Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Five Worse Clichés About Photography

Those of you who frequent photography forums probably have noticed this. Many posters love to spout the same cliches over and over again. These are generally meaningless phrases that are somewhat right and hard to dispute, so they make the poster feel smarter.

I'm not talking about clichéd subject matter, like sunsets, babies with pudding on their faces, or a black and white photo with a single red rose in it. That is an entirely different subject. I am talking about the old chestnuts that keep passing for wisdom in forums devoted to photography. These are the trite adages people use when they are stumped for something really useful to say.

Here is my list of my Five Favorite Clichés. Feel free to add any of your own that I might have missed:

1. "The best camera is the one you have with you." - this one is always used to make any discussion of upgrading to a new camera seem meaningless. On the surface it makes sense, since you can't take a photo unless you have a camera with you. But it really means you have no other options, so you settle for your camera phone.

2. "Its not the camera, its the photographer." - this one follows the same vein, and is intended to make all discussions of gear irrelevant by pointing out the obvious fact that having skill always trumps having better gear. The underlying assumption is you can only pick one, and that assumption is false. A skilled surgeon wants the best tools. So does a skilled auto mechanic. And while it is possible to take artistic photos with very shoddy cameras, you just won't sell many of them to the National Geographic.

3. "It is all about the glass." - always used to discourage people from buying a new camera, by suggesting they would always be better off getting a better lens. And sometimes it is true, but very often it can be wrong.  Sometimes you really do need a better camera, so this is really an "always" that should be a "sometimes." Also, it really sounds pretentious when you call a lens "the glass."

4. "Zoom with your feet." - this one is designed to remind you that you really don't need a zoom lens. You can accomplish the same thing by walking 100 feet backwards or forward. Of course, this isn't always possible in the real world, like when you are standing on the edge of a cliff. But it sounds good, so people constantly say it.

5. "Different horses for different courses." - this one pops up whenever someone wants to make the point that some tools are designed for specific jobs and therefore do them better. This is actually true, but so obvious that repeating it over and over again becomes annoying. No one really was planning to use a wide angle lens to take long distance shots of birds and other wildlife.


  1. No, that pretty much covers it. The first one, "the best camera you have is the one you have with you" is only true if the camera you have with you is the best camera to have. I'm always trying to carry a Pen no matter where I go, but sometimes all I have is the built-in camera from my cell phone, and it's so bad that I'd rather let the moment go than to use it. And I often do. The only time I really use the call phone is to photograph the contents of a white board after a meeting. Otherwise, for absolutely any other photography I'd rather have a "regular" camera such as one of my Pens.

  2. Number 4 is of particular interest to me since I live in a rural county that is overwhelmingly taken up as private property. Many shots that I have made would have never been possible without the use of a zoom lens. Generally you'll see me out there with my tripod butted up against a barbed wire fence or me physically leaning over it as much as my back will allow. The notion that prime lens are superior and preferable in every way to zooms is ludicrous.

  3. Excellent list. All five of these give me the willies. If I hear any one of them it will either end the conversation or provoke a rant, depending on my mood.

    This could just be me, but I strong associate #1 with Chase Jarvis, #2 with Ken Rockwell, and #5 with Michael Reichmann. Numbers three and four just bring back bad memories of my time listening to glib advice in camera stores, introductory photography classes, and newbie-forum echo-chambers. I particularly loathe "Zoom With Your Feet" for being trite, superficial, and incorrect.

    The only one that I can add would be "beautiful bokeh", as in "This lens/photo/flickr group has Beautiful Bokeh." So often said; so rarely correct. Of course, there are bonus points if they call a lens "glass" and pronounce bo-ke as if they're taking about flowers or wine. "This glass has beautiful bowq-kway…"

    1. Even the use of the word bokeh makes me crazy! The first time I read it in print I looked it up to see if it was a real word. I just don't like it, sounds like a snob buzz word that comes from the wine snob world.

    2. Its a japaneese word.
      Q. What do you call sushi? you must have a different word for it as those japaneese names just arn't allowed in our western vocabulary are they?

      Get over yourself...

  4. This really made me smile. And unlike Bill, even for white boards I take the E-PL1, and usually even with my wife's 20mm Panasonic lens, since that gives me headroom in low-lit office rooms, aperture-/exposure-/ISO-wise. For the current prices of these E-PL1 cameras, there's simply no excuse to *not* use something at least as good as these.

  5. I'll pick on #4, the Zoom with your feet. I love my primes and will do the legwork to block a shot. That's a given. But for certain looks, only an 85mm focal length will work, or only a 300mm focal length will work for a particular vision. And I'm not talking about shooting wildlife and trying to shoot up a bird's nostrils. I'm talking about certain portraiture, or urban scenes where you want that compression with an urban landscape. See some of Jay Maisel's NYC stuff.

    I love my zooms too, but they sometimes get a bad rap because so many shooters will bang the zoom when a particular scene would look so much better at the wide or mid end of the lens. Just move. I find a lot of novices especially zoom happy. I used to be that way. Years ago I wanted that big zoom so badly. I got it. And there was still a missing component to what I was shooting because I wasn't exploring, I was just zooming. Now my favorite general purpose lenes are a 40mm Voigtlander on 35mm, a 65mm on MF film, and a 20mm on m4/3.

  6. #4 always gets me. The angle of view is different for different focal lengths and can make or break what I have envisioned.

  7. Very nice post! Since 1969 I thought I've heard all of these..but nope. I like get the best camera you can esp. if you are going to shoot for pay.

  8. I'd honestly be willing to suffer through #1 rather than the prevalent view one sees now of telling those interested in photography, or filmmaking, "You'll never be truly professional unless you have that newest piece of gear that came out last week." Bulls$#%! The best camera in the world can't compensate for clichéd, uninspired work which most of the people offering this advice are doing. It's just another way of subtly trying to subvert the democratization of a specific artform, by making people feel inadequate.

    I would say, if you're serious about photography (or anything else for that matter) get the best gear that you can afford, and then learn to use it like it was born attached to your arm. You'll quickly discover that often your output will be exponentially superior to the guy relying on having the latest tech.

  9. Nelson.... extremely well said.

    The truth is, a better camera really can do a somewhat better job. And there is absolutely no substitute for skill. Prime lenses are great, but so are zoom lenses. And each has their place.

    It's like they say... "different horses for different courses."


Unfortunately, due to the high level of spam coming from online casinos, payday loan sharks, and investment scheme scammers, it was necessary to install word verification for all comments to block out autobot posted spam. Please accept my apology for this.