Sunday, December 14, 2008

Limits breed creativity...

...or at least they force you to think. I recently purchased a Sigma DP1 compact digital camera. At last count there were approximately 137,924 reviews of the DP1 online, and I don't intend to write another. But I am going to say a few words about why I wanted this camera: it has lovely, lovely picture quality, and everything else about it sucks.

Granted, "sucking" might not immediately make sense as a reason for purchase. And I am perhaps being somewhat glib. First of all, not everything else about it sucks. It looks great (and I'm not ashamed to admit that's important to me), it's built like a tank, and it allows full manual control. Everything else sucks.

How could sucking possibly be good? Well, it isn't. Frankly, I'd be happier if Sigma addressed the myriad flaws in a future revision. But here's how I was able to turn this into a reason for purchase. The camera I was using prior to the Sigma (and which, frankly, I still use in addition to the Sigma) was the Contax U4R. This was essentially the last version of the Kyocera SL300R (see my previous post). It's really small, it literally fits in my shirt pocket. And it's faaaaaaaast. I pull it out, hit the shutter release, and it fires off pictures at machine gun speed. What's not to like?

What's not to like is that I wasn't thinking about my photography any more. This is the sort of picture I was taking:

It's a picture of a funny sign! Everyone loves funny signs! What's wrong with it? Well, nothing's wrong with it, but it's not the sort of thing I'd be likely to print out and hang on the wall. My photography was becoming almost exclusively an offhanded document of random things throughout my day. That has a certain appeal, but I also found myself wanting to get back into making "fine art photography," for lack of a less pretentious term. I wanted to make pictures that would compel me to spend printer ink.

My friend Eric (an engineer on the Adobe Lightroom team) once said, "Most cameras are better than most photographers." I couldn't agree more, and I would never blame my tools. But I do think that the nature of our tools guides us towards a particular sort of output, and I wanted a camera that would force me to think, because I obviously wasn't going to think on my own if I didn't have to. I saw that McCain sign, pulled out the camera, turned it on, zoomed in, and shot off 14 exposures: elapsed time, literally about six seconds. Just turning on the Sigma takes practically that long.

Slowness is not a virtue in a camera. But for the sort of photography I'm hoping to do more of, thinking is a virtue, and everything about the Simga forces me to think and to make conscious choices. The fixed focal length lens imposes limits on composition which force me to think before I push the button. The fact that once I've taken a picture it's going to be a while before I can take another forces me to think before I push the button. The fact that the camera produces better results on full manual than it does on automatic forces me to think before I push the button. Being forced to think means that now I'm taking pictures like this:

No one's offered me a Pulitzer, but I'll tell ya this: it looks good on my wall.


  1. A link to the DP review article would be helpful.

  2. Hi Jonathan, I've edited the previous post to include a link to the DP Review article I mentioned. Thanks for reading!

  3. It probably looks AWESOME on your wall. This is a great shot - do you mind if I ask where it was taken?


  4. Thanks S.J., I'm glad you like it. This shot was taken at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.