Do mirrorless cameras stifle creativity and learning?

Do mirrorless cameras stifle creativity and learning?

Modern cameras are a wonderful thing. They’ve made it to where everyone can capture a variety of images with relative ease. Still, I can’t help but wonder if modern cameras with all their bells and whistles might be having an impact on creativity.

Now, I know there are already some keyboard warriors out there who are sharpening their typing fingers so they can call me crazy. Still, humor me and hear me out. Yes, I know that modern cameras and all of their wonderful technology allow us to create images that would have been challenging in the past.

Modern cameras are pretty much perfect. They’re built tough, they focus quickly, and AI takes away some of the guesswork. Because of tech like this, nailing eye focus at f/1.stupid is now a breeze. Creating long exposures thanks to modes like Live Composite in Olympus and Panasonic cameras is a piece of cake. Advanced tracking modes and high burst rates make capturing birds in flight effortless.

So, what’s the problem, then, you ask? Well, when we lean on our cameras so much are we truly learning anything? Are we being creative when the camera is doing a lot of the heavy lifting? Let’s talk about that.

But first, a little story

I want to bring to light a story I recently heard in a podcast. I often listen to TED Radio Hour. In this podcast, the host covers a topic and then blends different TED talks and interviews that discuss the issues around said topic. It’s a fantastic show and I recommend it to everyone.

This particular show was entitled “Jumpstarting Creativity.” One story that was shared was about famed jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. Jarrett was somehow talked into performing in Koln, Germany by a 17-year-old girl (Vera) who loved his work. When Keith was asked to do this, he was already a star in his field, and here, this teenager was asking him to perform for a small crowd in a tiny theater in Germany. Somehow Vera got Keith to agree to the concert.

A spark of creativity

Image credit: Ken Lee

When Keith arrived in Koln, he was greeted by a sold out crowd of 1,400 people but all was not well. You see, Keith was a perfectionist, and he required that everything be, well, perfect. He plays on the grandest of grand pianos; the best in the world. However, the piano that was on the stage was a rickety old piano that was not even a grand. The piano was small and simply wasn’t able to create music loud enough to fill the theater, or so Keith thought. The keys were sticky and the felt was so badly worn it made the piano sound terrible.

I’m heading out!

Keith turned to Vera and said, I’m not playing, this is crazy. Keith and his entourage turned around and walked out of the theater. Vera was distraught. She ran after Keith and begged him to play. After a short while, Keith agreed that he would do it for her and he returned to the stage. Keith took his place in front of the old piano and played for the crowd. What happened next was nothing short of amazing.

You see, Keith had to adapt to use this old broken piano. In doing so, he played his best concert. The concert was so good that the live album that was born from it (“The Koln Concert”) become one of the bestselling jazz piano albums of all time. When asked where his inspiration and creativity came from that night he simply said it was all down to the piano. Being forced to play on a piano that was not perfect made him learn how to get the best out of the tool in front of him. It sparked his creativity into overdrive. He had become so used to perfection with the modern instruments that he used, he had become complacent and was just on Autopilot.

Applying this to photography

It’s funny. Before I heard this podcast I had started writing an article about an old camera that I own and how it helped bring me out of one of my worst creative slumps in years. Using the old camera forced me to call upon my years as a photographer to get the most out of it. Making good images with it was challenging but so much fun. At the end of the day, I felt so accomplished, like I had created something special with it.

I’m also reminded about a time I was on a photowalk. I had an old Pentax DSLR with me. A younger photographer asked if he could try my camera. I handed it over and minutes later I was asked how to get the camera to autofocus on the eyes in the same way his mirrorless camera did (insert eye roll here). Have we really become so dependent on technology to create the simplest of images?

Don’t get me wrong. I know many photographers who have taken modern mirrorless cameras and have created true masterpieces with their gear. So, don’t take this as a bashing mirrorless cameras post. I love and use them as much as anyone else does. However, I do wonder how many of us are on Autopilot like Keith Jarret was on the night of his concert in Koln. I know more photographers now who are in creative slumps than ever before. Maybe creative slumps are born from boredom and not being as involved in the process?

Introduce a little chaos to spark creativity


If you find yourself in a creative slump or you’re not sure how to do something, introduce a little chaos into your workflow. Instead of relying on your camera to do most of the work, consider turning some features off. Doing this will let you be more involved in the creative process and you’ll learn too.

Consider turning off autofocus so you can manually focus. Turn off IBIS and optical stabilization in lenses and learn how to hold a camera properly so you can shoot at low shutter speeds. Learn about the 500 rule so that you can create gorgeous astrophotography images without the use of artificial intelligence. Learn how to anticipate things so you can create gorgeous action images. Turn off the spray and pray mode (burst mode) and be so in the moment that a single shot captures the exact moment you want. These are just a few examples.

Of course, you can force yourself to use an older rickety camera like the piano Keith Jarret used that night in Koln to spark creativity as well. We need to stop striving for perfection in our gear. We need to stop striving for perfection in our images and we just need to get back to creating and learning by being as involved in the creative process as we can be. Give it a try. You never know, it might help you produce your best, most creative work yet.