I still remember the feeling. If you’ve ever had something expensive stolen from you, you probably remember it too: that sinking sensation when you realize that it’s not where it should be, that disbelief that it’s still gone the next day. It happened to me a few years ago. Some kids stole my camera right out of my car, and the security footage was too grainy to be of any use. It was gone for good, and I was too broke to buy a replacement. It took me about nine months to save up for a new one, but strangely enough, those nine camera-less months that were actually fairly instrumental in launching my photography career.
Well, to be fair, I wasn’t completely camera-less. I still had my phone. And there was a four-pound metal brick from the 1970s collecting dust on the shelf.
Losing my “real” camera relieved me of an obsession with gear that was holding me back. Now, my best camera (my phone) was pretty much always in my pocket, which absolved me of any pretenses that I couldn’t practice. I started to tinker with film and really learn the mechanics of the art form, and I started taking pictures every day. I was finally free to work towards the real, hard work of photography — which is simply to get better at it, and then spend a lifetime figuring out what you want to say.
As it turns out, you don’t need any special equipment for this. Because even if your pictures are terrible, or inadequate by some technical specification, you are still learning. You are still making progress on the lifelong journey that is photography. What’s more, I would argue that a crappy camera actually does a better job of teaching you some of the most important and difficult skills a photographer can acquire — skills that can really set your photography apart from the rest. Here are four specific examples:
The worst cameras can be the best teachers
Pretty much every single one of the newer (and expensive-er) features that have come to camera equipment in the last couple of decades does one of two things: it either uses computers to do something for you, or it allows you to take pictures in more challenging lighting situations. While these two things are obviously nice to have, especially in a professional context, they are not at all necessary. In fact, these conveniences can become a handicap and bar you from developing a deep understanding of how photography works.
If you have a crappy camera, you’ll notice how much of a difference it makes to have the light source behind you, rather than in front , and you’ll start paying attention to it. If you have a crappy camera, you can’t take 10+ pictures every second, so you’ll start anticipating the right moment. If you have a crappy camera, you can’t magically fix a poorly exposed image in postproduction, and you’ll just have to get it right when you press the shutter. If you have a crappy camera, you might just learn more from your mistakes because the technology won’t save you.
You still have to figure out how to interact with people
Unless you’re a landscape or still-life photographer, one of the hardest things about photography is figuring out how to interact with your subject. If you’re shooting models, then you need to develop a working relationship with them, and start obsessing over the surprisingly subtle and difficult art of posing. And if you’re into street or documentary photography, then you need to develop an odd quiver of skills that can range from being a barely-noticed fly on the wall, to becoming the exuberant center of attention that can befriend complete strangers on a moment’s notice — and everything in between. Simply learning how be in an interesting place where interesting things are happening is also hard. And there’s no reason that you would need a particular camera to practice any of this.
It’s all about getting into position
Obviously great framing is important, but what people don’t tell you about great framing is that it is a 3D process. It’s not enough to just point the camera in the perfect direction, you have to be in the perfect position relative to your subject and point your camera in the perfect direction.
Where you stand in relation to your subject has a massive effect on the quality of your picture — certainly more influential than lens sharpness or resolution — and getting this right requires a lot of moving around. But like all the others, you can practice this with any camera. In fact, you don’t even need a camera at all for this one. Just walk around town and imagine where you would put yourself for the best framing. I can go on and on about this one, if you want to know more about how creative framing can impact your photography just read this other article I wrote.
Photography is nothing without stories
We take too many pictures these days, and we can’t possibly keep up with it all. The truth is that in a world that is so drenched in social media, even the great pictures that do get noticed thanks to the photographer’s technical skill are then immediately swiped away and buried by the algorithm.
The odds are stacked against you, and the system doesn’t care. The only way to beat this is to get people interested in the story that’s behind the picture; the image itself is only there to get an audience’s attention, pique their interest, and get them to ask questions. And the only way to satisfy their curiosity is to have a good story to back it up. This realization led me to launch Arc Moment Magazine, a website dedicated to storytelling and photography.
Spending nine months with a just cellphone and an old, dusty camera I found in a flea market was the beginning of this journey for me. I’m still working on it, and I expect it to take a while, so I’m glad that I started earlier rather than later. I’m glad that I stopped waiting until I had a “real” camera.
I was finally free to work towards the real, hard work of photography — which is simply to get better at it, and then spend a lifetime figuring out what you want to say
The trick — like anything else in life — is to practice, to practice a lot, and to be intentional about the progression. Always challenge yourself. Always try to do better. And always work with what you have. I can’t count how many times people have told me that they’d love to start taking photography seriously, but they can’t wrap their heads around all the settings, or they can’t afford the camera that they feel will be good enough. That simply isn’t the right question.