Dodging The Magic Bullet

It's not the number of megapixels in your camera, it's what you do with them

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Photo Traveler - Dodging The Magic Bullet
Famed Polynesian tattooist Roonui poses near his studio in Hauru Point, Moorea, French Polynesia

Life Magazinephotographer Alfred Eisenstaedt was fond of recounting. Eisenstaedt, whom many considered to be the father of modern photojournalism, was at the opening of a retrospective show of his work at a major museum.

A man and his teenage son approached and asked, "Excuse me, Mr. Eisenstaedt, but what kind of camera do you use?"

"A Leica, usually," Eisenstaedt replied.

"Son, I’m going to buy you a Leica," the man declared, "so you can take pictures as good as Mr. Eisenstaedt’s."

This story always draws a chuckle from experienced professional photographers. These days, though, that laughter might originate as much in self-deprecatory embarrassment as in amusement at the naivete of the well-meaning Dad. That’s because even we professionals can fall prey to what photographer Michael Johnston, author of The Online Photographer, calls the "magic-bullet" syndrome—the belief that if we just had a better camera, it would allow us to be better photographers.

For a schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website, www.bobkrist.com, under the "Teach and Talk" heading.


This Article Features Photo Zoom

Photo Traveler - Dodging The Magic Bullet

It’s not entirely our fault, pro and amateur alike, that we’ve contracted "upgrade fever." Think about it—we used to have at least three, five or even seven years in between introductions of new cameras and gear. That gave us plenty of time to think about and create photographs instead of thinking about buying a new camera. Now the new gear comes at us every five or seven months, and it’s hard to think about anything else but upgrading.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not one of these simplicity purists. I’m as much of a gear head as the next guy, and in the early days of digital, there was a huge need for rapid technical improvements. But I stopped worrying about digital technology cutting the mustard for professional use the first time I saw a 30x40-inch print from my first 6-megapixel D-SLR that blew away anything I could have done with 35mm film. Finally, I thought, I was ready to start thinking about making pictures again and not always buying new cameras.

That was a few scant years ago, and my megapixels have already doubled, my CF cards have five times the capacity and speed, and my inkjet printer has even better color and even finer resolution.

It’s amazing how fast and far our equipment has come. But we have to ask ourselves one nagging question: Is my photography evolving as dramatically as my equipment and, if not, could it be that I’m spending too much time upgrading my technical specs and not enough time developing my vision? We’re starting a new year, and it’s time to think about making a resolution (a resolution that has nothing to do with pixels!) to dodge that magic-bullet syndrome.

That’s right, it’s not about the camera. But sometimes it takes someone from the outside to bring that point home. A couple of years ago, Keith Bellows, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler, wanted an entirely digitally produced issue for the yearly photography annual. All the regular freelancers were onboard with this project, but Keith had another caveat. Everyone who received an assignment would be required to shoot with the entry-level D-SLR of whatever brand of camera he or she wished.

Create National Geographic-quality images with "amateur" cameras? It wasn’t a hard thought for me to get my head around because I’ve always used the smaller, lighter cameras in Nikon’s line, and my D-SLR of choice at the time was the D70. It’s the camera I was using for all my assignments. Some of my colleagues found it unnerving to give up their "pro" cameras for entry-level D-SLRs, but did so because those were the rules. Editor Bellows wanted to prove to readers that it’s not the camera, it’s what you do with it that counts.

Sure enough, the all-entry-level D-SLR issue came out and looked great, and an important point was made. (To this day, the minimum requirement for a photographer shooting digitally for any National Geographic publication is a 6-megapixel SLR.) Yet it’s a point that we’re prone to forget—cameras don’t make pictures, photographers do.
And while it’s a good thing to own and master the latest and greatest in photo technology, it’s not the only thing that matters.

But the infatuation with the technology of photography over the "vision thing" is rampant in the digital age. You only have to spend a little time on some blogs and forums run by experts, many self-proclaimed, who endlessly analyze and pontificate on the merits of one RAW-processing program over another, one brand of camera over another, one JPEG algorithm over another to realize this. If you only read the analyses, many of these experts sound great.

For a schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website, www.bobkrist.com, under the "Teach and Talk" heading.


This Article Features Photo Zoom

Photo Traveler - Dodging The Magic Bullet
Locals prepare to march in the July 14th Bastille Day Parade in Vaitape, Bora Bora, French Polynesia. Bastille Day is celebrated as part of the Heiva Festival, which is local in origin and occurs through the month of July on all the islands of French Polynesia

But once you see their photography, it becomes evident that while they may be technical experts, that's as far as it goes. Much of the arcane hairsplitting that goes on these days is the digital age's equivalent of medieval theologians who hotly debated the question, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" By and large, nobody but them cares, and the net effect in the "real world" is zero. A boring picture, no matter how technically expert, is still a boring picture!

The flip side of this technical hairsplitting was recently brought home to me in a very direct way. My wife Peggy and I, through a charitable family foundation we set up in memory of our youngest son Jonathan, helped to sponsor an exhibit of photographs in a local gallery by children who live in the impoverished areas of north Philadelphia, commonly referred to as "the Badlands." A nonprofit organization, The Goodlands thought it would help children to value their lives and their neighborhood more if they could document it with donated digital cameras, mostly point-and-shoots.

The kids, aged 8 through 14, produced an amazing body of work—incredibly insightful, fresh and original looks at neighborhoods that most of us are too ready to write off. At the opening, the young photographers roamed about, clearly jazzed about seeing their work displayed, admired and purchased by onlookers. Of course, the kids were shooting the event with their cameras, some of which were old and simple digital point-and-shoots that most of us wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. Yet somehow these kids managed to make much stronger and intimate photographs than I've seen by many an expert, myself included.

I managed to find a few of the young shooters whose work I particularly admired to ask them about their pictures. Here's the beautiful part—they talked at length about the people and places in their photographs, the feelings they had about their subjects, what they were trying to show about them, and how taking photographs helped them appreciate their homes and families, but not once did they talk about their cameras, software or hardware. For them, it was all about the work! And lucky for me, I have a few of those pieces now hanging on my wall at home.

Finally, I thought, I was ready to start thinking about making pictures again and not always buying new cameras.

Does this mean I'm through with upgrades and buying new gear? Not a chance—it's still important to stay current with our craft's technology. What it does mean, though, is that I'm going to try to heed the wisdom from the mouths of babes and remember that it's always about the photograph, not the camera. I want to relearn what the greats like Eisenstaedt gleaned from experience and the kids from North Philly knew instinctively. There is no magic bullet.

For a schedule of Bob Krist's workshops and seminars, check his website, www.bobkrist.com, under the "Teach and Talk" heading.

18 Comments

    Beautiful article….I’ve been feeling like this lately myself, but reading this cooled my head a bit.
    What I find most interesting is the charity that you and your wife have been working with. Is there a website that I could look at? It sounds like something I’d love to support.
    Thanks again for the great article!

    Bob,
    Thanks. You continue to inspire me with your sound words. I gotta start shooting more images and stay off the tech blogs.

    Hi Bob,

    Now you made me curious… could you add some of those pictures. Very strong article. It is to tempting but you are right all the way.

    Regards.

    Sjoerd (Netherlands)

    Thank you for the wonderful article! It has reminded me to practice what I preach. I tell my designers that it is a poor artist who blames his tools, but I have fallen victim to pixel/processor/sensor envy myself. Getting back to the fundamentals, seeing the picture, taking and making the picture… Thank you for the inspiration.

    How true! I too like to stay abreast of the newest technology but one of the images hanging on my wall as a 16 x 20 print is from a 2.1 megapixel Olympus 2100 UZ and is tack sharp. Another example is the 20 x 30 inch canvas print hanging over my fireplace done with a 6 megapixel camera. This image has been one of my best sellers over the years. I love the new gear but we must remember that artistic ability is not measured in megapixels.

    Bravo! This article should be front and center in every newsletter! It’s what every camera owner needs to be reminded of now and then.

    in 1967, I was taught photography by a man who used a 4 x 5 Linhof and I had a Mamiya Sekor entry level 35mm. He taught me it was about the vision of the photographer and the lens–the body only controlled the shutter speed–the lens was the eye for the photographer–My own digital cameras are all 5 years behind, now–I have put my money into lenses and constantly work on my eye

    Its Like someone buying the same Gituar that Jimi Hendrix or Les Paul plays thinking he would play like then because he had the same equipment. Practice Practice Practice In Music and Photography will make you better

    I couldn’t agree with this more! Recently I’ve started to collect “older” digital cameras such as the Canon D30, 10D, 20D, 30D etc…because I love the look of the photos produced by those cameras – showing what 6-8mp’s can produce. What is great about this collection is that you can find excellent, low shutter count bodies for virtually nothing (10D, under 2000 shots for $100.) To the naked eye you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a shot with it and my 5D Mark iii. I’m done buying new and am going to refocus on my shooting and reestablishing my love affair with some of the early models of the digital age. Great article!

    Great article, and so true. We all fall fowl of the need to upgrade,it’s that kind of world.
    However, just a thought,to demean older equipment is actually to deny all those special memories/events captured for all time that form part of the history of our life.Sure, at some point the quality sucks,but better than nothing.And let’s face it, just about every image captured is unique.

    I totally agree, a well exposed shot can scale up to enormous sizes.
    I have old 6MP shots that are 3 METRES wide that look great.
    It’s all about the skill of the craftsman.

    Hello Bob, Remember me? I lent you my big torch on Easter Island when we took pictures of the moais some 7 years ago at twilight. (you were with a group). I agree with your article. In 2009, I published a marvellous book about all Patagonia with more than 1.000 pictures, and most were taken with a samll digital camera, the G6 Powershot of Canon. No problems at all for the 2 pages spread pictures. The most important are the eyes, and never the camera. thanks for your many suggestions. Daniel Bruhin W.

    Fantastic article. It reminds me of a similar experience I had in the local library while I was a college student. I discovered a book by Thomas Merton, the revered author and monk of the late twentieth century. The book was a posthumous book of his photographs. Since he was a monk, he used whatever camera a well-wisher would donate to him. Some of the photos were technically perfect and some were noticably soft. What mattered was the vision of the person taking the photographs. They were silent, introspective and moving. It was to this day one of the most moving and inspiring photgraphy books I have seen. It was much the same lesson as taught by the North Philly kids. Good for us all to remember.

    Great article, I once had an instructor that start classes by reminding us that “No photographer is a good as the simplest camera”
    and as you stated about light he said “All photography is, is recording light”

    Great article. I think this idea applies to most situations yet it’s hard to escape the problems that arise when using cheap lenses or cameras in low light situations with moving subjects. Sure the photo capture may be great, but without the sharpness that only comes with better equipment, the images appear quite lacklustre. I’ve had many great shots ruined from lack of sharpness due to crappy lenses or cameras. I completely agree with the message of the article, but I think this is one exception. Anyway…I really enjoyed reading this.

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