Is a Camera a Tool You Use or an Instrument You Play?

We’re constantly being told that photography should not be about the gear but instead should be all about the image. It doesn’t matter what gear you use, a great photographer will create an amazing image no matter what camera she uses to expose the scene and capture it on sensor or film.

The kind of gear that was available to some of the greats of yesteryear was, after all, far inferior in terms of light gathering capacity, ease of use, choice of lenses or post processing capabilities yet still images were captured that have stood the test of time. Whether they are the revealing portraits of Jane Bown, the street photographs of Cartier-Bresson, the conflict images of Don McCullin or the fashion photographs of Richard Avedon all had a distinctive style that was instantly recognisable and transcended totally whatever camera it was they used.

I suspect that all of these photography greats would have created their memorable images regardless of what camera they used. In fact you could even say they created their images despite their cameras not because of them. For them the camera was just a tool. Indeed Don McCullin famously said “I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush. It does the job.”.

So why is it that despite the huge photographic library of images we have in the world, many of which were made with relatively primitive cameras, we still as photographers lust after ever more complicated (and expensive) cameras? Is it because we suffer from what Marx called “commodity fetishism” or is there something more subtle at play here? I believe there is.

Of all the cameras that have been developed over (almost) the last 200 years there is probably none that have reached such a mythical cult status as that of the Leica, the first of which was made in 1925. Even Henri Cartier-Bresson, who probably did more than anyone to propagate the Leica’s cult status and could probably have created his images using a humble Box Brownie, said:

“I have never abandoned the Leica, anything different that I have tried has always brought me back to it. I am not saying this is the case for others. But as far as I am concerned it is the camera. It literally constitutes the optical extension of my eye.”

The last sentence is key I believe, it was an “extension” of his eye and here is the nub of the issue. A good camera is not just a simple tool to be picked up and discarded on a whim but is an extension of our very self. Without overstating things too much I do believe that when you find ‘the one’ it truly does bind with you in such a way that it not only becomes a part of you but also allows you to reach into areas you would not normally do. Why is this? Here’s my take.

Whilst Don McCullin is without doubt one of the all time greats when it comes to recording images of conflict, famine and and mans general inhumanity to himself I do believe he is wrong when he characterises cameras as just “tools”. I would say that a camera is more akin to an instrument. Ask any great musician whether it be Jimmy Page and his 1959 Gibson Les Paul or Chloë Elise Hanslip and her 1737 Guarneri del Gesu violin

If you need further proof of how man and his instrument can reach perfect harmony and produce great art then you could do worse than watch this 24 minutes of sheer pleasure.

To be clear, this is not just about quality. Whilst a more expensive camera/lens combination will undoubtedly take better quality images than a cheaper one (at least at a given point in history and with all other factors such as lighting, exposure, white balance etc being equal) for most cases this is not what really matters. I think what matters is the connection between the photographer and subject through the camera. If a camera becomes a joy to use and essentially just gets out of the way because it has become an extension of the photographers eye then she can focus (sic) on what really matters. That is empathising with the subject and getting the composition and lighting right.

Just like a great musician melds with their instrument to create timeless and unforgettable music then so can a photographer bond with their camera to make images which stand the test of time and become unforgettable art.

As I write this both of the camera companies whose gear I use have announced upgrades to their “enthusiast” (i.e. mid-range) models, the Fujifilm X-Pro3 and Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mk III (the latter of which started me out on my current photographic journey over six years ago). Whilst it is going to be hugely tempting to look at these camera specs and maybe even buy one I know they will have to be really special to pull me away from what I currently use. Bonding with a camera is something that takes time and continuously upgrading and having to get used to new button layouts or menu choices often detracts from the core process of making images. For now I’m happy to continue with what I have and concentrate on ‘playing’ my camera like Jimi Hendrix played his Fender Stratocaster.

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