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For Stronger Photographs, Forget the Camera

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David DuChemin, author of The Visual Toolbox: 60 Lessons for Stronger Photographs, explains that photography is about stories, and life, and photographs that say something about those things. It is not about cameras.
This chapter is from the book

Forget the Camera

IT IS EASY, in a craft where we rely as heavily as we do upon the cameras in our hands, to get a little too attached to our gear. So maybe now is a good time to ask you to—no, to beg you to—forget the camera. Photography, the way I practice and teach it (which is not the only way, not by a long shot, but I assume it’s a way that resonates with you because you’ve chosen to read this book and not another) is about you and the world around you. It’s about stories, and life, and photographs that say something about those things. It is not about cameras. It is not about impressing people with the brand of camera you carry or the length of the lens you use. Very few people care about those things.

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Nikon D3s, 23mm, 1/25 @ f/4, ISO 1600

I could have made this photograph with any camera I own. Sure, some might handle the low light a little better, but software helps with that, and when’s the last time someone was deeply moved by how good your sensor is?

The best craftspeople and artists get so good that their tools become an extension of them, a mere afterthought. They choose the tool that works for them, the tool that gets out of the way as quickly as possible and allows them to do their work with as few frustrations as possible. And they know, in the case of photography, that the real work of making a photograph relies on skills you won’t read about in the camera manuals, important as those little books are.

Of course, we need the camera to make photographs. But once you have learned to use the camera, the most important photographic skills are these: receptivity and an openness to see things as they are, curiosity, patience, and a willingness to fail and try again. In the case of photographing people, the key skill is an ability to empathize and connect. In the case of travel photography, it’s an ability and willingness to engage a place, and a people, on its own terms. Whatever the genre, there is a skill, or a list of skills, that is more important than just knowing how to use a camera. And I’m not saying that to downplay technical expertise, but to elevate the role of the man, woman, or child (because many of us pick up a camera for the first time as kids) behind the black box. Give me, any day, a low-resolution photograph made with cheap optics and printed on recycled paper but made by someone with something to say and the courage to say it, over a perfectly sharp, 40-megapixel image made with the best lenses and no vision or creativity.

Too many photographers get sidetracked early on by the unimportant. Their lives become an endless obsession with the latest camera, lens, or software, and the hunt to acquire them, and that’s okay if that’s what you want to do with your too few days on this earth. Truly. But it won’t make your photographs any more compelling, any more interesting, any more beautiful, or any more human. Those things take something more.

A photograph will only be as interesting, human, beautiful, creative, insightful, or motivating as the person behind the camera. So learn to use the camera. Learn it so well that you can forget it, and move on to making photographs that transcend their humble, technological origins. I know this doesn’t sound like photographic advice, but if you can fall more in love with life, and the possibility of expressing something amazing through the humble photograph, than you do with the camera and the gear, you’ll make stronger photographs than you ever imagined. Some of us took far too long to learn that.

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Nikon D800, 85mm, 1/320 @ f/8.0, ISO 400

It’s the relationships, the light, the moments, and how you deal with them, with the camera in your hand, that will make your photographs stand out. This is Gabriel, a man I met in Kenya. After our time together he gave me a camel. It happens all the time (though not usually with a camel) and it has everything to do with connection. Don’t get sidetracked by the gear.

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