You hear it at workshops. You read it over and over. Get to know your camera really well. Get to the point where you don’t have to think about how to use it. It should be an extension of your body. The corollaries are:
- don’t change cameras often
- don’t use many cameras (one is a nice number)
- don’t use many lenses
Like most conventional wisdom, there’s a grain of truth here. You don’t want to have to think about the mechanics of operating the camera; you want to think about the photograph you’re making. A sufficient condition for achieving that level of unconscious, effortless, competence would be owning only one camera for your whole photographic lifetime and using it every day. But it’s not necessary, at least if you make photographs the way most artists do.
If you’re a mere mortal, you don’t get up every morning with a completely new idea for a photograph, and spend the day making that image. You evolve ideas for photographs over months or years, each image building on the many mistakes and few successes of the previous ones. You work in series of pictures, each one quite similar to the others. If you’re muse takes you to the studio, you may spend years making images with one camera and lens at nearly the same aperture, shutter speed, and subject distance. That’s an extreme case, but even situations that are considered unpredictable, such as street photography, fall into a routine with little variation as a photographer assiduously pursues a creative thread. You pick a favorite body and one or two lenses that seem to suit the project. You get to know what you’re going to see through the finder before you raise the camera to your eye. You know what the light will do to the image without metering. Your movements become fluid through practice. This learning happens quickly, because the boundaries of the project create boundaries in the way you use the camera. You use a subset of the capabilities of the camera. The smaller the subset, the quicker you learn what you need to know to make the images you want.
There’s a useful analogy between a camera and a powerful computer program. Microsoft Word is a monster of an application, capable of doing a variety of things. Most people only use the subset of Word’s features that they need to get their work done. If you’re writing a thesis or a paper for a scientific journal, you need to know how to create and manage footnotes and endnotes, so you learn the necessary arcane incantations. If you’re writing poetry, you probably have no idea how to produce a footnote, and you are not disadvantaged in the slightest for your ignorance.
There seems to be six ways to perform any given operation in Photoshop. However, a photographer only has to know one. Or maybe none: a portrait photographer doesn’t need to know anything at all about high dynamic range techniques or stitching; a maker of traditional landscapes has no use for compositing.
The analogy between using a camera and a program is inexact in that level of knowledge is different in the two cases: to use your camera well, you must know it intuitively, and you can approach a computer program less spontaneously. However, cameras are far simpler than large computer applications, so you can fairly quickly learn to use a small set of features with effortless fluidity.
The result of this line of thinking is that serious photographers who commit themselves to a project should ignore the conventional wisdom and feel free to use whatever camera they think is best for the job, knowing that they will quickly become appropriately facile for the demands of the project. A corollary is that photographers should feel free to change cameras during a project. If the instrument they chose at the beginning isn’t doing the job any more, or never did do the job the way that they have now come to see it, they should get something that is right for the work.
I realize that there are excellent photographers who pick a camera early in their careers and either take the same kind of picture all their lives or bend the pictures that they make to fit the capabilities of their chosen instrument. It works for them, and I’m not knocking it. But if you’re somebody who chafes under that kind of restriction, don’t feel guilty about ignoring it.