All too often, when I tell people that I do photography, the first thing they ask is which camera I use – as if it is the most important aspect of photography. I don't understand why that is. Surely the first thing you ask a writer is not which word processor they use to write with; and that the first thing you ask a carpenter is not which brand of hammers / screwdrivers they use – so why should it be any different for photography?
Yes, professional photographers do own expensive cameras. But that is out of necessity – that is, they are not using more expensive cameras because they are professional, it's because in order to get the shot that they want, they need the relevant tool to do it. I am not a full-time professional photographer, but I actively use four different cameras for different purposes. Using better cameras usually give me a leg up when I process the images because lesser camera simply don't have the right specs to do what I want them to, and I end up spending more time inside Photoshop to tweak to perfection.
To illustrate the point that you don't need expensive equipments to take good photographs, I have a collection on Flickr where things are grouped by the tools that I use. I do this mainly because I want to tally up what tools I use for each image. Using Flickr's API it is easy for me then do some data analysis on my own photographs.
Canon EOS 100
The Canon EOS 100 was my first camera. My dad bought me this in 1995 when I left Hong Kong for Yale. It is a film camera. I learned the art and science of photography by working as the photo editor for The Yale Herald, a newspaper published weekly with feature articles. I had to work in the darkroom every week for my assignments. Although I never took a photography class at Yale, I honestly believe that working in the darkroom constantly every week for four years provided the foundation of my photography. It is also through printing my own prints that I am able to translate techniques learned – e.g. working with filters, dodging + burning, pushing + pulling – that allow me to work more efficiently inside Photoshop these days.
I still have this camera. It is my only film camera so I don't want to throw it out even though I don't use it very often these days. I still intend to maybe take some slides with it but never really had the chance. There is something very special about taking photographs with film. With 36 shots max per roll, I tend to spend more time when I compose my shots. The same can be said for my HDR photography and similarly for long-exposure shots. If I know that I will likely need to be holding that position for a long time, and any mis shots would mean spending more time being stuck at the location, I tend to take extra amount of care when I compose. It's interesting to me how my setup and tools change the way I photograph.
Sony Mavica FD7
Sony Mavica FD7 was my first digital camera. I bought it in 1997 after I've made some money in the summer after my sophomore year. It's hard to imagine now how much money I paid for this camera. At a resolution of 640x480, it stores images onto 3.5" floppy disk and I paid $999 USD to buy it. I don't own it anymore because one of my ex kind of stole it from me and refused to give it back when I broke up with him as part of his “revenge”. Ugh.
I bought the Canon G2 in 2001 after working in New York for a while. Before the G2 I actually bought a Sony CyberShot DSC-F55 but the performance is so bad that I decided to get back onto the Canon camp. And the G2 does not disappoint.
I eventually decided to buy a DSLR mainly because when I started to do more long exposure shots, the G2 becomes a bit too noisy for my taste.
Canon EOS 10D
I can't tell you how much I love my 10D. I bought it in 2005 second-hand from a friend who is a professional photographer. He bought a new 20D and no longer had use for the 10D. In fact it was he who recommended that I get the 10D either new or from him after commenting that there are potentials in my G2 photographs. At the time I really thought that he was just trying to sell his junk to me – but frankly I am really thankful that he was such a used equipment pusher then! :)
I don't really use this camera anymore really but I do keep it around as spare in case my 7D die. But I really owe much to this camera. Most of the most amazing photographs on my Flickr stream were taken with the 10D. By publishing my photos via Creative Commons, it gained a lot of exposure and subsequently they brought me lots of fame which was completely unexpected, such as being used in Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra's season catalog.
A completely unexpected side-effect from using an old camera while everybody upgraded is that if people are looking for photographs taken with that particular camera, there aren't that many on Flickr. So now if you go on Flickr searching for photographs with ”canon10d” as tag and then sort by interestingness, the photo above comes up as result #1. And if you look further, spot #1, #3, #4, #5, #6, #9 were also taken by me:
Nobody really bothered with the 10D anymore after 20D came out because a lot of the metering on the Canon TTL tech does not work with the 10D. It also ‘sounds’ like it doesn't have enough spec because it's a 3M pixel camera. Don't let the specs scare you. In my experience, the number of pixels rarely matter. What matter is the quality of the pixels. I have made A2 prints with photographs taken with the 10D with no issue at all.
One advantage of having an SLR is that because of its shear size, it gets you front and center wear the action is. No more being stuck behind crowds. The SLR with your myriads of lenses get you in front of any crowd – right next to the pros. Don't believe me? Try it yourself at any public event. Remember to bring along your heavy L glass – the bigger the better – add another spare with another huge lens and see if anyone check for your press pass.
With an SLR, people also volunteer to pose for you. I don't think that people would ask me to take photos of them if I was with my P+S.
Point and shoot does have its place though. How often do you want to carry all those tech with you all the time? And that is exactly why I bought the SD850 at the first place. It has just enough controls but is small enough for me to carry it around all the time. I took the photo above when I was walking my dog one night. My P+S is always with me everywhere that I go. Yes the pixel quality is not as good as the SLR – but I would rather take the shot then not having anything at all.
A side effect of carrying a P+S is that people are more willing to let you photograph them if you look like a tourist who just want to take some photos. I don't think that I would be able to get many of the photos in my kiss series if I did not have my P+S with me. Sadly I don't have this camera with me anymore. I lent it to a friend in New York and I never arranged a time to meet her up before I left New York. Oh well, hopefully she would have some use for it!
Canon EOS 7D
As I started to work on more videos, I find myself needing a camera that is capable to producing videos. This is why I bought the Canon EOS 7D. I had wanted to get the full frame 5D then but I can't really afford it. The 7D is somewhat noisy but for its price I think that it was a good decision. Plus at the time the 5D Mk II's focusing tech is not as good so I decided on the 7D instead. Still not a full frame – but if I want to photograph full frame I actually can just use my Canon EOS 100. :)
This is my default camera body now. With all the accessories that I have it's somewhat heavy but it is what I use when I travel. My main reason for traveling is to photograph different places and culture. So it has lots of use. The CMOS sensor is very good quality. It is a big improvement from the 10D.
7D's rapid firing action also makes it perfect for photojournalism. Often for live action events there is no time for you to even decide on how to frame because the moment it gone if you don't release the shutter soon enough.
Earlier I mentioned that my Kiss series owe much to having a P+S – but sometimes having SLR also fetched you the opportunity. Because I look series, these couples let me photograph them while I was covering another event at the bar and the photos were subsequently published in a a French gay lifestyle magazine – which is so awesome!
Epson 4810 Scanography
You don't even need a camera to do photography. I experimented a little bit with scanography – the art of photographing using a scanner. Since scanners do not ‘photograph’ the whole photograph at the same time. You ended with these rather interesting composition which can almost be said to be of cubist tradition:
If you want to use your scanner as a camera though, make sure that you wipe the glass clean – as you see above dust spots are everywhere. You can tweak them in photoshop but wow painful – so as with all photography setup: do it right the first time and you don't need to tweak things to death later on.
Since as I mentioned earlier on, I don't have a P+S anymore, so I bought the Canon G12. The video function is fairly good so I am also using it to work on some video
Acting as a tourist again: no one bother me when I photograph inside subway stations in Hong Kong
Shopkeepers in Hong Kong really dislike people taking photographs of their store. I guess probably because a lot of times local photojournalists take photographs to report bad behavior at the store. For these instances, the iPad came to rescue. The quality of the pixel suffers somewhat here but again I'd rather have the shot then have nothing at all.
I am waiting for iPhone 5 to be in hand, so when I moved to Hong Kong two months ago, I went out and bought the cheapest Android phone so I can at least use Google Maps without popping up a giant iPad on the crowdy street in Hong Kong. That's why I own the LG e400 now. As the most inexpensive phone on the market, to say that its sensor is sh!tty would be an understatement.
It is however precisely how bad the camera is that I had the realization that if I am to become a good photographer, I really ought to be able to take photographs regardless of the equipment I use. In other words, by making myself to create good images out of the worst available tool, I am in fact pushing myself to become a better photographer. I am no where near that point yet, but I hope that one day I will be able to.