All of the linked photos are compressed, but they come in the original 42-megapixel resolution from my current camera. Yes, megapixel wars were and are stupid. But trust me, these are the *good* megapixels.
The famous saying goes “the best camera is the one you have on you,” but I keep changing my mind about what it means.
In the early days of my interest in photography, this felt simple. “The best camera is the one you have on you” meant “don’t forget to bring your camera.”
Then, as smartphones made it hard not to carry a camera, the saying morphed into: “any camera is better than none.” You might have left your point-and-shoot at home, but you can still capture something with your iPhone.
A photo of my first camera taken with my last camera
Then, the expression started talking about aspirations. The best camera is the one you have on you, not the one you saw on a store shelf. Your dream pro camera you cannot yet afford won’t make you a photographer any more than an expensive typewriter will make you an established writer. Don’t fetishize a more capable or purely a more expensive tool; start using the one you have.
hgyAnd then, the saying changed once more. Perhaps now you can afford an expensive camera, but it doesn’t mean you should assume that of others. Don’t gatekeep photography. The right answer to “what kind of camera did you shoot this with?” is not “X bolted onto Y,” but “this is not a great question; ask me a different one.” Because it is a weird question: is your first inquiry about a good article “what keyboard did you write this with?”
I don’t know if I fully agree with any of this. A better keyboard doesn’t come with a more impressive set of words, grammar, or literary conventions. But a better camera is objectively better: the photons bounce around in better glass, get swallowed by a better sensor, and become sharper bits and more colourful bytes.
For me, it was the realization that best camera wasn’t what I had on me, and a subsequent purchase of a prosumer, pricey camera I didn’t deserve, that made me a better photographer. The seemingly endless dials of my first DSLR made me want to explore. The overflowing settings menus got me invested in understanding the scary terms and concepts. In Poland, a point and shoot was called an idiotenkamera. I no longer wanted to be an idiot.
Even then, fifteen years ago, you could buy a great used camera and a lens for not as much money. And so I got a bonded pair, and then took it everywhere.
My last idiotenkamera and my second DSLR. I don’t have a photo of my first DSLR, which makes sense if you think about it
It worked, for a while – I was impressed with the sharpness, the bokeh, the colours, and I learned a lot – but it also raised the stakes. A simple walk with a point-and-shoot felt simple no more when I started bringing my DSLR. Now I had to plan ahead: charge the batteries, pack the lenses, screw on the polarizers. Afterwards, processing the photos could take hours. I loved that part – just like half of writing is editing, half of photography is post processing – but I also found it exhausting. There was more pressure to take impressive photos, rather than enjoying the walk. Switching from one lens to another was cumbersome. And even taking each single photo was fractionally harder. At a hundred of photos a day, those fractions kept adding up.
So, in time, I chose to be more deliberate. “The best camera is the one you have on you” became “the best camera usually stays at home.” Casual photography went to Instagram, limited not just to my iPhone, but also a square format, and a simple to apply black-and-white theme – constraints I imposed so I could reduce the pressure.
The big camera? From now on, it was only dispatched to special events and moments. Now, the act of bringing a camera to a place became a statement of intent, of attention, of care. If you see me with a “real” camera, it means something. Not every trip deserves to be a photo trip.
But that approach has the obvious problem: if you don’t carry your camera everywhere, that leaves no room for a photo trip that’s unplanned.
When I was in Spain for the first time, in 2016, the typewriter museum was a complete surprise. Armed with only a recent iPhone, and a very limited amount of time, the photos were good for a Twitter thread – but not much more. I regretted not having a “proper” camera on me that day ever since.
The recent trip to Spain was a way to remedy that, and the wonderful owners of the museum were beyond accommodating. They let me in on an off day, and after an intro and a conversation, gave me all the time in the world to take as many photos with my semipro camera as I wanted. Postponed for many years because of COVID, it felt once more unreal to be there.
Myself and Pere Padrosa Puignau, the person who started the entire magical collection in Figueres, visiting a secret repair room inside the museum
There are many reasons I love my “proper” camera. The incredibly obvious one is that the photos, well, look better. This was the photo of the museum’s music typewriter I took in 2016 via my iPhone:
And here it is in 2022 using my Sony Alpha – sharper, straighter, more vidid, and technically better, I think, in every possible regard:
But I’m lying to you. This is actually the 2022 photo as it came out of camera:
The photos from the professional camera rarely do look great out of the box. As a matter of fact, they often look so bad in the viewfinder that it took years for me to internalize something: post processing doesn’t exist just to make photos better. Often, post processing is where you can “salvage” a photo that earlier that day felt like a complete disaster.
The less obvious, but related reason to get a good camera is that it will give you headroom. A good photo will look great, but so can a poor one. Overexpose, and the photo can turn out okay if you know which sliders to drag. Mess up the framing, and the pixels will still look sharp after cropping. That sinking feeling when you realize you were not standing exactly in the center? You can correct the skew or geometry later, and the public won’t be any wiser. Start with the wrong colour balance? It’s 100% recoverable.
At home, I take photos of sunsets behind Sutro Tower and this is my favourite example of headroom you get with a good camera:
It was a similar story in the museum in Figueres, if not as dramatic. This was the best photo I took of the entire room in 2016, completely useless to put in a book:
But the recent April photo is the opposite:
I could not only recover some of the shadows and highlights, and fix the crooked angle, but even remove my friend by transplanting pixels from a different photograph. This is the original of the above:
More examples? In a nearby computer museum in Barcelona, this was a 2016 iPhone photo of a “big iron” computer controlled by a typewriter. The bright sunlight coming from above made the colours appear all washed out:
The photo I took in 2022 is once more good enough to put on a spread in a book:
If you are interested, this is once again how it came out of camera. You can see some of the post processing edits I did, including removing the background, cleaning up some surfaces, and even replicating one reflection for consistency.
A nice side effect of the headroom? Sometimes even throwaway photos can be so good they can be put to work. An impromptu shot of a European Selectric in Figueres was good enough to juxtapose with an earlier 2017 shot of an American Selectric. Through some editing, they could be made to match 1:1 and illustrate two paths to labeling keys – iconography and text – even though I didn’t plan on doing that.
One of these typewriters is turned on, and the other is not. Can you tell?
Here are two jars of typewriter keys in the aforeshowed secret repair room which was really dark… but not to my camera’s oversensitive sensor:
Here is a back of a nearby typewriter, where you can clearly see the escapement and be reminded that in many ways a typewriter is a clock that you have to wind – except it doesn’t exist to tell time, and you don’t wind it in a way you might be used to:
Here’s the world’s most exciting Shift key:
And speaking of close-ups, here is one of a beautiful Dutch VT-220 Enter that I did just by cropping a much larger photo – and yet you can still see the details of the surface:
(One has to be careful about getting so close to keys, though. I have seen some nasty stuff doing that.)
This is a gorgeous IBM beam spring keyboard built straight into a computer in a way that seems both absurd and wonderful today:
And here’s the absolutely bonkers keyboard of a Spanish computer Factor S:
And so on, and so on.
I still have a lot to learn about photography and post processing. The iPhone cameras are getting better year by year. But I continue really loving those moments when travelling: going back to the hotel at the end of the day, sliding in the SD card from the “real” camera, dragging a bunch of sliders and seeing something much sharper, much nicer, much more interesting than I imagined. These above might not be “artistic” photos – perhaps they’re the photographic equivalent of “literary non-fiction” – but they still genuinely bring me incredible amounts of joy.
This is why I had to learn to be careful before. Putting this much attention to every photo I took would be really exhausting. But when I do this once in a while at a moment or place that matters, it’s among the most rewarding things.
There is one more layer to “The best camera is the one you have on you.”
Some years ago I took my work teammates to a photo trip at the nearby Computer History Museum. This was a place I cut my photography teeth on myself, especially after getting more access that came with my promotion to a senior docent.
We went to the museum, casually taking photos of different machines. But after the trip, one person – a photographer I looked up and learned a lot from – told me something that stuck with me since. He said “I don’t know how to take good photos here.”
After that interaction, I realized that there’s another side of bringing a good camera to a place you love: a distinct possibility no one else ever will. It’s hard to believe, but a Venn diagram of people caring about a specific obscure object, and people pointing a nice camera with a discerning eye at things, might often be you and only you.
And that presents an opportunity. A great photo can be a gift to you, a wonderful memory of a past moment – or even a celebration of your investment in that moment. But it could also be a gift to others.
Last month’s photo of a Dutch museum I visited
I upload and try to tag my photos in Flickr because I know they find their way to interesting places. I also often send my set of photos to the museum or place afterwards and it amazes me how often this becomes the first set of photos they have ever been sent. And I’m so excited to be able to put hundreds of my own photos in the book and give them the kind of lease on life I’ve never given any of my photos before.
So, what does it mean to say the best camera is the one you have on you? I do not know anymore. The beauty and curse of photography is that it is infinite. There are many ways to get into it, many ways to contribute, many ways to enjoy. There are reasons I put quotation marks around “real” and “proper” earlier. So sure, the best camera is the one you probably already have on you. But if you’re anything like me? You might want to get yourself an even better one.
This was newsletter №29 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Check out all the secret documents
A rare (to me) and beautiful (to me) Japanese teletype keyboard