It’s all about the camera

How the obsession with camera hardware gets in the way of creating interesting photographs.

Getting it right in the camera, that’s what we should be about. That’s what it was all about back in the day. You won’t catch me manipulating my pictures with Photoshop.

Now, this article isn’t going to turn into an “us versus them“, a digital versus analogue pseudo controversy. There’s a wider concern here and that’s to do with a healthy interest in the camera as a tool turning obsessive and displacing discussion of the pictures produced by it.

You see this obsession all over the place. In photography magazines where copy for each edition is more easily garnered from manufacturers’ press releases to photography websites with their endless forum discussions on the minor advances made by the latest bit of kit.

I guess it’s not surprising. After all, it is far easier to measure lens distortion or count megapixels than it is to discuss how a picture makes you feel, or what you could do with a picture to elicit an emotional reaction from the viewer.

You see it in certain photography competitions too. The mistaken idea of reverting to how things when film was your only choice. You pressed the shutter release and that’s all you did to get a picture. No messing with computers. Of course, this discounts the role of the film developer and printer, both jobs that have been democratised by Photoshop.

Often though it’s more inexperienced photographers who are overwhelmed with the learning curve involved with taking pictures. Digital cameras are certainly complex pieces of equipment. But when you also feel you have to pick up and run with Photoshop all at the same time, you can understand why some folk might wish to prioritise their efforts.

Perhaps this is where the idea that photography is the action of pressing the shutter release comes from.

A wintery Northumberland beach

But some take the next step. Just because it’s all difficult, it’s just not fair that other people produce better work. And then they start suggesting, ever so subtly, that people a little further ahead on the learning curve are cheating. I mean, it’s photography after all, not computing… The first you usually hear of this is when someone catches you tweaking the contrast in Lightroom. Suddenly you’re doing digital imaging. And everyone just knows digital imaging is morally inferior to photography.

Just because you choose to abdicate elements of the creative process to someone else doesn’t mean they’re not valid photographic activities. Making pictures doesn’t just stop at the point you press the shutter button. (Nor, actually, does it start there but that’s a different conversation.) There’s a whole array of associated activities from selecting the photo to take, creating the image, printing it all the way through to choosing the right images to display: all of which are definitely part of photography.

Having said all that, I sometimes catch myself sniffing about photographs taken on mobile phones then passed through utilities like Snapseed.

In my day you had to learn all about Photoshop, Snapseed just makes it all too easy.

I have to make myself consider how to make my pictures say what I want them to say and not get hung up on how I get there.

The light on Bass Rock across North Berwick bay

But what if you actually want to retain complete control over your image creation? There are many ways of mitigating the effect of the learning process. Automatic settings on the camera are just the start. Using presets in software are another. Don’t just discard a step because it’s too difficult. Find ways of making each step easier until you’re ready to learn more about it. But don’t make out I’m cheating just because I’m a couple of pages ahead of you in the user guide.

The camera’s just part of it, not the entirety. Opportunities for creativity – don’t duck them!

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