On Photography: What makes the Photo?
Photography is largely about compensating. Sometimes you are in a situation with not enough light. So you adjust your film sensitivity (ISO) but lose sharpness. So you open your aperture to compensate. Opening the aperture wider, you lose depth of field. So you slow your shutter speed a little only to lose the ability to shoot movement without a blur. And so on. A whole different set of problems occur when you are faced with too much light. Thinking about these problems is important to improve the quality of your shots.
The point is to know how to adjust your gear according to the conditions you find yourself in in order to make the effect you want. Sometimes darkness creates mood. Sometimes blurred images show movement that explains the situation in a way that a perfectly frozen image doesn’t. This is what the photographer needs to figure out and hopefully do so on purpose. She can only do so if she knows her gear like the back of her hand. After all, the camera is just a tool. There are so many variables at play that there is a lot of room to play with the settings and stumble upon a beautiful combination that creates a unique image.
At one point, she probably shopped around and compared different brands and specifications in the process, as well as price. On occasion she probably was green with envy wishing that she had this lens or that full framed sensor blah blah blah.
An often repeated line in videos and articles is that the camera doesn't really matter as much as the person using it. I have also gotten the impression from online tutorials and forums that people who talk about AF points of this or that camera, focal lengths, prime v. zoom, canon v. nikon, etc. are gear-heads and are worthy of contempt.
The current collective line of thinking is that the problem is not with the camera but with how you use it and how you read the conditions of the situation you are shooting. While this is very true, in order to know how are you going to get your shots, you have to know exactly what your camera can and cannot do. You had to choose a camera, as buying two or three to really test them out is cost probative for most of us. You have to do you homework. You have to be a gear-head, a little bit. Then you have to forget the catalog of information comparing various systems and just really know how to make use of what you have and focus on composition, the decisive movement, light, etc.
That is what makes the Digital Review TV series “Pro photographer/cheap camera challenge” so inspiring.
Watching these professional photographers work with toy cameras and low end cameras, I am amazed to see how they are not out of their element working within the serious limitations of the low-end cameras. Digital Rev TV makes the point that the camera hardly matters. "The best camera is the one at hand."
Photography is not simply about equipment.
Here the embedding was tricky but at the 1:01 mark until the 3:12 mark fashion photographer, Lara Jade learns that she will not get to use her Canon 5d Mark III for this camera challenge during a 6 hour layover in Hong Kong.
These photographers are excellent problem solvers. They think fast on their feet. They are more concerned with reading the room’s light, scouting out a location, and understanding how the camera works just long enough to figure out the buttons. They seem to enjoy the challenge because they can show that those impressive cameras, that they usually wield, perhaps don’t deserve as much of the credit for the photographer's results.
Watching photographer like Chase Jarvis get to know his subject, even before he begins taking shots, is a valuable photography lesson. And it is one that you will never find in an article describing what the camera they are promoting can do. Here he interviews his subject at the start of his Lego Camera challenge (2:55-4:07):
he whole video is useful to watch as he uses the same technique with the young skateboarder as he does with a team of martial artists. He talks to them and gets to know what they want to show him. That way he is not exactly dictating the shots in an unnatural way but he is not a passive observer, simply documenting it, either.
But I am a little skeptical. Making the point that the camera doesn't matter is not the same thing as saying that I don't need a great camera. A talented professional with low-end equipment can do more than I can with high end equipment but that doesn't mean that I can do much with low-end equipment. The quality of a mid-range DSLR motivates me and I am proud of the results. All the while, I can still see a distinct difference with my photos from the work of a professional photographer.
I think music instruments can make a fair comparison.
Musical instruments are like cameras in that they are complex and beautiful, most people wished that they knew how to use/play them, and high end equipment makes beautiful results.
Jimmy Fallon has an occasional segment where popular musicians play one of their songs using plastic children classroom instruments. The hip hop band The Roots (Fallon’s studio band) accompanies and it sounds surprisingly good.
I should mention that Idina Menzel sounds absolutely amazing in the above clip. I am willing to bet that she can sing along with anything and make it sound beautiful despite the limitations of the instruments around her. She is a world class professional and has earned all of the awards and accolades that go with that. The Roots jamming together with children's toys doesn't give me perspective on what equipment I would realistically need. It reminds me how talented they are are as the low-end instruments simply make their talent stand out even more.
Should someone have a similar take away from the Digital Rev Cheap Camera Challenge as they would from the Jimmy Fallon jams?
Could someone say: You really don’t need a Steinway in the living room. You could make impressive results with this rainbow xylophone…if you really knew what you were doing (guffaw).
In fact, there is a little magic in the instruments. Anyone who has casually strummed a perfectly tuned guitar can attest to that. A friend of mine is a piano tuner and he tells me how he is always kept busy in China. Lots of families have a piano in the home. I asked him if it really is so important to have the piano serviced regularly. Without hesitation he said that it certainly was. There is nothing more discouraging to a novice learner than to play a chord perfectly but to not really know that it was perfect because the piano was out of tune. If the piano doesn’t sound good, the student never forms an ear for how it is meant to sound. (I’m paraphrasing). He told me this with a level of earnestness that went to show that he believes that his job is vital is the students' musical education.
Experienced musicians can take a tinny sounding children's toys and make joyful music because they know how music sounds when it is in tune and they know that the sound is just one part of good music. Rhythm, a beat, tempo and a lot of other considerations come together to make music what it is. The sound of the instrument is just one of many parts. A talented musician will enjoy the challenge of compensating for that deficiency by using many techniques. An artist will doubly enjoy showing people that the pleasure of music comes from something invisible.
This is true with photographers as well. Mastering the art, on good equipment, encourages further learning. It is that mastery that enables one to be able to make great images on sub-standard equipment.
Yet, it would be ridiculous for a pianist to spend much time comparing their pianos and thinking that the key to being a greater pianist was to somehow buy a top end version of the piano brand that they already own. If they did, anyone could easily see that they were missing a valuable point about playing the piano. Perhaps that is true for photography and cameras too.
The great takeaway from the Digital RevTV series is that the image is sometimes only a secondary take-away. The experience you have with your models, your subject, and environment are meaningful and the best photographs manage to capture the essence of that experience.
That is why, if you cannot be the best technically excellent photographer, go and have excellent experiences. You will be taking a change in a lifetime photograph. You are in position to take the shot. A combination of mastery of your equipment and knowing how to be in the right place at the right time will lead t the best results.
I'd rather have amateurish images of amazing experiences than professionally perfect shots of my backyard sunset.
How about you?