hans groen *17 09 1959 - †11 08 2022

is it the person or the equipment?

One of those chicken-and-egg disputes that fill up many forums and other conversations, is whether the equipment one uses is important, or that the individual photographer is all that matters. On the Luminous Landscape I read some arguments which were a final incentive to add this page.

First, one has to distinguish two aims for photography. On the one hand, the production of images for commercial or non-commercial display — this includes images of products for a catalog, for a fashion house, or for a museum. Here, only ‘the best’ equipment is used, unless some special effect is intended. that takes us to the other category, the documentary and artistic photography, or all photography that aims at an eye catching picture. That is where the controversy starts because an eye-catching picture can be made by anyone with any camera. And the pictures that have shaped our view of history, or that have delighted us in whatever way, are not always made with the latest, most expensive, state of the art equipment.

Indeed, one can make an eye-catching picture with a pinhole camera, and one can make absolutely boring, badly composed pictures with a €25.000,- medium format camera with digital back. But, one does not make a portrait of Queen Beatrix for use in the Dutch embassies all over the world with a pinhole camera or a Kodak Instamatic. The purpose and intention of the pictures one takes determines for a big part what equipment one uses. The first question one has to answer for oneself is, “What do I want to photograph, and why?”

Between brackets, that reminds me of a user review of the Olympus E10 which I read about 5 years ago. Someone had bought the camera and was generally very satisfied with it, but for him the big caveat was the relatively slow fastest shutterspeed of 1/640. He mainly took pictures at motor races, and than that is a bit of a slow speed. I just wondered why he bought the E10 in the first place, for if you know what you are doing, you would have ruled out that camera for that purpose — which says nothing about the otherwise excellent qualities of that camera.

A good picture, meaning the eye-catching picture that people who discuss the ‘equipment or photographer issue’ want to make, is a result of cooperating with Lady Fortune, and of an organic relation with ones’ camera. Lady Fortune puts you at the right time in the right place; your cooperation is to have a camera ready, whatever camera that is — think of the occasions where you see something and think: “A kingdom for a camera!” The missed opportunities tell that camera’s as such don’t matter. But than, if you have the camera, and it does not function properly, or you are not at ease with how it functions, the ****ing thing does matter! It is all about how you and your camera are a unity, how you can operate the camera without thinking, just taking the picture you want. Sometimes Lady Fortune creates circumstances where everyone with a camera in his or her hands can make the picture of a lifetime by aiming and shooting — and even then, having a good camera and lots of film or chips is convenient. I remember a World Press Photo winner of 5 years ago or so of a baby who had died in an attack in I think Iraq. The winning picture where all the hands were positioned in the right way was one out of at least one roll of film. Even Lady Fortune needs a motor drive.

But otherwise, a good picture is about having found the camera that has the qualities you need for your photography. Or about using the specific qualities or lack of qualities as a means of expression — I can imagine a fashion house commissioning a series of pinhole shots for their new collection if they want to give it a funky or kinky quality. Knowing the good and the problematic qualities of ones’ equipment is the key to making good pictures.

My advice for anyone wanting to buy a digital camera is to first spend two or three throw-away film cameras, and see how that works. That is partly an educational idea, because than you become conscious of the three steps of taking a picture. But one also can find out what goes well, and when one is frustrated by the limitations of that simple camera. You then know what your digicam should be able to do for you.