My Father has just bought a new car and, with great relish and commitment, has spent the last few weeks poring over car magazines, drooling over spec sheets and basking in the utopian drivel pedalled in the car brochures! It was in one of these that I noticed a whole page devoted to the optional “driver assistance pack” which included features that would alert you if you drove over white lines, buzz at you if the car thought you were becoming sleepy behind the wheel and even automatically park. We laughingly joked that it if you needed electronic assistance to even drive the car then you should probably seriously consider whether you were fit to drive and should be buying a car at all!
I have a totally different slant on car ownership to my Dad and, rather than going for the rather sanitized world of the new car showroom I have owned a very dubious string of very old, rusty and characterful “classics” over the years. My current car is 50 years old and needs to be driven with a loving hand, coaxed and caressed around corners and treated with respect. There's no driver safety pack here, just my driving skill and understanding as I like to call it! I do however think that my driving of such venerable old cars has given me an understanding and a moderate level of driving skill that I couldn't have got by owning a series of modern cars.
So, this got me thinking about the rather large number of cameras that I own ranging from classic film models to current my DSLR and I wondered whether we haven't possibly lost the feel of the road and the smell of grease and petrol somewhere along the way in camera terms as well. We all love upgrading and drooling over new hardware and the manufacturers are extremely good at convincing us that we need their latest offerings to improve our photography and take things to the next level. However even the most modest current DSLR is far superior in many ways to any camera that Cartier Bresson or any of the great photographers shot their iconic images on last century. So, do we really need to be so concerned with having the latest model and could having a new camera actually make you a worse rather than a better photographer? Here are five reasons why I think that this might well be the case:
It's got too many buttons, dials and controls and is taking far too much of your attention in working these out rather than creating the picture. You will probably have spent quite a lot of time reading through the instruction manual to understand all of the modes and methods which are there to help you out. This would be time much better spent taking photographs and using manual mode so that you really understand what is going on. A modern camera will take great photographs of most subjects most of the time in terms of exposure, colour balance and focus. It takes human intervention to achieve perfection though and you really need to understand how the camera works to achieve it.
You spent all of your money on an expensive camera body and are making do with a kit lens. The seduction of the mega pixel is extremely strong but it doesn't really matter. Your money would be much better spent on a high quality fast lens than on the latest camera body. A good quality lens will last for years and will improve the quality of your photography no end. Putting a kit lens on an expensive body is like putting a family saloon car engine in a super car body. And don't kid yourself that you will save up for a proper lens after you have bought the body, chances are you won't and you will just succumb to the latest adverts go out and buy the latest new camera body instead!
You have spent a lot of your free time poring over camera specs rather than been out shooting. Of course now that you have a gazumpillion mega pixel camera the files are so large that you spend hours downloading them as well and decide that you need a new computer – more research and more time you could have been out shooting. Of course it may well be that you enjoy the whole process of researching cameras and decision making and that's fine, it won't make you a better photographer though!
It's shiny and new and you don't want it to get damaged. It's also bigger than your last one so it's more of an effort to carry around with you. The best cameras are the ones that get thrown into a bag every time you go out, the ones where it doesn't matter if they get scratched and they become part of the habit of your day. Photography then becomes part of your being and you are photographing and thinking like a photographer wherever you are. Photographing with the big new shiny camera is much more of a special occasion – it might be very pleasurable because of this but you will take it out less, worry about getting it dirty more and therefore take less photographs, miss all sorts of opportunities of taking great photographs.
Its a digital camera and you are tempted to just fire away hoping the photos will come out how you want rather than pre visualising and taking the time as if every time you press the shutter it costs you money.
Last summer I had a photographic revelation. After photographing for ten years using the standard DSLR set up I bought an Olympus Trip 35 on Ebay for about £20. This is a tiny film camera where you literally point, shoot and wind on. It is completely, utterly and brilliantly simple. There are hardly any controls on it and for me, shooting with it was a liberating experience. I realised that, no matter how automatic I thought my technical understanding of my DSLR was I still, before each exposure I went through a large number of thought processes regarding colour balance, exposure, ISO etc all of which were taking me away from what really mattered – the consideration of the creative and artistic vision of the image. With the little Olympus all of the technical responsibility is stripped away and you are left with the bare raw decision of how to make the image only. I found that I was able to wholly concentrate on camera angle, timing, composition and all of the aesthetic elements that make for great photographs. I felt naked photographing with it, there is nothing to hide behind either physically or technically and it really made me confront my creativity and my photographic eye in a completely refreshing way. There is also a great joy in sticking it in your pocket, throwing it in the car and not really worrying about damaging it as well. It became an extension to my right hand I carried it around so much over the first few months I had it.
Now I'm not suggesting that everyone goes back to the 1980's and just shoot on vintage cameras but I do genuinely think that we may have lost our way a little in the excitement of the digital tide. Going back to photographic basics can only be a good thing. If you couple a well trained eye and a flexible imagination with compete technical know how with a modern camera you have an awesome combination. The photographer's skill has to come first though, you will learn so much from squeezing every last drop of image quality and creativity out of the old kit that you have rather than buying something new. Invest in training yourself instead, your eye, creativity and vision are unique. If you find your photographic voice and develop a burning photographic passion then it doesn't really matter what equipment you have. A new camera may make like a bit easier but it certainly won't make you a better photographer!
You think that the camera will make you a better photographer – it won't, it might hide some of your shortcomings and make your mediocre images much more forgiving and it will make it easier to take mediocre pictures but it won't make you a better photographer.
Learn more about the author of this article Andrew Hind.