I recently received an email from an old friend who is also a new photographer. She was working on an assignment and had a second photographer working with her. What she noticed was at the end of the day, the other photographer’s pictures seemed better than her own. “Her pictures seem so much brighter,” she said, “with less noise and more pop. Much more than with my camera.” She went on to ask if I thought it was the camera that made the difference. “I’ve seen other photographers who work with those cameras and they look great too. Do you think it’s the camera? Could it be that mine needs to be serviced? It’s really bothering me!”
I understood her concern. After all, nobody likes to think they’re working with one hand tied behind their back thanks to sub-par equipment. But what really surprised me was how earnestly she believed that the solution to better pictures was found in another camera. It made me consider just how many other new photographers out there might be operating under the same misguided assumption: that somewhere out there is the one perfect camera, and if only they owned it, all their problems would be solved.
It’s called camera envy, and it’s unfortunately common. So that’s why I’m writing to you today, to offer a bit of simple advice and sage wisdom (if I do say so myself) in case you also find yourself in this disheartening camp. Although there are many great cameras out there, which means by definition there have to be some lesser ones as well, what it really comes down to is something that my friend asked about as an afterthought. At the end of her message she said, “Could it simply be a question of technique?” Aha! I think she might be on to something.
When you find yourself eyeing a friend’s photographs and admiring how tremendous they look, understand that cameras may have different default settings for color, contrast and sharpness. More importantly, though, are the differences that originate several inches behind the sensor—in the eye and the brain of the photographer herself. If you want to make better pictures, first make yourself a better photographer.
That said, how do we account for some of the tangible differences my friend was seeing, and the physical differences you might see when envying your friends’ photographs? Those differences, while real, are a function of many factors—most notably, though, is the processing that occurs automatically in the camera. That’s the different defaults for color, contrast and sharpness I mentioned a moment ago. Then there’s the processing carried out by the photographer during post production, which could further separate some images from others with superior sharpness, saturation and contrast.
Perhaps that other photographer is shooting RAW files and processing them—applying color, contrast and sharpening adjustments in the conversion to JPEG or TIFF files. Or maybe the reverse is true: are you shooting RAW files and comparing your un-processed RAW files to straight-out-of-the-camera JPEGs from the other photographer? Remember that RAW files come right off the sensor with minimal processing, whereas every JPEG that leaves a camera has already received its processing—including presets for color, contrast, sharpness and more. The processed JPEG files are finished, whereas those RAW files are only half baked until they’ve been processed in the computer.
It could also be as simple a different picture style setting. When shooting JPEGs, you can set your camera to be more or less contrasty, more or less saturated, more or less sharp, and so on. You can choose presets for landscapes and portraits and so on, and they offer different combinations of these controls. You can also create your own presets by fine tuning those individual elements however you prefer them. The camera then automatically applies those adjustments to every JPEG you shoot, so you don’t have to work with RAW if you don’t want to. Sometimes it could simply be that you’re seeing the difference between a default picture style, and a customized one that’s altered those fundamental settings to produce a better looking picture.
One thing I told my friend, and I’ll repeat it here, is that those differences she’s seeing are not likely emblematic of the difference between Nikon and Canon, or any other camera make or model. That’s not to say there aren’t real differences in image quality between top of the line cameras and entry level models, and every variation in between. It’s just that there’s a difference between seeing actual image quality differences and attributing every little thing to a camera that’s superior or subpar. The fact is, there are lots of things that can be corrected in her own camera if she learns a little more about how to make her camera produce images that look how she likes.
For instance, my friend felt like her pictures weren’t as contrasty, as saturated, as sharp or as noise-free as the photos she saw from her friend’s camera. Notice that all of those things can be adjusted with picture styles? Not only could she choose a picture style in her own camera to create more vivid, sharp, noise-free images, but she could shoot RAW files and make those style corrections in the computer.
What my friend was seeing was ultimately a combination of subtle exposure differences, color, contrast and sharpness differences, and the subtle compositional differences that stem from the fact that a different photographer with a different aesthetic was responsible for their creation. Everything she was seeing could be adjusted in her own camera—except for the aesthetics. For that it takes time, as well as lots of practice. It’s nothing that a new camera is going to automatically fix. If it were that easy, we’d all be using that camera—whatever it might be.
So don’t go buying a new camera every time you feel a bit of camera envy. Invest in a better camera when your skills have improved such that its features will help you make better pictures. Remember, photographers make pictures. Cameras are just our tools.