JUST GET OUT AND SHOOT! – Viewpoint on Photograph vs Gear

WHICH CAMERA IS THE BEST?

Through my years of shooting, I have known some friends of mine who used to be very staunch Canon or Nikon supporter. They used nothing else other than their beloved Canon or Nikon set-up. It has almost become like a cult to them. Recently I met up with one particular friend who is a extremely dedicated and faithful Canon supporter. He started out using a full Canon DSLR system, using nothing short of the highest grade lenses, including all kinds of accessories you can think of. He thought he had done it all, and believed he was on top of his game. However, he wasn’t quite satisfied yet. The next thing he asked was, “Now, what else can I do to improve my photography to the next level?” He thought he has reached the limitations of what Canon can offer, and the only way to get even better, was to get even more capable gear. The next moment, he went Full Frame. Then he researched about what the most expensive lens can offer. He soon got obsessed with the bokeh-liciousness of the F1.4 lens, the high ISO capability and dynamic range of the camera, and all the technicalities that make full frame superior.

While I do not deny the fact that with the range of top-end gears he had, it was indeed advantageous. His gears proved to be extremely capable and left many of his peers (including myself) drooling over it. However, when he showcase his photographs, all I heard from him was “Look at the bokeh of this shot, I don’t even need to shoot it wide open”, “look at how sharp this flower is, I don’t even need a tripod with the 3-stops image stabilization I have”, or “look how clean this shot was taken at ISO6400, you should really go for this camera”.

Oh my, I don’t even know what cameras Canon or Nikon is launching into the market now (I only learnt about the existence of Canon’s 5D MkIII when I saw photos posted on Facebook taken with it). And I can hardly name a full frame camera model from Nikon (I hardly used my DSLR nowadays anyway – more of that in my upcoming post). In any case, it is really saddening to hear these comments from a passionate photographer, a friend who has become so obsessed with technical perfection that a camera can offer, wows at the first sight of the bokeh, and shows off his high ISO photographs. Before we get too caught up with the world of technologies and megapixels, let us not forget to take a step back and examine what photography really is all about.

Photography is about making an image. The word “image” comes from the word “imagination”. It doesn’t come come from “bokeh”, “lens sharpness” or “noise levels”. Cameras don’t take pictures, photographers do. Cameras are just another artist’s tools. It is entirely an artist’s eye, patience and skill that make an image and not his tools. The best camera to me, is god-given… That is your eye (no disrespect to the visually challenged)… All cameras can record what you are seeing. But, you have to SEE… So before going anywhere forward, perfect your eyes before you perfect your gears…

Little India (Singapore)

BUT I JUST NEED THAT ‘ONE MORE LENS’

I used to be guilty of this as well. I thought “if only I had that new lens” then all my photographs would turn out to be what I want. Nope. I still want that “one more lens”, just that “one more”, and I’ve been shooting for many years now. There is always one more lens. Get over it… It is akin to a chef saying, “I need that one more high-grade non-stick pan so that my dish will turn out tastier”. The chef is the reason behind the tasty meal, not the stove nor the expensive pot and pan! Having an obsession with gear is unhealthy, very unhealthy, like a virus or disease. Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing evil about having a lot of gear. However it becomes a problem when having so much gear paralyzes you from actually going out and taking photos. You will spend more time thinking about that ‘one more lens’ rather than going out to shoot. And worst of all, it becomes an excuse for not going out to shoot because you don’t have that ‘one more lens’, and you tell yourself “There is no way I can shoot today without that lens”. There are many people out there who have tons of gear but aren’t very good at taking photos, and others who aspire to become a better photographer and dream of buying new gear all-day long.

THE MOST IMPORTANT CAMERA

The most important camera you will ever own is the one you already have. I certainly understand the joy and thrill from using a new camera or lens, but ultimately you as a photographer are going to be judged by the images you make, not by the camera you have around your neck. Why is it that with over 60 years of improvements in cameras, lens sharpness, resolution and dynamic range that no one has been able to equal what Ansel Adams did back in the 1940s (He didn’t even have Photoshop)? And we forget that Henri Cartier-Bresson most probably used the same camera body for many years and maybe two lenses for his entire career, and he changed photography forever… (Mind you, he don’t even have auto-focus, auto-metering or long range zooms).

Everything from a simple oatmeal pinhole to a high-end full frame camera is a tool that has its strengths and challenges. As a photographer, it is our duty to work within the constraints, use whatever strengths and challenges there may be to our advantage, and create something beautiful in our own way.

THE UPGRADE

Having said that, I truly understand the occasional need to upgrade our cameras (unless you shoot film). There is no hiding the truth that digital cameras are essentially like computers, they get outdated faster than anything else. Upgrade your gear if you think there is something that you need in the new camera – I’m all for it. But upgrading for the sake of owning the newest and latest is unnecessary, and certainly not the way to go to improve your photography (I have seen people who upgrade every Canon Rebel models – from 500D to 550D to 600D… then to 50D and 60D series, but their photos did not improve a bit over the years). I have upgraded only once (from 40D to 5DMkII) ever since I started shooting, and sort of moved on to rangefinder. I have been shooting extensively on Leica rangefinder for quite a while now (both film and digital), not because of the prestige of the red badge, but it is a gear I find I can accustom perfectly to my style (usability, compactness, discreetness). Most of all it gives me the characteristic that I wanted out of my photograph (I’m not about to start a Leica debate here).

Marina Bay (Singapore)

THE PHOTOGRAPH…

All right, enough of the gear chitchats for now. Let’s throw that out of the way. I personally think that gear is just gear. The gear comparison and debate will go on and on with no end (go ask Canon and Nikon). I have seen too many gear comparisons such that it has become a fashion. And people flooding the streets with a humongous camera backpacks over-filled with lenses, lugging a huge camera and a long lens around their neck that shouts, “Look at me! I’m a photographer!” (I wonder how many of those lenses they actually used on a day out). I hope they are not missing the point of what these gears are supposed to do – To record moments in life that can never happen again…

What is most important to me is the result that I am getting from it. And the satisfaction I get during the process of making the photograph to the point where I hit the shutter button (That is why I am still shooting a lot using my trusted analog film rangefinder camera). Each and every single snap I take is “a special moment captured in time”. As what Ty Holland quoted “A photograph is the pause button on life”. I can smile, I can laugh, I can giggle, and I can shed a tear by looking at it. That is what a photograph is all about, isn’t it? And to be able to document and tell a story through photographs is a privilege. I love to capture un-posed moments, interpreting life around them and challenging our perceptions of the world.

STREET JOURNALISM AND ME

I have dabbled with various photography genres (such as landscape) before settling at what I like best and find most meaningful – Photojournalism, documentary and street photography. Street journalism is one way to capture the real natural moments of life. The pictures you take can bring out the emotions of society. Your photographs may include people doing mundane activities like working, eating or sleeping. Sure, you don’t take good street shots overnight. It takes a lot of learning, observation, studying works of established photographers, and most of all, lots and lots of practice. You need to develop your eyes to see things that ordinary people on the streets do not see. You need to bring out something special out of an ordinary everyday scene – Pictures such as a woman lost in her thoughts on a bus or a stolen kiss on a train. Most of all, your picture need to have a meaning behind it – The expression of a worker may reflect the hardship of the society. The picture has to mean something to you. Through this, street photography really opens up your eyes to the world. You find yourself caught up in the real world and the pictures will reflect the everyday life and the current moment of the society. When you are out shooting, think about what story you are trying to tell – and how your images express a bit of who you are.

Here’s a quote from Elliott Erwitt, a magnum photographer and one of my all-time inspiration:

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” – Elliott Erwitt

Little India (Singapore)

JUST GET OUT AND SHOOT!

Before I sign off, I just want to encourage anyone who has a passion for photography to JUST GET OUT AND SHOOT! There will always be something new to shoot everyday – anytime of the day, where ever you are. I am sure everyone at some point of time in your photography journey (myself included) have spent countless hours researching gear, looking forward to the next big launch or pining over cameras and lenses far out of our price range. But what does it all matter if you aren’t going to take that little machine and produce something with it. We all have a voice and an eye, and often something to say about the world. So don’t be afraid to make a photograph. I hope everyone will enjoy the photograph you make rather than enjoying your gears. Just get out and shoot!

I will end off here with inspirational quotes from Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004), one of the greatest photographers of all time and considered to be the father of modern photojournalism. An early adopter of the 35mm format, and the master of candid photography, he helped develop the “street photography” or “life reportage” style that has influenced generations of photographers who followed. I also included some of my personal shots that I have taken in recent years in this post. I still enjoy them a lot. Keep shooting…

There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Once you miss it, it is gone forever.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Battambang (Cambodia)

Pictures, regardless of how they are created and recreated, are intended to be looked at. This brings to the forefront not the technology of imaging, which of course is important, but rather what we might call the eyenology (seeing).” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Yangon (Myanmar)

To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson – From the book: “The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Istanbul (Turkey)

For me, the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity“. – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Singapore City

A photographer must always work with the greatest respect for his subject and in terms of his own point of view. That is my own personal attitude; consequently I have a marked prejudice against “arranged” photographs and contrived settings.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson -February 22, 1968., The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson by Henri Cartier-Bresson , ISBN: 0670786640

Battambang (Cambodia)

Photography is an instantaneous operation, both sensory and intellectual – an expression of the world in visual terms, and also a perpetual quest and interrogation.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson – February 22, 1968., The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson by Henri Cartier-Bresson , ISBN: 0670786640

Little India (Singapore)

For us the camera is a tool, the extension of our eye, not a pretty little mechanical toy. It is sufficient that we should feel at ease with the camera best adapted for our purpose. Adjustments of the camera – such as setting the aperture and the speed – should become reflexes, like changing gear in a car. The real problem is one of intelligence and sensitivity.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson – February 22, 1968., The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson by Henri Cartier-Bresson, ISBN: 0670786640

Istanbul (Turkey)

A photographer’s eye is perpetually evaluating. A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or farther from the subject, he draws a detail. But he composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action.” – Henri Cartier Bresson

Varanasi (India)

Photography, being dependent on reality, raises plastic problems which must be solved by the use of our eyes and by the adjustment of our camera. We keep changing our perspective in continual movement governed by rapid reflexes. We compose almost at the moment of pressing the shutter, moving through minutiae of space and time. Sometimes one remains motionless, waiting for something to happen; sometimes the situation is resolved and there is nothing to photograph.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson – February 22, 1968., The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson by Henri Cartier-Bresson , ISBN: 0670786640

Varanasi (India)

Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Orchard (Singapore)

~Editorial & Photography by Loy Chuan (Jun, 2012)~
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Anthony Pond - 26 June, 2012 - 10:21 AM

Wonderful post, Loy. And a good reminded to keep upgrading the eye (rather than the camera) by more practiced and careful observation. Have to admit, though, I often chase the upgrade in cameras as their low light capabilities improve. But at the same time I’m rediscovering the joys of a simple 50 mm prime lens.

I like the vignette stories in your photos. You are capturing the decisive moment that says something in your images.

loychuan - 26 June, 2012 - 7:51 PM

Thanks for you kind comments Tony. This post is not targeted at anyone though, just some personal thoughts having seen what is happening around me. I do get fascinated by gear sometimes (I’m sure all photographers do!), but I just just try to focus my attention on shooting and the studying of works. I agree the 50mm is a fabulous lens. I’m only shooting on purely 35 & 50mm currently. These 2 lenses do me. I must also admit cameras nowadays just keep improving on the low-light capabilities, which is not a bad thing at all!

touhru - 18 July, 2012 - 4:04 PM

Glad you’re back. It’s a great joy to enjoy your photos. And really give me confidence to continue my 50mm-len’s way, the only len i have, hiahiahia~~~

loychuan - 19 July, 2012 - 12:22 AM

Great to hear from you Touhru! Thanks for viewing and glad you’re enjoying the photos. Yes, 35 and 50mm is one my favorite lens. Shooting with prime lens is a great way to improve your photography. Keep shooting!

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