“Great picture. Which camera did you use?”
The second of those two sentences almost always follows the first these days. For, thanks in no small measure to the tech media and marketing campaigns, many of us have been conditioned to accept this rather basic equation:
Good picture = Good camera
And of course, its derivative
Bad picture = Bad camera
Which is perhaps why so many “camera reviews” and presentations are dotted with exceptional pictures highlighting just how well the camera works. And this performance is attributed to a number of things, from the brand of the sensor to the kind of pixels to the aperture size to optical image stabilisation and a whole lot besides. Basically, give a person the right hardware and they will take great pictures.
So when a colleague of mine at Mint, Abhijit Ahaskar was showing us pictures of a trip to Leh Ladakh, replete with stunning blue skies, beautiful mountains and the like, I asked him the obvious question: which camera had he used. He held up his phone. Nothing surprising – so many people prefer snapping using their handsets rather than “proper” cameras these days. What WAS surprising, however, was the phone itself he held up.
It was the first Moto E. A phone that had many great attributes, but a camera that had been taken to the cleaners by the pundits. At a time when most brands were offering 8.0-megapixel and 13.0-megapixel shooters, Moto had opted to go with a mere 5.0-megapixel camera which did not EVEN have autofocus – something that had become a given in most phone camera for a while now.
Yet, this much maligned camera had taken pictures which could only be described as jaw-dropping. And this is not an isolated case. When YU launched the Yunicorn, the device’s camera was criticised for its performance, and yet I was able to take some very good pictures using it, leading some people to wonder if we had been “paid off” by the company (we had not, of course!). The same happened with the Creo Mark 1 and the Smartron t.phone – we found ourselves taking good pictures even as the companies themselves worked overtime on patches to “improve camera performance.”
These devices delivered a lesson for many of us who simply go about evaluating cameras by looking at their hardware.
It is this: given the right conditions, almost any camera can take a great photograph.
No, this is not to totally negate the importance of hardware in cameras. It can and does make a difference. Abhijit’s Moto E struggled to take good close up pictures, any object that was moving even at a relatively slow pace got blurred, and low light performance was well, barely visible. And yet in certain circumstances, it did manage to shine – landscapes, architectural structures and relatively static objects came out very well indeed, as did some evening sunset shots. No, if I had a choice I would not choose the Moto E to take pictures for me, but on the flip side, my photography would not be an unmitigated disaster just because my camera was not good…on paper.
Actually, the equation for a good picture should be:
A good picture = An interesting subject (beautiful, scenic, handsome) + Good lighting + good composition (how the shot is set up)
Get all that into place and it is a fair chance that you will come up trumps irrespective of which camera you are using. I remember one of the best photographers in the tech media community Ashish Bhatia laughing when one of us advised a friend who was going for a trek in Himalayas to take a good camera along.
“It is nature at its best, for God’s sake,” he had said. “Whatever you click will come out great.” At another point he advised me to try and take a picture whenever I saw a bee on a flower. “But what if my camera is not good enough?” I had asked (this was 2008 and I knew very little, something which has not really changed much since), and he had clapped me on my shoulder and said “Bas click kar! (“just click the shot”) It will come out fine. It is not just about the camera, it is what you are shooting!” Sure enough, it did. Every time. I took pictures with a Nokia E61i which had a 2.0-megapixel camera that sometimes made people wonder if I was using a DSLR.
Once again, I would like to stress that does not negate the impact that hardware has on a camera’s performance. With good hardware, you have a better chance of taking a great picture and with lesser sweat. My iPhone 6s Plus or OnePlus 3 can capture a speeding vehicle on a road much better than a Moto E ever can. But wait for the sun to start its path towards the horizon, suffusing the city with a pink glow and take a picture with any of the three phones, and the chances of your being disappointed with the results are minimal.
Perhaps the best summary of what takes a good picture came from one of India’s greatest photographers, Raghu Rai. I had gone to interview him after the launch of the Gionee Elife E8, which he had endorsed, and even used to create a book. And well after a bit of introductory chatter, I asked him about the role a camera plays in taking a good picture. His answer will always stay with me:
“Beta (‘Son” in Hindi), there is only one thing that plays a role in taking a good picture. And that is not a camera. That is your sight. I have seen people love pictures that I have been embarrassed to show to others. What I called out of focus, people called bokeh, what I felt was blur, others called conveying motion and speed…at the end of the day, it is about your eyes and how you use them. Any camera will do if you like the picture. We used to love those old, faded pictures of our parents and grandparents. We used to frame them, remember, and put them in albums? And there is something like Instagram that actually tries to make your picture look older. Sab ankh ka kamala hai (‘it’s all about the eyes’)!”
Wise words. Yes, hardware can and does make a difference but at the end of the day, it’s all about how you see it. The eyes have it. Pun intended.
Sab aankh ka kamaal hai….