Regular readers know me as the ranting luddite with his knickers in a twist whenever technical features come at the apparent expense of ergonomics and subjective qualities. I’m sure I deserve the reputation. But here are some more positive and useful thoughts on the subject. Hat tip to Ted Forbes for those thoughts. He has released a video entitled Creative Photography vs Technical Photography and, as most of his videos, it is both insightful and interesting.
In his video, below, Ted argues that we don’t realise the power of what we have today. And I can only agree with this. It’s why I’m always so baffled when people comment negatively when a new camera offers 4K but not at the highest framerate or when others deem 20 frames per second or 14 bits of dynamic range isn’t enough for their needs. And Ted’s examples of Martin Munkasci’s sports photographs made with a large format view camera (3’40”) are a wonderful illustration of what can be achieved when the goal is more important than the gear.
Ultimately, though, I think that’s not the point. Ted’s sentence “Munkasci had enormous talent. He was able to take the tools that he had and work with them” is what this post is about.
Ted defines Munkasci’s talent as “His ability to find the limitations of his gear and move beyond them“. And, obviously, that speaks to me because I practise photography to become a better photographer, not for the photographs I make along the way.
But that’s me. What if your goal is to produce a football portfolio for a project and you don’t give two hoots about learning how to do that with a view camera and sheet film? It makes no sense to do things the hard way. It makes total sense to use the best suited gear for the task. All this is obvious.
However, what’s changed with modern gear is that the concept of cameras optimised for a specific task has become less important than producing a camera that can do everything. Yes the A7s is better at sports than the A7r, for instant. But you’d be hard pressed to go to a football match with either and not return with great images. Today’s flagship cameras are pancraftic cameras. And there lies the rub.
Ted describes the utilitarian benefits of smartphone photography (note taking) and the ease of sharing, instant feedback … pointing out that a lot of rubbish photos have been made with phones but also a lot of interesting ones. He goes on to describe the rising use of smartphones as cameras, rightly insisting on the fact that, as small cameras, they provide intimacy that eludes higher end stuff (5’30”).
I find it amusing that phones are becoming a more specialised tool for creative photographers than “mainstream” digital cameras. And worrying, that the marketing argument behind all recent launches is shooting envelope. When you think about it, a new camera has to check so many boxes to succeed : great IQ, really advanced video abilities, outdoor worthiness (weather sealing), a great choice of great lenses (even for a brand new line of cameras with a brand new bayonet), low light abilities (high ISO, great IBIS), security (dual card slots), connectivity, price (yeah, all of this has to be cheap), stellar and fast and light and AF glass and plenty of other contradictory or unrealistic stuff I’m probably forgetting.
And why not, you ask …
Here’s why. I don’t use zooms. It’s not because they are too slow, too heavy, too expensive, too blurry, too … anything. But my photographs have never been good with a zoom. Some people have an innate ability to remain vigilant with a zoom, and walk up to the point where the composition is just right rather than use the zoom to frame the main ingredients of the photograph from wherever it is they are standing. Those people are *very* few and far between. It’s *a lot* easier to make good photographs with just one prime than with a zoom.
And the same goes for a camera that can do anything. Because it’s not designed to do anything special and you have to rely on menus and sub-par adhoc ergonomics to set it up for your needs. And – more importantly – because it enourages you to let it do all the thinking.
This is where the market’s headed. Now that most influencial youtubers are arguing against the pointless tech race for higher specs, AI will be the next big marketing tectonic shift. Sony’s new firmware makes excellent AF even more excellenter. Because, you know, mountains move so fast and you never know when that pyramid’s gonna sprint and all good photographs are photographs of pets, goal keepers and children with ADD. Next step is framing. Why not digitally edit out a lamp post for you, rub that tree off the horizon to conform to a textbook rule of composition and remove those wrinkles from grandma’s ugly mug? Don’t laugh, photo apps in Asia are already changing your face for the ‘better’ in selfies. Very soon, we will become the complacent carriers of our AI’s cameras. Point ‘n shoot meets deep learning.
And this is where Ted’s final question is essential: “we have all this affordable and amazing technology at our fingertips, but what can we do to move our photography beyond that? Is that even possible?” (10’30”)
I’d rather look at this from a slightly different angle. Here’s a fun challenge. Are you able to analyse your photographs and map them on a radar diagram of your camera’s abilities? Are you using all features equally or are you pushing one aspect to the limit and ignoring the others?
Take a close look at two sets of photographs : your most recent 200 pics on one side. And you all time faves, made by you or anyone else (or those you’d really like to make). Then try to grade them for bokeh, lens neutrality, lens character, dof, lens price, camera size, camera weight, the ergonomics that would have been needed, the stealth that would have been needed, the resolution, the fps, the iso rating, the ibis … wha’ever feels appropriate.
Do the two graphs look similar? Is you gear cramping your style? What could you look for in gear that would make it easier for you to make those pics you’d like to create ? What’s unnecessary? Are your graphs flat (all scores very similar) or very pointy in some areas and hollow in others? All this may seem very obvious, but charting is always an eye opener.
What’s your chart like? Are you underusing some features (that’s not a problem)? Are your needs greater than what you camera offers? This is when the analogy with Munkasci’s talent becomes so interesting. How can you move past the limitations of your camera? If it’s limiting in too many ways, maybe a change can help you. If it’s limiting in just one or two, how can you think creatively about work arounds, training, accessories … that will let you go beyond?
Before I close : I’ll soon be reopening the Stuff for sale page. My gear ruminations are drawing to a close and a lot of my existing stuff will soon be up for grabs on fleabay, but I’ll give readers first pick by publishing the listings on DS first.
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