Your camera doesn’t matter… wait, yes it does… well, sort of… maybe

If you spend any time at all reading about photography, or talking to photographers, sooner or later you’ll likely read or hear that your camera doesn’t matter – it’s the person operating the camera that determines the quality of the photo. I’ve even expressed this sentiment myself on these pages. Like some cliches, this statement contains a fair amount of truth, but does your camera really not matter? As with the answer to most questions, this one is a bit complicated.

Let’s say I want to create an image of a Golden Eagle swooping down on it’s prey at it’s top speed of nearly 150mph(!). I could use a $40 plastic Holga film camera, but I’d most likely wind up with a tiny unidentifiable streak across a background of blue – if I were lucky, that is. Now perhaps I was consciously attempting to create an abstract image. In that case, mission accomplished. Most likely though, I was trying to “freeze” the Golden Eagle in mid-flight, and render up close and in sharp detail it’s piercing eyes and powerful talons. To create this image I’d need a camera with fast and accurate autofocus, great tracking capabilities, excellent high ISO performance, and available high shutter speeds. Being able to fire off images at a rate of 8fps or so would also be valuable, as would a large buffer, so that the camera didn’t get bogged down writing images to the memory card during image bursts. On the front of the camera I’d need something like a 600mm lens, and maybe a 1.4 teleconverter. If we were talking Nikon, we’d be talking about the D4($5,999.95), AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR AF($9,799.00), and TC-14E II 1.4x($499.95).

Still think your camera doesn’t matter?

Yet… if I gave all that glorious gear to a novice who’d never held a camera nor captured an image in his life, I might as well have handed him the Holga. Or a toaster.

So the answer to the question of does your camera matter is yes… and no. To create a great image, you need the appropriate gear, along with the technical know-how and artistic vision. Having one without the other simply won’t cut it.

Note however that I said you need the appropriate gear – that doesn’t necessarily mean the best, or most expensive gear. First of all, you need to keep in mind what you’ll be doing with your images. Do you plan to print them large? Sell them? Or are you just creating images for your own pleasure, to be viewed by you and your family/friends on a computer screen? Your answer may go a long way towards determining the importance of your camera. Even if you plan to sell your images, do you really need the absolute best gear money can buy? Yesterday I was reading a blog post by a pro who was listing the features and capabilities he’d like to see in the upcoming Sony full frame camera. Some of the items on his wish list were quite technical, and frankly, well beyond the level of my expertize. Would these features and capabilities help him create better images? Depends on how one defines “better.” More technically capable cameras can create technically better images – sharper, lower noise, smoother tonal values and wider dynamic range. Yet better technology rarely equals better art. The pro with decades of experience might notice minute differences in image quality, but most people – including potential clients – probably would not, especially if the images were aesthetically compelling.

The one thought I keep coming back to is, sometimes good is good enough. I know, I know, good is the enemy of great. Yet, the late great wilderness photographer Galen Rowell created some of his most iconic images using cheap Nikon zooms such as the Series E 75-150mm, and an 80-200mm that retailed at the time for $99. Should we gather up the works of Galen Rowell, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Ernst Haas, and toss them in a trash bin because they were created with gear that’s no longer state of the art? I think everyone can figure out the answer to that question.

The world’s best camera in the hands of the world’s worst photographer is still going to produce lousy images. Yet if you place decent-but-not-great gear in the hands of a photographer with finely honed technical skills and the ability to “see the light” and tell a story, he can achieve greatness. Bottom line – don’t get your knickers in a bunch if you don’t have the very best camera and lenses. Ignore the gear snobs. Instead of reading camera reviews online, go to an art museum. Take an art history class. Use what you learn to create great images with your less-than-great camera. It can be done. It has been done.

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