Examining Modern Mythologies about Camera Equipment. Part One. Intro.

Top photo: Commerce Street. San Antonio. e300/ 25mm
Majestic Theater Box Office Detail. San Antonio. e300/ 25mm
The Emily Morgan Hotel. San Antonio. e300/ 25mm
My Father. San Antonio. e300/25mm
Downtown San Antonio. e300/ 25mm
Ben with Raspa and Pentax digital camera. San Antonio. e300/ 25mm
The Alamo. San Antonio. e300 / 25mm
The Emily Morgan Hotel and Street Light. e300 /25mm
Fence detail at Austin Power Plant. e300 / 14-54mm
Austin Music Hall. e-300/ 14-54mm
Crane, Downtown Austin. e300 / 25mm

Chain Link Fence. Austin. e300 /25mm

I remember the real moment that digital camera lust sunk its teeth into my hide. I was shooting with a Nikon D70s and Nikon announced the D200. The math major that lives in part of my brain started making impassioned noises about the clearly superior resolution that I could obviously expect if only I had the courage to upgrade (spend more money) on my stuff. Then when my D200 started back focusing and had to be sent in to repair the little math voice convinced me that the D2x was a superior solution and I should rush out and get one of those "for the sake of" my clients. And of course I did.

Recently the siren call of the D700 reached my unwaxed ears and my math major segment teamed up with my science guy (who lurks around in my brain with that guy who knows "everything") and bullied me into believing that full frame finders and clean files at 3200 were the final keys to the holy grail of photography. And I plunged headlong into the full frame abyss. But it didn't make a damn bit of difference in my photography.

That's when English major/Art student guy came to the front of my brain to play "bombastic, chaotic change" tunes with my photographic obsessions. "Purge it all!!!!" he screamed, and I did. And when the last gleaming Nikon lens and the last hallowed body left the studio and was consigned to someone else's tender care I breathed a sigh of relief and wrote about it in a blog.

When people found out that I bought some Olympus gear to replace the gear I no longer wanted they got the underlying message all wrong. They thought I was saying that Olympus trumped Nikon for some obscure matrix of reasons and that I was into the discovery of some new equipment paradigm. Nothing could be further from the truth. On paper the Nikon bodies trump the Olympus cameras at almost every turn. Sharper files. Better noise characteristics. Faster processing. More bit depth. Greater lens selection. etc.

But the silly truth is that none of these are especially cogent anymore. We've hit a spot that's analogous to the car market. You could buy a Lexus, a Honda, a Toyota, a Buick, a Ford or a BMW and all of them will commute to and from work quite well. All of them will easily go the speed limit. All of them will easily go much faster than you will ever need. And they will do it with nearly equal levels of quality and efficiency. Choosing is now mostly a matter of budget and taste. One way or another you'll get from north Austin to South Austin on Loop One at the same 15-30 MPH (during our famous rush hours). And you'll arrive at your destination at about the same time.

I think we're there with cameras. Most applications for images are going to the web. File sizes are small. Bit depth is small. The only important metric/function anymore is the vision of the person behind the viewfinder. The vision they bring to the table. We did perfectly wonderful portraits with Nikon D100's. We did perfectly wonderful sports shots with Canon 1D's and Nikon D2H's that sported all of four megapixels.

Well, I could talk about this on and on but for me the proof is in the pudding that I make. With no great inventory of cameras ( I have the following Olympus cameras: e30 ($900, 12 megs.), e520 ($350, 10 megs.), and the e1 (currently $350 and 4.9 megs). I like the cameras and used them recently to do manmade landscape photographs for a road authority. At the sizes the images will be used the images from all three cameras are pretty much identical. The two cheaper cameras have the best feel. The colors and exposures from all three are just fine (I still shoot in manual for all my jobs).

So I'm happy to have the equipment I do for the jobs that I take. But do I really even need these cameras?

I started thinking about it in earnest and the opportunity came up to buy an older Olympus camera for $150. I wrote a check (how last century is that?) and I became the proud owner of an e300. It was the second e series camera that Olympus made. It's claim to fame is the 8 megapixel Kodak chip. Otherwise there is not much to recommend the body. But it is endearing in a very dorky way (a nod to the engineer that's burrowing into one of my cerebral lodes ) with it's squat and wide design and it's sideways mirror movement.

I put on a 25mm lens and spent the day shooting with the camera. I was stunned to find out that the color, contrast and indeed, even the sharpness of the files was much more pleasing to me than the files from all my other cameras. All the images I've included here come from that camera and shooting for just a few hours. I am smitten. The age and purchase price, coupled with the stellar performance totally repudiates the vicious amounts of money I spent previously in keeping up with every stumble forward by the camera industry. If you print to moderate sizes you will have gained precious little in the obsessive replacement of model after model since 2004.

I'm certain that a small handful of photographers can make good and compelling arguments for more pixels and better noise performance. But let's be frank and understand that they are specialists and that for the great majority of us who print 12x18 inches, at a maximum, the benefits of ownership are far outweighed by the reality of our craft capabilities and our chosen output.

All of the images here are from the e300. I curse myself for writing this as it may cause a run on the used inventories of this camera. Anyway. The images above work for me. Your mileage may vary. And again, I'm not suggesting that you liquidate whatever system you have to buy something else. I'm just suggesting that we've reached a point where, perhaps, the next upgrade that comes down the pike is anything but crucial.

I've downsized the images for the web but if you click on them you'll be able to see them at 1500 pixels. I'll continue this exploration. I have a commissioned portrait to do tomorrow so let's see how the $150 body handles studio strobes and flesh tones. Till then, stay cool.


Tyler said...

I've had an E-300 since it was first released, and i've loved it ever since. the colors and detail have always been great, and the Olympus lenses have kept me faithful, since there's few that can rival them.
it's not a perfect camera, but it's like the E-1, it's got a look and feel the C/N gear just can't match.

great photos, great blog, and to the other readers - if you can find a used 300 or 330, it's a good investment

Chris said...

I find your views on this refreshing, and not because I use Olympus cameras. I can remember when I bought my camera - what sold me was the lens system and the ergonomics. I loved the way it felt and reasoned that I might use it more if that was the case. I use an E-520. Sure, there are things I would like from the newer cameras more - mostly the 620's focus system. And sure, I used to be concerned about noise, and other perceived weaknesses of the 4/3s systems.

But then...

I stopped caring. It is my feeling that every system has its weaknesses, and every system has its strengths. The trick is, I think, to make what you use work for you no matter what that is.

Do that, and we get back to what matters: the pictures.

Anonymous said...

Great insights that take me back to my retail (35mm) days and the comparisons between the new, advanced "auto" everything models and the tried and true "basic" K1000. More bells and whistles are nice and may make one look like a great photographer, but it's the person behind the gear and how they use the gear. More isn't always better.

I've recently started reading your blog, and look forward to each update.

The Photophile said...

I like them! I also like that so many people are starting to realise that more MP's don't equal better pics. Heck, I still use a twenty year old Nikon F801s and 50mm f1.8 lens with greeat results! Use what you have or can afford and just go make pics.

Thanks Kirk!

Schnee said...

I wonder this trend will take Kirk. I can see him on the corner of 6th and Brazos and even in his studio in a couple of months, pleading with people to "smile, smile - I don't need a camera, I can remember the image!".

Seriously, this sort of thinking is healthy for photographers, if not for the bottom line of the photographic equipment makers.

Mike Mundy said...

Well . . . I use Olympus, currently an E-620.

But it is not for nothing that one of my blog labels is "Nikon Envy!" I just know that my pix would be better if I could afford a whole new Nikon system!

shooter said...

Hi Kirk
loved the previous posts, particularly the issue over what camera, I also loved your analogy to the car, spot on. It brings to mind a friend I have who is constantly wringing his hands over the camera he uses, he almost has his head up his proverbial over resolution. His machinations about the latest Nikon and subsequent soul seraching over whether or not to purcahse make me chuckle.

I use as mentioned before olympus, mainly due it has to be said on price, however the longer I owned it the more I have fallen in love with it. The files have such a distinctive quality and like you I think the fine jpegs are stunning.

I have just purchased the e620 with kit lenses, I will upgrade the lenses in due course. The reason it won over the e510 I had previously was due entirely to it having the multi angle viewscreen. For me at least this is worth its price alone. I have been also impressed with the image quality over the e510 I had, although we are talking small fry here.

For most folk the final image size is something of a misnomer, who prints these days? I do but like you I dont go super large, I like to print smaller so as to make the viewer come closer and almost engage with the image on display..

I note you used the 25mm pancake lens for a number of shots, it is a lens I have considered buying, would you mind posting your personal view of its strengths and weaknesses, I would be very interested in your opinion.

If it were not to much trouble could you post one or two of the shots you took with the 35-100 (the road shoot) I appreciate it may not be possible.



aaron said...


Thank you for writing what I've been thinking and wondering for so long. Newer is just newer. As the owner of D70s I have felt the mounting pressure that a camera from 2004 is a long way behind the new stuff...shouldn't I double up to something better?

It's funny looking back isn't it?. I upgraded to the D70s from a Nikon 4500, that funny split body thing (a design I love). I remember thinking that compared to the newer, SLR type cameras this was so slow, the screen so small etc. etc. My growth as a photographer being seriously hampered by such sub par gear.
Going back to the 4500 now I remain entranced by the design and realize that there is nothing about the camera that is limiting. My ability was the issue. As I've improved, my pictures have improved. Full stop. The equipment is simply a means to an end and ultimately transparent.

I've since fallen all the way down the rabbit hole into shooting film. I love the '70s SLRs. I collect them like orphaned children. They remind me of my childhood and using them is such sweet pleasure. The clicks, the indents, the heft...what am I doing here? I'm going to go make some frames. :

kirk tuck said...

And Aaron, I've been going backwards all week. I just ordered an Olympus c-8080 point and shoot camera from 2004 to see what it can do. I agree that the cameras were always pretty good it's our skills as photographers that has grown most in the past few years. Or perhaps our willingness to look at cameras holistically instead of just cherry picking the metrics that are easiest to understand. Can't wait to get my $200 point and shoot camera.

Anonymous said...

A witty explanation of what I've felt over the past two years. Today's latest cameras are made ONLY to shoot at 8 FPS in dark, dank locations while providing huge files. What happened to the idea of shooting everyday situations and looking for a nice blend of color, saturation and nice tonality? And if everyone is being a "Strobist" who the hell cares about nose bleed ISO? Kirk, you hit it right out of the ballpark.

Are you the same guy who reviewed all the top medium format digital cameras last year?

Anonymous said...

I may have missed the announcement but when is your business of photography book coming out? I don't want to miss it. When the first book came out it sold out too quickly and took me several months before I could get my hands on a copy.

Alex Merz said...

With an E-620, this is almost straight-outta-camera JPEG, after owning the camera for four days. Do I need better than this? If for some bizarre reason I do, my M6 and a box of Ektar can reliably deliver 25+ megapixels and more dynamic range than a D3 in a package that, with a fantastic lens, weighs 850 grams. And it was paid for over a decade ago.

David Norfolk said...

Well, I did upgrade my e300, To an end-of-run e330 at a fraction of what I paid for the e300 (which I then passed on to my wife's neice). I like the aquat leica-like shape with no bulge. Then I got an e3, which is nice too.

But the point (and I agree 100% with Kirk) is that I an still entering e300 and e330 pics in RPS (Royal Photographic Society) comps and I still use the e330 with 25mm pancake lens on business trips. Taking pics with the e3 is a little easier, mostly, but looking at the end result, I can't tell whether the shot was on an e3, e300 or e330.

Hell, I got my RPS LRPS Distinction with a panel taken on the e300/330, even tho' I had the e3 at the time. I took a lot of trouble in printing them but felt no need to go out and retake the shots with the e3.

So, and I have friends with more expensdive cameras who'd disagree of course, I do think it's the photgrapher rather than the DSLR that's usually the limiting factor today. Yes, I've produced noisy e300 photos - but when I do my job properly they aren't noisy enough to matter, IMO.

MyVintageCameras said...

Thanks for this discussion. The reality is most people don't need more than 8 megapixels anyway. I just wish people would think about what they really need instead of buying anything because it is trendy or so-and-so professional photographer uses it. I once attended a lecture by a famous digital guru who stated frankly that he used Canon because they paid him to. Honesty at last!

Anonymous said...

my sister has mine to enjoy with her family, I get it back if she wants anything else is the deal.

I shoot a pair of E1's and have done nothing but collect glass now instead of worrying about bodies, 7-14 in my bag has me welcomed into the slippery slope of the SHG world...

It's nice to see other people get it as well... now all I need is a job... soon, very soon...

Anonymous said...

Do the e300 and the e500 use the same Kodak sensor? Everytime I think about switching systems the color of the e500 keep me where I am. I just would like (not really need) a faster af system like the e620, but I am not convinced the overall quality would be any better. Any thoughts? Love the blog--Aubrey

Janne Morén said...

In other words, we're sort of returning to the film era where the sensor isn't a consideration, only body function and lens quality. Which is fine by me, especially as I'm backsliding into film as well.

Anonymous said...

Hello Kirk from a fellow Texan, but from west Texas.

I started with Olympus OM film cameras while still in high school, and then when digital came of age, I bought an E-300 from Costco with the 2 lens set which I still have.I used it and loved it, especially the colors. I also bought the battery grip, flash, and off camera cord. Then later when the E-1's were available used cheap, I bought a body and used that too. While this was going on, I also bought a then new Canon EOS 1V film camera and some lenses. As time passed I wanted to make use of my Canon lenses with a digital body, so I found a good used EOS 1D Mk11. It works great and has a lot of good features. Before buying the EOS, I considered buying more Olympus lenses, but prices seemed high for the higher end ones, and I was also tempted to buy newer Oly bodies, which would really add up the cost. So now I have 2 Oly bodies, 2 kit lenses and a flash. Well now I have a lot more Canon gear, but still like the Oly's but can't see myself buying more lenses for them.

Poagao said...

I've often argued that, instead of being impressed by someone with a really nice camera, we should be more impressed by the photographer with the really basic camera. People seem to be coming around to that, at least on certain forums. The question is; how far will the pendulum swing back this time?

L. McKinney said...

I know someone who is in the same boat you used to be: most recent = best. This person bought a 21 megapixel camera and was so proud. I asked a co-worker if he knows of anything that can print that many pixels or even a monitor that can display them. The answer, of course, was "No." I rested my case.

When the other technology catches up with the 21 mp camera, then -- maybe -- it's time to purchase that camera. Until then, think about your pocket first because the camera you have now is probably pretty good for what you are doing.

BTW, I shoot with an Olympus E-520 and have four lenses for it. I like it very much and consider it a good camera (although my son, who shoots Nikon, gripes about the graininess). I wasn't "into" DSLRs when the E300 came out, so I don't know much about it, but in your hands it takes excellent pics!

Little Aside: When you use "it's" that is the contraction for "it is". Try using it in the sentence as that, "...digital camera lust sunk it's teeth into my hide." Does not read correctly with the "it is" in there, so use "its", the possessive of it; no apostrophe. You have math majors, I have a grammarian. ;-)

Anonymous said...

This sort of response to the More is Better ideal that some people obsess about remins me of my early days with 35mm slr. I was thinking about how if I upgraded my camera, and bought some particular lenses, my photos would improve. Then a pro who mentored me on some things said "You can't make the most of the gear you have yet, so why waste money upgrading. Learn photography to the point where the gear you have is actually a limitation, then upgrade".

I think many people have it backwards. They want to buy gear they think they can "grow into" or that will immediately improve their photography. I remind myself of what my friend said, and realize that until I reach a point where my cameras and lenses simply can't do what I expect of them, there is no need to upgrade.

Jose said...

Dear Kirk

I find your views of photography different but I was coming down to the same conclusion

I own a modest Canon 350D. But I have been using it for more than 3 years. I have managed to teach myself some photography techniques during this time and I have purchase some more gear( lenses, flashguns...) I I sometimes shoot friends weddings, christenings, product photos at work to produce equipment guides, baby pictures as well as photographing my family. Other people think that I must have a really fantastic and expensive camera and when I tell them what it is they are surprised.

Furthermore, the other day at work (a hospital) one of my friends told me that one of the surgeons tried to take a picture of something in theatres with his DSLR (Nikon D3) but he couldn't because one of his friends had changed a setting when he borrowwed the camera and the surgeon didn't know how to fix this.

Newsflash: how good is something if you don't know how to use it

Thank you

Robert said...

Hi from Scotland

I owned one camera from the age of 25 to 45 - a Canon F1. Its had one service, a new flash synch connection and works perfectly. You set the shutter and the aperture and press the button and away you go!

I was tempted into digital by a Kodak 4mp compact. When Olympus announced the E300 with a Kodak chip, I bought one and used it until it fell in a river. I replaced it with and 8080 and then went back to another 300 until the autofocus died on me.

I replaced it with a Fuji S5pro. Do I get better files? Yes and no. The flash arrangement suits me better and the dynamic range is better and I think the images are smoother. But I have now owned the Fuji for 2 years and it feels like driving an airport hire car - very efficient but not in any sense owned by me.

I am staying with the Fuji as I have fallen into a workflow that sounds like your own - always 100asa and a tripod or flash, f8, manual metering and old Nikon film lenses. I am getting great results with a 35 - 135mm AF.

The most joy I have had recently was with an £80 Panasonic FS3. I am looking into the G1 with an adaptor for Canon FD lenses.

Thanks for your blog, which just makes a ton of sense to me.

Anonymous said...

You ar hooked !I have two E-300s,E-500,E-510 with a couple extra lenses.
I always seem to grab the E-300 when I want to take that shot I will be pleased with...I use the others, but, that first camera (E-300) is my favorite.

Pete Appleby said...

Hi, Kirk. I enjoy your blog.

I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head. I enjoy reading various online forums, but it does seem that a LOT of us fall into gear lust. I am there! I bought the E-300 with the two kit lenses over four years ago. Also got the flash, power unit, and battery holder. While I'd love to get an E-3 or it's replacement, the money is not there. But when I stop to think about it, what am I really missing?

The only problems with my photography is me! When I look at pics that did not turn out as I would have liked, I can't blame the camera. The problem is usually a high impedance gap in the operator headspace! My problem is me playing with settings and not being careful enough to double check the settings. Once we stop blaming the equipment, we are free to resume the learning and growth process once again.

It is also interesting to see folks getting back into film. While that it not for me, it does kind of take me back to the simpler times. I'm waiting on an old OM 50mm lense that I bought on craigslist. This will be fun to get back to the 'manual' everything. Perhaps doing these types of things will do more for making us better photographers than the gear lust.

martha said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.