I was hanging out (at a distance) with my friends at the beach last weekend and one of their friends (at a distance) was asking me about cameras. I currently had one of my own dangling about 150 feet above our heads from a kite taking pictures. Presumably this advertises to the general public that I know something about cameras. I don’t. I took a high school photography class with my Dad’s 70’s-era Fuji 35mm and I recently bought an underwater camera mostly just to make my friends jealous on Instagram. That is my experience with cameras.
Anyway, this person was like, should I get a DSLR? And I’m like, I don’t have the qualifications to give you any technical advice but my unsolicited opinion on this matter, based solely upon my aesthetic preferences and classist prejudices, is that most people who want to “get into photography” feel they need to validate their hobby by having a big, clunky, expensive camera with a protruding lens to let other people know they’re “real photographers” and that they have made it to the “next level,” as if painters upgraded their paint brushes every time they cleared an artistic hurdle.
I can’t stand these people.
I get it. Photography is a modern folk art with a rock bottom barrier to entry. Everyone has taken a picture. Most people have taken at least one shot that they kind of like and most people get a sense of pleasure from showing the world something about their experience. But that’s not enough for people who want to be recognized for being truly special at something that everyone else does. So they drop a grand and a half on a camera that will help them capture high resolution garbage because they think their technology will save them from their inexperience and generally awful taste. But as a general rule I’ve noticed, turning heads with your photos is only a rare side effect of the real reason you buy a DSLR, which is of course being able to attract attention for being the kind of person who is “pretty into photography these days.”
DSLR just means Digital Single Lens Reflex. In other words, it’s the digital version of the Single Lens Reflex that was patented in 1861. It’s a family of cameras that uses mirrors to ensure that the image captured by the film is exactly the same as the image seen through the viewfinder, which can otherwise look a bit different on many film cameras. Of course, many digital cameras don’t even have a viewfinder anymore, but I digress. SLRs were huge in the 1960s in part because they were very sophisticated and good cameras in their day and they developed something of a reputation. In the ensuing decades, engineers have refined the optics with space-age coatings to reduce glare and created some of the finest precision manufacturing equipment that exists today. There are attachments for specialty lenses and filters, and the digital sensors are more sensitive than anything that could be done on small format film. The technology inside these cameras is truly incredible.
The look of the camera exterior, however, has barely changed. A long barrel and boxy body is the calling card of the modern photographic professional. It exudes learning, artistic expression and, perhaps more importantly, having loads of expendable income.
A lot of folks don’t realize that over a century ago, Abercrombie and Fitch was a high end outdoor outfitter. It supplied adventurous VIPs like Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh with everything from canoes and hunting rifles to golf clubs and hiking boots, and it had earned for itself a rugged, manly reputation. Once the brand became associated with a desirable trait that wealthy men aspired to, the image of that trait became a more valuable product than the goods for sale and the product line started to pivot away from the qualities that made it popular among the hardcore early adopters and towards consumers with less exacting needs but deeper pockets. This is marketing 101 and it’s why Eddie Bauer, Patagonia, Carhart, and The North Face have to varying degrees pivoted from outdoor gear to more expensive outerwear for people who don’t go camping but really like the idea of being the kind of person who does. This phenomenon is why most of us have completely forgotten that Ford F-150s were once driven by people who did manual labor. Ideas are vastly more profitable to manufacture than material goods and camera manufacturers have uncovered a gold mine.
The acronym ”DSLR” itself has become something of a trans-corporate brand for those cameras, regardless of make or model, that are purchased by wealthy people who don’t know enough about cameras to know what they want but know they want to look like people who actually know what they’re doing. They typically pay over a thousand dollars for the privilege.
This is why most DSLRs spotted at the average European tourist trap are not about capturing images so much as projecting one. They are a modern luxury fashion accessory designed to separate the tasteful and the affluent from the casual. Like a moleskin or a Macbook Pro.
But they won’t make you take better pictures.
In 2015, the movie Tangerine was released. It’s probably the most memorable film I’ve seen in the past ten years. There were no sweeping vista shots like Lawrence of Arabia nor shaky found footage like Cloverfield. It was just a great story that was well told and enhanced by a thoughtful visual style that complemented the setting, the frenetic pace, and the gritty atmosphere. It looked like a movie and yet it was filmed entirely with iPhones. You’d never know because phone cameras are good. There hasn’t been a “bad” phone camera in about ten years and they’re perfectly acceptable for the vast majority of what people want to do with them.
Dorothea Lange was cranking out gold with a camera built in the 1920s and they’re still better than the ones you take on your Samsung Galaxy despite it being objectively a better camera than the most sophisticated equipment available outside the CIA twenty years ago. Maybe the reason your picture of a door frame on your vacation to Istanbul looks boring is because it’s a boring picture with bad framing that you were hoping would look better in post after you de-saturated it and boosted contrast. You could get that look two ways: with 600 bucks in hardware or an Instagram filter and your audience probably won’t be able to tell the difference or care because they’re still just vacation photos. Those ISO settings that you haven’t adjusted and don’t understand will not help your composition of yet another reflection in the windows of a skyscraper. A new camera can not make the Golden Gate Bridge any longer, taller, oranger, or more enshrouded in fog.
Meanwhile people sit on cameras in their back pockets that could have been major components of the Hubble telescope and we still think that the limits to true photographic greatness is a lack of appropriate equipment. Nan Goldin could fill galleries using nothing but a 2012 Motorola with a cracked screen.
If you work at Nat Geo, on the other hand, you need a rugged and portable camera, a few different lenses, a tripod, a bag for extra batteries, and probably a guide who speaks Kurdish. There are 3D cameras and fish eyes and underwater cameras and some require elaborate lighting schemes; these are all special considerations for special projects. The upper limits of performance are only achieved on the steep slopes of an exponential price curve. Outside of these specialized edge cases, expecting that a nice camera will make you a better photographer is like thinking you’re going to outperform Chopin because you have a grand piano and he’s dancing on the roll-up keyboard from Big. Putting yourself behind world class equipment without the talent to back it up will just record your shortcomings in higher definition and with more detailed meta-data on your RAW files. Some of the best photography I’ve seen was taken with modest gear by people who simply knew their shit, took risks, had a relationship with their subjects, took an ever loving fuckton of photos, and occasionally got very lucky.
I went to a lecture last year about underwater photography. The speaker pulled out a GoPro and everyone laughed. And he said, “No, fuck you. The best camera is the best camera for the job. The camera that you have on hand with a red blinking light ready to take pictures is better than a ‘nicer’ camera that you can’t get out and set up in time to capture a few frames of whatever is swimming by.”
And you know what? On land, that’s your phone. You can whip it out and take five pictures in the time it takes you to unzip your camera bag and take off your lens cap. There are jobs for GoPros and jobs for DSLRs and if you’re not Annie Leibowitz it probably doesn’t matter too much.
A “good” camera just needs to have the features you want. Play with your phone camera until you figure out what it can’t do. Find the limitations of your existing equipment. Is it manual focus? Ultra high res? Zoom? Multiple shots? Timer? Time lapse? What do you actually want to take pictures of? What do you need? And then get that. And then take tons of pictures with it. Get frustrated. Get bored. Get inspired again. Read the manual. Take a class. Invest the time. Fortunately, there are still some hurdles left on Earth that cannot be vaulted with money alone. The rest is on you.