It all started innocently enough when a friend e-mailed our group of photography friends asking if he should get a Nikon D600 or D800, and why. Since most of our group happens to shoot Nikon, it was a sensible thing to ask.
For my personal work, I currently use a D800E, and briefly owned a D600 (which is a fantastic camera, but since it’s so close in size to the D800E, I stuck with just the D800E), so I replied with what I saw were the pros and cons of each. Of course, one of the main differences is the greater resolution of the D800, and I mentioned that higher resolution might allow him to create more detailed images, depending on what he was most interested in photographing. But one of the working pros in our group (who currently shoots Canon, but I understand is in therapy for it—-just kidding) took umbrage and said it was the photographer, not the gear, and we were concentrating on all the wrong things.
The ensuing flurry of e-mails has been a really interesting discussion, with no right or wrong, and no definitive answer. But the topic of the importance of good equipment is certainly worth thinking about for yourself.
In his latest e-mail, my Canon Pro friend (henceforth referred to as CP) included a link to a short post on Seth Godin’s blog (http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2012/12/when-everyone-has-access-to-the-same-tools.html) that started by saying, “When everyone has access to the same tools then having a tool isn’t much of an advantage.” Seth ended his post by suggesting that you need to look for other advantages, such as your connections, your expertise, or your attitude.
CP said that, applied to photography, Seth’s post could be taken to mean that survival among working pros comes down not to equipment, but to style and talent.
But I read that blog post and, to me, it said something quite different.
Again, its first few word were: “When everyone has access to the same tools….” To me, that’s what this whole discussion had been about—all tools (in this case, camera bodies) are not the same.
Equipment certainly isn’t the most important element in the creation of a photograph; I’d argue that photographic knowledge is. A novice will always be at a distinct disadvantage compared to a working pro, regardless of what equipment each has.
Throughout this discussion, it is important to keep in mind that the best tool for one photographer or for a certain photographic situation might not be the best for another. This isn’t about the only one absolute best. No such tool exists. But no matter what brand you choose, or what subjects you typically photograph, or in which style you shoot them, there will always be a hierarchy of tools to choose from.
For an example, you can make pictures with both an iPhone and a Nikon D800 (just to choose two tools), but they are not the same tool. Both can be used creatively and effectively by someone who has mastered the craft of photography. In fact, it’s likely that a pro could make a more compelling image with an iPhone than a novice could make if given a D800. Heck, Chase Jarvis and several other pros have published entire books of their iPhone images. There certainly are many unique and creative images in Jarvis’s book that expressly demonstrate his style. But keeping with our current tool comparison, no image from even the best iPhone photographer will ever be mistaken for one made with a D800.
This discussion started with a recommendation that if you’re going to buy a photographic tool, like a camera body, it might make sense to buy the best one you can afford that can make the best quality image, even if that’s not your intended regular use or style. That way, if you ever do want to make the sharpest, most detailed, highest quality image (say, you see Bigfoot or Elvis), you’ll have the tool to do it. I’d much rather have the tools and not always need them, than to need them and not have them.
For instance, if you’re driving along and come across a spectacular scene with glorious lighting, and all you have is your iPhone, by all means, stop and make the picture. And I would suspect that given two people, a novice and a pro, each with only an iPhone, the pro’s image would be better. But I don’t feel that any working pro worthy of the name wouldn’t have wished he or she had better equipment with them at the time. Now if you gave the pro and the novice D800’s at that same scene, it’s likely the pro would once again create a higher quality image. With the same tools—-great or mediocre—-a working pro should regularly produce superior images to that of a novice. But it’s also true that the same pro would be able to make better images with a D800 than with an iPhone.
A photographer certainly can make, and even sell, images made with anything. (And with certain “styles”, using anything works just as well as anything else.) There are books and gallery exhibits of out of focus, unsharp, un-composed images made with Holgas and other toy cameras. But those tools cannot be used to make stunning landscape images, for example, regardless of the skill of the photographer.
Staying in the realm of DSLRs, I have sold images made with my old Nikon D1x with its whopping 5.9 megapixels. I’m still happy with many of those images, but I sure do wish that I could go back and reshoot them with the higher res camera and better glass that I have now. And as great as the D1x was for its time—-it was Nikon’s top-of-the-line pro body for a while—-I wouldn’t go back to now it for any reason. That doesn’t make my old D1x images unusable, it’s just that given the choice, I’d rather start with the highest quality tools I can afford, and keep on learning to master them. (By the way, I still use my older 12 megapixel Nikon D3s every day for my engineering work for its exceptionally clean, smaller files, and its superior low noise at high ISO. For me, it’s the best tool for that job.)
I’ve seen images made with 80 megapixel medium format digital cameras, and am in awe of the detail those cameras are capable of capturing in the right hands (or on the right person’s tripod, I should say). While those bodies and lenses are priced way out of my league, that doesn’t mean I can’t make images I’m happy with, and that are even worthy of selling and showing, using the equipment I currently own. But I’m betting that I could learn to create even better images with the medium format equipment than I can with what I now have.
How’s this for a moral: Spend the rest of your photographic life learning and practicing the art and craft of photography. But do it with the best equipment you can afford, for the photography you want to do, so you can give yourself the best chance of creating superior work along the way.
Makes me think of one of my favorite sayings (especially when I’m trying to justify a purchase): Buy the best, and you only cry once.