Facing the Demons of Camera Shame

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He is one of the most iconic American photographers, an innovator in his time responsible for aiding in the awareness that led to the preservation of some of our most spectacular natural treasures. He has left millions awestruck by the imagery he captured and inspired millions more to aspire to follow in his steps. His skills were commissioned by government agencies, and the value of his original prints stretches well into the millions. He is Ansel Adams, and his camera was an outdated, antiquated piece of rubbish.

I am certain most, if not all, photographers have experienced it at one time or another: the feeling that you and your skills are made inferior by the equipment you are using, a condition commonly known as camera shame. We shrink back into the shadows around other photographers with “more-pro” gear than us, we avoid conversations with photographers who are knowledgeable about equipment, we miss or turn down opportunities out of embarrassment, and we find ourselves tripping over ourselves in the pursuit of “the next great thing” in hopes of being able to hold our heads high in public.

Heck, we all experience it at some point or another throughout our lives, whether it was that Trapper Keeper we couldn’t afford in third grade or the beatermobile we had to drive in high school (or those of us still driving a 20-year-old domestic whip) or the house we live in that doesn’t have the perfect landscaping and new hot tub like our friends down the street. But, one lesson that comes with age and wisdom is that none of that changes who you truly are or, in any way, alters your skills, talents, and abilities.

Why we experience it

We can debate for eons the natural human propensity towards dissatisfaction, but this is not a discourse in human psychology. As it specifically relates to the topic at hand, we experience shame about what we have because we are told to.

1. We are continuously bombarded by advertising from manufacturers informing us of why their previous product that we saved to purchase is no longer a reliable or sensible choice. They would have us believe that we are somehow missing out on a wealth of our own undiscovered talent by sticking with gear that a few short years ago proved to be more than enough for our limitless imaginations. The very naming of the products often marks our equipment with age and antiquity.

2. The photography industry as a whole is a never-ending stream of reviews and endorsements and claims of why the latest piece of gadgetry is a must-have for a particular level of artist. We have the workshop circuit operating under the guise of education that often is little more than a giant promotional push for what’s new on the market. Popular Photographer X gets free gear from Giant Manufacturer Q in exchange for singing the praises of their latest toy, wielding their power of influence over the eager masses of followers and aspirers below them. Popular Photographer Z publishes a cool image that they captured, but, instead of discussing the process and forethought and creativity that went into it, they only mention the camera that, in reality, only gave them a 3% increased advantage over that which they had previously used…but those looking on are left to believe it was the camera that made the difference. The list could go on…

3. And, then there are those photographers who, whether out of their own insecurities or ignorance or thirst to be a jackass, take it upon themselves to deride others who have “outdated” equipment or fail to measure up on their Holy-S@#t-You’re-Almost-As-Awesome-As-Me-ometer. You have them everywhere, and it seems to be some law of nature that they must exist or the universe will implode upon itself. It’s like high school all over again…but with cameras…or something…

Why it does not matter

Because, it doesn’t. To put it another way that might be easier to understand… It. Does. Not. Matter.

1. On the technical side of photography, there are three principles that transcend technology and gadgetry and industry trends. They apply whether you are using a pinhole camera with a homemade negative or a Hasselblad with a digital back. They are: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. These never change; these are the constants, the common denominator across all eras of photography.

Why is that so important? Because, without a firm grasp on this glorious trifecta, it doesn’t matter what camera you use, you will always be lacking. Knowing your specific gear is important, but knowing photography is far more valuable. So long as you have the right equipment for the job, you’re good.

2. The introduction of the new does not somehow break the old. You will be able to exact the same level of quality from your camera five years from now as you can today (provided it remains operationally sound). Hell, I have an Argus C3 that still takes the same beautiful images today as it did in 1939, despite countless advances in technology. In fact, my favorite camera ever was a vintage Fujica 35mm SLR, and, perhaps it’s just nostalgia, but I swear it took more beautiful and consistent images than any digital camera I’ve ever used. Just like the introduction of digital did not mysteriously render film cameras unable to perform, so, too, will your gear remain viable regardless of what new model may be introduced.

3. We don’t need it. Sure, I’ll probably stir up more angst than a redcoat crashing a St. Patty’s party, but, if we were honest a good majority of the time, we probably don’t need the latest and greatest. Granted, specific gigs require specific equipment…a sports photographer has gotta have his long lenses, a jewelry photographer cannot get by without a macro lens, and a portrait photographer isn’t going to capture flattering images with a wide angle lens. But, while there are definitely those who can use a camera with ISO 125,000 and a shutter faster than the speed of light (speaking hyperbole, of course) to its fullest potential, the majority of us have no need for such bells and whistles. Remember, the fundamentals stay the same, and while many new features available can make life easier, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a better result than truly knowing how to get the most out of what you presently have.

4. Probably the most important point I could make is that it is not the camera that makes the photographer. Many of the most iconic photographs by Ansel Adams were captured with an 8×10 view camera, an outdated piece of technology that many in today’s digital world would probably scoff at. Yet, his images are spectacular works of art and true testaments to the creator’s soul. The camera is simply a tool to be used in the master’s hands; the true creativity is still up to you.

Words from God Ansel Adams: “Knowing what I know now, any photographer worth his salt could make some beautiful things with pinhole cameras.”

My walk of shame

I have been as much a victim of camera shame as anyone else, keeping my camera tucked away around other photogs, (shamefully) lying about my equipment, and wrestling with an inferiority complex over not having something “more professional.”

But, I have been on an honesty kick lately, so there’s no sense hiding the truth from you guys… My cameras are outdated Canon Rebel XS bodies with cheap-ass eBay battery grips to extend usefulness and make them look more impressive (clients feel more confident with a photographer who has an expensive-looking camera), topped off with a small assortment of cheap lenses with my primaries being the Canon 50mm f/1.8. One whole setup can be purchased on Amazon for less than the average smartphone. I have rented L-series glass when the job required it, but, at the heart and soul of the operation, there still lies a very basic camera that would be laughed at my the majority of photographers. I am not hired for the fanciness of my equipment (although, there have been a few exceptions…) but rather for the work I produce.

I have often thought about upgrading and fully intend to do so, but I still feel as though there’s more life to be wrung from these little babies. Even if I upgraded to a 6D or a 1D, I’d still be putting it in manual mode, so apart from the larger sensor and various incidental features, I don’t see the demand for me to change just yet when my style and application of photography doesn’t call for more than what I have.

Move on

Do not allow yourself to be discouraged, embarrassed, or beaten down by the gear you have or do not have. Your work is a testament to you and your skill, not your camera. Stop worrying about what others say. Seriously. Just stop it. Simply ignore it and focus on creating the best images possible

The comments will be rife with ridicule that I should somehow find myself worthy of writing about photography while apparently knowing nothing about gear…to which I respond: Ansel Adams used a box.

  • http://spaghettitree.tumblr.com/ tani P.

    Preach!

  • Jeffrey Guyer

    Amen.

  • Shannon

    Fantastic and I honestly believe that you don’t always need and SLR to capture an amazing moment or photo.

    On a recent trip to Disney I left my SLR at home and took a Canon point and shoot and I still got fantastic photos.

    A few of my favourite photos were even taken with my iPhone!

  • Jeff Ladrillono

    Digital photography is the greatest thing that happened to camera companies. In the days of film, photographers would use bodies for decades and just have them repaired when necessary. I’m sure that if dslrs didn’t exist, i’d still be shooting my Canon 1N rs from the late 90′s and an EOS 650 from ’89.

    I still love manual Hasselblad cameras. Images that current 5d mark IIIs and D800s can’t compare to.

    • Jon

      I guarantee that, had digital not come along, I would have plonked down the cash to fix my old OM-1MD from the late 70s.

    • http://allenmowery.com/ Allen Mowery

      It’s something I’ve come to realize across various facets of life: the more modern and automated anything is, the more opportunity for failure. Even take a power saw for example…how frequently do they need replaced if used regularly? Now, when was the last time you wore out an old hand saw? You can buy an 80-year-old one at a flea market, and it still functions the same as it did 50, 80 years ago.

  • Jon

    You can thank the car companies for this, to a certain degree. Google “planned obsolescence” or just click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planned_obsolescence

    The fact is, from the very beginning of the design, the manufacturers build in a lifespan for these devices, so you’ll always be on the lookout for the newest item.

    Me? I’m quite happy with a 4 year old Olympus E-PL1 mirrorless. Has enough flexibility to let me learn the photography skills without being a huge, expensive piece of kit. Then again, I don’t rely on it for my job, so it doesn’t matter what it looks like or how big the sensor is.

    • http://allenmowery.com/ Allen Mowery

      I didn’t want to go off on a long rant about the evils of corporate marketing or the shadiness of the advertising industry…but, you are right, it’s all rigged. For me, I do my best to not succumb to it…we’ll see how that goes :-)

  • SteveO

    Disagree with most of the premise of this article. Images from a newly purchased Nikon D5200 blows away any shot from my older D300. The high ISO ability of the newer camera is simple amazing. Sports shots look better and combined with my newly purchased 85mm F1.8G makes assignments easy compared to past years.
    Maybe the author should have said that any photographer with skill, imagination and knowledge will always turn out better images than those that have to have the newest equipment. I’m a newspaper photographer and always show up at sporting events and see photographers there with over 10grand in equipment hanging around their neck.. Then I see their photos and I have to shake my head.
    On the other hand if you’re not taxing the max out of your camera it doesn’t matter what equipment you’re using the photos will be lackluster at best

    • http://allenmowery.com/ Allen Mowery

      Excellent point! As I mentioned briefly in the article, more equipment will enable you to perform in a greater variety of roles, and some facets of photography can only realistically be carried out with specific gear. You aren’t going to get dynamic photos of bald eagles with a 40mm pancake lens, after all…

    • Jonathan

      SteveO, I think you might have mis-interpreted the premise a little. I think Allen’s main point is that you shouldn’t use equipment as a crutch and you shouldn’t get depressed if you don’t have the latest gear. If you have a real need for a pro body, then get one, but only after you’ve learned the basics of photography. I’ve shot weddings with a Canon Rebel T1i and only upgraded to a 50D when I truly needed the higher burst rate. One of my assistants has a 7D with better glass than me and I got better photos because she relies on her equipment, while I rely on my knowledge of aperture, shutterspeed, and ISO. I finally upgraded to a 6D last year and my photos really aren’t better, except in low light situations, which is the only reason I upgraded (think wedding reception with only candle light where even a fast prime requires flash).

  • Doug

    I was a commercial photographer for almost 40 years, and have owned lots of very expensive equipment. Lots of my friends are interested in photography…but are they more interested in camera jewelry than the image? They ask what camera would I recommend. I ask how big will they enlarge any photo they take…8×10, or 11×14 if the image is really a favourite? Most won’t even go that large. Any current digital camera…point and shoot, or otherwise will do that in a very acceptable manner! That’s usually when they think I’ve lost my mind, and the camera jewelry demon rears it’s ugly head. These are the people the manufacturers sell to…they are the proof new and improved works as a sales theme…and always will!

    • http://allenmowery.com/ Allen Mowery

      I have friends ask all the time about camera purchases, and I’ve honestly recommended point-and-shoots more often than not. As you said, their needs will most often not exceed the limits of a PnS, they will probably not take the time to properly learn how to use their camera to its fullest potential, and a more advanced camera will probably just frustrate them in the end.

      I’ve had various friends (and even clients) who compliment my work and want to buy a similar camera so they, too, can “take good pictures of [their] kids.” They’re looking at various makes and models, trying to decide, often looking to spend hundreds (or, in some cases, upwards of a couple thousand) for an outfit…and then I tell them that they can get the same setup I use for the images they love for less than they paid for their smartphone. But, alas, my cameras don’t have the cool features and little digital gizmos that other cameras do, so I’ve never had anyone take me up on my recommendation. As mentioned, those who are dazzled by the benign are who the manufacturers market towards.

  • Ralph Hightower

    It hasn’t really bothered me. Back in the film days, Canon and Nikon designed their pro cameras on a 10 year cycle. I still use my Canon A-1 that I bought new 34 years ago. Why? Because it still works and film is still available although classics like Kodachrome and Plus-X don’t exist anymore. I mentioned to my wife last year that I wanted a Canon F-1N; she asked “That’s the pro model?” :”Yes, for the 80′s”, so I bought a used F-1N in July 2013; plus the Canon FD lenses I have for the A-1 work with the F-1N.

    With DSLR, I ran into “Analysis Paralysis” since it seems that Canon and Nikon introduce new models on a monthly basis. Christmas 2011, I talked my wife out of buying me a DSLR when I found her budget was a Rebel T3i; as a consolation, I got a used FD 28mm lens. Flash forward to Christmas 2013, I thought I would get an EOS 7D; but my wife was looking at an EOS 5D Mk III on Amazon; I found a similar package with B&H for $500 less.
    I will shoot continue to shoot film along with digital.

  • r_sarvas

    Believe me, as a mid-range Sony DSLR user, I know the meaning of camera shame.

    • Doug

      I have a mid-range Sony DSLR, the top end Sony DSLR, and $20K in lenses that stay in the bag because they are too heavy to carry around. What I DO carry around is a $400 camera that weighs less than any lens I own! My little, light camera has a zoom that goes from 25mm to 610mm at 2.8…where do I buy that 610mm 2.8 lens for my a99?…then how do I carry it? The only shame anyone should have is NOT getting the shot.

  • Germain

    Hi !
    (English is not my native language and I don’t write it correctly enough but ) I’d like to write the counter-paper of that article because I’m touched by the inverse syndrom.
    The “too big camera shame”.
    I bought an Eos 7D from second hand as I had a very good deal by a friend. Got some good lenses with, and had a few years of good use of them.
    But today I realise that I didn’t pull the trigger since the last 6 months. The gear is heavy, not quick to take out of the bag, and I want to protect it more than I should.
    Plus when some non-photographs friends see it they actually say or think “wow, you should take great pictures !”. No I’m not. I was more productive with my 30D a few years ago.

    So did I gave in to the “camera jewelry demon” and regret it, or is it a temporary lack of motivation, can’t say it for now. But sometimes I am wondering if I should not sell my gear and buy a pro compact that I would use more often. But there too I’m ashamed by such a problem, as a lot of people don’t have the money to face such choices…

    a french fan of this site :)

  • Mike

    This hits close to home. My Canon 60d should be here today to replace my Olympus e-620. The Olympus has served me well, The main reason I am replacing it is, I don’t want to invest any more money in a dead system. I have to admit that being able to shoot above iso 200 will be welcome and the 2 wheels for adjusting exposure will be nice. Creativity can not be bought. If you need the equipment get it. If you want it and can afford get it. Just don’t let not having it be the excuse that leaves you home on the couch when you should be shooting.

  • Alex_L_H

    “Just because something’s old doesn’t mean you throw it away.”

  • John Allen

    Well said! It’s all true. Except…in Ireland we never say Pattys Day, ever. It’s Paddys Day!!! :) The bit about the battery pack resonated with me. I was doing a job recently and a photographer turned up with an M9 and a 50mm lens while I staggered around under the weight of my ancient D3 and various lenses. Afterwards the client came up and thanked me saying ‘well I’m glad we didn’t hire the photographer with the toy camera!’. I just nodded gravely and went somewhere to lie down and rest my back.

    • http://allenmowery.com/ Allen Mowery

      My bad on the Paddy’s Day! We Yanks have a lot to learn :-)

      As for the rest…yes, definitely. I can have the same camera, same lens, everything, but, if I don’t have the battery pack, people look at it like, “Eh, okay.” But, apart from the aesthetics and “wow factor” (for those who don’t know any better), it is nice to be able to go through an entire day of shooting (e.g. a wedding, approximately 1,200 frames per camera body, 2,400 total) without having to change batteries. And, that’s using el cheapo aftermarket batteries from Amazon at $5 a pop (vs. $30 for Canon brand).

  • jo hendley

    Well put.

  • http://chrismarquardt.com/ chrismarquardt

    My 5D Mk II now goes into its fourth year and unless the shutter wears out, I see no reason to upgrade. I’m planning to discuss this article on the next episode of Tips from the Top Floor

  • CRB

    Good article, but this is pretty obvious dont you think? Cameras are not bought by photographers nowadays. That is why dpreview is so popular…

  • http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/ Gonzalo Broto

    The more I know about photography (and I’m still a newcomer in this world), the more I agree with your statements in this article. Invest in learning the craft, the knowledge and skills with whatever you have on hand!
    If you develop your vision, the gear will follow you wherever you wanna go, but if you follow the gear, instead, you will never know where you are going.

  • ajfudge

    Hehe. I can relate. But now that camera shame has been replaced by something else. Nowadays, I feel ashamed because while I have a decent camera, I don’t always know what I’m doing. I don’t always have an instant solution and I zigzag with settings. e.g. when my in one of my shoots my images show blacks. I panicked and immediately checked my flashes. Of course the flashes are fine so I adjusted my composition so I could just crop the blacks in post. Then I realized that I exceeded my flash sync, hence the black band. I only realized the solution when the shoot was over. The sad thing is I knew that. I already knew about that yet that critical information didn’t come up when I needed it. I feel like a stupid poser. So I practice and practice because I don’t ever want to feel that sweaty frustration again. Weird as it may sound, I want my camera to feel proud that I’m his/her user. haha. The other day at a print shop, a frustrated customer wants to get her camera fixed because it won’t autofocus. I feel her frustration. I offered to help by checking her settings. I’m glad I left the shop and her lens is rotating again. :)