It’s Not The Camera (I)

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Self-Portrait in Nantes, France

A lot of you have been asking me questions about photography and how to achieve certain effects. While I’m by no means an expert, I’m an avid photographer and I had to chance to experiment a lot. I’m also always a teacher at heart and yes, I like talking about photography, because I’m sure I can give you some tips and learn from you as well.

So I decided to start the Saturday Series again, this time with a focus on photography. A new “lesson” will be published every Saturday, for a total or ten posts. Enjoy the “Ten Photography Tips“!

Digital cameras are now widespread and the price of both DSLR and compact camera went down quite a lot. Pretty much everyone has some kind of camera these days, whether it’s a small camera phone or a high end DSLR. But few people realize that it’s not that much about the camera – it’s about the photographer’s eye.

I became addicted to photography when I bought my first digital camera, in 2006. I went through a couple of film cameras before that: one of them was stolen in Panama, I still have the other but I was hesitant to experiment with it since developing films was quite expensive. But in January 2006, on Boxing Day, I walked into Best Buy and saw a small Kodak EasyShare C743 Zoom camera for less than $200. The price alone sealed the deal – I hadn’t planned to buy a camera that day and it looked like a sweet deal. It didn’t think twice and bought it.

It turned out to be a great camera, by my standards. I started experimenting, taking a lot of pictures, trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Sure, the zoom was limited, I kept on feeding it batteries and the shutter was someone to slow to capture quick action but it didn’t matter. It was a great camera to learn the basics. And it took great pictures too: this is the only camera we had in China, during our first two French trips and in Latin America. I feel terrible when people ask me what camera I used to capture that or that because they expect me to start bragging about my gear when in fact, these were taken with old outdated camera. I used it again last year to take pictures at the Metallica Concert (I was searched and my DSLR wasn’t welcomed…) and I was quite happy with the result.

Eventually, in June 2009, I decided to buy a DSLR and got a Nikon D-60 with a couple of lenses (35-55 mm and 55-200 mm). This is the camera I now use. But let me tell you: I’d suck as a photographer if I hadn’t learned with a compact camera first!

Indeed, compact cameras teach you to think outside the box. First, they are easy to master, this is why they are nicknamed “point and shoot cameras” This is what I did at first: I pointed and I shot. Didn’t like the results much, though. So I started experimenting. I learned that the best way to take night pictures wasn’t to use the “night setting”, but the “fireworks setting” which triggered a longer shutter. I learned that the “sports setting” was the one with the faster shutter, so it worked for all action scenes. I understood how important a tripod (or any steady surface) was for night shots, otherwise the pictures would be helplessly blurry. The zoom wasn’t bad (albeit limited), but I learned not to rely on it too much and to get close to my subjects to fill the frame.

When I finally bought my DSLR, I was used to being inventive and I knew the basics. It still took me close to six months to be comfortable with it – I wasn’t used to have control on everything, from shutter to aperture! It was frustrating at first: I had this beautiful camera in my hands and my pictures sucked. I had to take it one step at the time and learn everything from the scratch.

Of course, I now find having a DSLR very rewarding. It allows me to do so much more! Yet, I can’t help feeling sorry for the people who invest in a high-end camera expecting it to do everything – it’s not about the camera, it’s about the photographer. Enough of the “how many megapixels does yours have” and “how far can you zoom” silly little war. It-does-not-matter. What matters is your eyes and how you see the world through your viewfinder. That’s it.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

14 Comments

  1. I’m the first comment? No way!

    First of all, I totally agree: It’s Not The Camera! I had the same path: point-and-shoot digital camera, then DSLR. Lots of people make the mistake of buying a loved one a DSLR to learn with, which is like giving a teenager a Mustang before they get a driver’s license. By the time a person gets around to learning the concepts and practicing enough, that DSLR isn’t getting used properly and the market has replaced it with a cheaper model that has better features. In the early-learning stages, start with a learner-level camera, otherwise it’s a monumental waste of money. The only items that don’t depreciate very quickly are high-end lenses. Camera bodies are like all tech gadgets, made to be obsolete.

    Which brings me to my second point: if you stick with one manufacturer (Canon, Nikon, Pentax, it doesn’t matter), invest in one good lens and learn how it behaves with light. For me, that’s what makes a difference in the quality of the photo (excluding the content) — the glass.

  2. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: while learning, buy used! The only equipment I haven’t bought used are flashes, because they take a beating and therefore don’t enter the used market (usually people use them until they die).

  3. I’m definitely a novice photographer and am learning very slowly and still have just a basic type camera but I agree with you totally. You have to have an eye for the interesting and be willing to experiment with stuff.

    It’s like golf. It is not the equipment, its the golfer. It is not the camera it is the photographer.

  4. I used a Pentax Spotmatic with 3 lenses for almost 30 years until one of my boy scouts dropped it in the Buffalo River on a troop hike. I used a 35mm with a small zoom until I bought my first digital camera in about 2001. It was somewhat limited but I liked the ability to take lots of frames and not worry about processing cost. I was so accustomed to setting aperture and shutter speed from experience and focusing on the fly that the digital point and shoot left me feeling very limited. But on the whole the camera took pretty good pictures and since I was taking more frames I had plenty to choose from. I did miss the flexibility that my Pentax gave me. I went through several digital cameras before recently settling on a Canon 20X si. It does not have a removable lens but with a zoom range equivalent to 28mm to 560mm and 10+ mega pixel resolution I feel that I lack for nothing but lack the hassle of changing lenses. The cost of the Canon 20X is around $350 US which is 1/3 the cost of a DSLR with several lenses. And it takes great pictures. Sorry, I will step off the soap box. It works for me.

  5. @Gail at Large – I love your teenage/ Mustang analogy, it’s exactly that. A DSLR offers a lot of flexibility but it doesn’t do the job for you… Thank you for the advice!

    @Yogi – Your photos are pretty good!

    @Tulsa Gentleman – A friend of mine has a similar camera and I agree with you, these are very good. I love the ‘hassle’ of changing lenses but that may be just me 😉 Yours certainly makes great macro shots.

    @Sidney – Thank you! Yes, it helps, but I wanted to highlight that it’s not *only* the camera 😉

  6. I’m still using my crappy Nikon Coolpix E3200 which I bought since 2003…
    It’s so tough! I hope it will die one day so I can give myself a good reason to get a new one.

  7. Very excited for this series! I only recently decided to start caring about my pictures – I’m the epitome of “point and shoot!” Guess what I really have to work on is my eye!

  8. I have a Nikon D40 and a couple other smaller digital cameras. I still have not read all the instructions manuals so I don’t feel very good about my pictures. I am not a techy on pictures – I take them with the ideas that they are paintings. I have a lot to learn so I’ll follow your tips with pleasure.

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