Are Cameras Really Just Tools? Yes and No

Are Cameras Really Just Tools? Yes and No

In the nausea-inducing argument of "gear doesn't matter," one of the lines often peddled by one side or another is that the camera, no matter how sophisticated, is just a tool. It's the equivalent of a hammer. Its job is to collect light and any romanticizing over these "light boxes" is just an exercise in GAS. I agreed with that sentiment for a long time, but now I'm not so sure. Here are my reasons why the camera is more important than its obvious job as a way to catch an image.

What This Article Is NOT

First thing's first, let's get this out of the way: this is not an article about whether or not gear matters. I don't wish to retread those waters for the umpteen millionth time. Rather, I'd like to explore characteristics of the camera, some more obvious than others, that may increase our awareness of what the camera does for us.

The Camera Can Dictate How You Work

You are the photographer. The big boss. The image-maker. However, the cameras you're using can dictate not only what shot you get, but what steps you need to take to get there. Barring a few exceptions, if you're shooting large format, you're almost certainly on a tripod. You're methodically checking focus, composing on ground glass, and interacting with your subject from a stationary point. If the camera or the subject moves, you need to set the shot up again. Having such limitations in movement definitely influences the type of shots you're going to be able to take as well as your success rate. Do you like to shoot from low angles? Having a flip-up LCD can be a game-changer. Do you like to shoot sports? FPS is king. Yes, you can still get the shot with a slower camera, but you will have to be more methodical, anticipate the shot more, and a large peppering of luck couldn't hurt either. What about having a small buffer vs a large one? You'll be more conservative with a small buffer, making sure you don't get stuck waiting for your camera. When you have a large buffer you can be more aggressive, taking risks with shots you're not 100% certain about.

A large format image is beautiful, but also doesn't allow the most freedom of movement.

A tool such as a hammer is a device that accomplishes a specific task. At the end of the day, the nail gets pounded, and no matter how expensive your hammer is, the end result is, you hope, the same. The camera doesn't work that way. The camera we pick directly effects the end product. This isn't as simple as a nail getting hammered. It's the difference between Avedon and Leibovitz. Both are masters of the portrait, but the product is incredibly different due in no small part to what camera was used to create it and how the photographer navigated the strengths and limitations of the camera they chose.

Ergonomics

Making your way around the camera as well as deciding how comfortable the camera is to hold can be key in determining if a particular model is right for you. Is the camera too heavy for you? Too light? Does it feel balanced? Is it easy to hand-hold? When on a tripod, is it just as easy to use? Are battery doors blocked? Having the best sensor in the world does you no good if you loathe using your gear. If shooting becomes a distasteful exercise, the caliber of your work can't help but be impacted. For me, the best camera is one that gets out of the way. If I'm rooting through menus or fiddling with knobs too much, my connection to the subject is compromised. 

Catching the moment, whether candid or created, is the most important thing. How many have you missed due to your camera?

Low Light Performance

Of course, if your camera isn't the best in low-light, you can always supplement with artificial lighting, but the product will be different. The way you work will fundamentally change if you're adding light to a scene as opposed to photographing what's there. You're adding potential points of failure and complexity to your photos. Does this way of working appeal to you? If so, a camera with a less than stellar low-light sensor may not be a big deal. Or, perhaps you like a noisy or grainy image! There's nothing wrong with that.

The Rangefinder

I've never been a big rangefinder lover, but I can certainly understand the appeal. Using a rangefinder fundamentally changes the way you approach your subject. Using frame lines so that you can see outside of the scene gives you a leg up on anticipating where the action is headed so you'll be ready. Zone focusing so that you're ready to snap at that decisive moment is crazy useful for street and documentary photography. Sure, you can attempt to use the rangefinder like an SLR, using the focus patch to focus and recompose, but that sort of misses the point of the system. When in the hands of a master, a rangefinder is head and shoulders faster than the fastest SLR for that kind of work.

Film or Digital?

Again, this isn't a contest about which is better. But depending on which you choose, your working style will change significantly. Hearing that "cha-ching" in your head every time you snap a photo will definitely slow you down. You will consider your shots for longer before taking them. This isn't necessarily a good thing as you can also overthink whether you should take a shot and end up missing a moment. Cost will also determine how often you shoot. You need to factor in the cost of development (by a lab or yourself), as well as finding the time to make it happen. With digital, you can move more quickly and freely with your work. You can experiment without consequence which may lead to more creative work.

Romance

Different cameras can make you feel a certain way. That sounds hokey, but it's true. Using a Canon 1DX Mark II as opposed to using a Sony a9 is night and day. Although the product created can be almost identical, that feeling of "connection" to the camera may be lacking. I know many who have touched a Sony and weren't interested, simply because they just couldn't get comfortable with the camera. Even after figuring out the menus, there was something missing. The big, beefy size of the Canon may be a turn-off to some, and feel amazing to others. Some will shoot a Leica for the rest of their lives because of the way they handle and how they feel while they are using it. Yes, you can get the same result with another camera, but would they if they didn't feel that attachment? Would the result be the same if they didn't feel that connection? Perhaps.

What Does It All Mean?

It's tempting to look at picking a camera in simple terms: get the best camera you can that does what you need it to do in your price range. However, I believe that by taking that cold, tool-centric attitude toward your camera, you may be doing yourself a disservice. Go to a camera store pick up some old gear. See what you like and what you don't like. How does this camera feel versus that one? Does it speak to you? Look through the viewfinder. Kick the tires. You want a camera that is functional but doesn't make you want to put it back down as soon as you pick it up. Tech specs only tell part of the story. The latest and greatest isn't always going to be the best fit for you.

What cameras do you feel might be overlooked by shoppers? Let us know!

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24 Comments

Doug Birling's picture

Hammers like cameras are tools, BUT just like there are different types of hammers (Claw, ball pein, sledge, etc) there are different cameras that excel at certain tasks. Can you pound a nail with a large sledge hammer… yes. Is that the ideal tool… no.

JetCity Ninja's picture

bingo. this post was written by someone who is only familiar with the common claw hammer.

if you don't know hammers, substitute it in your analogy with a tool you're more familiar with. in this case, not hammers.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I'm pretty familiar with different types of hammers, thank you. However, the point is that a camera, in addition to its stated function, may have weight outside of said function that influences the work you produce.

The idea that certain hammers excel at certain tasks is true, of course. But two cameras of equal aptitude for a certain task may help produce wildly different work depending on the preferences of the person using the camera.

"Tool" implies function. I'm saying perhaps a choice of camera is more than that.

Give two sculptors a block of marble and the same hammer and chisel.
They will probably produce wildly different work depending on their preferences.
Are the hammer and chisel more than tools?
I don’t think so.

Another problem with the “hammer analogy” might be that a hammer is a simple tool and a camera is a complex tool.
If you think a camera is not a tool or more than just a tool, you should probably compare it to other complex tools to show the difference. I don’t think there is a difference though. Sure, preferences of the persons using complex tools will lead to different results, but a difference in result doesn’t determine if something is tool or not.

Kirk Darling's picture

Even if you stay with a simple tool like a claw hammer, using a 16-ounce steel-handled hammer feels immensely different than a 16-ounce wood-handled hammer. Different shapes of the handle--the way it curves--transmits a different feel to the hand. Carpenters swear by one and swear at the other--and they're all "just" 16-ounce claw hammers.

And of course, you can't do all hammer jobs with a 16-ounce claw hammer. Mechanics don't use claw hammers, nor do jewelers. The weight of the hammer is dictated by the size of the nail.

Get into complex tools--such as automobiles. Why do drivers use one type of automobile for Formula 1 racing and another for NASCAR? And how much does the type of car and how it feels to drive dictate what kind of racing an individual likes to do?

The fact is, they are all just tools, and the choice of tool is always a matter of what the person wants to do and how the person wants to do it.

Nothing you've stated about cameras is unique to cameras. Tools come in all different shapes, sizes, uses, and yes, some are even designed with ergonomics and style in mind.

It's a bad take. A camera is a tool - nothing more, nothing less.

Rob Mitchell's picture

Yes.
People get passionate about tools too, that's normal. I have some lovely woodworking tools that I'd sorely miss, cost money and get looked after.
However, I'd never create an avatar of myself holing up a circular saw to my face.

Kirk Darling's picture

Spend more time on carpentry sites, and you see such avatars.

Jonathan Brady's picture

And what about the hipster who casts his own head and cuts down just the right tree for the handle?

Best article ever... https://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2012/03/hammerforum-com/

Francisco B's picture

All modern pro cameras can basically get the job done with the same efficiency. I'm sure there are many gearheads that would vehemently disagree with me. Knowing how to expertly control light is more important than the gear you use.

Did you read the article? Yes, gear, to a certain point, matters. But you also have to be comfortable with it. Do you like the way it feels in your hand? If you need to change ISO, how many button pokes and knob twists does it take?

Two hammers may pound a nail the same, but one might have a nice curved handle, and a cushioned grip, while the other is just a straight rod of hickory. Both do the same job, but one is just nicer to use.

Francisco B's picture

What does my opinion have to do with me reading the article (yes I did read it) and what did I say that was so unreasonable? You're just being snotty.

Not being snotty. "Efficiency" (your word, not mine) means that you are comfortable with the camera and like it, and can work well with it.

Knowing how to expertly control light AND use the right equipment is even more important. It's both.

Jon The Baptist's picture

I agree, yes and no.

I love using my D4 while I HATE everything about my D800E outside of IQ at ISO 100. I adore using my E-M1X despite there being literally dozens of cameras on the market with better IQ.

I think the Nikon F6 is the best camera ever made full stop.

But at the end of the day if it meant parting with these to make rent, I wouldn't think twice about it.

One question you have to ask yourself: what needs to be improved about your photos?

If a photo can be improved by a narrower depth of field, you might need a faster lens.
If a photo has low resolution because you had to crop too much, maybe invest in a longer lens?
If, for some reason, you NEED more resolution, or better low-light performance, maybe a new body is in your future.
If you want something smaller and lighter, try a crop sensor!

But if the thing holding your photos back is composition and lighting (like me), then you need to spend money on books and classes, not gear.

Of course, you also have to LIKE your gear. Does it fit well in your hands? Do you enjoy using it? If not, then different gear might inspire you to take more photos.

I think the phrasing of the question is slightly off; it would perhaps be better to ask something like 'will buying a new camera improve your artistic vision?' My view is that more gear degrades artistic vision, due to having too much choice. I think the same can be said for gear that is more advanced, as it can cause the photographer to rely upon the tech, as opposed to their vision.

But to the point, there are certain photographic tools that you would use for certain things, the gear used to capture a bullet in flight is different to the gear you would use to produce an impressionist landscape, which is different to the gear you would use to capture a high end fashion image.

I recall Ruby Law (in the pro photographer cheap camera) saying she uses a "black camera". I know I find it vaguely offensive when people say "what sort of camera do you use?" or '"you must have a great camera", as it implies the image is because of the gear. Few people would say 'you must have a great piano' to a concert pianist.

Synonymously, are paint brushes just tools?

Yes and painters I know are pretty fussy about their tools as well. Probably not as snarky as photographers thought.

Xander Cesari's picture

Not to add yet another analogy to the discussion but I think I'll do just that :)

The world of racing has a more nuanced understanding of how the vehicle and the skill of the operator interact. Sure it's a 'tool' but it's a tool that CAN be used artfully and I think that make it a little different. It's sort of a conduit for skill. There have been great racers who moved to a 2nd rate team and couldn't replicate their performance in the lesser car. The tool does kinda matter. There have been mediocre drivers in amazing cars who couldn't be competitive. The tool isn't all that matters. And there have been motorcycles that were wildly dominant ridden by one rider but another extremely talented racer could never make it work. So how you interact with the tool matters. None of these are surprising in that context yet somehow still all controversial in the world of photography!

A very long time ago while in college, I read the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There is a favorite passage that often resonates with me, whether it be when thinking about cameras or cars (both things that I love) -

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn't any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it's right. If it disturbs you it's wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

Jan Kruize's picture

I completely agree but..... nowhere else i see a place people hammering other peoples tools dow to the ground without showing what they are doing with their own tools. Strange...

In 1987 during a workshop at VSW in Rochester with Charles Harbutt and Joan Lifton, we were given an answer to this question: A camera is always ‘framing’ the world, even when sitting on a table unattended. It frames the world like no human would. It takes the most ridiculous angles, chops peoples heads off, does not care what it is pointing toward. In other words, it has its own aesthetic. It is perhaps the only creative medium that does. What does this mean? Photographers can learn from this ‘always seeing’ camera by studying how it frames the world.

How we reached this conclusion in practice was in this manner. We were give 10 rolls of 35mm film at 10 am and told to return in 24 hours with contact prints. Pre-digital, this is pretty hard to do. That is 360 meaningfully framed photos. What happened to me is that after about 5 rolls walking about Rochester, I started to run out of things to make photographs of. This is when I started to see differently, and employ the camera differently, mostly to finish the assignment. It is in those last 2-3 rolls where something special happens. A new dynamic in framing is clearly absent from the first properly framed rolls.
A few points:
-If you employ this philosophy to grab shot style photo with a wider angle (21mm) haphazardly, shooting from the hip, you will probably take a lot of bad photos with a lot of dead space. With say a 24-35mm, closer in to your subject, you will learn how the edges of the frame are composed differently from how you may compose them.
-It is fairly easy to learn to integrate a grab style into a repertoire of approaches to a subject. For quick subjects, it may be the only way to capture that instance.
-With fast autofocus this is obviously much easier.

Is this relevant in the age of digital? With film no longer an expense, it may mean the camera is even more prone to a state of always-seeing because we can experiment more freely and make photos we never thought we would more readily.