“Your Camera Doesn’t Matter”


The experience I would like to share with you in this post has been maybe the single most important event that has affected the way I think about photography.

Some background first. I started to be excited about photography after I had a chance to play with Sony F717 in 2003. My initial interest in photography was essentially fueled by the awe I had towards the camera, (and towards technology in general). Then in 2004 when I was picking my first camera I became a frequent visitor of various equipment-oriented websites, in particular dpreview. For someone with a technical background (physics) that environment was very familiar and easy to understand. I will call it a gear-centered approach. Someone infected by that approach is excited about the tool and focuses on the tools or on technical qualities of the results too much.

Then sometime around 2007 I came across this article by Ken Rockwell titled “Why Your Camera Doesn’t Matter”. It was an enlightenment for me. I’m sure it has not been the only thing that made me change my set of mind, however it happened to be the piece that was the quintessence of all the pieces of knowledge that I have acquired by that time.

Ken Rockwell disclaimer: Ken Rockwell is a rather controversial figure on the Internet. Some believe he is a genius, others are convinced he is a fool. Personally I like his articles on photography (not his gear reviews). The polarized way people see him means he is not for everyone. His style is “aggressive”, straightforward and hyperbolic. I don’t mind that. It is very easy to “filter” his essays for me. I don’t always agree with him, however I find his articles thought provoking at the very least. IMHO he does a very good job warning the reader of his style and that one should not take him literally. Nevertheless surprisingly (to me) many people do take him literally, get offended and this blocks their ability to think about what he writes. If you can’t stand Ken Rockwell, you don’t need to rely on his opinion. Many truly amazing and famous photographers have said the same in different words. Ken’s article provides some examples so I will refer you to that.

Anyway, back to the topic of the post.

Your Camera Doesn’t Matter.

What does it mean? I will try to explain what is implied by this statement (at least what I believe it is trying to tell). First of all one shouldn’t take this statement literally. In fact someone familiar with formal logic will know that one shouldn’t take any human language statement literally.

What this slogan is trying to convey is the photographer-centered approach to photography. Basically, what matters the most in creating a photograph is the photographer, his imagination, creativity and skill. The camera is only a tool, necessary of course. The tool you are using doesn’t matter, what matters is the result. Some believe this point of view on photography stems from viewing photography as art rather than visual duplication of reality.

It makes sense of course. Give the most advanced camera to a bad photographer and he will still produce flat and uninspiring (though maybe technically perfect) results. No most advanced camera will make you Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson. On the other hand many masters have been using primitive technology. What made their photographs stand out was definitely not just technical excellence.

All this seems to be obvious and one may think it doesn’t need to be repeated all the time, why do various people want to stress it again and again. I will try to give my answer.

Even though it is obvious to most good photographers, it might not be obvious to someone who is new to photography like I was 10 years ago. Ken wrote his piece in 2005, I’ve read it in 2007. At that time this slogan has not been popularized at all. One wouldn’t read about this on dpreview or other gear-centered websites. Now the situation is different. Any photo resources on the web has a number of threads dedicated to discussing this line. So why repeat it now?

I did google search for “your camera doesn’t matter” when preparing this article and even though the references and interpretation of this slogan are in abundance nowadays, the level of confusion is alarming. It seems that there are still too many gear-centered thinking people around aggressively defending their “cause”.

Quite often it is hard to draw a line between a “photographer-centered” approach and the “gear-centered” one. Many will accept the simple truth that the photographers skill is the most important, though will tell you the camera obviously does matter too.

We can argue forever about interpretations of photography, however I’d like to finish with practical implications of those 2 points of view to make the difference between the 2 clear and to show where either approach leads you and how does it affect you behavior.

Gear centered approach:

  • focusing (spending a lot of time) on evaluating technical advantages of one tool over another one, be it a camera or a lens or any other photography accessory
  • believing that you need a better/newer/more advanced tool to accomplish a particular task
  • thinking that your results are lacking because you don’t have that one (better) tool (camera, lens …)

This approach leads you to buy more and more, “better” and “better”, newer and newer. It makes you waste lots of energy and time on discussing/researching technical aspects of tools.

Photographer-centered approach:

  • focusing on creative aspects of photography
  • focusing on what you want to tell through your photograph rather than its technical qualities (such as sharpness or distortion)
  • finding the source of “poor results” in ones self rather than in ones equipment
  • investing in education rather than into the newest tools
  • focusing on taking pictures rather than wasting time discussing technical advantages of one tool over another

This approach saves you a lot of money and leaves you much more time to actually take pictures. I strongly believe this approach is the way to go if you want to improve. Someone who sticks to this point of view will rather consider the convenience of use/ergonomics of the camera or how fun is it to use than bother about its technical characteristics.

I encourage everyone to read Ken Rockwell’s piece, maybe you will find it as insightful as I did. In the case you can’t stand his style though, just read a book written by a true master you like the most. It will be far more beneficial than spending a year on a gear-discussion forum.

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6 Responses to “Your Camera Doesn’t Matter”

  1. Pingback: The Best Camera (choosing your camera). | Notes on Photography

  2. Pingback: Genius or Fool? | Notes on Photography

  3. It’s understandable why forum people don’t like Ken Rockwell. Some people don’t understand his tongue-in-cheek style and take too seriously what he says. And for some other I think he just hits the nail on the head. They thus have good reason to be offended. If you spend five minutes on dpreview’s forums you’ll find a lot of these guys who will talk endlessly about the “huge” (it’s also great or it sucks, no in-between) difference between two cameras in high ISO tests (high ISO is the new megapixel, although these days dynamic range is also becoming the new rage). Or be obsessed by the sharpness of their lenses.

    If you try to look at their pictures you’ll find none. They may not even have a camera (or using it!). They’re what KR dubbed the “Online Experts”, Level 0 because “these guys don’t take pictures so they aren’t a level of photographer” in his classic “The Seven Levels of Photographers”.

    • vanyagor says:

      And btw, the link to Ken Rockwell’s article Emmanuel is talking about: http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/7.htm

    • vanyagor says:

      Emmanuel, thanks for your comment. You are spot on!
      I have stayed away from the dpreview forums lately (for the last 4 years) for that same reason. Another reason was that there are too many self-proclaimed experts with photography worse than I can imagine and surprisingly some of them have a big following in the forums. A typical example would be such a self-proclaimed expert posting a crappy snapshot (which is no good for anything) to showcase how great their camera is and a bunch of empty praise following these posts. And God forbid anyone post even a mild criticism, you will be eaten alive by the fanboys.

      IMHO dpreview has deteriorated especially after Amazon purchased it and with further expansion. I find the tone of the reviews to be less critical, more marketing-complying and even more gear centered.

      I’m interested what is your perception of dpreview evolution.

  4. It’s hard to come by well-informed people for this topic, however,
    you seem like you know what you’re talking about!

    Thanks

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