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Become More Than Just A Camera Operator

In our click-filter-share age of mobile photography, the posed seriousness of the passport photo feels like a relic from a bygone age.

I was reminded of just how different this kind of photography is while obtaining some photos for a passport renewal.

Most countries have strict guidelines for passport photos, including not just the size of the print, but also how big the subject’s head should be in the frame, acceptable backgrounds, appropriate facial expressions, and so on.

The Australian Government requires just over 1,500 words to achieve this in its “Camera operator guidelines,” which includes everything from flash and aperture settings to lens types and how far away the subject should be from the camera.

Note, however, that the instructions refer not to a photographer but to a “camera operator”.

What Makes Someone A Photographer?

You don’t have to look hard to find plenty of arguments about what makes someone a “real” photographer. When smartphones begat an explosion of online photo sharing, there were outraged professional photographers who railed against what they called the democratisation of photography, as if that were a bad thing.

As always happens, the arguments were excuses to draw lines – professional versus amateur, film versus digital, smartphone versus everything else.

Sometimes it’s not even an external argument. It’s more like a battle that rages within us: am I a “real” photographer?

Does The Camera Make The Photographer?

It’s an odd experience when you share a photo and the first question you get is, “What camera did you use?” Sometimes the follow-up comments, such as “I wish I had a camera like that,” are even more revealing.

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but we often assume better cameras create better photos. Camera manufacturers base their marketing on it, and increasingly, so too do smartphone makers. There’s a whole industry of reviewers, from magazines to YouTube channels, that feed on this belief.

While a better camera (or lens) might have a higher technical potential, it makes no sense to assume that merely owning or using one will automatically make us better photographers. We don’t assume that buying an expensive guitar will suddenly turn a complete beginner into a concert-ready guitarist. We would laugh at the suggestion that the first thing a wannabe novelist should do is buy a new computer.

And yet we keep buying into the fantasy that the photography of our dreams is no further away than a trip to the camera store.

Rethinking The Camera Operator

Those passport instructions talk about a camera operator because the art of photography is irrelevant to what the government officials need. The photo in that context is simply visual information which must be formatted in a very specific way.

When we make photos based solely on what the camera can do, using a predefined style or filter or set of rules, then we are also simply camera operators.

Making choices, experimenting with what the camera offers you, deciding how you want this scene to look in a final photo — these are the first steps to becoming a photographer.

The moment the photo becomes more than just information, the moment it reflects the decisions you’ve made about how to represent your experience, you have become a photographer, regardless of what kind of camera you have in your hands.

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1 Comment
  • Toni - 24th June 2017

    The musical instrument analogy is a good one, also because people vary widely in their aptitude for music and how quickly they learn to produce it.

    But back to the equipment aspect you mention, some of us learned to play on lousy instruments that definitely held us back, like my first Eko acoustic with 1cm action at the 12th fret, and some take pictures with equipment that definitely holds back their photographic ability. The phone is a good example, where creative possibilities are generally low, image quality poor *in relation to expectation* (even though probably better than the kit used for some of Cartier-Bresson’s iconic images) and the viewing system works against seeing the image in the mind. An experienced and able photographer can sometimes overcome these difficulties and still produce good work, but a novice will generally be prevented from progressing by them, and remain a disappointed camera operator. And that’s also likely a reason why so many phone-cam users expect to take better pictures once they have thrown off those shackles & bought better kit.

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In his Tokyo studio Fernando combines his life-long passions for art and technology. On the road, he is always looking to take the next wrong turn, just to see what kind of images and stories might unfold. A photographer and writer, with a background in music, Fernando has lived in Chile, Australia, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. Read More.

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