Wednesday, April 10, 2013

New Camera = Better Photographer?

Recently, on a photography group on Facebook I participate with fairly regularly, one of the group's members posted something that spurred a pretty good discussion: "I spoke with a photographer today who said his photography will be better in 2013 as he has a new camera."

The original poster didn't mention what kind of new camera the photographer obtained. And certainly that could make a difference. If the photographer upgraded from, say, a cheap point-n-shoot to a good dSLR, his or her photography might become better -- the notion of the best camera being the one you have with you aside -- at least in terms of the technical elements of his photographs. But that's about it. No guarantees beyond that.

The thread settled into a pretty good discussion debating the pros and cons of upgrading cameras, and some humorously sarcastic comments punctuated the responses:

"I got a new Fender Stratocaster today! Now I'll be able to play all those Stevie Ray Vaughan tunes!"

"I should go out and buy new pots and pans....I'm already a great cook but dang I'd like to be a chef now!"

"I'm heading out to buy a 1D-X in a few minutes. Then I'm off to shoot a project for National Geographic. Turns out my old 40D was holding me back."

"My friends tell me that my dinners are much better now that I have a new stove."

What this subject turned out to be is a question of expectations as much as it was a discussion regarding the relative worth of upgrading one's camera, i.e., whether buying a new camera will truly make a positive difference in terms of helping someone become a better photographer.

Personally, I think it depends. And it depends on a number of things.

First off, if you buy a new camera and that new camera is a major leap forward from the camera you've been shooting with, you might become a better photographer. But that's assuming you take the time to learn how to use your new camera really well, you experiment with many of the new (to you) capabilities your new camera possesses, and you creatively and artfully apply those new capabilities to whatever it is you are pointing your new camera at.  If you do that, your new camera may indeed help you become a better photographer... or not.

If you believe your new camera will make you a better photographer simply because it's newer and more advanced and has many more capabilities  -- yet you don't work hard to learn how to take advantage of some of those new capabilities suddenly held in your hands and pressed to your eye -- you'll likely be disappointed. That's because the only gear that will truly make you a better photographer is the gear you were born with-- the gear that's housed in your noggin! The camera is merely a tool. While better tools may make you a more efficient photographer with more options, they won't necessarily make you an overall better photographer.

Sometimes, a new camera will take your photography to a few new levels. For instance, upgrading a dSLR to one with a full-frame sensor will mean the glass you're using will suddenly behave as it was intended. That's because your 50mm prime lens, as an example, wasn't intended to be automatically cropped (in every photo you use it to capture) by a factor of x1.6. It was intended to capture a 50mm's field of view rather than mimicking an 80mm lens's field of view.  Other factors a new camera might include which might take your photography to a new level are things like higher ISO/less noise, faster focusing, and more. But none of those things make you a better photographer.  Again, they simply make you more efficient with more options.

The only way to become a better photographer has little to do with the camera you're wielding and everything to do with what you learn and how often you practice what you've learned. That goes for any camera: new, old, analog, digital, high-tech, low-tech, and any level of tech in between. It's not enough to capture a technically perfect photo -- and I'll admit there are cameras which help you do just that -- because technically perfect photos can still be totally boring photos. A good photo is one that eloquently communicates something to its viewers. And it communicates with light, composition, environment, emotion, story, and more. All of them being things which have little or nothing to do with the camera you're using.

The gratuitous eye candy at the top is Allie. (Click pic to enlarge.) She's easy on the eyes, no?


Bill Giles said...

I have a new camera, a nice one, possibly capable of some very nice work, but I continue to shoot with my camera that I have been usng since 2005. Why? Because it works well and I am comfortable with it. I have used it for so long that I know where every function is on the camera and I don't have to think about what I am doing. My newest camera will probably eclipse my older ones someday, but only when I learn how to use it.

jimmyd said...

@Bill: I have a new camera as well, although it's not an upgrade for my dSLR, a Canon 5D. (Original 5D, that is.) It's a Fuji X100. I haven't used it much yet, but that's coming. What I really wanted to mention is the importance of what you said about being comfortable with your older camera and how you don't need to think twice about using it. That is SO IMPORTANT!!! When your camera becomes so familiar to you that using it is automatic and no-brainer, your mind is free to focus on the truly important stuff, which shouldn't be how to operate the camera and its controls.

Anonymous said...

The only way to become a better photographer has little to do with the camera you're wielding and everything to do with what you learn and how often you practice what you've learned.

Therein lies the answer. If the photographer believes that a new camera will make him a better photographer, he's more likely to be out using it. And with additional use and overall experience, he should improve. Granted, it's just a head game. He could improve with his current camera. But he wants a new camera, so I say to allow him to enjoy his new camera. Let him have his fun. And, let's hope he becomes better in the process.

jimmyd said...

@Anon: I totally agree. If a new camera is what it takes for someone to pursue their photography more regularly and fervently, I say go for it! And that's regardless of whether it's merely a head game or not. Whatever works, right?

Bill Giles said...

One problem with the new cameras is that they can come with so many functions that it is bewildering to try to learn how to use them. It's not a good thing to stop in the middle of a shoot to look something up in the instruction manual. My new camera has two manuals, basic and advanced. Together, they run in excess of 500 pages and they don't provide many examples.

jimmyd said...

@Bill: LOL! Stopping in the middle of a shoot to look something up in the camera's manual(s) -- unless you're shooting landscapes, still life, or something like that -- isn't exactly ideal in terms of capturing the best shots.

Peter Wine said...

If I had two Canon T2i cameras, I would take better pictures, but I wouldn't be a better photographer.
I use a T2i that replaced a 1D (4MP, circa 2001) and a 10D (6MP, circa 2005) which I got used when my 30D died (it was I could afford)
The nice thing is I can swap the long and short lenses between them, but the problem is that I find myself swapping them out often during a shoot (because of ISO of T2i vs 10D, or using video, or just general quality of the shot) and have missed some nice shots. I don't swap when I'm in danger of missing an important shot, so I sometimes end up with a shot that the quality suffers.
The other advantage of two that are the same is not having to think so much about which camera I'm using before I push the button.
But it's the quality of the picture that improves (or sometimes the ability to get a shot without using flash,) and not me as a photographer.

dvdmzjr said...

You always have the wisest posts when it comes to gear. I recently picked up a new camera. It was a huge investment for me, and not taken lightly. But it would be foolish to think that it will make me better as a photographer. I have been impressed with it technically, and the specs were a big factor in the purchase. But if I was a hack with my 40D, I'll continue to be one with my 5D Mk III.

Rick Horowitz said...

As usual, you bring sanity to the discussion.

I recently upgraded to the Mark III for the ISO range, and I'm glad I did. My Mark II was nice, but I enjoy shooting in very low light conditions. I do feel my photography got better after the upgrade, but it's because, like you said, I started practicing more, and set about learning the functions on the new camera in a way I'd not done before.

Maybe I've just gained more experience, but the Mark III has seemed easier for me to learn than the II was.

And you know me, Jimmy. I just had to buy a couple more fast lenses, as well. ;)

I am said...

I get a bit tired of hearing and seeing all the stories about the camera, and very little about the lens.

It is really sad to see a brand new body, with a cheap Kit lens, when a decent lens can improve your photography ( quality)

jimmyd said...

@I Am:

You're 100% correct! Great glass will almost always improve the quality of your photos way better than a new camera body will.