A Photographer's Pet Peeve

A Photographer's Pet Peeve

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.

Image courtesy of Mike Wilkinson.

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.)

Image courtesy of Nino Batista and ETImagez.com

The Neg

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.

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28 Comments

Justin Haugen's picture

Me: "I do have a great camera, and I drive the shit out of it."

Pam Boling's picture

A shitty craftsman with the best tools will still deliver a shitty job.
A skilled craftsman with shitty tools will deliver.
A skilled craftsman with the best tools will deliver better, faster, more efficiently.
So yeah, I have a great camera and know how to use it.

Adam Lyon's picture

Ha! Well written, but you make a lot of good points.. I had SEVEN people compliment my CAMERA and my LENS at the last concert I shot.

Usman Dawood's picture

I just say yup used my iPhone :)

Eric Raeber's picture

When friends invite me over for dinner, I compliment them on how good an oven they must have. I started to wonder why they stopped inviting me...

Imagine what Ansel Adams would say to "Wow! You must have a good camera!"

Mr Hogwallop's picture

probably "thank you", or "yes I do". I assume that saying "nice camera" is a clumsy way of paying a compliment. When shooting out in the field and someone makes that statement, that is pretty much all they have to go on. So why worry? If they are looking at a print or image on a screen it is still a clumsy compliment.
Most people other than other photographers don't really or appreciate all that hard work and early morning shoots. They either like or don;t like the photo. Use the how to stories on your blog...

Michael Comeau's picture

Oh please, this is such a silly thing to care about.

The reason real people (as in non-photographers) say things like “your pictures are great, you must have a great camera” is because they don’t know anything about photography, but they want to make conversation.

Accept statements like this for what they are: people just trying to be polite.

They’re talking about the tools because it’s an obvious point of conversation.

And besides, how many times have you Googled “what camera does photographer X use?”

Because when you think about it, that’s basically saying “Photographer X’ pictures are great. He must have a great camera."

Robert K Baggs's picture

I knew I ought to have put my disclaimer in bold.

dale clark's picture

Very True. People are just being nice. Funny, Musicians buy in droves "special editions" of Guitars, etc for big $$$$. I'm surprised we have not seen an "Ansel Adams Leica M Monochrome edition"

Chris Ingram's picture

The musician comparison isn't apples:apples. As a musician, I can attest that every instrument is unique, because of the materials used. For many signature models there is a higher level of scrutiny in the timbers selected, plus there are often very specific electronics designs which do impact the sound being produced significantly. I've had instances where three "identical" instruments sound and play quite differently.

While there is some variation from sensor to sensor, and chips can be calibrated, there's probably not a lot that can't be controlled in post. And with film cameras, I imagine there would be even less variance. Yes, lenses do vary from copy to copy. But still, I don't know that you'd ever have cause for a Photographer X Edition. That would 100% be a marketing ploy for noobs.

Stephen Kampff's picture

"like a Canon sponsored camel" - brilliant line, I'm stealing this!

Don't read too much into it.

If you race cars, the first question people will ask is "What car do you drive".
If you're a lawyers/doctor/engineer people assume you're smart (big mistake).

It's just that non-hobbyist/pro don't know enough about photography to relate and share with you other than camera brands and lens specs.

They are (most of the time) just trying to find common ground to have a conversation.

I tell people yeah, I do. I worked my way up since I got my first one when I was in 4th grade. Or you can tell tell them 'Yeah, I wish I had it with me when I took that shot' ...

Just felt like posting a semi-boring fact that is slightly relevant to this story. It's about the phrase 'a bad workman blames his tools'. The source for this comes from hundreds of years ago when craftsmen were required to actually make their own equipment, so if the tools were rubbish, then that meant the craftsman himself was no good.

I'm not a professional photographer, but my love for photography has justified my equipment costs. I take my camera almost everywhere I go, like a tethered best friend. Often a person will ask, "Are you a professional photographer?" I will respond, "Nope, just a hobbyist in debt." They almost seem disappointed.

The first month I owned it, I took incredibly shitty photos with an $8k lens, all the while people complimented me on my "nice camera".

Paolo Veglio's picture

LOL I found myself fitting perfectly in the first two stories.
It is to consider though, that people associate "big" cameras with professionals, and pros (hopefully) take good pictures, so maybe their intentions are pure sometimes, maybe they'd only need a little bit of rewording :P

An episode just happened to me yesterday: I spent the day shooting turkey vultures (and other flying stuff) and at least a couple of people asked me if I was a pro only because of the size of my lens. I giggled thinking to what they would think if someone showed up with a Nikon 800mm instead of my poor Tamron 150-600mm

Jason Brietstein's picture

Wow! You must have a good understanding of how to use and shape light - is what I always say.

Sometimes people do not realize what they are actually saying. The reality of what they are saying is insulting, kinda like telling a painter, you must have great brushes. A chef, you must have great pots or even a handy man, you must have a great hammer. These people that make these assumptions live by these standards and don't know better. Which is very sad. Of course these professionals have great equipment and tools. That's why they do this for a living.

dale clark's picture

I was doing a Residential shoot once and the agent (a top agent in the area) asked "where does one get a magic camera like the one you are using" (It was a 5dii). I replied, "I believe they sell them at the same place you get magic Real Estate signs"

:)

Barry Chapman's picture

Yes, my camera is great - I taught it everything it knows.

Most cameras know nothing at all! :)

I enjoyed this text very much. You must have a very good editing programme.

You must have a REALLY GOOD computer to write such astute articles! How true. I usually tell people that in similar vane, Michael Angelo must have had some really good brushes!

At the other end of the spectrum, I had people come up to me in Yosemite last week as I was setting up my "really nice camera" to photograph El Capitan and ask me to take their photo with their cell phone. One guy actually gave me a gold dollar coin. So, I guess you could say I'm now a professional. LOL Tripod = Pro.

See... stuff like that doesn't bother me. I know perfectly well that all of my good shots are only a matter of good fortune. Take 100 pictures, one will turn out ok. So yeah. I've got a great (digital) camera.

David Butterell's picture

If I have it with me I usually pass them my camera (Fuji) and say yes here it is take a picture. The look of confusion is worth their compliment.