Remember That Your Camera Is Better Than What History's Best Photographers Shot With

The first law of photography is that photographers love talking about gear. And while it's fun to geek out and talk shop, that can become a toxic thing when it becomes a replacement for image-making. This great video reminds us that we're already very lucky when it comes to gear.

Coming to you from Ted Forbes of The Art of Photography, this awesome video essay seeks to contextualize where the modern photographer sits in terms of the quality of camera gear, reminding us that in many ways, even the most entry level DSLR far exceeds the capabilities of any camera of yesteryear. And that's not to say gear doesn't matter: there are many scenarios in which you simply won't get the shot without the proper specialized equipment, but it's important to distinguish those situations from simply using gear as an excuse for not developing our technique and creativity. At least for me, being reminded that history's most famous photographers created their work with cameras mostly well below today's standards of capabilities helps me to refocus on what matters at the end of the day. The gear is just the means to the end. 

Lead image of Ansel Adams used under public domain.

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Rob Davis's picture

If anyone would like to sponsor me in the Linhof 8x10 (one of Adams' cameras) vs. Any DSLR challenge I would be glad to accept.

Rob Davis's picture
Ed Sanford's picture

Your comments are right on.... Mastering the craft to a point where you are producing work that is interesting to look at is far more important than what gear you have. The early masters learned to apply what equipment and resources they had to producing good work. The one conundrum with Ansel Adams is that he only talked about cameras, lenses, developers, chemicals and print materials. I have never seen anything in his literature that talked about subject, composition etc. However, his worked "sang" about the beauty of the American West. It is easy to be seduced by equipment, tests and lab results. I think your key message holds up. It's the 6 inches behind the camera that "makes" the picture.

Deleted Account's picture

Maybe he thought subject, composition, etc. was subjective and shouldn't be taught.

Mike Schrengohst's picture

And time....40 years ago I could take off on photography trips for weeks at a time. I would stay gone until my money ran out. My parents wondered what I was doing. LOL. I could then crash for days - get another job for 3 months and then go out when I felt like it. I am working now to retire and do that again. I am the guy who took all my photo gear on my honeymoon and soon discovered the new wife did not like that! LOL. As my kids got older I made them watch what I was doing when setting up a timelapse and they would ask for 2 hours if I was done yet. Then when they saw it they thought it was cool. But yeah gear is not a limiting factor any longer. I just need more time.

Mike Schrengohst's picture

I was going to buy an Ansel original 39 years ago - for $800 - my Dad said no way that is nuts - I don't know what that photo would be worth today but probably $20,000 or more.....Oh my. My Dad was never good with investments.

Ryan Gallagher's picture

While I agree that the FEATURES of modern cameras dwarf those of the cameras of the masters of previous generations of photography, the resolution you can obtain from 4x5 or 8x10 film cameras is simply not possible even with the largest (and most expensive) digital sensors we have today. If you're a wildlife or sports photographer the tools available today are an amazing leg up, but try getting 6 ft wide high resolution print from those and you'll quickly learn the limitations. I've not delved into the world of large format film photography yet, but it's undeniable that the resolution capabilities are incredible if you have the perseverance to really master these classic tools.

I'm not disagreeing with the content of the video, but simply raising a point about the quality of the images that are possible in landscape photography for example. The fact that you can get amazing images from any camera if you have a good eye, understand how light works in photography, and/or shoot under the right conditions stands 100% true. That extra resolution is not going to suddenly make you a talented photographer, and learning how to use the tools you have is far more important than getting the latest and greatest gear.

Michael Aubrey's picture

At least with 8x10 though, there's a lot more that can go wrong in getting that resolution. Achieving film flatness in a holder becomes harder and harder.

But, also, yes. So much yes.

Tamas Nemeth's picture

The 100MP is quite close to the 4x5, but still far away from 8x10.
I was shooting landscapes on 4x5 films before I got the opportunity to borrow a(ny) Phase One back, but since then having the immediate feedback and all other fancy function made me abandon my film stash. For stationary object doing a stitching (with a large format camera it is very simple to capture the perfectly aligned shots) can give the 8x10 experience, but that doesn't work for long exposure, and when things are moving too much.

Matthew Saville's picture

Don't give digital sensors THAT much credit. A properly shot and processed 8x10 B&W negative would completely destroy even a Canon 5Dsr, for both dynamic range and resolution. Sorry!

John Dawson's picture

Sorry, but "traditional" artists do indeed talk just as much about gear.

Robert Thompson's picture

Every wonder why Ansel didn't shoot with some little Leica? Gear...sometimes it matters...

John Wolf's picture

He was known to have used a Hasselblad on occasion.

Tamas Nemeth's picture

Because he was using Contax.
for example this one one of his well known portrait images shot with a Contax II, as far as I remember.

marknie's picture

Yet, sooo many photographers lack imagination. Ansel was one of the best at that. Technology is just technology. but story telling with imagination is what gets noticed. You cant learn that.

Korey Napier's picture

While I agree wholeheartedly (and it's nice to have perspective), the majority of us in the photography community understand this. We either want that new piece of gear because it has features that will make life easier and the process more fun, or because we are also enjoy the tech. of photography just as much as the actual art of photography (which there is nothing wrong with). I don't think I ever thought a new camera or lens would make me better, rather a lens has a specific look I wanted or a camera body had certain features I valued in my creative process. Plus, (for me at least) geeking out over gear is fun.
One of my best friends remodels houses and he's the same way about his tools. He has his preferred brand and is VERY picky about what he uses. He also lusts after certain tools much in the same way we do after certain lenses, cameras, etc. My dad is the same way about bicycling. Loves the sport, has multiple bikes and STILL lusts after certain bikes even though they won't necessarily improve his times. You see this in a lot of arenas, not just photography.

Sebastian Jacobitz's picture

The Camera doesn't matter, it is more important what is behind the camera.