Good photographers will not only make different pictures with different cameras, they will see the world differently when they’re photographing with different cameras.

Why Would a Digital Camera Have a B&W-Only Sensor?

In many ways, most of my various recommendations about how to learn to be a better photographer could be seen to involve getting rid of “temptations.”

Temptations (Digital B&W Part II)

I almost replied to both of these posts from the Online Photographer. But then I realized that my thoughts on this matter are way more than would fit in someone else’s comment box. A lot of Mike’s points are points I agree with. What I find interesting is that I don’t really agree with his conclusions—in particular, the idea that eliminating temptations is the way to improve as a photographer.

The issue is actually one of generalist vs. specialist tools. It’s not about temptations at all. It’s not that some cameras do more than others. It’s that they all do things differently.

A standard consumer-grade digital camera with kit zoom lens is for general use and does most of what most people want most of the time. Change the lens to a fixed focal length and the camera becomes a much more specialized device. Some functionality is now gone (multiple focal lengths) while other functionality is added (macro, large aperture, long focal length, etc.). Change the camera to be a film camera and you make additional trades in functionality.

The specialist tools do not contain a subset of the generalist tools. The price for specialist functionality just happens to be a sacrifice in some general functionality. With a general device it’s difficult for a new user to really find where the limitations are. As the device becomes more specialized, it’s easier to bump into the limitations.

As a result, taking photos, in the same way as viewing photos (or art), is very much an activity where reading McLuhan proves to be useful. Whatever device I’m using will influence the way I see the world and the way I record it. This is one of the reasons I find myself attracted to fixed-focal length lenses as well as photographic gimmicks; the more specifically my camera sees the world the more I enjoy the mental exercise.

The goal is to learn my equipment, what it does, what it doesn’t do, and how to see with it. Using specific-use equipment makes it easier to learn how to do this.

A digital black and white camera would be another great tool to force people to see differently. Again, it’s not about removing temptations, it’s about narrowing one set of choices in exchange for broadening another. For starters, losing the ability to see in full-color opens up a huge number of choices about color filtration and what spectrum of light to capture. I immediately started thinking about possibilities like interchangeable behind-the-mirror filters. Maybe a black and white SLR would come with an IR cutoff filter but then you could change it afterwards to an R72 (or whatever) filter and shoot handheld IR while still being able to see through the viewfinder.

A lot of the comments to the original blog posts did not get this fact. I suspect this is because of the presentation of the Black and White sensor as representing just the removal of the temptation of color.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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