The Camera Matters.

Started 7 months ago | Discussions thread
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The Camera Matters.
7 months ago

If you reduce photography down to its most basic elements, two things are required to take a picture:  the photographer and the camera.  Many articles written by respected (and not-so-respected) photographers extol the purity of the artistic process by emphasizing the primacy of the photographer’s creativity and minimizing the importance of the camera itself.  Somehow artists view valuing a piece of equipment as part of the creative process as an insult to their role in the act of creation and, therefore, their value as artists.  Essentially the argument made says that the creative process so greatly overshadows the ability of any camera to take a picture as to make the camera’s abilities appear essentially inconsequential.  In other words, the camera doesn’t matter.

How can one of the two essential aspects of an art form not matter?  More specifically, how can the technology required to make photography possible be so unimportant as to render almost any form of a camera essentially equal?  Many discussions of photographic technology don’t necessarily take this concept to the extremes that might be possible:  claiming a pinhole camera is just as useful as a modern medium format digital camera or professional 35mm DSLR, for example.  However, smartphones and digital point and shoot cameras are quite often lumped into the same category as their very expensive and higher resolution brethren.  After all, they are digital photographic tools with many millions of pixels and producing digital photographic files.

An experienced photographer can take these similar but disparate pieces of technology and create amazing works of art.  This fact would appear to lend support to the argument that the camera itself is comparatively trivial and unimportant to the artistic process.   The scenario established to prove this point, upon close examination, says something very different than appears on the surface.  This only proves that the artist has reached a level of comfort with the technological aspect of his or her field that allows them adapt without much conscious thought to the limitations of the equipment they happen to be using at the time.   They mistake this familiarity and ease of adaptation with a lack of importance because of the proportionally insignificant amount of thought they must put into the use of their equipment compared to the complexity of their creative process.

In most populations a bell curve describes the distribution of individuals in relation to a specific variable.  In this case, it stands to reason that a bell curve would describe artistic ability of those individuals in the photographic community with the bulk of photographers being average and a select few being outliers in both the exceptionally talented and the exceptionally untalented direction.  It also stands to reason that a bell curve would describe the skill level of this group with respect to the use of photographic equipment.  The exceptionally talented outliers in one category may not necessarily be the same individuals in the other, which implies that the ability to skillfully use a camera doesn’t necessarily mean one is also a talented artist when creating a photograph.

If the overlap of skillful camera users and talented artists represents such a small proportion of the photographic community then perhaps the importance of the camera itself needs more thoughtful examination.  Not everyone, even very talented artists, will pick up any camera and have the ability to quickly use it to make meaningful artwork.  More importantly, no matter how talented the artist the camera may have limitations that dramatically reduce how the artist can or will use it.  In other words, the ability to adapt and create exists only within the confines of technological ability to capture an image or reproduce it.

Because the camera itself can limit options both in the process of image capture and reproduction (printing, viewing, editing, etc.), both limit the usefulness of the artist’s ability to adapt.  However, an expert photographer will adapt to more situations and with more skill, which means their output will make the best use of each situation.  Limitations will still exist, but their ability to affect the output of the photographer diminishes as the photographer’s skill in both the use of the camera and in artistic expression increase.  Does the existence of this small population of skilled photographers imply the camera itself, therefore, fades into the background?

In typical fashion the exception proves the rule.  If it requires great skill in the use of cameras in general and great artistic skill to produce an exceptional photograph from any camera one randomly picks up then it takes a very small and experienced group of people to minimize the interference of the camera’s limitations on the artistic process.  If it requires that much artistic and technical skill to adapt one’s process to the camera they use, then the camera must play a pivotal role in not only how one captures images but also what one chooses to capture in those images.

Why would someone classify an absolute necessity as unimportant?  With the wide array of choices available to photographers including many that emphasize gimmicks over quality, exaggeration of this type makes an attempt to push people away from focusing solely on equipment and concentrate instead on improving their composition skills.  Unfortunately, the exaggeration also treats inexperienced artists, hobbyists, and the most casual snapshooter as equivalent and with a tone of condescension.  Trivializing aspects of the technology used to enable the art form confuses a complex issue rather than giving it due attention.  The importance of talent, experience, and dedication to the development of one’s skill only exists in the context of the abilities of the technology and familiarity with its use.  In other words, someone can get a great shot with any camera simply by chance, but when great talent and great technical knowledge overlap the greater the chances of the results being exceptional.

Because of this relationship even the most talented artist must work within the limitations of the equipment they use.  Whether that means focus speed, image quality in low light, lens sharpness, frame rates, or the size and resolution of the imaging sensor the camera limits both capture and output options.  Considerations like size, weight, balance, ergonomics, menu system, control layout, the system with all of its lenses and accessories, and all of the random features that may or may not be part of the camera play a part in using the camera, not just choosing the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focal length.  Considering all of the subtle and not so subtle ways those variables can affect a photographer’s shooting style and output, the camera itself would appear to play a complex role in the otherwise simple act of recording the image.

Capturing a moment requires all of these variables.  Having the camera with you at any given time may simply be a function of whether or not you feel like carrying it out of the house that day.  Using the camera in a situation may require very fast response time, an easy menu to navigate, a good viewfinder, a zoom lens, or a flash.  As with any piece of technology the barriers to using it must not overwhelm or frustrate a user and, in fact, would benefit from being simple, quick, and intuitive to use.

Anyone who uses a computer, phone, digital music player, or even a home appliance knows that the smallest things make all the difference.  Clicking through complex menus can make finding your music on a digital music player frustrating, and even then if the battery dies too quickly you might not even bother using it.  Programs on your home computer may present easy to use interfaces and workflows that allow you to almost forget they exist while some get in your way so often with disorganization or unnecessary clicks and difficult menus you don’t bother using them anymore.  Because digital cameras behave more like handheld computers with each new generation, software (firmware, in the camera’s case) plays a larger and larger part in the perception and use of the hardware.

This interplay of hardware design in operational aspects like controls and ergonomics as well as output quality from the sensor and lens with the complexities of digital interface makes using the camera increasingly nuanced.  A wide array of camera types exist because of the ability to change the character of the camera both physically and using various digital features within the firmware or the addition of digital interfaces like Wi-Fi and GPS.  The complexities of processing images using various software manipulations, interacting with the outside world with wireless technologies, capturing the image, and the physical presence of the camera now coexist within a single device.

How can this ever increasing complexity and range of choices not overwhelm new or even experienced photographers?  The complex world of film cameras and dark room development kept the boundaries between professionals and amateurs much more distinct than the relatively cheap cameras today that can still produce professional quality results, as well as the software easily purchased and used on a home computer that is as fully featured as an advanced darkroom if not more so.  Someone coming into the digital photography world for the first time might make poor decisions in choosing a camera due to lack of research just as easily as they could make poor decisions by trying to advance too quickly, attempting to find the best camera with the most features assuming that only the camera limits creative output rather than talent or experience.  The temptation to shoot raw image files and then process in advanced photo editing software may also place the new photographer into the deep end of the photographic pool much earlier than necessary, offering even more options and complexities to learn.

So, to avoid all of this complexity and sometimes overwhelming interplay of technology, skill, and psychology we get articles about “the camera doesn’t matter”:  the lazy man’s method for reducing a complex subject down to one variable.  This oversimplification places all the responsibility for great photographs strictly on the shoulders of one’s artistic talents and skills, ignoring how the technology that enables the art form to exist in the first place affects the use of that talent.  Such a discussion makes for great internet blogging and gives the appearance of great philosophical high-mindedness, but it also puts an amateur, enthusiast, or professional photographer in a box that excuses them from knowing about their equipment.  This strikes me as akin to saying “put your camera in fully automatic mode because your vision is all that matters, not the camera’s settings.  You should be able to get a great shot without knowing how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO affects your final image.”  Standing in the shallow end of photographic knowledge, whether in terms of artistic vision or technological savvy, gives one a false sense of comfort by ignoring the fact that the deep end exists.  Differences matter, even little ones, as any artist knows.

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