The Black Night of The Frugal Photographer

On how expressivity and specs often don't mix.

by Pu on March 16, 2014

Whenever I am asked, “Why did we reach this absurd, that photographers with expensive equipment decide to ditch it and just get a camera phone? Isn’t that supposed to be the other way round?” I feel my eyes rolling of their own accord. It’s not that I don’t understand why people are so attached to the “traditional” notion of “upgrading”, I just don’t get why it should matter so.

The eye-rolling is even more intense though when I see art galleries and specialized publications insisting on specs — analogue vs digital, megapixels, DPI and all that jazz. Even in this case, I understand that since they have to sell something to someone else, and sell it for good money, they don’t want to deal in supposedly defective goods. But is art about material perfection? Indeed, equipment and specs make a difference. Jackson Pollock used household paint and now his works are falling apart. But what would have happened if back in the days he went for the “right” paint instead? Perhaps he would have produced different art. Maybe his works would be better preserved, but we wouldn’t care all that much about them.

Years ago I was one of those users annoyed by DSLR shots on Instagram, thinking that using a $3,000+ camera and applying fake instant filters to pictures taken with it to make others think you had mobile shooting and editing superpowers was a dirty attention grabbing trick. I also found it rather ridiculous and juvenile to see all these so-called “seasoned” photographers falling for the latest fad. But the situation has changed from that time and I don’t find the idea of people mixing tools as they like so strange anymore — perhaps it’s just that I’m not paying attention these days. Even though I’m not looking at people’s tags and EXIF data all the time to know if they are pulling my leg as a viewer, I am also quite sure limitation is always a good thing. If limitation is the result of a sincere desire to explore a given tool’s potential, even if the trigger for this desire is material need, one can learn a lot from it both about the medium and about one’s actual creative skills.

We’re all spoiled brats, in a way. When you don’t have choices you make the most with what you have, while if you have too many choices, selecting becomes a self-conscious act. The above image, for instance, I could have taken with a DSLR — if I had one with me, but I didn’t. In that case it wasn’t a premeditated choice, but laziness on my part, because who wants to go out with a big camera just because it has more resolution at 3 AM only to walk the dog? I am not sure the above picture I should call a lucky accident or intuitive timing or whatever. Despite its embarrassing lo-fi look, I like the result because it’s about a mood that a high definition image, where everything is perfect and crisp, wouldn’t be able to convey. Ultimately, this is my personal experience of a place at a special time of the day and it’s not about showing its amenities like a travel guide would.

Mobile photography is, and has been for quite some time now, a lot like a reshuffling of cards, a way for photographers to reset what they knew about their artistic possibilities and picture taking as a form of expression that is first and foremost highly personal. Photography doesn’t have to be illustrative to connect with the viewer. Illustrative photos inform, they end up in travel guides and give people an illusion of objectivity. Subjective photographs have the right to be utterly flawed, not to meet specs and to make stock photographers scrutinizing them enraged. They don’t have to speak to everybody, but when they do they leave behind a lasting impression.

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