In case you haven’t already heard or seen it, Jorge Colombo has used the iPhone app “Brushes” to create the cover of The New Yorker (May 25, 2009). This single event marks a turning point in the creation and use of available technology. These works of art, which are essentially digital finger paintings, are showcased on his website.
Mr. Colombo is hereby awarded the “Feats of Artistic Strength Award” because it might be the most high-profile example of equipment being inconsequential to the vision of the artist. To paraphrase Jodi Friedman’s recent blog post at MCP Actions Blog,
A professional camera does not a professional photographer make.
Everyone experiences this. You might call it techno-envy. We see the famous photographers shooting with the new Canon 5D Mk II before it’s released to the public. We see the incredible short film he made with the HD Video capture feature. And thus begins the inner dialogue:
My brain: You’d totally shoot images that looked just like [insert famous photographer] if you ONLY had that $2500 camera and that $1600 lens! Look at the bokeh on that thing!
My wallet: You’re kidding, right? That’s like a year’s worth of groceries! Your kid can’t eat Canon glass for dinner!
My brain: But with that equipment, just think how much better my photos will be! It has better resolution and therefore my photos will look amazing and I can start charging more for them! Then we’ll be eating caviar!
My wallet: Yeah. I bet if you bought that new $500 driver you’d hit the ball just like Tiger Woods, too. Or maybe you’d still hit it into the woods. Only further.
We’ve all heard time and time again from other photographers, and especially the famous ones, that it’s NOT the equipment that matters. It’s the photographers. But how those marketing campaigns from Canon and Nikon sing the sweet music of megapixels into our ears! Here’s the manufacturer’s information from one of the leading photo retailers:
The Canon EOS 5D Mark II improves upon the EOS 5D by increasing the resolution by about 40% to 21.1 Megapixels and adds a Live View feature that allows users to preview shots on the camera’s high-resolution 3.0″ LCD display. It even incorporates the ability to record full motion HD Video with sound, so you can capture the action as well as superb images.
Who wouldn’t want a camera that’s teeming with megapixels and shoots HD video? It continues:
Other professional quality features found on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II include 14-bit A/D conversion, Auto Light Optimizer, Lens Peripheral Illumination Correction, 9-point AF plus 6-point assist AF, 25 Custom Functions with 71 settings, and 5 metering modes (35-Zone EV, 8% Partial Spot, 3.5% Spot, Center-Weighted, and Pre-Flash E-TTL II). Altogether, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II has been designed to serve the needs and interests of serious enthusiasts as well as professional photographers who are in pursuit of the perfect image.
And now for the rant.
Doesn’t that description make it sound as if you could pick up the camera, and with a minimum of experience or knowledge, take a great photo? Hopefully none of us believe that, or else I’m sure just putting the newest, most techologically-advanced tennis racquet in my 3-month old daughter’s hands and she’d instantly turn into the next Serena Williams. But even with natural ability, she would still need years of hard work and practice to become a pro. Babies aren’t just born and start walking in the first hours of life. It takes several months and many falls and bruised knees to get up on two feet. The advantage babies have is that they don’t have a brain trying to telling them there’s a shortcut that they can purchase. Only their desire to walk keeps them trying again and again, until their feet, ankles, knees, and legs all work in harmony and they achieve their goal. Parents know it doesn’t stop there. Onto running and climbing up things. They don’t see roadblocks or obstacles. All they see is opportunities.
It’s an overused metaphor, but it’s so common because it’s so true. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you to buy bad equipment. I heartily agree with Vincent Versace’s advice to “Buy your last camera first,” but not for the reason you might think. Should you scrape together that extra $500 to get the higher-end model? Certainly. But only because it’ll last you a very long time so you can learn to know it inside out, and use it to its fullest capacity. You should know what every button does, where every setting is, and what they do. You should be able to operate the camera without looking at it.
The quality of your glass also plays a huge role in the quality of your images. But again, price doesn’t have to set the bar here. Canon makes a 50mm f/1.8 lens that costs less than $100 and produces incredibly sharp images and decent bokeh. In fact, before you drop a few thousand dollars on a new camera, invest less than $100 in an inexpensive prime and see if a whole new world doesn’t open up through your viewfinder. Yes, the more expensive lenses have the ability to record better in-camera images. But that doesn’t mean that they make better photos. Only the person squeezing the shutter has that ability.
Pick a lens and fall in love with it. Every lens is unique, like a new friend. They each have their own unique abilities and their own nuances to discover, and what a fun thing to have to do…photograph more! You’ll soon learn exactly what your lenses can and can’t do; where they are their sharpest, where they might vignette, how long it is before their weight makes your forearm ache.
The bottom line.
Yes, expensive equipment records better images than cheaper equipment. There’s no getting around that. What it will not do is magically turn your image into a better photograph. That’s a fine distinction, and I’m going to repeat it so you won’t forget: better equipment does not make a better photograph. It just records the image more accurately. If you can’t frame an image well, the camera will not do it for you. If you can’t adjust the exposure for extreme backlighting, the camera won’t do it for you. Its job it to do its best to record what you put in front of it. What you put in front of it, how you frame it, how you light it, how you expose it…that’s all you. Some of the most iconic photos in our history have been taken by completely manually operated cameras which didn’t have even a fraction of the raw computing power that today’s entry-level DSLRs have.
Back to the beginning.
Think again about Jorge Colombo’s iPhone drawing. Did he have a finely crafted paintbrush, a beautifully handmade palette, an lovely studio with north-facing windows to let in just the right amount of light? No. He was on a busy street in New York, looking (and smelling) a hot dog vendor’s cart. He had an iPhone and a $5 application, and he recorded the scene as he saw it.
We do the same thing with a camera. It doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars. In fact, the most well-known image of the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River was shot…on an iPhone! It didn’t come from a 21-megapixel camera. It came from a 2-megapixel cell phone. And it was on the front page of hundreds of newspapers around the world.
How you know when to buy new stuff.
The only requirement for a piece of equipment is that it allows you to get the job done. So if you’re constantly shooting weddings in darkly lit churches, and all you have is a kit lens that only opens to f/4, you’re equipment is limiting your ability to make good images. That’s when you look at purchasing glass that’s capable of allowing you to do your job and shoot in low light.
I remember reading an interview with a photographer back when I was a teenager where this same question of expensive vs. cheap equipment came up. He said he never paid attention to someone’s equipment. Instead, he looked at their photos. It doesn’t matter how much your camera cost. Jose Villa and Joe Buissink (among others) still shoot film, and their images are spectacular. Don’t think that you need a 21-megapixel camera to get the job done. Be in the right place, the right time, frame it, and shoot it. A photographer’s camera is only as good as the photographer pressing the shutter.
A sports star was once asked: “How did you get to be so successful?”
He replied, “Two words: good decisions.”
And the inevitable reply: “How did you learn to make good decisions?”
He said, “One word: experience.”
“And how did you get experience?”
“Two words: bad decisions.”
Whether it’s bad decisions, bruised knees, or another photo that didn’t turn out the way you had hoped, nothing is a failure. You learn. After a while navigating your equipment becomes second nature. A poor image was a bad decision. And knowing what makes a poor image gives you the experience you need to make better images. Soon your good images will outnumber your poor images. And then your great images will begin to outnumber your good images.
Before you talk to your wallet, shoot. Shoot everything. From every angle. With every f-stop. Learn your camera. Learn your lenses. You can’t outsource it, it’s an investment you have to make on your own. You won’t know if your equipment is holding you back until you know what it can do. So what are you waiting for? Stop reading and learn your equipment. Go shoot!
(Though before you do, you might want to check out this awesome video of Jorge Colombo actually creating the cover!)