one time Patrick, I used to collect antiques, furniture mostly. In that hobby the saying is the same as you mention regarding technology. A bit different, “the best time to buy an antique is when you see it, as it may be gone if you wait for a sale”.
Yes, Patrick I need a safe. In fact I don’t know one of my fellow professional photographers here in town that doesn’t have a safe which has a separate alarm system from the rest of the studio.
One piece of equipment I use on a regular basis is my Nikon Light Microscope. The entire set up with all attachments cost over six figures but most of the hospitals I work for don’t have anything near as sophisticated and that brings me a lot of work. Boring work, but work.
3 D-7100, 2 D-800e, 1 twin lens Roleflex bought by my father in 1949, 1 Calumet 4×5, 1 Linhoff 5×7 with several lenses and different bellows attachments. My lens arsenal is over 50 lenses at this time and I am waiting for the Sigma 18-35 f1.8, which will be delivered to me on Monday or Tuesday and I’m on the list for the Tamron 150-600 at B&H. Yes Patrick, I’m a sick man. LOL
Let me see… D3, D3s, D800, 4 old Nikon film bodies, 18 lenses, 1 Fuji body and 4 lenses (another 2 bodies and 3 lenses coming soon), X100s, 1937 Rolleiflex, Arca-Swiss 5×4 monorail, Nagaoka 5×4 field camera, Gaoersi 6×17 camera, 5 lenses for the last three, Widelux Panorama camera. Fewer lenses but more bodies than Mike declared though I don’t use the film ones any more. And I also don’t try to make money from photography.
Murray, I always wanted to work in the 6×17 format. Just never did. I don’t use film much any longer either because most of the medical book and journal publishers are digital however there are two in the US that only work lithography from film. That is why I keep the 4×5 and 5×7 around; in the off chance I need it. No longer have any of my 35mm film bodies except the Roly 2.25×2.25 but I’m seriously looking into buying mint Mamiya RB67 gear that is selling for a song everywhere. I used to use that format over my Nikon F’s all the time.
As for the number of lenses, Murray, we can just chalk that up to GAS. There really isn’t any need for anyone to have that many since most overlap one another and almost never come out of the safe since Nano Crystal coating and similar 3rd party coating have come into the market.
The Gaoersi 617 is a Chinese camera, about $1,000 and much cheaper than a Fuji let alone a Linhof Technorama. I picked up the first one sold one EBay and probably the first sold in the West and wrote a review on Photo-i some years ago: www.photo-i.co.uk/Revie…ge%201.htm .
I might get back to it at some stage. The quality is still there and maybe copying or copying and stitching with a D800 and a macro lens is better than my flatbed scanner. Mind you, the last time I shot film after a gap of a few years, all my instincts to nail the exposure were gone and I made lots of errors.
For me it works out to approximately a camera body every two years and a lens every year. Maybe not so bad put like that. Most of what I don’t use is obsolete rather than redundant.
I have one client who is an entomologist at the U of Michigan. He’s young but a very brilliant man. His field of study are roaches but not the kind you find at garbage cans and dumps. These monsters eat plants and he is studding them to help control them in Africa and South America. One day I got a call from him that three new specimens needed to be shot in film not digital because the publisher doesn’t print from digital. At this time with this request I had not purchased 4×5 film in a long time and I wanted to obtain the best film I could for reproduction purpose. Man, I had no idea how much film had gone up. There was no way I could produce photographs at the cost per shot in my original quote. No matter how accurate with exposure there is no chimping the back to check the exposure. No histogram so every shot would need to be bracketed. They paid for it but I cleaned and put my camera away. This Calumet I have was purchased in the early seventies and I think it was the first model large format camera to be made in composite (read plastic).
Focus stacking with the program I use is so much easier with digital then with film and lithography.
As for purchasing equipment my cameras usually last for me but lenses seem to come to quickly. I need to sort them out and put some of them up for sale.
My Arca-Swiss and all but one of my large format lenses are from the 60s but that doesn’t matter as all you lose over a more modern lens, I think, is multicoating.
I can’t even imagine focus stacking with film. Registration would be horrendous.
Wow, you’re right about the price too. The cheapest 5×4 Velvia on EBay where they clearly mention a current expiration date is $US120 plus freight. It’s probably not easy to find kits to process slide film yourself any more either.
I also might mention for aspiring D810 owners who might be reading that film has a maximum resolution of 4,000 DPI assuming Velvia, a tripod and perfect technique. That then corresponds to 6MP for 35mm, 20MP for 6×6, 63MP for 6×17, 80MP for 5×4 and 140MP for 5×7. The main problem is extracting the detail from the film to the digital file. You are likely to lose 50% or more with an Epson V700 though from large format the quality you end up with should be quite acceptable. And then, apart from being much more expensive than it used to be, slide film is so much more difficult to deal with than digital capture.
I’m reminded of the advice I’d always heard, and often given, on buying computers and accessories: If you don’t need it, don’t buy it regardless of the price; if you need it, buy it regardless of the price. Of course, each individual has to define “need” for themselves.
BTW, You really have enough expensive equipment to need a safe!? Sometimes, I leave my gear on the sidewalk (If I have company, there’s no room for it in my cardboard box) and my neighbors just stagger past (they stagger when they’ve been drinking), shaking their heads in sympathy for my economic condition. ;-)
I was thinking about this last night while discussing this article with my wife. Now no one knows me better than she and of course has her opinions of my “GAS”; (that’s Gear Acquisition Syndrome, not the other kind). When packing for a trip she often stands in front of my equipment safe and exclaims, did you really need the 50th lens. No…but I wanted it. This attitude goes along with several other contributors in this thread regarding if you really want it and can afford it…buy it. Fortunately, I can afford my addiction but really it is foolish except for my macro collection most of which I use every day.
My camera list once I went from D40 to D40x to D90 and then to D7100. Having problems with shadow detail in some of my work I decided, on advice from another photographer, to obtain either the D800 or D800e. I opted for a pair of D800e’s and have been very happy with them. Now along comes the D810 and I’m chopping at the bit although none of the new features are needed for my kind of income producing work.
Now here is the what if. What if the D810 is a beta for something really advanced that Nikon will be offering in 6-12 months? What if these advances are being offered to test new technology to be added to new APS-C and FX cameras that will come out shortly. Has anyone else considered this or will the D-810 be around for two plus years with nothing further offered by Nikon?