Just because it’s with you doesn’t make it the best

Tech Life
Canon AE-1

Canon AE-1

Inspired by The Best Camera, a recent article by Ben Brooks, I wanted to share a few observations about that same mantra which seemingly annoys both Ben and me — the best camera is the one you have with you.

You can read those words in many ways. To me, they always sounded a bit like It’s okay to consider a smartphone your best camera, which is fine, I guess, considering the greatly improved camera capabilities of some high-profile smartphones today. Related: your smartphone is your best camera because it’s always with you and allows you to capture moments you couldn’t have captured otherwise. However, whether what you have with you is your smartphone or a full-blown camera, the fact that it’s there when you need to capture something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the ‘best’ at doing so.

I own many different film cameras, and a couple of Nikon Coolpix digital cameras — the 8800 (8 megapixels) and the compact 7600 (7.1 megapixels) — which are about ten years old. I always have my iPhone 4 with me, which takes decent photos, and I often bring along a film camera. My little collection features all kind of 35mm film cameras: SLRs, rangefinders, simple fixed-focus point-and-shoot cameras, all ranging from the cumbersome (but still amazing) Canon T90 SLR to the pocketable Olympus XA2, Olympus Pen EE2, Agfa Optima Sensor and Canon Demi.

When you own more than 25 vintage cameras, all in working condition, you tend to do some planning when you go out. Ninety percent of the time, I have both my iPhone and a compact film camera with me. When I’m simply going for a walk (as opposed to going out on errands or to work off-site), I typically bring more versatile camera gear with me: an SLR, a 50mm normal lens and a zoom lens. Despite all these options and a bit of planning before going out, there are times when I still end up leaving the ‘best’ camera at home.

Ben Brooks writes:

I hate the mantra that the best camera is the one with you, but in hindsight it does seem to hold true — well, kind of. You see in hindsight, and even now, we don’t really know what images we are missing, or missed. I don’t know what other images I could have had on that hike if I had tripods, lenses, dSLRs, ND filters, and patience. I don’t know, and I don’t care to try and think back on it.

For me, the best camera is that which is most suitable for the situation I’m in, and there are times when I know what images I’m missing, and for a photo enthusiast as myself, that’s just infuriating. That conversation between two old ladies on a fourth-floor balcony at sunset would have been a terrific capture had I had my Canon SLR with the great 35–105mm f3.5 zoom lens, which is a great performer in low light. Instead I was carrying my iPhone and a Canonet GIII QL-17 rangefinder with me (which has a fixed 40mm f1.7 lens), and all I could capture was a shot of the front of the building where you can see two people hanging out on the fourth floor. Still a decent photo, but not the result I was looking for.

Conversely, sometimes I stumble on great street scenes, but my large and heavy Canon T90 SLR with the equally heavy Vivitar Series 1 – 28–90mm 1:2.8–3.5 zoom lens is hardly the best gear to capture people discreetly. My iPhone 4 is a decent enough fallback, but every now and then the hardware is a bit too slow to capture a scene anyway.

These are just two quick examples that I hope help illustrate my point. Mind you, I’m often satisfied with the photographic results I get at the end of the day, and I still find myself in situations where I’m really glad I have at least my iPhone with me. But other times my gaze locks on a certain scene or detail I would love to capture properly, yet I have to ‘let it go’ because I just don’t have the right gear with me. Yes, I’d rather not take a picture than accept the tradeoff of shooting something anyway with the wrong tool and hope I can adjust it and push it a bit towards the original vision in the post-processing stage. This will probably sound like nitpicking to most casual digital photographers (for whom the words The best camera is the one you have with you will also probably ring quite true most of the time), but it’s the way I approach photography.

You can certainly make the most of what you have with you, but it won’t always be the best camera or the best results you can achieve. It’s all a matter of expectations in the end, I think.

The Author

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