Cameras – Tools Or Toys?

As is often the case here on 35hunter, the conversation around a post on one topic soon sprang off into other related areas, and gave me an idea for a future post.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how some of us seem to view cameras as tools, whereas others see them as toys. 

In the tools camp, perhaps there is less of an interest in the spec of the camera, and little emotional connection with it. Instead, it’s just a tool to do a job.

But more than that, a particular camera is chosen and used because it’s the best tool for a specific job, ie to make a certain type of photograph, in certain conditions.

To use a more generic tool analogy, if you have a 10mm bolt to undo, you just need a 10mm spanner.

You don’t need seven 10mm spanners that perform the same task, just one quality one that will help you do it with the minimum of fuss.

By a similar token, as well as not needing seven other very similar spanners, in this particular scenario, a screwdriver or a hammer is next to useless.

So once you decide on a specific job, or required outcome, it becomes pretty straightforward to choose one camera that’s the best tool for the job – especially if your photography fills a fairly consistent and narrow niche anyway.

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Those who see cameras as toys however have a rather different outlook.

In some ways it’s the tool approach flipped completely on its head.

Instead of “I want to make this particular image, so which camera is the best tool for the job?”, the thinking is more “I fancy using this particular camera today, to see what it can do (or what we can do together)”.

Camera choice comes before photograph, rather than photograph choice dictating the camera. 

Also, perhaps there’s more of an attachment to the camera, it’s more like a friend or comrade in your photographic adventures, rather than just an inanimate tool.

The more general toy analogy might be a child who likes more than one Barbie doll or Action Man.

Some days they might want to play with the blonde Barbie in the swimsuit, other days they might want to play with the red haired Barbie in the astronaut outfit.

Another day a child might feel like getting out the firefighter Action Man with the blonde crop. The next day – or indeed later that day – they might fancy playing with the dark haired water ski Action Man.

The end game – and the overall act and enjoyment of playing – is much the same, regardless of the specific toy.

As long as it’s a toy they enjoy playing with.

It’s just that having only one Barbie or Action Man might limit the scope of possible games and the range of play.

However, on the down side, the child with 27 (or even seven) Barbie or Action Man dolls might end up playing with none of them because they can’t ever choose which one to play with, and are always looking for the next new one.

Regular readers might guess I’m more of toy guy than a tool guy.

I have reduced my once slightly out of hand selection of dozens of cameras down to single figures, but I still enjoy a range of different cameras to play and experiment with.

The only way I can see me leaning more towards become more of a tool kind of photographer, is by having one of each type of camera.

So perhaps one DSLR, one mirrorless, one compact etc. So there’s no duplication within each type, but across the different types there’s enough variety to not overlap by much.

Then if I wanted to use a DSLR, I would grab my one DSLR, not then have to choose between seven. And so on.

How about you? Do you see your cameras more as tools or toys? And what are the upsides and downsides of your approach? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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11 thoughts on “Cameras – Tools Or Toys?”

  1. Definitely “just tools” guy here. I leave the house with a specific image in mind, and choose the right camera/lens for that particular “look”: dSLR, normal lens or Lensbaby, or hopefully once again the Holga, or – probably less and less – the phone.

    The other way around just makes no sense to me. That’s like desperately wanting to use your favorite saw, taking a pile of wood, and just getting started – not knowing (or caring) whether you end up with a table or bookcase.

    1. Robert, I thought you might be! 🙂

      I complete understand your angle.

      I think I’m nowhere near as experienced, so I either don’t know what final image I want, or if I do, I don’t always know how to get it. So some considerable experimentation and playing is necessary.

      With a tool, the goal is to get a job done with minimum fuss and effort.

      With a toy, the goal is to experiment, play, learn, and progress. Because we don’t yet know what the outcome is, so we can’t pick the best tool.

      It’ll be interested for me to revisit this analogy three years down the road, and see if I’ve drifted further towards the tool end.

  2. Well, many years ago it was tools. Or tool, because I had the one camera. I never went anywhere without it, I loved it, but ultimately it was the tool I used to take photographs, something I loved doing.

    Then along came digital photography, and suddenly all those classic camera I’d dreamed of (but had resigned myself to never owning) were practically being given away. Like many people I imagine, I went INSANE! This was definitely the toys period.

    Now I’m somewhere in between, but much closer again to tools. I’m down to just a handful of cameras now and use all of them regularly. I think you’re definitely cured of your camera addiction when you can easily answer the question “If you had to choose one camera / lens / film to shoot for the rest of your life, what would it be?” If you can answer that and know you’ll still be content, then you’re good to go. Oh, since you ask, it’s Nikon F100 / Nikkor 35mm f/2 / Kodak Tmax 400. But please don’t make me really get rid of the others, OK?

    1. Thanks Gerald, good to have your comments.

      You’re right, the fact that we have more old cameras (film and digital) available to us now at any time before, means we need to exercise huge restraint not to go and buy something new every day.

      I think there are a handful of cameras I’d happily use for the rest of my life. But yeh, I’d rather keep a handful, for a bit of variety!

  3. The tool analogy is excellent, although it doesn’t cover the reciprocity aspect of photography: unlike with mechanics, a different tool in photography can achieve a different yet still desirable result. One which the photographer may not be aware of until it is achieved. That’s when the camera can manage to be both tool and toy at the same time!
    There are many “all-in-one” tools on the market which may fail when used because they’re not as good as the specific tool for the job. That can apply to mechanics or photography. For toys there is no specific goal of outcome, so you can’t fail whatever you’re using.
    Nothing wrong with having lots of tools (I certainly do) or lots of toys!

    1. Marc, “a different tool in photography can achieve a different yet still desirable result. One which the photographer may not be aware of until it is achieved…” Yes! This is what I was trying to say to Robert above. I don’t always have the experiences and skills to know how to get the result I want (or even know what it is), so I’m in toy mode, experimenting, seeing what comes up.

  4. Don McCullin said “he used a camera as he used a toothbrush; it did the job.” which is my view of cameras, but I do love keeping my old film cameras .

    1. I saw a documentary recently on Don McCullin, and the way he used the camera reflected this, just a tool to get the photograph. I wonder if because he has/had stuck to one camera for so long, and made so many images with it, it had become almost invisible, then this compounded his outlook. Any quirks the camera may have had were long overcome and forgotten, so photographer and camera were one unified entity. When someone reaches this stage, I don’t think it can be anything but a tool, or even a step beyond this, just an extension of the photographer.

      Part of me really envies this position, and part of me thinks I’d miss the fun and variety of using different cameras.

  5. Definitely toys! The upside is that it is never ending fun to pick up an old friend and shoot some nice pictures. Downside is that I always end up bringing too many cameras with me! I have tools that I use in my job as a physician, but toys to enjoy in my hobby. Enjoy as always the seeds of thought you plant every day. Keep it up!

    1. Thanks Martin.

      It’s funny how we perceive things. I think I still consider cameras as toys as they’re fun to use. For me, something that’s “just” a tool, doesn’t imply any pleasure in using it somehow, it’s just a functional experience.

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