Of late, I have been thinking a lot about how I create images and the tools I use to do so.
Currently I shoot digitally with a Canon 5D III. This is a great camera that allows me to shoot successfully in a variety of conditions and photographic situations. Prior to this I was the proud owner of a Canon AV-1 film camera, that I still have today.
Now before I get into crux of this blog post, I just want to say that I think the 5D III is an excellent camera, one that provides superb image quality and works great in low light conditions. My gripe is not with a particular digital camera model, it is with digital photography itself.
At this point I want to go back in time to the mid to late 90’s. In 1995 I bought my first SLR camera the Canon AV-1. The AV-1 is a single-lens reflex camera introduced into the market by Canon in 1979. This particular model is not capable of fully manual exposure. It is an aperture priority camera, which allows the user to set the aperture setting and the camera automatically set the shutter speed. I used this camera right through Art school, and I’m happy to note that I still have it today with the three lenses I used back then; a 50mm, a 28mm and a 135mm lens.
As I mentioned, my AV-1 camera is an aperture priority camera; you set the desired aperture, you looked through the viewfinder, you manually focused the lens, and when you were ready you take the picture. There is little distraction with this camera, it was designed to be simple. It allowed the photographer to control the amount of depth-of-field in the shot and the camera would do the rest.
This brings me on to the main point of this blog. In my experience this simple SLR camera has less distraction when taking photographs than my current digital SLR cameras. I can say with certainty, that when I used this camera, I was far more concentrated as a photographer than I am with my current DSLR. One of the greatest distractions I find with digital cameras is the ability to instantly review photos after they have been taken. Looking at the back of the camera every time you take a photo often lead to missed photographic opportunities. When I shot with film that distraction wasn’t there. You took the photo, wound the film, and when the film ran out you then either changed the film or sent it off to the lab for processing.
Shooting with a film camera I believe was a more precise art. One wasn’t firing off photo after photo in the hope that one image would turn out ok. Instead the photographer waited for the decisive moment when all the elements were right to get the ‘perfect shot’. Of course the film photographer had to know his/her craft to get the perfect shot. But once the required knowledge of the workings of the camera was attained, the photographer was freed up to concentrate on the most important aspect of photography, the photographic image itself.
When I teach photography I always tell my students that it is not the camera that distinguishes a good or bad photographer, it is what the photographer does with the camera that is important. A prime example of this can be seen in the work of the Japanese Street photographer Daido Moriyama. Moriyama takes amazing photos with just a simple point-and-shoot pocket camera. He prefers to work with a smaller unobtrusive camera because he can get more natural street images without drawing attention to the fact that he is a photographer. When I was student I can’t remember having any conservation with my tutors about the type of camera I used. When a tutor talked to me about my work they would only refer to the images I had up in my studio space and what I was trying to say as a photographer. They didn’t give a damn whether I was using large format, medium format, 35mm, Canon, Nikon , etc. All that mattered was that I was producing images with a clear intention, images that spoke visually and intellectually.
To finish I’d like to say that I’m not advocating that everyone throws away their digital camera and get a film camera, or bins their DSLR for a compact camera. What I’m trying to say in a round about fashion, is that photography should first and foremost be about the image and the camera should be a secondary consideration. Having the latest DSLR camera won’t make you a better photographer. In fact the complexity of such a camera can often distract from the real purpose of photography, which is to create photographs. If you want to learn to be a good photographer your time would be best served looking the work of the great photographers. Photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Brassai, Ernst Hass, Ansel Adams, Steve McCurry, Michael Kenna to name but a few. Study the compositional techniques they use, the type of light they shoot in, the subject matter they choose to shoot. Learn by looking, and don't let the camera get in the way of improving you photography.
“I like to look at pictures, all kinds. And all those things you absorb come out subconsciously one way or another. You’ll be taking photographs and suddenly know that you have resources from having looked at a lot of them before. There is no way you can avoid this. But this kind of subconscious influence is good, and it certainly can work for one. In fact, the more pictures you see, the better you are as a photographer.”
– Robert Mapplethorpe
You can find some of the photographers I admire here: http://www.pinterest.com/langanphoto
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