Commentary # 19 ~ May 2008
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The Debate Over "Your Camera Does Not Matter"

May 2008

- by Craig Wassel

The debate sparked by the statement "Your Camera Does Not Matter" is heating up again on a several frequently visited photography websites. Since those sites are often visited and since there are so many others that have weighed in on this before, I never felt I had anything to add to the conversations.

Until now.

My thoughts are really sparked by Lloyd Chambers' comments on his site in March (go to this page on his site, then scroll down to "Is It the Equipment"). As much as I have read on this debate, I have never seen anything put as concisely and as professionally as he has. With that credit hopefully properly given, I decided to expand on what Lloyd wrote because I think he takes the debate to where it really should be. I even think that "Your Camera Does Not Matter" is not the best statement, and that "Does Your Camera Matter?" is not even the right question.

Imagine this scenario: You and I are standing by a lake watching one of the most spectacular sunsets either of us have EVER seen unfold. You have a point and shoot digital camera of very respectable quality and no tripod, and the $3,000.00 (the brand is irrelevant - pick any you like) body, great wide angle lens, and tripod I own are not within my reach because I often don't feel like carrying them. Neither of us are pros, but we both love a great photograph and even mount, matte, and frame one now and then.

Which of us owns the better camera?

Now lets change the scenario a bit. You and I are in the same situation, except we are both photographers for Arizona Highways. You are shooting a 4x5 view camera, and I am shooting a full frame 35mm DSLR on a tripod with a great wide angle lens (the brands are irrelevant - pick any you like). Who has the better camera on this night?

In the first scenario, I have the equipment and potential to take a better photograph than you. There will be other sunsets just as spectacular as this one somewhere and sometime, but will I be in the right place at the right time and with my equipment to capture it? On this night, I guess you have the better camera since you actually have yours at hand. You win.

You win in the second scenario, too. It has been (and I believe still is) the policy of Arizona Highways to only publish photographs in their magazine that are made on film. Their position is that even the best digital cameras available - including Hasselblad and the like - do not rival rival the quality of film. The majority of photography in Arizona Highways is done on view cameras that are 4x5 format or larger. It would not matter if my composition or color or contrast or anything else from my DSLR is better than what you got; mine could not even be submitted to AH.

I am not saying I agree or disagree with AH's position on the digital format. I am simply stating that in that scenario, I was in the right place at the right time with the wrong equipment. I am also not saying that great capture is not possible with digital, so let me turn to a real situation in which I found myself. In fact, the spectacular sunset and evening I described above produced the top photograph in the column to your right. It would not suprise me if I never see another sunset as beautiful as that over such a flat calm lake for as long as I live.

I took it with a high-end digital point and shoot back in 2005. I have printed it up 24" x 16 ", and it frequently gets "wows" by those who see it. The quality of the print is good enough for my wall, and the quality of the photograph itself (composition, exposure, contrast) might even be good enough for a magazine like Arizona Highways. The quality of the print, though, would not be good enough for AH (not that they would even look at it since it was not made on film), and it would even be borderline to hang it in a fine art photography gallery.

I often think about that particular evening. When I do, I regret I did not have a different camera and a tripod with me. But it's pointless to ruminate over shots we can't retake. I shot hand-held with the only gear I did have with me, as I also did with the second photograph in the right column. The facts are that although I do professional shoots and fine art photography, I do not shoot for Arizona Highways or a magazine that has such requirements. So given the choice between getting these two shots or getting nothing, I'll take what I got and remain thankful I was even there to witness that evening at all. I accept that although they are great photographs, they are limited in their print and presentation potential. Still, regret does not mean that I kick myself too much for not having a "better" camera when these moments unfolded before me.

All of this brings us to finally addressing the statement "Your Camera Does Not Matter", or the question "Does Your Camera Matter?". Full time professional photographers know that not only can your camara matter, but that it can matter a great deal. Yet I know a couple of professionals who also carry and use small point and shoot digitals on a regular basis. Why would a professional do that? Maybe it's because they, too, don't think that "Why Your Camera Does Not Matter" is the right statement, and know that "Does Your Camera Matter?" is not the right question.

Okay, what is, then?

Ready for the correct question? Here it is:

What are we going to do with the photographs we take?

Even for the professional photographers I mentioned above, the answer is not always the same. You can bet they are not going to use a point-and-shoot for portrait work for a paying client. It's the wrong tool for the job. They use their point-and-shoots for a quick photograph of something that catches their eye, and when they know they are really only taking it for themselves.

So what is really ironic is that all the debate between the online photographers who love to argue about whether your camera does or does not matter ITSELF does not matter. That is because while one photographer is really talking about the quality of photographic composition, the other is really talking about producing professional level work that will be closely scrutinized.

The arguers cannot answer the question of what we will do with the photographs we take. Their attempts to provide an answer that is always right does not account for the fact that even professionals may take photographs that are strictly for their own enjoyment. So why does their debate continue? I think I have some insight into that as well. At the risk of stirring up another hornet's nest, let me suggest the following:

It's more about one camp trying to prove that anyone in disagreement is wrong.

In closing, only we know what we will do with our photographs. Only we know if our photography is a mix of personal and professional, and that therefore sometimes the camera matters and sometimes it does not. As Lloyd said, find what works for you, and don't worry about anyone else. No matter who we are, what we will do with our photographs will lead us to the right question and the right answer.

Dialogue from "Fiddler on the Roof":

Person one: "Why should I break my head about the outside world? Let the outside world break its own head"

Tevya: "Well put! He is right. As the Good Book says, 'If you spit in the air, it lands in your face'."

Person Two: "Nonsense. You can't close your eyes to what's happening in the world!!"

Tevya: "He is right!"

Person Three: "He's right and he's right? They can't both be right!!"

Tevya: "You know, you are ALSO right!!!"

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" . . . I know a couple of professionals who also carry and use small point and shoot digitals on a regular basis. Why would a professional do that? Maybe it's because they, too, don't think that "Why Your Camera Does Not Matter" is the right statement, and that "Does Your Camera Matter?" is not the right question.. . . . "

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