It's not the Camera, It's the Photographer

Make the statement "It's not the camera, it's the photographer" during any discussion or debate on the relative merits of one piece of camera gear over another and you will surely end up in some sort of argument. Really.

We don't advocate any attempt to use semi-operational used gear which only possesses the virtue of being cheap to acquire. We don't advocate throwing a top-of-the-line digital SLR (or any other top-rank SLR) at a novice photographer. We do advocate that photographers should educate themselves about the art and craft of photography at every opportunity, and regularly consider how well their gear is serving them. Buy the best you can afford, but buy only what you can afford.

Professional photographer Ken Rockwell posted an article on his web site about this subject. Professional photographer Michael Reichman posted a rebuttal article on his own web site. Unfortunately, neither photographer seems to be able to engage in the debate without resorting to hyperbole. So since I've been making photographs longer than Rockwell (but not quite as long as Reichman), I feel confident enough to offer a moderating opinion.

Pros, semi-pros and amateurs are working with Olympus, Pentax, Sony, Nikon, Canon, Leica, Kodak and Sigma digital SLR bodies attached to all manner of lenses. All of these photographers make great photos with all of this equipment. Occasionally, even great shots taken with compact and so-called prosumer cameras manage to sneak through. Whether or not a photo is sharp enough and large enough to be credibly reproduced at some large size in a high-end coffee table book or on an art poster is not, in my opinion, the measure of its value as a good (or bad) photo, and the lack of gear to capture such a photo is not a measure by which to judge your existing equipment. Sorry Mr. Reichman. On the other hand, moderately attractive balances of composition, color and subject in moderately good focus during the brief and only time of day in which some cheap compact has any chance of capturing a decent photo is not the measure of a truly versatile camera or satisfying photography experience or a useful choice of gear. Sorry Mr. Rockwell. I think Reichman and Rockwell both use excessive amounts of what can only be described as hyperbole which serves to inflame the debate rather than qualify it. They're both doing a good job of attracting traffic to their respective web sites.

Using only the best gear you can afford has a very special effect on most people. As you engage in a photography experience which is based on an affordable start, it has the effect of bringing you closer to your gear in ways which make it easier for you to judge which exposure settings will achieve the best result. The longer you work with your chosen, affordable gear, the more you'll find out about its flaws and the more you'll find ways to make better and better photos. Use that gear for a couple of years and you may never part with it. Ever. The reason? It's mainly because you will certainly use that gear at some point to make some photos which have deep and emotional meaning and value for you. Not meaning and value worthy of posting and adoring comments on or (although that surely will happen too), but rather meaning and value for you personally. That's the wonderful thing about photography though — it can be shared or not shared.

Our quest for public approval of so much of what we do has extended to photography no doubt. The problem is that photography in and of itself is often a very personal experience. My father-in-law has posted on his page a rather close-up photo of an elephant. The photo is nice enough, but not great. It's just a photo of an elephant. But listen for a few minutes to my father-in-law's story about how the huge wild elephant surprised them by lumbering out of dense bush just a few metres away, how his guide, photography partner & friend reached immediately for the rifle in case the obviously tense bull elephant charged them, and how the situation diffused rapidly after the bull determined they were no threat and then turned to lumber down to a herd near a watering hole, and the photo causes a different reaction altogether. You turn again to the photo and look at it with new eyes. Wonderful. The point is that the photo could have been taken with almost any vaguely decent camera, but you had to be physically in that location in Zimbabwe to actually make the shot.

That last point is what really separates good photographers from snapshooters. You have to go to your subjects — they don't come to you. Fly, drive, walk, ride or scoot to wherever and bring whatever gear will do the job. You don't bring a compact point & shoot to a landscape trip; you don't bring a huge lighting setup to a kid's party. Buying and using the gear you can afford never means buying the cheapest used gear that still technically qualifies as camera equipment. Rather it means buying the best gear you can afford which is also appropriate to your photography needs. After that, it's all you.