In the last post, I considered the photographic process as linear, with a camera simply a tool that the photographer uses to make real a predefined vision. Most of the time it doesn’t actually work that way. Photographic visions don’t usually arrive fully formed and perfect, like the Kubla Khan did to Coleridge. We photographers struggle to perfect our vision through a process of trial and error. It’s mostly error, and every little mistake is valuable if we can learn from it.
We get an idea. We try it out. It doesn’t work. We try something else. It doesn’t work either, but it’s better in some way. That gives us a new idea. We try that out. And so it goes, a photographic feedback loop. The camera is an obvious part of that loop in aspects of the camera that directly influence the final photograph. If the lens has some flare, we may notice that and figure out a way to use what some might consider a flaw to artistic effect. A light source or specular reflection within the image may reflect off the diaphragm to produce highlights whose shape is nearly round with many view or rangefinder camera lenses, but pentagonal with some single lens reflex lenses. If the lens is particularly sharp, we may emphasize crispness and definition in the picture; if it’s not so sharp we may go for an atmospheric effect.
The format of the camera itself can have a huge effect on our pictures. I once purchased a 6x12cm roll film back for 4 x 5 camera which I was using for semi-industrial landscapes. It came with a little plastic device that clipped onto the ground glass to indicate the format. I used it for a while, and realized that, while I liked the look, I wasn’t making enough panoramic pictures to justify the weight of the back in my pack. So I stopped carrying the back, but I kept on using the plastic format indicator whenever I wanted to make a panorama. I found it useful; it forced me to look at the world differently than looking at the full 4 x 5 frame. Somehow, knowing I could crop the full negative to a panorama wasn’t at all the same as looking at the cropped image on the ground glass. This is an example of a counterintuitive effect that happens often in photography. Introducing a constraint, in this case the format indicator, made the pictures better. If the camera were simply a tool to arrive at a predefined vision, the best camera would be the one with the fewest constraints.
Last spring I took a trip to Italy. I was just a tourist, had few photographic ambitions, and wanted to travel light. I took along a 35mm-sized digital rangefinder camera and a 24 mm lens (equivalent to a 32 mm lens on 35mm film camera). I found myself alone in Siena one afternoon, and for a few hours attempted some street photography. I hadn’t done much work with a rangefinder camera in almost 20 years, but it was amazing to me how quickly I fell into habits appropriate to that instrument. Without thinking about it, I started prefocusing (or zonefocusing) and relying heavily on the depth of field indicator. Freed of worries about mirror slap, I used slower shutter speeds than I would’ve used with a single lens reflex, which allowed smaller apertures. I didn’t miss autofocus at all. The quiet shutter allowed me to get close, and the camera’s small size made it less obvious than a single lens reflex would have been. The photographs ended up looking substantially different than they would have had I used a single lens reflex. Thinking back on it now, it all makes sense, and on one level appears obvious, but I was surprised that it changed my photography so greatly, and even more surprised that the changes took place with little conscious thought.
Physical aspects of the camera affect the image in non-obvious, highly-personal ways. If a camera is highly evolved mechanically and a pleasure to hold, it may influence our frame of mind while we are making pictures. Different cameras facilitate different handling, and that could influence the pictures as well.
To be successful photographers, we need to be open to feedback, and the feedback we get is moderated by our tools. Therefore I am willing to believe that hard-to-quantify qualities in a camera affect the results to some extent. I doubt that the effect is great, but I’m bringing it up as a topic worthy of discussion.