7.06.2009

A new strategy for buying cameras. Circa 2009.


Ceiling detail from the Alexander Palace in Pushkin, just outside of St. Petersburg, Russia. 1995.

If you were alive and shooting in the time of film you worked with the presumption that you would buy camera bodies and lenses and then use them until the little cogs and gears were worn down to nubins, then you would sell them all to your first assistant and retire. The image on the left was shot in the time of non obsolescence with the epitome of that breed of camera, the Hasselblad medium format film camera. This shot is most likely from an SWC/M wide angle camera but we didn't have exif in those days so I'll never know. Film was the thing that got outmoded but we could remedy that by buying newer and better film. Although sometimes the film was merely newer.

I caught myself being stupid over the last four years. I was using a film business model in the acquisition and retention of camera bodies. I was buying digital SLR's as though they would last a lifetime. In one sense, they might. The Kodak DCS 760's that I adore are well made and seem to go on forever. But what i really mean is that every two years there is either a doubling of resolution or the introduction of a "can't live without" feature that compels us to rush out and buy another body.

So I looked in the drawer and there were generations of cameras. Fuji S2's S3's and S5's (and I couldn't bear to get rid of them because i'd gotten "magic" files with each of them.....) Nikon d300's, d2x's, and D700's. Old lenses that were purported to be magical, like the Nikkor 50mm 1.1.2 and the 105mm 2.5 and so many more that hadn't be used in years. Like the 28mm f2 that I bought because all the reviews raved about it. It never focused well on a D2x so it sat in the drawer.

We are quoted a price to trade in our older bodies that seems laughably low so we keep them and justify this by calling the body a "back up".......as though we'll go back and use the antiquated thing in the uncomfortable case that our main (and brutally expensive) main body dies prematurely. We won't.

When budgets were rising and work was plentiful the strategy was relatively harmless because we could assuage our longings for more and our nostalgia for the recently retired cameras by shrewd applications of massive cash flow. And are we really doing anyone a favor with all the equipment overkill anyway?

I don't think so and here's why: Since the beginning of the recession over two years ago clients have moved relentlessly to the web. I hardly need to tell anyone here that you don't need four or five thousand pixels on a side to make a good web image. Some magazines have lost 70% of their ad pages. When they fold they'll never be back. We might fantasize (while in front of the camera case) that we'll be shooting double trucks again before long but it might be a couple of years and by then the $8,000 wondertool that we crave today will be old news and ready for the scrapheap. Do you have more downtime than you really want? If so, do you want to spend it with an extra $8000 to $12000 worth of camera inventory?

I took a hard look at the kind of work we're doing lately. The one thing that seems to not go out of style is the need to light things well. If we light them well then we don't need peerless high ISO performance. Oh I'm sure someone will chime in and say that we do but I notice an interesting phenomenon: The ultra pro shooters who demanded super high ISO performance in their 35mm based DLSLR's moved into medium format DSLR's for a spell and never whispered a peep about the high ISO output of those $30,000 cameras. Which are not anywhere near as good as a $1,000 Canon or Nikon....

If you shoot weddings or sports I don't begrudge you the best high ISO tool you can find but if you are shooting advertising, corporate work or studio portraits you don't need (or probably use) anything over ISO 400, maybe 800 in a pinch.

So why go crazy on the bodies. It's the lenses that retain their value.

With that in mind, here's my new buying strategy: I'm buying up the pro level Olympus glass for the E system but I'm swearing to only buy camera bodies that are less than $800. I'll keep em for a year and then trade em for whatever comes out next. That way I'll always have the current sensor technology without the investment in the "talisman of power" that the high end cameras represent.

Don't believe me? That's okay because I'm not always right. But I ran into John Isaac the other day (big time Olympus shooter) and he was sporting the e620. Swore it's his favorite camera. Cost? $599. His take? Superb.

Just a thought. Lenses for the long haul, bodies year by year. No matter which system you favor. Because even when the megapixel hysterics wear out we'll still have dynamic range to drive the market.

I've sent off most of the Nikon and Kodak inventory. For jobs that require (and pay for) the high end gear I'll gladly rent. For all the rest I'll be happy with the 12 megapixel bodies that are now $599 and blow away anything that was available for less than $5,000 just five years ago.

Works for me. Might not work for you.

Hope everyone is staying cool.