Alan's Blog




You Must Have a Great Camera!

Late this afternoon I watched a TV programme about the Yellowstone River, on the Smithsonian Channel.

The programme astonished me. The level of creativity in the composition and the use of natural lighting of each video clip was simply amazing. I know from bitter experience just how difficult it must have been to obtain these shots. Wildlife shots are particularly difficult to obtain under any circumstances and these were just out of this world. Phenomenal.

In 1976, one of my fellow Open University students, a man in his late 40s or early 50s visited my home to discuss some of our coursework. Whilst he was there, I happened to show him some photographs that I'd recently taken. His only comment was along the lines of
"You must have a great camera to get photographs like that".
As this is the greatest insult one can receive as a photographer it is perhaps needless to say that I quickly got him out of my house and never spoke to him again.

Of course, some sort of camera, good or not so good, is an essential requirement for a photographer to have, and, if you make a living from your picture or video taking it is a good idea to have the best you can afford, but the point I wish to make is that the lens must still be pointed in the 'right' direction under the 'right' lighting conditions (natural, or created in a studio setting) in order to be able to get a good photograph or video clip. The camera is only a tool. The photographer is the creator of the image.

An example of this comes to mind:
When we lived in The Netherlands one of our neighbours worked as a film maker. I saw a short sequence of his one day and realised that I could never create what he was doing regardless of the equipment I had at my disposal. Not only did he take the video but he also did the editing. Most film makers use the services of a specialist video editor, as do the broadcast companies, as video editing is a totally different skill to that of taking the original video and one which can make or break the production. As I told him at the time "I could never do anything like that". You either have this creative talent or you don't – and I don't.

Since the early days of digital photography there has been a tremendous advance in the quality of images captured by cameras of all types. I'm not just referring to the technical quality, but the creative quality, which is much more important.

When I started photography well over fifty years ago it was not at all affordable by most people. I really struggled on my pittance of a wage as an apprentice, and for most of my life afterwards as I never bought a digital camera until July 2006.

For example, in 1970, the cost of 1 minute of Super-8 movie film (no sound) cost £1 / minute - £15.57 in today's money! I'll repeat this – PER MINUTE! Imagine shooting video at that sort of cost today. To add sound, or to use 16 mm film, would have cost a great deal more. A roll of colour transparency film (with processing) cost £1.50 (£23.35 in today's money) for only 36 pictures. Would you, or even could you, afford, let alone justify, those costs today?

Fifty years ago, only comparatively wealthy people (or single people living with their parents, like me) could afford to be equipped with even half-reasonable, let alone top-notch equipment and have unlimited supplies of film to go with it. Working class people couldn't even consider participating in photography seriously. My dad loved taking photographs but could never have considered it seriously as a hobby – high days and holidays only, and then taking a very limited number of photographs.

Now, almost everyone can afford to take photographs and videos (with sound) using equipment that is far superior to that that I was able to use all those years ago. However, apart from the technical quality, this affordability has meant that huge numbers of creative geniuses have been able to express their talents than would have able to fifty years ago.

It is this increase in the number of individuals from (particularly) working-class families, that has released such a deluge of creativity into photography and videography in recent years. How wonderful to be able to see such amazing scenes that we would never have been privileged to see fifty years ago.

Of course, there were good photographers around in those days but they were few and far between compared to today and even professional level equipment was a far cry from where we are now. And many of the good photographers then would have been no match for the really good photographers of today. When I compare the work of many of those photographers of years ago with those of today, I see a massive improvement in the images from recent times – and I don't just mean the technical improvement brought about by better equipment – just look at some of the amazing compositions from today's photographers. Mind blowing - as in the film I watched this afternoon.

Back in the day, even I was able to sell some of my better images to various publications and I was certainly not a great photographer. It's just that so few people were photographers and there was a great demand for even reasonably good images that it was possible even for me to make a few pounds here and there. Nowadays, I realise my photography is so far behind in creativity that I don't even bother to submit any for publication. Not only that, but even the most amazing images rarely receive payment worth having as there are so many photographers willing to give the reproduction rights away free, or almost free, of charge just to be able to say they've had something published. How the world of photography has changed in fifty years.

Nowadays, the cost per photograph or video clip is almost nothing but cameras are still expensive – very much so. A top-end camera and lens, or maybe two, would have easily cost £1500 (£23,355 in today's money), but even now, how many people would spend that sort of money (£23k+) on a camera? Today (9 July 2020), Canon released two new cameras. The Canon EOS R5 being the camera with the highest specification. The camera body is £4200. Add a few lenses and you'll be up to £10k very quickly. Even now, when most people are more prosperous than they were fifty years ago how many will go out and spend £10k on a camera outfit? Again, only the comparatively wealthy – as was the case fifty years ago, can afford a top-end camera and lenses (just have a look at the cost of PhaseOne cameras and lenses and you'll soon rack-up the £23,355 from 50 years ago!).

I would also like to add that I'm not including the 'professional' level of video camera in my pricing as these are so far up the scale as to be unaffordable by almost all amateur photographers, even those who are well-heeled. For example, the Canon Cine-Servo 50-1000 mm T5.0-8.9 lens used by many wildlife film makers costs around $US 70,000 – and that's just the lens – not the camera and other necessary equipment (in fact, CVP, one of the main 'professional' camera dealers in the UK don't even put a price on their website – just a note saying that you should telephone to ask the price).

The biggest differences in costs compared to fifty years ago are that once you've bought your camera, you don't have film and processing to pay for. Obviously, it helps if you have a computer and some external hard drives, but even these are fairly affordable and most homes have at least one computer used for many things other than just photography.

Also, the cost of the lower end cameras, relative to the cost fifty years ago, is fairly inexpensive, and with very little in the way of 'running costs' it has made photography affordable – and even these cameras are way better specified than cameras fifty years ago – many of which are now built into our mobile telephones – something that didn't really exist fifty years ago!

One equalising factor that all photographers had to live with before the digital era was film. Everyone, professional or amateur, used the same materials in recording their images. The only difference was the size of the film they used. Professional photographers would often use a film size that produced transparencies or negatives of a size from 5" x 4" upwards. Yes, those are measured in INCHES! The common sizes were: 5" x 4"; 5" x 7"; 10" x 8"; 12" x 10" and sometimes even larger. I almost bought a second-hand MPP camera that took 5" x 4" film, but realised there was no way I could afford the cost of film and processing as even 35 mm film cost me far too much of my small income – one image taken on 5" x 4" cost about the same as 36 images on 35 mm film. But I was seriously tempted as the quality was stupendous in comparison.

I did once own a Yashica MAT medium format camera that took 6 cm x 6 cm images on 120 roll-film (I wish I'd kept it but had to trade it in to buy something else). Later in life I bought a Mamiya 645J with a considerable range of lenses which I still have today – it produces wonderfully high-quality transparencies.

The reason for using a film size as large as possible was the degree of magnification required to produce a print (an 'enlargement' as it was then called) or to project onto a screen. These days we call this the resolution but the same factor applies. Nowadays, the more pixels you have in your captured digital image the better it will 'enlarge' – to a point. The old adage of the bigger the film size, the better the picture still applies regardless of the number of pixels. "A Good Big'en is better than a Good Small'en" as the saying went. This is why, even now, many professional photographers use cameras with relatively large digital sensors.

As a very rough comparison, 35 mm film (36 mm x 24 mm frame size) could resolve the equivalent of about 10 MP in todays digital format. If you bought what is now called a full-frame digital camera these days you'd rarely find a new model that contains less than about 20 MP and some sensors contain more than 60 MP. I might add that resolution isn't the only factor to apply when buying a digital camera, but that is way outside the scope of this piece of writing.

In those far off days, lenses never had to resolve anything like as much detail as they do now, purely because of the limitations of film. Even the large format film sizes were of much the same 'resolution' as the small sizes – it was just the degree of enlargement, or magnification, that meant that larger film sizes produced better quality results. This is one reason why lenses for digital cameras have to be so much better (and expensive) than they used to be. The other factor is that light rays shining onto a piece of film can come in from almost any angle, whereas, with a digital sensor, the rays of light should hit the sensor at exactly 90 degrees to obtain the best result (although 'film' lenses are still useable within their limitations).

To get a good picture it sometimes helps if you have a good knowledge of photographic techniques and the 'technical' aspects of using a camera. It's a help, but not always essential with today's fully automatic cameras, but that alone won't get you a great image any more than your camera will. The great thing now is that you can buy really good second-hand cameras for very reasonable prices – even full-frame models. Never mind spending £4200 on the latest Canon body and then up to £10k total including lenses. Spend £1000 instead for body and lens – equivalent to about £64 in 1970, but the specification and quality is far beyond anything you could buy in those days.

So, there we have it. You don't need a great camera to produce a great image. What you do need is a great level of creativity.

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