In my post about my journey of cameras I briefly discussed whether a camera is just a tool and what this little word ‘just’ meant. In this post I reflect a little more on this question and why simplicity is an important attribute.

Saying that a camera is a tool is to state the obvious, since what defines a tool is the service it affords. We encounter bad tools, as well as good ones. So, what is a good tool?

I think the answer has to do with how we work with tools, that is, what ways a tool affords a craftsman beyond the specific functions they are designed to deliver. Putting it differently, some tools are designed with an eye to their usages rather than just the tasks that they help deliver. A tool’s usefulness is not ‘just’ defined in terms of the specific jobs that it affords. There is more afoot to being a good tool than completing a task effectively, efficiently and economically 1.

A good tool is a joy to use because it does not distract from the task in hand, indeed it tends to the opposite: it extends what we do and perhaps, like language, what we are 2. I think we can take this line of thought one step further. A good tool will positively re-inforce our ability to extend ourselves into the world. It will provide just the right sort of feedback so as not to distract, but also lead to skilful use. Racing car drivers, golfers, skiers, fly-fishing anglers and many other tool-handling relationships will attest to what is meant here by the feedback that good tools can provide 3. A good tool makes demands on the user about how it is to be skilfully used.

Now can we say something about good cameras. Good cameras are effective, efficient, economic but also extend us further into the world, allowing us to see the world as it is in-itself, to imbibe it. The beauty of a good camera comes from its use, rather than how it looks per se, although its looks undoubtedly contributes to it being a happy tool to use. Its beauty is born of use. But, and here is the point, the word use is not to be understood only in a materialistic sense. Extension rules out the idea that mind and matter are to be thought of as separate. The notion of extension takes us beyond this duality. Use covers both mind and material. Good cameras are those that are used in a natural way, as extensions to ourselves in some way.

This ability to extend is born from several attributes that a camera might have. Perhaps the most important is simplicity. The simplicity of a camera is more likely to engender extension, as there is less opportunity for distraction. Acceptance of limits produces ease of mind. Ease of mind engenders more careful observation.

Of course, there are no perfect cameras, only degrees of fit to our requirements. Simplicity however is an important feature which often seems to be underestimated by camera manufacturers and budding photographers. My own experience is that my best photography has come from the simplest cameras that I own.

  1. Effectiveness has to do with whether the outcome is achieved according to a specification or intent. Efficiency and economy are related. For efficiency, think how many photographs taken for a given level of effort. For economy, think how much effort taken for a given number of photographs. So, a good tool will deliver what is planned with the least amount of work
  2. I call this feature ‘extension’ in a way that is opposite to the sense of the sanskrit word ‘vikṣepa’, which is a wandering with an object which causes the inability to remain one-pointed. This notion of ‘one-pointedness’ I have borrowed from the notion of ekaggatā, a pali term meaning tranquility of mind. What this means is being absorbed in an activity without being distracted by the activity itself. However, this is not some dream-like state without any awareness outside of the dream. You are simply aware of the activity whilst being immersed in it at the same time. Your awareness of using a tool is not a distraction to using it
  3. The fly-fishing rod is a good example, because the feedback is physical. Casting a fly involves the skilful angler with several opportunities to count on the rod’s feedback. On lifting the fly off the water, preparing for a new cast, the angler will exert lateral drag of the fly on the surface of the water so that the rod is put under the right amount of tension. On lifting the fly into the back-cast, the weight of the fly-line bends the rod as the flyline straightens out and loads the rod behind the angler, giving feedback on when to start the forward casting motion. The angler at this point increases the tension on the line by hauling the flyline next to his/her reel. This reduces the need to add force in the forward motion, letting the rod do most of the work. And so on. There is no point in the cycle where the angler is not constantly being attentive to the rod’s feedback, but without being distracted by it. Appreciating this is part of the art of fly-fishing.