The Truth: Your Camera is Better Than Ansel’s

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams with his camera and “mobile” tripod.

As a person in my position – an educator (for lack of a better term) in the world of Photography – I often get asked to recommend gear.  After getting a better idea of what that person needs and where they are as a photographer, I will offer some broad recommendations – but it’s not as specific as some might wish.  It’s not that I don’t have my favorites (I do).  It’s that the person asking the questions doesn’t realize that the slight differences between cameras is not going to have a significant impact on their photography.  I usually fall back on a statement you may have heard from me before:  Whatever you choose will be better than the one Ansel Adam’s shot with.

What Is Better?

Better is a subjective term.  If I’m comparing a Nikon D7000 to a Canon EOS Rebel T3i, for example, the statistics might matter more (for the unwashed, note that these are very different cameras targeted at different kinds of shooters and different price points).  The speed of continuous shooting or the ISO response might matter will become factors.  It all depends on what you need, of course and of course your shooting style.  The reality is that both cameras are pretty comparable and it all comes down to preferences.

Let’s look at it differently…supposing we’ve decided on Nikon and we want to compare the Nikon D7000 against the Nikon D700.  With about a $1500 USD difference in price, these two cameras are clearly not even in the same class.  But the cheaper camera actually has a higher bit depth (16 megapixel vs. 12 megapixels).  If you were to believe industry hype alone, and you believed that the megapixels really mattered, wouldn’t you suspect that the cheaper camera, the D7000, is actually the better camera?  But that’s not the case and the data doesn’t tell the full story.  Truth is that the cost difference comes down to format, ISO response and dynamic range.  The D700 has a full-framed sensor while the D7000 is a cropped sensor.  You’re not really comparing apples to apples.  But again, that doesn’t mean the D700 is necessarily better…just different.  The faster shutter cycle and the cropped factor of the D7000 might make it more appealing for sports photographers.  The full-framed sensor might make the D700 more appealing for portrait photographers.  Again, it all depends on how you look at it.

Final example:  Take that D700 vs. a Leica M9 (which is nearly 3x the price of the D700).  Is it safe to assume the M9 is automatically the better camera?  Now we’re talking about completely different formats:  A traditional SLR vs. a rangefinder; a heavy camera vs. a light camera.  Would it surprise you to know that the D700 has a better ISO response, or a faster shutter, or better connectivity options (flashes, tethered shooting, etc) and so on?  I’ll say this:  The reason to buy an M9 has little or nothing to do with it’s technical specs.  People who buy an M9 are looking at form factors.  They’re looking at being inconspicuous and being able to quickly snap a photo at a moment’s notice.  The M9 is coveted by street photographers and photojournalists.  Because they work, and because they’re simple and intuitive.

In the end, Better is far more subjective than you could imagine.  Better has less to do with technical details and capabilities and more to do with feel and preference.  Better can really only be determined by the end-user.  So if you wan to get the Better camera…you – YOU – need to try them all out and form your own opinions.  Even the most skilled and unbiased photographers can only get you part way there.

What About Ansel’s Cameras?

I use Ansel Adams as an example for two reasons:  First, everyone should know (and possibly love and admire) his work.  You should all know what an influence and what a pioneer he was for the photography world (not to mention the impact he’s had on some of our most coveted US National Parks) .  His photography is widely known, coveted and is used as a ruler – even today – to compare all other landscape photographs.  He’s potentially one of the most famous photographers of all time, and it doesn’t look like that will change any time soon.  But the second reason I use him as an example in this discussion:  Most of his famous works were shot in the 1940’s – about 70 years ago.  Even the best lenses from that era couldn’t compare to the consumer grade lenses of today.  As for the medium – film of that era was pretty archaic as compared to the high quality films of today’s more stable and cleaner films.  And digital was still 40 years away.

"The Tetons and the Snake River" by Ansel Adams

“The Tetons and the Snake River” by Ansel Adams

The truth is that Ansel’s gear is a far cry from what is possible with today’s technology.  No one of that era considered signal-to-noise ratios, or shutter speeds or Zeiss vs. Nikkor lenses.  These weren’t essential factors.  By today’s standards…all of that equipment was pretty poor.  But look at what Ansel Adams was able to accomplish with his dated lenses and temperamental film.

Final Thoughts

I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again, and I’ll continue saying it until I’m blue in the face:  Your camera doesn’t matter.  We’re gear-heads at heart, and so we have a natural attraction to statistics and quantifiable evidence.  We like to compare notes and details and try to quantify what camera is actually better.  And that’s okay, because sometimes those details will make a difference, and such an expensive purchase should be considered.

But we must stop the madness and stop thinking that the camera makes the photo.  The camera is simply a tool and should be considered as such.  In the end, it is you that takes the photograph.  It is you that will make it brilliant.  So if you get hung up, just think about what Ansel had to work with and how far he went with it.

Editor’s Note:  This article was originally published on August , 2011 here at Shutter Photo.


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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