If you have been studying photography for any period of time, then you have probably read tutorials, blogs, and other sources of opinions about how to take great photos. Somewhere in all of your reading have likely encountered claims that great photos come from great photographers and the equipment is far less important than the person holding it.
How true is this? Well, people with no artistic vision will almost certainly take very few stunning photos no matter how awesome the camera they shoot with is. A photographer with artistic vision and a sense of composition can frequently take amazing photos with a simple camera. An image doesn’t have to have incredibly sharp details or deep color saturation to be good. Paintings are often abstract, yet very pleasing to the viewer.
No matter how good a photographer is however, getting a really good close-up shot with sharp details of small ants carrying food to the colony is not likely to happen using your smart phone or a camera with a cheap, slow lens attached to it. Some types of photography require extremely good optics, others don’t. Landscape images, when lighting is really good, can be very pleasing to the eye without sharp details. Shots of people can be wonderful and elicit strong emotions without sharp detail. But these types of images require good use of light and composition, otherwise they may just be poorly lit, blurry photos. A professional photographer shooting models isn’t going to sacrifice detail like hair and eyes by trying to prove that he can take great photos with his phone.
A great example of what someone with talent can do with a mediocre camera can be found in a project by Mark Hirsch in which he photographed the same tree every day for a year A Year in the Life of That Tree. Hirsch used only his iPhone for the entire project. The image quality as measured by clarity and sharpness isn’t that great, but the use of available light and composition on many of the photos is superb making the experience of viewing the photos very enjoyable. Many iPhone users (and Apple) may take exception to calling the iPhone’s camera mediocre, but compared to a good DSLR it is. Hirsh’s project does show though that a good photographer can take great photos with an average camera.
To the other side of the subject though; can an average person with no sense of composition, no understanding of light, and most likely no clue how all the functions of a camera like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO work together take consistently great photographs? The answer is no. Even if the camera is left on Auto, a photographer who thinks that the subject should always be centered as accurately as possible, pays no attention to the light source, and just thoughtlessly shoots everything they see, will take very few memorable photos.
If you have money to burn and think that you should buy something like a Nikon D800 or a Canon EOS 5DS so you can take better pictures than people with lesser cameras, you are likely to be frustrated unless you are willing to spend the time to learn the basics of image making. This includes learning how cameras work. If you don’t have a big budget and decide to go into debt buying an expensive camera and then skimp on the lens because you have no money left after buying the body, then you are going to be disappointed. Buy an entry level camera and spend your money on good glass, learn how to shoot and then buy the expensive body. The lens you are using is far more important than the body.
Very few images are great without some editing. Bad composition can sometimes be improved greatly in post shoot processing. Many photographers shoot in RAW mode now because of the benefits of working with 14-16 bit images in a non-lossy format verses 8 bit lossy format images (.jpg) If you shoot jpg, you are letting your camera decide how to sharpen and saturate your images. Great images only start when the shutter button is pressed, they don’t end there. Many of the images posted on line from smart phones have been edited using tools that are available for the phones.
I prefer Photoshop Camera Raw for editing my RAW files. If you are not ready for Photoshop, there are free RAW editors such as RawTherapee or GIMP. I mention these two because I have tried them and find them quite nice for free software. GIMP is a full featured editor also. I feel that I should make the decisions about how to saturate colors, what parts of the image to sharpen and how much to sharpen, how to crop, and any other editing that might need to be done, not some algorithm loaded into a camera. It’s my image, I’ll do the post-shoot processing.
Look at the following photo. This is a small sparrow. You would have to get within a foot of it to take this with a phone camera or most point and shoot cameras. I was more than a hundred feet from it using a 600mm lens. In this instance, equipment made all the difference. The bird was also about 20 feet up in a tree. I was on the side of a hill and the tree was growing from the river bank (in case you are wondering how I managed to shoot it at this angle). Nikon D7100 with Tamron 150-600mm.
Look at the detail in the next image of red aphids. These insects are tiny; so tiny that you would not even notice them unless you were down in the weeds looking underneath the leaves on the weeds for them. Somewhere in the range of .05-.15 inches in length. I used a Nikkor 55mm f2.8 lens and a Nikon D7000. Go ahead and try to get an image of something this small with this much detail using a point and shoot camera or even with a DSLR using a kit lens.
Ok, so what is my point with all of this? Equipment does matter just as knowing what makes a good photo matters. I like the camera in my Smart Phone. It’s always with me and I have taken nice photos with it. That doesn’t mean I’m taking it on my vacations with me when I hike through rain forests or mountains. I’ll be carrying my D7100 and a tripod along with 3 lenses.
One last photo. Try taking a shot like this one of the moon with an iPhone, point and shoot or kit lens. Nikon D7100 with 55-300mm zoom.
Post processing is an important part of creating a good image also. If you really want to create sharp, detailed images of a variety of subjects you do need a good camera. If detail is not as important in your style of photography you can probably create very nice images with an average camera and lens – even a phone or point and shoot. I’m not using the best equipment available and I feel that my photos are quite acceptable. Still, I will most likely move up to a full frame camera soon so I can take nicer landscapes and night shots with more detail and less noise.