I want a camera that takes better pictures!

I hear this, or sentiments like it a lot:  “I want a new camera so that my pictures will be better.”

I’m going to tell you a very special secret.  In fact, it’s such a big secret that even professional photographers, camera reviewers, and photography journalists don’t know about it.  Don’t ask me how I learned about it, and don’t tell anyone I told you because if they find out I’ll be in big trouble.  OK?  Promise?

OK, here’s the deal.  Every single camera ever manufactured contains a secret ingredient.  The name of that ingredient is a closely-guarded secret, and even I don’t know it, so let’s call it Magic Crystals.  Magic Crystals were first discovered by Ansel Adams when he was a young photographer trying to take photos inside of a cave in Yosemite.  Young Ansel quickly realized the potential of these crystals and added them to his camera, and that’s how he became successful.

You see, Magic Crystals are the secret ingredient in every good photograph.  Nobody really knows quite how Magic Crystals work– science has tried to understand them, but they’ve come up blank.  The only thing that we know is that Magic Crystals make good photographs.   Big expensive cameras contain more Magic Crystals than small, cheap ones, and so expensive cameras take better pictures than cheap ones.  The cheapest cameras can only make out vague shapes and colors, much like when you wake up without your contacts.  Expensive cameras have so many more Magic Crystals that they take great photos.  At the far extreme, there’s a Hasselblad dSLR that has so many Magic Crystals that it takes great pictures without you even having to touch it– you just think about the picture and the camera does the rest.  Before you whip out your credit card you should know that it’ll set you back about $30K.

OK, you in the back.  I can see you looking skeptical.  You don’t believe that Magic Crystals really exist.  You think I’m just making this all up.  You know what?  You’re wrong.  There really is a $30K Hasselblad… and if anyone wants to send me one I’d be happy to put it to good use.  The stuff about the Magic Crystals?  Yeah, you’re right.  I was making it up.

The truth is that the camera body is one of the smallest factors when taking good pictures.  Every dSLR ever made  has the capacity to take stunning, award-winning photos.  Most people think that upgrading their camera body will make their photos better, and they’re shocked and disappointed when I tell them that’s not true.  Either that, or they spend a lot of money upgrading their camera only to be disappointed when the results look just like they did with the old body.

In my not-as-humble-as-it-should-be opinion, there are three primary factors that determine the quality of photographic results:

  1. The skill of the photographer
  2. The quality of the lens
  3. The camera body

Those are listed in decreasing order.

By far, the skill of the photographer is the most important factor in creating quality images.  Imagine finding the best, most expensive camera you can imagine, and handing it to a beginner.  What do you think the results would be?  Mmmmm hmmm.  You’d get exactly the sorts of crappy snapshots that you would grow to hate if you worked in the photo lab of your neighborhood pharmacy.  They’d be badly-exposed, out of focus, abysmally composed, and completely uninteresting for anything other than horror value.

Similarly, if you were to round up a half dozen talented expert photographers and send them off with disposable cameras, you’d likely get some excellent and fascinating results.

Photographic skill comes in lots of different flavors.  First you have to be able to visualize the shot that you want to take, which requires skilled seeing and composition.  Once you’ve done that, you need to be able to translate that image into technical factors– aperture, shutter speed, etc.  And finally, you need to be able to use your camera to maximum effect, handling the intricacies of autofocus, metering modes, and the rest of your camera’s rich and complex feature set.

Which Lens On the equipment front,  improving the quality of your lenses is the best way to improve your image quality.  If you lens isn’t sharp, then no amount of skill will ever overcome that limitation.  Similarly, some lenses are better at rendering colors than others.  You probably won’t notice things like that without doing a side-by-side comparison, but once you do the difference is obvious.  You can click on the image at left to get a larger version, but you probably don’t need to in order to see that one of the lenses looks a lot worse than the other two.

See the muddy colors in the bottom picture?  No amount of skill will overcome that.

Lens quality often comes with a high price tag, but not always.  Of the two lenses that took pretty good shots in the comparison, one of them is the Canon 50mm f/1.8, also known as the nifty fifty.   I’ve raved about this lens before, and for good reason– it has excellent image quality and carries a price tag that’s right around a hundred bucks.

And finally, the camera body does have some bearing on image quality.  For example, some cameras are much better than other at shooting at high ISOs– older and less-expensive cameras will generally have more noise than newer and/or more expensive ones.  They may be better at resolving detail or rendering colors, though in my experience this difference is very slight and is generally hidden by other factors.

More importantly, a new camera may give you new tools that you can use to take better photos.  A spot meter can be a fantastic tool, if you know when and how to use it to best advantage.  Newer and more expensive cameras may have better autofocus mechanisms.  My 5D has a better layout of the controls, which means that I can change the aperture and shutter speed in manual mode more easily than I could with my old Rebel.    The bigger viewfinder on my 5D means that I can manually focus more effectively.    All of those things are tools that I can use to improve my photos, but they don’t help much on their own– I still have to have the skill to use them well.

Now you know that there are no Magic Crystals that will help you take great pictures– it mostly comes down to skill, and the quality of your lenses.  A new camera can help, but it won’t be a silver bullet.

I’ll talk more later about how to know when it’s time to upgrade, and how to choose a new camera when you decide it’s time.

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