Isn’t All Photography Borne From False Camera Gods?

On Visual Science Lab, Kirk Tuck enjoys his Olympus MFT cameras so much he sometimes waxes lyrically, ‘they’re good enough for commercial work’.  When a client is writing the check, however, he dutifully brings full-frame Nikons, like the D810, D600 and lately the D750.  I’d like to argue that if he really believed MFT was good enough he’d use them on shoots (and sell the Nikons).   However, I know full well that most clients would be uncomfortable watching their professional photographer taking photos with glorified point-and-shoots (I jest!).  And I know full well Kirk knows more about cameras than I do.

Although MFT cameras produce noisier images than full-frames, and optically can’t produce the same shallow depth-of-field, the quality is good enough for most commercial work where good lighting is a given.   The question is, why use a camera, where you’re handicapped if you don’t have good lighting, or need a super shallow-depth-of-field?  The conversation ultimately pivots to those who believe it’s better to focus on the creative process, with a small camera, then slave over large, heavy cameras just to reach certain technical specifications, which are often over-kill.

One difference between Kirk and I, is that he’s a commercial photographer looking for artistic fulfillment and I’m a hobbyist looking for professional legitimacy.

When I take a photograph, I’m looking for the best quality behind my image.  The quality is important to me because I’m the client, so to speak, and technical differences are definable.    If I didn’t have a goal I’d become paralyzed in indecision, starting with where do I point the camera?  So I decide full-frame is better, that I have to shoot with a certain lens, use particular post-processing software.  IF, I knew how to make a beautiful image with ANY camera, I’d do it.  But I don’t.  I need some way to get the confidence (I’d even say inspiration) to get that beautiful image.

GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) is the gist of my photography mill.

Kirk must work backwards from a client’s specific needs.  He’s not trying to get the best artistic shot from a million possibilities, he must get the best image from from a narrow, commercial requirement.

When people write on blogs about all the arcane, number of angels on the head of a pin, technical benefits, and limitations, of this or that equipment, they can easily be parodied as those who hide behind technology instead of doing real photography that sells.  Is that fair?  Isn’t every artistic process born in a process, that in itself, has nothing to do with Art?  What would it mean to say, I have no commercial requirements, and don’t care what camera you hand me, I can produce good Art?  If we know what good photography is, can’t we make any camera to do it?  Why are there so many different kinds of cameras and lenses?

When a commercial photographer like Kirk Tuck leaves his professional Nikons at home, and uses, for lack of a better word, consumer cameras, isn’t he setting himself a technical challenge too?  The challenge is to take as good a photo with the consumer camera as he could with the professional camera.  The question is, does that prove, or deliver, better art?  The viewer doesn’t see, or care, what camera is used (full-frame or MFT).  The challenge is in the photographer’s head.  When Kirk, or anyone, goes from a full-frame Nikon say, to a MFT camera, they are not ignoring the technical issues of cameras, they are only reversing the challenge they have set themselves.

It’s always about the technology.  Can any of us pretend it doesn’t matter?  Without a camera there is no photography.  The camera always matters, whether you choose think about it or not.

Kirk doesn’t take better photos with the MFT because it’s as good as the Nikon.  Quite the contrary.  He takes better photos because he must make those images as good as he can get with the Nikon.  The extra struggle is what pushes him into new artistic territory.

It’s easy to look back at photos we took in the past, with cameras we’ve forgotten, and believe they were shot in simpler times.  We want to get back to those days when the camera didn’t matter.  Only, that never happened.  We were just as screwed-up in the head about cameras, we just forget.   We can look back at the 1950s and think that the golden age of family life, forgetting that most men were stuck in the same job their entire life and the wives stuck at home with screaming babies.

Most amateurs can’t afford, or don’t want to deal with heavy, full-frame cameras–for many reasons.  VSL is a popular blog (which I visit every day) because Kirk Tuck pushes himself as a photographer at both ends of the spectrum.  As a commercial photographer with professional equipment, and as another newbie like the rest of us, searching for artistic meaning.

I’m lucky in that I have a limited time with cameras ,so feel the challenge of reaching commercial quality.   That is, I can challenge myself by using cameras that I can barely handle.  Professional photographers have it worse in that if they already have the best equipment, how can they become better photographers?  In a sense, they have to go backwards.

Here are two photos that illustrate why I can’t embrace MFT cameras as an amateur looking for professional quality.

Panasonic LX100 at f1.7
Panasonic LX100 at f1.7

A perfectly fine, quick portrait that the subject wouldn’t complain about.  I would prefer the shot with the A7, however, because it provides a shallower-depth-of-field which isolates my subject.  Even with properly exposed subjects, I believe I can see greater dynamic range in the larger-sensor camera.

Sony A7 / 55mm 1.8
Sony A7 / 55mm 1.8

The lower resolution and  limited dynamic range hobbles photos where I need to push the shadows, or pull in highlights.  This is a photo taken with the LX100 where I want to bring the scene across the street into proper exposure (I purposely exposed for the sidewalk).

LX100 DR adjustment
LX100 DR adjustment

The same photo taken with a Ricoh GR (APS-C sized sensor).

Ricoh GR
Ricoh GR

In the end, I recognize that the time I spend trying to get, and properly use, the best equipment might hobble my creative vision.   It might not.  I don’t know how to get to a great photograph.  I only know to go after the false god of a perfect camera and hope I get some good shots along the way.

Professional photographers are at the top of the equipment pyramid, gazing up at the Gods who give no further indication of what more photography can offer.  They use the best cameras, to the best of their ability.   After that, they’re on their own.

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