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Tools of the Trade

Happy New Year. So, Canon has announced their new 1DX. Not to be outdone in this Olympic year, Nikon have announced their speed merchant, the D4 - a battle of the giants then.
It seems that every week or so, a new camera is announced proclaiming to be the best thing since sliced silicon, providing the ultimate in speed, noise, user friendliness, image quality etc. at a price you can afford. A regular workshop client of mine proudly announced a while ago that he was going to buy a new Nanon (sic) whatever. I asked simply, “Why?” He stood looking at me in silence for a few moments, contemplating what string of superlatives he was going to offer me for his decision, before realising in truth that there was absolutely no justification whatsoever.
Looking me straight in the eye called me a “Sod!” He realised that a new camera would not make him a better photographer, the camera is only the tool we use. Now, we may gain gratification with new tools and they may save us a little time, be more user friendly or indeed provide a better image, but, to reiterate again, they don’t make us better photographers.

As with any tool, we do need the right tool for the job. Professionals use ‘professional’ cameras in the main for their build quality. Sturdy bricks of magnesium bodied computers sealed against the elements to enable us to do the job. Generally they will have more customisation facility so that the tool works as we want it to, rather than a designer sitting in a studio in Japan thinks we want it to. This is why they cost thousands rather than hundreds of our pounds sterling. One of the worst things that you can suffer is having an equipment failure when on a job. I have only experienced this once, and it was due to pushing the camera beyond its design criteria – shooting in a blizzard. Some cameras can cope some cannot. Read your camera specification to see its operating temperature range. Rarely is a digital camera designed to work below zero ° Celsius, check it out!

In early January 2012 I went to the Royal Gallery exhibition of photographs taken by Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley depicting the trials, tribulations, determination and courage, Scott and Shackleton’s teams’ experienced during their expeditions conducted in Antarctic at the beginning of the 20th century. The equipment available to them was limited. There were no review sites to pore over; no forums where armchair critics merit or demerit the virtues or otherwise of a specific camera using their esteemed, arbitrary, unbiased profundity; no pixel peeping madness. They made judgements of course, they had to. They were carrying out a job, to record the events. They were generally acknowledged to be the first professional photographers to be solely employed for this purpose and I’m sure they didn’t want to cock it up. They needed the right tools to do the job, which back then meant that their primary tools were large format cameras and in the main, glass plates, coated with a film of silver salts emulsion in gelatin. Ponting had his camera adapted to take 7” x 5” glass plates for the trip, but because of the cold, they and the camera had to be stored outside to avoid condensation and cracking along with the chemicals used for developing. Hurley used a plate camera as well, taking between 400 and 500 individual plates. However, when the Endurance was crushed, Hurley dove into the water to retrieve the plates but, then had to abandon the majority of his images due to the weight and transport implications of the plates, saving only 120 of them. Hurley also took a cine camera and a folding Kodak film camera with 122mm film. Now, with these cameras, there is no ‘chimping’, no histogram to check, no zoom lenses and realistically no second chance. Working not just at below zero, but seriously below zero where frost bit was the biggest enemy, absolutely stunning photographs were produced. Their equipment, their tools of the trade were severely limited by today’s standards but they delivered the goods because they were exceptionally good photographers. They used their tools in an expert way to produce imagery of such a quality that you feel humble.

With the wealth of technological advancement in, what seems a never ending expansion of manufacturers, there seems to be no end of tools we have available, it is probably churlish to bang on about it. But do you know what? I’m going to. It is the photographer who sees the photograph; the photographer who composes the image; the photographer who, when all things are said and done, produces the photograph. No amount of pixel peeing will make you a better photographer, remember that. Only practice can do that, so JDI – Just do it.