The illusion of progress
FOR THE LAST ten years, any amateur digital camera has been able to produce images of a technical quality that surpasses anything that was possible to achieve before. The camera manufacturers development teams, however, keep refining their products, increasing functionality ad nauseam. In this "Arms Race of the Brands", the unwary amateur photographer often becomes a victim of The Upgrading Urge (TUU, closely related to the Gear Acquisition Syndrome, GAS). TUU is a gnawing feeling that your camera gear – that was quite dandy only a year ago – all of a sudden is marred by unbearable flaws. To overcome TUU you must focus on photography as such, and not on the technical aspects of the photographic instruments.
The Megapixel/Full-frame Race
Ever since digital cameras took over the world of photography at the beginning of this century, the technical advances have been enormus. I bought my first digital camera – a Pentax Optio S-4 – in the beginning of 2004. It was (and, in my eyes, still is) a marvel. It had a 4 MP sensor in a very small body, and when The Imaging Resource did a review of the camera they were duly impressed: "The 4.0-megapixel CCD (4.23 total megapixels) produces high resolution, print quality images (...) The camera offers a host of creative features and functions, as well as manual control over focus and white balance (if desired), proof that small size doesn't have to cramp your style." In 2006 I "upgraded" to a Nikon D50, a DSLR consumer camera sporting a 6 MP APS-C sensor ("half-frame", 23,7×15,6 mm). Then, before a voyage to Antartica, I needed a more sturdily built camera, so I once more "upgraded", this time to a Nikon D300. And now I had 12 MP to work with on an APS-C size sensor. DP Review ended their test of the D300 in March 2008 like this: "Nikon's biggest problem now will be bettering the D300; it raises the bar to a new high, and represents the state of the art despite strong competition from the likes of Canon, Sony and Olympus. There's simply no better semi-professional digital SLR on the market. The D300 was released in 2007. And around this time the Magapixel Race between camera manufacturers began in ernest. More pixels and larger sensors – that became the definition of photographic progress. Plus everything else that was came with it: a host of functions that make your head spin around. Now even the cheapest of cameras sport 20+ MP. Now, even the tiniest of camera bodies can host a "full-frame" sensor (i.e. a sensor the size of a 35 mm film negative). And the top brands offer cameras with 36+ MP. Soon, there will be cameras available with 200+ MP. And even more functions. If you go along with this and "upgrade" your camera gear every now and then, then you'll also have to buy better (i.e. more expensive) lenses, a more powerful computer and more storage. But you don't have to follow the "upgrading" trend, you can relax and keep on shooting with your old gear until it breaks down. And still get outstanding results if you are a reasonably good photographer.
The Amateur Photographer and the Illusion of Progress
I am a member on a Swedish photography community on the Internet (Fotosidan), and a lot of the discussions held there focus on technical matters and on how to choose between different cameras and lenses. Often a thread will start something like this:
Hi. Two years ago I bought a Nikon D3100 [or the Canon etc. equivalent]. I now feel that I have outgrown this camera and need to upgrade to develop my photography further. I'm thinking of going full-frame. What would you guys out there recommend?
One wonder what on earth a technical wonder like the D3100 (or a Canon, Sony, Pentax etc. dito) can possibly be lacking if you are an amateur photographer, interested in still photography? And what on earth can an "upgrade" from an APS-C "half-frame" sensor to a "full-frame" ditto, possibly add to your devlopment as a photographer? All you gain is having to buy new, and more epensive, lenses to match the larger sensor. And, really, how many of your photographs do you actually print? And if you do, how many of them are printed larger than A3? (I've made prints 100*70 centimeters large, from cropped images taken with the 10 MP Panasonic LX3 compact camera, and with great results.) Your images are primarily shown on the web; on Facebook, Google, Instagram, Flickr etc. And in most cases it is impossible to judge if an image was shot with a modern smartphone or the latest professional Canikon model. However, the fledgling amateur, who just recently learned to distinguish between the front and the back of hers/his "entry level" camera model, soon enough will feel the "upgrading itch". And, as s/he has only a rudimentary knowlege of the basics of photography, s/he believes that this itch can be alleviated through "upgrading" to a camera with more pixels, a "full-frame" sensor, more functions to chose from and different lenses from the so called kit-lens that originally came with the camera body. This, however, is an illusion. If you want to make progress as an amateur photographer, start by going backwards as it were. [Note: I'm not talking about amateurs with a specific photographic area of interest, like wildlife, sports, action, etc. In their case technical specs do matter.] If you want to learn more about the art of still photography, do not immediately turn to the technical side of the matter. The less of the technical stuff, the better. You'll need to go back to basics.
When learning, Less is More
Today's cameras are overloded with functions. The menues where all features on offer are shown to the photographer, are a veritable djungel of more or less confusing choices. The easy way to navigate this djungle of settings, is to use the automated pre-set photo programs on offer by the camera itself. Personally, I would recommend shooting manually as far as possible. But shooting manually on an entry level DSLR for example, is not always so easily done. In contrast to an analogue camera of yesterday where you turned the aperturering on the lens and the shutter speed dial on top of the camera body, on a digital conterpart you'll have to press buttons and turn dials, and occasionally dig into one of the menus. There just is no tactile feeling of what you are doing.
I am no fundamentalist, neither when it comes to photography nor when it comes to other matters. So, I'm not saying that my views expressed below will suit everyone, take them or leave them.
1. Learn to use what you've got
If you are shooting with your smartphone, learn to use that one before you decide to buy a camera that offers you more possibilites. You can do amaizing things with the smartphone camera (see here and here). If you've already got a DSLR, a compact camera or whatever, start using that in manual mode or semi-manual modes. The point being to become aware of how different combinations of aperature and shutter speed work together in image making.
2. Learn the basics of photography
I started photographing in 1969. Of course then everything was manual apart from the luxury of having TTL light metering built into my SLR camera (a Nikkormat FT). You just set the correct ISO value by turning a small dial, and you were ready to go. Set the aperture and the corresponding shutter speed until a little needle at the bottom of the viewfinder was centered, turn the focusing ring on the lens untill your subject came in focus, and press the relese button. Shot taken. You can leave all this to your camera to do for you, but if you want to understand the workings of the pre-programmed settings your camera offers you, you'll have to "go manual" and learn how your choice of aperture, shutter speed, focal length, and sensor size, affects the final result. On the Fotosidan forums members quite often ask questions about why their photographs are not sharp. Some of them convinced that it's the lens and/or camera that isn't up to mark, when from a brief glance at the image you can tell that the "photographer" in question hasn't got a clue about how to make a correct expusure in the first place.
3. Choose your camera(s)
Ok, you've tried what you've got; you have come to grips with basics. But you still feel restrected by your gear and are ready to buy better stuff. (Warning: GAS lurks around the corner.) So, what exactly does "better" mean? In terms of tech specs, better means what I started writing about at the beginning of this blog post – more megapixels, "full-frame" sensor, faster autofocus etc. etc. But, please, forget about all that. Technically all cameras on the market today will have specs not dreamt on a couple of years ago. For 95 percent of all amateur photographers today, the number of megapixels and the sensor size etc. are factors totally irrelevant when chosing a camera. That's the wrong end to start. The starting point is to decide what you are going to shoot with it? The next question is what cameras will best serve that purpose. Let me take myself as an example. I almost exclusively shoot with four different cameras:
Panasonic LX3 compact camera; 10 MP, 8.07 x 5.56 mm sensor
Nikon D300 DSLR camera; 12 MP, "half-frame APS-C sensor
Smartphone camera (iPhone 5s); 8 MP, petite sensor
The Leica is a 95% manual camera with specs that were outdated even when it were relesed in 2012. I use it mostly for street photography (like the two images above). It offers built in exposure metering, aperture priority mode and auto ISO. That's it. No autofocus, no nothing. The camera specs are more like something made in the late 70's. But, it's a digital camera, sporting a "full-frame" CCD-sensor (outdated today) with 18 MP. This camera forces you to think before pressing the shutter button. (I'll write more about shooting with the Leica in upcoming posts.)
The LX3 I use whenever I need a small camera that i can carry in a jacket pocket. It's for allround photography and a camera I love using when travelling. It was the only camera I took on a holliday trip to New York. Worked just fine.
The Nikon is a must when photographing wildlife and events where zoom-lenses are needed. I did a wedding once, and the Nikon made the job very easy. Likewise, when photographing seabirds the D300 is (still) amazing. Today any semi-pro DSLR serve the same purpose perfectly.
The iPhone I use for Instagram and when no other cameras are at hand or when a largeer camera does not suit the situation (the image below was taken on the iPhone when I waited for a train at the railwaystation in Milan).
You probably have heard that the best camera is the one you've got with you. A lot of truth in that, but it is also true that the camera you've got with you sometimes can't do the job at hand. If you don't believe me, try photographing a flying puffin with a Leica rangefinder or an iPhone.
So, don't fall for all the hype about the latest models and allt their new specs. If you are an ordinary amateur about to buy your first camera; a camera to shoot under ordinary conditions – almost any camera out there will do. The important parameters to consider are weight, bulkiness, durability and how the camera feel in your hands. And, keep in mind that great photography was made with cameras, lenses and material very much inferior to any modern digital camera. How did those photographers of yesterday manage to do all the great stuff? Well, they new a lot about light, composition and they knew the ABC and all the rest of the letters in the photography alphabet.