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Advancing Without Improving

The title of this post comes from a quote by American artist Charles Sheeler:
"Isn't it amazing how photography has advanced without improving?"
I'm very familiar with Charles Sheeler's work from my study of art during my lost college years. Yet, in all that time, I never came across this quote until I read it at The Online Photographer's "From Film Holder to Memory Card."

Even if I had heard or read this quote over 30 years ago, it wouldn't have had quite the resonance then that it has today, especially in the digital photography environment we're currently swimming through.

I'd be lying if I denied that the latest offerings from Canon and Nikon didn't stoke the personal lust of Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Who can't resist more mega pixels, video capture, and ISO sensitivity so high that you can now literally photograph scenes you can't see?

To what purpose? Does it improve the art of photography? Or does it merely, marginally, improve technique?

The problem we all fall into is confusing technique for art, not only in photography, but in all walks of life. I run into the equivalent of this issue in engineering, where we confuse process for deliverable. That confusion leads us to believe that all we need is the latest shiny new body and lens to deliver what we can't seem to accomplish with our current kit.

Recently I went in the other direction when I picked up a used Olympus E-1 body from KEH. Excellent used E-1 bodies can be purchased for a fraction of what they originally cost (by about an order of magnitude). The E-1's features are positively ancient; today's users would turn their noses up at a mere 5 mega pixel sensor with a very limited ISO range. I pretty much felt the same way, until I finally got a chance to use an E-1.

What I discovered is that the E-1 is capable of creating photographs that rival in quality anything I've created with every other body I currently own in the Olympus line-up. This, from a body and sensor design that is approaching eight years of age. If I stick my nose right up to the image and pixel peep, I can spot the subtle differences. If I measurebate the various cameras, I can read the charts and note the differences. But if I take the images and print them and stand back and view them, they're indistinguishable as to which camera took them.

Mission Ysleta
"Mission Ysleta"
Olympus E-1 with Zuiko Digital 50mm 1:2
1/3200s, f/4.5, ISO 100

Christ and the Virgin Mary - Mission Ysleta
"Christ and the Virgin Mary - Mission Ysleta"
Olympus E-1 with Zuiko Digital 50mm 1:2
1/30s, f/2.2, ISO 100

Acquiring the E-1 has pretty much quenched my current desire to buy the New and Shiny (the lust never really quite goes away). The E-1 illustrates how I've not improved over the years as I've striven to purchase the latest that Olympus had to offer. The E-1 helps to illustrate that I'm little better than a somewhat talentless, imitative snapshooter. I may improve beyond that given enough time, but until I do, there's little incentive to keep purchasing the ever relentlessly advancing camera technology. It won't help me improve the art.


  1. perhaps it does not advance it, but it does make it more accessable and extend what you can do.

    Pinhole isn't for everyone, although it is fun

  2. Something I seem to see far too often in the photo clubs, is a tendency for people to only be interested in photography because of these new-fangled digital cameras. Heck, its gotten to the point that all instructional effort is focused on figuring out how to use said new-fangled digital cameras or the latest must-have Photoshop plugins. Its as if actually helping people improve their photographic fundamentals is now a foreign concept. (As someone who isn't a techno-illiterate retiree, but might be artistically challenged, this gets quite annoying.)

    At this point, in an effort to be a little different than "everyone else," I've taken to shooting good 'ole film whenever I can. High-end film equipment is now a basement bargain, and comes in far more interesting varieties than the digital market could ever justify.

    My current favorite "interesting" camera is a Graflex Crown Graphic 4x5, with a serial number dating to the 1960's (though its design looks older than that). When I want something a little more modern, I have a Mamiya 640 Pro TL from the 1990's. Oh, and if I actually do want to use that piddly common 35mm format, the Nikon F100 is an absolute basement bargain (and works with the same lenses I bought for the D300).


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