I often find myself repeating the adage that it’s the photographer who makes the photograph, not the camera†. This statement is perfectly true.
For certain values of “true”…
What I’m trying to get across, of course, is that the essential parts of a photograph — the subject, composition, lighting, etc. — are nothing to do with the camera, and everything to do with the skill of the photographer. You can take great pictures with cheap kit and you can take execrable pictures with expensive kit.
What’s hidden in that trite little saying, though, is that the experienced photographer will understand the capabilities and limitations of whatever camera he or she is using, and will work within those limitations.
Consider the pictures here: it was a balmy night in Harlech, so I went out for late-night walk. Night-time lighting is wonderful — especially in black and white, when it takes on an eerie, spooky character. Of course, when you’ve got a castle just round the corner, you feel the need to make a few creepy pictures — a bit Hammer horror or old Hollywood Frankenstein style.
The thing about night-time, though, is that the dark bits are, well, dark. Even the lit parts are not that bright. This means that you have to push the ISO setting up on the camera to get even a halfway reasonable shutter speed and, thus, a sharp picture.
And this is where quality will out, because the cheap kit will now start to struggle as increasing the ISO value begins to dramatically increase the noise in the picture. I might write a short post about why that is some time but, for the moment, the point is that it is unlikely that a cheap camera could produce the pictures that I’ve included here.
The thing to look for is those areas of deep, deep black in the pictures. You need a low-noise sensor, otherwise they will just be blocks of random coloured or grey speckles.
The lesson here, then, is that you need to understand your camera’s capabilities and base your concept of the pictures you wish to take around those capabilities. Don’t try to force a camera to do something it’s not capable of: that way lies rubbish photos.
So, here’s a challenge: suppose you’re standing where I am in any of these pictures, but you only have your camera phone, which is exposing with a shutter speed of about a second. This means that, no matter how hard you try, you will get motion blur in the picture. Can you think of a way to creatively work with that camera to get a worthwhile picture? Or maybe just wait for daylight…
† There is the (probably apocryphal) story of the host at a dinner party who said to a photographer guest, “you take wonderful pictures; you must have a very good camera”, to which the photographer replied, “this is a wonderful meal; you must have a very good oven”.