I have friends who keep upgrading to newer cameras, better cameras, bigger sensors, faster more expensive lenses, and their new photos look exactly the same as their older photos.
All cameras are quite capable nowadays. It’s the 12″ behind the camera that matters most when it comes to great cameras and their ability to make a photograph. Go from a Leica M2 to a Hasselblad 500 C/M, it’ll only be sharper but the same type of photograph the photographer already makes.
If she was photographing sharp retro-style photos of old cars, motels and gas stations, her photos will be higher-resolution versions of the same work.
If he was making street portraits with poor composition, his new camera will give him higher-resolution poorly-composed portraits.
The only way for a photographer nowadays to get a new look, to create something that is radically different is to change cameras in a downward direction.
Get a Holga and shoot a poor plastic lens.
Get a Petzvel lens for your Speed Graphic and embrace the swirly bokeh.
Get a Polaroid. I did just that this weekend at a car boot sale (kidding, that’s what Londoners call a flea market, and I’ve always loved that phrase.) I picked it up at an estate sale, this old Polaroid SX-70 SE Land Camera, with Sonar Auto Focusing that works quite remarkably well! It came with a case, a self-timer accessory and a remote cable release. Picked it up for a pair of Andrew Jacksons, a screaming deal! (It was priced at $70 on the first day of the sale but they discount on sale day two, which is when I made my $40 offer.)
This instant camera photographs nothing like a DSLR or the latest sensor. It’s not as sharp. It’s not as saturated. In fact it creates muted colors that look like something out a painting studio. Or something else, I don’t know what. Somehow timeless. Not tack-sharp photos for you to peep into. (Stop zooming your browser, there are no pixels, it’s real film!)
It will make those retro diners even more retro-looking without any need for Lightroom plugins and Instagram filters. It’s already achieved a muted color palatte.
It will still produce badly composed street portraits, but at least the look will be somewhat different, perhaps more interesting with its snapshot aesthetic.
Because it takes a worse camera to see a difference, not a better one. If you want to change your look, you’d make a much bigger impression with a $5 Kodak Brownie Hawkeye and a roll of Kodak Portra 400 than you would a $5000 Phase One camera, or a Leica SL2 for $10K.
Here’s a typical digital photo of what’s in front of me at the coffee shop I am working at today.
It’s a simple photo. Nothing really worth mentioning–perfectly sharp, perfectly composed, perfectly forgettable. No border so it feels unfinished, which it is. Made digitally with the worst digital camera I own, the one packed inside this telephone/GPS map/calculator/email/internet computer pocket-thingy that seems to follow me wherever I go.
Yet, with this little Polaroid and a bit of SX-70 magic, you get this.
Do you see it? It looks a little bit more interesting already. Muted colors. Soft background (no computational computers at work on this, just real optics with its “fast” 116mm f/8 lens.) Yes, that’s right, I said f8!
Feels like a one-of-a-kind and it is. It’s a real film image of the scene before me. A memory when I’m older of a favorite writing spot. And it’s already printed, no need to Shutterfly or Mpix or any other place to order a print. (Who are we kidding, no one is ordering anything because no one is printing the digital photo.) But this Polaroid, aww, so nice, it’s an actual photograph. I’ll put that up on my refrigerator and it just screams “artist” the next time friends are over for dinner.
Maybe I’ll sign the bottom border.
Who knows, maybe once I get famous, I can do like Andy Warhol and other sketch artists and pay for my coffee and lunch with my art. But it will never happen with my Nikon DSLR, guaranteed! Those photos are perfectly good, who would want them?
Sally Mann, a master photographer working with 8×10 cameras and wet plates looks for old 1800-era lenses with defects. The last thing she wants is the latest, sharpest lens known. She seeks character. And she finds it–have you seen what she can do with a camera and lens? That’s no latest Nikon or Canon mirrorless camera at work.
Obviously both are incredibly great photographers. But in addition, they look to make photographs with a look different from the pack. That stand out from the perfectly boring images made by technically perfect photographers.
Because anyone can get perfection nowadays. Perhaps there should be a clarification–anyone can get a perfectly exposed color image capture. Is it good composition? Worthwhile subject? Have something to say? Worth printing? That’s often doubtful. Those things are unfortunately not included with the latest sensor technology, or the highest DXOMark-rated lens or iPhone wonder, no matter how good it is at blurring the background for sweet fake bokeh, but comes from the 12″ behind the sensor (which is where this essay began).
So, all that to say, photography has always been about the photographer. Vivian Maier didn’t excel because she had a Rolleiflex. She excelled with a Rolleiflex.
Changing your palette can create new work. But perhaps you don’t need the latest and greatest camera and lens to do that. Maybe that will just show us with clearer focus how you don’t quite know composition or understand light. That’s all okay, those things are all learnable. But it’d be better to save the money from that Sigma Art Lens, that Zeiss Otus, or that Leica Noctilux and take some photography courses. (I do teach, both in-person and remotely via Zoom.)
Of just get a toy camera, a Brownie box camera or Polaroid and make some photographs that you print and share as actual photographs on your refrigerator.
Sign them, too, they’ll be seen for the art they are. Then repeat and again and again. Time and showing up and doing the work is how you improve.
Because it’s not the next generation of cameras that make a bit of difference.
It’s you and me, it’s what we do with them.