“The Camera Doesn’t Matter”: Contingencies of a Platitude

The Camera Doesn’t Matter.”

It’s one of those quotes that just won’t go away. It’s recited everywhere, whenever anyone wants to make the point that it’s the artist, and not the brush. Ok. We get it. Those who can’t measurebate. Those who can, well, they just go out and do. Take pictures that is.

Lido, Venice, Italy. Taken with Nikon S10 digital point-and-shoot camera.

Lido, Venice, Italy. Taken with Nikon S10 digital point-and-shoot camera.

You can hear that sentiment repeated over and over again, echoing through the ages. But, much like any other piece of eminently quotable drivel, from the insidious to the inspirational, it doesn’t become truer the morer. In fact, it hugely oversimplifies and denigrates the choice of tools for particular jobs. “Give a child a hammer,” the saying goes, “and the world becomes a nail.” Variations on this “law of the hammer” or “law of the instrument” are to be found all over the place, and the idea relates to analytical concepts from a wide range of academic disciplines, from psychology to economy. (Sidebar: Elsewhere, names like Habermas, Maslow, and Twain get thrown in for good measure. It’s not surprising that they may have had the insight, but it seems improbable that either came up with this idea first.)

Plane landing at National Airport, Washington, DC. Taken with iPhone 4 camera.

Plane landing at National Airport, Washington, DC. Taken with iPhone 4 camera.

“The camera doesn’t matter” is a variation on this, but flips it on its head: if you have a hammer, you can tackle any problem. It’s the un-ironicizing of a purposely ironic idea, if you will. The quote is catchy, no doubt, and it comes with the cachet of being attributed to and having been repeated by many influential voices in photography. The always divisive Ken Rockwell pontificates on it, and Chase Jarvis, yet another internet photography community mainstay, shot a whole photo book with his iPhone. He says that the best camera is the one you have with you. They’re not alone, and certainly not altogether incorrect.

The problem with the “camera doesn’t matter” statement is not the intent in its most benign reading. That is, the sentiment that you can go out there with what you have – iPhone, Rolleiflex, dad’s old point and shoot, sister’s first “serious” SLR from the 1990s – and get something out of it. An image, a learning experience, and hopefully some enjoyment. The problem begins when the sentence is interpreted to mean that equipment never matters.

While buying a high-end DSLR and some showstopping lenses and then ending up with the same uninspired shots with cut off heads that you took with that old APS pocket camera is a major source of frustration among newly minted photographers, it’s not the only valid frustration they have. Not being able to get the kinds of pictures that you wanted because you don’t have the camera you need for them is a close second.

So here’s my take: The camera does matter.

Navy Yard, Washington, DC. Taken with Minolta SR-T 100x camera, 35–70 f3.5 MD zoom lens, Agfa APX 100 film.

Navy Yard, Washington, DC. Taken with Minolta SR-T 100x camera, 35–70 f3.5 MD zoom lens, Agfa APX 100 film.

Luckily, this view has gained some popularity during the last couple of years. Sure, there is value to downsizing your gear ambitions. Fstoppers’ David Geffin wrote an article in 2013 on the evils of “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” and why one doesn’t need thousands of dollars worth of stuff to make a good photo. But in the same article he also talked about creative ways to deal with the insufficiencies of certain types of equipment, that, when overcome, will make for a better picture. That’s all nice and good, but what if your ambition is not to spend hours in photoshop (the program itself a not inconsiderable expense) but to simply set up your shot and have the outcome you want, as an exposed frame on film or an in-camera JPEG? No, a professional camera won’t make you a professional. And neither will a cheap crappy one take the experience and vision away from a great photographer. But there are several ways in which equipment influences your ability to take pictures, and they fall broadly in two categories: technical – and I include both artistic vision and the benefits of certain techniques or processes of achieving it in this category, and cultural – which has implications both at the end of taking a photo, and at that of selling images in a marketplace.

From a technical point of view, you sometimes need a certain type of technology to make a certain type of image. Night time shots require flashes, or fast lenses and/or high ISO sensors or film. Telezooms, high burst rates and fast autofocus may be he only way to get once-in-a-lifetime shots of sports events. Portraits, to most people’s eyes, will look more pleasing when there’s pleasant bokeh in the background, and when you use a portrait lens.

Barberini Faun, Glyptothek Museum, Munich, Germany. Taken with Fuji S5600/5200 digital bridge camera.

Barberini Faun, Glyptothek Museum, Munich, Germany. Taken with Fuji S5600/5200 digital bridge camera.

If your artistic vision is wholly based on making polaroid transfers, low-fi Lomo type shots, or wall-wide panoramas of the Arctic, you just may require an instrument that is actually capable of providing the material – and at least in the latter case, one that is able to withstand the environment. Depending on who you are and what your ideas or needs are, that might not be the same camera I’d pick for any of these. But only some cameras are capable of certain types of pictures. Great artists and capable professionals know how to work around insufficiencies in their tools, but only to a certain extent. You may be able to fix many things with gaffer’s tape, but it is only the best possible solution for some of them.

Now, assuming that the symbiosis of you and your equipment is technically capable to create the images you desire – or have been commissioned to provide – all is still not equal. The cultural factor comes in many guises. Much like any market, the one for photography is not quite as rational as the followers of Gary Becker would have you believe. People don’t have all the information, and they don’t shop around only for what is actually the best deal (be that the cheapest possible option, the most prestigious one, etc.). They want what they want for sometimes spurious reasons.

Munich Sunset. Taken with Fuji disposable camera.

Munich Sunset. Taken with Fuji disposable camera.

Photographers have ways of influencing what these are. Both as a group, and individually. But here’s the rub: If clients have been made believe (maybe by seeing the results of similar projects and attributing them to cameras more than vision or talent, or by other photographers who have to justify their multi-thousand-dollar purchase of that high-powered Nikon or digital back) they desperately need upwards of 30 Megapixels of resolution to print a billboard, even when 4 used to do nicely in the late 90s, they will seek out photographers that can provide that. If you are just starting out with a camera that may be able to deliver the goods but does not look the part, then good luck to you competing with those who have ones that do. The tools are part of your image as a professional or serious amateur. They tell part of the story that prospective clients will need to hear in order to hire you. Owning a Hasselblad has never hurt anyone’s case for being considered a pro.

New York Second

New York Second. Taken with Fuji X100S digital compact camera.

The reason why no one can agree on the needs, musts and don’ts here becomes obvious once we look at the discussion from this point of view: cultural implications are not exactly the same anywhere, and markets keep on evolving constantly under our feet. Being a fashion photographer in New York in the 1980s is not the same as being one there today – or in 1960, or 1940. It is also not the same as being a wedding photographer in Tokyo at any date in time, or the person who takes passport pictures in Kuala Lumpur. A recent episode of the Lonely Photographers podcast centered around the discussion of whether film is dead or not. Both photographers who talked about the matter serve a roughly equivalent marketplace in about the same cultural space. Predictably, the discussion went nowhere. Both liked the look and feel of film to some extent, but both contended that the realities of their businesses made it impractical for them to use it. The conclusion they reached was to ask others who might have heard the show to tell them about their experiences. It was pretty much the only thing they could do.

H-Street Festival, Washington, DC. Taken with Rollei 35 camera and Kodak BW 400 CN film.

H-Street Festival, Washington, DC. Taken with Rollei 35T camera and Kodak BW 400 CN film.

But the cultural context is by no means limited to who you sell your pictures to, if indeed you do. It is just as important when you take them. If you take pictures of people, this is most clearly visible. While generalizations always fall short of reality, it is nonetheless true that many people react differently to different cameras. Here a “big gun” SLR is often a mixed blessing. The same thing that makes it a perfect professional tool in some settings, such as a studio or photo shoot with hired models, can induce paranoia when you’re walking around town trying to get candid street shots. This is why many street photographers sing the praises of Leicas, mirrorless cameras, and point-and-shoots. (Your personality will also matter here. Chuck Jines walks around Chicago armed with pocket-sized prints of his work and conspicuous Nikons, and he pulls it off). Old-timey TLRs, as a rule, though just as conspicuous, will raise interest rather than suspicion. Smartphone snapshots of anyone and everything have become so common that hardly anyone notices you taking one anymore, now matter how conspicuous. Places that have signs up with crossed-out cameras have begun realizing that they cannot control the sheer mass of people snapping selfies in front of the exhibition. I recently took an instagram shot inside one such museum, and it was promptly favorited by the museum’s official account.

Painted Church, Washington, DC. Taken with Minolta X-700, 28mm 2.8 MD lens, Agfa Precisa 100 CT film.

Painted Church, Washington, DC. Taken with Minolta X-700, 28mm 2.8 MD lens, Agfa Precisa 100 CT film.

What is the takeaway, if any, of all of this? By saying that the camera does, in fact, matter, I’m not saying that it is always quite as much the deciding factor as many are led – or lead themselves to – believe. Many perfectly acceptable options are cheap, and much expensive gear will give you benefits in extreme situations, but not much beyond that. Do you really care how some piece of machinery rates in an arbitrary test put together according to criteria possibly irrelevant to you, and written by people whse motives and point of view is always at least a bit questionable? Or do you just want to take some pictures? What matters is whether you get the results you want. Are you being honest to yourself about what you can achieve with what you have? There’s a saying that you should “beware the shooter with one gun” because they will surely know how to use it. While you’re unlikely to fall into a timehole and land in the Old West anytime soon, it’s still good advice. Know the tools you have and use them to their full capabilities before you feel jumpy about upgrading. But don’t be held back by some obscure belief that at the nexus of vision and technology, one of the above does not matter. Getting a new camera because you need it to do something the old one can’t (even if that thing is just “look professional”) is perfectly fine. So is doing it if you don’t, but just would like to have it, given you can afford it. But they are both very different things, and it makes little sense to confuse them. If you do, you’re bound to be disappointed.

Now excuse me, I’m going to head out there and take a polaroid portrait, some night time images with a fast prime lens, a picture of that bird that’s nesting in the yard, and a few instagram images of my lunch to be posted ASAP. And no, I won’t be using the same camera for all of them. I suppose I could, but the pictures would be very different than the ones I intend to take.


Note: The images in this post were taken with various cameras, and are of all kinds of subjects. My aim is to provide some “as is” samples of pictures that were taken with the tool I had handy at the moment. You can judge for yourself whether the camera was up to the job.

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