Gear and IQ

From Maya’s garden

It took me an awfully long time to figure out what “IQ” means to a photographer. (For those non-photographers out there who don’t like waiting for the punch line, it’s “image quality.” I know, you knew that. In my own defense, I had expected something rather more technical and obscure.) But in addition to poking a bit at the primary meaning of that term, I also like the double entendre it evokes in the context of the relationship between the amount of money you spend on gear and the jaw-droppingness of the photos you capture.

How smart do you have to be to know that it’s not really money that drives that relationship in a simple progression up the effectiveness/expensiveness graph? (I think I made up a word there. My mom would not be proud.) Even more complicated, today you can spend a whole lot of money on a REALLY simple camera. I spend $400 on a new iPhone because I want all that memory for all my iPhotos (and documents and apps and audiobooks and…). A Canon compact with more megapixels and a better lens is half that much money. We can and should argue about the relative capabilities of these two cameras, of course. There are some things the iPhone camera does as well as or better than the Canon compact. The real argument, as Chase Jarvis first taught us, is that the iPhone (or, well, Android) is the camera that you always have with you.

iPhone flower mania

As I wrote in another post, when I got serious about photography in my thirties, I reanimated all the assumptions about taking pictures that I’d developed in my teens: that a real photographer has fancy equipment and lots of it; that a real photographer takes her pictures from loading the film in the camera to lifting the print out of the fixer; that a real photographer does it all and knows it all.

Those have been hard assumptions to shake, even when some of my favorite photographers have operated with radically different rules for themselves, and even when the digital revolution substituted first Photoshop, and then Hipstamatic, Snapseed and Instagram for the intoxicatingly smelly darkroom. For those like me who adore “street” photography — which means, roughly, hanging out in public and grabbing unstaged images  — the real revolution was George Eastman’s handheld Kodak at the turn of the 20th century, and then of course the übercool Leica in the mid-1920s. The Leica, like the iPhone, was not cheap, but also like the iPhone, it was super-portable.

Leica II, introduced in 1932

Besides believing that a real photographer had to know how to use all that equipment and take every kind of photograph, I also believed that a real photographer would always use all the fiddly dials on the 35mm camera, making all the exposure decisions for each shot. My father gave me my first SLR: a Pentax K1000. That was a workhorse, like the Ford Falcon that was my first car. But in a while, I wanted something cooler, something that said “real” photographer. So I saved my money for a Pentax MX, all black, and all manual. I was not to allow myself to use automatic focus, even.

Pentax MX, with that gorgeous all-black body

The weird thing is that my teenaged daughter decided on the same rule for herself last summer. Unless I was talking in my sleep and she happened to walk by and hear it, I believe that in the last fourteen years I have NEVER articulated that rule, or my own history with it. I certainly don’t believe it any more. Heavens, without autofocus I’d NEVER catch even a fairly good moment, let alone a “decisive” one (à la Cartier-
Bresson – I should be so lucky).

I will not go on to discuss my daughter’s equipment rules, which in the way of things for a parent has cost me some money.

But can you be a great photographer if you only use an iPhone, a pinhole camera, or a Brownie from eBay?

Of course, my mind screams. Of course. The image is all. The tools are there to facilitate capturing the image. But you can capture the right image with the wrong tools, and you can certainly capture endless wrong images with all the right tools (I know lots about that).

For the flower picture on the top, I was carrying around my DSLR; once home, I punched the image a bit with Lightroom. For the flower picture on the bottom, I had my iPhone in my pocket and the wind stopped moving the petals around for a moment. For online purposes, they are both colorful, cheerful images. Were I to print them any larger than 4×6,  the top one would undoubtedly show better detail (though at full resolution, the iPhone photo is surprisingly sharp). These photos make two cases. One is that a good lens in front of a bigger sensor captures more detail (and the goodies that go with detail, like the pleasing bokeh — that is, the unfocused background). The second is that this is the kind of photograph in which detail, including color accuracy and depth of field, probably matters.

OK, now let’s think about a different kind of photo. Think about the black and white brilliance of Henri Cartier-Bresson, or Elliot Erwitt, or Robert Doisneau. (Follow the links to see some samples of their work if you don’t remember it.) They used great cameras, small, unobtrusive, FAST, and sharp. Their equipment was tailor-made (or machine-made) for the uses they put it to. It was not the equipment that made their photos great. It was their courage, humor, persistence, and patience, as well as their willingness to train themselves to see. Their photos are great because of composition and content (emotional and editorial impact) more often than level of graphic detail. Still — the equipment helped. Photographs are records of light, and their cameras, properly used, captured specific moments of light. When the moment came, the camera was there and fast and capable.

We are lucky today to have a bazillion equipment options, including the camera that is always with us, whose original purpose was not, in fact, to take pictures. The equipment is cheaper — for what it does — faster, more versatile, and let’s not even start talking about the digital universe that opened up barely a decade ago. Wow. We don’t have to spend $7000 on a Leica in order to capture that decisive moment.

But it’s still tempting.

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