Sunday, July 12, 2015

GAS Pains (Part 1)

Gear Acquisition Syndrome is a tragic affliction. In the quest for better images, photographers commonly succumb to "upgrading" or supplementing their gear under the guise of "newer must be better," with manufacturers continuously feeding the addiction with minor changes and tweaks.
There is no doubt that the camera matters, and improvements in technology have bettered photography. But gear doesn't matter for the reasons about which most people get into flame wars. It's not about sensor pixels, lens quality, or even ergonomics. It's about how the camera makes you behave.
I have and use all the major types of still cameras: 
  • SLR Film (manual focus)
  • DSLR (autofocus)
  • Rangefinder (manual focus)
  • Mirrorless (autofocus)
  • (LCD only cameras are a special category, which I don't include here. Although I use the iPhone to make images, a viewfinder is a significant part of the gestalt visual process, and I avoid cameras that don't have one.)
Each of these designs has its advantages and disadvantages as a tool, but since they all capture a still image, the most important aspect of a given camera is how it makes the photographer behave. Although there are four categories of cameras, their impact on creativity and lifestyle lumps them into two. But first, a digression about the creative process.

Bite-size Creative Process

For purposes of this discussion, we need only deal with a very rough outline of the creative process in three steps:
  1. All creativity starts with an idea.
  2. The idea is then worked to match the artist's conception.
  3. After working the idea to completion, the idea can be shared.
A painter can take an idea, and work colors on a canvas for weeks, months, or years, until what's on the canvas matches the painter's idea. Photographers have a different creative process than other artists, though, because we depend on nature to provide us with visual material. So the photographer has an idea, and responds to environments which resonate with that idea. Rather than being able to mix colors and add elements to the composition like the painter can, to capture the right mix of elements the photographer must use the limited tools of the camera: focal length, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and timing the moment.
What kind of camera you use affects this process. A lot. And like any creative endeavor, each photographer has a different approach to capturing an image. Matching the creative approach to the camera is the goal, and achieving that goal requires looking deeply and objectively about the process you use to make images. 
By way of example, I'm particularly interested lately in people's interactions with their environment. My visual approach to capturing such an idea starts with recognizing a scene where this kind of interaction is happening. I'll first evaluate the action in a scene and start to previsualize the image which will capture the idea. Raising the camera and looking through the viewfinder, I'm responsive in finding a gestalt that will best communicate the emphasis on the elements that I need. I may have to change lenses to match the perspective needed for the subject, but I'm primarily concerned with depth of field. (I tend to shoot with only a 28mm or a 50mm, so lens changes are infrequent.) Although I know the focal point I want, the point of focus is rarely the significant portion of the scene. Yes, there is a particular plane which will need to be most sharply in focus, but what I'm looking for, what's occupying my attention, is the gestalt balance of the image.
Diagonals of limbs and light.
Therefore, in capturing our example image, my priorities are:
  1. interactive action which matches an idea
  2. gestalt
  3. aperture
  4. focal point
  5. shutter speed
  6. ISO
To get the images I want, I'm going to have to align my behavior with the particular creative process required for the image I want, and that means I'll have to pick the right tool. Part 2 deals just with that.

Originally posted on f-eleven.com (where it looks so much prettier!)