The best camera is one you actually use


Those of you who are following @photocritic on Twitter (or, in fact, if you were paying attention to the RSS feed), can’t have failed to notice that I was out on the road. If you’re making a particularly good job of stalking me, you’ll also have noted a load of photos posted to my Flickr stream, most of which were taken with my iPhone, and some of ‘em were taken with my little Canon Digital Ixus camera.

Yes, that’s right, I was out globetrotting – on a motorcycle, to be precise. Due to the extremely limited space I had available to me, I didn’t bring my full assortment of lenses with me. In fact, I only brought a single lens; My mighty fine Canon 50mm f/1.4 prime lens (I know I keep banging on about it, but you need a prime lens). Then, as I was traveling around, something very, very interesting happened; I didn’t use my SLR camera at all.  


What? No SLR?! You call yourself a photographer?!

I know, it surprised me, too; I brought my little Canon digital IXUS camera with me as a back-up camera, in case something happened with my big camera. And in case I was planning on going out drinking, in which case I consider the IXUS to be as close to you get as a disposable digital camera (have you noticed that you never lose anything you don’t really worry about losing, and always lose or drop your expensive stuff? Exactly…)

So anyway, I was riding along, and the first 1,500 miles, it was raining, and I had my Canon EOS 450D in the top box of my motorcycle. Which means that in order to actually get to it, I would have to:

  • Spot something awesome
  • Get on the brakes, nearly causing an accident with the car driving behind me
  • Park the bike
  • Put the bike on its side-stand
  • Take the key out of the ignition
  • Unlock and open the back box
  • Take the camera out of the back-box
  • Take off my gloves and helmet (can’t use the SLR with my helmet on)
  • Point the camera, take the photo
  • Put the camera back in the back-box
  • Close and lock the back-box
  • Get back on the bike
  • Start the bike
  • Ride off into the sunset

By comparison, taking pictures with my Digital Ixus was much easier; I was less worried about it getting wet, so I just carried it in the inside pocket of my leather motorcycle jacket. That means it’s protected from the rain by my outter rain layer and the jacket itself. As it turned out, this was more than a-plenty: The camera came out perfectly dry every time. Because of this, it was a lot easier to take photos:

  • Spot something awesome
  • Get on the brakes, still nearly getting myself killed because cage-drivers never pay attention, and because my motorcycle brakes are an order of magnitude better than any car brakes
  • Find somewhere safe to stop, and hold the bike upright with my thighs
  • Reach in my inner pocket
  • Point the camera, take the photo
  • Put camera back in inner pocket
  • Ride off into the sunset

All about the opportunism and impulsivity

Now, the fact that I was able to stop on a whim, fish out a camera without having to stop the motorcycle’s engine, without having to lock and unlock the suitcase strapped to the back of the bike, and without having to take my gloves and helmet off, meant that I started the trip taking photos with the Ixus…

… And then never stopped. Sure, at one point (after it stopped raining, of course) I moved the 450D into the tank bag, so it would be easily accessible, but even then, the hassle of taking my helmet off (you’d be surprised: I have to take my gloves off, take my glasses off, then undo the buckle, pull it off of my head, put it somewhere safe so it doesn’t fall off. Then when I want to put it back on, I have to put my ear-plugs (or headphones, if I’m in a music-kind-of-mood) back in, because they invariably get unsettled by taking my helmet off) seemed like too much of an obstacle to bother.

So, despite riding 3500 miles through some of the most amazing landscapes known to man (Seriously, if you’ve never been to Norway, I highly recommend riding or driving from Oslo to Bergen via the Hardangervidda road over the mountain pass, and then follow the coast around all the way to Kristiansand. You’ll be awestruck in the original sense of the word), I never really felt inclined to dig out my SLR camera. In fact, of all the things I brought with me in my (admittedly very limited-spaced) luggage, there were only three things I didn’t use: My long underwear (It never got cold enough to warrant putting them on), my Tyreweld kit (because I didn’t have any punctures) and my Canon EOS 450D.

Needless to say, when you’re on the road for 3 weeks, it gives you a lot of time to think. In the last week, I spent a lot of time wondering if perhaps I should dig out my SLR camera and try taking some photos. And yet, I never did. Which made me think; am I really so lazy that I’m willing to pass up the opportunity for some awesome photos, just because I can’t be arsed digging out a proper camera?

But… Why?!

Part of the reason, I think, is that this tour was never really meant to be a photo tour – if it were, I think I would have taken the time. This trip was meant to act as punctuation between my previous job (which I hated with the passion of an iberian street argument), and my my new job as a writer. But ultimately, I’m still a photographer at heart… So why?

Then it dawned on me; the very same argument for not being bothered to dig out a proper camera is the precise reason why the Apple iPhone is topping the lists for most uploaded photos on Flickr, and why camera phones are so incredibly popular: Phones, by their very nature, have to be very accessible: It’s no good having a telephone which needs to be locked out of a case, taken out of a protective pouch, and pampered into life before you can answer a call. It rings, you fish it out of your hand-bag or pocket, you answer it. This accessibility – and expectation of accessibility – is what makes camera phones such great photography tools; reaching for your mobile phone has become a well-trained movement, whereas most of us are more careful with our cameras. When going out on the lash for a night, you do bring your phone, but you might not bring a camera, for example.

I know I have been slightly schizophrenic in my reaction to camera phones; my hatred of their poor quality optics and results is stemmed by their accessibility (‘everyone’ has a mobile phone, and I defy you to find a mobile phone which doesn’t have a camera on it these days) and ubiquitous presence. Formally, and officially: Camera phones are a good thing. I’ll tell you why:

On this trip, I discovered that having a compact camera which I use is infinitely better than a SLR camera that I don’t use, even if the latter has has the potential for much better photos than the former.

The best camera you own is the one you actually end up using… and that’s worth keeping in mind when you pack for a trip, I think…

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