Photography and Art

Monday, March 31, 2008

Is it the Camera or the Photographer?

There is a nice little tempest in a teapot going on right now between Ken Rockwell and Michael Reichmann. Ken wrote an article here called Your Camera Doesn't Matter where he pointed out that cameras don't make good photographs - people do. A good photographer can make great photos with primitive gear and bad photographers can make terrible snaps with great cameras.

Michael Reichmann, for some unexplained reason, rose to the bait and wrote this comeback called Your Camera Does Matter where he states that artists are very fussy over their gear and choose cameras that enhance their work.

Who is right?

I'm going to side with Ken Rockwell because I think Michael misses the point of Ken's article. Ken's web site is aimed primarily at people like me -- enthusiastic amateur photographers. His thesis, even though not explicitely stated, was that the average amateur photographer would improve their photographs by working harder at their craft (either by taking lots of pics or by taking seminars and joining camera clubs) than they would by investing in lots of advanced gear.

Michael responded by saying that advanced photo equipment is important to artists. While that may be true, that totally misses the enthusiastic amateur audience who read Ken Rockwell's daily blog. Ken is saying to us, his audience, that we should take more pictures, become more creative and not sweat the gear so much.

There is empirical evidence to back up Ken's advice. If you go to one of my favourite photo cruising sites,, and do a search by camera, you'll see that has photos taken by every conceivable type of camera, everything from Canon to Zunow. There is some segmentation. If you look at random photos taken with point and shoot cameras, you'll see a predominance of family snapshots.

However, if you look at the photos taken by enthusiastic amateurs, who tend to own digital SLR's, you'll see very little correlation between the price of the camera and the quality of the photography.

Here are some random good galleries taken by low-end DSLR's:

Trains in the French Alps
Composition and Texture

Without picking on anyone, have a look at the Canon 1Ds Mark III random gallery and you'll see many snapshots that don't demonstrate much command of the art.

I've used many cameras and they are nearly all capable of generating good work. However, Michael does have a point (shared by Ken) that better equipment makes it easier to produce good work, all things being equal. But, you have to have talent and ability in order to reach the full potential offered by your camera.

Let me close with a golf analogy, because I think the golf mindset and the camera buff mindset are very similar. Most amateur golfers spend a small fortune on equipment, but very few can break 100. The conventional advice is that a dollar spent on lessons will outweigh money spent on equipment, but the lure of the marketing message is impossible to resist and golfers opt to buy the latest driver or yet another putter. The new equipment rarely, if every, makes a difference and most golfers have a stack of equipment in the garage that came and went, failing to deliver on the manufacturer's promise.

Camera equipment is kind of like that. Amateur photographers will likely compose and take the same shot, regardless of whether it is with a Canon Rebel or the latest 21 megapixel 1Ds. Yes, there will be a difference in resolution, but the lighting, composition and subject matter will still reflect the talent of the amateur photographer. It won't look any better at 21 megapixels if it doesn't already look good at 6. The lesson here is to find a way to take better photographs by improving your skills, before upgrading your camera equipment.

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