Olivia Parker, Form and Substance, from the series "Eye and Idea," 1990–96
In response to the "favorite camera" post, reader David Paterson (author of some two dozen thoughtful comments here over the years) wrote the following:
I know it has been said a million times, but the best camera is the one you have with you. There is little point in having a "best" or favourite camera unless a) you own it, and b) you carry it with you as much as is humanly possible.
David's right that this has been said "a million times." It's definitely and distinctly a truism of the public discussion of photography in the Internet Age.
I personally think it's high time, however, to put this one to rest. Although it's neat and simple (which people like), and strict and prescriptive towards others (which people like), and easy and undemanding to conform to (which people like), it's simply not true. Not necessarily, that is.
A lot rides on that word "necessarily," so allow me to restate: it might be true for some successful photographers (David no doubt included), but it is (definitely, inarguably) not true for all successful photographers.
Maybe they just don't work that way. A lot of photographers don't.
Three million, or ten thousand, or ten...Oy
A little self-referential digression, and I apologize if you've read a version of this before. I kickstarted a daily writing habit when I was in college, after being invited to a breakfast talk with Saul Bellow at Dartmouth just after Bellow had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In response to a question, either from me or someone else (hard as I try, I cannot recall), he said that the only way to become a writer was to write three million words. After three million words, you'll be as good as you're likely to get, and you'll know if you're a writer or not. Interestingly, this is a variation of the 10,000 hours principle memorably set out in Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success.
I think Outliers is better than its reviews; I believe the reason people don't respond well to it is the same reason why Mr. Bellow's advice was the last thing—the very last thing—my 19-year-old self wanted to hear—it's because we all very much want success to be more accessible to us than that, and we very much don't like to be told that we have to put in those kinds of hours and that kind of effort. The great British book illustrator Arthur Rackham said something remarkably similar, too, when young aspiring artists asked for his advice. He told them they had to work hard for ten years before they could even really know if they were artists at all.
But I digress (from the digression). To continue with my story, I did the arithmetic, and set about my three-million-word task (long since dispatched and done with, by the way).
But in that period, I was asking other people for advice: how do writers write? What's the best way to go about establishing a daily writing habit?
Almost immediately, I was told in very forceful terms that the best way to write was X. And then I asked another person, who said that the best way to write was Y. And I couldn't help but notice, after getting klunked over the head with it in close succession like that, that X and Y happened to be completely different methods, and not compatible.
So I embarked on a little survey. How did famous, successful writers do their writing? And it turned out that...well, as you might expect, everyone was different. In some cases very different. Dylan Thomas decamped to his shed by the seaside every day to (allegedly) write as few as two lines of poetry as his entire day's work. He would (again, allegedly) read his attempts to an illiterate elderly neighbor—and if she couldn't understand what he was on about, he'd start over. Sounds a little "auto-apocryphal" to me, if I may coin a term, but then I'm not a Dylan Thomas expert. The two lines a day sounds plausible, though, because, really, he was going to his shed by the shore to imbibe alcoholic beverages, which evidently flowed much more copiously than the words did.
And speaking of drinking and writing, there was a great American poet (was it Robert Lowell? I can't remember now) who claimed he had to be well lubricated to find inspiration. I used to write while drinking when I was in college, so I liked that guy. Others, however, presumably preferred to write sober—Pearl S. Buck and Isaac Asimov, to begin with, since they were both teetotalers and never took a drink. They got inspired anyway, somehow.
Ezra Pound said you need to put your work before the public to test yourself—but Emily Dickinson didn't do that. Victor Hugo liked to write in the bathtub in the early morning. I have never written in the bathtub—ever. Ernest Hemingway doggedly wrote five hundred words in six hours of work every day (that's not very many words—this post alone contains more than three times that many, albeit not words as pithy as Papa's)—but I think it was D. H. Lawrence whose publisher returned a manuscript to him requesting that he cut 20,000 words only to get it back with 60,000 more words than it had had before. Margaret Mitchell worked on one book for years and years; but Stephen King retired from writing in 2002...and couldn't stop writing! He's kept on churning out books. Can't stop, apparently. Or maybe that's just what he prefers to do in his retirement.
The upshot, of course, is this: everybody's different. There's no one right way to do things.
There's only your right way. And yes, that can be difficult to settle on; and yes, it might take lots of experimentation to find out what it is; and yes, you might have to work very hard along the way toward finding out.
But it's nothing so simple as the trite and pat little truisms that have been said a million times in forums.
So: no. No, the camera you own, or that you have with you, is not always—not necessarily, and there's that word again—the best camera. In fact, I could make a contrary argument: that you need your "real" camera with you when you encounter a good photographic opportunity, because if you have the wrong camera with you you'll waste that opportunity. (That happens to camera reviewers often, I might add. To this one, at least.) If all of your work is 4x5 Portra, say, and you come across a portfolio-perfect scene with nothing but a digisnapper in your pocket, you're toast; you lose. You missed it. The camera you had with you was definitely not "the best" one.
And of course not everybody needs to carry his or her camera with them "as much as humanly possible." Olivia Parker probably doesn't (Olivia, for those of you who don't know the name, is famous for often complicated still life photos which she meticulously assembles and constructs sometimes over long periods of time. The one at the top of this page is simpler than most of hers). Some pros photograph only when they're on assigment; some artists photograph only when they are free to concentrate on the activity 100%, and don't like the distraction when they're doing other things.
Yes, it's true that some photographers should try to carry a camera with them all the time. But what if you're a wilderness and wildlife photographer—do you have to have a camera on your person when you visit Los Angeles to give a lecture? What if your work consists of alternative-process portraits made in a studio with an antique stand camera? Is it really necessary for you to take the 5D with you to the grocery store—in the SUV, with your four kids? Maybe. But maybe not. A street shooter would probably want her camera with her when she's out and about in the city. But Richard Avedon didn't take his 8x10 with him when he went to the toilet, I'll wager.
And since I was speaking about writing, I should add that I don't even recommend The Elements of Style by Strunk and White any more. Although it's delightfully clear, cut to the bone and free of cant, it's also...well, wrong. If everyone wrote like Professor Strunk prescribes, then everyone would be Kent Haruf or Norman Maclean. Not that there's anything wrong with those authors or their wonderful books, but it's only one style. We wouldn't have Dave Eggers or Donald Barthelme or Look Homeward, Angel —never mind Gertrude Stein! And for that matter, a lot of the most pleasing bits of E.B. White himself would have to be pared off, too, were we hewing fastidiously to Strunkian dogma.
A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.
These are not sentences of which Bill Strunk would have approved (the opening lines of Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe)
Truisms aren't always true. (Well...except that one.) If you're confident and unconflicted about what's best for you, then that's the right way, and that's that. Maybe you can photograph successfully with whatever camera you happen to have with you—maybe you can't. Or maybe you don't even want to photograph if you have the wrong camera with you. Maybe you should have a camera with you at all times, just in case—but maybe, for you, that would be an utter waste of time, because your real work doesn't have anything to do with shots grabbed haphazardly from here and there as you go about your life.
It's up to you. I'm sure whatever you decide is going to be just fine.
(Thanks to David Paterson)
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Dave: "I've had my iPhone with me every second of everyday since October 2011. So far, I've taken only one good photo with it. On the other hand, I totally transformed my portfolio over that same time period using a Canon 5D. The 5D only comes along when I think I'll have time to concentrate on my work."
Eric Brody (partial comment): "Agreed, Mike. I'm one of those people who have succumbed to the 'have a camera with you' argument. Rarely though does an image made while walking the dogs end up on the wall, or even on my web page. I guess, like many, I'm trying to do it all when I should exercise more restraint.I'm a hiker, and I like to hike both alone (photography) and with friends. I should have figured out by now that when I hike with friends, I should not bring a camera beyond a point-and-shoot for documentation, but the pull is still strong."
Michael Perini (partial comment): "I think I agree with Mr. Paterson. While the statement may not rise to the level of 'irrefutable universal truth,' it's really good advice for anyone who values the 'found photograph.'"
[The full text of "partial comments" are always presented in the Comments Section. —Ed.]
Bryan Willman: "Consider also the Wrong Camera Rule. Regardless of what camera you have, you are likely to wish for the one in the closet. As in, you are out with an 8x10, you will want the Leica. You are out with a Leica, you will want the 8x10. You have both, you will want the underwater camera."
David Paterson: "Maybe I should be feeling chastised, but actually it is pretty easy to think of, or construct, exceptions to any given 'rule.' Perhaps I should have started 'If your photography relies at all on seizing opportunities...,' but that idea can be inferred without having to be stated. To use as a counter-argument the idea of Richard Avedon having to take his 10x8 to the toilet is hardly argument at all.
"The camera you have with you is the 'best' one because, in the terms of this discussion, it is the only one (at the time), so when opportunity occurs you do actually have a camera with you. Which presumably you chose for a reason (the best compromise?).
"Some of the photographic genres which rely to an extent on seizing (often fleeting) opportunity include virtually all forms of nature and landscape, 'street' in all its many manifestations, and much of journalism; there will be others besides, I'm sure.
'Of course, few 'truths' can be universally applied, and the fact that a simple (simplistic?) motto is repeated a million times does not make it right. Or wrong."
Mike replies: What I'm saying is that it's not a rule, and that not all photography consists of being ready "when opportunity occurs." I disagree with your examples, except for street photographers: nature photographers, landscape photographers, and journalists go places on purpose to photograph, and they concentrate on photographing when they get there. They're not just chancing across "opportunities" as they go about their business, and many of each type don't carry cameras with them all the time.
Again, though, if it's right for you, then by all means do it. I think I remember reading that Jay Maisel sees photographs all the time and likes to have his camera with him even when he's going out for a bagel, and David Vestal once said he put on his cameras in the morning and took them off at night, just like his shirt. It's right for many people.
David A. Goldfarb: "Speaking of angels, John Wimberley's 'Descending Angel' is one of those photographs that seems to favor the truism—large format landscape guy makes his most successful photograph using a 35mm camera with a model in a swimming pool. On the other hand, you could say that a large percentage of his work is really 'made' in the darkroom, so maybe for him, the truism is true."
Kenneth Tanaka (partial comment): "It's true that the history of photography has plenty of lucky-snap trophies on its wall. But it's also true that the wall features overwhelmingly more trophies captured through conceptual and logistical premeditation, even when the end result appears candid. To deploy an even truer truism, 'Chance always favors the prepared.'* And to bastardize another old truism, practice does not always, or even usually, make better. Photography, like writing, is primarily an undertaking of the mind rather than an act of reflex."
[*"In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind." Louis Pasteur, lecture, University of Lille, December 7th, 1854. A translation from the original French. —Ed.]
David Bostedo: "Nicely written article Mike...this also speaks to a sort of corollary I hear sometimes, which is that a great artist will make great images with any camera. I doubt that's true of most artists. (Although they will tend to take better photos with any given camera than I would, I'd guess.)"
Mike replies: Reminds me of an old story of Richard Avedon's, though I can't cite chapter and verse on this. Seems he was out and about one time, and a couple handed him their snapshot camera and asked him if he'd take their picture standing in front of some monument or other. In telling the story he made some quip to the effect that if he told them who he was he'd have to charge them $5,000. I've always been amused by the idea that somewhere there's a family that owns a unique original Avedon and doesn't know it. I'd be curious to see if it was any better than a snapshot anybody else would take, and if any "Avedon style" is detectable in it at all.
John Camp: "I'll chip in on the writing thing. I occasionally give talks about writing technique, and in a way, Mike's right: everybody's different. But among really successful writers (and I'm talking here of professional writers, as opposed to the large number of academics and experts who occasionally produce a book), there is also a great similarity: they all write a lot. Stephen King, I believe, tries to do 2,000 words a day. If you manage to produce 500 words a day (a fourth of Kind's goal, and perhaps a third of Mike's column above) for 200 days, you'll have written a book the size of the average New York Times bestseller. Two hundred days is what, a bit more than six months? Then, if you spend another five months editing, you'll produce a book a year. I personally write two books a year of that length, and have a goal of 1000–1500 words a day. I have written as many as 5,000 pretty good words in a day. Most best-selling writers do the same thing—they write all the time.
"It's not so much a duty as a compulsion. Writing is not something you do between other things; the other things are what you do between writing. Including eating. My first wife, who I loved dearly, died of breast cancer in 2007, after being diagnosed in 2002. I was intensely involved in care-giving—and during that five years, I never failed to produce a book on schedule. I don't think I was in any way negligent or unfeeling, it's just that that's what I do. I write. And when she was sleeping, I'd be up, working. That's the one thing that amateur writers have a hard time with—understanding how much pure work is involved, and how hard you have to drive yourself. The code here is ASC—Apply Ass to Chair. Work. A lot.
"To bring this back to the original thought behind this Sunday post, I think serious photographers of any kind would do better if they always had a camera with them. When that camera is right there, under your hand, you can hardly help but think photographically, because the camera keeps reminding you. You might ask how that would help, say, a portrait photographer who always works with medium format and lights. Well, perhaps it makes him look at the street light or the bar light on the faces of random people, and that might give him new ideas, and the small camera acts as an aide-mémoire....
"Finally, yeah, I got the joke about wildlife and Hollywood. But, are you all aware of this?"
Andrea: "Finally somebody says this. I made the mistake of believing this sentence and what I obtaind is:
- Since I abandoned my film Contax, I have in general been taking more pictures, and worse than before.
- I have been carrying around stupid cameras in places where I do not want to use them, with the effect of being annoyed by them and by the act of taking pictures in general.
- I spent a lot of money in cameras that can be easily carried around, and now I find myself with cameras that I do not want to carry around in any case.
- When I actually do want to take a picture, and I am willing to carry around a camera and spend time and concentration on it, the cameras I own are not really fit for the task, nowhere close to a good, big, old (D)SLR (or bigger) which I do not own any more.
"I am soon going to a shop, dump all the s**t I bought and buy one BIG dslr, one BIG lens, and then actually carry them around when I do want to take, or make, pictures.
"I hate marketing, because it works."
Mike replies: Ansel Adams, when he was asked what kind of camera he used, usually replied, "the biggest one I can carry!"