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You keep asking me, so I’ll tell you: Don’t buy a camera

As a photographer, I get this question all the time. From moms and dads, small business owners, people heading out on vacation. I’m a photographer, after all. The question only makes sense: “What kind of camera should I buy?”.

Inevitably, I follow up their question with some of my own—“what do you want to use it for? Where will you be taking it? How are you going to store the images? What kind of computer are you using? What’s your budget?” Their responses are usually very practical—they want to take better pictures of their kids, or they want to be able to post better social media photos, or they want to save money on product photos and brand images, or any number of practical explanations. But almost never is the answer something like “I really love photography, and want to get good at it for my own artistic and creative satisfaction”.

There’s a subtext here. This question, for their stated reasons, rests on an assumption that bigger, more complicated, more expensive cameras ‘take better photos’. I hate to burst their bubble, but they cannot do what I can do. They are not impressed with my images because I’ve purchased the correct equipment. They are impressed with my images because I’ve spent almost 15 years honing, very specifically, the art of photography and image making. When I take an image, I think of nuances others don’t even know exist. That’s not tooting my own horn, it’s just what happens when someone spends a sizable portion of their life focused on one thing.

So, after hearing the pragmatic rationale for their questions, my answer is consistently the same: “Don’t buy a camera, buy the newest and best iPhone you can”.

Yes, I’m an admirer of Apple products, and there are good arguments for why the images produced with Apple products are superior to competitors, but it’s somewhat irrelevant here. For all intents and purposes, any current high end smart phone will do. I am fairly insistent with this advice. Lets unpack it a bit.

You’re probably not going to get significantly superior images from a “camera”.

Yes, I can do things with my DSLR’s that I just can’t do with my iPhone. But, before I could do those things with a DSLR, I had to learn how. Unless you’re taking that camera with you everywhere, and using virtually every opportunity you encounter as a chance to learn, then the handful of times you actually need it for the reason you bought it, you’re not going to be any better at getting superior images with it.

The fact of the matter is, cameras are inconvenient. They’re big—even the compact ones—compared to a smart phone you’re already taking with you everywhere. If you expect to get good at photography, you need to do it all the time, which means you need to carry the camera, which means you need to love photography for photography’s sake (or be inordinately and consistently committed to something you don’t really care much about).

Which brings us to the second point…

It’s really not about the gear, really.

This is as old a sentiment as the light meter on the camera. And, interestingly, it’s only those with experience who seem to believe it… probably because we got that experience by buying things that we expected would make our images better, only to find that we still had to learn and practice to make better images. Well, whether you wish to take this advice or not, it’s true. If you’re carrying a perfectly capable camera with you already, and aren’t happy with your images, spending $1000 on a camera probably isn’t going to change that.

There are myriad ways to learn to ‘see’ like a photographer, and design and composition ‘rules’ to discover, memorize and purposefully break. There are dozens if not hundreds or thousands of ways to ‘process’ the images you create, using a computer or a phone. In probably 80% of shooting situations, the device that actually captures the image is incidental and virtually any other capable device could have been substituted, and produced results exactly as satisfying. So, from the standpoint of someone with experience, it is naive to put so much stock in the camera, before diligently exploring the greater influence of everything else a photographer does to create a great image.

So when is it time to buy a dedicated camera?

The answer is: Whenever the camera itself becomes an actual limitation. See, most people, failing to see the plethora of skills involved in creating a great image, believe the camera itself is the limitation right out the gate. An iPhone, for example, has excellent low light quality, a wide angle lens and a telephoto lens, it has computational depth of field (the blur in the background), it has a suitable flash for most situations, it’s sporting a resolution high enough for a magazine cover, and it’s already with you everywhere you go.

So, if you cannot point to a particular thing you want to shoot, that the features—or lack of features above—limit you from doing, you’re not suddenly going to be appreciating the freedoms a dedicated camera provides and creating the images of your dreams. When you go to shoot something for your business, you need to be able to say “an image like this, but not this one thing”. If you’re swiping through images of your kids or a recent vacation, and don’t like the photos, you should be able to say, “I don’t like this thing about this photo because of this thing the camera cannot do”.

So, you should be buying a dedicated camera when you can actually see, specifically, how your existing camera is getting in the way of the images you want to create.

You might never need a dedicated camera.

As I said before, the fact is you need to get good at photography in order to get the value out of a dedicated camera. You need to have some commitment to photography itself, aside from its specific practical applications, in order to be good enough at photography when you need it for those practical applications.

If you want really nice photos of your family, it’s less time, money and effort, to hire a qualified professional once every year or two, while casually working to improve your skills for the everyday photos in-between. The same could be said about a business’ photography needs—it’s less expensive to hire a photographer to create your headshots and corporate marketing material, while working on some basic ways to improve the images you create yourself for social media and everyday purposes.

If you never become interested in mastering photography as a craft, this will probably remain true and you can bank on never needing to buy that dedicated camera. However, perhaps as you improve your skills for the day to day images, you develop that interest. And when you ‘see’ the image you want, and are unable to capture it because of the smart phone’s limitations, go out and drop that dough on something bigger and more capable.