Each week it seems, a new camera is released. And with every new release is the lure of new features promising to make the already easy image-making process even easier. This raises the question, do the benefits of easily creating images outweigh the potential benefits we might gain from taking a more challenging approach?
The answer to that question will depend on how you feel about the process of taking photographs. Taking for granted that anyone who picks up a camera would like to create good photographs, the question we want to explore is, how much do you value the process of making those photographs?Let us take a quick digression and examine the process of booking a trip for a vacation. The experience, for me at least, is both time-consuming and frustrating. You might spend an hour on a site like Travelocity, trying to decide which flight among the dozen offerings is the best choice. If you are renting a car, you have to make decisions regarding the make and model of the vehicle, as well as the insurance coverage. Deciding which hotel to book is similarly complicated, with decisions to be made on whether it is better to book a cheap hotel located far away from the principal attractions or a more expensive hotel within walking distance from your sightseeing activities. For me, the enjoyable aspects of a vacation only begin once I have reached the destination and become acclimated to the hotel. If I could snap my fingers and eliminate the process of booking the trip, I would do so.
Sometimes, I pick up a camera solely to create images that will be delivered to a client in exchange for a monetary payment. On these occasions, there is good reason for me to simplify the process as much as possible. However, most of the time I pick up a camera, no client is involved. In these instances, is there any real benefit in making the picture-taking process as simple as possible? In addition, many of you reading this likely create most of your photographs for yourself. Why should you seek to diminish your role in creating those images?
There was a time, not very long ago, when the person behind the camera needed to dedicate themselves to the art of photography to create a strong image. Setting the camera to an automatic mode where the device could handle basic settings wasn’t an option. Thirty years ago, you had to pre-plan a photography session by purchasing film hours or days before your shoot. During the shoot, you were shooting blind because you had no guarantee if you were focusing or exposing images correctly until the film came back from the lab. In the early 2000s, digital cameras became popular, allowing us to take pictures and review the final images immediately after pushing the shutter button. We only had to wait a second or two to find out if we had nailed the shot. That wasn’t fast enough. Many shooters were eager to replace their DSLRs with mirrorless cameras that allowed real-time viewing of the image as it was being created. Photographers no longer needed to visualize what the final shot would look like because the EVF provided a real-time representation of the final image as it was being created. Using these tools, we found our hit rate increased, but did we lose something as our investment in the process was lessened?
Early cameras required that we manually focus the lens. Later offerings gave us autofocus. The earliest implementation of autofocus gave us a single point in the center of the frame to position the subject and allowed the camera to handle focusing duties. This wasn’t good enough for many of us, and we demanded multiple focus points. Camera makers gave us multiple focus points and added a rear control pad to select which point we wanted for each subject we photographed. Still not good enough for many photographers. We insisted that the entire shooting area be usable as a focus point. Our demands increased, and we no longer wanted to select which point would be used. Camera makers designed technology that could identify the subject and focus on that subject no matter where it moved on the frame. Our pictures got better, but our input on the process of creating those images decreased.
What is the purpose of using a camera to create an image if the camera itself is doing so much of the heavy lifting? If you want minimal involvement in creating the photograph, why not just buy a print that someone else has already photographed of the subject you are setting out to photograph?
For my professional work, I use a Nikon Z9, a tool that allows me to deliver strong images to my clients consistently. It is set to an autofocus mode that locates the subject’s face and keeps it focused. I love making money with my camera, but that was never my motivation for being a photographer. I enjoy the shooting process more than I enjoy having the photographs resulting from that process. I shoot for myself more often than for my clients, and most of my personal work is captured on the Leica M10 and M10 Monochrom cameras. I adjust the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture values for every image I create. I manually focus every picture I take, often at f/1.4. As a result, my hit rate using the M10 is low compared to my hit rate when I use the Z9. And yet, I use my M10 more often than I use the Z9 simply because the process of shooting with the M10 is more fun.When I engage in street photography, I embrace the process and the obstacles that accompany that process. Rather than photographing whatever is before me, I seek to capture romantic interaction between couples. Using the M10 and a 35mm lens, I need to get close to my subjects, lift the camera to my eye, and manually nail focus. I create the photographs solely for the enjoyment of that creation. I don’t make any money from street photography, nor do these images generate attention on my social media accounts. I face obstacles in creating this work, many of which would be eliminated if I used my Z9 and a zoom lens. And yet, I sometimes spend hours wandering the streets with my M10 looking for my subject matter, only to end the session with no photographs worth sharing. On those occasions when I do find the shots I am seeking, I am elated. I know the shot was earned when I use the M10, especially when I have chosen to shoot candids up close in the NYC subway system. Creating solid images with the Z9 is akin to earning a participation trophy for showing up and pushing a button. It is worthwhile for all of us to explore our motivation for creating photographs. If your only goal is to make strong images, seeking out the latest and greatest technology in each new camera model may be a smart move. But if you often feel unmotivated to get off the couch and go outside to take photographs, perhaps your shooting method doesn’t give you enough of a sense of accomplishment. Maybe, the fact that you don’t have any obstacles stopping you from capturing a sharp, perfectly exposed image makes the process feel empty. This way of thinking contradicts what we are being told by camera manufacturers, who imply that we will love photography more than ever if we buy their latest model. My suggestion is to find a way to embrace the picture-taking process. If that means shooting with a film camera occasionally, then so be it. Maybe use your current camera but impose limitations on yourself by limiting yourself to only one focus point or taping over the LCD screen. Whatever approach you choose, you may find yourself more inspired than ever if you stop taking the easy path in creating your art.