Your Camera- A Tool, Not A Jewel

By Arthur H. Bleich– 

For those of you who are not professionals and take pictures for the love of it, technology is your most formidable opponent. Digital cameras have far too many features for you to become comfortable with, especially if you don’t (and I know you don’t) shoot a couple of hundred pictures a day. Film cameras, on the other hand, had relatively few features which made it very easy to take pictures instead of wasting time on button pressing and menu diving.


I met Marc Riboud, the now-legendary French photojournalist, years ago when both of us were shooting in the small Arctic village of Kotzebue, Alaska. We were on assignment for different magazines and we each had state-of-the-art film cameras. But both of us had turned them into virtual point-and-shoots so we could concentrate on capturing the images we needed. We were shooting Tri-X, a black and white film that would be push-processed to an ASA (ISO) of 1200. And yes, some pictures would be grainy, but the resulting smaller apertures and/or higher shutter speeds meant they’d be in focus and not blurred.


We pre-set distances on the focusing ring so that everything that needed to be sharp would be– without us having to waste time constantly turning the ring to focus (remember, no auto-focus then). We’d take a light meter reading (no auto-exposure, either) and then manually bracket exposures under difficult lighting conditions. We essentially cut the amount of fiddling around with camera controls to a minimum so we could concentrate on our picture making, and the resulting images showed it.


The point of this reminiscence is to encourage you to look at your camera the same way you’d look at a hammer. It’s just a tool, the picture’s the thing. As the saying goes: “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.” Professionals have a great deal of respect for their cameras; nevertheless if a few dings are required to get the shot, well, you can always buy another camera, but if you lose a great picture, it’s gone forever.


When the front element of his expensive lenses sometimes frosted up, Riboud would impatiently wipe them off with a leather-gloved finger so he could get his picture. The glass looked like it had had been acid-etched with a spider web. At the time, that was a bit much for me, and I protested but Riboud laughed: “Makes no difference, I got the picture. The scratches don’t show.”


Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having a jewel-of-a-camera if you take control of it and not the other way around. To begin with, set it to “Program” and shoot away. Over 95% of your pictures will come out just fine in this semi-automatic mode. Then, hike up the ISO, noise be damned. You’ll be able to shoot at higher shutter speeds to stop more action and get images with greater depth of field. And guess what? You’ll never notice the artifacts unless you blow your pictures up to some insane size which you can’t do anyway with the printer you own.


Finally, take your camera out in bad weather to capture some unusual images. Most photographers never use their cameras in rain, snow or dust so you’ll be able to come back with pictures they’d never get. Remember, the more beat-up your camera looks, the more you’ve been using it as the right tool to get the right stuff. Carry it around with pride. It shows you’re serious about photography.


If Arthur Rothstein had worried about ruining his camera, this iconic image of a 1936 killer dust bowl storm in Oklahoma might never have been taken. Library of Congress Photo.

If Arthur Rothstein had worried about ruining his camera, this iconic image of a 1936 killer dust bowl storm in Oklahoma might never have been taken. Library of Congress Photo.



Author: Red River Paper

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  1. Hi Arthur; Thanks for sharing the ‘Blog’ with me. You have found yet another ‘niche’ to share your photo. skills and knowledge. It is good to have folks like you right in the loop and ready and willing to share.
    “Your Camera-a Tool and not a Jewel’ was one of the lessons you presented during my first cruise with you and I remember your words well.
    Thanks again:

    Dave C. Thunder bay Ontario, Canada

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  2. My first camera was a fully manual film camera without a light meter. I learned very quickly how to shoot using my intuition and over the years have used most formats and brands of cameras. To this day I am still inclined to use my camera on manual most of the time , even when shooting motor sport events. All the techno wizardry in the modern cameras will not make a jot of difference to the end result if the shooter has no understanding of photography and the art of composition.
    As you so rightly state, Richard, a camera is merely a tool to capture the image you are after, and I feel sorry for the pixel pushers who are more interested in the camera specification and features, than spending that time actually taking photographs.
    I regularly suggest to my students that they purchase a manual film SLR and shoot a couple of rolls of tranny film as this will give them a better understanding of how it all comes together. I still shoot with film occasionally, using a manual rangefinder camera, because in todays instant world, it is challenging and the anticipation whilst waiting to see the results can be invigorating.

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  3. Well stated Arthur! My 5d and 5d MkII certainly show that they have been well used (and loved). But they are a tool. Go look into the bed of any carpenter’s truck and show me a saw or nail gun that looks brand new…I’ll show you a receipt that shows that it was just bought this morning.
    Tools were meant to be used and good ones will take the rigors of daily use and keep working year after year.

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  4. Good piece Arthur. A perspective that needs to be reinforced in today’s photo community.

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  5. Excellent article. It reinforces my decision to stick with my 5D, 20D and and MF primes and not upgrade to the latest wango fango techno DSLR.

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  6. Excellent article. Thank you Arthur!

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  7. Its unfortunate for the professional photographers that complain over the digital age in the 21st century. Instead of embracing a new and exciting form of technology many deem it too cumbersome, not easily mastered and rather just go back in time of film only shooting. As a senior who has been adapting to new technology both in film, automobiles, home techno wizardly and everyday internet searching once learned its like riding a bike. I find my older friends would rather read a print paper or magazine and stay like the author in day past. I have found a new world of possibilities for myself in this digital photography age and elevated myself in my photography pursuits to enjoy my passion in shooting automobiles old and fast. I give them to the owners who are just amazed at my style of shooting their cars and every thank you and smile is all I need to know I am now a photographer. So for every person out there grab your camera sit down and learn its features and get to shooting something you are passionate about. You will put smiles on family and friends faces and learn its what makes you feel good in this amazing era of techno wizardry.

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