In the end it all goes into the number one tank.....

It's instructional for me, and a good antidote to the gear lust that many of us feel, when I go back and look at projects from 2002, 2003 and 2004.  I consider those the early years for professional digital shooting.  Yes, we had digital cameras before the turn of the century but those were the transition years when clients, art directors and others finally felt comfortable using digital images for big print projects and not just quickie stuff on the web.  It's also about the time photographers in the middle of the Bell Curve got engaged and started eschewing film and it's drawbacks and calibrating their monitors and getting serious about delivering electronic files to their clients.  

I took a complete Leica M system along on this project and ended up using it far less frequently than I intended.  The clients loved to see the images we were making on the rear screen of the camera.  It helped them feel comfortable with the process.   By the time this project was finished and printed as a four color annual report I'd pretty much decided to retire the Leica from this kind of use.

When I look back at the photos from this project I see that the restriction all along has never been the performance of the cameras but the lack of diligence in my technique or my laziness in not pushing for more time on a project or more time in the field.  In our quest to master this new set of techniques (digital) we've plunged into research.  And in the course of our research we've plunged into online forums.  And some of us have a hard time walking away from an argument even when the resolution has absolutely no effect on our real lives or our bottom lines.

I hope I've come full circle.  The cameras are no longer a mystery to me or anyone who shoots professionally.  While we are called fickle by amateurs and poseurs what fickle really means is that we've actually tried a lot of options instead of just talking them to death.  Ditto with arguments about equivalence or lighting depth of field.  Thinking and arguing about these things is a nice way to pass the time when you are stuck in a cubicle doing work you wouldn't do if no one paid you to do it and being frustrated at the lack of personal freedom to do what you really want to do.   And occasionally I get sucked into one of those arguments and realize that it's like sticking a foot into the quicksand of fictional reality.  You never get the time back.  You never get the prize.  You might get a momentary "win" but you will have pissed off as many people as you will have won over.  And for what?  There's not even a trophy for "best endless argument on the web."

So I pull images and look at where I've been and think about where I'm going.  I'm not happy with the last three or four years.  We spent too much time worrying about the economy.  It will be what it will be.  We spent too much time waiting for consultants from the web to tell us what's next.  I spent too much time behind the keyboard writing books.  And all along I knew that the real prized goes to the person who walks out the door and shoots every day.  And, if necessary, we could have made  it all the way through the last four years with nothing but a couple of Fuji S2's and a small bag of Nikon glass.
(Not to imply that I think this is a magical camera or anything like that.)

Now I'm heading out the door to do some transparency shooting with one of the new cameras.

Added in response to a comment:  William comments below that he's decided to stop reading any of the columns about gear and that he and his clients are happy with his steady and enduring choice of one digital camera to provide content and product for the foreseeable future.  All I can say is that it must be nice to have such near religious certainty about your course of action.  I have four photographer friends who came instantly to mind when I read his post last night.  One, Paul, is up for any new piece of gear that he thinks will provide his clients with better images than they can get anywhere else.  He competes in one of the few profitable niches left and his clients are constantly being wooed by new, aggressively potent competitors.  Paul's recent purchase of an expensive, digital medium format camera system cost more than a typical new car.  Folly?  Not if he can turn the investment into profit.  And judging from his past  results I have no doubt he will.  He moves forward.  He isn't resigned to accepting the descending parabola of income that many in our field have come to expect.

And I know two photographers (both of whom I actually adore and respect) who wouldn't buy new gear if you put a gun to their heads.  They were both amazingly profitable ad photographers in the 1990's and earned more each year than a good surgeon in an affluent market.  But they still want to do the business exactly the way they did ten years ago.  They disparage having to buy gear or keep up.  And each of them imagines that the business has declined, will never recover and will never be profitable for them again.

While it's obviously folly to flop over and show your stomach to every camera manufacturer who wants you to buy their goods it's also a very good idea to acknowledge that change can be good.  That refreshing the look and feel can be good.  While I am accused of having a revolving door of gear it's good to remember than many, many pieces of equipment that I write about are lent to me for the purpose of review.  I neither pay for them nor do I get to keep them.  But learning about them and sharing what I learned does tend, if you read between the lines, to punch a little hole in the balloons of marketing hyperbole.  I do not own a Leica M9 but enjoyed using one for a few weeks.  Love the images, hate the price and the restricted flexibility.  I wrote about the Olympus EPL2 but chose to keep the EPL1 instead of "upgrading."

It's true that I've changed systems a few times.  And, if I had been able to see the future I probably would have just stayed with my original Nikon stuff instead of buying an Olympus system (paid for, largely, buy the sale of depreciated Nikon assets).

The last photographer that came to mind for me was one who was so cheap that, even though he had a number of good clients in the 1980's and 1990's he refused to even buy an extra Hasselblad body as a back up for his system.  Whether he had a lemon or whether his assistants and he were just clumsy I don't know but, his camera and lens would lock up on a regular basis.  This can happen to Hasselblad film cameras when changing lenses if you are not careful to keep from touching a small switch on the lensmount.  When this happens you can't shoot and you can't remove the lens from the body.  Your shoot grinds to a halt.

The fault is easily fixed by inserting a special tool thru the back of the camera and recocking the shutter mechanism on the lens.  Once done the camera springs back to operational health.  My friend had this happen on many occasions and, when it did, the whole shoot would stop until an assistant could rush the camera to the local repair shop where the owner would fix the problem.  Big trouble if the owner of the repair shop happened to be at lunch.  The rest of us spent (at the time) about six hundred dollars on a back up body.  If the body and lens we were shooting with locked up we could continue with our spare.  Jack Resnicki, in his 1990's book on advertising photography mentions this.  He maintained two complete systems with duplicates of ever lens and body he used.  He felt (and mostly we all felt) that this one time expense was dirt cheap compared to the cost of producing an advertising shoot.  And for high end corporate stuff it still makes sense.

I can remember a time when I used a cheaper brand of medium format equipment and was shooting an ad campaign for a national home improvement store chain.  We had multiple actors on rented baseball field in the middle of August ( why must all good exterior jobs surface in August, in Texas?).  It was dusty and hot.  One camera died.  We pulled a back up out of the bag and kept shooting.  Then that camera died and we pulled yet another one out of the bag and kept shooting.  The client was amazed but really, I could buy an additional body back then for what we paid one talent to be on the set for the day.  And who's on the hook if the talent is there but the cameras aren't?  Right.....I am.  Cheap insurance for sure.

So, I guess, the story really is that there is a continuum where gear is concerned.  Some people err on the side of excessive fiscal caution, some on the side of excess gear lust.  But there is a middle ground.  And there is a rationale for every position.

I love trying the new stuff.  But I love being able to send it back to the maker after the magic wears off ( usually a week or so....).  I also have the idea that there are improvements that both the client and I can see.  In the case of my ad client who pushed me to embrace the higher pixel count of the Canon 5D2 over the Olympus E-3 we both can see a big difference in sharpness and the ability to blow up the files for larger uses.  Staying with the e-3 would have meant losing a major client.  One who had paid me well for 15 years in a row!  I could have held my ground and kept to my choice but in one project we amply covered the cost of trading systems.  And now I've had the use of the system for over a year.

My current dalliance with film based medium format cameras has cost me a fraction of what it would have cost to buy these cameras and lenses new ten years ago.  So far I've spent far less than $2000 on the whole collection....and that includes film.

Every photographer has their own reality when it comes to what is expensive and what isn't and a lot of that depends on your market and your specialty.  I do corporate work and I do advertising work.   The pay (when the jobs come) is much, much better than I could make if I chose to be a retail portrait photographer.  And I've weathered the recession and started to see more and more light at the end of the economic tunnel as far as my business is concerned.

I don't want to be like my friend who had only one Hasselblad body.  I can't justify emulating my friend with the new MF digital system.  But while I realize that most of the puffery around new cameras and lenses is fluff I also realize that refusing to learn and refusing to try new things is the moment at which you begin to die.


Craig Yuill said...

Kirk, I think you'll like the transparency films that are out there these days. I've recently been using several of the latest Fuji and Kodak amateur and professional colour transparency films, and have been very happy for the most part with the results. I would swear that grain has been decreased so that ISO 100 films are more like ISO 50 films ten years ago, and so on. And the colours are as good as they've ever been. I find it interesting that film has been improving in a similar manner to digital sensor and imaging technologies, in spite of the fact that fewer people are using it. Kudos to Kodak and Fuji for continuing the improvements.

Also, I finally received my copy of your "Commercial Photography Handbook" this morning. It looks great. I look forward to reading it.

obakesan said...

nice one, glad to see the journey has brought you out the other end of the spiral upwards able to look down and see that you've grown and developed while at the same time come back to the same orientation where its all about the image an technique.

I'll say that digital has indeed taken time to master and the journey has also seen me learn more about my film media too :-)

William Souligny said...

You know, I don't have the financial means to try every camera system that comes along or which evolves to higher and higher resolution or frame rate or etc., only to "discover" that they are all really alike except for this and that.

What matters to me as a photographer is that my clients and I like the results of the sessions we cooperate on. They don'y know or care that I have a 10 mpix Oly E-3, they only know they see themselves and their loved ones in print as they do in their mind's eye.

It's nice that you can decide you liked medium format film from back when and have rediscovered your love of square format. You have obviously reached a level of proficiency that allows you to do good work with whatever you shoot with. I think your motivation for staying in the business is to switch from film to digital to medium resolution to high resolution ad finitum to keep yourself from being bored and doing the work you were brought into this world to do - portraits.

Your work is excellent; I value your thoughts, I wish you well. However, from now on I'm going to skip the blogs about equipment and format, and look for those inspirational photos and stories of humanity that you are so wonderfully equipped to capture. Bury the technical guy and follow your muse.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks William. Good advice all the way around. Trying to do just what you suggest. And yes, the gear-go-round is all about staving off boredom. But we already knew that, didn't we?

Ron said...


Reminds me of an old joke about a guy who uses dynamite to catch fish. A game warden jumps into his boat and tells him it's illegal. The guy lights a stick of dynamite, hands it to the warden and says, "Are you gonna talk or are you gonna fish?"

Hoping I didn't offend anyone - I imagine a joke like this (or any joke) would start another endless debate on some forum.

The only way to win most arguments is to not engage. And I acknowledge it's so darn hard to do that sometimes.

I recently flipped through some old tear sheets from an annual report I shot in the late 70's - there is something about that look that never gets old. Or maybe it was just the fun I remember...

- Ron

Anonymous said...

Good articles about the sewage treatment plant, and great pictures about a messy subject. The real beauty lies in the structures, angles, lighting, and so on of what could be - to some - an unpleasant place to work or be. Frankly, I love industrial photography, and enjoy taking pictures of things and machines and factories.

In addition to the humor of the subject, the comments about technology and photography, film vs. digital, for myself, I've always loved photography, but always hated the expense of film. Still do. Digital is great to learn from, simply because I don't have to pay for paper, film, chemicals, etc., and it has let me learn more about all the necessary elements which make for good photography. I'm willing to venture a toe into the film world, again, now that I have learned so much, but given my own cheapness and geekiness, digital always wins. The problem is, I also love the newest toy, so it is really hard not to buy all of them. Wish I had William's self control!

Anonymous said...

Tuck is intensely curious. William has incredible self-control. Can't there be a wise middle ground?

jasonhindle said...

I didn't read the whole article (red wine reduces my attention span) but you made art out of a sewage works. That's good enough for me.

Bold Photography said...

I honestly think that many photographers (and artists in other fields) begin to blur the lines between finding the right tool to express their creativity and blaming their tools for their lack of success. There's a big difference between a master finding his groove and a novice thinking that the tools ARE the art...