I don’t care about film, or megapixels, or raw files, or mirrors (or lack thereof). And I certainly don’t care about cameras. I’m not a ‘camera operator’ — I’m a photographer. I care about photographs. I care about seeing, noticing, paying attention, conveying mood, feeling, and conveying narrative through still images.
What sparked this sudden rant? Well, I sometimes get recommendations to switch camera makes, or I hear about the benefits of shooting film over digital, or raw over JPEG, or I get into a debate about black and white versus color, or get caught up in news of how one camera manufacturer is outselling another. In general, there seems to be an obsession amongst photographers, especially those up-and-coming, with the gear and technology that is peripheral to the act of photography. People fetishize cameras, and media, and the companies behind them as though that is the be all end all of the photographic genre of art.
Don’t get me wrong, of course the technical side of photography is important, since it’s the technology and its improvements over the years that has allowed the medium to flourish and expand into areas and forms unheard of in the past. I embrace the technology and its evolution. We also can’t ignore the fact that not all cameras and lenses are created equal. Sure, some are better than others in general, while other times the best options vary based on the circumstances. However, understanding and appreciating the gear is a slippery slope that can lead one to chase the numbers, the engineering, the tech, and lose sight of what photography is at its heart.
The truth is cameras are mere tools. Film is a mere medium. Digital data is a mere medium. They do not define what we do, only how we do it. Most importantly, they do not define why we do it! I photograph to explore my world and plumb my mind and my creative spirit. I recommend you ask yourself the same: ‘why do I photograph?’
Interestingly, there is little about the act of photography that is physical. Sure, we have to move and position ourselves physically in space, hold and point the camera, and push the button. But this is all secondary. Whereas a painter or illustrator must have physical control of his or her implement—a brush, a pencil—we photographers do not need such a dexterous command of our instruments. The physical tools of photography are a very distant secondary element behind the conceptual and intellectual aspects of the art form. In that sense, we are much more like writers or poets, for whom the physical act of writing is merely a formality—a way to excise their ideas from their minds and preserve them on physical media.
To me, the perfect camera would have no buttons, and would simply read my mind and get the settings perfectly every time. In fact, if I could have one built into my eye that takes photos at a thought—even better! If I had such a gadget, would that make me any less of a photographer? Does it matter if I shoot on M mode or full auto? I would argue that these things are irrelevant to the act itself. Of course, a lack of understanding of the camera and its functions can prevent one from capturing the images one seeks. But this is simply a necessary hurdle that we photographers must overcome in order to materialize concepts into images. It is not de rigueur.
Of course, if you love cameras and their physical nature, that’s great! I hate to belittle someone else’s preoccupations. I too must admit that there is something satisfyingly tactile about rotating a finely dampened focus ring or hearing and feeling the snap of a shutter. But ask yourself this: do writers talk endlessly about typewriters and pens and Moleskine notebooks? Then why should we as photographers obsess over such things? Don’t worry about cameras—focus on ideas. Get out and shoot.