Thinking about gear made me think about gear.

Amy.  Brought to you by Phase One.

I got some interesting mail when after I wrote my last two columns.  Those screeds were essentially essays to myself, telling me to stop wasting time and money and get out and work on the work instead of working on the toys.  One person wrote to tell me that I was a dilettante who just played with cheap cameras and didn't "get" the allure and the technical virtuosity of cameras like the Nikon D3x or any of the other full frame cameras.  I certainly can't argue about being a dilettante;  I'm not nearly as committed to the real craft of photography as I should be.  If I were I'd be rushing into the darkroom to use the last of the real technology before the art of photography dissolves completely into a totally subjective romp through the imaginary Disney Land of digital where anything from a snap made on a phone to still frame from a video camera counts as big art... (that should get us some mail...).

But I did take umbrage from the assertion that I didn't know "shit" about bigger, better cameras than the micro four thirds, "baby" cameras I'm "always going on and on about."  I did have another life before I started this blog and in that particular life (three years ago)  I spent some quality time playing around (all dilettante-style) with three different, at the time, state of the art, medium format digital cameras.  Leaf, Phase One and Mamiya all sent me their cameras and asked me, "pretty please!!!" to use them for a few months and then, maybe, write a review for one of the photo magazines I haphazardly wrote for back then.  The Leaf AFi7 was a bit unwieldy, but workable.  They sent it along with a 180mm f2.8 Schneider lens that made me almost cry when it came time to box up and send it back.  In the days when 12 megapixels was about the max for my then Nikon System the 40 megapixels on the Leaf sensor was a technical revelation.  

But the camera I liked playing with the most, and the one I held onto the longest, was the Phase One with the 40+ back and two really fun lenses.  The lens I liked best (naturally) was the 75-150mm zoom. What a treat for a portrait photographer.  

I spent many happy days blowing up the files really big.  But when it came right down to it I just couldn't justify the price tags.  Had they come during a different point in our economic timeline I confess that I would have tried to rationalize the Phase One.  It just flat out worked.  Well,  if I'm going to be totally honest, the two different batteries (which died in opposite cycles from each other) drove me a bit crazy but I guess that's a "first world" complaint.

I made big prints.  I looked at every pixel.  I shot the cameras with flash, daylight, tungsten, florescent and even some early LED fixtures.  And I could see a difference.  Not a $45,000 difference but a difference.  But I'm getting off track.  My real point was that I have played with bigger cameras and that, in fact, helps energize my enthusiasm for the smaller cameras.  Being able to do 90%  (with the pixie cameras) of what I was able to do with ultimate cameras is a profound thing.  An amazing thing.  And I appreciate the engineering we can buy these days for so much less money.

Amy with coffee.  All is right with the Universe.

But this was my "take away" from the year of shooting big:  If I do my technique really well, and I'm not making a print very big, then most people, myself included, really won't see the difference between a $1,000 camera and a $30,000 camera with a $8,000 lens.  Under perfect circumstances?  Printed really large?  Best Technique.  Yes, the big camera files will technically look better every time.  But in real life?  Naw.  Having a camera with a stout battery, menus you know forward and backward and enough pixels to make a nice 12 by 18 inch print is really a very sweet spot on the whole continuum.  

Big bucks.  Little screen. 

Would I snap up one of the Phase One systems if it cost less than an old 2003 Honda Element?  I'd probably do that trade.  But it's like every other camera system.  No matter how good it is today someone will come out with a system to trump it in a year.  Learning to use any camera well never gets obsoleted.  People have warned me several different ways:  "Never drive a car that's faster than the one you have."  "Never work on a computer that's faster than one you can afford."  

And it's like every other camera system in the world in that, if you have nothing particularly interesting to say, the images don't look particularly interesting.  And while high quality is nice, it's not art.

Even those who loudly proclaim to care nothing about gear (sneer implied) stopped to ask me about the bad boy hanging off the front of the Mamiya camera. Tech Chick Magnet (TCM).

Finally,  I was reading through a forum post  in which an insane person wrote about the need for there to be a mirror-less full frame camera from the micro four thirds companies.  Huh?  That's like Tesla cranking out a diesel Hummer.  But the argument was soon joined and, at one point a "professional" photographer stepped in to say that having the full frame was "crucial" in order to maintain "credibility" with clients and stock agencies.  I think that instead of eviscerating his logic I'll just let that whole concept hang in the air...

Hope you're having a great week.  Let us know if you decided to run out and pick up a medium format digital camera system.  The whiskers on a cat will never be sharper.

erratic bonus:  Great video by someone I don't know:  http://vimeo.com/34813864


Wolfgang Lonien said...

How true - like any other guy who thinks of himself to be something like a "photographer", I've looked at those Phase One, Mamiya, Hasselblad and others, especially after seeing some really cool product or beauty shots done by the best of the best.

But my relatively tiny Olympus Zuiko Digital 2.0 50mm Macro takes more detail than most portrayed person would like to see - no matter if I use it on the old and totally outdated 10MP E-520, or on a Pen camera. Cat's whiskers? The Pen kit zoom is more than enough for that.

It helps when I look at my photos and think about what would have been better with a larger camera. Most of the time, the answer is: nothing at all.

I'd like to absolutely get out more, and do more street shooting. And as we have seen from you (in Rome and/or Florence?), it absolutely can be done with medium format. But for that, I still prefer my old and crappy 4/3rds camera. Noise? Bah. Leran to live with it or even make use of it, or take longer exposures at lower ISOs, and make creative use of the movement you see.

Oh, and that video is great - saw it on Facebook already, but didn't know from whom that was. Thanks for letting us know.

Unknown said...

I just want a medium format film camera. My darkroom is up and running again thanks to my daughter's science fair project--Ilfosol 3 vs. Coffee as a film developer. Coffee works well! A nice Pentax 645 (original) is somewhat affordable, and the lens will work on the 645D if I get a raise and go for whisker detail on the dog (never a cat for me).

Sam said...

Although I love film too much to ever seriously be torn by any of these new wonder-of-the-day digicams I still like hearing your thought processes. The fact that you actually use all of these different cameras and think about their benefits without losing sight of the end goal of an interesting picture makes you someone that over and over again I want to listen to.

Thank you.

Paul Bailey said...

My Canon 5d mkII will never produce files like my 8X10 view camera with 360mm Schneider lens. But the 8X10 won't hang on my neck either. So the Canon is the compromise you allude to Kirk, which, when used carefully, produces some very nice tonality.

Jean-Yves Mead said...

You could have the 180mm Tele-Xenar experience on the cheap(ish) - just find a tidy Rolleiflex SLX and the manual-focus PQ version, all for only about three months' worth of Starbucks.

Your Hasselblad would get jealous, though...

Anonymous said...

I think today's fascination with gear is related, oddly enough, to the decline in film use.

Yes, cameras are getting better at a fantastic rate. But, that old D70 is still good enough for most anyone.

Rather, I think that what has happened is that the typical enthusiast -- or pro! -- has a certain amount that they would spend on photography, let's say it is $3000 per year. In the past, that was $1000 in gear and $2000 in film and processing (add a zero if you are a pro). Cameras didn't change much. You'd buy a body and spend the next five to ten years filling out the lens selection.

Today, we spend $2500 on gear, and $500 on other stuff like software. It seems like everyone is buying two $800-$1200 cameras a year these days, plus lenses etc.

This is why film shooters still say that "digital isn't cheaper." That's because our expenditures are really the intersection of desires (unlimited) with our budget (still $3000), not "what we need."

Anonymous said...

'all dilettante' ...maybe that's Italian for 'messing around'? Sounds like you got a few negative responses from a few photo gear heads? From what I've seen, the gear heads like gear a lot, photos not so much. Gear heads probably don't do much 'all dilettanti' stuff with pictures.

I enjoy your blog, all of it, even the 'all dilettante' things.

Anonymous said...

I shoot film a lot and as a "hobbyist" know only a tiny bit about what I'm doing, but enjoy it immensely and I have the "allure"!!
I'm into Weston light meters at the moment - I've now got six. Don't know why.....it'll pass.
I've seen some of your fantastic photographs Kirk and how anyone can suggest you are a "dilettante" is beyond belief. That's my job!!
I believe you packed the site in a while ago due to some of the comments posted. Please continue to "rise above".....Love your articles. Thanks


IRA said...

It's a shame there are so many morons on the internet who feel the need to assert their manliness via the keyboard.

Perhaps this comic will help you maintain perspective as much as it's helped me...


stefano60 said...


i cannot state enough how much in sync i am feeling with your recent posts.
i have been too - like so many - a victim of the rush to the latest and greatest tool, and only recently decided to pull the plug and stop.
my main camera is an M8, i get really great pictures out of it (great when the subject is great, but always impeccable from a techie viewpoint as well).
i have been toying with the idea of "upgrading" to the M9, and quite frankly i cannot find one reason that is good enough to justify the $$$ difference. i keep looking at images taken with both cameras, and there is no 'aha!' moment; beautiful pictures and mediocre pictures are produced equally by either one.
so, instead, i will focus on becoming a better photographer with it, and perhaps get (again) an epson R-D1 as a backup, which i foolishly sold last year to finance my acquisition of the month (do not even remember what it was).
i may or may not keep the V1; i love it for traveling, but perhaps i should just stick to one system.
the old film cameras (35 and mf) are still in the drawer, i would love to use them but the reality of convenience vs perceived better quality stops me from using them... too bad, i will miss them but learn to live with it!

Dave said...

Sounds like the person emailing you needs a Freudian analysis of their obsession with large cameras :)

Peter said...

If you are a dilettante, then I must be a by-proxy dilettante! I like reading about all the stuff you use and write about in a real-world-use way. And I like reading about how relatively unimportant it all is compared to our ability to see. I think this is fundamentally an optimistic view of the world we live in.

Liked the pictures of Amy and and the MF cams.


Brad C said...

"And while high quality is nice, it's not art." Well said - unfortunately for art it is much easier to pursue high quality!

Charles said...

A bit of a tangent. I've mainly been shooting film this year and spent a lot of the first 6 months in a darkroom making prints. It's kind of opened my eyes to what's involved and I've only touched the surface with the basic equipment the school had.

Reading any photography forum I realized that anyone who makes their own prints, darkroom, digital, scanned film, whatever is more content with their equipment than anyone else. I think that the truth is a lot of this better equipment just doesn't make much of a difference in prints and it certainly doesn't make much of a difference when viewing it on the web or even the newest HD TVs.

My resolution this year is to buy a nice photo printer and take some classes on how to get good prints out of it. If my gear lust starts up the first question I need to ask myself is how will this new equipment improve my prints? I have a feeling that most of the time the answer it is that it won't, at least not in any meaningful way. With an Epson R3000 running less than the price of a high end m43s body and the 3880 not much more with the $300 mail in rebate in the US I hope some other try it too.

Mel said...

I used the Mamiya/Leaf system in photo school and when I look at those images compared to my Olympus E-3 I'm amazed at the superior depth of detail....when printed at 40x60 inches. As a landscape photographer I would love to have the Leica S2 or the Mamiya with Phase One 80Mb back to get detail you can literally walk into but I don't have clients demanding wallpaper prints. So I have to fall back on good practices and techniques to deliver sharp images for the 11x14" crowd. Or as was mentioned, bring out the large format and scan film to near infinity!

Unknown said...

I have to be contrarian on this one Kirk. I can certainly tell the difference between the Nikon D3s files and the files from the Pentax 645D. I'm shooting RAW and if I go to 50% magnification or greater on the computer screen I can see easily see a difference in resolution. If I was using a 43/rds I would have to assume it would be even greater. That said, I agree that most people won't see the difference unless they are looking for it and in real world application it would be evident only in large prints.

Jan Klier said...

I have been pondering this question for a while. As you know, I'm not easily sucked into another piece of gear at all. That said, I can rationalize it if I can see projects I'm actually working on where the gear would have made a difference. So usually I keep gear upgrades in a pipeline until relevant projects come along.

I've shot MF for quite a while, but exclusively with film. And I enjoy the difference very much. Last week I finally talked myself into a digital back for my Mamiya. But the rationale and price point played a big difference. Nicer DBs are now on the market used for reasonable prices. I bought a Phase One P25 from another pro for $5K, which is not much more than it would have cost me to upgrade to a 5DM3. It's 22MP resolution is on par with my other cameras. The better color and bit depth and sensor size is more intriguing. And then there is the show an tell factor with the new market I'm transitioning into over the next few months.

In the end I still can't rationalize owning a $30K back, but it may be likely I run into a scenario where I may rent one for a specific project. However, as you discussed in a different post, when we shoot for clients we have to stay in the safety zone. Renting equipment that you're not familiar with at all is the antithesis to that. So owning a digital back with reasonable resolution that is a generation or so behind, but which I can shoot with every day and work out my workflow with, and then rent the current generation as needed, seems like a reasonable path to be on (or so I rationalized). I can report back in a few months how that has worked out….