Saturday, October 17, 2009

Your camera doesn't matter

When photography comes up in casual conversation, I can usually count the number of seconds until someone asks me the following question: "So what kind of camera do you have?" My standard answer is something along the lines of "Nothing special, just an old Canon digital SLR." About half of the time, the next thing the person says is "Oh, well I have a Nikon/Canon (insert higher end model number here) with a (insert impressive lens specifications here)." If they don't have one already, they will usually say "I've been looking to get a nice camera, which one should I get?"

I never know how to reply to these questions. What are your goals? Do you want to shoot snapshots with your friends or landscapes or fashion or what? What is your budget? The list of questions can go on and on. My first camera was an old Minolta SR-T 101, full manual film camera with a 50 mm f/1.something lens that was my father’s camera when he was younger. I had so much fun with that camera! I have been looking at DSLRs since the late 1990s, when they were thousands of dollars and only for the real professionals. A few years ago, I just made the decision that I was going to buy one since the prices had finally dropped into the reasonable zone for me. Before I eventually chose my camera, the Canon Rebel XTi, I researched it online for months. I read about the good and the bad, looked at pics taken by the camera with all different lenses, and went to the store to check it out first. It is a pretty basic, entry-level DSLR.

The bottom line is that your camera doesn't matter. It doesn't go out and create images by itself. I am typing this blog on a Dell computer, but I bet you can't tell. I could have been using a HP, or a Sony, or even a Mac. It's just a tool. A DSLR camera, no matter how big or expensive or complicated is just a box with a shutter and a digital sensor and a lens mount. That's it. All the other stuff is just bells and whistles.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have a top-of-the-line camera, a Canon 1Ds or Nikon D3 or whatever, but it wouldn’t make my photography much better. Speed, cool features, high ISO, and tons of other features may allow me to shoot faster or easier, but at the end of the day it’s still a box with a sensor and a shutter. The only variables that make the exposure yourself are aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, and you can control those 3 variables with almost any camera and all SLRs. The rest is the photographer.

Don’t believe me? Every few years a technically better consumer camera comes out that has roughly the same specs as the professional model of 5 years prior. Yet, why are we not seeing more amazing images than, say, 10 years ago? A great shot on a film camera from 1970 can still stand up to something taken yesterday on a Nikon D3! Cameras are getting exponentially better over time but the quality of the best images are still sitting on a straight line. How much better can you get than virtually perfect? The technology to get an amazing image with the right lighting and exposure has been around for a while!

To be fair, there is some difference in the digital sensors inside the different camera bodies, and the higher-end cameras usually have a better quality sensor that translates to a better quality image. But we are at a point with the technology where almost all of the cameras on the market today have decent sensors and can make a great image. Your sensor is not holding you back from creating something beautiful! And more megapixels (MP) has nothing to do with the quality of your image (unless you plan to make poster-size enlargements). Think about it…if the physical size of the sensor is the same and the camera manufacturer crams more megapixels onto it, what happens to the individual pixels? They must get smaller to fit, which is sometimes accompanied by a loss in quality! I’ve seen amazingly clear and crisp pictures taken with the older version of my camera which was “only” 8 MP (mine is 10 MP). Then Canon made a 12 MP model and now the newest incarnation is 15 MP. So what? You can’t say that any of them are “better” because of the megapixel count…it simply doesn’t matter!

What we need to do is shoot more and care about having the best gear less. I rarely see a photographer that pushes his gear to the limit (myself included obviously). There is the potential in any of the modern DSLRs to do pretty much anything that the photographer can imagine. So go experiment with what you have and create something unique!

So what’s my next camera going to be? Probably a Canon 5D Mark II, which I will get when the price drops in about 2 years, or if I hit the lotto! [But you just said that a camera is just a box…why would you need such an expensive box, albeit an awesome one?] Well, the shutter on my current camera will wear out eventually. And I would love to have the high ISO performance of the 5D, and the full-frame sensor. And at the end of the day, I like having new toys too! Maybe I don’t need it in the traditional sense, but all photographers have some amount of techno-lust…even me!

[On a side note, the lenses that you use really do matter! When investing in a camera you are really buying into a system. The lenses that you get should last you for 50 years (unless you drop them)! The bodies are replaced every five or so years after they crap out, or once something better comes along and you feel like spending some money! An entry level camera with an awesome lens will produce far better images than the pro camera with the crappy kit lens every time! More about this in the future...]


  1. I'd like to say that I personally had this conversation with you, nice to know you were counting seconds until I asked a friggin question. Some thoughts: a) It's really not news that megapixels don't matter. b) why don't you check out the Nikon d90 and tell me that it's just an upgrade that doesn't make any difference for the amateur -- the camera shoots VIDEO (that's quite a difference, no?). c) I don't like your tone. Be nicer. d) great post!

  2. a)ok. b)video is pretty cool, but it won't make a difference in your photography. c)I promise to be nicer if you promise to sign your name to comments! d)thanks, and I appreciate the comments! ;)

  3. I'm learning alot from you and you are saving me hours in the photo store listening to some salesman who just wants to sell me the latest hot item out there - not to mention -expensive. Love your "conversational" tone. I understand you, not like the usual techo-talk salesmen.
    Great blog. You're in my favorites!


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