VinaPix at work in Long Hai on the Southern Vietnamese coast.
Much to my surprise, I received a grand total of three emails in response to my last blog. You could be forgiven for thinking that I’m being sarcastic, but you’d be wrong… no one has ever responded to a blog of mine before. Three emails. Wow! Would I be getting ahead of myself if I began to dream of future fame in online publishing? What do you think? Actually, don't bother answering that. The point is, however, that all three emails asked the same question. That surprised me, and for reasons I will explain it also disturbed me. Just so you know, I have replied to all three messages and I’m not trying to belittle or criticize their writers, but it might be a good idea to deal with this issue now, hopefully ensuring that we won’t need to address it in the future.
All three writers wanted to know what camera I used for my travel photography. That’s not a bad question, but I think it’s the wrong one. It sort of implies that it’s the camera that takes the photographs, and that anyone with the same camera will take the same photos. Sounds pretty stupid when it’s written like that, doesn’t it? It’s the person behind the camera that makes the photograph and the camera only does what it’s made to do by its user. A few things follow on from this. Firstly, it’s the photographer that really matters. Therefore, it’s not really important what camera is being used as long as, and this is the final point, the photographer knows how to use the camera well enough to create the image he or she has in mind. Let’s unpack this a little.
The word ‘vision’ is popular these days, and although I use it here, I dislike it intensely. What do we really mean when we use it? Does it mean your subject matter for a portfolio of work? Perhaps it means a distinctive artistic style? Possibly it’s the impact a creator wishes to have on their audience? I don’t know. I do know that when I go to a gallery exhibition and each and every photograph has a ‘vision statement’ two or three paragraphs long I instantly lose interest. If a photograph needs to be explained in detail, then there’s something very wrong with the photograph. Nevertheless, ‘vision’ or whatever other word you would like to use, it is important to have some organizing or collective principals to hold your work together and give it direction. Indeed, I believe that this is fundamental to being a good, and becoming a better, photographer. I know what mine is. What is yours?
The first thing that springs to mind when thinking about this, is passion. We need to be photographing something to which we feel a strong emotional connection. This could be almost anything; family, food, portraits, your hometown, sport, landscapes, birds or even something as specific as orchids. The reality is that if you can’t put some of your own heart into your photography is very unlikely that anyone viewing it will feel very much. Spending time and money creating images of something in which you have no interest is a chore and not a joy. Following on from this, we also need opportunity. Maybe you can take out your camera every evening after work or maybe you have to wait for autumn colors once a year to photograph your favorite forest, but either way, dreaming about it is not the same as actually doing it.
Ultimately, however, it is the way you see and decide to photograph a subject that really matters. What makes you take this photograph and not another? Why does one particular perspective or composition appeal to you while you ignore a dozen or so alternatives? These are important questions and ones we need to be able to answer for ourselves, if not for others. In the answer to questions like these, and many more, lies the evolution of our craft and product. Something I have found very helpful over the years in this regard, it to do online image searches using platforms like 500px. I used to type in selected key words and study the photographs that resulted. Why do I like this image or what is it that I don’t like about it? If I had been there how would I have done it differently? What is it that makes this one stand out from all the others I’ve looked at? These are good questions and we should all be able to answer them. A more difficult thing is to then look at your own work and ask the same questions!
Where are we? Oh yes. I said the camera doesn’t matter. Well, that’s pretty self-explanatory. The truth is that just about every camera on the market today is good enough for most of what we might want to do with it. It’s true. Sure, if you want to print fine art star trails, a twelve-megapixel sensor might not be the best choice. On the other hand, to use a medium format digital camera to post your pictures on facebook doesn’t make much sense either. The vast majority of images are viewed and shared online, however, and very few monitors or sharing platforms come close to matching the image quality of any contemporary camera. I think the real issue is one of finding the camera and lens combination that best meets your financial constraints and learning how to use them well. More about this in a moment, but first one more brief comment on cameras.
The real reason why I don’t like to chat about the cameras I use is that no matter what I write, well over half the people who read it will dismiss my thoughts and even my photographs because in their opinion I use the wrong camera. If I say that I use a Canon system for example, many Nikon or Pentax users will puff up their chests, look down their long noses and condescendingly pity me for not being one of the enlightened. If I write that I use a mirrorless camera, a multitude of DSLR shooters will shrug their shoulders and shake their heads and express regret that another has been lost to this horrible trend where traditional photography skills are being replace by computer chips. If I am foolish enough to admit that I use an APS-C sensor, instantly legions of full-frame DSLR and mirrorless camera owners will recoil in horror screaming warnings about poor dynamic range and high ISO noise. It really doesn’t matter what camera I have, I will never have the right one.
I don’t believe that we have good or bad cameras any more. I do think that some cameras are better suited to certain tasks, but that’s a personal opinion and really comes down to why a person is making photographs rather than which system is better than another. Much, much more important is knowing how to use your camera to get the most out of it. Someone with a cheap entry level camera and kit lens is far more likely to take good photographs if they understand the exposure triangle, than an individual with a massive medium format body and a five-thousand dollar lens shooting in program mode. If you ask me (I know you didn’t, but you are reading this) it is knowing how to use your camera, along with having a clear idea of why you take your photographs that separates a photograph from a snapshot.
This is all getting too long, however, and I’m sure if you’ve gotten this far you’re hoping that I’m almost done. So that’s it for now. Next time I’ll pick up on this and share some of my thoughts on camera systems for travel photography. Kugara zvakanaka!