We have all heard the famous words by Chase Jarvis of his iPhone photography, that-
The best camera is the one you have with you.
From what I have seen of his incredible work, he makes that very clear and it opens up new worlds in photography for those obsessed with pixel-peeping activities… but what makes for the best photo, or even the best photographer? Surely the end product is more important than the camera, whatever it is, (something I am pretty sure Jarvis was also saying, but here I’ll make it more explicit)? What about when size is no object and techniques abundant, how then to take a truly great photo? In fact, in many ways, by simplifying the process, the mobile camera may even be better. (Another interesting point is that Jarvis was using an older iPhone 3, with a technically terrible camera, yet it’s distinctive low-fi look may actually have helped make for the astonishingly interesting results).
So why is it that we can often find ourselves making a better, more moving and more immediate photo with our mobile camera, or compact, than the otherwise far superior results from a DSLR? It’s not only the fact that it is with us… for those of us who go out with the specific intention of seeing things and photographing them, a decent-sized camera (if not it’s larger lenses maybe), can easily come along. The camera that is with you is not the whole story of what makes for meaningful photography, as opposed to merely well-done photos. I feel that this aspect of photography, partly due to our banal, ‘despiritualised’ world, is so often neglected. Yet it is of the very essence of what photography, or any art (as opposed to mere craft) is truly about.
The reasons are manifold, but come back to one basic point that I am sure a lot of you reading will find fanciful, even faintly ridiculous, but is absolutely essential if our photography, or painting, or writing, or even speech is to have any impact. It is that when we take the picture, the very moment we press that shutter, we imprint something of ourselves in it. It may well be what we see, but it is not self-same with the thing that we are seeing. It is our unique, precious, view of it, our experiential response to it. That response is a creation in itself. The more authentic, deep and meaningful the response, the more interesting it is.
Having a good camera is only part of the story, though a big part, as one is needed to sensitively record as much as possible. Purely in terms of pixels, dynamic range, colour depth and other considerations, more and more accurate data is better. Of course, the same goes for film, for the camera itself and the quality of the lens. Which by implication includes all the designers, technicians and even artists whose efforts went into producing the camera or lens itself.
Yet what is even more important is having a clear mind at the point of capture, having a mind that is focused on the scene, place, person, object or whatever it might be.Yet it is not so much the subject in its own right as what it means to us, the inspiration of beauty, sympathy, meaning that it brings us. It would be easy to stop here, but I’m going to go on and look at what photography really is and it is something that definitively marks out the best. Like anything, it can be studied, but it must also be sensed, just as how to make the most of a particular camera can, ultimately, be sensed.
Sometimes, less can be more.
Photography is a capture of light, of photos. Nothing more, nothing less. Yet light is a vast field of variation and meaning. It is an appreciation of and absorption in that play of light that makes our world visible. In fact, if light is indeed energised, it is what makes our world possible. Yet we often, when focused on our needs for survival, neglect to notice the sheer soul-illuminating beauty of this light.
This is why people make their way out in the early dawn hours or ‘golden hour’ before sunset to make their captures. This is why they position themselves to best appreciate the moment and express that beauty of light, their cameras like prisms to show our human eyes what is contained in it.
Yet ultimately it is a brief moment being captured. It is probably 1/60 or 1/80 of a second. There is no way we can consciously be aware of this, yet that is that. The fast multi-shot capture of a DSLR can certainly help us to capture the best moment in a quickly changing situation. Yet the ease of use can make for ‘mindless’ captures. Even if such captures superficially look good and are technically good, by my estimation, as the photons are allowed into the sensor for that brief moment of capture (or onto the film), along with them flows something of our mind. How this happens I’m not quite sure, but for anyone looking at a photo and thinking, ‘yes, it looks like so and so took that’, it is a fact as real as the monitor in front of you, even if by being invisible it gets discussed less. A lack of discussion which to my mind it to the detriment of any creativity. which is as empowered by mind as much as learnable technique (which I should add, is just as important to be successful).
Meanwhile, a mobile camera, held up for that instant might just take one shot, but that shot could well be imprinted with intention. It’s automation leaves no room for playing with settings… a fact that I would agree is both good and bad. Yet the sheer sincerity of it can often make for a very honest, mind-imprinted capture. A good photo. A meaningful photo. A photo full of creative energy rather than one chosen from hundreds of similar looking-ones, all leaving you with a feeling of flat emptiness. Which isn’t to say that mobile cameras take better photos or are inherently better for photography at all. Not at all. Yet they can be very spontaneous, liberating and sincere. Which are all just as important as the quality of photons being captured in the photo. Which are all very much what photography is about.
So just remember when you take out your camera(s) next time, to focus on what you are seeing, what you are doing as you take those photos. It might be worth it to slow down a little maybe take less of the things around you and more of that which really strikes you. Treat the camera less as a notepad and more as a sketch-book. As something to express your pure mind, a channel for a variation of the very mind of the universe, reflecting on itself through you. Keep it real, keep it mysterious. Be here, in the now.