Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Cameras Are Not Like Wine

Gas Station Sunset - Ehrenburg, Arizona
Captured using a camera that I got for free. Can you tell?
I read recently on a popular photography blog that cameras and lenses are like wine: the more expensive the better. The author even claimed that he could tell how much a camera or lens cost just by looking at the images captured with it. That's a big claim!

Comparing wine and cameras is comparing apples to oranges. That's actually generous because at least apples and oranges are both fruit. Instead were comparing a fruit with a machine. It is a ridiculous suggestion.

The one part of the analogy that's true, which, interestingly, wasn't touched on by the author, is that cameras, like wine, get better with age. This is because the whole history of the camera is convenience over quality. Cameras are continuously devolving.

Once upon a time everyone used what we now call large-format cameras. Then what we now call medium-format became the standard. It was smaller, lighter, faster, easier and less expensive--many stopped using large-format, even though it had superior image quality. After that came 35mm. Then digital. And within digital there's APS-C, micro 4/3, 1", etc.
Backyard Feed - Palo Verde, Arizona
This photograph was captured using a free SLR that the previous owner no longer wanted. That must mean this image is inferior to most other photographs.
We are constantly choosing cameras that are small, lighter, faster, easier and less expensive. And each time image quality suffers. Yet almost every camera ever made has sufficient image quality for most purposes.

If the author who compared gear to grapes really truly cared about superior image quality, he would not be using the cameras he owns. He would trade them in for a 100-year-old large-format film camera. But, like everyone else, he chooses convenience over quality.

In his post he wanted the readers to know that he is not a camera snob, but that he is photographically refined--he can perceive the tiny nuances between equipment makes and models. And, because of this, he prefers the metaphoric taste of expensive gear.

A statement like that suggests several things to the reader. First, your equipment probably is not "good enough." It doesn't matter if your images are not great because gear matters most, not images. Next, if you are not refined enough to tell the differences between expensive gear and gear that didn't cost quite as much, you are an inferior photographer. Finally, you should spend more time learning the small nuances between gear and less time learning what makes a photograph great.
Sunset At Morro Rock - Morro Bay, California
Captured using an entry-level DSLR. Can you tell just by looking at the photograph?
The author of the article concludes two things: one should not question whether a camera or lens costs a significant amount of money (because it is worth spending the most that you can) and if one suggests that gear doesn't matter that means they're a neophyte (a.k.a. amateur). Pay no attention to the obvious logical fallacies here, I guess.

Now personally I'd like see the author prove that he can tell the differences between images captured with expensive gear and those with less-expensive models. It's quite a tall claim he's made. Since the wine analogy was used, we can continue using it. Wine tasters often do blind tests. They don't know what wine they are tasting when they make their judgments, and only find out at the end. I'd like to see the author attempt to identify the equipment used to capture a bunch of different photographs just by looking at prints.

Why would someone say such things? My first thought is that he feels he needs to justify the money he's spent on cameras and lenses. Another thought is that he might be insecure and puffing himself up makes him feel better. Perhaps there is a photographer that he doesn't get along with that he's trying to put down. Most likely, however, this kind of post is for his advertisers. A post like this will get blind-followers to spend more money on gear.

His post actually does harm to the photographic community. It convinces people that photography is mostly about how much money you can spend. I'm glad that nobody convinced Michael Chrisman of this, or else he might not of captured his great year-long exposure of the Toronto Skyline--he used a home-built pinhole camera. And I'm glad that David Burnett didn't listen to this, or else he might not have capture his iconic image of Al Gore--using a cheap plastic camera from China. Photography is about art, not gear.

Cameras and lenses are nothing like wine. Photography is not about gear. Photographers can use any tool, no matter how expensive or cheap, to create great works of art. As Ansel Adams said, "The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it."

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