When shooting on location, we typically encounter tons of people – many with tons of questions needing answers. As we interact, the conversations invariably surround questions about photography and getting jobs in film. Since we’re not giving out employment secrets these days (of which we have none of any real consequence), the focus becomes photography. You would think the questions would get old, however, despite answering the same ones thousands of times in the past, our film crews make every effort to answer questions and point curious individuals in the right direction as often as possible.
There’s one question, however, we hear far more often than the rest. “Which camera should I buy?” Is this a question precipitated by our equipment and gadgets, having seen our work previously or just from years of needling through National Geographic magazines? I’ll likely never know. The question itself is deceptively simple – well, sort of. For years, I fretted about delivering the perfect answer in a single sentence. Should I respond with Nikon, Canon, Hasselblad, Phase One, Olympus, Leica or something else? When you consider the variety of possibilities, shooting styles, cameras, requirements and shooters themselves, you soon realize a “perfect” answer is impossible. At least that’s what I thought. One night I was musing this most abstruse of questions and came to the realization I was making perfect the enemy of good. In fact, there was a very good answer – an almost perfect one.
You’re probably asking yourself why anyone should give my answer any credibility whatsoever. For now, I’ll skip the semantics of credentials, awards and career fluff and stuff; this is about you. You see, as a professional photographer, I understand the art of photography, not the technology, enabled the greats to become great in the first place. After all, your final image is what people see and how your work is judged. The final image offers nary a clue as to which camera was used to make it – and the viewer really doesn’t care either. As a member of the Royal Photographic Society, I see magnificent works captured using cameras often dismissed by camera snobs. Many are made with inexpensive albeit quite capable Nikon D70’s, D200’s and D300’s – dinosaurs when compared to many of today’s more saliva-worthy contestants which are admittedly more agile and sexy. However, these images are winning awards – and sometimes making history.
Caveat 1: A photographer once said, “The best camera is the one that’s with you.” Just a few years ago the thought of using a smartphone to capture serious photographic images provoked open scorn, snorts of derision and the potential of being branded as a photographic heretic in many circles. Nevertheless, National Geographic just sent a team of photographers to China using only iPhone cameras to document their expedition. So much for derisional snorts. The reality is iPhones are economical, ultra-portable and deliver exceptional image quality. I never thought I would say that, but it shouldn’t surprise me. The new iPhone 6S sports a 12MP camera and can shoot exceptional 4K video – then slide right back into your pocket! I cannot begin to tell you the times I wished I’d had a more portable camera – and all of the shots I missed because I didn’t.
Caveat 2: While research is prudent, even the best photographic strategies are becoming blurred by disruptive technologies. This is a double-edged sword for most. The fact remains that a Nikon D810 or D4 won’t make you a better photographer, and the smart phone in your pocket is likely more capable than many of the cameras used by past photographic masters. Most $300 digital cameras today are more sophisticated than those used by photographic legends like Dorothea Lange and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Cartier-Bresson famously used a Leica camera and a single 50mm lens for much of his work. Unlike today’s models that command earth-shattering prices, Leica’s of the 1930’s were only of moderate quality and sold at a price average people could afford. You might also be thinking that iPhone cameras don’t offer the manual control of DSLR’s. Think again. Manual camera apps, like Manual for the iPhone, provide settings that yield an unexpected amount of control. As it turns out, finding the perfect camera is being challenged in unexpected ways.
Oh yes, of the tons of reviews and opinions you are likely to encounter, most are, we’ll say, less than informed! That being said, there are several places I have found trustworthy. I enjoy cautiously reading B&H equipment reviews from PRO photographers. DigitalRev on YouTube offers some of the most practical, well-informed and entertaining reviews you will encounter. If you can handle his acerbic (read caustic and often profane) demeanor, I find YouTube’s Angry Photographer offers some invaluable insights. Fro Knows Photo on YouTube is very good as well. Ken Rockwell is a reviewer that stirs a love/hate thing among photographers. That being said, I have found many of his equipment reviews to be quite accurate. If you’re looking for lens and camera performance reviews, nothing I’ve encountered comes close to DXOMark.com and SLRGear.com. As a general rule, if you explore these sites you should get a pretty good idea of what you’re playing with when it comes to your gear. And yes, there are many others out there. Caveat emptor.
So, what can you do to become a better photographer? In a nutshell, there are three domains of expertise every great photographer understands: 1.) Composition, 2.) Exposure, and most of all, 3.) Practice. Anyone with even a moderate command of these three areas has the capability to produce outstanding images in almost any situation – and all of these can be done quite well on a $200 camera these days.
In the end, today’s camera is the least of all considerations when it comes to becoming a better photographer. An expensive camera with a steep learning curve is a far poorer investment than a camera you can afford and use more often. Being a better photographer requires knowledge and skills. While cameras are becoming smarter, they are light years from integrating the most important features of all great photographers – curiosity, creativity and technique.
My advice? If you want to invest in photography, start by investing in you. Now, grab your camera, get out there and make a few million images!
Explorers Like Us Cinema Productions