Does Equipment Matter?
shoes, temple

Tibetan Temple

Inevitably, we have a lot of very expensive equipment, acquired over many years. Given that this is intimately tied up with what we do for a living, and given how long we have been doing it for a living, it would be odd if we didn't. This was taken with the most valuable camera/lens combination we own, Roger's Alpa 12WA with 38/4.5 Biogon. Could we have taken substantially the same picture with a cheaper camera? Of course we could. But that doesn't stop the Alpa being a pleasure to use, and it doesn't stop the Biogon delivering detectably better quality than just about any other medium-format lens we have ever tried. Frances hand-coloured the print (on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone from Ilford HP5 Plus) using Marshalls Oils.

It's a perennial debate. Of course it's the photographer that makes the picture, not the camera - but the photographer can't make the picture without the camera. The same is true of lenses. Therefore, equipment matters. But how much?

First and foremost, it has to be able to do what the photographer wants. Of course a good photographer knows how to work within the limits of his or her equipment, and how and when to push those limits. A box camera is very limited indeed, which is why comparatively few photographers use them. DSLRs are extremely versatile, which is why they are so popular.

 

julie, holly

Julie and Holly

Unlike the Tibetan temple shot above, this was taken with one of the cheapest serious cameras we own: a Pentax SV which we were given but which is worth perhaps £50 ($75, 60€) at the outside, and an 85/1.9 Super-Takumar which was £20 or £30 ($30-45, 25-35€). The film was modestly-priced Foma 200 rated at about EI 80. Sure, we could have taken the same shot with a Leicaflex or a top-of-the-line Nikon. But would it have been a better picture? The main reason we use the other cameras we do is because we like them more, and because they stand up to hard use; the extra image quality is a bonus.

Second, the photographer has to be happy with his or her cameras and lenses. This is obviously a relative state, as it is in the nature of photographers to wonder what a new camera or lens could do for them, or to yearn after equipment they don't own (usually because it is too expensive). It is probably easier to define happiness by the absence of unhappiness, therefore: if you are constantly fighting with your camera, you are unlikely to get good pictures.

Because different photographers are unhappy with different cameras, the concept of 'fighting' can however vary widely. One photographer might view large format (LF) as impossibly complicated, with all the camera movements and no interlocks or idiot-proofing. For this photographer, LF would be a fight, while a DSLR might be almost intuitive. But to a photographer who was used to LF, where everything is mechanical and straightforward, a DSLR might appear hopelessly complicated with all its buttons, switches, LCD screens, ports, menus and modes. To him (or her) as DSLR would be a fight. A lot depends, therefore, on your temperament and experience.

It is also worth pointing out that 'popular' (or even 'versatile') is not the same as 'right for you'. We both prefer rangefinder cameras to SLRs. Why? We're not sure. SLRs are certainly more popular, and arguably more versatile. But does it matter? All it means is that if we want to use lenses longer than 135 mm, we need to switch to SLRs. As we very seldom used lenses longer than 135 mm in the days when we used SLRs more, this is no great hardship to us. We also need to use SLRs for close-up, though increasingly we use a rangefinder camera with a reflex housing on it: The Worst DSLR in the World.

Third, the photographer has to be able to afford the camera(s) and lens(es) that he or she wants, and this is a fertile seed-bed for sour grapes, envy, snobbery, reverse snobbery and self deception.

zorki 4k

Zorkii 4K

You can take superb pictures with this camera, but there have been advances in lens design since the 1930s; the wind-on, release and the like on the Zorkii are distinctly 'crunchy'; and quality control was always iffy, though most of the cameras that have survived were either good to start with or have been made so since. Then again, there are others that have been amateurishly 'repaired'. A Leica is simply nicer to use - if you can afford it.

Essentially, there are two extremes. At one end of the spectrum you have the photographer who can afford everything, and buys it. At the other, you have the photographer who has to watch the pennies so carefully that even a roll of film or a memory card is a significant expenditure. Most of us are somewhere in between.

Exactly where people fall on the financial spectrum, though, is completely irrelevant to their skill as a photographer. We have all known people who can turn out brilliant pictures with an autofocus point-and-shoot, and others who are completely hopeless as photographers despite owning half the Canon catalogue (or Nikon or Leica or any other manufacturer, of course).

This is where money and skill collide, and it is, we suggest, where equipment matters most of all. This is because there are so many traps to fall into. We can think of at least seven.

The most obvious is assuming that you can buy talent along with your equipment. You can't, of course. If you're a bad photographer with a point-and-shoot, or with a camera from the former Soviet Union (FSU), you are unlikely to become a better photographer merely by buying a state-of-the-art camera.

Equally pernicious is reverse snobbery: the belief that well-to-do photographers with expensive cameras are automatically incompetent, who buy expensive cameras just to show off. This is easily dismissed. If (let us say) a Zorkii 4K is as good a camera in every way as a Leica of similar vintage, why is the Leica ten times the price? The only explanation would be that intellect and artistic ability decline as wealth increases, which is not a very defensible viewpoint.

place voltaire

Place Voltaire, Arles, winter

One of the great tests of a camera (or lens) is whether it makes you want to take pictures - and this is why Roger has used Leicas since about 1969, when he borrowed his girlfriend's Leica II and then had to give it back... This was an M8.2 with 24/1.4 Summilux.

The left-hand side of the picture has been cropped off, as it was nothing but a jumble of parked cars (and they are very good at jumbling parked cars in Arles). The picture was significantly desaturated in Adobe Photoshop for a vintage look - a useful trick with sodium vapour lighting.

Then there is partisanship, whether for a particular brand, or in the perennial debate about film and digital, or about format or camera type: we are acquainted with one photographer who is little short of hysterical in his adoration of elderly roll-film folders. The camera that suits you, suits you. It may not suit someone else. If you are looking to have your wisdom and intelligence vindicated, a good way not to go about it is by arguing that you are right, and everyone else is wrong.

Fourth, there is the curious belief that if you're any good at all, you won't benefit from a better camera or lens. Sure, some won't. But others will. If your camera is holding you back - in other words, if another camera would allow you to do things you want to do, but cannot do with your present equipment - then the camera or lens which will allow you to achieve your ambition is better, and may well make you a better photographer.

Fifth, there's the 'pro fallacy': professionals use this camera, therefore amateurs should. Actually, this one is often reversed: professionals don't use this camera, therefore it's no good.

2 chairs

Chairs

One of the prices you pay for better image quality is generally inconvenience, but there is absolutely no doubt that the KowaSix we inherited from Frances's father can give a Leica a run for its money, simply by dint of having a significantly bigger negative.

The Kowa has a poor reputation for reliability, or rather for irreparability: if it breaks, it may not be fixable. But for shooting in your back yard, where there is generally little risk of the pictures being unrepeatable, it's great. We wouldn't want to rely on it on a long trip, but equally, it's a good camera to use and the results speak for themselves, even if the camera is not regarded as 'professional'. Roger shot this on Maco Cube 400 with the standard 85/2.8 lens and Frances printed it on Ilford Multigrade IV.

Sixth, there's the myth of the universal camera. There is of course no such thing. This is pretty much the subject matter of our module about how many cameras you need.

Seventh, there's the idea that some cameras are 'overpriced'. This is so subjective as to be worthless, and besides, it is nothing to do with photography. As long as there are people willing to pay the price, clearly, something is not overpriced. If it's not worth the money to you, don't buy it. It's that simple.

Fortunately, on the bright side, there are at least three ways in which these very same traps can act as spurs to improvement.

First, you can try to live up to your camera. With a top-flight camera, you know that if you don't get good pictures, there can only be two reasons. One is that you have the wrong camera for the kind of pictures you take, and the other is that you're not as good a photographer as you want to be. Both are remediable.

Second, you can try to prove yourself to other people. This can apply whether you are trying to show them that you're not a rich twit with expensive gear that he can't use, or that you can get brilliant pictures out of cameras that others would regard as junk.

 

crucifix suitcase

Crucifixes and suitcase

A vide-grenier is a sort of village-wide car boot sale or yard sale, held just once a year. This one is at St. Jean de Sauves, and shows the usual wild disparity of things for sale: crucifixes, hair clippers, opera glasses... Does it matter what camera was used? No, so we're not going to tell you...

Third, and most importantly, unless your livelihood depends upon it, you can simply enjoy yourself with whatever you have. No-one says you have to be a great photographer. No-one says you even have to take pictures. If you're happy just owning the gear, whether because it's beautifully engineered or because it makes you feel good about yourself or simply because it's old and peculiar, that's fine too. That's how much equipment matters.

 

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© 2010 Roger W. Hicks