The Best Camera is…

[originally published on my Facebook Post page October 15, 2011]

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Photo of San Francisco taken while driving down the crooked Lombard Street using an iPhone4 held in one hand and one hand on the steering wheel.

– the one you currently have in your hands! A week or so ago, Nikon’s Facebook Page [ https://www.facebook.com/nikon ] got into a heap of trouble and took so much flak for posting a statement “that one is only as good as the camera equipment” eluding to the point that it has to be a Nikon. It actually pissed of a lot of Canon users, which actually comprise about 80% of the DSLR market, and protested that they were more than slighted. As a long time Nikon user, I was rather titillated. There is an ongoing rivalry between the forces of darkness and the light. Find out what DSLR Darth Vader uses – ;).

Every so often, I get asked – and I don’t mind replying – what camera they should get. Is Canon better than Nikon? What model should I buy? I don’t have much money and can’t afford your camera, but what can I get cheap but could take pictures just as good as yours?

While it is true that a fine piece of equipment, particularly the piece of glasses in a lens, can make a difference for critical work, a lot of matured and experienced photographers – advanced amateurs and professionals alike – would beg to differ on what is needed. I disagree with the above Nikon statement, which they have now recanted with apologies and embarrassment.

As I look back over the 38 years I have been practicing photography, I think I am sort of qualified to say this — “The best camera to use is whatever you have at the moment you snap the shutter!” A bit of personal history would be a good to prove my point. the first purchase I made with my 1st paycheck as a draftsman was a Mamiya-Sekor TL1000. That was all that I could afford then. Around that time, a framed 8×10 print of a photo that I took (placed on a side reference table) was seen by an architect who turned out was an advanced photographer. This encounter lead to my being invited and being taken into their wings at the Portola Camera Club. There were monthly competitions where images were projected for critique to the group that comprises of pretty serious photographers, many I would say rivaled Ansel Adams. I learned the most of my formative years here, allowing my images to be shredded to bits – until it got to be good enough to be perfect.

I then got a chance to shoot the SF 49ers on the sidelines at Candlestick – it became an 8 years stint. As a newbie in the world of Sports photography, I was rather embarrassed to be using an amateurish Nikon F2 with a mere 80-200mm lens while working media photographers next to me (from Sports Illustrated, San Francisco Chronicle, etc.) were using the biggest guns with the extended film roll backs and motor drives (yes, real motor drives!). I shot most of the home games — during the JOE MONTANA years, the TEAM of THE 80s!

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JOURNEY Lead Vox ARNEL PINEDA caught while in flight. Photo taken with a Nikon D200 and a 18-200mm lens with existing lights, cropped and sepia-toned in post.

But lets go back to now. The role of the camera has changed dramatically. Digital has made it more accessible not just for the serious artist. It is now available even for the timid. What I find amusing is today’s trend to post-edit digital images — from the basic brightness/contrast/cropping adjustments that I do — to the more artsy effects such as LoMo, Orthon, Vignette, Boost, Matte, HDR, Cross process, Posterize, Pencil Sketch, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. My favorite, since I did come from the 35mm film school, is the post-introduction of grain to give it the “film look.”

My point is this, you do not need a sharp f2.8 lens to get an image that you would just de-focus, de-grade or lomo-ify! You just have to have a lot of lucky shots… and to do so. Shoot many and practice plenty. Also, you do not need to spend ten thousand dollars just so you can produce a grainy, vignette, cross processed, soft focused image of a rock star or a hot babe. You can just do so with a digital Kodak point and shoot or your old iphone3 for that matter. Besides, working with a “challenged” equipment can actually make you better — in the long run. If you know your equipment’s limitations and you do your best to make the most from it — you could get that lucky shot! What is really more important is that you have in your possession almost always something that can capture that one “money shot!”

What is important is the bottom line – the final image. Ask yourself a few questions after you have reviewed what you have snapped. Does it please you personally? Did the message you want to convey come out on the image? Is is worth showing your mom? Is it worth sharing to the world?

My advice to those who ask me: use what you have! Be it an iPhone or a Nikon D3X (or a Canon D1 Mark XXX to be fair to Canon die-hards). Know your camera’s features and functions 100%. Better yet, know its limitations. Then, know how to work around those limitations. Because really, it is not the camera but the final image you want to freeze and capture at a given moment that counts. One friend reminded me… “it is really more about honing your eyes.”

So go out and practice and have fun! The technology and the cornucopia of apps have made it so that even five year olds can have a go at this and enjoy it. The toys and the features will even get better over time. The price of digital “film” is just as cheap as it can get. You get to review immediately if you got a good or bad shot. There is no excuse for crappy, blurry, fuzzy, red-eyed popping snap shots – unless you are going for such effects (yeah right!). If you get a headache looking at an image, don’t share it! Delete it! Learn how to “see” and learn how to use the gears you may have. There are many free “How To lessons now available from the Internet.

Do learn the basics: the properties and nuances of light, about how to control of light, about classic composition, the Rule of Thirds, Ansel Adams Zone System. Know your camera! Join a photography club. Ask someone to actually tear your picture apart critically. Practice, Practice, Practice! Shoot every day. Then once you have nailed it all down, experiment and stretch the boundaries of what is the norm. Break some rules! All these will do more for you than spending $10,000 for the state-of-the art body. When you start making tons of money, then buy all the high end gears.

Happy Shooting!!!

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FOREIGNER at the Shoreline Amphitheater – taken with a just unboxed Nikon AW100 being Tommy-tested and stretched to the limit. This is a 16 MP point and shoot camera with up to 3200 ISO, all-weather, underwater body.

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