I have loved photography for as long as I can remember, and got serious about it as a teenager. I’m now in my 50s, and could never have imagined the popularity and ubiquity that photography enjoys today.
The Best Camera
We are surrounded by photographs, and it seems that everyone is a photographer, to some degree, largely due to the increasing quality of cell phone cameras. It’s often said that the best camera is the one you have with you and everyone seems to have a camera with them these days.
Having cameras in our cell phones used to be a nice bonus, but now they are one of the main selling points. Quality has increased dramatically over the last few years. Coupled with software such as Instagram, Hipstamatic, and Facebook, showing your photos to friends (and strangers) is an instantaneous process. A couple of clicks, and people all over the world can see the glorious photograph you just took of your lunch. I have numerous cameras, including an excellent digital single lens reflex (DSLR) capable of high resolution and exacting color fidelity. Yet I take more photographs with my iPhone than my Nikon.
A lot of long-time photographers decry the lack of actual photographic knowledge and skill found among the great camera-wielding populace. Phone-cameras and point-and-shoot models have taken over most of the hard work with their automatic settings. I think this is a good thing. I don’t want to keep anyone out of “the club.” The ubiquity of photography means that I can see places I’ll never visit, and get a peek inside the lives of people I will never meet. So by all means, keep shooting! (One caveat though: please don’t start charging people to shoot their portraits and weddings until you know what you’re doing! I don’t want to sound like a snob myself, but Facebook shows me that too many people are doing exactly that. I’m sure you’ve seen it too. End of rant.)
The History of Photography
But the history of photography is ever changing, and today’s expert would have been yesterday’s novice. In years past, I have shot with (and still own) cameras that have not even a built-in light meter. Exposure had to be calculated with a
totally separate light meter, or estimated based on experience. And since I was shooting on film, I couldn’t check the preview screen and adjust to take a better shot. I had to send the film to a photo lab, and I wouldn’t see the final image for days!
But even that seemingly primitive process was magically convenient compared to the earliest photographic methods requiring precise handling of fragile paper and glass and dangerous chemicals, capable only of capturing non-moving subjects in bright daylight.
The Most Important Part of the Camera
I love cameras. I love holding them and admiring their design. It’s hard to resist the allure of the latest, greatest photographic technology. While higher resolution and better sensors may give better “image quality,” they can never on their own make better photographs. The most important element in the photographic process is the eye behind the lens.
If you enjoy photography, and want to take better pictures, don’t worry about the camera. Learn the limits of your current equipment and work within those limits. Find the hidden features of your camera, even if it’s the one in your cell phone, that will let you take better photos. Study photographs that you like, and figure out what you like about them.
I used to spend hours in public libraries, scouring the “over-sized books” section, because that’s where the coffee-table sized photography books were. I’d study photographs by Irving Penn, Walker Evans, Arnold Newman, Dorthea Lang, and many others, hoping to be able to take even one photograph in my life that was as good as theirs. I’m still hoping to.
With the internet, everything is at our fingertips. You don’t have to spend hours at the library to study the work of great photographers. There are also countless websites offering lessons, tips, and information for free. There’s no reason not to learn and improve, if that’s your desire.
So, enjoy your photography, even if it’s just on your cell phone camera, and ignore the snobs. If you just want to take snapshots of friends and your lunch, that’s great too. But if you want more, don’t hesitate to learn; there are more resources, more readily available, than in any other time in history.
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