Sometimes, equipment does matter – or how I wasn’t a photographer until I owned a DSLR

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If you browse photography blogs and website for a while, you are bound to find articles defending that “it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer”, and that equipment doesn’t matter, only personal vision does. Of course, they are completely right, and examples abound of good photographers making great art with crappy cameras, as well as rich amateurs spending a lot of money on the latest equipment and producing only mediocre snaps.

Unfortunately, however, this position is sometimes taken to absurd, almost religious extremes. A good example of this is offered whenever a beginner asks for advice on buying his first DSLR. All too often, someone will come and say “The camera doesn’t matter, you can take just as good images with a compact for a fraction of the price” or something to that extent. Well, I disagree with that. Sometimes, the camera does matter, and I believe that beginners are the ones who will benefit the most from upgrading to a DSLR.

Let’s take a small detour to my own photographic history. Back in 2005, I had never taken photos seriously (except for maybe a roll of black and white with my mom’s Minolta SLR) and never showed any particular enthusiasm in using the compact digital cameras that our family owned. I recently dug out the photos I made on a trip to Norway in 2003, and to say they sucked would be a spectacular understatement. So when I announced to my parents that I would very much like my 20th birthday gift to be a pricy DSLR, most people were surprised. To be honest, so was I. After all, why would I need such an expensive and powerful camera all of a sudden? Wouldn’t it be better to start with a smaller camera until I outgrew it? In other words, wasn’t it completely overkill? I somehow had the intuition that a DSLR would make me love creating images, and I turned out to be right after I got the D50.

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There are multiple reasons for this, but here are the three most important features which helped me both become a better photographer and enjoy the process of taking pictures: no shutter lag, a proper viewfinder and manual controls.

  • Nothing drives me crazy like shutter lag (or any kind of lag, for that matter). If there is a discernible delay between operating a control and having the camera respond to it, then it dissociates both actions in my mind. More importantly, it creates frustration every single time (“when I press the button is when I want the photo to be taken, not 2 seconds later, goddammit!”). Having no shutter lag means that you can forget about the camera, almost making it an extension of your own body. With a DSLR, I know I can turn it on, frame, press the shutter and take my eye out of the viewfinder in one single seamless movement. I am also confident that the image I got on my card corresponds to what I saw in the viewfinder.
  • A viewfinder, especially an optical one, also makes a huge difference to me. It allows me to see the world as the camera does, and gives direct feedback as to what is going on. In a way, it separates me from the world and really makes me a picture taker. I hate framing with LCD screens, they are inconvenient, tiny and one is too easily distracted by the rest of the world. I also dislike how they must be held far away from my body, almost as if they were toxic.
  • Finally, though manual control can tend to be overrated (in particular, I find the advice often given to beginners to shoot entirely in manual mode to be retarded), by giving control rather than dumbing down the photographer with scene modes, the camera empowers the photographer. It is so much easier to gain a deep understanding of what shutter speed, ISO and aperture really do when you can modify each of the parameters at will. Shooting in Aperture or Shutter priority will give these three abstract parameters a concrete existence, and open the door to much experimentation, the key in reaching the next level in our photographic journey.

Sure, you can work around the lack of these features, for instance by reverse engineering what each scene mode does, but it will make you lose track of your real goal. The biggest difference between good and mediocre equipment is simple: the good stuff just gets out of the way and lets the photographer focus on what really matters: creating a powerful image. If you miss the best composition because you are trying to work out which scene mode to use, or because you can’t quite see the details properly on the LCD screen, then your equipment has failed you.

Except for some specific applications (like wildlife of sport photography), most pros could use basic consumer equipment and get nearly as good results, because they have this stuff all figured out, and they know how to make a good picture, regardless of the camera. This is where the whole “equipment doesn’t matter” discussion comes from. But pros use pro equipment, because it gives them convenience and greater guarantees of not missing out good image opportunities. It lets them forget the camera is there.

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This is why equipment is important, especially at the beginning of your photographic journey. If you are serious about creating images, consider investing in a DSLR. The cheapest consumer one with a kit lens (say the Nikon D3100 or the Canon 550D) will do just fine. I bet you will find that it does make a big difference.

If on the other hand you already own a DSLR and a couple of lenses, stop reading about gear and go take pictures. You already have all that you really need.

7 thoughts on “Sometimes, equipment does matter – or how I wasn’t a photographer until I owned a DSLR

  1. Thank you for adding one more sensible voice to this endless debate (that really should not be a debate).

    It would seem self evident that depending on the type of photography one prefers, a good camera is likely to enhance quality of output.

    The biggest boost in my personal skill level came when I switched from a Canon superzoom to a Pentax DSLR. This was simply, as you note, because for the first time I was able to easily change the camera settings.

  2. ML says:

    I made the switch to dSLR a year ago just before a major trip to Europe and since then, I have had substantial trouble coping with my old point-and-shoot on those days when I’m not lugging around the SLR. So it’s definitely a big difference with the equipment you’re mucking with. I think your argument truly makes sense when one debates the switch from PnS cameras to a dSLR. The control you gain in your hands is tremendous and very educational in understanding how a camera works the way it does. Since I’ve only started, and really only use my camera so far for macro food shots, I was perfectly satisfied with my Nikon D40. A good basic model for an amateur trying to ease into SLR photography. It’s the debate of what model one should own that vexes me. In that case, wouldn’t the style of the photographer finally come into play? And not necessarily the snazziest model that’s currently the most popular? Again, thank you for this wonderful post. Absolutely sensible.

  3. Interesting post. I definitely agree that the shutter lag in point-and-shoots is incredibly frustrating to deal with!

    My first DSLR gave me the flexibility to understand and experiment with camera functions, and to learn to take more creative control of my pictures. It’s also given me the ability to take better shots with a point-and-shoot, even without trying to change the default settings – now I understand what the camera is trying to do, I can work with it instead of against it.

  4. gunsofbrixton says:

    Hi, I am a french guy and pretty newbie in high quality photography. What does “DSLR” mean ? Is it “appareil photo numérique reflex” in french ?
    Thank you.

  5. @cubivore: just from reading Nikon Rumors and other websites. It seems almost certain the D3100 will come out in a few days.

    @gunsofbrixton: en effet, DSLR c’est “Digital Single Lens Reflex”, soit réflex numérique en français.

  6. What a difference a dSLR makes for learning and growing. I also enjoy the instant feedback and find I chimp most of the photographs I take. I use manual focus lenses and stop down for exposure. Most of the menus and buttons on my camera are ignored when I shoot in manual. I could not have done this with film (too expensive for the new lenses and too expensive for the film and time).

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