Thursday, October 28, 2010

A camera is just a tool, right?

Good light and composition are not dependent on gear.

I get it all the time. I'm out working, and inevitably someone will take a look at my gear and say "I bet that camera takes good pictures."

Well, no, I counter. A photographer takes good pictures. The camera is just a tool. I tell that to anyone who enquires about taking better photographs. I preach it to my students when I teach classes. A photographer understands how to use light and thoughtfully compose an image. A photographer chooses when to press the button and capture a particular moment in time. Owning a nice camera does not make you a photographer.

I might have to eat some of those words.

You can build a house with a hammer and a saw, but you can build one a whole lot more efficiently with some power tools.

For the past couple of weeks, I feel like I've been working with a hammer.

My trusty Nikon D300 wigged out on me. The mirror locked up and the camera essentially became non-functioning. It was my only working body, too, my other one being an old D2Hs with a fried image sensor functioning only as a lens holder. (Useless, unless images with a sickly hot-pink magenta cast are the look you're going for) To simply do my job, I've had to borrow a camera from the Connect Statesboro staff. I'm grateful to them, but it's been an exercise in frustration.

The camera I borrowed is a Nikon D40x, which was the entry-level digital SLR in Nikon's lineup (since replaced by the snazzier D3100). To be sure, it's cable of making fine images within its limitations. But make no mistake: it has its limitations.

Many folks appreciate lightness in a camera body. It's sure a lot easier on my shoulders and neck. But a little heft has its advantages. A heavier body acts as a counterweight against heavier professional-level lenses. The D40 looks and feels downright silly with a 70-200 mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom lens mounted on it. Plus, the camera is made of flimsy plastic. Camera equipment tends to get knocked about in the course of covering news assignments. The build does not inspire confidence.

Like I said, this camera is capable of making good images. I shot a fairly bang-up portrait for the cover of one our monthly publications. Light and composition are two of the three most important elements of good photography. That part never changes, regardless of your gear. The third – timing – is where I consistently have experienced frustration. And, in photojournalism, I can't think of anything more important than timing.

Missed a funny moment while D40 searched for focus

I'm accustomed to a camera responding instantly. I shoot a frame, and the D300 was instantly ready to shoot another. If I needed to shoot a burst of frames, I've had up to 30 or so frames available, at 8 frames per second, no less. Not so with the D40. Sometimes, there is a lag when I press the shutter release. Sometimes I have to wait before I can shoot again. Nikon claims "instant response time" and "3 frames per second burst rate," but I beg to differ.

Plenty of light? No problem. Typical human movement? Sufficient. But news photography frequently requires shooting action in low light. Thank goodness all of our local high school and college football teams were playing out-of-town games last weekend. Still, I was cursing as the D40 struggled to make in-focus, properly exposed images at a Halloween haunted house.

So, if you ever wondered what you get when you spend megabucks on a digital camera, this is what differentiates a model with pro features from an entry-level camera:

  • Durable build. When you drop big bucks on a camera, you should expect something that can take a reasonable beating. The camera body itself will outlast the electronics that make it function. (e.g. my D2Hs) Higher end models come with a degree of weather sealing, too, to keep moisture and dust from invading the electronics inside your camera. Not water-proof, mind you. I wouldn't suggest shooting with any sophisticated electronic cameras in a driving rainstorm. But a gentle sprinkle shouldn't make your gear lock up.

  • Processing power. A digital camera is essentially a mini-computer, and you can expect the same difference in performance that you would between a $500 computer and a $5,000 computer. Every camera function is dependent on processing power, from responsiveness, to autofocus speed, to image processing, etc. An entry-level DSLR is just fine for most folks. But when you need to make a couple thousand images in one day ( and sometimes I do), you need something more robust.

Those are the main things, but some other niceties come with a bigger price tag. Ergonomics and convenience, for example. Instead of having to scroll through endless menus to change certain settings, pro models have lots of buttons and dials right at your fingertips to quickly make adjustments. You get what you pay for.

Perhaps I needed to spend more time with the D40x to squeeze the most out of its potential. It's the kind of camera that would suffice more many, or most, photography enthusiasts. In fact, it would be a great used purchase for those looking to step up from a point-and-shoot. It's not a power tool, however. (Well, maybe one of those off-brand power tools you can buy at discount stores.)

My equipment breakdown has expedited the approval by our corporate folks for a new D300s camera body, which should arrive in the next day or so. Just in the nick of time, because there are football games Friday and Saturday with playoff implications. Having two camera bodies is not a luxury for a photojournalist, either. Backup is not the only consideration. I lament the countless pictures I have lost because I was switching lenses. To that end, I should get my trusty D300 back from the repair shop fairly soon, too.

I can't wait, because it sure takes good pictures.


  1. i would very much like to print this post and copy it for distribution when i am out working and get the 'wow-that's-a-nice-camera-and-i-bet-it-takes-good-pictures' comment.

    nicely explained.

  2. Share away, and preach it from the highest mountain!

    If we photogs had a nickle for each time we heard that comment ...


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