I ought to precede this piece with the disclaimer that it is meant as "photographer humour" and must be taken as tongue-in-cheek. That said, my tongue is so furiously pressed against the inside of my cheek I’ve developed ulcers.
You see, it’s usually an innocuous comment from a well-meaning aunt or relative. Well, I say well-meaning, but there’s a sense in which the innocence in her comments is merely a thin veil to cover something more barbed. From whichever source and whatever the motive, upon enjoying a photograph you have created a comment comes in one of two forms; the first is a dagger straight to the face: “You must have a good camera!” The second is a fluffier alternative; like a purring cat waiting for you to tickle her belly so she can promptly remove your eyes: “Which camera do you use?”
Why is this a pet peeve of us photographers, both hobbyist and professional alike? Well, the story can have a plethora of beginnings, but allow me to tell the more obvious three of which I have direct experience.
The Landscape Photographer
At 5am you’re slapped out of your slumber to quietly and clumsily gather your things in the dark, trying not to awaken the entire household. You then set off in the hand-function-reducing cold, strapped to the nostrils with camera gear for every scenario, like a Canon sponsored camel. You drive in to the wilderness, usually through areas where even the internet hasn’t yet reached, with your window cracked open slightly to combat the tiredness. You follow this with a trek through challenging terrain to arrive at a pre-scouted location and sit there poised, waiting for an apocalyptic sunrise surrounded by tripods, filters, lenses and frost. All the while muttering warnings to the cloud on the horizon and praying to the weather gods to hold off on turning the sky-blanket overcast.
The Wildlife Photographer
You’re quite sure that when you arrived in this hide, it was a different season to what it is now. You’ve been quiet for so long you’ve almost forgotten what you sound like and so you quietly clear your throat to remind yourself. There’s a kingfisher’s nest the other side of the lake, but sadly you only know this from word of mouth as opposed to any first-hand visual confirmation. You want to check Facebook but you’re certain that looking down will swiftly prompt the entire family of kingfishers to arise from their nest and peck the words "missed opportunity" in to the nearest tree. So you remain in your meditative state knowing that to capture your vibrant avian friend mid-dive, you need sniper-like accuracy and attention, for an event that will seldom last longer than a few hundredths of a second.
The Portrait Photographer
You arrive on location at the crack of dawn as the temperature oscillates between the low pluses and the minuses. You’ve been lucky with the weather for early December as it is calm but completely overcast. That said, you have a growing fear that the freshly complete hair and makeup might freeze and shatter when the model first smiles. Nevertheless, you, the model, and the assistant wade in to a wintery marsh like extras in Braveheart, while all shivering away the sleep from your respective eyes. The model reluctantly de-robes to reveal a wafer thin dress, removes her wellies and then pads barefoot into position. While directing her tiny vibrating near-blue frame in to the right pose to fit the pre-agreed motif, you begin to wonder if it’s your Public Liability Insurance or Professional Indemnity Insurance that will pay out when she loses both her legs to frostbite. Meanwhile, to your right is your assistant, eclipsed by a giant silver reflector and clearly in the midst of an existential life crisis, attempting to decipher which poor decisions led her to attend this three person pneumonia party.
(This is much closer to a biographical story than a hypothetical one; a shoot I conducted for an album cover called "Eye of the Storm." Both model and assistant made full recoveries.)
All of these beginnings share a similar middle; the editing. This is the painstaking procedure of carefully processing the images, hyper-attuned to rogue flecks of dust that were on the lens or irritating reflections; non-uniform colours, distractions from the subject and sharpness. Then it’s on to scanning the image over and over again – nose skimming the screen – cloning out anything even remotely untoward before obsessing over the final crop that will hopefully unite all aspects of your desired composition. At last you can sit back and marvel at your image; the hours of hard work glares back at you in a single collection of pixels and satisfied, you upload and share it with the masses.
"Wow…" you hear as your first admirer begins their review – a good start – "…you must have a really good camera!" And there it is: your dedication and commitment have been reduced to a cameo performance; you were a mere passenger in your camera’s epic journey to create a fantastic image – lucky you. You want to say that their reply is tantamount to congratulating the world’s leading orator on their excellent voice box, or toasting Cristiano Ronaldo’s footballing ability to his good fortune at having proficient legs. You want to say that. Instead you say ‘well, yes, I do have a good camera, but…’ and then trail off as you notice their interest in the conclusion of your protest is waning in the extreme.
I thank you for your kind words; my camera is happily wagging its strap at the praise. Only, there’s an implication that has defecated over my proverbial wet washing. It reminds me of my problem with the expression "a bad workman always blames his tools." You see, it overlooks the possibility of genuinely bad tools. Well this is the polar opposite of that. A good photograph is often accredited to a good camera but this overlooks all the great photos of the past that were taken with poor cameras by today’s standard. Not to mention the photographer who invariably didn’t just press the shutter button and sit back whilst the camera performed its wizardry.
What’s worse is their statement is true. I do have a good camera. I can’t even contest their point (unless on the basis of grammar; my camera isn't a crusader of morality and justice). So instead I congratulate their eyes for enjoying my work and thank their mouth for telling me.