A little while back, I made an offhand comment about a certain camera being my choice for ‘serious’ work which spurred a lengthy subsequent discussion offline with a reader; it got me thinking: what exactly constitutes ‘seriousness’? But beyond that, how does a photographer’s choice of camera, or format, or medium, influence the final image? More importantly, is there any way we can use that to make stronger images – because ultimately, that’s what photography is all about. We’ll explore that in some detail in today’s article.
I think the concept of ‘seriousness’ implies some degree of care and attention paid to the task at hand; there is an investment both mentally and possibly financially. A good example would be large format film: you know each exposure is going to cost several dollars, and to yield something technically acceptable, you’re going to also have to carry a tripod and spend some time adjusting the camera’s movements. I think it’s safe to say that almost no photographer would use one of those things as a casual point and shoot when out on a stroll – however, I’ll come back to this later. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the masses – ‘serious’ photographers included – will use cameraphones to document events that are of no real consequence; one is shooting with whatever is to hand, just to have a recorded image for posterity – technical quality be damned. Depending on your ‘effort appetite’ and financial means, most photographers* will land up somewhere in the middle of this continuum.
*People who actually care about the final image, not just the gear – there are a lot of people who would not qualify as photographers on this basis alone; it’s an important distinction to make now because it all boils down to intention.
Before I continue, it’s important to note that not all equipment and intended purposes are interchangeable: unless I had very strange clients, it’s unlikely that they’d allow me to shoot luxury product with my iPhone, and similarly, if I was just making a photographic record of a document or something to email, I wouldn’t use my Hasselblad and digital back. So, there’s definitely an element of ‘right tool for the job’ in play. Still, within that range there is still some wiggle room: you might have to shoot sport with a DSLR, for instance, for its continuous AF abilities; but whether you use an APS-C one or a FX one is entirely up to you – both would work just fine. Are they different enough to produce markedly different results? At the technical level, no. How about at the artistic level? Again, probably not, because the equipment requires the photographer to use both cameras in a nearly identical way: handling of the gear alone presents insufficient subconscious cues to suggest changing the photographic process in a way that’s sufficient to produce different results.
Understanding how our equipment can foster the production of a different outcome is ultimately the point of this essay. I think one can take two approaches: either you try to be as equipment-independent as possible, or you embrace the difference between formats and tools and let the gear dictate the outcome to some extent. The simple fact that some things are better suited to some subjects/ purposes than others suggests already that there is an optimum somewhere; using the right gear might well help you produce the best technical results, or it might give you sufficient control to be able to focus on other things – such as timing and composition. A good example here is autofocus: without it, we’d be concentrating on keeping our moving subjects in focus, probably at the expense of watching the edges of the frame, resulting in weaker compositions. If we use a camera with strong tracking AF, after ensuring it has locked on, we can focus on timing our shutter release to coincide with the right arrangement of elements within the frame. I like to think of this result as ‘evolutionary photography': we do the technical part a little better, a little more specialized each time – but there are no fundamental changes in the way we shoot.
On the other hand, using something very different tends to result in significantly different pictorial results: this is one of the main reasons why I shoot with such a diverse mix of formats. At first, it’s the limitations of the unfamiliar camera that will make themselves felt: the inability to do what your old one did is going to be more immediately felt than the advantages the new one can offer, especially if you’re shooting with something that isn’t obviously fit for purpose. The best example I can think of has to do with format size: if you’ve always shot a compact, moving up to a DSLR, almost everybody gets obsessed with bokeh: simply because it’s new, different, and you didn’t have the ability to throw backgrounds out of focus before. The reverse is also true: most beginner DSLR users looking for a smaller, more portable rig tend to be disappointed with the lack of isolating ability in compacts.
Is this a problem, pictorially? Actually, it isn’t. The ability to form strong compositions and isolate your subjects by light and color rather than depth of field actually results in much better images. Since you’re not relying on depth of field isolation, you’ve now inadvertently expanded your shooting envelope: you can also produce a strong image where the conditions are not conducive to shallow depth of field – e.g. when backgrounds are close to subjects, or when everything is past the hyperfocal distance. Let’s go a bit further: the enormous depth of field of a compact can actually be used to advantage under several situations: to produce hugely compressed scenes with everything in focus that can’t be done with a large format camera since you can’t stop down enough; the ability to have more of the scene in focus under situations where you’re forced to use a large aperture (low light, for instance). A weakness has now become a strength.
At the psychological level, what’s happened here is that a restriction in the equipment has forced us to change the way we work; by changing the technical part of the photographic process, our minds are forced to reprioritize the compositional aspects, too: we land up thus putting more or less emphasis on certain compositional elements. The outcome is a different artistic result. By doing this with a large variety of formats/ equipment, one can ‘force’ oneself to experiment and shoot differently; by being consciously objective about what methods produce what changes to the outcome and whether you like them or not, you can thus build up your technical repertoire. Through knowing what is possible, one can visualize different final images; by understanding the technical whys of how to create that effect, then it’s easy to combine those techniques with the existing strengths of other formats to create something visually unique.
One of the comments levelled at me is that my images tend to look the same: it’s deliberate, and a conscious stylistic choice. Another comment is that I use too much gear! By shooting with a lot of different gear, I force myself to experiment compositionally and stylistically; by understanding what affects what and how, I can create consistent images regardless of the equipment I’m using. I think ultimately I’m going to settle with whatever it is that allows me to combine the most possible techniques – ideally, I think that would be a compact FF35 view camera with the ability to use AF or movements; sadly, it doesn’t exist. Ironically, the heavy equipment dependence is to lead precisely to the opposite outcome: equipment independence.
I’d like to end this article by talking about the images I’ve chosen to illustrate it with: I’m pretty sure none of you would argue that the compositions are ‘unserious’, but at the same time, I swear that all of them were opportunistic grabs with no more than a second or two’s conscious thought between seeing and capturing. To top it off, almost all of them were shot with small format consumer cameras; even camera phones. (Clicking through to the image on Flickr will give you EXIF data, if you’re curious.) Ultimately, to change the way we shoot, we need to change the way we think: though some with extremely strong wills can do that, the majority of us can’t – fortunately, there’s the crutch of equipment to help us out… MT
Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.
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