Is it the camera or the photographer .. or both?

by Allen Rockwell

"It's the photographer that takes the picture, not the camera"

This is a very popular saying, and a lot of people agree with it ..... but I'm going to play devil's advocate and take the opposite opinion tonight.

Some people take the saying one step further and say that you can hand a cheap camera to a good photographer and he or she will come back with beautiful shots ... but you cannot hand an amateur $10,000 of camera equipment and expect the same results. There is certainly some logic to that statement but I don't agree 100% with it.

Yes, it's true that the photographer is the one that sees the image before him or her and recognizes it's artistic value and decides to take the photo, how to compose it, what angle to shoot at, etc. ... but I think the camera and all it's accessories do make a huge difference.

I've been a photography hobbyist since my childhood ... but when I got very serious about digital photography many years ago I decided to look at my budget and get the best equipment that I could afford and work with it and develop my skills until I was making the most of the equipment. I think this approach has worked well for me .. it's made me more serious about my photography and made me more eager to learn and get the most out of my equipment. I'm not sure I'd be where I am today in my photography education if I'd bought a point-and-shoot camera instead of the fairly high-end (at the time, for my budget) Olympus DSLR. Since then I switched to Canon cameras and every upgrade brings me better and better images. Sure, I'm learning more and becoming a better photographer, but with every upgrade in hardware (especially quality glass) I'm seeing big improvements in image quality.

A lot of this argument also has to do with the type of photos you take. If you want to take sports photos you need a good quality DSLR that can take at least 5 frames per second and keep that rate up for a while and you need some really good long glass. A nature photographer on a hike in the local nature preserve will probably come back with some great photos even if he or she uses a pocket sized point-and-shoot, but take a look at the sidelines of the next football game or car race you watch and you'll see a whole bunch of high-dollar, long white lenses.

So ... is it the photographer or the camera that takes the picture? I think both.


Until next time,

Keep shooting.

Allen Rockwell
Allen Rockwell Photography


Romain Guy
2007-02-10 21:01:08
I am glad to read this. I definitely agree with you. The photographer does a lot of the work but a good equipment helps a lot. And there are shots that you simply couldn't take without the appropriate equipment.
2007-02-10 21:53:43
I personally agree with the quote at the begining of this artical.
2007-02-10 22:35:40
My forte is aviation photos, I have strived to be the best photographer I can be. I started out with a Canon 10d, then Canon 30D, and now the 1D MkiiN. Does having the $4000 1D make me a better photographer than the used Canon 10D I bought for $600.... no. Since most of the subjects I shoot are "fast movers", I benefit from some of the technical advantages of the 1D... mostly being the 8.5fps shutter speed which "helps" me capture that magical moment. Looking back on some of my photos from my 10D, I see a few that I don't think I can ever capture again.... why? Well, you might have that $8000 Canon 1DS Mkii or the Nikon D2X and $10,000 worth of lens, but your friend might take better pictures with his Nikon D40! Not because of his photoshop skills, he dosn't even own photoshop... but he had the right composition and the right light to make that perfect shot. I think some of my best photos, regardless of what camera or editing software I used was because of finding that magical composition and perfect lighting. Now the 1D might allow me to print a bigger picture than the 10D, but that's about... infact, one of my better shots of an airliner was taken with a dinky little P&S Kodak camera and once again it came down to composition and lighting. I believe it takes some skill or alot of luck from the photographer despite the camera and software to make that perfect picture.
Jan Steinman
2007-02-10 22:35:55
Too bad you dumped Olympus. Their 4/3rds system long lenses weigh a lot less than the Canon ones, and are shorter for the same field of view.
Allen Rockwell
2007-02-10 23:08:58
I'm glad this post is already getting a little action. I like seeing the different opinions of the readers.

My old Olympus did not have changable lenses (this was some time ago), there were (I think) two lenses I could buy that went on the end of the existing lens and that was it. I moved to Canon for the wide range of optional lenses.

Paul Carter
2007-02-10 23:12:43
It reminds me of the old saying..."Guns don't kill people - People do". Camera equipment is a major part of taking great photographs. If I take a Point & Shoot to the airport; I'm going to get lots of tiny airplanes and lots of sky and airport. Very few would appreciate that. With a Canon camera and the quality glass Allen is refering to, I can get a great picture of the airplane I am shooting. You need to know how to follow the action to get those great shots. The camera works for you if you use it correctly. You have to know how to use the equipment in order to get the shot. But YOU have to see the shot and take it. The equipment is only as good as it's user...
2007-02-10 23:48:18
As recently upgrading my equipment, I definitely agree with the equipment side of the photographer/equipment argument. Just comparing my sports photographs between the series taken with a box lens to that with a telephoto and you can tell the difference. My shots have become progressively better, but even more so with my equipment upgrade.

I don't, however, think you can separate the photographer from his equipment. Photography, for me, is about learning and improving. In that sense, a new lens might have just as a profound effect on the actual shot as a new understanding of an aspect of photography.

2007-02-11 01:41:11
I'll a point.

I used a digital point-and-shoot for many years until finally buying a DSLR last year. Yes, the image quality skyrocketed, and it truly is like a new world has opened up to me...but I spent all the years before that learning so much about composition, and making the most of what I had. (I tend to think of the point-and-shoot time like writing a poem; how do you do one well given the constraints of the genre?) Being able to receive instant feedback on a photo and having the opportunity to retake was (still is) priceless, and for those of us who don't have a lot of cash on hand, a high end point-and-shoot can go a long way to teaching you the fundamentals -- if you wish to learn!

This reminds me of a friend who made a pinhole camera to take photos at a wedding -- again, it's about being creative first, I think. I'm glad I didn't "geek out" on cameras first, which is opposite of my nature :)

2007-02-11 02:31:17
I think it is a combination but I lean more toward your opening quote. I am a member of several photography forums. I am amazed at the quality of photos certain folks take with the very same equipment that I have. I am a decent hobbyist but I know that no matter what lens is on my camera, I am simply not going to get some of the shots the pros (and truly talented amateurs) get with the same equipment.

You are correct that certain photography calls for certain equipment. But give those bird/sports pros a point and shoot, and I bet they would come home with some amazing bird/sports shots.

You do not mention post-processing in your "equipment" definition, but I think those pros with high level post-processing skills can set themselves apart from the pro without such skills and "equipment."

2007-02-11 03:53:46
Have you seen the Aperture profile on John Stanemeyer? - He is using a $16 Holga for his story on Bali. $16 camera, coupled with Aperture and a MacPro and twin 30" displays sounds like a pretty nice setup to me! :)

The camera is just a tool. You pick the right tool for the job. The funny hting about photography is that the right tool for the job is pretty dependant on the opinion of what the photographer thinks the job is.

2007-02-11 04:01:38
Allen, you provocateur, you.

The answer is: It's the photographer. Yes, of course someone can take better pictures with a $2,000 DSLR than they can with a $3 disposable purchased at the register at CVS. So what? The question is if you give that same $3 camera to two people (or, for that matter, the same $2,000 DSLR) to two different people, will one consistently take better pictures than the other?

The answer is yes. Because the better photographer will do better with ANY equipment than someone who doesn't have the "eye" or basic photographic knowledge.

I know this to be true because of photo workshops I've taken. You have a bunch of pretty savvy photographers, most of whom have very similar equipment, all in the same settings, and low and behold: Some people consistently take more creative, better composed, technically superior shots. This is true of me and the co-host of the podcast we produce - we've often gone out shooting together and he gets better shots 90% of the time.

So, the correct answer is: It's the photographer.

Tobias Tullius
2007-02-11 04:49:12
I think you are right.

I tried it often with compact camera to get great images. It is way harder. I love to change aperture or shutter to get effects. This isn't this easy with a Point and shoot.

Also the quality is great with my DSLR no grain, no artefacts. I often experienced that this is different.

But as always. You have to know how to use your camera. If you have a great DSLR and stay shooting in the auto mode you will never get good.

2007-02-11 05:37:51
Let me quality my comments as a person that takes pictures of his kids and family and sometimes even of his pets. I am not an expert. I have read a couple books which has improved the end results of my pictures drastically!

Yes, of course better equipment will take better pictures. I agree too that the equipment you use is probably dictated by the types of shots you are taking. A cheap setup will not work at all at a fast-paced sports event.

That being said, there is a point where the return on the investment might not be noticed by the end user. A good photographer could probably make decent money taking pictures at events, taking portraits, etc. with a Digital Rebel and the lens that comes with it (ok, you might need one more lens and some lighting). Your end user would probably never see the difference between your $800 pictures and your $10,000 pictures.

As I mentioned, just reading a book or two will dramatically improve a novice's ability to take a good picture. I think there is a point (probably the $800 - $1,000 mark) where the photographer is MUCH more important than the equipment.

A $200 camera will not take a picture that I would consider worth framing, though.

Brian Auer
2007-02-11 06:52:17
It's definitely both. I've been going through the same transformation of upgrading cameras and equipment, and I've noticed big differences in my work. The better equipment allows the photographer greater flexibility, thus expanding the potential to do better work. Anybody that has photographed with a P&S and a dSLR will know that there are things you just can't accomplish with a P&S.
Allen Rockwell
2007-02-11 10:24:15
What a great bunch of responses and varied opinions. This is what I love to see, my blog posts are not meant to be a one-way dialog... I love the feedback. Thanks to every one of you. Keep them coming.
Roger Cuthbert
2007-02-11 10:58:01
The camera is only a light tight box. The quality depends on the bottle. The picture is taken by the eye...
billy hackett
2007-02-11 11:02:37
I believe that that the person holding the camera is responsible for what is shot. Paying attention to your surroundings and the details gets you the shot. There would be no shot w/o a camera so I cede to your opinion Allan.
2007-02-11 11:02:50
Photographer is an artist. it has to be learned and the is some gift. Years ago, there was a chimpanzee who became momentarily famous for his oil painting. Was a he a great artist? come on!
Every amature photographer who shoots enough pictures will eventually take a really good one. Wuld this best picture make geographic? probably not. That morning editor looked at 850 "great shots" to pick the one they "needed" One of the masters of photography Minor White, used to do workshops, and students were always dismayed when on the first day of class, he issued locker keys, and told them to put away the Nikons and Hasselblads they had brought. he then issued Polaroids loaded with a single sheet of film, and said come into class with the picture you took today and we will critique them! Those students learned a lot that first day about "PRE-VISUALIZING" a picture.
2007-02-11 11:08:34
Ps. They kept buying the Chimp better oil brushes as he got better, and then framing larger canvas, because it seemed to suit his "STYLE"
Ruby (mom)
2007-02-11 11:26:12
I have always known that you "have the gift". That is that you have an eye for your great photos. Even with your "point & shoot" photos, they were always interesting. But since you have gotten bigger and better equipment, I see many more great things in your photos. I believe you have to have the eye first, then the equipment to inhance & exploit your talent.
Erik J. Barzeski
2007-02-11 11:34:58
Tiger Woods would still kick my butt at golf even if he had to use a set of $199 generic golf clubs.

As with any "trade" (I use the term very loosely), the camera is simply a tool of the trade. As one's skill in any trade advances, we become more and more particular about our tools and demand more and more of our tools. A camera's "adequacy" is closely related to the skill level of the craftsman, while the skill level of the craftsman is often closely related to the time spent doing the craft.

The camera is just a tool.

P.S. An unrelated thought, but something I thought of in reading this: I would rather over-spend a little to get a camera that's "better than me" simply because a "better" piece of equipment gives me room to grow. I would rather spend more now than hit my head on the ceiling an inexpensive camera's features offer and be forced in six months to buy again. In other words, I want all the limitations visible in any pictures I take to be my own, not my camera's.

A.J. Smith
2007-02-11 11:48:17
No quantity or quality of equipment can make up for one's lack of talent. However, the ability to express one's talent to the fullest potential may be constrained by the tools available. Ideally, the full capacity of one's tools should always stay ahead of one's developing talent, lest it retard that development by limiting the realm of the possible.
Allen Rockwell
2007-02-11 11:57:11
I agree 100% with your "P.S." ... I too like to get equipment that is better than me, I feel that it allows (or forces) me to grow as a photographer. While it's true that photography is an art I think we cannot deny that as technology advances it is also becoming more and more a technical craft as well as an art.

I like your Tiger Woods anology ... but take a little further and imagine Marco Andretti in a 5-10 year old Indy car racing against this year's models ... the old saying "the right tool for the job" comes to mind ;)

Keep the comments coming ... maybe we can set a record for repsonses to an Inside Aperture blog post.

John Jennings
2007-02-11 13:10:51
Allen I'm sure you are correct that better equipment makes for better results. I have owned a 35mm Canon AE1 for years and never was very excited about photography. Once I purchased the Digital Rebel everything changed. The cameras results being displayed immediately helped, but what really excites me is using post production software. Now I see my work as moving towards that which the professional gets with the expensive equipment. Without the software, well my Rebel wouldn't be much more exciting than the AE1.
2007-02-11 15:24:17
Until you define "better pictures" it doesn't matter which it is, the camera or the photographer.
Personally, pictures are neither better or worse, those are value judgements humans apply. So in that case, neither the photographer nor the camera matter. This is being really obtuse, but I thought that was part of playing devils-advocate.
There is no way that you can attach any intention to whether or not a particular image is better or worse. If it was possible to guarantee the creation of a "good" picture everyone would do it. This is part of the attractiveness of photography, is that it continually exceeds our ability to understand it. Once we "understand" what makes a good picture, then photography becomes exceedingly boring.
My opinion is that since the camera fixes the image on the media, the camera "makes" the picture. The photographer can control what is in front of the camera to a certain extent, but this control is mostly illusory, and that "good" pictures arise despite whatever control people exert.
I think the point is that the making of "good" pictures is not the point of photography, and therefore, neither the camera nor the photographer matter. The art arises in the space between intention, execution, curiosity and materials.
Alan Hutchison
2007-02-11 15:44:59
And also a very good reason why we all try to own the best camera we can afford (or justify) as the case may be.

It is the photographer that takes the picture and who's skill is ultimately what is required - but don't forget, it's the camera that captures it! So I agree - it's both.

Alan Hutchison
2007-02-11 15:48:15
Oh and another thing - don't forget the processing side of things, via Aperture or Photoshop or both - that can turn a nice image into a GREAT image. Is that the software or the person manipulating it?
2007-02-11 16:55:06
I don't think any of this stuff is cut and dried.

If I showed you a photograph and you said you liked it, then I told you I shot it with a 5D on Automatic and printed it just as it came out of the camera, would you like it less?

In other words, does knowledge of the process and especially the photographer's experience bias our feelings about the finished photograph?

I think embedded in the experience-equipment question is this other question about rigorous process.

Then there's the "am I worthy of such equipment" issue which comes from this. Gad.

Finally, who the heck is to say what a great photograph is? One that most people agree is a great photograph? That would leave out most of the photographs taken by folks who pushed the boundaries in the old days and were scorned and now are looked at as pioneers.

2007-02-12 10:58:10
This question comes up in other areas as well, and in general the answer is 'both'. It is true that a good photographer can take a point-and-shoot and produce beautiful pictures - but she will also tell you about all the beautiful pictures she couldn't take because of the limitations of the P&S.

Quality (expensive) equipment is no substitute for skill - that much is correct. But equipment is an intrinsic part of photography, and in that role its quality determines the limits to which one can apply one's skills.

Adam Z
2007-02-13 05:21:56
You know what would be great... If some people read the article before commenting on it. Some people seem to be having a different argument that what is said here... which all seems fine to me.
2007-02-13 12:27:35
Good points, but it's not black and white, or as Allen says near the beginning, the saying doesn't go 100%.

A great photographer can take fantastic shots with a P&S, or a leaky Lomo, within the limitations of that kind of equipment. A poor photographer will not become a great photographer by virtue of top-notch equipment alone. However, better equipment will make a good/great photographer take better images, so there's a place in the bad-photog/good-photog curve where equipment can change the steepness of the end result quality curve.

It's just like golf. A beginner cannot become great by virtue of better equipment alone. It was said that Lee Trevino could sink a long put using the bottom of a coke bottle. But for those of us somewhere in the middle, on the "improving" side of the game, better equipment will help our game tremendously.

The only real difference in the analogy is that there is no photoshop master equivalent that can improve your golf game.

Candi Bates
2007-05-07 12:19:10
Its all the Photographer cuz the camera can't work without a person holding it. I mean no matter how good the camera is it is just going to sit still if a photographer doesn't do something with it. What kind of debate is this any ways?
Allen Rockwell
2007-05-07 12:42:19
Candi wrote
"What kind of debate is this any ways?"

Well, I think it's a fun and popular debate ... it really gets you thinking about what makes a good photo and it gets people invloved in the discussion that have varied opinions and encourages the exchange of ideas and opinions (kinda the point of this blog really).

Any more questions Candi?

2007-05-27 02:11:29
There are people with talent and people who rattle off their camera specs. I'm sick and tired of seeing people with tens of thousands of dollars of equipment taking pictures of nothing but sunsets, cats, and leaves. It's true, the photographer really does take the picture, and like it or not, the kid with the twenty dollar holga can probably take a better and far more interesting picture than the mid life crisis "i'm a photographer now" man with the hasselblad. But hey, I'm an art student, I'm bound to be biased.