You Must Have a Really Good Camera
After obviously enjoying looking at some images, a well-meaning admirer turned to the photographer who took them and remarked "you must have a really good camera!" You may have heard this before, or you may not. Regardless, it's worth thinking about the broader context that led to this line of reasoning and whether there is any truth in it.
Most everyone has a camera these days. Camera makers actively advertise their products just as makers of products do. Camera ads tout how easy the model they're selling is to operate. After all, they want you to buy one. Cameras are also built into most new cell phones, so even if someone never explicitly bought one, they may well own a camera anyway. Sooner or later they're likely to use that phone for more than making phone calls. After all, it's easy.
With all those cameras out there, there would be a lot of disappointed and frustrated photographers if taking reasonable pictures was still as complicated as it was in the early days of film photography. There once was a time when you actually had to do arithmetic to properly expose a photograph. Imaging that. And in order to figure out a proper combination of aperture and shutter speed, you had to actually understand how a camera worked to know what formulas to use and how to employ them. What once was limited to those few who knew what they were doing has now been turned into a simple press of a button. Anyone can take a photograph. It's easy to discount the details of the process since most everything can all be automatically.
If this were all there was to taking photographs, the quality of the outcome would indeed be attributable to the quality of the camera. It's an easy assumption to make.
The usual retort from a photographer who invests more in creating their images than merely pressing the shutter release button is to compare such well-meaning but misguided praise to the similar situation of a professional chef being told he must have a really good oven. Other versions of this analogy are of course possible, but this is the one I hear most often. While the hypothesis of the chef's good oven is most likely just as true as the suggestion that the good photographer must have a really good camera, both obviously miss the point.
It is true that you can cook dinner by putting a frozen entre in a microwave oven and pressing the button. And yes, you can take a picture with a cell phone or point and shoot camera by pointing it at something and pressing the button. But a skilled craftsman can do so much more in both fields of endeavor.
It takes time and effort to become a good cook. I'm passable at best. There are some things I can cook well, that I've tried and failed at often enough to at least learn what not to do. But I've just never invested what it takes to truly be good at cooking. It also takes time and effort to become a good photographer. I'd like to think I've had more success at this than I admit to at cooking.
You're no doubt better at some things than other as well. Take a look at what you're good at for a moment. Whatever it may be — photography, cooking, or something else — I'm betting you've invested time in honing your craft at it. At first that may have been through rote exercises to master the basics, but no doubt over time you invested time in it simply because you enjoyed investing time in it. You did it because you were already getting good at it.
That's the secret. Your camera probably is good — at least it's likely as good as you can afford. But what you need to explain to those who compliment it is that it can't do anything without you. And modern cameras — good cameras — have a profusion of controls. Yes, most can be ignored if you so choose. Yes, pretty much any camera can operate on full automatic, but all those controls can do something, and for those who know how to operate them, the camera they are attached to can be coaxed into performing far better than full automatic.
Camera technology has gotten better, something I am very thankful for. It lets me concentrate more on the creative side of photography. The camera has become more of a power tool these days than a hand tool, but it's still a tool. It needs a skilled operator to get the most out of it. No matter how many camera commercials there are that tell the world photography is easy, good photography will always require a good photographer.
In this age of microwave ovens and fast food take-out, push-button cell phone cameras, you can get passable results with little effort. But to get really good results, it still takes what it always has. It takes you.