it's the photographer, not the camera. or is it?

When you subscribe to as many photo blogs, newsletters, photography pages on facebook, photo tweets and other photography resources on the web as I do, you stumble across the 'gear vs. photographer' discussion at least once a week. This morning, it was picked up once again by pixiq, an 'online community where the world's top professional photographers, bloggers, and technical experts can engage fellow image enthusiasts in a dynamic and ongoing discourse about all things photographic'. Ahem.

Of course, it's the photographer who takes the picture. Of course, it's possible to take wonderful photos with a matchbox, some duct tape, cardboard, and a spool of film. Of course, the latest-generation camera phones can take photos which wouldn't have been possible with the models available three years ago. I just learned today that the currently 'most interesting' photo on flickr taken with an iPhone 4 is my take of a spiral staircase in the German Film Museum in Berlin, and although that doesn't mean a thing, it still makes me damn proud. And yet, even three years ago, great photos were taken with phone cameras already.

Still, the equipment does play a role. Every gear has its limitations: Difficult light circumstances require you to make manual adjustments to achieve a result that goes beyond an overexposed blur - which isn't possible with many toy cameras or cell phones. If you want a shallow depth of field, you need a wide open lens - most camera phones are designed to take the whole picture at maximum sharpness. Forget off-camera flash, you have to work with available light when you use a cell phone. Also, you're pretty much restricted to a focal length that approximates a 50mm lens on a film camera (or 35mm on a cropped-sensor dSLR). Zooming in? Sure, there's a digital zoom, but the result is hardly worth it. Going wide-angle? Forget it. 

With the new year, I've started with daily self-portraits again after a break of more than two years. This time, I'm only taking them with my iPhone, more specifically, with the Hipstamatic app, which, ironically, mimics the plastic toy camera. I don't have a tripod or a remote control for the iPhone - I am sure they are available, but I won't waste any money on them, because my point is to explore what's possible hand-held, at arm's length. Most of the 30 shots so far are anything but brilliant, and they illustrate the limitations the gear puts on me. Of course, every challenge is also a chance to grow beyond your current limits, which is one of the reasons I discarded the dSLR for this project this time. 

On the other hand, if you do a lot of street photography, the shutter sound of a dSLR and the fact that it's big and clumsy and flashy hamper you more than they help you to achieve your result. Photographers who either use mechanical range finder film cameras or reasonably good point-and-shoot cameras with a wide angle lens clearly make a good choice in the candid street photography department. And of course, you have to lug around a lot of kilograms when you want to make maximum use of your dSLR: The body, possibly several lenses, flash guns, tripods, stands, and other stuff. Not everybody's favorite thing.

Even though I've been taking more photos with my iPhone lately than with my big gun, I'd still love to get a medium format dSLR, like the Pentax 645D. Part of it is what I call gearitis, a phenomenon that mostly characterizes the male photo geek, because, of course, there's a lot of fascination in owning and playing with a machine that is technically superior and opens up opportunities you never had before. It's the same type of guys who get a new car every 2 years, but only drive to work and back with it, rave about the sound quality of their B&O stereo set at home, but only use it to listen to the radio, get that oversized flat screen TV, only to watch game shows, and - well, buy the latest camera, an array of lenses, continuous lighting, umbrellas and background systems, but then shoot Star Wars miniatures on a tabletop. 

Would my photos be better, on average, if I had it? Probably not - for what I shoot, my gear is mostly sufficient. But in those special situations, when you roam the streets at night and need a lot of detail, or want to take the perfect low-light indoor shot, the incredible resolution of its sensor would certainly help. Would I be ready to pay the €10k for the body (and another couple of grand for lenses and accessories)? Not now. But who knows - if my plans to become rich and famous this year materialize, I just might.

Buying a Bösendorfer doesn't make you a great pianist, as photo blogger Ken Rockwell once put it. But if a great pianist plays a Bösendorfer, her music might sound a tad better than on a toy keyboard. 


  1. Speaking of Gearitis, I have a yearning for a Sony NEX-3 or NEX-5. One of these might be good for you, too, since they're smaller than an SLR, are quiet since they don't have the SLR's mirror but they have the same large sensor as an SLR camera and can accept interchangeable lenses. (Albeit there aren't many available yet.) Overall it sounds like a good camera for street photography.

  2. I'm a film purist and love my Diana Camera. All of my gear (film and digital) I collected over the past 25 years was stolen recently and all I have left is one of my Dianas. I recently picked up the Canon S95 and I can't leave the house without it. Its a digital power house that can fit in my front pocket. It has been taking quite a while to get over my recent loss and it made me realize that I was mainly emotionally attached to all that gear.
    Thank you for your article. Its like the old chicken or the egg thing...I'll always believe its the photographer and not the camera that creates the art because its the eye that see the subject and the brain that visualizes the outcome. That said, I think would rather use the word artist instead of photographer.

  3. You can also see it slightly differently, I started wanting to paint or draw, but couldnt. My hands could simply not put *here* on paper what was there, in nature. Photography allowed me to capture that, basically my tools changed: instead of pencils and paper, camera and lenses. Sure the vision has to be there but you have to find a way to make it tangible. Great post!