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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!