Revealed: the greatest camera in the world

Film or digital? Small, medium, or large format? Leica? Hasselblad? Canon? Nikon? Discover the definitive answer, once and for all.

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Photographers are a weird bunch–they can be strangely tribal about the tools they use. Having worked at multiple camera stores in my early life, I’ve been privy to numerous, completely unnecessary arguments about Canon vs. Nikon, or Kodak film vs. Fuji Film. I never really understood the motivations behind these arguments, as I wanted to own all the cameras and to use all the types of film. Maybe because photography is expensive, people want to feel good about their choices? Or maybe my choice (as opposed to your choice) shows that I’m smarter than you? I don’t know–humans will always find ways to exclude outsiders so that they feel as part of the insiders.

Anyway, with a lifetime of experience, having used cameras from nearly every manufacturer and every style, I will now reveal the two fundamental truths about photography (and other art making) tools:

#1: The greatest camera in the world (or greatest paint brushes, or ink, or whatever) is the one that gets into your hand and gets used.

That’s it, but that’s everything.

It can be the latest technological marvel from Japan or Germany, a new-to-you eBay’d camera you’ve had your eye on, a cool hand-me-down analog film camera that was state-of-the-art 75 years ago. It can be something that fits neatly into your pocket or handbag, or is large and specialized and impressive; each person has their own variation of this. There’s no wrong answer, only your answer.

Whatever gets you to pick up your tools and use them…
to overcome the inertia of not-doing, and act…
this is what makes them the greatest.

The more you know do

Like everything else in life, the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it… the more you photograph, the better your photography will be. Growing in your art means making a lot of work, looking at it critically, developing an understanding of what / how you’re doing and why, and then doing a lot more work. It’s exercise. There’s really no replacement for the reps of the Creation -> Evaluation -> Evolution loop.

The tools that help make this happen–that spur you to action–are the greatest.

#2: The greatest camera in the world is the one that fits your work, your process; the one that delivers the outcomes you’re looking for.

Fundamental truth: your equipment choices directly shape your work. Characteristics like quality and resolution. Film vs. digital. Time required to prepare. Discrete in use or obvious to everyone around you. Physical attributes like size and weight and bulkiness. Handheld or tripod bound. Immediate results or images that requires processing before viewing. Lens options (interchangeable?, speed?, length?). Whether you peer through a physical viewfinder or through a little window or look at a screen.

In large ways and small, all of these collectively can affect the results you get. [I’ll expand upon this topic in a future article.]

It’s critical to choose tools that match your desired outcomes, or at least, to be cognizant how your results are directly shaped by the tools you use. A corollary of this is that, as your art work changes (and your desired outcomes change), so does the ‘greatness’ of the camera. Greatest today may not be greatest tomorrow.

A photograph of an Ansco 8x10 camera and an iPhone SE, sitting on a light-colored wood table.
For size comparison: Ansco 8×10″ view camera and iPhone SE.

Here are a couple of (extreme) examples:

8×10 film view camera (my oldest camera, an Ansco circa ~1950):

  • Huge, heavy, bulky. Requires an equally heavy tripod. Draws the attention of bystanders wherever you use it.
  • Unbelievable image quality. Not that I’d ever do it, but a 2000dpi scan would result in a 16000x20000px file.
  • Unbelievably expensive to use, even when you process the film by hand and make contact prints. Black and white film is ~$10/exposure!
  • Tends to produce calm, carefully composed images (which can also feel static, non-energetic).
  • Very limited number of exposures you can (conveniently) make in the field. In my case, 2 film holders = only 4 exposures per outing.

Mobile phone (iPhone SE):

  • Physically small, low quality, very limited in capability.
  • You look at a large screen that immediately shows the exact content of the image.
  • Phones are so ubiquitous, they’re invisible. You can use them anywhere, often even in places that prohibit photography… they’re only phones, after all.
  • The images they produce can feel disposable; you might be more inclined to photograph a subject ‘unworthy’ of a better camera.
  • And for many people, they’re already in-hand, most of the time.

The elephant in the room (and in your pocket)

Speaking of which… photographers of a certain, ummm, vintage, collectively scoffed when Apple claimed that the iPhone had become the “most popular” camera in the world. “Cellphones are not cameras after all”, it was said, “so how could the iPhone be the most popular one?”

I shared this view in the past. Nowadays, there’s really no camera–or photographer–I don’t like.

I’ve since changed my opinion for a variety of reasons. Related to #1 above, the best camera is the one you have with you and in your hand… if that’s a iPhone, good on you! Similarly, related to #2, if your phone gets you the kind of images you’re looking to make, double good. In my defense, phone cameras (and the software that backs them up) have improved by orders of magnitude over those original models. And finally, for most people, their phone is their camera.

Speaking of cellphones… the reason they’ve gotten so good (besides pure technological advances like lens design, sensors with better resolution, etc.) is that cellphones are more than just cameras. There’s a lot of automatic editing happening behind the scenes; the software has preconceived notions about what you want out of your image, and it tries to make good images for you.

For the average person off the street, this is probably a good thing… they get better images without putting in any effort. For the artist, this may-or-may-not be good, depending on your needs. You might find yourself fighting the automated processing. Regardless, it’s important to be aware that it’s happening.

Photograph of a Canon digital camera sitting next to a phone on a light-colored wooden table.
My trusty ole’ Canon digital camera with 35mm lens next to an iPhone SE.

What I find important

Right now, for me, smallness and speed are critical– the camera has to be small enough that I can bring it with me anywhere I go. I have a single lens reflex (SLR) digital camera that I wear over my shoulder on a strap. Technically my camera is about 10% too big, but it’s close. I wish I could fit an 8×10” view camera into my life, but it doesn’t match the way I work. Like I wrote above, your camera affects your pictures, and my work / my life doesn’t allow me to use a big camera right now. Maybe someday.

When I carry my SLR, I only bring one lens (35mm f/2) with me most of the time, because that’s the lens I find that I need most. It’s compact, fast, startlingly sharp, and mostly eliminates the need for a tripod. For many years, my “perfect” lens was a 50mm f/1.4, until I literally wore it out through use. I don’t love the new one yet, but I like it a lot. On those occasions when I carry other lenses, I nearly always end up regretting it. I don’t use them and feel slowed down by dead weight.

Lately, I use my iPhone a lot of the time. Not for my primary projects, but to actively practice seeing when I’m out in the world. I see better when I hold a camera, even a phone camera. I don’t “want” anything from these images but sometimes I’m happy with the results. They’ve gotten surprisingly OK, as long as I stay within its limitations. I talk a bit about this on the editor page. 

👋 Over to you

If it fits your life, make a point of keeping your camera with you and use it whenever the opportunity presents itself. Wear it around your neck or better yet, keep it in your hand (and not in your camera bag, or the trunk of your car, or the closet at home).

The more you keep your tools at the ready, the more you reduce the friction to action, the more likely photos will happen. So keep it with you, have it at the ready. You’ll find that you make more photographs. 

If you prefer to paint, or write, or throw pots, consider how your tools / media choices introduce–or reduce–friction in your art making process. Look for ways to streamline your path to art making. Keep your tools ready so you can dive in at a moment’s notice. 

I’m over here, camera in hand, just about to step out to make a photograph. Be back later!

P.S. What’s the one thing that gets ‘your greatest camera’ into your hand? Let me know!

Cover image: “Greatest camera in the world” uses an image by Alex Andrews in the background.