Saturday, January 10, 2009

on cameras

A friend has asked me to share some of the knowledge that I have surely amassed over my many years as a photographer and give him some advice on buying his first digital SLR.  It is not the first time that I have been asked for camera buying tips and surely not the last, and of course I am always happy to share my thoughts.  I get to pretend that I know what I am on about. 

The thing is, I am not sure that I can actually help.  I am always reminded of Mike Johnston (TOP hero) and his advice on buying a digicam a while back.  Though he made his point back in May 2007, I am sure it still stands up fairly well.  His wise thoughts, based on experience?  “I won't keep you in suspense. Here's the upshot: they're all shit.” 

Harsh I guess.  But also true if you are actually interested in learning the craft.

taken with my phone; soft, fuzzy guesswork (with optical slave SB-26
on floor, camera phone right)

But what about dSLRs?  Does our consumer marketplace let us budding visual artists down in the same manner?  Well I am going to venture that the opposite is probably (almost) true.  And no thanks to any marketing department or camera reviewer.  You might get a slightly gloomy dark viewfinder, or jpgs that bear a passing resemblance to a watercolour, or end up cursing a crazy system of buttons and menus (you’ll get the hang in the end).  But all said and done, the camera will do what a camera should do.  Of course some will do it better, but in general that has more to do with how much you spend and what is most important to you as a potential photographer.  And better is subjective and not a simple black and white thing; an amalgam of a bit sharper here, a bit slower there, a handy feature here and a strange omission there.  In short, choice certainly is not all it is cut out to be. 

Mike’s point was not to put off a potential camera purchase, no matter what your budget. Again, here is where choosing that SLR should follow a similar thought process.  If we take the approach that we are selecting a means to an end (to take pictures), then it takes that tricky, specification-comparing decision process out of the hands of endless hours with Google and firmly back in the realm of ‘a good use of your time’. That done, the best is still to come; so get on with it and get out looking for that glorious, northern British January light.  Pick a little silver box and accept the endless limitations – and go and make pictures.  Pick a black chunk of high tech glass and plastic – and go and actually learn about depth of field, why people like me spend £600 to own f/2.8.  And go and make pictures. 

taken with my D200, SB-26 remote triggered, on floor, camera back left

To close, and I hope clarify, I would like to share a little more of Mike’s views on digicams, point-and-shoot boxes, digital instamatics, call them what you will: 

I don't mean "shit" as a pseudo-hip way of registering a connoisseur's disapproval of the demotic or an enthusiast's disdain for the democratic. I mean that despite their cunning little shiny bodies and technologically marvelous innards, as cameras they're little stinking turdlets of fresh, steaming excrement. Yageddit? Poo. Stool. Just north of camera phones. And when I say they're all shit, I don't mean most of them are shit. Eighty percent of them are horrible, outrageous, awful, a swindle on the public and a fraud perpetrated on their purchasers. And the other twenty percent are really bad. Bah-dum-pah.

What a guy.

Oh, there is another point, vaguely worth making here.   The pound is not about to rally anytime soon, camera prices will only go the wrong way...

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