Branding. Photography based on logo love.

The icon above is the symbol of my business.  It's not a household visual referent yet but, at the rate I spend on advertising and marketing, give me another two hundred or so years and I'm sure I'm make some sort of dent in my target markets.....  But the whole idea of branding and trademarks and consumer acceptance of the power of brands is something I've been thinking about lately.  What makes photographers buy the cameras and lights they buy and reject other brands?  Why are we so adamant in the defense of our choices?  And how much does one brand's supposed technology advantage over other brands inform our picture making?

I'm sorry.  I don't remember what camera and lens I used to do this shot and I don't really care to search the "exif" to find out.  The client and I agreed that the shot worked fine.

In the earlier days of cameras the choices available to us were more quixotic and more vertically nuanced.  If you wanted a cheap camera you had a bunch of choices and if you wanted an 8x10 inch view camera you also had an embarrassingly rich array of choices.  In the big (literally) leagues of view cameras you had Toyos, Linhofs (in several flavors), Sinar (in even more flavors), Deardorf, Wisner, Calumet and probably ten other brands of hand made folding 8x10 cameras I never heard of.  All were good.  All were eccentric and charming.  No flame wars erupted between the users of, say, Linhof and Sinar.  All that mattered was the film that came sliding out of the holders and into the soup. But that's because the magic didn't belong to the glorified boxes.  It was the operator that made the difference.

Medium format aficianado plowed through the same kind of landscape. If you used either a Hasselblad or a Rolleiflex you couldn't stand on any higher ground than people who chose the other European brand because, after all, Schneider and Zeiss made the lenses for both of them.  If you weren't enamored of the square you could always toss in your net and fish out a bunch of rectangular aspect, medium format cameras and you could choose between a number of good brands and a number of aspect ratios.  Like it "stubby"?  You might want a Mamiya or Pentax or Fuji 6x7.  Like 'em longer?  How about a Fuji or a Mamiya or a Linhof?  Maybe even a Plaubel.  And no paucity of panoramic machines.  One shot panoramics, just like the photo gods ordained....

Even in 35mm it was a-okay to like Pentax, Olympus, Minolta, Nikon and Canon equally.  They all had good glass and it was all the same three or four brands of film that squirted out of them.  But then along came digital and the emotional landscape changed.

We've been trained by the manufacturers to believe that one company at a time has the holy grail of digital camera technology and we rush like drunk sailors in a storm, from one side to the other, based on what came out last month.  The people who invent, nurture and control brands have done a great job inculcating fear of failure and shame of non-conformity.  They've made any effort to step off the rat race of perpetual camera upgrades seem terrifying and career threatening.....even to people who don't even do this for a living.

Lighting up the night looking for the secret camera.

I've been researching and reading all the ads for "professional" digital cameras I can find (and believe me, I can find alot...) and I've been analyzing them to find out how the manufacturers sell them to us.  They do it with the combined forces of fear and shame.  The ads all infer that it's your clients who drive technology.  They imply that if you aren't willing to step up to the plate again and again and embrace the latest tech toys the makers of "your" brand have to offer then there is a horde of talented people standing in line behind you waiting to "wow" your best clients with six (no, that's not it) eight, ten, twelve, eighteen, twenty four or thirty-six megapixels and they tease you (mercilessly) with the idea that the industry as whole proceeds in lock step and that falling behind in any one area will doom you to the quick decline from star to Willy Loman in a few short steps.

It's only been a few years ago but do you remember when we were shooting with one megapixel cameras and the mantra from Kodak was that when we hit six megapixels we would have equalled film?  And then we did.  And we stopped there for a few moments and people did amazing work with the six megapixels.  Joe McNally dragged National Geographic (one of the print magazine "gold standards") into the 21st century with a story on air power done with an interpolated 5.3 megapixel Nikon D1X.

Canon ruled the wedding roost when Denis Reggie started showing off the incredible wedding photographs he was taking with a brace of four megapixel Canon 1D cameras.  And at that time a bunch of us asked, "How many megapixels would be enough?"  The answer I heard from top pros was, "Double it to 8 megapixels and we're there!!!!!"  And the camera makers did just that and for a little while we stopped and savored cameras that so exceeded our expectations for noise and resolution and sharpness that it seemed like science fiction.  But the ads kept coming.  And the new product kept coming and what was once "remarkable,"  "better than medium format film!!!" and "the peak of technology." quickly became yesterday's fish.  When Nikon unveiled their D2x it was almost as if their ads for the D1x never existed.  Front and center were ready pros who told us stories that seemed disconnected from the photos in the ads.  And the stories said, in breathless prose, that the amazing (generally not) images shown here were only made possible with the latest evolution in picture making. And now, for the first time ever (ever) you could join the ranks of the pros who'd been beta testing a new paradigm of performance that would change the face of photography forever.

We were gripped with fear.  We didn't want to be left behind.  We didn't want to be the guys who could "only" shoot at 8 megapixels.  We didn't want to be the guys who couldn't shoot at 16000 ISO.  We didn't want our clients to follow the guy with the magic talisman of visual power.  So we bought the message in the ad and we bought, for the second time in two years, the new camera.

Nikon shooters had been waiting for what seemed like half a lifetime for their company to launch a twelve megapixel camera to match the performance of the Canon 1ds and they finally did.  The D2x offered much better performance on a number of levels including: Noise performance at base ISO's, speed, sharpness, raw buffer and amazing compatibility.  In fact, even when Canon issued their newer, 16 megapixel camera DPReview said, in a review that pitted the two competitors, that the Nikon was "convincing" and hairsplitting close to Canon's new flagship, and $3,000 cheaper to boot.

Did that assuage Nikon users?  No, Canon came out with ads that showed off their lenses at sporting events and the shooters switched systems faster than some people switch underwear.  Now Canon was the focus champ.  It was the new fear inducer for Nikonians.  What if their lenses and bodies didn't focus as fast as Canon?  Would the clients dump them?  Would they be relegated to shooting only Little League while the Canon shooters held court at the Olympics and Wimbledon?

Light, subject, intention;  they all trump "camera."

Everyone in the sports world switched.  And the company raced to the ad machine to toot their horn.  Then Nikon came out with a camera that could do all that and do it at ISO XXXXXXXX.  It was called the D3 and people embraced it even though it was "only" twelve megapixels.

You could make a shaky case for this kind of frenetic churning among professionals if it were even true that clients cared just a little bit about what you are using to create their small ads on the web but what about all the people who do this thing (photography) for the fun of it?  People with no expectation that they will be paid by someone to bring "the right stuff?"

What's around the next corner?  Does it matter?

People who study markets tell us that one of the biggest fears of consumers, after death and shame, is to be left out.  To be marginalized. The desire to be part of the dominant group comes from millions of years of social evolution.  To be "in the group" meant you got to share the kill.  You grouped together for protection from other tribes or predators.  And marketers have done a great job subliminally convincing their markets that there are tremendous benefits to being part of the pack.  If you choose a camera brand that is in apparent decline, such as Olympus was perceived to be in the last two years,  you become dissatisfied.  The camera you bought hasn't changed.  It can still do all the things for which you originally chose it.  It still makes images that are as high a quality as you experienced during the selection process.  But now it seems your choice is a one of declining market share and popularity.  You have only to read the popular Olympus forums and blogs to see that the tribe of Olympus is upset.  The lower the sales the smaller and less powerful the tribe.  Which, of course, has nothing to do with the use of the cameras or the quality of the files.  But there is the real fear that, if Olympus exits the camera market,  the users will be cast adrift on a digital ice flow, adrift and alone in dangerous seas.  At some junction they might have to bury their past and join a new camera tribe.  Which one will it be?  How long will it take to learn the new lore?

But we're really just talking about products, right?  Box with a sensor and a lens on one end.  I know the ads show famous photographers using and talking about Canon and Nikon's current digital wonder cameras but you understand, if you think about it, that these "famous" photographers largely made their reputations by using the cameras available five years ago or even ten years ago.  Some garnered their name recognition in the days of film!  But the ads are engineered to make us believe that the only way to achieve the fame and fortune (and the adoration and acceptance of a camera tribe) is to make the same choice that the spokespersons have.  The spokespersons whose signature images may have nothing at all to do with the latest tech or the even the brand of camera they are currently shooting.

Am I immune?  Am I sitting here laughing at all the people who've bought into a camera tribe for the comfort of sitting around the campfire and telling stories that glorify the past and future history of the tribe? No.  Of course not.  I am only human and I'm probably even worse.  I find myself trying to hedge all my bets by keeping a foot in many camps.

I am part of the Olympus Pen tribe.  I feel the call of my little sensor people because of my good memories of their older film cameras.  I have some Hasselblads because, for many years, their tribe ensured in a way that I'd share in the feasts of photography.  I keep them in case I find ways to use the power locked inside of them.  And I've embraced the Canon tribe because it's so big.  I can find my frat brothers and sisters almost everywhere.

But what does all this do to us?  It keeps us afraid, on edge and waiting for the witch doctors of our tribes to bring out the next great tool to keep us warm and safe.  And we are willing to throw down the tools that have fed us for several years in order to embrace tools that promise us just a little more.

But I secretly think that buying the first 1DX has nothing to do with need at all.  If you are a sports photographer I believe that the current Canon sports camera (or any one of the last three generations) would do equally well.  If you are a studio shooter you probably could soldier on with any of the 1DS offerings or a 5Dmk2.   No.  The real reason to buy the first 1DX is that the tribe elevates the early adapters to a higher level within the tribe.  The power of your opinion rises.  People pay attention to you and you are given more status.  Which is a reward cycle that doubtless gives you huge pumps of dopamine which drives you to find the next reward.  Which is doubtless the next body.  And people who either can't afford the new camera or don't really need it but want it hold the buyer in higher regard because they also aspire to be thought of as a "master" of the tribe.  One of the inner circle.  Because when you are in the inner circle you are less likely to be pushed out or marginalized.  

When you separate buying into a tribe and buying tribal status from the business equation of adequate equipment acquisition to do what you really need to do you free yourself from the tyranny of marketing and branding and make decisions that are rational and leave you more time and energy to use your camera for it's intended purpose....not to win popularity contests and tribal acceptance...... but actually taking photographs.  If only I were wise enough to take my own advice.

So, which camera company is the Honda Accord (which logically I should want?) and which one is the Porsche Panamera (which I should avoid?).  I hate it when I realize that I've been played.


Ed Z said...

Kirk, this is spot on. I have (had?) fallen prey to the same marketing fear and ridden the carousel of camera brands... just in digital I have shot with Minolta, Pentax, Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Panasonic. Always chasing the latest and greatest that would give me that "edge". I did eventually realize the futility of it, and finally recognized that what truly mattered to me was how the camera "sat" in my hand - how the controls fell under my thumbs, how well the menus were organized. Nowadays I make my camera buying decisions pretty much exclusively based on how the camera feels. *Every* digital slr on the market today can take a commercially sale-able picture. But when you spend thousands of hours with that little box in your hand, ergonomics becomes oh so much more important...

John said...

There really is an "image" associated with all brands at this point, another factor to subtly drive the direction we head in camera choice. Canon is hip and young and caters to the creatives in their college dorms. Nikon is stalwart and solid, the ground on which weathered middle age men set up camp for dependable quality. Olympus and (especially) Panasonic is for the hipster youth who feel they have a grasp on photography that eludes everyone else and thus shun the Big Two for their (clearly superior) tiny pocket rockets in rebellion. Sony is for engineers and techie number crunching know-it-alls and not photographers at all.

Silly, really - we marginalize ourselves. :P

The Boatwriter said...

You are, of course, absolutely correct from a technical standpoint: Any decent camera makes a decent image in the hands of a competent shooter.

But you overlook an important factor: Photographers, pro or amateur (maybe more so), like to buy stuff. So do almost all hobbyists -- I have a target-shooting friend with a houseful of pistols, and they say Jay Leno, a car nut, has every model of every automobile ever built. It's about having the "thing," not about what the thing can do.

I like the feel of film cameras, so I own a bushel-basket full. When I go out to shoot, I leave the DSLR at home (Nikon D200) and carry a couple of F3s. I think I have six of them in all. Or maybe I'll take a Leica M6, or a Contax G1, or an old Rolleiflex.

If I'm shooting digital, usually I take an Olympus XZ-1, which is more than good enough for most of my needs. And it fits in a pocket, leaving two shoulders free for F3s.

So I think it's not about the image produced, but the fun of producing it. And most people have more fun working with the newest/best. Let's not complain: It's keeping the camera builders in business. (Most of them, anyway.)

christian davis said...

I photograph as a non-paying hobby, so I limit myself to a very strict budget on photo gear. This makes me fiercely loyal to my brand*, as I cannot afford to change brands. I am very much in the mindset of "the camera you have in front of you is the best camera for the job" kind of ideal. I have to be.

* I own 5 lenses, 2 of which are 3rd-party lenses (one sigma and one tamron) - so I guess it's more true that I am loyal to my system, as I prefer a well-performing 3rd-party lens's lower price tag to that of the same lens from my camera manufacturer.

seany said...

As a hobbyist I can only speak for those who are lucky enough to not have to use camera equipment to put bread on the table.
Let me tell you Kirk you are 100% wrong in your assumptions and findings,I know this to be true because if it wasn't most of us would have moved on to some other hobby to spend our cash on.
Were there a shred of truth in you article I would be faced with the appalling vista of accepting the fact I have wasted my hard earned cash,no no no, this can't be right,can it?

Frank Grygier said...

I am an photography enthusiast who has chosen the Olympus tribe. As a hobbyist I have to decide if I am a collector of camera equipment or am I someone who is immersed in the process of making images. The tribe I belong to a tribe that has an identity crisis.I may have foolishly believed that if I acquired the E-5 I would have the acceptance of the tribe. Not the case. When the tribe meets in the webosphere a jaundiced eye is cast. I long for the day when I can be a part of the Canon tribe....KIRK, THANKS FOR ENDING THE INSANITY.

Another Pro opinion who has his priorities straight.


Paul Glover said...

"They do it with the combined forces of fear and shame"

So as someone who has consciously stepped back from the insanity, and chooses to shoot with older gear (my favorite camera is older than I am) that means I must be both fearless and shameless. I kind of feel good about that.

"And the stories said, in breathless prose, that the amazing (generally not) images shown here were only made possible with the latest evolution in picture making."

The most "wow" photograph I saw recently, the one image which stopped me dead in my tracks, was a low-angle panning shot of a racing driver taking a corner at some considerable speed, approaching the photographer's position at maybe a 45 degree angle. It looked like the photographer was quite close to the track, at the apex of the corner. Exposure was spot on, driver's face was perfectly in focus. I'm sure it would have challenged the vast majority of photographers tooled up with the latest greatest fastest ever high-tech super camera, given the same subject and camera placement.

The racing driver's name? Juan Manuel Fangio. As best as I can figure, the photograph was shot in 1956. No multi-point continuous AF, no intelligent matrix metering AE, no motor drive, no high ISO, no immediate review to confirm the shot.

I reassessed everything I've ever thought about the importance of camera and lens specifications after seeing that image.

cmcmillan said...

Great article. The brand fanaticism nowadays had gotten ridiculous. I shoot with the equipment I choose to shoot with because it is the right tool for the job. For paid work, I use one kind of camera, for personal work another altogether.

My main gear is Nikon full frame. I still have several Nikon AF & MF film bodies along with legacy glass. Mostly since that is what i first learned to shoot on. I have a Canon S95 as my "always with me camera", at least until my iPhone 4S shows up probably. For personal work or where space/weight is an issue, I have several different Panasonic micro 4/3 bodies. I have a Panasonic GH2 for the odd bit of video work when needed too.

When I want to shoot medium format film, I have a Bronica 6x6 system, and a Pentax 6x7 system. I've always looked at different camera bodies/types as similar to different film stocks/formats. One is right for one job, and not necessarily right for another. Just another of many tools in the image making toolbox.

Denis M said...


I would have welcomed you back days ago when I first found out you were posting again, but it took me this long to catch up!

If I could put a small comment on "why we take photographs" = sometimes it's to bear witness - Louis Hine, The war photographers, or in our case, our families and those things around us.
Another reason for those of us lucky enough to be paid by others for taking portraits (of their children, especially) there is enormous joy in seeing someone's eyes when they see a well crafted image of their child.

So many people have top level cameras, take so many pictures of their kids, but still would rather hire someone - if the pictures look "professional."

Which brings me to your "tribe" post. why DO we covet brands and cameras? You know full well this is hardly limited to cameras. The breathless prose when each iphone comes out, the rush to be the first to get the latest and greatest is universal. Talk to anyone who plays guitar! You're a bike rider. Go on a cycling forum. Sadly what is common in all of this is the need to denigrate someone else's choices. The "x blows y out of the water" syndrome.
Back to photography. I've been spending a lot of time looking at photo books of pictures from the mid-century. You look at Paul Strand's images, and no matter how new and great the latest digital camera is, they won't surpass them. And on the other hand, there is a book of Magnum Photographers pictures of New York, including HCB and at least half the pictures were not in pin sharp focus, and would be called "noisy" today.
And yet they were more compelling than a hard drive's worth of sterile, perfectly lit, beautifully focused "files." And this isn't simple nostalgia. I think photographers were asking different questions then.

Finally, on your notion that our need (or desire) to share our images with others comes out of narcissism...well, sometimes can't we share a photo as a gift? As a part of ourselves? When my son shows me his art work (he's seven) he clearly wants my approval, but he also is just so darn HAPPY with this thing he's created he wants to share it with me!
So here's my question for you - what's your take on Vivian Maier? Here is someone who created images which stand up favorably with most of the best street photographers of her time and yet had NO interest in sharing them with anyone. The families she was a nanny for knew what she did (she clearly wasn't ashamed of it), she had a lively interest in the arts, and yet made a decision NOT to show ANYONE her work. The ultimate Zen photographer? She seemingly died without money and alone, so it's heartbreaking to think that this woman never knew the thousands of people who have been inspired and moved by her work.

John Krumm said...

My 2004 Accord is paid off, has 70,000 miles and a big crack in the windshield (really need to fix it) and will likely become my daughter's car in a couple years, at least after a good interior cleaning. I have a harder time letting digital cameras live out their lives with me so usefully.

Doug said...

I had come to realize this on myself after noticing the amount of good quality gear that shows up in the classified ads online. high quality, brand name , almost new lens etc because someone just had to have a new lens to go with that new camera , because Mr Photo has now switched from one 5 letter brand to the other.

it also made me consider and purchase an older Canon 5D with attached 24-105 4L lens - this camera will make me work harder than my T1i or upgrading to a 5D MkII. The screen is not so great, though better than my Xti. It amplifies my lack of skill instead of enhancing it, so I made the right 'informed' choice that many others won't.

People are slaves to the advertising, the brand name and confuse quality with pixel count and speed. None of it means anything, as I have said to my close friends, this high quality camera lets me take really great high quality bad pictures - save your money haha.

Though I should not complain, am sure once Canon announces the 5D MkIII there will be an abundance of MkII online waiting for someone like me. haha

and happy to have you back here.

kirk tuck said...

John, sounds like my 2003 Honda Element with 85k miles and in desperate need of cleaning. Why can't I get by in the same way with my 2001 Kodak DCS 760 and a few old lenses? I know the answer: fear of being left behind. And if anyone tells you differently they are rationalizing. 80 percent of our buying decisions are emotional and only 20 have any grounding in rationality... yikes. Could this be why the world is in such a horrible debt crisis?

cidereye said...

After many years of taking photographs the one single thing I am totally sure of is familiarity and knowledge of the tool used is far more important than either the brand or model of too used. Mind you it took thousands of $$$ to come to that opinion. Doh!

Frank Grygier said...

Picture 174 Unknown.
Thank you for the reference to Vivian Maier.Her photographs from the 50's are wonderful. People appeared to be more interesting then. 60 years from now will images of our time be as interesting? Will the viewer care about the pixel count or ISO limits of the camera or will they just appreciate the photograph?

Tofuphotography said...

So true Kirk. In my earlier days I had real camera envy. Then I got a real camera and upgraded frequently. It took me a while to realise it was all about the image. Now when I see other photographers with bigger camera than mine it doesn't matter. Been there, done that and I am happy with my choices.

John Driggers said...

So well said. But, then again, I'm used to that from you.

Cheers. JD

Ron Nabity said...

I agree - it's all about insecurities and fear.

Somewhere around 60 years ago (Mad Men anyone?) advertisers figured out the psychological advantage of connecting products to our emotions. Prior to that it was about the utility of the product. When it shifted to how our identities are connected to the brand names, model, version, upgrade, etc. we were doomed.

lenlj said...

Wonderful column full of wisdom and good humor. I think we can all recognize ourselves in this narrative.

Jeff said...

Thanks Kirk that is a very insightful article. This helps someone who just shoots vacations and family stuff yet seems to need to know as much as I can about all of the latest equipment. Maybe I know a little of the why now.

Jessica said...

Yeah, I'm not buying anything new for a good long while. I often have irresistible urges to sell some gear, but then I think better of it.

Karen G said...

Dear Mr Tuck,
Comedy shows sprout from human actions, written by people who have the ability to observe, document and translate into a funny story. I guess that is how you became a professional photographer, there is more to just holding the box, working out the exposure, you have to have the ability to tell a story. Which manufacturer parcels that one up in a pixel or FF?

Thoroughly enjoyed your blog, you should think about writing a comedy script :-)

Wally Brooks said...

Thanks for the comments and the concentration on making good images --regardless of gear! Camera means nothing, vision is everything! Shut up and shoot and shoot and shoot. Eventually in 5 or so years if you look at your images, get other's opinions, take meticulous notes you may, not will there is no guarantee, start to have some form of vision!

Scott said...

I struggle with camera acquisition syndrome all the time, but in my old age, I seem to have it mostly under control. My current flagship is a Canon 40d, which conforms to my guideline of never buying anything newer than the previous generation.
Works fine for me, although I'm lucky enough not to have any clients to impress.
I do fall off the wagon from time to time; just bought a Fuji X100. The devil made me do it.
Much more importantly: What IS that thing in the first picture?? An infinity pool? An undiscovered Escher painting? Is there water in that front compartment, with the yellow lights? A cool, but somewhat disturbing picture.
Oh, and glad you're back.

Richard Alan Fox said...

Another great post, I like to see your images, I learn from your examples, but it is the self analysis that I find the most compelling.
A life lived in photography, the evolution of the craft and the maturity of the mind.
I am so happy you reconsidered withdrawal from the web.
Thank you again.

Clay said...

I need to write you a check for all of the cameras I didn't buy because of posts like this. Maybe I should buy another book instead.

Spiney said...

Kirk, great article as always. For me I could never afford to always be upgrading to the latest and greatest. When I shot pro in our portrait studio the name of the game was having the best I could afford that would give the quality results I needed. While my peers waxed endlessly about the cabinets full of every lens Hasselblad ever made and several bodies. I did quite well with a pair of Bronica Etrs's and a couple of used lenses. When I finally went digital I didn't choose from the big 2, I went with a camera known for excellent flesh tones and nice size files even if they were interpolated, I bought a Fuji S2 and it paid for itself in spades. We sold 30x40's from that camera that beat those shot from our 6x7 RZ negs. I used that for 6 years until health reasons forced me to close. Wanting something small to carry but capable of nice images I bought a Canon G10, I think on your reccomendation. I loved it. But this one time I did buy into the sales cycle hype and sold it as soon as the G11 came out. It was a cheap upgrade because I sold the G10 as soon as the G11 came out and recouped almost all of my initial investment. But I've regretted it, to me the G10 had a better build and I liked the big files. Finally after 10 years with the Fuji and saving for a year I just bought a Nikon D7000 this week from a kid who thought he was into photography but wasn't. He took a $500 haircut and I got a great deal. If history is my guide, I'll be using this one for the next 10 years. In closing my favorite camera is still my 1st slr that started it all for me 37 years ago. My Minolta SRT-101. It just feels right in the hand and has a real clunk when you push the shutter. Dave

D said...

In every hobby I have ever had, people tend to develop some sort of devotion to one brand above the others, from firearms to road bikes to....

I once tended that way too, but fortunately I learned better. Or at least I hope I have. I started photography with an off-brand "instamatic," moved up to several Olympus rangefinders, then and OM-1 when I entered high school. During the years between then and the arrival of digital, owned a number of cameras---everything but a Nikon. Finally got a D70 as my second digital, before moving on to a D300.

The D300 suits my purposes just fine when I need DSLR capabilities and can't imagine what a newer Nikon would have that would tempt me to buy. I still play with an OLy E-P3, and may pick up a Fuji x100 or whatever follows, just as a toy. I really DO NOT care about the brand as long as it works properly and well for what I want to shoot.

Oops! Didn't you once write about getting more comments on equipment-related posts than on photography articles? Well, it's easier to write an opinion about something I can simply purchase.