Do You Need A New Camera?

An early image from my D800.

The reflexive answer is “Yes, of course”. Most of us lust for new equipment. But think about it a bit. What about your camera is holding you back? How will having a new camera make you a better and more creative photographer?

Resolution

Resolution is one of the technical parameters of cameras that increases over time. It is an easy thing to measure and use as a figure of merit for comparing cameras. Is it a good measure?

Well, yes, more is better, some of the time. It depends on your needs. Will you be making and selling prints that are 48″ or larger? You probably need a lot of resolution. But even then, it depends on what you shoot. If your subjects are highly detailed and you want your viewers to be able to come up nose-length to the print and see every bit of the fine detail, well, it comes with a cost. You want all the resolution you can get. And more.

Be aware there is a cost. Not just the price of the camera. File sizes get huge. After I’ve taken an image into Photoshop for editing I sometimes end up with files that are more than 4GBytes in size. Everything has to scale up with this: the computer memory, all my disk sizes, including backups, memory card size and cost, and my speed of working slows down.

So far it is worth it to me, but there will be a limit.

Speed

One of the other metrics people use to justify a new camera is image capture speed. If your current camera can “only” take 5 frames a second wouldn’t it be a lot better to have one that takes 10 frames a second?

Maybe. It depends on what you do. I no longer shoot sports so this has become insignificant to me. Occasionally I need to take a burst of a few frames to try to capture a certain moment. It is becoming more and more rare, though. I usually challenge myself to use my instincts developed over the years to know how to recognize and capture the “decisive moment” instead of blasting through a group of 20 frames hoping the one I want is in there somewhere. It usually works well for me and I feel like a better craftsman.

Again, your mileage will vary. It depends on the real needs you have. Don’t just optimizing specs.

Dynamic range

Dynamic range is one that can draw me. This is the range of dark to light values the sensor can reliably record.

I often have very wide exposure ranges in my images. It is much better for me to be able to capture the entire range in one frame instead of relying on putting together an HDR set. This is because many of my pictures are strongly oriented to motion. That makes each frame unique. It is almost impossible to stack them for HDR.

But are you really at a disadvantage with what you have today? I shoot Nikon, so that is all I can talk about. Full frame Nikons since at least the D800 (about 2012?) have excellent dynamic range. So if you have a high end camera that is not more than about 10 years old it probably does a very good job. Note, the image with this blog is one of my earliest pictures shot on my D800. Great camera.

Are you really being held back?

I suggest you give it careful consideration before laying out a lot of money on a new camera. Unless you just have thousands sitting around that you want to get rid of. If so, congratulations. Check out my prints. 🙂

Instead of “do I need a new camera” maybe a better question for yourself is “how do I make better images?” This is much more difficult and important. And it is something you can do without spending much money.

Ansel Adams once said “The single most important component to a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” Meaning, of course, that the photographer, the artist,, determines the quality of the image. Do you have the skills to get the best from the equipment you have now? Do you really know all the ways you can edit and improve your “negatives”?

Todd Vorenkamp, whose opinion I’ve come to respect, said:

“Search yourself for improvement, not your gear. A great photographer can make a great photograph with any camera. A poor photographer can make a poor photograph with the world’s most expensive camera. Photography is a technologically based art form, but the technology does not make the art, the human behind the camera does. Do not look for solutions in something that runs on batteries and arrives in a box. “

I believe this. And it is a gutsy thing for Todd to say, because he works for a large camera retailer. BTW, B&H is a great place to buy your equipment. Be assured I get no compensation for this plug.

We have come to a time where camera designers are pushing the limits of physics. Improvement in resolution and dynamic range are getting much harder. Incremental Engineering improvements still happen all the time, but true breakthroughs are more rare. Newer cameras usually have small improvements and more bells and whistles to have to learn.

How to move forward

Most photographers are always shopping for shiny new equipment and the greatest new technology. I include myself. Nikon, if you’re listening, I would love for you to bring out a 100MPixel mirrorless body. I would probably put my deposit down immediately.

But Todd is right, and Ansel is right – it is the photographer that makes the difference. I believe you should not go for a new camera (and the computer processing to go with it) until you are confident you can wring all the performance possible from your current one. Best to master your current tools before getting new ones to learn.

Are your techniques good enough to make the best image the camera is capable of? Are you confident you can edit well enough to achieve your goals? Maybe hardest of all, do you understand your vision for what you want to create?

When you can honestly assess those questions I think you will know when it is time to move on. Maybe you do need a new camera.

Teamwork

A crowd of trees. Working together or independently?

Teamwork can be a great thing. In my professional life I have been on excellent teams and worked with talented people to achieve amazing results. Different people can bring varied background and experiences to the mix and blend them to achieve good results.

Art, though, is a different thing. We are basically not trying to create a good result or a solid product, we are creating a work of art. Art is inherently not a team sport. It is a creation from one head – the artist’s. Some artists use a team, but they supplement the effort of the artist. The creativity and decisions come from one head.

Teamwork does not lead to creativity

I am going to have to say some controversial things. Things that go against the conventional wisdom you hear everyday. But all “conventional wisdom” should be challenged sometimes.

Collaboration is not creativity. It sounds like I am dismissing collaboration as useless. Not so. There are good times for it. Collaboration can let us overcome obstacles and come up with solutions to hard problems.

Working collaboratively is all the buzz in the corporate world. Schools have picked it up as the great thing for doing projects. I was there for years and my experience was that collaboration is a leveling process. It lets a group create at around the average of their capabilities. It is like the Olympic scoring where they throw out the high and low scores and average the rest.

This may be decent insurance for a company. It ensures that they will probably get OK work not poor work, but it is not creativity. I have not seen these efforts lead to actual original, creative solutions. And I have been through lots of creativity exercises with very capable teams. Even sessions facilitated by top consultants.

Let me concede for the moment that a team effort may lead to a creative solution. Whose creativity is that? Can I call this my creative work? Other people directly contributed to it. Is it really mine?

A lonesome sport

For an artist, the buck stops here. The artist has no one else to blame or defer to. No one else is responsible for coming up with the ideas and making the decisions. Right or wrong, it is his call.

Think what goes through your mind when you see an art piece: what was the artist thinking? Why did the artist make these decisions? Why even choose that subject? You don’t wonder if the artist’s team did mind mapping or used a focus group to select and refine the ideas and style. No, you assume the art is the work of a singular artist.

It can be lonesome and terrifying. As an artist you are sometimes almost paralyzed with fear and uncertainty. There is the terror of the blank canvas, when you don’t seem able to come up with ideas. There is the embarrassment of riches, where you have several images you like a lot but are unable to select the one to present. A certain subject is calling to you. Should you pursue that, even though it is different from your normal work? Should you go with the creativity you feel or play it safe and stick to producing work that is safe and mainstream?

Only you as the artist can solve these problems and answer these questions. That is, only you can answer them for you. Your answers are part of what make your art your art.

Teamwork examples

OK, to answer your objection that teamwork can work sometimes. Yes, it can, in certain ways. There are husband and wife teams like Wendy Shattil and Bob Rozinski or Sarah Marino and Ron Coscorrosa that work together very closely. And there are great friends who collaborate closely, like Tony Hewitt and Peter Eastman. These are very healthy, symbiotic relationships.

From what I’ve seen, these teams work closely on idea generation and location scouting. They give each other very candid and honest critique. They encourage each other and honestly want the other to succeed. But at the end of the day, they are in competition. Only one name goes on the print. They collaborate, but the final art is one person’s work.

If it was not one person’s work it would be a corporate product, not art.

A land of introverts

It has been said that a disproportionate number of artists are introverts. I believe that is true. We tend to enjoy working alone without having to negotiate with anyone to get something done. We are OK being in our heads without needing the validation of other people’s opinions. And many of us are shy. It is easier to create in silence than to ask other people for help or critique.

We may get completely caught up in our work, almost as a way to hide from the world. It is safe – until we have to exhibit it or sell it. We can let our inner self be expressed through our art rather than have to interact with people.

I disagree, though, that it is disproportionate. Who says what the right proportion is? Given the descriptions above it seems natural that introverts would gravitate to art. That is like saying a disproportionate number of talk show hosts are extroverts. No, the introverts run away from that and say “you can have it”.

Teamwork is not the natural style for us introverts. We tend to be very independent and self reliant. Not to say we are immune to fear and self doubt. If anything we are more susceptible to it. But good or bad, we want it to be our own work.

A circular argument

Since this is based on my first person experience, it is somewhat of a circular argument. The thesis is that artists are generally introverts and don’t do teamwork. This is true of my experience in my world. That is all I can really speak for.

There certainly are many successful extrovert artists. These people would need lots of interaction with other people and need to bounce ideas off other people. But even so, who creates the art?

Let me come back to the original thought. Introvert or extrovert, the art is almost always the creative expression from one head. It is not a team sport. We can get inspired and motivated by talking to other people. People can stimulate us or give us feedback to help point us in a slightly different direction. But in the end, no one but me is responsible for what I create. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Frozen in Time

Weathered car

Many of us go around trying to freeze moments in time. For a lot it takes the form of happy, smiling images to post to social media to prove (to us?) what a great time we are having on vacation, graduation, the wedding, etc. Or we may freeze great landscapes or seascapes or sunsets so we can show their beauty.

But what is your experience when you share these moments with other people? You pull them up on your phone to show your buddy. Flip, view a few seconds, flip, flip (faster now), flip…. People only look at images on screen for a couple of seconds.

As someone who shoots thousands of images and makes prints I can say from experience that an image is not really complete and meaningful until a great print is made.

Digital images are impermanent

Digital images are impermanent in several ways. They are just bits on your hard disk or in the “cloud”. Unlike in the days when we had albums or even shoe boxes of prints, our pictures now can disappear in an instant. Hard disks fail. I know very well. I have thrown away dozens of them.

My main storage devices now are all RAID drives. This means they have multiple drives in each and the information is partitioned so that if one drive fails, everything can continue with no data loss. But that is just mitigating the problem.

Technologies change and become obsolete. How many of you have some pictures on a floppy disk or CD or some other media that you can’t read anymore? It happens. Fairly frequently.

And your cloud provider can go away or stop serving you if you don’t pay. Or if you don’t keep up with the never ending system updates for your computer and they stop supporting your version.

Another problem with digital images is that most people do not have a good cataloging system for them. Are your images stored in chronological order in Apple Photos? How do you locate that great photo of Grandma you took once? Do you even remember the year? It sounds harsh, but if you can’t find it, you basically don’t have it.

Digital images are fluid

Another property of digital images is that they are fluid. That is, they can be changed at any time. That can be useful sometimes. Break up with that loser? Edit him out.

On a more serious note, it also means that the look of the image can be changed at a whim, depending on your mood or your developing Photoshop skills. Your digital image will be content to exist on your disk in an easily editable state. By its nature, it is perpetually a work in progress. It does not require you to ask or answer hard questions. It is not forcing you to confront your feelings or interpretation. But a print commits the image to a hard media.

When you make a print, you are compelled to think it through in more depth. You are not going to take the time and effort and expense of printing unless you know how you view the image. You work on it more that if you are going to put together a slide show. It has more permanence and It represents our convictions about the image at a point in time. This forces us to think about it more.

When the ink is laid down you have created a piece of art, not just some bits. It means something different to you and your viewers.

A good print is compelling

Have you been in front of a well crafted original print by Ansel Adams or Dorothea Lange or John Paul Caponigro or any great photographer you like? It has depth and significance that is impossible to create on a screen. We assume from our experience that images on screen are fleeting. But these great prints are different.

People look at images on a screen for a few seconds. They study great prints for minutes. The print can grab you; stop you in your tracks; confront you with something you can’t ignore. It is a piece of art, not just flickering bits. It is real.

Prints are the gold standard

I talked before about how transient bits can be and how devices fail and technologies go obsolete. Good prints, though, have substance. They are physical. They are a real object with weight and texture and size. A well done print can last 100-200 years without degrading. It is something that can stand the test of time.

Ansel Adams stopped printing over 40 years ago, but one of his prints is as impressive today as it was then. And it will probably be as impressive 100 years from now.

A print is a frozen idea

As I mentioned, you are not compelled to “finish” your digital images. It is far easier to shoot than to finish them. You can leave them sitting there on your computer with only a fuzzy notion of how we really feel about them.

When you commit to creating a print it forces you to confront your feelings or interpretation. You go through some serious self-examination. Once the ink is on the paper it is not going to change. It represents our idea about the image at a point in time. We have to go through the work to decide how we really feel about the image in order to print it. And we spend a lot more time bringing it to a high level of perfection.

This is a good thing. We are creating a real, permanent object. It represents us. We feel pressure to make it our art. It is our expression for the world to see. We are creating something that will probably outlive us. We want our viewers to see what we saw and feel what we felt.

It is quite possible to return to an image years later and make a new print that is very different. That is quite common and healthy. It means we have grown and developed new viewpoints. If we rework the image and create a new print, it is a new work of art. It could hang proudly beside the original as portraits of the artist at 2 different points in his life.

It is the only physical result of photography

When I press the shutter of my digital camera, not much really happens. Some photons are exposed to the sensor and some electrical change is read and converted to bits and transferred to the memory card.

Even when I import the digital files into my computer, they are still just bits – minute, almost unmeasurable units of electrical or magnetic energy. I can hit the Delete key and they are gone without a trace. My main photo disk has over 6 TBytes of data on it (6,000,000,000,000 chunks of 8 bits). But it does not weigh a gram more than it did empty.

I can argue that I have not actually made anything of value until I make a print. The print is something real. It is physical. People can see it and feel it and look at it as art or garbage. But regardless of how they feel about it, they can’t see or feel anything until it is a print. The print can be framed and hung on the wall and passed down to generations or sold. The bits cannot.

It completes the cycle

And printing is good for you as an artist. It completes the process. It brings art to life. You have to work at it, wrestle with it, make mistakes and do it over. You have to make hard decisions that shape the final result. The print is a commitment of your vision, frozen in time.

And when you get done, you may be disappointed. You envisioned more. You hoped, when it was just bits, that it would be more. The reality of the print can be cruel. You have to reexamine everything from your conceptual idea to your technique. It is what it is. Learn from it. We want people to see and feel what compelled us to take the picture. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

But you won’t know what it really is until you have made the best possible print. That is your art. If you revisit the image later you may see it differently and print a different interpretation. Printing is a key expression of our art.

I reference Ansel Adams a lot in this article. In closing, he famously said:’

The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.”

Themes

Old, weathered boat

I have come to realize I am attracted to certain themes in my art. Before I fall off into art-speak, what I mean by a theme is just the simple dictionary definition: “a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation”. In other words, what subjects do we chose for our art. Themes tend to be bigger than a subject. A theme may tie several seemingly separate subjects together.

Think about artists you admire. Do you also picture the typical subjects they do? Ansel Adams – grand black and white landscapes of the west. Georgia O’Keeffe – modernistic flowers. Monet – impressionistic rivers and ponds in northern France. John Paul Caponigro – abstract and ethereal seascapes and landscapes. They tend to go together in our minds because we know they very often do these subjects.

Chicken or egg?

Do artists pursue themes because that is what they like or do they pick something to get known for? Kind of a trick question. It doesn’t have to be just one or the other. Sometimes themes choose artists. Sometimes artists choose themes.

What is available to us often has a huge impact on our themes. Ansel Adams lived in California. Yosemite and the Sierra Nevadas were his back yard. John Paul Caponigro lives in Maine. Seascapes are common to him. Monet lived along the Seine River. He painted what was around him. This is quite common. We tend to grow to love what we see most. I live in Colorado, right on the dividing line between the mountains and the arid plains. Both are beautiful to me. I see them every day. The more I see them the more I resonate with them.

Some artists deliberately choose themes or subjects to become known for. They want a “signature”. Joel Grimes is well knows for his commercial work and stark, gritty treatment. Some people become famous portrait artists or wedding photographers. In general these are things they have consciously decided to build their career around.

I won’t claim there is a right or wrong. If you pick a certain subject matter to build your career and reputation on, I hope you really love it. Otherwise you could be like these old rock bands still touring around whose audience only wants to hear their hits from 40 years ago. It would get very frustrating to me.

I am a searcher and explorer. Themes are less conscious for me. Looking back through my portfolio I can detect a few. The ones I have detected make it less surprising now for me when I find myself drawn to them. I recognize it and have come to expect it. That doesn’t mean I am not open to new things, just that I can see larger patterns in my work.

Very personal

Themes or typical subjects tend to be personally meaningful in some way to the artist. It is hard to keep on doing art you don’t care for. That is probably one reason we have themes. The subjects we are drawn to are somehow meaningful to us so we keep coming back to them.

I don’t want to go too deep on the need for meaning. Our themes do not have to align with deeply meaningful social or environmental causes for them to be meaningful. If they are meaningful for us, that is sufficient.

I used Georgia O’Keeffe as an example earlier. Her mentor and, later, husband Alfred Stieglitz promoted the idea that her flower pictures had deep sexual significance. It helped build her reputation in the modern art world of the time. She later vigorously denied this was true. She maintained it was only the form and color that was important to her.

Maybe meaning is a very nebulous and personal thing. What is meaningful to me may not be to you. And vice versa. Or you may see meaning I didn’t when I made the image. I have never thought that pictures have significant meaning in themselves. The themes I discover in my work have meaning to me, but I do not try to force it on you. Maybe on the rare times I try to express my feelings in words the viewer may occasionally get a glimpse of the meaning there is to me. But I do not expect you to get one of my images and hang it on your wall unless you like it as an image and maybe, there is something there that is meaningful to you.

Consistent over long times

Themes tend to be a persistent feature of an artist. We are drawn to certain subjects. Maybe we understand there is a theme there that we are pursuing. But regardless, we keep coming back to certain things.

Our themes can fade with time and be replaced with new themes. We all grow and change our values and interests. This tends to be a slow process, but it happens for most of us. I hate to try to quantize it, but I would guess that when we find we are interested in a theme it will stick with us for a few years. Sometimes, for our whole life.

Unifying themes

Sometimes we find that several seemingly disparate subjects that interest us are really part of a unifying theme. This is a wonderful realization, because it unites large parts of our work and brings a new meaning, or realization to us to understand why we are drawn to it.

Let me give a personal example. I am drawn to old things that are worn and aged, but only certain ones. Some old things excite me and many are of no interest. Old rusted cars, abandoned buildings, old machinery, these have always been interesting subjects to me. As I’ve gotten older I have discovered the Japanese term wabi-sabi. I realized I was embracing the philosophy before I ever heard it expressed. It has become a unifying theme for many of the subjects of interest to me.

It is apparently impossible to succinctly and even correctly translate wabi-sabi to English. There are too many subtleties in the Japanese meanings. Some day I will attempt to write a better blog on it.

Here is one very compact description of wabi-sabi: “‘Wabi’ expresses the part of simplicity, impermanence, flaws, and imperfection. On the contrary, ‘Sabi’ displays and expresses the effect that time has on a substance or any object. Together ‘wabi-sabi’ embraces the idea of aesthetic appreciation of aging, flaws, and the beauty of the effects of time and imperfections. The two separate parts when put together, complete each other.”

I discovered that I am drawn to flaws and imperfections and the beauty of aging and the effects of time, especially of things that are bravely standing against time. This theme unites my collection of old rusty cars, broken down buildings, and broken flawed objects. I was happy to be able to wrap a higher vision around my old rusty things.

It makes us different

Our affinity for themes is one reason we can go out with a group of other photographers and still come back with our own unique images. We each have a different viewpoint. We are drawn to different aspects of a scene. Even if we shoot the “same” scene, we probably each have our unique viewpoint. This causes us to frame it differently, isolate a different part, emphasize different things.

Or, for some of us, even turn away from the classic landmark and shoot a different direction entirely.

Our themes help unify our images. They give a meaning and long term point of view to our portfolio. In another sense, our themes are an indication of our values and world view. What we are drawn to shoot are often things that are meaningful to us because of the themes we embrace. We still shoot other things, but something keeps drawing us in certain directions…

This image

The image with this blog was taken in Blaine Washington. It is on the seacoast right at the border with Canada. It is a lovely small town. I was across the harbor. There were good views all around of the harbor and the sea, but I was fixated on this great old boat. Rusty fittings, deteriorating paint, obviously it had seen better days. But it was still standing against the elements. That is encouraging. For me, a perfect wabi-sabi moment.

A Private Journey

Obscure found image. Track to nowhere

Being an artist is a private journey, but one the viewers are invited to participate in. I don’t collaborate or take votes to guide my journey. It is just me. It is intensely private.

Private

I have to make my own way in the world. As such, I am stuck in my own head. Creativity has to somehow spring up from within. Being an artist is lonely. LIke a writer, there are those terrifying times when you are facing a blank page (or empty frame) and you have to create something. No one else can do it for me.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. Some people, especially if they are young and just learning, want to run in a crowd. They have to immediately post every image to social media to get feedback. To me this is a form of insecurity. My values and style is deeply ingrained and I do not seek immediate validation from the internet. But that is just me.

What works for me is to explore, to be receptive to what I encounter. I seldom have a detailed plan for what I want to shoot. Rather, I turn myself loose and let myself be drawn to scenes that interest me. It doesn’t always work, but that is what inspires me. The word that keeps coming up is”me”. Not in an egotistical way, but in the sense that I am the only one who can take this journey. If it wasn’t me it would be someone else’s art.

I also find, and this is just me, that when I put pressure on myself to “have” to come up with something creative the results may be good but they are seldom great. But when I let go and just react and experience then creativity can flow. Understanding this about myself has let me keep my art constantly being a joy.

A journey

Virtually all my subjects are collected outdoors. It is extremely rare for me to set up a controlled indoor shoot. So a shoot for me involves movement. I have to leave my studio and get out in the field where my subjects are.

This is a joy for me. I am an explorer. It is hard to pass a road I haven’t seen the end of. As an example, just a couple of days ago I was exploring up along the border of Wyoming. I went down an obscure dirt road I knew was a dead end, but I had never been down it. It was great! I loved the sights, the remote wildness, the windswept barrenness, the newness. It was fresh. Something I had not seen before. It energized me. Even if none of the images make it into my portfolio, it was well worth it for me personally.

But a journey doesn’t have to be far. I do a lot of shooting while walking around within a mile or 2 of my studio. Journeying is an attitude. A sense of exploring and investigating. It is sometimes difficult to feel a sense of discovery in an area I have been over and over so many times. But that is part of the game. It is a mental discipline. If I can find new and fresh sights in a familiar area then it is even easier to get inspired in an interesting new place.

Viewers

It is true that my art makes me happy. If I never showed it to anyone I would still have the joy of creation and discovery that would compel me to make it.

But artists are also somewhat egotistical. We feel we have something worthwhile to share with other people. I hope those who see my work enjoy it and can share in the sense of wonder and amazement I felt while making it. I’ll be honest, I also hope you decide to buy some of my prints for your walls. The money is nice, but even more is the knowledge that this had an impact on you and that it will now continue to influence you. We all would like to leave a legacy.

I know your time is valuable and increasingly scarce. I seek to make art that is captivating enough for you to give me some of your time to view it and think about it. I hope my art will awaken some new thoughts and feelings that will make your day better, to refresh and renew you. I like to feel that some of my pieces on your wall will have a long term benefit as you see them every day.

Internal and external

My art is a private creation of my own mind and energy. I do not collaborate with others or shoot assignments. What energizes me is exploring and finding wonder in the everyday sights around us. I may work a project or a theme at times, but mostly I let myself be drawn to whatever is exciting me at the moment. I am very much in the moment when I am creating, even when working at the computer.

Even though my art and my process is intensely private and personal, I also have the viewer in mind. I am constantly reaching for something creative and fresh to share with my you. If you give me some of your time and attention I want to give back. I hope I can succeed with you. It is my private journey but I want to share it with you.

Go to my web site at photos.schlotzcreate.com to view a little of my work and let me know if any of it resonates with you. Please join me in my private journey. I welcome your feedback.