The Best Camera…

Grafex Speed GraphicI dread to think how many words have been written on camera and associated equipment reviews. The photography industry is constantly reworking camera and lens models. It feels as if the pressure is always on to upgrade and add more and more pixels. The magazine and online journals seem to profligate this message (of course fueled by the advertising revenue from said equipment companies). It is easy to get caught in a spiral of ‘if only I had this lens my images would be better’.

Many photographers will tell you that they are asked more about the kit they use than the creative process. However haven’t we got this the wrong way round? It is not the photographers’ ability to utilize the equipment as part of the creative process that makes the image, not the equipment per se.

If you are always carrying a full kit bag you may find that your creative decisions are overtaken by equipment decisions, what lens to use, tripod, filters, flash before you even get onto thinking about camera settings and eventually post-processing decisions.

What happens when you don’t have your fully kitted out camera bag with you … for whatever reason you have to improvise. Here enters the camera phone.

“The best camera is the one you have with you”

I was first aware of this quote by Chase Jarvis an American lifestyle photographer. He was an earlier adopter of plugging phones to take images and published a book of his iPhone images in 2009.

We are seeing an ever-greater proliferation of images taken on phones. For many people this is the only way that they take and consume images.

However some photographers will dismiss the camera phone as not being a proper camera, and denigrate the camera phone for only being able to produce selfies for social media feeds.

But don’t be too quick to dismiss the camera phone, as there are some very strong projects that have been created with just these devices. At The Photography Show in March I saw talks by several photographers talking about their camera phone work.

Jo Bradford is an art photographer based on Dartmoor, her work is based around cameraless photography. In January 2015 she was on maternity leave and wanted to keep taking photographs. She started a 365 project based around Dartmoor where she lives. Taking her two small children with her meant that she could not carry her full kit as well as a supply of baby food, nappies etc. So she used her camera phone, posting one image a day to Instagram. The project gained momentum and ended with a following of 56,000 followers. The project ‘A Love Letter to Dartmoor’ features the landscape of Dartmoor and every image is taken on an iPhone. By being freed from equipment worries, the use of the iPhone allowed Bradford to concentrate on the creative process of taking the images.

Julian Calverley is an advertising photographer. He started using his iPhone for recce shots when scouting locations. The ease of using the phone plus its ability to log GPS coordinates meant that a whole area could be scouted quicker. He found that the focal length of the iPhone camera was similar to the lens for his large format. Over time the iPhone images become their own project and now have been published and exhibited. Calverley says that there is something about the spontaniety of the little device that freed up his picture taking. More than once he had revisited a scene with his large format kit but could never match the image taken on the phone.

All three of these photographers have been able to use their photographic skills when switching to the camera phone. Their images, regardless of the camera taken on, show considered understanding of the basics of photography.

The camera phone has alleviated some of the technical decisions over kit and allowed the photographers to concentrate on taking photographs and being creative. The camera phone images have become projects in their own right, developed their own direction and impetus, separate to their regular photographic output.

So is it not about what camera you have; it is all about using the camera you have to hand? Or is that just an excuse to be lazy…

[Image credit: Grafex Speed Graphic by Thunderchild7 on flickr used under a Creative Commons licence]


Also published on Medium.

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20 comments for “The Best Camera…

  1. 3 May 2016 at 11:23 am

    All of this is true of course…..but who doesn’t like buying a playing with a new bit of kit? 😉

    • Kevin
      17 May 2016 at 10:41 am

      I still see a phone as a phone. We spend all our time staring at screens. A camera feels better in our hands and gives us a break from everyday, common technology to a degree. It makes us realise we are doing something different and creative and with more thought. With a phone it simply becomes call, text, photo, email. It’s not specifically for creating photographs/art.

  2. Nigel Roberson
    3 May 2016 at 2:22 pm

    “The best camera is the one you have with you” is a common sense argument. Knowing what you want to achieve, through a concept or a narrative will usually inform you what equipment you need to be working with.

  3. Neil White
    3 May 2016 at 8:01 pm

    I find myself regressing back to simpler (more consumer product) cameras. I started to really enjoy photography (again – after many years with my 35mm SLR stuck away in a cupboard) back in 2004 when I got my first “bridge” digital camera. It was so much fun to be able to spend my time on the creative aspects of image collection rather than worrying too much about the technicalities. I then “progressed” into DSLR types with huge collections of lenses for every situation under the sun. However more recently I discovered the joys of smaller format ILC cameras such as the Samsung NX100 and NX3000 with pancake fast lenses, and while these have fantastic quality output were relatively restrictive with the camera technology driving the type of photography I was doing. Yes – it’s possible to make the camera work for you but sometimes cameras provide opportunities and having just acquired a Panasonic FZ200 at a knock down price, I’m back to the joy of using a bridge camera – this time however the improvements in sensor technology together with massive zoom range (equivalent to field of view of 24-600mm in 35mm terms) I’m free again to decide which creative direction to go anytime anywhere. With a few exceptions I don’t see my DSLRs coming out of the cupboard again.

    Having said that – my creative abilities have been very much enhanced by the time I spent learning how to “see” images while undertaking OCA photography courses and projects. I get asked how do I produce the images I do from such a cheap(ish) camera that isn’t a DSLR. My answer is that it’s the knowledge I’ve gained from learning – not the technology. But secretly I do love getting new kit.

  4. 5 May 2016 at 3:48 pm

    Why do we persist in calling them “Iphone” images…we don’t talk about Canon or Nikon images. Adding an “i” does not make it magic or more arty – it simply panders to the same sales pitch rhetoric that is decried at the beginning of the article – who cares if the phone is made by Apple?

    On a more serious point, is it really true that the best camera is the one you have with you? I agree it’s better than none…but, as the other Nigel implies, the best camera is surely the one that allows you to deliver the image you visualised.

    If I happen to see an amazing meteor shower while I’m wandering about in the dark with a home made pinhole camera it’s not the best camera for the job..it’s no camera for the job albeit it’s the only one I have available.

    This is not an excuse to spend your life staggering around with a huge kit bag, just an observation that sometimes you wont have the right tool available, and rather than bodge it with the wrong tool it might be better to use the tool we all have…a memory…and commit the image to that.

    • 5 May 2016 at 8:02 pm

      I guess it is like me hoovering the front room!

      • 5 May 2016 at 9:38 pm

        Or using a biro 🙂 I’m going to campaign to change the word writing to “biro-graphics”

      • 9 May 2016 at 2:43 pm

        I am far too guilty of this, only yesterday I cut my hand on Perspex which necessitated the use of an Elastoplast!!

    • 7 May 2016 at 12:47 pm

      Bugs me too!!

  5. 5 May 2016 at 4:49 pm

    Never known to be afraid to kick over a can of worms Nigel, that last sentence/paragraph has some contention about it. Why do you suppose that not recording the event mechanically will somehow allow the event to be memorised more accurately? Unless I have missed your point? There is a lot of research to suggest that memory is malleable, whereas a camera has limited capability for not telling the truth.
    I know this is a digression from the OP, but I’m not interested in joining the other males talking about their ‘kit’.

    • 5 May 2016 at 9:35 pm

      I acknowledge that memory is malleable, but the pretty much explicit assumption in your question is that 2-D visual accuracy is the same as effective recording. If I cannot rely on the camera to provide an accurate visual recollection, which in some cases I can’t, I would contend that I’m better off relying on my senses and my memory to leave me with a meaningful lasting impression of the event, rather than a largely meaningless splodge of coloured chemicals. I can think of plenty of examples where my enjoyment and memory of an event would be improved had aI not had a camera…for example I have a very poor picture of a sunrise at Uluru, caused by a flat battery at the critical moment, meaning my concentration was elsewhere at the same time. I’d would have a better recollection of that sunrise had I left the camera at home. I’ll happily exchange more accurate for more meaningful. I remain completely at a loss to understand why anyone would watch a rock concert through an i-pad (or any other kind) just so they can replay some poor quality reproduction later rather than actually experience the concert. Sometimes the best camera is the one you left at home.

      • CliveW
        5 May 2016 at 11:45 pm

        One could argue that some people find the idea that a camera can shield you from having to directly experience and interact appealing.

      • 6 May 2016 at 7:09 am

        I’m particularly interested in this area and there is a great deal of research to suggest that we don’t remember events as sequences – like a video – but rather a series of tiny moments and then we recollect them differently each time we do so. The memories therefore morph, alter slightly and sometimes reconfigure themselves completely. Similarly we can introduce, or have introduced, ‘false’ memories and therefore develop new histories as a result – see falsememories.com.
        The camera image might therefore be more trustworthy, if not more truthful? The experience at a concert that you give is one that escapes me as well.

        • 6 May 2016 at 4:19 pm

          I guessed that it played into some of your recent work.Your use of the word ‘trustworthy’ is interesting. I’d agree it’s more constant…not sure about trustworthy as it might well be a misrepresentation in the first place.I think my point about memory was really that a photo is simply a mono-scopic visual presentation of the full 3-d smelly, noisy, touchy feely event…so there are occasions that a recollection of the event, no matter how changed, is still closer to the experience than an image can ever be.

        • Andrea
          9 May 2016 at 2:48 pm

          This is also a particular area that interests me, having studied both the formation of autobiographic memory and influence of photography and the formation of collective/shared memories from photography and other related archive material.

          Did you see the recent David Eagleman series “The Brain” on BBC4? There was a good episode there on false memories.

          The States of Mind exhibition at the Wellcome Institute also features a small section on false memories.
          https://wellcomecollection.org/exhibitions/states-mind-tracing-edges-consciousness

        • 9 May 2016 at 4:08 pm

          Replying to Andrea. Yes, the Wellcome Collection exhibition was worthwhile I was there recently, lots of research reading to do now! Thanks for the reference to ‘The Brain’ will look it up.

  6. CliveW
    5 May 2016 at 6:21 pm

    I’m in the ‘right equipment to meet the outcome one intends’ camp and it has to be noted that camera performance is one of the major areas that smart phones compete in so they’re not all created equally and the same psychology that sells camera upgrades to enthusiasts also sells phone upgrades to them.

  7. Nigel Roberson
    6 May 2016 at 10:35 am

    Faced with a unique photo opportunity and no camera with me I doubt I would think of my phone camera. It never seems to cross my mind that I have a camera in the phone, so I would think, agh well missed it and move on. Generally I am a one camera, one fixed lens person these days as I hate all the hassle of bags.

  8. 9 May 2016 at 11:53 am

    yes, its true that its not the “camera that counts, but the eye” -Robert C
    aper. However, to be honest, the message and the medium do interplay quite closely in photography perhaps more so than many visual art disciplines because we are drawing light. One can go to two extremes: the camera is unimportant and therefore shoot with whatever tool you have (you have less control over subtly and precision) or spend every penny you have being an up-grade maniac, as if that was what photography was really about!! One needs a middle way. For the phone is a useful too only in so far as I use it to do pre-shots and take photographic notes. It has useless depth of field and very often give poor colour interpretation. I think phones have their place but it might be more interesting to discuss other mediums of camera, before locking on too adamantly to the phone.

  9. 9 May 2016 at 6:45 pm

    I occasionally use my iPhone, and for more than pre-shots and photographic notes. True, I’m not taking photographs I envisage to be printed at 3m across, but lets not dismiss it. I wouldn’t want to be shooting street with a LF for that matter, or sports with a… whatever. Sports in general I guess – it’s hard work and you do need to spend a lot of money on that glass… (depends on the sport of course)

    If it’s appropriate, it’s appropriate.

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