The Camera Matters.

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The Camera Matters.
11 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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Pritzl
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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to howardroark, 11 months ago

Agreed. The camera (and gear in general) definitely matters.

Better gear affords you the potential for better pictures. The photographic equipment and process circumscribe the limits of what is achievable. Achieving it is up to the photographer.

Ironically, most of those repeating the "camera doesn't matter" mantra then go on to either try to sell you gear or describe their settings and process in great detail.

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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to Pritzl, 11 months ago

Pritzl wrote:

Agreed. The camera (and gear in general) definitely matters.

Better gear affords you the potential for better pictures. The photographic equipment and process circumscribe the limits of what is achievable. Achieving it is up to the photographer.

Ironically, most of those repeating the "camera doesn't matter" mantra then go on to either try to sell you gear or describe their settings and process in great detail.

I've found the methods for discussing or arguing points around here turning more and more towards dismissal, absurd reductions, and downright misunderstandings.  I ran a search for "the camera doesn't matter" and found some great examples of this very common saying being supported and disputed.  One author supported his position with a quote by Ansel Adams saying essentiall the most important part of the photography process is twelve inches behind the camera.  Well, yes having a functioning brain is a good start and certainly having talent and skill in that brain is a huge advantage, but I seriously doubt Ansel Adams was in any way trying to imply the camera was trivial.  It is possible to have more than one thing in the creative process that "matter."

It seems like "the camera doesn't matter" comes either from insecurity or ego:  insecurity if one doesn't feel good about their equipment or perhaps wants every bit of credit for the image (there are some who give way too much credit to the camera when they see a good photograph) and ego if they feel they are so good the camera couldn't possibly be considered significant by comparison to their amazing talent.

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Richard Ettinger
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actually, it's the lens.
In reply to howardroark, 11 months ago
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Canon 40D. Canon 50mm f1.4, canon 135mm 2.8/soft focus, Canon 70-200 f4L, Canon 24-105L. Sony Nex-7.

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Re: actually, it's the lens.
In reply to Richard Ettinger, 11 months ago

Richard Ettinger wrote:

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Canon 40D. Canon 50mm f1.4, canon 135mm 2.8/soft focus, Canon 70-200 f4L, Canon 24-105L. Sony Nex-7.

In my book camera = body + lens.  No?

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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to howardroark, 11 months ago

I have a great many artist friends (painters, sculptors, potters, photographers etc.), having taught at a local art center for years.  When I visit their home or studio conversation always gets around to their latest work.  However, they say "Let me show you my latest painting," not "let me show what I did with my new paint brush."
Photographers almost always show what they have done in relationship to their newest lens or body.  Most other artists find that quite odd.  The relationship between the photographer and camera is vastly different from the relationship between sculptor and hammer.  Both tools are essential to the process, but relationship ends there for the sculptor.  While the photographer has almost a romantic link to the camera.

The photographer's relationship to the camera is more similar to the musician with his instrument.  It's interesting that Ansel almost became a concert pianist.

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aftab
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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to howardroark, 11 months ago

Excellent write up, Howard. I agree, oversimplification can be misleading.

I think, 'camera (equipment) doesn't matter, is an extreme position of the argument. As I understand, the argument makes two observations to come to one conclusion.

One, a good photographer (with creativity, imagination, skill, motivation, dedication etc) can make excellent photographs with average equipment. You have covered this aspect of the argument at length.

Two, a not so good photographer (without creativity, imagination, skill, motivation, dedication) will make not so good photographs even with excellent equipment. Excellent equipment doesn't make their photographs automatically excellent.

So, these two observations lead to one conclusion: it is not the camera, meaning photographer is a lot more important than the equipment he or she uses. In internet forums and blogs, this argument is most commonly aimed at those who buy or want to buy expensive equipment believing that this alone will make them better photographer or will make their photographs better.

I don't think this is an argument against better and more capable equipment. This is an argument against more reliance on the equipment and less on the skill, creativity etc.

As you have mentioned, the whole process is a lot more complex than the oversimplification would imply. But it is still a very powerful argument as long as we don't take it to the extreme and use it appropriately (to encourage people to learn, practice and think outside the box).

Thanks for posting this.

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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to Jeff_Donald, 11 months ago

Jeff_Donald wrote:

I have a great many artist friends (painters, sculptors, potters, photographers etc.), having taught at a local art center for years. When I visit their home or studio conversation always gets around to their latest work. However, they say "Let me show you my latest painting," not "let me show what I did with my new paint brush."

And yet there is typically a certain type of paint or application method or size or something that they do tend to concentrate on.  Painting involves some different elements that might be kind of difficult to line up with a photographic analog.  Still, the truth is photography is a much more democratic art form because people don't need much skill to get started.  Painting doesn't have a "Green Square" mode on it anywhere.    And it also depends on who they're talking to.  I don't tell random friends about how some new equipment helped me get this shot or that shot, but if I'm getting detailed about the shot then the equipment is a perfectly valid topic....in painting inspiration can be everything from real to imaginary and then your materials can cover a lot of ground.  In photography you only have the real to use and it can take a very specific capability to get a shot.

Photographers almost always show what they have done in relationship to their newest lens or body. Most other artists find that quite odd. The relationship between the photographer and camera is vastly different from the relationship between sculptor and hammer. Both tools are essential to the process, but relationship ends there for the sculptor. While the photographer has almost a romantic link to the camera.

I'm not sure that's where the relationship ends for the sculptor, but there is a much greater burden of creation on the artist himself creating something from nothing than the photographer using something very complex to relate to a subject that is unavoidably and completely real.  In other words, I can't go take a picture of a dragon or a dead person but an artist can create either one with a great deal of creative energy that originates completely from within.  Perhaps the connection some artist have to their art is just a bit different than a photographer and his photographs.  I'd imagine there are plenty of photographers that don't talk much about their gear when explaining the emotion and inspiration behind a photograph.

The photographer's relationship to the camera is more similar to the musician with his instrument. It's interesting that Ansel almost became a concert pianist.

Excellent analogy, although reality is much less flexible than the notes coming out of piano in terms of creative license.

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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to aftab, 11 months ago

aftab wrote:

Excellent write up, Howard. I agree, oversimplification can be misleading.

I think, 'camera (equipment) doesn't matter, is an extreme position of the argument. As I understand, the argument makes two observations to come to one conclusion.

One, a good photographer (with creativity, imagination, skill, motivation, dedication etc) can make excellent photographs with average equipment. You have covered this aspect of the argument at length.

Two, a not so good photographer (without creativity, imagination, skill, motivation, dedication) will make not so good photographs even with excellent equipment. Excellent equipment doesn't make their photographs automatically excellent.

So, these two observations lead to one conclusion: it is not the camera, meaning photographer is a lot more important than the equipment he or she uses. In internet forums and blogs, this argument is most commonly aimed at those who buy or want to buy expensive equipment believing that this alone will make them better photographer or will make their photographs better.

I think that originates in the false assumption that the equipment has more ability than it does.  In other words, without understanding what all that money is paying for how can people have any realistic expectations from it?  You're more likely to find a perfect creative tool by understanding your own needs and style in relation to what certain cameras are capable of, their ergonomics, size, related system components, etc.  The creative drive and energy have to match the tool.  This is where my own expectations for a day and my energy level come in to play when choosing which camera I will take with me.  If I didn't have more than one choice then there may be days when I would go camera-less (iPhone camera really doesn't count, although it is better than nothing).  Because I have two tools with overlapping abilities in some areas I can cover almost any mood or occasion.  I'm not going to haul my backpack with 7D and lenses out when I don't have a specific goal in mind.  However, if I think there might be something to shoot I will grab the G1 X even if the chances are slim.

I don't think this is an argument against better and more capable equipment. This is an argument against more reliance on the equipment and less on the skill, creativity etc.

Photography makes it far too easy to assume the equipment can compensate for the shortcomings of the photographer.  People assume they are getting something smarter or perhaps they think a perfectly sharp image with amazing colors will distract from the fact that the picture is garbage in terms of composition and subject.

As you have mentioned, the whole process is a lot more complex than the oversimplification would imply. But it is still a very powerful argument as long as we don't take it to the extreme and use it appropriately (to encourage people to learn, practice and think outside the box).

Thanks for posting this.

Thanks for your input!  I'd rather have discussions with others than try to deal with absolutists that don't accept balance as a reasonable conclusion.

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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to howardroark, 11 months ago

A photographer isn't a sculptor?

They both have a reality to begin with, I mean cropping an image is already chiseling away a part of reality (rock if you wish).

You can do all sorts of non existing stuff, like dual exposure, ND filters (the mandatory milky water shots) light trails, uberHDR etc.

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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to howardroark, 11 months ago

not sure why such a long posting..propably the longest in dpreviw history..

camera matters but other things are important too like the photographer..

Camera matters but there are some components of the camera which matters the most ..like a good lens which is suitable for the object..

examples: a person running with a leica m9 and a 5000 dollar lens who has no clue what f and iso are..can for sure not making great shots..

another a guy using let say canon 30D with L lense who knows what he is doing with good talent can achieve spectacular shots

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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to howardroark, 11 months ago

Well it was rather a long post and I have to confess I nodded off a couple of times.

But of course you are right, the camera does matter. However to some the camera actually matters more than the final result. It is certainly well known in the camera industry that there are a high percentage of camera users who are certainly more interested in the camera as a desirable item in itself than in the results produced with it (other than test shots perhaps, which are just a kind of certification of performance rather than art). We can all probably cite examples of people who could bore for their country on the detail of how to use a particular piece of equipment but still not produce anything meaningful with it. And perhaps some of us are lucky enough to know someone who can produce something fantastic with whatever piece of equipment they happen to have, however humble.

But at the end of the day does that really matter? If 'specification man' gets pleasure from owning stuff that he doesn't really use, why should we care? Ultimately through his purchases he is making equipment more affordable, and possibly also more advanced, for those that might consider themselves 'artists'.

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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to Limburger, 11 months ago

Limburger wrote:

A photographer isn't a sculptor?

They both have a reality to begin with, I mean cropping an image is already chiseling away a part of reality (rock if you wish).

Only the reality that exists within the mind of the sculptor.  Imagination certainly is vital to any creative process, but it has to be used in different ways depending on the medium.

You can do all sorts of non existing stuff, like dual exposure, ND filters (the mandatory milky water shots) light trails, uberHDR etc.

Yes, and most of those require one exposure of reality at a time and software manipulation after the fact.

Photography is telling lies with the truth...or telling the truth with lies, depending on your point of view.  Because it is based on boundaries everyone is familiar with, changing the parameters that people aren't quite aware of or are perhaps less obvious to the observer creates a version of reality that doesn't exist....but does if you understand the context and methods used to get the shot, which one very rarely does.  So, you choose to crop parts of the scene out, use a long exposure, or do some other trickery and you've presented something in a way that if one was standing there looking at it in person just would not see.  We remove sound, taste, touch, smell, not to mention a vast majority of the surrounding environment, and then we use angles of view the human eye never sees on its own with a field of view we would never see and a depth of field that is totally unnatural and then we say "yep, that's what it really looked like because it's a picture and all you can do with a picture is record what is there."  Ignoring a lot of other stuff and using techniques that are totally unnatural to record that image rarely enters the conversation unless it is something obvious like start trails that no human could ever see.

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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to Stollen1234, 11 months ago

Stollen1234 wrote:

not sure why such a long posting..propably the longest in dpreviw history..

Yeah, well....with all the smartphone nonsense being discuss and people busting out he phrase "the camera doesn't matter" left and right I decided to just write my thoughts down a few weeks ago.  With the new iPhone and some reviews of the 70D being published by photographers of questionable judgement and reputation I figured I'd go ahead and post it and let it sink or swim.

camera matters but other things are important too like the photographer..

Camera matters but there are some components of the camera which matters the most ..like a good lens which is suitable for the object..

examples: a person running with a leica m9 and a 5000 dollar lens who has no clue what f and iso are..can for sure not making great shots..

another a guy using let say canon 30D with L lense who knows what he is doing with good talent can achieve spectacular shots

Of course.  The fallacy of the argument that something doesn't matter is that just because more than one thing is required for an art form like photography to exist doesn't mean those things have to share a limited amount of "matter."  If one can't exist without the other, then those two things matter a lot and should not be discounted out of hand.  They are very different considerations, the artist and the equipment, but that just means they need to be treated differently instead of one made inferior to the other.  Which is more important, the bullet or the gun?  The ocean or the fish?  My heart or my liver?  If one would be useless without the other the argument shouldn't degrade to a competition of what matters more.  We should be adults and have enought intelligence and wisdom to think of things in terms that are not absolutes.

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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to meland, 11 months ago

meland wrote:

Well it was rather a long post and I have to confess I nodded off a couple of times.

I honestly was quite prepared for the good possibilty that nobody would read it.  I couldnt' help myself.  I started writing my thoughts down weeks ago just to work out my own thoughts and after some recent rather maddening discussions I decided to paste it into a post and let go of my thoughts.  I didn't even think it would fit in one post.

But of course you are right, the camera does matter. However to some the camera actually matters more than the final result. It is certainly well known in the camera industry that there are a high percentage of camera users who are certainly more interested in the camera as a desirable item in itself than in the results produced with it (other than test shots perhaps, which are just a kind of certification of performance rather than art). We can all probably cite examples of people who could bore for their country on the detail of how to use a particular piece of equipment but still not produce anything meaningful with it. And perhaps some of us are lucky enough to know someone who can produce something fantastic with whatever piece of equipment they happen to have, however humble.

But at the end of the day does that really matter? If 'specification man' gets pleasure from owning stuff that he doesn't really use, why should we care? Ultimately through his purchases he is making equipment more affordable, and possibly also more advanced, for those that might consider themselves 'artists'.

Indeed.  And having people with good knowledge of some finer details does come in handy from time to time.  We certainly do benefit from the market being bigger to promote competition and lower prices.  And if someone wants to take snapshots with their five thousand dollar camera because their family or cat or car are that important to them then who am I to judge?  When I take pictures of random stuff I also want as much detail as I can get so that when I look at that picture decades later I can see textures and colors as if I was there.

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In reply to Richard Ettinger, 11 months ago

I still have FZ50 with Leica lens, Great lens, sharp, 38-420, f2.8, internal zoom, you can screw WA ore TC at front of them.

But, low light and High ISO limited, I missed so many shots which I can easy do with 60D+15-85 and 100-400.

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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to Jeff_Donald, 11 months ago

Brush to brush = not much different, or hammer to hammer. But Photo equipment has a huge variations in many aspects.

I'm sure Raphael could do better job with brash and paint from Home Dipot than I with his brash.

Some times you can do better pictures with P&S than a beginner with DSLR, but better camera and lenses have less limitations.

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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to howardroark, 11 months ago

I have found that a poor design camera can get in the way of your creatvity. My 7D can blend in with my hand and become part of me as I create. I really dont think about the camera when in creative mode. So to me a great camera just does it job and doesnt get in the way.

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In reply to rickyred, 11 months ago

rickyred wrote:

I have found that a poor design camera can get in the way of your creatvity. My 7D can blend in with my hand and become part of me as I create. I really dont think about the camera when in creative mode. So to me a great camera just does it job and doesnt get in the way.

One of the articles I read after posting this pointed out the fallacy of saying "a good photographer can do just as good with camera X as they can with camera Y" in that it ignores the reasons a photographer chose camera X over camera Y in the first place.  The camera affects how one photographs, what one photographs, and the ability to adapt quickly enough to get shots that might require a quick response time.  So getting great shots from many different types of cameras does not mean you would get the same shots had you chosen to use a different camera in those same situations.

I feel the same way about my 7D.  It has become such an extension of myself that I almost dread upgrading.  Maybe that's why it would take some really compelling features in a Mark II to convince me to spend the money.  Not only am I very happy with the output, I'm also very happy with the overall experience of using it.

 howardroark's gear list:howardroark's gear list
Canon PowerShot G1 X
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rickyred
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Re: The Camera Matters.
In reply to howardroark, 11 months ago

Agreed,

 rickyred's gear list:rickyred's gear list
Canon EOS 7D Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Canon EF 35-350mm f/3.5-5.6L USM Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM Sigma 1.4x EX DG Tele Converter +1 more
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