A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it. – Edward Steichen
I am a simple photographer. I use compact cameras and I frame and shoot. My main focus is on composition â€“ that which is actually being photographed. The most important piece of gear I have is my imagination.
All of this may seem odd, I know. In this age of gear and GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) many photographers simply cannot understand the concept of using simple equipment and working in an uncluttered manner. Surely, they think, a better camera will make me a better photographer. Even if you don’t think this, your actual practice might reflect it. How many times have you upgraded your equipment in the past year?
My aim here is not to convince you of anything. It is not to change your ways or to bash your expensive camera. I am simply writing about why I like compact cameras and offering up a couple of reasons why you might too.
All of my work is done with Ricoh GR cameras. I have digital versions (GRD, GRDII, GRDIV) and I have film models as well (GR1s, GR1v). Whichever camera I am using, one thing is for sure, it’s sporting a 28mm GR lens. All of these cameras are very small, light weight and simple to operate. Yet, the lens is very sharp and distinctive. My favourite are the 35mm versions which allow me to simply frame and shoot. No menu diving. My entire focus is on my subject and my environment â€“ the streets. My equipment is not expensive, in relative terms, which allows me more funding for travel, photography books and advertising or promoting my work. All of which have been fundamental to my success in getting published and exhibited.
All of this adds up to a very simple way of working â€“ of existing â€“ as a photographer. It may not be for everyone, but it should be noted that people like myself are out here in the big bad world. Not everyone is gear hungry and hung up on the technicalities of photography or pixel peeping in their spare time. There are a good many of us who still enjoy an old fashioned simple camera with a roll of film inside â€“ many of us who still value the art of it all.
â€œI want to have a camera, which is â€“ you know, very simple. An amateur camera.â€ – Anders Petersen
Throughout the history of photography there have been many famous champions of the simple approach to photography. Here is a somewhat brief and incomplete list:
Daido Moriyama â€“ Ricoh GR1s, GRD and the Nikon S9100 (Virtually all of Daido’s most noted work was shot on a Ricoh GR1s)
Anders Petersen â€“ Contax T3 (Most of his noted work shot on Contax T cameras)
Terry Richardson â€“ Yashica T4 and Ricoh GRD III (Uses compact cameras exclusively)
David Bailey â€“ Olympus Trip
Robert Frank â€“ Konica Big Mini and Fujifilm Instax
Juergen Teller â€“ Contax T2 and G2
Costa Manos â€“ Contax T
Stephen Shore â€“ Rollei 35
Annie Leibovitz â€“ T2 (Uses a vast array of cameras but is not obverse to compacts and has even championed the iPhone)
Henri Cartier-Bresson â€“ Leica Minilux and Contax T
Right away some of you will notice that not all of the photographers above used (or use) compacts as their main camera or their only camera. That’s true and it’s fine. The point is that all of these photographers did at least some of their notable work with compact cameras and, more to the point, understand and appreciate the simplicity of the uncluttered approach to making an image.
So, whether your choose to stick it out with your 5D or change it up a bit and hit Ebay in search of a Rollei 35, keep in mind that the whole point is to capture a good image. No one will remember your camera, but they just might remember one of your photographs. As Ansel Adams said, â€œThe single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.â€
You might think this is all obvious and trite, but stop and ask yourself whether your practice really reflects it.
Michael Ernest Sweet is an award-winning educator, writer and street photographer. His first collection of street photography is scheduled for release from Brooklyn Arts Press in late 2013. Michael divides his time between Montreal and New York City. Follow him on Twitter @28mmphotos.