This Is the Best Camera You Will Ever Own

This Is the Best Camera You Will Ever Own

Debate among photographers about the best camera will rage unabated until the end is nigh. And there will likely never be universal agreement. Despite that, the best camera you will ever have is not a Canon, a Sony, a Nikon, or even a Hasselblad.

Have you heard the story about the time a customer approached Picasso at a cafe one day and asked him to sketch something on a napkin for him? Apparently, the man asked Picasso to name his price for the napkin sketch, to which Picasso responded by asking for $100,000. Outraged, the man claimed such a price was ridiculous considering it only took Picasso a mere 30 seconds to create the sketch. The punchline, so the tale goes, is that Picasso told the man it hadn't actually taken him 30 seconds to create the sketch, but rather 40 years. How accurate this story is one can never be sure, but what is true is that Picasso was not an overnight success and spent almost his entire 91 years creating sketches, paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and more.

What's my point, and how does it relate to the title of this article? The genius and the talent and the beautiful artworks that Picasso created in all sorts of mediums came from Picasso's mind first. And through hard graft and learning the necessary skills. The works that netted him an estimated half billion dollars throughout his life didn't magically appear because he was holding a certain HB pencil, or a specific type of horse hair painter's brush. Picasso first saw what he wanted to create in his mind, and his mind's vision manifested itself through his tools, be it pencils, brushes, or chisels. However, the years and years of practice and dedication and harnessing of his talent led to his greatness. The tools just helped him create what his mind saw first.

To be sure, this isn't an article saying cameras or lenses don't matter. They do. I'm a compulsive buyer of gear, both expensive and cheap, but not because I always think the gear is the missing piece of the puzzle. I buy new gear and gadgets because I often have visions of what I want to create and think a new bit of gear might help those visions come to fruition more readily than using the gear I already have. I don't just buy gear for the sake of it in the forlorn hope that it'll help sell my next image for a Peter Lik like price. To make my point, I want to share three photos with you and explain how my mind created my final version before I'd even laid fingers on a camera or lens.

The photo above was taken a couple of weeks back before Typhoon Haishen reaped havoc on S.W. Japan. It was taken late afternoon, at around 5pm. This location is about 10 minutes from my home and I often use this little back road when I'm returning home from the surf, or when I take my young daughters out on my bicycle. Every time I came past this bridge I'd make mental notes about composition and what I had to take into consideration to get a good shot. I knew it had wonderful potential, but I also knew there were a few things I had to account for.

In the end, I knew it had to be late evening, because the sun would shine from the back of the mountains onto the train and illuminate the yellow on the train and the browns on the bridge. It also had to be a day when the sun was shining in order to get that illumination and the reflection from the train. I also knew it had to be a very high tide - like tides that comes with full moons — as the boats on the left get stuck in an ugly, grayish, brown mud that's highly visible on the lower tide. Finally, I had to be there at a specific time because the trains only pass once an hour at that time in the evening.

With all those things in mind, I'd often drive past this spot and see perfect light, but realize the tide was too low. Or I'd see great light and a nice, high tide, but then realize the next train wasn't coming until close to dark. All of these thoughts about light, composition, weather elements, and timing all come back to the hours I've spent over the years with photography and other forms of art. Thus, when the time came to actually get this shot, it was relatively straightforward. I knew where I had to stand, I knew the technical aspects of the camera and lens required, and then I just pushed the shutter button and did some work in post-production. I could have used a Canon, a Nikon, a Sony, or anything else that allowed me to get what I wanted. It was the mental picture and preparation that made this shot work. Let me show you some other pictures to prove my point.

I took this photo from the identical position as the first one. It was at a similar time of the day but as you can see, the results are in stark contrast to each other. In this photo above, the sun was hidden behind a thick bank of light clouds, which took all of its amber glow away. Further, the tide was much lower, and you can see the impact that had on the boats and the water. There's even an an old, buried boat stuck in the mud. Not very picturesque at all, is it? Finally, without the train, this is simply a bland, boring shot. Yet, it's taken in the identical position to the first one, with the same camera and the same lens. Let me give you another example below.

The photo above was also taken late in the afternoon. This time, I went to the other side of the bridge and took my shot of the train from there. Because of the overcast conditions, there's no orange glow, nor a reflection of the train. There aren't any boats in the frame either, and the only real element of interest in the foreground is those exposed rocks which show themselves on the lower tide. Again, a rather drab shot of a location that has so much potential. Of course, you might say that I should have taken photos in better light to do my comparison, but that just serves to strengthen my argument, because it shows that you're thinking about the light before you've taken your camera out. 

Summing Up

In closing, there are a lot of elements that go into taking good photos, and many of them include things that have nothing to do with the gear you're using. Your understanding of light, color, weather patterns, composition, and gear all go into getting the image you want. Without the first four I just mentioned, it wouldn't matter what camera you were using, because if you don't understand light, composition, and so forth, then all the gear in the world won't help you. To be sure, gear can help turn a good image into a great image, or get you exactly what you want instead of getting you kind of what you want.

But the computer that is your mind, and all the information it can process and synchronize and synthesize, will almost always be better than the camera you're holding in your hand when it comes to getting you that really great image you want to hang on your wall or put in your portfolio. What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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Fantastic article. Straight-forward, to the point, and spot on.

It reminds me of Ansel Adam's “Golden Gate.” He said it took him ten years to get the picture he wanted. He had already created the image in his mind, but it took ten years before all the elements came into play. The very next day, the started construction on the bridge, and he would had never gotten the opportunity again.

Great point. At some stage, you have to actually take the photo!

Great article - and great choice of photos, they really help to illustrate your point!

Glad you liked it

Nothing to do with cameras but although it's been around for years, there's a grain of truth in that Picasso story.

Some fifty years ago, I knew someone who owned a serviette that had genuinely been "scribbled " upon by Picasso.

What did that “someone” do with serviette?

Excellent article Iain. That is what I call "Photography". To get everything in-camera it takes thought and lots of planning. There is nothing else like it. The true meaning of photography is the art, application and practice of creating durable images by recording light, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film. Anything else is simply a quick fix and called digital art and NOT a photograph.

Cheers. I think there's a time and place for all kinds of creativity but understanding what you're actually doing, and why, should be first and foremost

Which is why you need a Phase One. Because all that work and then you capture it with a “half-frame” Canon R5 or Sony a7r... or other such minions

I agree, I 've been a pro for 35yrs. I am not sure this article means anything at all because the very fact it was 'Picasso' and not the customer who drew the sketch is what makes it worth the money. To own a Picasso means different things to different people - to own a 'Miller' means nothing to anyone. I am paid to 'sketch' but the actual sketch I paint with my camera is only worth something to the client. If I painted it with a Box Brownie I wouldn't be in business for very long. If Picasso used a Box Brownie, not only would the prints be worth money, but so would the contact sheets, the negatives and the flipping camera.

If you base your photos on your stored-up ideas about what constitutes a good photo -- "light, composition, and so forth" -- you'll be limited by your own preconceptions and eliminate the possibility of surprising yourself. This is why your first example photo is a cliche, while the third one looks as if it might actually mean something.

I have always said "I care not what camera you have, I only care what you put in front of it"

Great article

When I started photography as a hobbyist I asked a well accomplished photographer about the best camera I should get and he said it is the one in my hands. At that time it was a Canon T3i rebel.

And THAT is why I stopped carrying the super heavy Canon bodies and lenses that my ego was tied up in and got a Sony a6400. I bought the best lens I could for it and haven't missed a thing… except the weight!

Unless someone is peeking at EXIF data, then no one knows. And if I did my job correctly and captured something stunning, they won't care.

(BTW I still have the Canon system because my clients haven't reached the same conclusion I have! :)

There are times and places when specific gear definitely does a better a better job for that particular occasion. But often, similar camera, similar lens, most people don’t know the difference

Absolutely, as an amateur I am guilty of turning up taking a shot and then being disappointed. I then see someone’s photo of the same place or event that’s 100% better than mine because of a different angle or position Which meant they had thought about it long before reaching for the camera. A lesson I need to take on board

I worked for many years shooting photoessays for airlines and geographic magazines. When I started I bought a 6x7 medium format camera not because it was the most versatile but because the transparencies were so impressive on the editors desk. More than one editor commented on just how impressive transparencies of this size were when compared to small 35mm transparencies. At a professional level, sometimes the camera makes the difference when the creativity is equal.
In other respects the article makes valid points. It just doesn't cover all the considerations necessary in the professional world. Picasso could draw crap and someone would still buy the work. Annie Leibowitz could shoot with a pinhole camera and still command the exorbitant prices she receives and would likely be lauded for her artistic take on the subject. In neither case is the outcome anything to do with talent, skill or a lifetime of experience.
The article is a nice sentiment and an essential part of the process, but the real world is way more complicated.

I respectfully disagree, regarding Picasso. He went to Paris in his teens and had to return to Spain and his parents coz he didn’t make a brass razoo during those early years. He then returned to Paris again, but it wasn’t until Gertrude Stein discovered his work that he shot to stardom.

He didn’t become famous and rich ‘just’ because his name was Picasso. He struggled like many others for many years and people didn’t buy his “crap” for many years.

Great article!

Great article. Without vision, nothing else is meaningful. One of my favorite books on photography is really not about photography at all, but about vision: Landscape Beyond: A Journey into Photography by David Ward and Joe Cornish.

I know you say it’s not about the gear and I’m not denying that you’re spot on here... However, this is why I like Fuji, because I don’t want to sit in front of a computer all day, I want to do everything in the camera and I want creative control over that camera. Put all the controls I need right in front of me visually and don’t make me dive into menus, then I’m a happy man with a proper tool to do the job!

So yep, plan your shot, make sure your where you need to be and make sure you have your settings right, then wait for the opportunity! When the camera gets out of your way, it is a glorious thing watching your vision unfold in front of your eyes!

I teach older adults, >50, at the local U. I would tell my students I can tell you all you need to know while standing on one foot. Now that I'm over 80 I tell them that I can hardly stand on one foot so had to boil it down. I just say, "Shoot what you love."

Nice reminder: composition trumps gear and it's possible to capture poor images with any equipment, as most of my pictures demonstrate. On a point of information, the "Picasso" story actually derives from an incident in the life of the artist James McNeill Whistler. In 1878, Whistler sued the critic John Ruskin for libel after Ruskin condemned his painting "Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket". At the trial, Ruskin's lawyer cross examined Whistler, saying "Mr Whistler, tell me, how long did it take you to paint Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket?" "Half a day," replied Whistler. "So," continued the lawyer, "you are charging two hundred guineas for half a day's work?" "No," replied Whistler "for the experience of a lifetime."
The court agreed that Ruskin had libelled Whistler but awarded purely nominal damages of one farthing, the smallest coin in circulation at the time (worth 1/4 of an old penny, about 12pence/15cents in today's money). Whistler went bankrupt paying his legal bill, which proves that when these things go to court, only the lawyers get rich.

Fantastic! There’s a punchline somewhere in there about a penny farthing but I'll leave it for more witty people to find. Cheers!

Here is a very revealing project for long time photographers to undertake. Go into Lightroom or a similar image management application and run a sort on your 4 star or above images. Now run additonal sorts on the camera body/lens used. If you are like me you are going to be surprised by what you find...and in the process may discover that while camera and lens quality does matter it may well matter less than the ads might lead you to believe.

No surprise here. I almost always use my “kit” zoom lenses, (and my 50/1.7). I only take the f/2.8 zooms when I know (or think that there is a good possibility), that I will need to do some low-light work.

I have also narrowed my use of lenses right down too

Much to the disgust of others I’m sure, I don’t even catalogue my pics any more. I go through them quickly once and simply pick out a handful I like and edit them. The rest I put onto an external drive for safekeeping purposes. And immediately delete all the bleehh ones