On Cameras

 (Originally published on 17 January 2018)

As I've taken and shared more and more pictures, I've been asked two questions with increasing regularity:

1. What kind of camera did you use to take that picture?
2. What kind of camera should I buy?

I'd like to take a moment to address both of those questions here.

Scituate Harbor at Sunset

What kind of camera did you use to take that picture?

When I was getting a print of the above picture framed, the lady behind the counter asked me if I used some kind of special camera to take it. Although I politely told her what I used, the correct answer would have been to tell her that this is the wrong question to be asking. It's like asking a chef what kind of pan they used to prepare a delicious meal, or what kind of brush an artist used to paint someone's portrait.

There are a lot of things that go into making a good photograph. Things like lighting, timing, and positioning are all far more important than what camera the photographer is using. In the image above, the sun is setting behind me and casting a golden glow across the harbor. There is also a harbor wall behind me shading me from that golden glow, making the foreground look darker and bluer. In essence, the sun has set further on me than it has on the other side of the harbor. It's this combination of lighting, timing, and positioning that created the contrast of light and color that make this image so interesting, not the camera I used. And it took knowing all of those things (or, in this case, being with someone who knew all of those things*) to capture that image, not a specific camera.

The camera is just a tool. It can't take good pictures, only the person using it can do that. Taking good pictures requires experience, patience, and a little bit of luck, not a good camera.

What a good camera does do is make it easier to take good pictures. This is why pros buy top-end cameras, not because they take better pictures. The easier it is to use, the less distracted the person using it will be and the more focused they'll be on taking pictures. Which leads me to my second question:

What kind of camera should I buy?

This is also the wrong question. What you should be asking yourself is what do you need a camera to do. If you're interested in shooting portraits or weddings, using the kit I use to shoot racing sailboats would likely leave you woefully unprepared***. And even if you are shooting racing sailboats, using my kit without knowing what I've learned about it could leave you almost as unprepared.

I don't like to tell people which camera to buy, but I will tell people who are starting out what I think they should look for in a camera. Don't look at your camera purchase in terms of specific features, but to look at what you can learn from it. Think of it as the first car that parents buy a teenager who just got their license; they wouldn't likely buy that kid a Ferrari, right?

Your first camera is a tool, as all cameras are, but it will also likely be your first teacher. Pick a camera that gives you options to learn and gives you room to grow. To me, this means three things:

It should be cheap.

It should have interchangeable lenses.

It should allow for full manual control.

This is exactly what I did, although I didn't realize it at the time. My first "real" camera was a refurbished, out-of-production Nikon D3100. (I wrote a 'blog post about my first camera and what I liked and disliked about it at the time here**.) I had no clue what I was doing, but after using that D3100 for about a year, I felt like I had learned enough to know what would be a good choice for my next camera. I bought another Nikon, a D7200, because it was the best mix of features for what I need on my budget at the time. How did I know that? Experience. I knew what I needed by not having it (in my case, better weather-proofing, better autofocus, and easier ways to change settings among other things), not because someone else told me.


A Severn River Shipwreck

This picture was single most popular image on my Instagram feed by a substantial margin at the time of this post. It was taken with that cheap, refurbished, out-of-production, entry-level D3100, not the more expensive camera.


It's not about the camera. It's about the photographer.


A camera is just a box that collects light. Learn to work with the light.


* Big 'ole shout-out to Kat Hanafin at The Nautical Collection for putting me in the right place at the right time to take that pic. After almost a year, I did manage to recreate the effect on my own in this pic. Thanks Kat. 

** At some point I may need to go back and update that post with more things I've learned. Given my recent posting rate, that'll be sometime in 2020. Heh.

In Hindsight - Updates from the future

I'm proud to say that hindsight has not significantly changed my views on this topic. I've spent a lot of time over the past few years learning how to craft light, and now I get more excited by ways to create or modify light than I do by cameras or lenses. I still use that D7200, even though I've moved on to a Nikon D750 as my primary camera; the two are surprisingly similar, the main difference being the D750 has a larger sensor. I've also gotten into film photography and the whole "a camera is just a box that collects light" mentality really sinks in when you're working with a fully mechanical camera that is, almost literally, just a box focusing light onto a sheet of film. 

And I just want to take a moment to emphasize again: pro gear makes it easier to take good photos, but it doesn't necessarily take better pictures. I've learned this lesson countless times while working in difficult conditions where lesser equipment would have folded.

And that shipwreck pic taken with my dinky little D3100? It's still one of my most popular photos.

 *** Okay, so admittedly, my 70-200 f/2.8 and 300mm f/4 are great for portraits, but you'd really struggle to shoot a wedding with them by themselves.


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