Musings on Photography

Cameras, part two

Posted in equipment by Paul Butzi on June 1, 2009

5D-090521-7245.jpg

Amy comments:

Good artists get the best out of their tools. When given better tools, they produce even better work.

I’ve heard a lot of pundits say It’s the photographer, not the camera, but I know that’s just baloney. I know that when I’m working with defective or limited tools, I can’t produce my best. Maybe that’s why I’m so fussy about my gear (photography, computer, illustration, et al).

Now, the funny thing is that I both agree with Amy, and I don’t.

As Amy is, I am squarely in the “buy the best tools you can, learn to use them effectively” camp.

The funny part is this: sometimes (not always, but sometimes) less is more. Sometimes the more limited tool is the better tool. It’s not always the case the the very best tool is the most broadly applicable one. Sometimes the best tool is, paradoxically, the one that restricts you in some way.

My most recent example is that I spent quite a while photographing with what is arguably the most restrictive lens for the digital SLR’s I own – the old, somewhat creaky 100mm macro. It’s slow to focus, somewhat unbalanced, and heavy. But by using it, I learned to push my photography toward the strengths of that lens – focusing up very close, and beautiful out of focus rendering. By forcing myself to cope with an imposed limitation, I got better as a photographer, and happier as a person.

I’m not saying it always works that way. And if you have enough self discipline, you can set your very versatile zoom lens to 100mm and f/2.8 and go to town, just as I did with my macro lens.

But sometimes, just sometimes, it works well to head out with gear you know will limit you in some way, just to see what will happen.

10 Responses

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  1. Gordon McGregor said, on June 1, 2009 at 9:38 am

    one of the best photos I’ve taken this month was with an iPhone.

    I think the worst thing people can be doing is constantly switching gear/ upgrading/ buying new stuff etc. I’ve realised now that after half a decade of using the same camera and lenses, that I’m starting to get more fluid with them. Like in golf, equipment isn’t a good substitute for time.

  2. Amy Sakurai said, on June 1, 2009 at 10:05 am

    I think this goes back to both Mike’s original exercise (Leica for a Year) and the People With Cameras Take Pictures statement of synergy between photographer and her tools. The constraints of a tool forces an education and also creativity. Any tool will do this. Holgas, Polaroids, rangefinders, pinhole cameras, cell phone cameras, cheapo tiny sensor digicams… photographers can make them all sing in their own manner. Good photographers take those tools to levels not attained by the average Jane.

    If the art you’re trying to create fits within the range of those tools, you’ll do well. If you’re trying to do a function the tool is ill-equipped to perform, you’ll spend a lot of extra cycles wrestling with the tool. I don’t like doing that with my computer and software, my pencils and sketchpad, or my cameras. The main reason I did not go with Canon when I upgraded my DSLR is that I couldn’t stand the ergonomics of the 30D. Heck, I’m not crazy about Nikon ergonomics either, but it was better than what Canon provided.

    It’s not so much the feature set, complexity, or versatility of the tool… it’s how much I fight with the tool or how much I bond with it. There are many flawed tools I’ll work with just fine; there are others that I know I should just throw away – regardless of their pedigree. My time is too valuable for me to be frustrated or miserable.

    The Leica is a good example of a limited tool being a good teacher. It’s flawed and simple, but the flaws don’t get in the way of an artist/tool bond. I actually think a Holga would be fun. But I’m pretty sure the Canon 30D (or 40D or 50D) would have driven me crazy. I’m picky like that. I want to love my tools, warts and all. (Do tools have warts?)

  3. Markus Spring said, on June 1, 2009 at 10:27 am

    My problem with my own gearheadedness (gosh, what an ugly word) was that it distracted me from seeing – for quite a long time. The good thing of it was that it was in a relentless way always kicking in to tell me that there is a craftmanship besides the vision thing that deserves to be learned and mastered as well – the pictures I admire have a great visual power but are also skilfully executed, no unnecessary flaw, no tilted horizon that does not add to the image.
    So yes – the limits can help as they can stand in the way. If I can overcome some limits or get *the* tool I am longing for, it *can* help. It is just not granted, neither in the one or the other way.

  4. Oren Grad said, on June 1, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    I like simple cameras not because they make my life harder, but because they make it easier. When the tool is properly matched to the purpose, simplicity becomes freedom, not constraint.

  5. julie said, on June 2, 2009 at 2:16 am

    I should be finishing my sofobomo book rather than reading your blog right now, but anyway… :p

    I think people can forget that there’s a midle ground in this one. Yes, there’s probably a better lens than the (new version of the) 100mm macro, but it does what I need it to well enough that I can forget about it and get on with taking pictures. Same went for the 350D, for a while, but I upgraded when it because blazingly obvious that I was struggling because of the camera and not my eyes. Now I have the 5D a while I’ve stopped just gazing at it lovingly enough to get on with the business of making pictures again. Good enough is good enough for me.

  6. Oren Grad said, on June 2, 2009 at 9:16 am

    On second thought: the range of available design tradeoffs is vastly greater among film cameras than among digital cameras. I like film, so it’s much easier to find cameras that are a really good match to my tastes. In fairness, it’s too glib to imply that if only digital camera users were more careful about doing the same… Sorry if yesterday evening’s comment came across that way.

  7. Bryan Willman said, on June 3, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Complexity vs Simplicity is not the same as “Very Adequate Tools vs Tools That Don’t Work”.

    A number of the examples cited (notably the old 100mm macro) are in fact Very High Quality. That Macro was thought to be the sharpest lens available in Canon mount at the time of its introduction. Newer ones are wizzier, it’s not clear they make better images.

    Similar issue with Leica’s – an M6 with a 35f1.4summilux aspheric is “simple” in the sense it does what it’s told. It’s also the shapest 35mm lens ever made attached to a camera that works just fine. Free you from unneeded complexity and distraction? Sure. A low quality tool? Uh, no…

    The real issue is “quality” tools (meaning producing the best end result, or at least an adequate one) verus Wizzy tools (meaning lots of strange functions unrelated to the work at hand.)

    I think it is really really hard for even the best photographer to make images with cameras that don’t work. As in the shutter just refuses to fire, the shutter speeds are unrelated to any setting, the aperture isn’t, and so on. I’ve had such cameras – they were old and simple, but they didn’t help.

  8. Anita Jesse said, on June 3, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    With my limited history in photography, it is a bit cheeky for me to comment, but I’ll chime in anyway. It seems to me that the truth is definitely somewhere in the middle here. The first time I upgraded a camera it was because I was shooting fast and furious action and the number of fps was important. When I got that first upgrade (Canon 20D), I was shooting on another level and wondered why I waited so long to buy that camera. The same thing happened when I bought my first L lens. I’m sure that many make the mistake of buying a more expensive camera believing that the camera will turn all their losers into winners. I have never been susceptible to that lovely illusion. However, I do know that there are certain tasks that can be better accomplished with more efficient tools.

  9. Rakesh Malik said, on June 5, 2009 at 11:48 am

    I’m with Bryan. Simple doesn’t mean inferior. The fact that it has only one focal length doesn’t imply inferior quality.

    Zooms are convenient, and they certainly have advantages, but they require more glass to implement. I went with all primes for my 35mm kit not because zooms are inferior, but rather because I wanted to keep my kit smaller and lighter than would have been possible with zooms.

    Which reminds me, I have some 35mm film to develop in addition to the 4×5’s that I’ve been shooting during my SoFoBoMo project. 🙂

  10. Martin Budden said, on June 7, 2009 at 5:25 am

    I believe this is called “the discipline of the form”. Deliberately restricting the means of expression can lead to greater creativity.

    I have a high-end racing bicycle which is a joy to ride. But I also have a fixed gear (one-speed) bicycle which gives a different kind of joy: an almost zen-like oneness with the road.

    I think the occasional reversion to simpler equipment also helps remind us that it is ourselves and not our equipment that limits what we can create.


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