Consider the following pair of similar images:

Image #1

Image #2

One was taken with a Canon 50D dSLR through a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, costing slightly over $2000 for both lens and camera. The other, with an inexpensive Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 consumer digicam.

Can you guess which is which?

Yes?

No?

Does it matter?

The hard work for both photos fell in arranging the scene. I wanted to spotlight a single flower against a simple dark background, so I crafted a mini-studio with a desk lamp, aluminum foil, cardboard, and a piece of black posterboard from the supermarket:

The DIY spotlight allows me to light just the subject but keep the backdrop completely dark.

Before I even set a camera on the tripod I'd already created the lighting, the subject, and the backdrop. The camera itself is a relatively minor element. It is one variable in the mix, but certainly not the most important one.

I bring this up because an odd perception persists in our culture, helped along by a not-entirely-disinterested camera industry, that purchasing a good camera is all an aspiring photographer needs. "Your camera takes great pictures!" is perhaps the strangest compliment a photographer routinely receives. I'm never quite sure of the best response.

(Although, "Would you tell Wynton Marsalis his trumpet plays great music?" is high in the running.)

I won't argue the point that a good camera is a powerful tool. But it's just that: a tool. A camera is a box we point at a scene to form an image. In the mad modern obsession with gadgetry, it's easy to forget among the megapixels and the autofocus that the photographic subject itself is and should be the main point. The most expensive camera in the universe won't turn a bland scene into an interesting one; it will just reproduce it with a broader color depth.

As to the images at the top of the post, #1 was el cheapo, and #2 was with the expensive Canon gear. The difference becomes apparent when examining the photographs up close:

On inspection, we see that the top photo lacks the clarity, smoothness, and color range to make high-resolution enlargements. For this and other reasons I won't be submitting it to National Geographic any time soon.

But suppose I wanted not a wall-size poster, but an illustration to adorn a powerpoint? Or just a photo for a web page? For most electronic media, and for many potential photographic subjects, the expensive gear isn't as important as a practiced eye, a clever composition, and decent light. Camera gear makes a difference, but an order-of-magnitude $1800 worth of improvement? Certainly not for a simple flower to post on a blog.

A few weeks ago I became obsessed with this topic, the primacy of photographic subject over gadgetry, and started a new weekly feature at my other blog called Thrifty Thursday. Every Thursday I share an image taken with a desktop scanner, a webcam, or a small digital camera. It's a challenge, but a fun one. The point of the series is to demonstrate that compelling photographs are about vision rather than gear.

Compound Eye being a blog about photography, I have decided to move Thrifty Thursday here. I hope you enjoy reading this feature as much as I enjoy creating it.