The Impossible Photo

I love the idea that this beautiful image was made with a camera that someone once described as "the worst DSLR ever."
I love the idea that this beautiful image was made with a camera that someone once described as “the worst DSLR ever.”

If you know me at all, you know how fed up and I with the mythology surrounding photography, and at the center of my frustration is the idea that you can – an should – buy mastery.

Anyone in any art knows that you have to earn mastery. A new piano won’t make you play that etude better, a new red dot sight won’t make you shoot straighter, a new airplane won’t make your approaches safer.

In the photography community, there is a lot of social pressure to “upgrade.” Photography websites often rely on advertising, so they are eager to promote and praise the latest and greatest, and, of course, the most expensive, cameras and lenses. That message goes hand-in-hand with the idea that what you have now, what you bought last year or five years ago, is “outdated,” and by proxy, incapable of making good photographs.

I know it sounds ridiculous to pay $6000 for a camera, then be told by the web, and the photography community, that your camera isn’t good enough because the next $6000 camera is better.

But that is the unambiguous message of the photography community.

I know so many photographers who bought into this thinking, and bought newer, more expensive cameras, yet whose work remained exactly the same.

If you think I am talking about you, I probably am.

I can think of an important exception: my photographer friend Scott AndersEn bought a Nikon 200-500mm and a 35mm f/1.4 a couple of years ago, then – and this is the real reason for buying it – he went to Europe for two weeks. His stuff from Europe was incredible, and I know he enjoyed shooting it with his new cameras. But of course, the real star wasn’t more pixels or sharper lenses, but the things he photographed with them. (See his images here and here.)

But photographers themselves are often the heavy hand of social pressure to spend more money on equipment. I was at a baseball playoff game a few years ago in a media scrum next to the third base dugout when a photographer from another newspaper grinned and rolled her eyes and, with a sarcastic lilt in her voice, said, “So you’re still using the D2H.” Her message was clear: I was an idiot for having an old camera.

What these photographers never do: hand you their credit card.

In the years since then, her newspaper has collapsed under the weight of foolish spending and failure to plan for the future, with wave after wave of layoffs, while my news staff and I do our jobs with what we can afford, and keep going strong. I wonder if she would trade any of her pricey gear to have a few more photographers or reporters at her paper.

So that circles us back to the central idea in photography, the idea that you can’t make great pictures without this lens and that camera. It turns out that last weekend, I actually won an award for Photo of the Year, which I shot with the very camera she scoffed at years ago, the Nikon D2H. There is nothing about this photo that would be improved in any way with a more expensive or newer camera.

It's a shame this photo wasn't shot with a modern mirrorless camera. It's too ... uh, well. You tell me what's wrong with it.
It’s a shame this photo wasn’t shot with a modern mirrorless camera. It’s too … uh, well. You tell me what’s wrong with it.