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Friday, 17 October 2014


The first question: "Is the photographer going somewhere to make photographs or is the photographer somewhere when a photograph presents itself?"

"What camera do you use to make photographs?"

"What camera do you carry on the off chance that a photograph appears?"

I have to agree. Since around 2008 I've been taking a camera to work with me every day, a film Leica or my OM2n and most recently a digital Leica. I also have one within arm's reach at home. The maddening fumble with the iPhone, even with the direct launch of the camera from the lock screen you don't seem to have noticed, causes too much delay, and the shutter speed is wrong or the light too low etc. and the picture is no good. Sometimes it works, but I would hate to rely on it.

This truism relies on a couple of conceptions of photography which are entirely alien to me, though I admit my case might not account for the majority of photographers. Having a camera always with me does not apply to my photography. Taking pictures is not that urgent and I couldn’t care less about spontaneity. I take ages to compose, focus and set exposure - not because I'm clumsy, but because it gives me time to think. For most of the times I care less about the subject itself than its surroundings. Plus I don’t think everything deserves to be photographed.
Also, photographing the way I do requires a special mood. If I don’t feel like photographing, I don’t do it – even if I have two cameras and three lenses with me in my bag. Of course there are always times when I come across some interesting scene and am caught without a camera, but so what? I’ll survive; I won’t carry the burden of guilt and shame for the rest of my life just because I lost that opportunity of taking a shot.
Sometimes I wonder why people feel such urge to photograph everything these days. For me it’s more like they’re trying to find some use for their new toy: it has a camera, so they feel compelled to use it. My educated guess is that there are people who wouldn’t photograph at all if they hadn’t their iPhone with them. From this perspective the truism we’re discussing is a lame excuse for bad pictures: ‘It’s a bad picture, I know – but at least I got it.’ Because I had my iPhone in my pocket, he (she) would add.
As for me, there’s little value to this way of photographing. I see photography as a form of expressing my aesthetic ideals, not as a means to document every moment of my life. I may be alone in this, but I don’t think people find it so important to see what I’m having for lunch. In a nutshell, I don’t photograph to share every moment of my life on Facebook. People do it because they have the means, but it’s once again a case of the possession of a camera determining the need for photographing. (When it should be the other way around.)
Yet having a camera on hand can be interesting. You never know when you’ll find something worth photographing. Some time ago I was at a shop having a chat with the man who develops my rolls when my eyes stared at a minuscule, yet very good looking Lowepro bag. It is intended for camcorders, but the guy was selling it for SLR film cameras. My OM-2 and an extra lens would fit perfectly, so I bought it. Now I find it easier to carry my camera and indeed do it more often. Not every day, but surely in a larger number of occasions. Maybe in this sense I made that truism... well, true!

The best camera is one of the five you have in your wheelbarrow.

I rather like Nick Devlin’s version: "The only great camera is the camera that’s there with you when the light happens."

How can it possibly not be true? If you don’t have the camera with you, you can’t get the shot. The defense calls no further witnesses.

Underneath your argument, Mike, is a better question: Why do you do photography?
I do it for two reasons. When I am shooting to illustrate one of my stories, I am very intentional. I select the gear do what I need to do.

But the rest of the time, I do photography for the sheer mad joy of it – not to be famous, or a great photographer, or to make money – but simply to capture images that move me inside.

Every time I leave the house without tucking compact camera under my shirt or jacket, I find myself muttering some of the more interesting short words under my breath as I miss a shot.

The world is an interesting and highly dynamic place, and I find it is worth carrying a camera, even if it is not the “best” one.

With me that truism always resonated as its converse (same for truisms in general):
Camera that is not with you is useless.

Of course either way we end up deconstructing and overthinking the original phrase - but honestly - is this not a statement specific to reportage photographers? Do not get caught with pants down? Something not really applicable to landscape or studio photographers?

Mike - I think you are wilfully misconstruing this poor little cliche. It certainly does not mean that people should be satisfied with, or make do with, whatever camera they happen to have.

Quite the opposite. What it means is that, very often, you are only going to have one camera (or two bodies of the same model, or two closely similar bodies) with you; better make sure it's the right one for what you are hoping to achieve, and/or for the kind of opportunity you are likely to meet.

See - layer upon layer of meaning!

The best camera is the one you WANT to take with you.

Mike, although morning comment is but a couple of entries old, please, stop; go back to something more in line with morning coffee. Remove the self imposed timeline for morning coffee to better suit your schedule, or just mothball morning comment and do your somewhat regular daily entry. Comments are a one time opinion, not requiring a rebuttal.
Just a "comment"...it's your blog after all.

[Hi Howard, the purpose isn't to "rebut" anybody. It's just to amplify interesting points that are raised. Lots of food for thought and fodder for discussion go by every day here, so this just gives me a chance to make a thoughtful response to a few of them. We can't discuss everything after all. --Mike]

If we go out into the world to make photographs with intent then having the gear for the end result is the best approach. I think "with intent" is the operative phrase. Many of my pro photo friends shoot only when paid to do so. Their motivation to shoot comes from without, rather than within. Thus, "the camera is in my studio unused unless I am being paid" seems to be the operative truism.

And if you have the intent, don't forget the tripod. ;)

Good points Mike. Sometimes the best camera is the one you left at home.

I agree with your sentiments in this post. Another quote that's relevant: the enemy of excellence is good.

Yesterday someone posted (to a forum) some photos taken at a family wedding with a mirrorless camera; they were just snapshots. But included in the photos was one shot of two petite women, each with a full frame DSLR, one with a white 'L' zoom on it, and neither of them looked bothered by it. (At least one of them was the official photographer). The person who posted defended his choice, saying he wanted to be "inconspicuous" yet in another of his shots was some guy taking a snapshot with an iPad.

I've attended PhotoPlus Expo for the past 10 years (not sure if I'll make it this year, though). Apparently, there are plenty of female pro photographers, and apparently, they're interested in learning about gear that helps their work ! Anyway, they don't seem shy about carrying whatever gear is needed to get the job done; I see photographers of both genders and all shapes and sizes checking out FF cameras, big lenses, bags, tripods, lighting gear ... while the mirrorless systems get plenty of attention as well, there just doesn't seem to be this obsession with compromising to avoid carrying a little extra weight.

I never carried a point & shoot until the RX100 came along, because until then, I never thought that any of them were worth owning & using. The 1/1.7" models that shoot raw are probably pretty decent, but tended to sell for around $500 before the RX100 came along, and that always seemed like too much for too little. I suppose that if I owned an iPhone, I'd use the camera on it. My twist on the expression is that any camera you have with you is better than nothing for *some* things, but not better than nothing for a lot of things.

Basically, I'll shoot family snapshots with anything - pictures that are just for memories, maybe a small print in a photo book. Highlights can be blown sky high; that's not what's important. But beyond that, I didn't take up this hobby to shoot bad snapshots, and anything worth my time is worth shooting with a camera that can do a decent job. I hate diffraction-limited, compression artifact-laden jpegs that have been softened to reduce noise from tiny sensor phones & digicams. It's like saying the best music is whatever's available, when the only thing available is a tinny, staticky radio. I'll take silence, thank you !

Just to be fair, the flip side of this is that smaller systems are getting better all the time, so even if being prepared means one thing today; it doesn't have to mean the same tomorrow. Travel photographer Bob Krist is now shooting with Sony RX100, RX10 and A6000 instead of Nikon DX. And he's doing a lot of video, which he said required a team in the past, and that he can do alone with gear he can carry today.

You are overthinking it Mike. Different situations require different cameras. The only way you can have the best possible camera for any given situation is to always carry a whole array of them all the time but that's not practical. The point of the truism is that if you are carrying a camera, any camera, you can generally take advantage of the opportunities that arise but if you don't have a camera, you'll just wish you did.

A case in point: I was a judge in a local contest and in the course of judging one of the category winners turned out to have been made with an iPhone. It was the camera he had and it was enough. Might the photo have been technically better if he had shot it with a DSLR? Maybe, maybe not.

Of course then there are those photographers who miss the shot for lack of a camera and philosophically recall it saying "I captured it in my heart". I have a few of those but you can't share them.

Mike, you're reminding me of what Donald Rumsfeld said: "You don't go to take pictures with the camera you want, you take pictures with the camera you brought".


I like this: But really, far more often in the history of photography, great photographers went to great trouble and toil to have the right cameras with them for the work they envisioned in their mind's eye
This is very true.

For me that means having a certain camera with me all the time. The work I do is best done with the jacket-pocketable camera I carry. If the iPhone had a better camera, I might carry that instead. Certainly my cousin is a better photographer than I with an iPhone - she uses it constantly, and her sense of light is fantastic, and her compositional skills leave me in the dust. What can I say to that?

Right. I have a 6 year old NTT Docomo cell phone with a camera that under the best of circumstances takes blobs, not photos. I suppose it would be good for some sorta of bad abstracts, but it is no better than nothing to me. I gave up on any sorta of photo of any use out of it years ago. When I have only it, it is the same as having no camera, so that truism is like all truisms---not always true.

I think that truism is overly simplistic. Some cameras are better at some things than are others. So the best camera is the one that is most suitable for the job, and that you know how to use properly to achieve what you’re shooting for. For example, if you want to get good shots of the players in the outfield of a baseball game, an iPhone is probably not the “best camera.”

I can relate to this personally, as my street photograph project — in which I shoot from the hip — requires a very wide lens, manual focus ability, and a depth-of-field gauge. It just wouldn’t work otherwise. The ability to quickly change the aperture without fiddling with buttons really helps too. And it has to be tiny. There are a handful of cameras that fit this bill (I use a Panasonic LX7), but if I’m out with my Fujifilm X100S or my Olympus OMD EM5 I don’t even try because I know it won’t work (primarily because the lenses aren’t wide enough, but I also don’t know how to check DOF with those to ensure I get my “1 meter to almost infinity” zone in focus).

If the only food in the house was bread and the car wouldn't start, would you say "the best thing for lunch is bread?" I think you'd say
"the only thing (available) for lunch is bread."

There is a big difference between only and best, unless you qualify
best. The camera you have with you may be the best available camera for the shot, but it is also the only camera for the shot. Big difference.

"The camera that you have with you" may be the only (available) camera for the shot. It may also be the worst camera for the shot.

"We have to be prepared for what we want to do."

That notion propels many millions of dollars in annual camera gear schlepware sales, Mike.

With a (somewhat embarrassingly) remarkable inventory of cameras and lenses at my hand I am perhaps at a disadvantage for arguing with your right-gun-for-the-right-hunt thesis.

But I really do believe that the centerpiece principle in the thesis -- preparedness -- begins and ends between the ears not the hands. Yes, many of the "great" photographers captured their best images with the "right" tool but many (maybe many more) made their best with relatively simple and sometimes downright crude equipment. Can you just imagine what Garry Winogrand would have done with an iPhone (for example)?

And I'll take that position into even mistier waters; seeing the image is as personally useful and powerful as recording the image. Every image that attracts your eye forms and refines your own vision, whether or not you captured the scene. I sure know that I rarely forget the 'ones that got away'. Perhaps, like lost fish in an angler's memory, time embellishes them. But they establish benchmark targets for my future subjects.

Yes, it's wonderful to have exactly the right tool for the right moment. But simply identifying that "moment" is at least 75% of the fun of the photographic experience, at least for me. The remaining 25% is for braggin'.

The best camera is the one with a charged battery when I leave home.

I guess one big idea behind this truism could be not to obsess about having "the best camera"?
Don't spend ages on research and camera envy... grab a camera you feel comfortable with and go out and look at the world! (rather than looking at spec sheets...)

When I did the portfolio selection for my website I ended up with photos from my cellphone, some compact cameras, the Nikon D40 and the much maligned Nikon D80, the old Sigma DP1 & DP2 up to my current Olympus OM-D's.
None of which are the best at anything... But they were the best of what was available to me at the time.

So maybe the truism should go
"The best camera is the one that is available to you"?

Perhaps if you took out the word "morning" and replaced it with the word "random" it would feel less like spaghetti for breakfast again.

I think it simply means that if you are setting out to photograph you will have the camera you need with you (best available camera). If you are not setting out to specifically photograph and all you have with you is your cell phone then that becomes the best camera available.

I really don't like phone cameras as photographic tools. I use themas a note taking machines. It faster to shoot the ad than transcribe it to paper.

The other things that is frequent is that, though I find pictures everywhere and all the time, it happens the majority of times when I have my camera in hand. And I make sure it's not an iphone. I don't see as many pictures when not having the camera in hand.

I guess I don't quite understand all the "hostility" (my perception) towards shooting with a smart phone. Having a camera with you all the time, at least has a lot of people "seeing" pictures that they were never aware of before. And the phone cameras are obviously able to capture some very nice images, depending on the shooter behind the lens. I have to agree with what Edie Howe said in another comment:

"The image is always more important than the camera that captured it. Carry whatever camera you will, but here's the kicker: know how to use it, and know its limitations."

In reply to Jim, if everyone interpreted the truism according to its point (which you stated, and which I agree with) it would be fine. But I've read more than enough forum posts to be convinced that people are using the truism to rationalize laziness.

That's the problem with adages and clever analogies - the people who understand them don't need to be told, and the people who can benefit from them don't always understand them.

Ruth Bernhard told me in her final: "Gift of the Commonplace" workshop that if you don't have a camera to make a photograph, then use your eyes to make a photograph that you remember in your mind for the rest of your life.

I have made several images in this manner, and like fine wine, those images seem to get better with age.

If there are pictures you want to take, you should carry a camera that lets you do what you want to do.

But, you should also be able to adjust your goals to the situation in front of you and the reality of what you feel like carrying around all the time. No one wants to go through life wheeling a 50 pound box of cameras everywhere just in case.

The key to happiness is having the right perspective on goals and requirements.

Dear Mike,

Yes, it's a misinterpretation and contraction of the old truism, "The camera you have with you is better than the [implied: technically superior] camera you left at home."

Because it was too big, inconvenient, expensive, or whatever.

That's a hugely different statement from the one you deconstructed. It is not a truism, old or new.

pax / Ctein

This post made me chuckle. My E-M1 is a joy to use. I think it is really small. My S95 is positively diminutive and does a really good job. Every time I use my smartphone camera to make an important photo, I kick myself for not having one of those easily portable cameras with me instead.

To me, schlepping is loading my pack with my 4x5 Walker Titan or 6-1/2x8-1/2 Improved Seneca, holders, 4-5 lenses, lens hoods, loupe, filters, dark cloth and tripod, and taking them for a hike in the woods or somewhere similarly beautiful!

'The best camera is the one you have with you.'

I don't buy it either. No smart phone camera is anywhere near as capable as a DSLR. Sure, you might be able to capture the moment, but you'll regret leaving that DSLR at home if it's really special.

Of course, that opinion applies only to the avid photographers in the crowd. The average Joe seems not to care. In that, lies the current problems which the camera industry is experiencing.

Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, since my smart phone's camera is decidedly average, but from my experience, owning an iphone does not help. I receive photos from iphone owners usually once a week from people trying to show me supposedly defective or incomplete products, and 9/10 of them cannot take a photo which is properly exposed or even close to being in focus. It's really simple, but people just don't get it, and they just don't care. I'd hate to see what these people do to vacation photos.

Well since I make the effort to almost always take a real camera with me that I choose based on where I'm going, I actually do have the best camera with me.


Funnily enough, you've fallen for another cliche in there too: ` if you leave it at home all the time'.

Always waves a flag in my mind, that - what gives with the fascination on getting out and shooting stuff? What's so secondrate-citizen about still life?

Ansel Adams was a mountaineer, or at least an avid hill walker. Yet he carried an 8x10 and a big tripod. In his later years he moved down to a more portable camera, one that would have in his youth been called a 'miniature' (6x6 Hasselblad). Galen Rowell was even more of a mountaineer and preferred appropriate light weigh equipment. Carpenter needs his saws and hammer(s). Swiss army knife or Leatherman can be a godsend in a pinch but I do not believe any carpenter would go to work with just them in his pocket.
I heard a quote about Weston saying that if it is more than 200ft (or some such number) from the car, it is too far to take a picture. Not sure if it is true but it also shows that you need the right tools to do a good job. Not just any tool.

Perhaps the statement needs to be rephrased to something like "The good camera you have with you is better than the excellent camera you left behind.". Of course it might leave people wondering why you didn't just bring the excellent camera in the first place.

I've just received the 06 Telephoto Zoom for my Pentax Q. It's an 80-210 f/2.8 equivalent the size of .. something really small. Images from this have bumped the Q rating from Decent to Impressive, and it will definitely be coming on more trips!

a few thoughts, most of which have already been made. it should be obvious that the more correct truism would be, "you can't take pictures with a camera that isn't in your hands." this leaves room for the fact that you should prepare yourself by having the correct camera in your hands, and that barring that you should at least make sure you are getting the most out of the one you do have, if that's not the optimum choice. pedants, yes, I know of remote releases, but that's not the subject of this truism. :) as for "the enemy of good is better," sometimes. the real key is being able to discriminate the situations where perfection is required, and when a little bit of not quite perfect is completely adequate. engineers know all about these design tolerances, that some things have to be accurate to the thousandth of an inch or less, and others just have to be in the same zip code. It's the same for most anything in life, and photography is no exception. want a straight horizon? gotta nail it exactly, even a fraction of a degree is pretty obvious if you have a strong horizon line. cloning dust spots from a blurry background? close enough is just that. now as for iPhone photos, I have yet to take an image that is technically very good with my iPhone. that's why I have a big, heavy dslr with big heavy lenses. but I take hundreds of pictures that are good enough for their intended purpose. if I'm at the store and my wife is home, I take a picture of an item I'm thinking about, and text it to her in a few seconds. if I'm in the parking lot and see an interesting car that I want to read about, I snap a picture and google it later. if my daughter is being exceptionally cute, I snap a quick shot of it to send to my mom or to Facebook. if I'm out taking landscape pictures with my real camera, I snap a quick shot with the iPhone too so that I have a geotag since I don't have gps on my dslr, and also to put on Facebook as a teaser for my friends. every now and then my iPhone will get a picture that's good enough to make the year end family photo book, but most of my iPhone pictures are utilitarian, not art, and that's ok. it fills a need, and does so excellently, and like most apple products, it fills a need I didn't know I had before I bought it. :)

When I was a pro I'd make sure I or my assistants would schlepp everything needed - with backups. Now when photography is about fulfilling the urge to capture a thought, a person, a trick of light but ultimately about pleasing me the rules have changed. In general I carry a Sony Nex 6 and a couple of lenses with me 7 days of the week, whether I'm just headed to the office or to a meeting in another country.


Several of my favorite photographs in the last couple of years have been taken with my iPhone 4s. A mountain in the mist through an airplane window, morning light and a traveler just about to enter it, walking out of an office building with a group from a late meeting and seeing an amazing an amazing construct of light, shape and form...

For all the above, my "good camera" was nearby in it's bag and would likely have created a technically superior frame. In each case cited above timing or setting would really mean that I would have passed on taking the picture or the image would have not been what I was seeing right then. My loss if I had chosen not to take the picture with my lowly phone.

The best in this case, is relative to your intent and need to capture what you have in front of you.

I think this statement refers to the fact that while actively taking pictures may be important to us, it constitutes a relatively minor part of our lives. There's a difference between going on a photo shoot with a less than ideal camera and going to work with that same camera in your coat pocket. Also, much is made of the iPhone. It's used as an example of both good photography and bad. This is once again a different issue. Here we're discussing the ability of an artist to create wonder with an unusual set of tools. Many of us can and have done it, either by accident or on purpose. Discussions around these sets of subjects often become a pseudo scientific analysis of gear inadequacies. The fact that there is no perfect camera never seems to stop our spending thousands searching for that Grail. In reality I believe that just about any camera sold today has capabilities we are still not the equal of.

As an excuse for my lousy results I often feel the best camera is always the one I wish I had brought, instead if the one I did bring.

"The best camera is the one you have with you."

I can't recall when I first saw this statement - but I'm pretty sure it was pre-web. Anyway, I read it as a warning ... make sure you're carrying something capable of handling whatever you might encounter. It's a line of thinking which has influenced my move from DSLRs to m4/3.


The truism is in fact completely true. If your aim is to make good or even great photos it makes absolutely no difference which camera you take . None. It makes no difference what lens you have. It makes no difference what film you use (if applicable). It makes no difference what brand it is. It makes no difference what sensor it has. It makes no difference what it's technical specs are. It makes no difference if you have a Polaroid. Or a pinhole or a 4x5. Not one of these things will make any difference at all if you decide to make images at a particular time. All that matters is that you have something. And that there are limitations to it that will force you to improvise. I go out with the intention of making a stunning image. I may have the idea to shoot some birds and perhaps stick on along lens. But what if there are no birds? Am I just going to go home.? No. The limitations of using a long lens to shoot something else are what could produce something extraordinary. Granted, the chances of failure are much higher, but if it works, then it's going to transcend the rest. Here's a picture I took of a bird with all the wrong equipment. It's blurry, not centred. It shouldn't work but it s one of my favourite shots. If I had the r"right" lens, I'd have an in focus shot of a raven. So what. I prefer this. https://www.flickr.com/photos/lazyaussie/446649705/in/set-72157600048547662
Yes, you could miss the shot you wanted, but the shot you thought you wanted is often not the right one.
In my opinion, the worst thing to take would be a top of the line slr with a zoom. Not enough problems to solve. Counterintuitively it' would be harder to take a good shot. Competent shots yes. But who cares about them? There's a million of them out there. The truism is in fact 100% true!

Here is a recent development in my world. I finally gave in to the hype and got a Sony RX100 III. On the advice of a German friend who had just done the same, I got a leather case that fits on my belt. For my uses the Sony returns wonderful files and has my favorite range of focal lengths, 24-70. It's a "Zeiss" lens and acts it. It gives me pictures 80% as good as my E-M5 (these are my and only my estimates, not DxO ) and is always with me. So, for me, this seems to be an answer.

I always have heard the quote referenced above as 'The perfect is the enemy of the good'. It goes with old saying that an artist, of any persuasion, must know when a work is finished and stop editing, touching or daubing.

One of the early letters in the Ansel Adams letters book has him suggesting to his parents that he buy a mule at the start of his stay in Yosemite, and sell it at the end (for half the amount). Even as a young man he had some sanity about how much weight he carried around :-). (I think I remember this being far enough back that he was using glass plate negatives.)

As to Galen Rowell, he discussed in at least one of his books the tradeoffs of weight vs. capability for his camera equipment. He was well aware he was trading off technical quality by shooting in 35mm, but he believed that it let him get to places he wouldn't reach at all with heavier equipment. Some of his famous photos show the technical flaws of the small format, but they're famous. It seems to me he was right in judging the tradeoffs for what he was trying to do.

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