Is it the photographer or the equipment that makes the shot?

I got a note from a friend about this one, and it links nicely to a post I am drafting concerning why I take photos, so thought I would use my new blog to explore the questions it raises. Hmm, an ‘agony-aunt’ spot for my blog, wonder if this will catch on? So, lets take a look, and hopefully try not commit philosophy whilst doing so …

‘You’re a camera person aren’t you? I have always strongly believed that a good photographer can take good photos with a cheap camera. (having done not too badly myself on cheap cameras!). So this is my question – Is there much difference between photos from a bad camera and photos from a good camera if the same person is operating both? And if so, what will those differences be?’

To approach this the way I would do one of my old university assignments, I think it is worth defining some of the terms. The first one is easy, yes I am a camera person! The second point is slightly harder: What constitutes a good camera? For studio work, obviously something with many, many pixels would be needed, in order that the high-resolutions required for magazines, advertisements  and so on can be delivered. Even full-frame DSLR may not be up to the quality required, so some expensive Hasselblad would fit the bill nicely, but at a price, of course. And that price would buy you a very nice car. But DSLRs, whether full-frame or APS-C, will still provide quality results (you can find out more about sensor sizes here). And there are now the compact cameras with interchangeable lenses, also packing quite a pixel-count. But even cheaper compacts and cell-phones are capable of some startling results, and I happily use both of those for my work. I took this image whilst out for a stroll yesterday, on my Galaxy S2, and it is sharp and punchy without further tweaking on Photoshop:

low sun on oak leaf

Nice, crisp image from my Galaxy S2 phone in good light

But it’s not purely about pixel-count as regards quality of the final image, although this has become a very important marketing tool. No, the sensor size also factors in to the quality, as a smaller sensor packed with more pixels will, in fact, be less good in poor light, owing to the pixels being smaller in size, and thus collecting less light, which introduces digital ‘noise’ to the image. So, a bigger sensor and a high pixel-count would both help to produce a nice, sharp image in a wider variety of circumstances: My Galaxy S2 will do photos in the city at night, but they suffer plenty of this ‘noise’; the Canon 40D can cope with almost no light (it seems!) and still turn in great shots, thanks to a larger sensor, and possibly also helped counter-intuitively by the relatively low pixel-count of 10 mega-pixels, which means larger pixels to collect what light there is (one review I read actually marks down its successor, the 15 mega-pixel 50D, on low-light image quality in comparison).

Coupled with this, of course, you need a decent bit of glass on the front of the thing to get a nice, sharp image. I used to be a bit of a snob about this, preferring cameras from those manufacturers known for producing them, rather than – say – those known for washing machines. But times change, and my little Panasonic compact is no slouch either, lens-wise.

But let’s put all this into proportion, shall we: This image of a wolf’s eye was taken on my first DSLR, with ‘only’ 6.3 mega-pixels  However, on the original image, the other half of the face was obscured by bars on the cage, so this is actually cropped to half-size, weighing in at only a little over 3 mega-pixels. And it has been printed up poster-sized (with some slight additional post-processing, admittedly), but still looks great.

So, a ‘good’ camera depends on several factors, not just price and pixel-count: In good lighting, a cell-phone can produce results certainly good enough to use on a web-site, and possibly even printed-up provided you don’t expect to cover a wall with it. But more (and larger) pixels, plus good optics will provide usable results under a wider range of condition, which if you are trying to turn in commercial work, is rather vital: My DSLR had been out in the dark and under torrential rain, still delivering the results I need.

Also, there are some other technical issues worthy of consideration: Phones and compact cameras are definitely catching up feature-wise, even being able to shoot ‘bursts’ of shots in quick succession, to capture the action. But if that action is far-away, you are probably going to want to slap a telephoto lens on your camera to get something usable (although, with more pixels, you do have some latitude to crop the final image). Nice to be able to do that, as it is to go to the other extreme with wide-angle lenses, which I love for landscape shots. The Galaxy S2 also scores well for this, with something nicely wide fitted, but presumably in this case, so you can more easily get a photo of you and your mates down the pub!

Last technical point I will mention is a personal one as regards how I work: I love looking through a DSLR and not being distracted by anything around me; I can concentrate exactly on the image framed in front of my eyes, and make sure my composition is spot-on before pressing the shutter, plus glance at the important settings as I am doing so. I am less keen on using the screen on the rear, as I have the rest of the world going on around me, plus in bright light, it is often difficult to really see exactly what is going on: I will choose a DSLR for this reason alone, even with the current wave of more compact-bodied cameras with interchangeable lenses.

Finally, am I also paying for the ‘name’, being a Canon-owner? Well, possibly, to some extent, but I am also buying into a system which will allow me to add lenses and accessories I see fit to, plus has had some thought put into the design and construction: Controls being where you can find them quickly and easily also helps me to get the shots I need, and I am appreciating the build-quality more and more as the camera gets older, suffers more use and (unintentional) abuse, and refuses to die!

In conclusion, I’ll take any image-capable device these days, and produce something with it when I am strolling around which is great for Facebook uploads. My Panasonic compact is also water-proof (not just water-resistant), so was great for a rafting-trip whilst the DSLR stayed in a padded dry-bag; but as soon as I can, I will be reaching for the Canon, knowing that it will give me the best images I can obtain, under the widest range of conditions.

Oh, but wait … we haven’t covered the other half of the equation yet. We have talked about ‘good images’ only in terms of technical quality. What about the artistic aspect? That is harder to pin down for sure. Photography always seems to have been considered the poor-relation of painting and such from an ‘artistic’ standpoint: That must be why I sometimes have requests from artists to use my images for paintings, whereas if I took photos of their paintings, I doubt that anyone would consider it in the least bit creative. Strange one that, when you think about it.

I’ve looked at the Oxford English Dictionary definition of art: ‘The application of skill according to aesthetic principles, esp. in the production of visible works of imagination, imitation, or design (painting, sculpture, architecture, etc.); skilful execution of workmanship as an object in itself; the cultivation of the production of aesthetic objects in its principles, practice, and results.‘ Hmm, not sure that I’m any the wiser for that!

Ah, Wikipedia to the rescue: ‘There are no universally accepted definitions of the related terms “art photography”, “artistic photography”, and “fine art photography”, as exemplified by definitions found in reference books, in scholarly articles, and on the Internet.‘ I do like the part a littler further down, defining fine-art photographers as ‘those persons who create and distribute photographs specifically as ‘art.’‘ Based on that definition, ‘art’ is anything you can get away with, perhaps!

I have read (and apologies for not being able to remember the source) that perhaps artistic photography involves creating something which cannot be easily replicated. I’m not sure I agree with that, after all, so many ideas are so blindingly obvious once you see them, and elicit the ‘I could have done that’ response. Maybe you could have, had you thought of it.

So, definitions aside, do I consider what I do to be art? In some cases, I would say that it was, going beyond a mere record of events passing before myself and my camera. I put effort into the composition, thinking about what the camera is seeing (which is often very difficult from what the human eye sees; but always working in the ‘creative’ modes on my camera so that I can control the finished image in the way which I want), and how I may possibly apply some post-processing to it, in order to make it into the vision I have in my mind when I press the shutter. Maybe it is not for me to say, but for others to judge. So, please take a look at some of my work and let me know! I won’t be hurt if you say that it isn’t art; I’m still enjoying what I do and will try to keep it that way.

Apologies to my friend, this is all a long-winded way of saying ‘it depends’: It depends what you mean by a ‘good’ photo, and you can certainly do a lot with a cheap camera; a good photographer will maybe put a little more time into thinking about the composition, viewpoint and lighting, and try to make something a little bit ‘different’, even with a cheaper camera or cell-phone. That is certainly true for me, but I will always look forward to slipping behind the DSLR, as I know that I can do more with different lenses, control the settings more fully, work in more extreme light and weather, and still deliver the goods. But working within the limitations of whatever I use also helps, rather than moaning about what I don’t have with me in my kit: The most important camera is that one which you have with you! Enjoy what it can do, and keep it fun.

About Chris Senior

Photographer, wit, travel-junkie, MSc student and practising eccentric! Prog rock nut and baker of tasty cakes.
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