The Merits of a Pocket Camera

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"Canoe Tree Nine" by D. Travis North

Too often, the snobbery of photography equipment gets in the way of our common goal as photographers:  To create and share great photos.  I’m talking about the equipment debates: Canon vs. Nikon, Prime lenses vs. Zoom lenses, Film vs. Digital, point-and-shoot (pocket cameras) vs. SLR, .  With fear of potentially starting such a debate, I want to say that it’s all nonsense.  It doesn’t matter how you take the photo.  What truly matters is your intent.  Now I’m specifically going to address the point-and-shoot vs. SLR debate.  I am going to say flat out that I would gladly carry around a point-and-shoot camera at all times, many times in lieu of my SLR.

First, a full disclosure.  I do have a point-and-shoot camera, and I have always had one since the digital point-and-shoots became affordable to me.  Currently, my point-and-shoot is at home always so that my wife is able to capture precious moments involving our children throughout the day.  If I had the money, I would purchase an additional point-and-shoot right now, and I would probably carry it more often than my SLR.  But that takes little away from my point, so I will move on.

I’d like to discuss a bad title.  “Point-and-shoot” is a term that doesn’t apply anymore.  This might still apply to the fixed-focus cameras that were popular back in the 80’s (does anyone remember Kodak’s Disk film?)  But modern cameras can do so much more.  You can zoom, you can shoot in different program modes.  Some of the more advanced cameras even allow you to play with aperture settings.  We’re still not talking about SLR cameras.  Yes, these things are possible with your so-called point-and-shoot camera.  So much is possible that I think it’s a bad title filled with misconceptions.  I prefer to refer to them as Pocket Cameras.  That should alleviate all the bad misconceptions and implies none – other than the obvious….a camera that fits in your pocket.  So now that we’ve settled that….

I am certainly not the first to say it, nor do I believe that Chase Jarvis coined the phrase –  though in recent history, he is most recognized as popularizing the phrase:  The Best Camera is the one that’s with you.  Now Jarvis uses it to promote his book and the iPhone application and the community surrounding photos taken with iPhones.  But the philosophy is one that many have taken to heart beyond the world of iPhones.  If you think about it, an iPhone is (among many other things) just a pocket camera.  It’s not the best quality camera, it’s not even the most feature rich camera.  But it’s a camera, and chances are that you’ll have it with you.  The same can be said about any pocket camera.  If it’s easy to carry, you’ll have it with you.  And if you have it with you, you’ll likely use it.  And since you’re using it often, you’ll get accustomed to it and probably take some great pictures, despite its limitations.

So lets dispel another myth:  Image quality.  Image quality isn’t everything.  Sometimes a photo is coveted and appreciated simply for what it is, a unique perspective, a rare moment or an emotion that strikes many of us.  Think deep into the past.  Many of the most recognized photos, especially those in photojournalism, aren’t technically perfect.  Most of the most recognizable archival photos aren’t even great image quality, especially by today’s standards.  But they capture a moment in time, and they help to illustrate the intent.

Wait – I’ll say that again:  Illustrate intent.

Your photo will not amount to much if intent is not implied.  In fact, I think of this as the main prerequisite of a camera:  Can you imply intent with this camera?  Since every single camera ever made can do that, it really doesn’t matter, does it?  No.  Back to image quality.  Some of us make money off of selling poster sized prints of our work.  To you, things like pixel depth matter.  But to the rest of us – the great majority of us – we share the bulk of our works online, not for printing, just for sharing.  Most of you probably reduce the size of your photos to do so – reducing from your 12 megapixel input to an output somewhere closer to 4 or 5 megapixel, if that.  So that stuff doesn’t matter as much as the sales staff at the local camera store (or big box store, God forbid) would like you to believe.  They want you to spend more money because it affects their bottom line.  I have nothing to gain by offering advice, so trust me – pixel depth matters little anymore.

So what does matter?  I have a very short list of things that would matter:

  1. Having the camera with you.
  2. Having comfort with the camera.
  3. Having the ability to convert the images to a sharable medium.

As you can see, this is a very short list.  And there is not a single one of these items that cannot be achieved with your pocket camera.  Some might say shutter-delay (or lack-thereof) is a big item.  This may be so for some types of photography, but if you’re comfortable with the camera (point #2), you’ll be ready to anticipate the delay.  For that matter, you can alleviate the delay by dropping the image quality, or changing the way your flash works.  Spend a little more money (still well below buying a DSLR system), and you can get a faster shutter-delay (not to be confused with shutter speed).

Having the camera with you is the most important point there.  Your SLR is not going to be as easy to lug around.  And you certainly won’t want to pull it out at certain circumstances.  When traveling on business, or in a crowded unknown city, you may not want to lug all that gear around.  You may not want to attract attention of would-be thieves.  Your pocket camera is easier to carry to and from work, for walks around the neighborhood and for trips to the grocery store (I’ve seen some lovely photos taken in grocery stores).  You will draw less attention to yourself with a pocket camera, and you may even get better, more natural candid shots with it as well.  But having your camera with you is the first step to capturing great photos.  And if you’re not comfortable lugging around your bulky $1200 camera, the pocket camera serves a wonderful purpose.

As a photographer who has been shooting for around 16 years with an SLR camera, I have yet to see a reason to get rid of my pocket camera.  In fact, I’m on my fourth one to date.  I have yet to meet a professional photographer that does not also have some sort of side-arm pocket camera.  As hobbyists, you should consider what the professionals do, and consider having a side-arm pocket camera.  If your primary camera is a pocket camera, don’t give it up when you upgrade.  Even if you only capture a few shots per year with that camera, it makes it worth it.  After all, you wouldn’t have that photo if you didn’t at least have your pocket camera ready and waiting in your pocket.

I would, of course, love to hear your thoughts.  Even though I said at the beginning of the article that I was afraid to start a debate, some part of me wants to see that debate unfold.  If you disagree with me, and you think that the pocket cameras don’t have their place, I’d love to hear from you.  Of course, if you are a pocket camera user (be it as your primary or secondary camera), please share your stories as well.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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