Saturday, March 10, 2012

Is It The Camera Or Is It The Photographer?

Should the photographer or the camera be credited for the quality of a photograph?  The answer to this question seems obvious (to me), yet photographers often encounter statements from people who readily tell them, "I love your pictures, you must have a great camera" or "your photos are beautiful, that expensive (professional) camera is certainly worth what you paid for."  It seems that most people have a general impression that photographers are only as good as their camera, and that a newer model, with more bells and whistles, will actually do miracles for anyone's photography-- a myth propagated and fueled by Camera manufacturers.

This erroneous belief started more than 100 years ago when George Eastman simplified the photographic process by inventing the first Kodak Camera.  "You press the button, we do the rest" promised George Eastman in 1888.  Everyone, wherever they went (since it was also portable), could easily take a picture with a Kodak -- essentially a shoebox sized light-tight box with a simple shutter, pre-loaded with his newly invented rolled-film (enough for 100 exposures).  Before Eastman, photography was a laborious occupation, exclusive to professionals who used cumbersome cameras and individually prepared glass plates.  The Kodak camera brought photography to the masses, and for the first time, knowledge and experience in the craft of photography took a back seat.

Since 1888, developments in photographic technology and imaging had made it easier and easier for all of us to take better photographs-- from point-and-shoot cameras with flash, to faster film stock and even auto-focus.  The current digital technology has even reached the point (in my opinion), where it is almost impossible to take a badly exposed photo.  Our current digital cameras (or cellphones) are not simple boxes anymore, but micro-sized pro-grade cameras that have variable shutters, irises, lenses and programmable flash guns that can all be automatically adjusted by computer.  "You press the button, and the camera literally does the rest."  In this day and age of the digital camera, everyone is at least, a competent photographer.

So has the camera finally replaced the photographer, after 120 years of technological advances?

A photographer friend of mine posted this anecdote on Facebook.  I thought it perfectly summed up my opinion on this matter.

It is true that the quantity of good photographs have increased exponentially with digital technology, because it is easier to use and manipulate.  More people take more photos now than ever before, because the technology is also more widely accessible (through cellphones and other devices) and cheaper than film photography.  Like most photographers, I marvel at the latest developments in photographic gear, because they help make my work easier (therefore, more enjoyable).  But I can still create compelling images with the most crudest homemade box camera, because good photography is not solely determined by sharp lenses or high-resolution sensors, but by our individual sensibilities.  I am a big fan (and user) of digital technology, but I am also an advocate of film photography.  I use my digital, antique and toy cameras side by side, because one never replaced the other.  Cameras are tools, nothing more. 

The photographer's artistic judgement can never be replaced by any camera, no matter how advanced (even with the promise of artificial intelligence).  We should always remember that Photography is not just science, but it is also art.  Art might include logic, but it is never limited by it.  Most importantly, Art is intrinsically a human endeavor, because its relevance encompasses the artist's vision, perspective, imagination as well as personal experience.  A camera independent of an individual, can never (by the very definition of expression) create a work of Art.  Besides, a good image or picture goes beyond a decent photograph -- there are elements like composition, light, subject matter, and most of all artistic intent to consider.

Although I agree that improvements in camera technology can help contemporary photographers freely express their vision better, that 'Vision' must be cultivated parallel to our photographic tools.  Crystal clear images can be instrumental in expressing a good photograph, but it is not always a necessity.  If this is our only criteria in judging what is good, then we would have to readily dismiss the early giants of photography like Matthew Brady, Imogen Cunningham or Alfred Stieglitz because their cameras and lenses (certainly) do not compare to our current ones.  Admittedly, not all of us can compare to these great artists, but overly focusing our photography on our equipment alone can fool us into believing that we are improving artistically, when it is just a simple upgrade (in equipment) that is causing all the fuzz.  It is not a popular point of view, but someone has to say it the way it is.

So please be mindful of the photographer (or the cinematographer if it is a movie), when you look at photographs.  It is the photographer who takes the picture, not the camera (ideally).  A camera, no matter how technologically advanced, can never create Art without the eye and the mind of the person aiming, focusing, adjusting, composing and visualizing behind the camera.

1 comment:

ramakant said...

that opinion is common amongst people who cannot afford the best optics.