Look, I get it. You're a professional or at least very good with a camera. You're proud of that. And you can get a reasonable shot with any piece of gear put in front of you. You have put in the time and your results speak for themselves.
It's what many photographers aspire to. It's where serious photographers should aspire to. Learning the art and applying it, regardless of limitations like gear, is truly the pinnacle.
But here's the thing. Not all people are that good with a camera and nor do they desire to be. Not everyone is a serious photographer.
When Chase Jarvis titled his book this way, little did he know he would unleash a storm of social media posters who would quote the title at every opportunity.
Some people with cameras are only “good enough” and some aren't even that good. They have other things they are good at. Maybe they don't want to be professionals. Maybe they don't want to spend the hours, days, weeks, months and years becoming good enough to shoot an NBA game with a home-made pinhole camera.
Maybe they just want to take a reasonable shot of their kid playing soccer and the memories from that shot are worth an investment in a bit of extra gear.
And that's OK! (Hell, it's what keeps companies like Canon and Nikon afloat which is great for us all, so I would argue it's better than ok, but that's another argument).
Not everybody needs to have the skill of Annie Leibovitz.
So when somebody asks “what is the best _______ to shoot ______ ,” what they are really asking is, “Given my personal situation, what would be the fastest way to achieve great shots for a given category of photograph?”
Dismissing it with, “The best camera is the one with you” is glib and dismissive and frankly a little rude. For people who aren't aspiring to be great photographers, it's also a pretty easy question to answer without any snarkiness from most knowledgable photography hobbyists.
Everybody ALREADY KNOWS that if you really need a shot and you only have an iPhone on you, then that's what you have got to go with. You're helping nobody by pointing out the fricken blatantly obvious. It just makes you look pretentious.
Some facts about “the best” questions though
1. Not everybody is constrained by price – We have all met a merchant banker who has all the gear. When she asks “what is the best…” she isn't constrained by price like many of us are. She just wants to know the answer and not have to spend 243 hours researching it down to the pixel.
2. Actually, if we're honest, there usually is a decent answer. Best portrait lens? 85mm 1.2 is the lens that all others are measured by. Best general landscape lens? 12-24 2.8 is part of the holy trinity for a reason. Best photography software? Again, Photoshop or Lightroom are the standard by which others are measured for the time being. Best camera for landscape? Nikon D810 or Sony A7RII are top at the moment before you go into specialist cameras in different formats. Best street lens? The 35mm 1.4. These are the simple and polite answers.
Now, these answers might lead to a few silly arguments with some gear heads, but the answers aren't THAT controversial.
If somebody is asking a question like “what is the best…” then they have probably already revealed that they don't keep up with niche industry arguments about chromatic aberration, barrel distortion or dynamic range – they just want a simple answer to a simple question without diving into the minutiae of why.
3. You CAN put a qualifier on it. Seriously, everyone is intelligent enough to know there can be exceptions. The 12-24mm 2.8 might be the best wide angle zoom, but you can probably get sharper shots with a wide prime. You can probably save some weight by going with a slower lens. Of course circumstances matter. People understand this!
Tell them the answer and put your qualifier on it.
Better still, and perhaps even more helpful, is to ask them some followup questions and tailor your answer to their circumstances. And if you have time, maybe a few quick tips on how they can get great shots with gear that is a little limiting (Our article on how to get great portraits with a kit lens is an example of this).
4. People ALREADY KNOW that practice is better than gear. You're not telling them anything new when you intimate that they should get better at using the gear they have. They already know that. Everybody already knows that Michael Phelps could swim faster in pyjamas than they could wearing the latest Speedo speed suit. Federer would kick their butt in tennis with a wooden racket. Jordan could dunk on them wearing sandals. It's no secret!
But they have made the judgement that they would like to improve their gear (at least for the purposes of the conversation you are having with them) rather than their skills, so dismissing that is a little rude. It's not that hard to answer these types of questions with some genuine information.
5. Many times, they already have a camera that they have deemed not sufficient to their needs. Sure, a great photographer can get decent shots on an iPhone, but let's be honest – it's a lot easier to get decent shots on most mirrorless cameras.
6. YOU have asked these types of questions yourself. What is the best family car? What is the best accounting software? What is the best baseball bat?
When you asked, you were just looking for a simple answer or to narrow it down to a small range of answers. Even though there are potentially mitigating circumstances in every case. Even though the best car/software/bat happens to be the one you have available at the specific time you need to use it. Even though an expert could get more out of an inferior product.
Just as you considered these other factors, let's do others the courtesy of assuming they have thought of them too.
6. Some people just want some leads for their research. Yep, many have already made up their mind to get new gear. They just want to ask somebody knowledgable in the topic to give them some leads so they don't have to spend hours on Google trawling through silly forum threads by gear heads arguing over the minutiae of engineering differences. And who can really blame them?
What To Answer…
So let's start being a little more polite to amateurs and early stage hobbyists when they ask questions like this. It's no skin off your nose, can start some quite interesting conversations and actually helps people how they want to be helped. Give them a genuine answer, offer them some help and don't assume they haven't thought of the bleeding obvious.
The spirit of this article can be applied to just about any vocation. I’m a chef, and people in my field do the same thing with equipment, ingredients, and techniques. Thank you, good read.
For someone who is about to step back into photography after years having left it behind, I’m slightly overwhelmed by the choice and possibilities “out there” in the digital realm. For years I worked professionally using a Nikon F3, and am now looking for something equivalent. I don´t think I want all the singing and dancing if it means lugging a lot of weight about, I just need what is necessary to deliver excellent quality photos for publication, with the understanding that so much now depends on “post production”. If you don’t have good content to start with you are hardly going to deliver good photos after…..
I take it that what you suggest in your article is a good starting point?!
If it isn’t too late to offer you advice, the D810 he mentions would be a great camera to use, and would be compatible with any Nikon lenses you already owned for that F3. There is the newer D850, if you can get your hands on one, but it is expensive and back ordered.
I hear you. And these are good points. However, I have given the “one with you” advice (and especially to myself) often. But it’s with one important thing in mind – all the best gear is useless if you don’t enjoy using it. That’s to say, pick a camera that you will be likely to have on you when you need it most. If it’s too heavy, you won’t carry it around. If it’s too complicated, you’ll stop trying. If you can’t get a good picture out of it, it’s no fun. So, before i offer any advice on which camera to buy, I always caveat it with the “one with you” maxim. And at the end of the day, after all is considered, that’s the deciding factor. Pick the camera that you’re most likely to have on you when you need to capture that magical image and you will be very very happy.
Actually, I think Chase Jarvis has admitted he entitled his book that way because he was flogging his camera app, called “Best Camera.” Great essay though!
I think you missed the point of the original quote entirely. It’s not some snarky dismissive remark which can be made to anyone who asks the question. It’s a philosophical point aimed to encourage creativity from anyone and everyone who has “any” camera to hand. Be it a smartphone, a point and shoot, disposable film or otherwise.
And, as mentioned in paragraph 4, this article is in response to the people who do use it as a snarky dismissive remark… mainly on social media.
Interesting…I’m a retired grandma who loves good pictures – mostly of special people, but also places, and things. I’ve taken lessons and learned how to use my camera in manual mode; have a decent lens and learned to use Lightroom for post production. I agree with the statement, though, because unless I’m traveling, or have a special event, I don’t carry my heavy camera and lens…but I always have my phone. And, I now have lots of memories to leave my kids and grandkids.
In all my years as a photographer (more than I’d like to count), I’ve NEVER heard anyone use that quote in such a glib condescending manner. I’ve only ever heard it used to encourage people that they should have a go with what they have rather than not trying.
I see what you are getting at here, and I don’t want to argue the finer points, I just want to point something out. Most the time when someone asks the question “what is the best” they are not someone that is going to be real dedicated to learning photography. Even if they don’t have budget limits (more times than not they do) the gear they buy is so likely to end up in a closet collecting dust. I like to at least ask what the budget they have is, and go from there. I also like to get a feel for what they know about photography. I have definitely encountered people with entry level cameras and about a year of experience looking at that 85mm F1.2, mostly because they read somewhere it is “the best”. Well that is situational, and even depends on the camera (crop factor pretty much ruins all the things about it that make it special). In any case, it is really subjective what best means. Some stuff is the best becasue a professional (or skilled amatuer) knows the best way to use it. But in the hands of someone that doesn’t know what they are doing, all gear is basically the same. A Rebel camera will work for them and it’s the best since it was the cheapest dust collector they could buy. Or a Nikon D850 is the best because Nikon shooters just have to have that one camera that will save the company from extinction. Pentax K1 is the best, just so you don’t have to worry about Pentaxians attacking you in their spaceships with pixel shifting stealth technology. Fuji XT-2 is the best, well that is a really awesome camera I don’t have a snarky comment for it. Canon 1DXmkII is the best, well probably not anymore and it’s jsut way too expensive for what it does (would still take one if someone offered it), but man Canon makes some great lenses, especially for the money.
The best camera is the one you have with you might be used dismissively by some, but not by me. I say it, but only to those that are looking at gear that is well beyond their current skill level. I kind of feel like it’s a counter to the mob mentality of people that get caught in that upgrade trap. “This new camera has the greatest specs of all time!” Well, you just said that about the one that came out last year too, and have been saying it for years, so are you also saying we never took great photos before now? No, the best is what you have and can properly use. That is a philosophy that is quickly forgotten at all levels of the game.
hello! Great article! I came across it when looking at photos of my daughter (via Pexels) – and how it was being used… I notice that you gave attribution to Debby Orcutt — and I’m not sure who that is? But I took the photo – and that’s my daughter Cali – about 5 years ago. 🙂
Just wanted to comment… hope you are well!
I don’t think that quote is dismissive at all. I’m not a photojournalist or a professional photographer but I do have a nice camera and some nice lenses. But most of the time, during my daily routine, I’m not carrying a full-frame DSLR and a bunch of lenses, waiting for a shot to occur. I have work to do. It does not involve photography. But I do have my smartphone and if I chose to, can place it in a lens-mounting case and take a few Moment lenses along. Or not. But my smartphone is always in my pocket and if a good subject comes along, I can whip it out in a second and snap some shots. Most of the time they’ll turn out pretty decently. I’m sure for Mr./Ms. Investment Banker Moneypants, it’s going to be the same situation.
Now if someone comes along and asks me a specific question, re: “I’m a birder”, “going on a safari”, “I need to take concert pictures”, “I like landscapes”, or “need to take pics of my son’s polo matches”, then I can give specific recommendations or at least refer them somewhere knowledgeable.
It depends on the context for me. I usually carry around a small canon g7x instead of much larger cameras when doing street photography because its a lot more practical and gets a lot more use. The “best gear” for the job can end up being very cumbersome and usually leads to not get any use compared to a much more practical setup. “The best camera is the one you have with you” can mean the camera that gets the most use because of practicality. There might be much better rigs out there, but if they end up staying at home then they aren’t the best… but thats just how I perceive it