Skill or new camera?

On a forum I’ve had a conversation about “how good is good enough”. In silver based images the print was the final test of how good a camera/film was. Today some judge cameras only on how what do the pixels look like at 100%, while some like me still use “does the print look good at normal viewing distances for its size”. I believe that most of today’s or even cameras from 3 years ago produce extremely good images which are only made better with post processing. Which is more important – Skill or new camera?

While I love to look at slides shows on digital monitors, including large TV’s, the photographic print is still my concept of photographic art. I like images to be as large as the file/film will allow while still capturing the intent of the artist. A large print of a bad image will still be a large print of a bad image. But a large print of a artistically good image with be art. Someone once said “you can’t buy game”, and in photography in my opinion too many people try and buy game.

The industry for the last 10 years has been a cycle of new cameras every 2 or 3 years. It takes me 2 or 3 years to know a camera well. Perhaps I’m a slow learner. But this cycle is now slowing as the consumer who is not a hobbyist appears to be using cell phones instead of cameras and hobbyist are finding that cameras are offering less and less must have features. I personally think that this will be good for photographic artist and the focus once again will be the Compositional and Processing skills rather than “I need a new camera”. Many good photographers have fallen to the “new is much better” and for a while that was true. I don’t think it is any longer.

I recently bought a new camera, but I’m also using my 7 year old one as well as my 3 year old one. I’m done buying for the next 4 to 6 years. And in that time I expect to become a much better photographer and as I learn my new cameras strengths and weakness. For the majority of the images I take my 7 year old camera take images good enough for the customers I’ve had. The newer cameras have video and that is a new art form for me. If I had to chose between my skills learned over 40 years or new equipment I’d take my skill set every time, after all you can’t buy game.

The Artistic Vision

For me, the viewing of art shows, visiting museums, and galleries has been a big part of developing my artistic vision. Online or Brick and Mortar, each has made a lasting impression. I have a collection of books from photographers that seem to share my sense of photographic art. Where I live in the rainy season, I spend time during that enhancing my perspective through viewing the art of others. Some may naturally have the Artistic Vision, but everyone can build one with effort and passion.

In the past I’ve often visited used book stores or the clearance tables at museums for “deals”. Even in the time of Amazon and the net, I seem to find books I really want at art museums. One series I would recommend for all is the modestly priced Aperture Masters series. Besides helping you find your artistic vision they are a mini history of the 20th century’s photographers. I will discuss some of my favorite photography vision books in a series of posts, but let me say that during a period in which I traveled frequently buying a photographic art book in each city became my treat for the plane ride home.

Start with your public library and then with art sites on the net. Use a critical eye trying to define what elements of the composition, color, perspective (lens) or monotone process that makes you want to let your eyes move through the image. Buy post cards for your work area so when you need a few second break at work instead of surfing you build your understanding of what you vision should be.

The Allure of Black and White Photography

Just a short thought on The Allure of Black and White Photography. I really like color photography, but B&W seems to me to the be the soul of photography. From the actual prints I have seen of Adams, Weston, Capa, Smith, and the like, it seems to me that B&W lays bare the key elements of the subjects.

Portraits for me present the people more to the core, more raw and unhidden by color. Even Curtis’ North American first people images seem so much better in BW than if they had been in color. Porter is one of the master that really made color sing, but to me his color images would have been just as good or better in color.

One of the modern wonders of digital photography is that both color and BW images can easily be made from the RAW file. I often don’t make the decision if an image should be color or BW until I process it. But I almost always look at the BW version, even if I make the print color because for me I can tell by looking at an image in BW if it is one I like.

Its just a personal choice but for me BW images are the soul of photography.

The Lens as a Brush

Edward Steichen did portraits of some of the most famous movie stars of the late 20’s and 30’s. My interpretation is that he did not taken them as much as paint them with light. I’m quite sure that his images of Martha Graham, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo match many of the master painters in the interplay between textures and the beauty of these women. I believe that mastering light and using The Lens as a Brush produces images that are worthy of the title fine art.

Why is it that such powerful images could be taken with such old tools? It is because of the understanding and artistic vision of Mr. Steichen. These images reveal nothing of bare bodies of these women but capture their sensuality in a most powerful way.

Understanding light and what a specific lens can do with it, is in my mind synonymous with understanding what brush to use with what paint. It is my thought that I don’t know a lens until I’ve taken 10,000 images with it (similar to the 10,000 hour rule for knowing a musical instrument).

My challenge to you as a photography and an artist, is to know the light and select your tool that you understand will best capture that light in its rendering of the soul of a subject. Forget the best technical aspects of your equipment and focus on the way your subject needs to be painted in light.