In photography, everything is amazing and no one is happy

Photokina is over! Now let's talk about it like adults.

For the past two weeks, photography nerds worldwide have had their eyes on the Photokina trade show, a biannual event where camera manufacturers (big and small) make major announcements about upcoming gear. Expectations are always high that your current camera that was competent or even exceptional yesterday will be an obsolete hunk of plastic after Photokina.

That's the advice: don’t buy anything before Photokina; wait until after, when everything will be better.

But will it be better?

Take this photograph that I took at a wedding last month:

While I won’t claim it’s the greatest picture ever taken, I like it. I think it captures a nice moment.

I took it with a Canon S100, a year-old and therefore obsolete and noncompetitive piece of junk.

I can’t think of any way that a better camera would give me a better image than I got. Although taken at ISO 6400, I don’t find the noise too objectionable. (I could totally eradicate the noise in Lightroom or Photoshop if I were so inclined; there’s no detail to worry about by design.)

Mostly, that I was even able to (1) take a photo at ISO 6400 and (2) not worry about it that much? That’s amazing.

But this isn’t about how much I like one particular camera. (I do like the S100, by the way.)

Louis CK has a rant about our relationship with new technology. His argument: everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy. If you haven’t heard it, do give it a listen:

Digital cameras can already do miraculous things, yet many photographers still aren’t happy; they’re looking for the next big thing, the next advance in megapixels, noise, or sensors that will make better photographs.

But I’ve never seen a compelling argument that a good image is about megapixels, lack of high-ISO noise, narrow depth of field, or dynamic range. To deploy a trope:

“This image is good because the camera that took it has more megapixels”

— No one ever

Good photography is about form, color, light, and shape; having access to places that others don’t; making hard work look effortless; mood, emotion, or a thousand other intangibles, not one of which is the “quality” of the image.

One of my favorite photography books right now is The Practice of Contemplative Photography by Andy Karr and Michael Wood. I would compare it to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the sense that it’s an exploration of the proper mindset for meaningful work. But it’s way shorter and also there are pictures.

Most of the photographs in the book are everyday objects – leaves, puddles, bicycles, walls, windows, chairs. But these are stunning, thoughtful images in the same manner that Louis CK’s rant above is a well crafted joke about air travel. I would kill a drifter to have any of the photographs in the book in my portfolio. And I would be shocked if they were taken with anything more complex than a film camera with a standard lens.

Karr and Wood argue that if you’re unhappy with your photography, it’s probably not the gear that’s the problem. It’s never the gear or, really, the technical act of taking a photograph. It’s you. You have to learn to see better. From their chapter on boredom (page 85):

You could explore color or texture or light for the rest of your life and never see all of it, never exhaust the intricacies and depths of the world of form. With an open, restful, still mind, there is no end to seeing, no limit.

While I don’t claim to be a very good photographer, I know this much: I want to be better.

I catch myself lusting after the new shiny like everyone else. But cameras are already amazing; I’m the one that needs to improve.

(And, sure, I understand that maybe you really do make huge prints or maybe you really do shoot sports in the dark and technology still hasn’t caught up to your vision. That’s OK! And you probably don’t care about my advice! That’s also OK!)

Anyway, here’s some photos I took over the last month with some obsolete junk that I bought before Photokina like a moron.

The shadow of a light pole on concrete
click to embiggen
Light and shadow

(All this said, if anyone wanted to just give me a Nikon D600 or Fuji XE1, I wouldn’t complain.)

Am I doing it wrong?

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