Putting cameras and lenses into context. What's really important in getting interesting photographs? Not just technically good photos but interesting ones...

Nearly every camera choice, in the moment, seems like the optimum one. Many of us slide in and out of cameras and camera systems looking for something that, over time, we don't seem capable of finding. I think we're looking for that one great camera or camera system that just integrates so perfectly with the way we want to hold objects,  how we want to operate the tools, and which delivers images that have exactly the colors, hues and tones we always imagined would be most satisfying for our finished work.

There are a lucky few who actually find a camera that constitutes a vital and enduring part of those photographer's methodologies such that they are able to keep and use those cameras exclusively for years; decades even. The rest of us seem bound to a cycle of discovering a new camera, hoping that it will be "the one", using it for a concentrated period of time only to find niggling operational or haptic glitches which eventually sour us on the camera and help us rationalize our move on to the next big thing; the next camera mirage out in the desert. How else to explain, for example, the significant downgrading of image quality Nikon users are willing to accept in order to "upgrade" from the exquisite D850 to the Z7?

But as I look back over decades of picture making with dozens and dozens of cameras I find lots of images that I now consider very interesting and very satisfying. Each successful image lends a bit of its success (at least in our malleable minds) back to the camera and lens we took it with. As an example, I really love the image of this model standing in the stream at Pedernales State Park, about 40 miles from Austin. For years I gave some credit for the image to my prestige brand of camera and lens. It was taken with a Leica 180mm f4.0 Elmar R series lens on a Leica R8 camera. When I look at the image, and many others from the same shoot, I have nostalgic feelings about that equipment and wonder why I ever sold it; why I moved on to other cameras and lenses. Surely, if the camera pleased me so much when making this shot I should have kept it around. At least that's what my emotional self tells me...

The reality (and this will infuriate Leicaphiles) is that the 180mm Elmar lens was no great wonder-lens. 
It's slower aperture (compared to an f2.8) made getting an exact plane of focus sharp more difficult than it should have been. And whether I used the lens on a tripod or not it was never the sharpest of my Leica lenses; which is a bit counterintuitive since a slower, mildly long telephoto lens should have been easier to design and make. Add to this the fact that the focal length of the lens got shorter and shorter the closer to an object one tried to focus. 

And that R8? Hardly the best camera I've owned even though the press at the time salivated about it endlessly. What was wrong? Well there was a manufacturing defect on the first new one I pulled from the box; it scratched film. Not intermittently but all the time. It was not a glorious example of electronic implementation either and was one of the first cameras I ever owned that locked up and would not function from time to time, unless you removed the battery and re-inserted it. 

Leica talked a good game about their tight tolerances in the film gate but if there was a difference in imaging performance between that camera and, say,  a Nikon F5, you sure couldn't see it with conventional films. Maybe in a lab........ but probably not. 

No, what I really imagine is that many good things just came together on the day we took the photo at the river. We were in the great outdoors and the weather was fine and perfect. The model was young and lean and beautiful. It was a hot day and the model closed her eyes and took a moment to savor the cool water tumbling over her bare feet. The light fell where I wanted it. The negative turned out to be sharp enough to print well. The art director from the magazine we were working for did a good job scouting and casting. And yet, as photographers we're so quick to give ample credit to the gear. Crazy, yeah?

When I sold off the Leica R series gear in order to go digital in the 35mm format realm I did so with very little regret. I'd spent three or four years trying to see a technical difference between that and the Canon and Nikon equipment I'd used before and I was never able to see much beyond the fact that the Leica 90mm Summicron did a really nice job translating the tonality of skin into black and white negatives, and from there to prints. But even that was short lived; after I used the Nikon 105mm f2.0 DC lens for a while...and realized that there were plenty of lenses that were just as good. Some maybe better...

I love this abandoned rest stop I found by chance a few dozen miles down a two lane road from Marathon, Texas. There's something about the image that really speaks to me. It feels so lonely but it is convincingly evocative of a red hot day in windblown and nearly deserted West Texas. I also have a bunch of similar work showing fences in the foregrounds, mountains in the background, and clouds that pepper the sky almost like a painted movie background. But that's all down to the actual location and time of year.

I'd love to think there was something magic in that Olympus EP-2 camera I was toting around at the time. And something equally magic about its $100 kit zoom. But it's the scene and the subject that power the image and not some ephemeral quality provided by the camera and lens. Maybe, for me, the picture's power comes from the scene being so different from my everyday, urban life. The sky being different. The weeds growing up around the edges of the concrete. Maybe it was just the happiness of discovering something so few other people have noticed. But for the longest time I was nostalgic for that camera because of this image and a handful of others. 

The real magic had nothing to do with the camera but everything to do with the fact that I'd just turned down a book contract. The negotiations were not pretty. I was feeling frustrated and Belinda suggested that I take a road trip just for myself. I had no schedule to keep and no place I had to be. Essentially I'd bought myself permission to make an unhurried trip for myself that turned out to be a delight and I'm fairly certain that any camera I had taken would have had its reputation elevated by taking a bit of credit for the nice situation I had created for myself as a picture taker. 

Many of us who have reached a certain age and who have plied photography either as a career or passion for decades, have waxed on and on about the "magic" of Hasselblad cameras and the "power" of the square format. As an example, I am guilty of constantly showing black and white work; mostly portraits, that I made twenty or thirty years ago. People universally love the images and, reflexively, photographers always want to know what equipment I used to make the images. But when I think back each successful portrait is much more in debt to any number of other parts of the picture taking process and much less so about the camera or format. 

For example, one of my favorite models for many years was (and still is) Lou. She was the kind of person who, when she walked into a coffee shop, everyone in the place (mom's, guys, employees, couples, etc.) would stop in mid conversation and just admire her. Her carriage and bearing. Her perfect skin. Her beautiful eyes. Her constantly kind and energized smile. So, if you put someone like that in front of your camera then how much credit can you possibly give to the camera instead of to the person herself? I could have used a Brownie camera, a Nikon with a 43-86mm lens on it; even a Lomo camera and people would love the image because I made the right selection of subject.

And how much of the image is about posing, the lighting (which I worked on constantly) and even the custom dyed background I hand made and put out of focus in the background. How much of the success of the image also depended on the way I processed the film and the way I printed the prints? How much of the look of the image is down to the Pictrol filter I used in the darkroom to blur the edges of this image (in counterpoint to the reputed sharpness of the Zeiss lenses)?  And yet, as photographers we're so quick to give all credit to that "wonderful" 150mm Sonnar lens. 

The real magic was being in the right place and in the right mindset to introduce myself to Lou and to ask her to sit for portraits. The camera is totally incidental to that. It was a time in my life when I felt confident to meet beautiful people and, without much hesitation, invite them to the studio to be photographed. At a certain point one ages out of that assuredness and access. The camera could soldier on forever but as one gets older finding and engaging perfect, young subjects is more and more difficult. And without access to the perfect face I guess the one thing we can possess is "the magic camera." 

The other day I came across the image just above and was happy with the skin tones, the general composition and the beautiful model we used for a hip furniture store ad campaign. I was working with a young, energetic art director and he seemed pretty competent at finding great models and then figuring out scenarios in which they shone. When I saw the image again my first thought was how simple this shot was and how easy it is to do, technically, now. But my second thought turned, reflexively to giving the camera credit for some of the success. Surely it must have been one of my Kodak DCS760s with a special Noct Nikkor lens or maybe even my old Contax RTS III with a Zeiss something or other on the front. 

I searched through 300,000 images in my Lightroom catalogs to find the original. I was already regretting that I might have sold, or traded in, what surely was an outstanding camera. Well, the image was taken in the earliest days of digital with an Olympus E-10 camera. For those of you who don't remember that was what we'd call a "bridge" camera. It had a small 2/3rds inch, 4 megapixel sensor engineered into a robust-y, all metal camera body, coupled with a relatively fast zoom lens. The camera itself looked great but it lacked files with much dynamic range, and the noise in the photos got progressively worse from ISO 200 onward. We made this camera work because I lit the hell out of the scene. This was still the days of big strobe packs and lots of power and we made the camera look good by using it at the absolute lowest ISO setting and placing Profoto flashes with big soft boxes in just the right places. We worked hard with technical fixes to make the files good enough to publish. But now, when I look at the images, why am I so quick to give the camera so much credit?

We selected the framing, the model, the costume, the lighting, and the model added just the right look. In retrospect I refuse to give the camera much credit at all. Given all the good stuff we humans added I'm pretty sure we could have shot this with just about any camera and made it work. 

In the image just above the camera handling was at fault. This was not at all what I was going for but I went through three flash sync cords, all of which failed, and ended up trying to open the shutter of my Pentax 6x7 camera on bulb and then quickly hitting the test button on my Profoto flash pack before releasing the shutter. There are two exposures here; a flash exposure and a long exposure and they gave me an unusual blend of visual content. But I love the photograph. I like seeing half my subject's face in black shadow and her wide open eye staring into the camera. It's sharp and not sharp and vague everywhere. I can't credit the camera at all for this wonderful accident. I handled fucking up camera and flash function all on my own. 
Here's an example (man on bike) of a photograph taken with a camera I had so many struggles with that it was like swimming with a cinder block tied to one ankle. I was in Berlin testing out a camera that had yet to be launched and it was a handling nightmare. The quality of the EVF had been brutally sacrificed in order to put a five inch screen on the back of the camera. The maker wanted to be the first to offer a camera with wi-fi, blue tooth and cellular connectivity but the result was a very, very complex set of interfaces and technologies that were mostly in opposition to the way photographers actually use cameras. While the sensor was fine it was certainly no better than anything already on the market from Nikon or Sony. But it was 2013 and camera makers seemed convinced that camera sales would continue to break records. So there I was in Berlin looking for interesting things to shoot with the beast. 

I saw this and shot it but I also shot lots of images I liked; in between the camera spontaneously shutting down and then spending 30 long seconds rebooting all of its systems. I later used the same camera and lenses to make this image below and even though we were surrounded by the company's technicians we still had to take breaks to re-launch the operating system...
We were shooting at the Photo Expo in NYC. I designed the light I wanted and worked with our professional model to get the looks I wanted. I felt triumphant at the end of the day because I'd worked through numerous camera shutdowns, some focusing fails and other issues and still came home with images I liked. Don't tell me I should credit the camera for those! Had I been using a different system I could have done the same work but with a lot less stress and frustration. The bottom line in my inquiry would still be: Why are we giving the camera and lens any credit at all! In most situations having to do with creating visual content the contributions of the light, the subject, the photographer's point of view, and even the propping are, in fact, much more important to the success of a shoot than some "magic sauce" from a specific camera maker. 

It's sad and funny that we give up our power as creators to the myth of "superior glass" as well. I've owned so many different brands of lenses and while some do have distinct "looks" most are flexible enough to provide the basis for just about any style and parameter of shooting (within their focal length class). I was so excited to get the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 lens for my Canon system; until I realized that it was soft as a marshmallow when used wide open ( you know, that thing we were paying for...) but the big surprise was focusing. It was a manual focus lens and it had tremendous focus shift as it stopped down. So, if you focused while the lens was wide open and then shot at f4.0 your chances of having a face, much less an eye, in focus were about as good as that of winning the lottery. What a great and enduring value for only $1800. I finally started getting good results when I stopped down the lens and then focused but soon realized I'd get even better results with the $400 Canon 85mm f1.8. 

I don't know if you personally have ever shot with a Zeiss Sonnar 150mm f4.0 on a Hasselblad but that lens must hold the world's record for flare. One hint of backlighting and you'd think you smeared Vasoline over the front element. And the list goes on and on. Worst wide angle distortion I've experienced was with the Leica 19mm Elmarit R. I've read recent reviews from people who are using this lens on any number of mirrorless cameras, like the Sony A7 cameras, and they gush over the sharpness and "look" of the lens but no one mentions the almost comical "mustache" distortion that is immediately evident in any image that has (used to have?) straight lines in it...
And if we are discussing the camera's contributions to our personal art we have to put into context how much of the photograph is constructed or reconstructed in post production. This image (just above) owes it's desaturated look to the low contrast, low saturation, color negative film I was using in a medium format camera and has nothing to do with camera menu controls but the story is analogous to the way we operate today via PhotoShop. Reviewers prattle on about "color science" and how they like X color science much more that Y color science --- right before they hop into Photoshop and apply a new profile and then start dragging the control sliders all over the place. Is it really the camera and system that's providing the color construct or is it just supplying the basic, raw materials that we use to manufacture the final image from an average set of digital data?

 It's like the saying in Buckeroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension (movie reference) which Buckeroo tells to Pretty Penny, "Wherever you go, there you are."

We drag around all the stuff we know about how to shoot and what to shoot and, unless you have one that's broken, the camera is much less important to the final birth of the image than we can possibly imagine.

I had such high hopes when I changed from the Nikon D810s to a Sony A7Rii cameras and lenses. But my subjects didn't change, my approach to them stayed the same, and my processing was almost already hard wired. If anything it was harder to get the color I wanted and it was less comfortable to hold the Sony cameras; even though they were smaller and lighter.

I thought I was being an incredible risk taker when I changed to the Panasonic system and, most importantly, to the G9 cameras. After all, I was moving from full frame, high resolution cameras to a sensor two sizes smaller and a camera with one half the resolution. But you know what? Given the way I use the cameras and the way my clients use the files the differences were minimal. What came squirting out through the USB cables was so close in quality, color and sharpness that no one cared about the provenance of the actual gear.

After I'd been shooting on remote locations for a while with the G9s I kept hearing all the advertising that lives in my head tell me that I'd be able to make better images with a bigger sensor sized camera and a camera with a great lens system. I bought the Fuji cameras. I like them just fine but when reviewing images over the past several years there's not a lot of difference between the G9 files and the X-H1 files. The difference seems only equal to the amount of credit we're willing to cede to the idea that there are perfect  cameras and I think we both know that they don't exist, except on the pages of Digital Photography Review and in the collective minds of millions of men with disposable income and the need to be right.

At least that's what I've learned from using a wide range of cameras and lenses to make over a million images over the last 40 years. And you know what? There's no rhyme or reason as to which cameras are best. The images we love are the result, mostly, of being in the right place at the right time with the right subject and the right light. Nothing more, nothing less. My favorite photographs have come from a little 35mm Minox compact, a Leica CL with a 40mm, a Canon TX with an ancient 50mm 1.8, a Panasonic g9 and even a falling apart, old Tamron Adapt-all zoom lens on a nondescript film camera.

More important, always, was what is in front of my camera, how the light looked and how well I put the pieces together. At most, the difference between cameras adds about 10-20% ---- max to an outcome. If you could only have one camera; even the crappiest, and you had no ability to change or "upgrade", if you loved your subject enough you'd not only make it work but you'd eventually figure out the secrets of that camera and make it sing. We need to take more credit for the work we do and to stop sharing it with the cameras and lenses we just happen to use.


Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

My actual favorite two cameras over the last five years: the Sony RX10-2 and the Nikon D700. All the rest of the stuff was fine. It just didn't offer anything more even though it was costly to change around.

ODL Designs said...

Interesting how you finished with a comment about a favorite camera :)

Love the article, and how true that it is our effort in the moment that yields the result not the push of a button.

This might be very controversial in a photographer's blog, but most photography, even lovely work is not Art in my opinion. The Art was what took place before the shutter was pressed, the camera just recorded it.

Keep well!

Dave Jenkins said...

Wow, Kirk! It would have taken me a month to write this! (Assuming I could at all.)

Eric Rose said...

Amen! I have never been a gear hound and only changed equipment if a particular objective couldn't be met with my existing gear. There is something to be said for cameras that "feels" right and work as if they are part of your body so you don't have to think about it. Once that is achieved then it's just you, the subject and the light.

Camera and lens manufacturers must hate you lol. Plus all the Vbloggers and who make a living off peoples insecurities and/or egos.


Mark the tog said...

The delight a camera brings to the job means the difference between a "job"and joy. My actual favorite film camera was the Pentax H3V which was my first SLR in 1970 (bought used for $125 and took six months to pay it off). It was mechanical butter. Every knob and dial was silken in its movement. The shutter release just perfect. The 50 mm f1.8 delivered just creamy smooth but not achingly sharp images.
Today I shoot with various Canons because that was what I started my digital career in. I have a number of lenses and thus really feel that I can't leave. Yes, they are OK to use and they are familiar but they are obliging tools, not playful puppies leaping and gamboling in delight at the prospect of work.

Gary said...

So I guess it comes down to what feels right in the hands and just gets out of your way. In my experience that has been the Nikon FM-series film cameras. I have the sense that this thoughtful essay is a summing up and perhaps a turning point in your camera quest. On a more particular note, would you explain your comment that the Z7 produces degraded images compared to the D850? I thought they used essentially the same sensor.

Anonymous said...

Hello Kirk !

My good fortune has given me 50 years of enjoyment with photography. Many years working with several photography industry giants followed with several years as a professional photographer in the 1980s. Fortunately, my photography career was an exercise in negative cash flow ! What has followed is years of amateur status accompanied by a real job in another industry. No pressure and only shooting for my own pleasure.

All of that being said, as an amateur without financial pressures, I have experienced the same camera switching madness since the onset of digital still photography.

And... I recently reached the same conclusion which you have ! It amazes me that approaching the GAS from two different directions. one from the aspect of a very successful professional and the other from the aspect of an amateur photographer, everyone reaches the same end point !

I do love reading your BLOG and appreciate your good writing and honesty. Please don't stop !

Best Regards,

Henry L.
Montgomery, Texas

Anonymous said...

This is one of your best posts. Thanks Kirk!


Kristian Wannebo said...

So true and so well said, your illustrations giving such a wide coverage!

But it's also a question of disciplined desire (which can be hard) to limit oneself to motifs within the camera's shooting envelope...

When my father gave me a Superikonta with a Tessar lens in exchange for the previous Ikonta with the softer Novar lens the world of crisp snow and rime opened up, and my first SLR gave me the desired close-ups. This became even more interesting with a Zörk tilt adapter, and being able to operate this camera with winter gloves on gave me the necessary time in cold weather.

( Now I've switched to digital.)

And then there is the convenience of a good enough pocket camera.

So long as this bug of exploring doesn't explode into the G. A. Syndrome...

crsantin said...

My experience mirrors yours, though I am a much less prolific photographer. I've used lots of cameras throughout the years and I still own quite a few of them. My best images from 2018 came from a tiny Sony RX100, the first one. It finally died a few months ago. I may get another. For now I'm using one of: Nikon D300, Sony A6000, Fuji X100 (original one), Nikon V1, Olympus EP-2 or EPL-1, and various film cameras. I like each of them for different reasons and I use them depending upon my mood. I took my Nikon V1 kit on a cruise last summer and it performed wonderfully. I have a Nikon FM in good condition on the way to me from Japan because I wanted a fully manual camera that didn't require batteries and the price of the fragile Leica film cameras is just silly, not to mention the lenses.

I wonder though, knowing what you know now, are you going to continue to jump from system to system? I've never seen someone change camera systems so wholly and so often. Is that part of the creative process for you or are you still searching for the perfect camera, knowing of course that no such thing exists?

mikepeters said...

Your aim is true. This nail was hit squarely in the head.

Indeed, who cares what you use, it's all about what you do with what you use. The best cameras are the ones that disappear in your hands when you use them. And these days, most lenses are good enough to get the job done.

pixtorial said...

Kirk, I love this post. It is the antithesis of the contemporary photography post, as your core argument is about the act of photography versus the tools. It is easy to get caught up in the idea that a particular camera, or lens, or film, or whatever, has a particular magic or secret sauce. And yes, some lenses, some cameras may offer their own particular signature to an image. I shot for a few, often frustrating, years with Sigma gear. The weird SD9, the endlessly frustrating SD14, and arguably the first APS-C pocket camera, the DP1. When I could get the stars to align, I -loved- the images I made from those cameras. But, in the end, it had much less to do with the camera or that bizarre Foveon sensor, and much more to do with the fact that the limitations of that hardware made me slow down and create well considered photographs. I later discovered that the Nikon D50 could do the same, and later the D70s, the D7100, and D610 all proved to be great tools for a number of years. But they were, alas, just tools, and captured only what I put into them. Today, I enjoy the Fuji cameras immensely, in no small part because the user interface and the way they help me "see" makes photography fun again, and as an amateur that really is the whole point.

Dogster said...

I like this post. Good one. I agree totally

James Brooks said...

I haven't commented before because I have nothing to add to your superb blog, but I'll make an exception in this case to say this was a beautifully written, and even more beautifully illustrated, post. Thank you.

Jerry said...

I've only been a near daily photographer for about a dozen years ( I do it for work, but I'm not a pro photographer. Far, far from it). This post makes me think of my other profession, builder/carpenter, that I was for 40 years and still dabble in for myself. Tools are equally important in the building trades as in photography. You can buy a hammer for $225 (yes, on Amazon) or $20. Both can drive a nail (and I prefer the feel and results of the $20 hammer).

icexe said...

I feel like digital cameras became more than "good enough" 5-6 years ago. I just don't see the point of this whole full-frame, bokeh crazed obsession people have nowadays when 99.9% of images end up as a compressed 1024px wide image on a social media site somewhere.

To be honest, I am often hard pressed to see the technical differences between an image taken with a 1" sensor versus a full-frame sensor when viewed on the Web. Even smart phones are almost there, not quite there yet, but getting pretty close.

I actually get far more enjoyment from Post-Processing than I do from taking the picture. I can spend hours in Photoshop playing around with all the ways to turn mundane images into beautiful art.