DSLR's, Mirrorless, Camera phones - Do these distinctions matter?

When I was growing up and I went into a record shop, things were simple. The organisation of the items for sale was as follows. Pop, Jazz, Folk, Classical. These days when you buy music, the genres and sub-genres are almost as varied as the pieces of music themselves. When I was teaching music, I impressed my students years ago by telling them about 'speed garage' which someone I knew was producing. I didn't really know what it was then then (and still don't) but they were suitably respectful for a while.

I have my own way of classifying the music I listen to. I like it, or I don't, I buy it or I don't. And you may be unsurprised to learn that the people who buy photographs have much the same attitude. Indeed, buying images via a stock library, they have no idea what camera or lens was used anyway, since all the exif data is stripped from the image. And for the majority of images I upload, I already do that before the image even reaches the library.

The gallery above consists of images I've uploaded to picture libraries in the last couple of weeks. As you will guess from the title of this article they were shot on a variety of cameras from smartphones to 'Full-Frame'. One was even shot on medium-format film. The timespan is from the 1990's to yesterday. And while we as contributors to the photographic internet may obsess about gear, technique and exif data, the people who consider buying my images don't. Because as indicated above, they have no way of finding that out, even if they wanted to. 

However, we're not special. Musicians are interested in what instruments get used, what kind of recording equipment was used to make records with etc. etc. but the majority of those who listen to and pay money to experience the music couldn't care less. I can't say whether painters are interested in the paintbrushes that other painters use and writers what word-processing software their peers use, but it wouldn't surprise me if they were.

And in many ways, this is a good thing. We as artists should be interested in our gear choices, because it does impact on what we create and how we create it. But does anyone else think that this gear obsession on the photographic internet has gone way beyond the point where it's actually useful?

Out of interest I looked at my top ten best selling images for the last year on my highest earning picture library. And five of them were shot on film. Now anyone who has ever scanned a negative or transparency will know that viewed at 100% on a computer monitor, film scans look nowhere near as clean, smooth or sharp as digital images. There's all that grain to start with, even at the lowest ISO's and scanned images all require a fair amount of sharpening. And yesterday when I was edited some smartphone pictures, I realised that one the reasons I like shooting on devices like that and I'm happy with the results, is that those results are VERY film scan like. That may sound strange, but it is the case. My Nokia Lumia 1020 images in particular have a fair amount of luminance noise  (digital 'grain') to start with and when I apply some sharpening to them, which is always necessary, that increases. So, if you want a 'film' look, use a smartphone!!! Who needs Instagram!

A while ago a very famous nature photographer made a somewhat cruel comparison. 'How do I differentiate between Amateur and Professional? If your house is burning down and you're a photographer? What do you try to save? Amateur Photographers rush back in to save their cameras and lenses, professionals try to save their pictures!' Personally, I'd try to save both and anyway these days there are plenty of options to store images in a variety of locations, making the choice irrelevant.

Nevertheless, it's not being gratuitously snobbish to point out that an awful lot of the photographic internet consists of enthusiast / hobbyist photographers arguing about gear. And no, this is not hypocrisy, I'm just as guilty of that as well, with endless articles on this gear versus that gear, complete with camera porn pictures. (See above) But with the majority of my posts, which are about using a wide spectrum of equipment, it's the images I create with it that are always the important part. Indeed before I even start writing, the first thing I ever do is sort out the pictures I want to publish with the words and I always write around the pictures I take rather than use the pictures to illustrate my point. (Apart from this article of course!!)

Now I know I'm whistling in the wind here, because the photographic internet (or this blog for that matter) isn't going to change anytime soon and my next post will about X camera or y lens and how it compares to z. And to be honest it's the way I prefer it. Because just think how contentious, pretentious and every other ..ious I can think of it would be if I started doing photo critique. You think arguing about gear is contentious, wait till 'everyone's a critic' and personal taste kicks in! But getting back to the point (about time!) I am less concerned about distinctions between cameras than many whose views I read. I will use whatever I feel like on any given day. I could pretend that I choose the gear I take out with me for the subject matter I'm shooting, but since I often go out with no real destination in mind and just follow the sun, that is exactly that, a pretence.

And I really don't care whether I use a smartphone or a full-frame DSLR. In fact today I'm planning to use my Nikon + Voigtlander 58mm f/1.4 and my Panasonic CM1 smart phone / camera. And is the CM1 a phone with a camera, a camera phone, asmart camera or a smart phone? It certainly has no mirror, so is it mirrorless. But then some might argue that it's not 'proper' mirrorless, whatever that means. To me it's just another option and while most of the options sitting on my shelf are mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, they could just as well be DSLR's or smartphones with my endless buying and selling of cameras. And I could just as easily be writing about DSLR's or smartphones exclusively.

Because distinctions are a handy way of classifying the gear we use and illustrating the choices they offer. But the results can be remarkably similar and when published, impossible to differentiate between. So yes, those distinctions matter, but for me they matter a lot less than they do for many others, who seemed to have turned their use of a certain kind of camera into a quasi-religion. And I'm glad that I'm able to be in a position to use the variety of gear that I do. I would probably get more visitors to the blog if I focused on one type of gear, but I wouldn't be happy with that and much of the point of what I write is how the gear is just a contributing factor to the ultimate objective of all this, making pictures.

But then any endeavour that is dependent on equipment has its fanboys who care more about that equipment than what's it's used for. Car owners who own models way beyond their level of expertise and since cycling has become fashionable in the UK recently it's happening with bicycles as well. I don't need to elaborate. We all, I'm sure, know a gadget head or two. (We might even have those tendencies ourselves to some degree!) and in moderation I'm sure it's not that harmful. (At least that's what my therapist tells me.) But sometimes it just gets crazy with the most heated of arguments generated from the most trivial of differences.

And hard as it might be for some to comprehend, there are far less differences than might be imagined. Neither DSLR's nor Mirrorless Cameras nor Smartphones are the Dark Side of the Force and all in the right hands can produce meaningful, well crafted and yes, artistic images. And it really doesn't matter whether one or all of them disappear. We will always have the means of taking / creating photographs at our disposal. And these days you have to be using something pretty dire for those photographs not to be able to be published with confidence.

For example I was watching a computer programme about smartphones the other day. About two thirds in the presenter announced that the entire programme was being shot on an iPhone. And did I spot the difference? No of course not. Because with the passage of time specs. just improve and todays budget model would have been top of the range not so long ago. So, no I don't think the distinctions in the title of this piece should matter and I'm confident I could make a living with any of the picture taking devices I own, including my Blackberry.

But unfortunately to a lot of people they do matter and I've used the phrase 'Road to Damascus' conversion many times. Don't know about you, but I'm really in no mood to read yet another 'I sold my Hassleblad and Digital back and all the lenses to use an Olympus Pen and I'm so happy I could kiss a frog,' article. Because it's all so meaningless. If you can take great pictures with Medium-Format, Canon or Nikon DSLR's etc. chances are you can take great pictures with anything. And of course the opposite of that is true as well. Occasionally, we get a piece that outlines just what downsizing (or upsizing for that matter) can offer us as photographers and those can often be worth reading, but for the most part it's swapping one fanboy gear worship fetish for another. And that's about as interesting as............well, kissing a frog.