Sony a57. 85mm 2.8. ISO 100 Jpeg. AWB
(warning: content may be too long for some readers).
As unbelievable as it may seem to readers of my blog and my friends here in Austin, there was a time when I would buy a camera system and hold on to it for years and years. I’d squeeze every ounce of value from every body and lens and the only time we’d upgrade is when a camera or lens had given its all. Or paid the “ultimate price” in the pursuit of getting an elusive image. I still remember losing a Leica M lens in the first intake tank of a wastewater treatment plant. We were on a gantry, high above the swirling tank and something jiggled the gantry just a bit re-triggering my thinly managed fear of heights. I made the unconscious decision to grab a railing and the lens, caught mid lens change, flew out of my shaking hands and hit the “water” fifty feet below with a plop. I grudgingly replaced the lens. My assistant had been unwilling to dive in after it...
When it came to medium format cameras we might dip a toe in the rangefinder waters by getting a Mamiya Six or one of the Fuji “Texas Rangefinders” but we wouldn’t think of getting rid of the standard, our Hasselblad system. That was the system that formed the imaging infrastructure of our business. The 35mm cameras were for events. The big ticket items were done with the top grade stuff. After all, that gear was time tested and proven. We’d mastered it.
From an accounting point of view we’d always depreciated the gear because our accountants had a realistic expectation that we’d keep it and use it for five to seven years. Getting it “on the schedule” was absolutely routine. If we had free time to think about the nuts and bolts of photography that was generally a sign that we needed to get busy marketing or get into the darkroom to print up more candy for the portfolio.
What I’m getting at is understanding the historic mindset of trying to find the “ultimate” equipment for our photography and then working within the paradigm of using that carefully selected gear for a long time. We anticipated many happy years of companionship. And most gear did seem to have a useful life as long as that of a well cared for dog.
But the entropy of digital has shifted the way we think about every tool and workflow methodology now. Accomplished artists move (by necessity) from dye transfer to inkjet prints. From big camera film to micro four thirds. Adobe upends the production universe by pricing “to own” software, resident on your machine, sky high while offering to rent it to you at a lower price, in the “cloud.”
We’re moving from the 19th century concept that owning the tools of production is paramount to creating value and wealth. We’re moving from a craft mentality which demanded a long and detailed mastery of all areas of a discipline into a post-craft world where the latest apps and styles take cultural precedence over perfectionism. Witness “Instagram and be there!”
“You do not have to depend on any material possessions, they depend on you, you create them, you own the one and only tool of production.” — Dagny Taggart (Atlas Shrugged).
When we first embraced digital cameras and digital processing we kept our ideas of long term ownership of our tools, and meticulous mastery of our craft as defined by the tools, because that was the paradigm we knew. When Nikon came out with the first really useful professional digital camera, the D1X, we had no way of knowing that we’d be moving from a ten year or five year product cycle into and 18 to 24 month product cycle. But we’ve made that transition.
Marketing pushed us to revere professional tools like Canon’s One Series of Cameras or Nikon’s “Single Digit D’s.” The argument being that these tools were physically sturdy enough to stand the test of time. But why should we care now if the shutter will click a quarter of a million times? We’ll be on to the next great camera long before the little rivets shear loose and bang around inside those hallowed alloy interiors...
Instead, consciously or unconsciously, we’ve progressed to the point where I think each of us, hobbyist or professional, has come to grips with the idea that we’re on a continuous upgrade path. It’s a path that looks a lot like ownership of computers. To some extent we have to “keep up” or we’ll be shut out of the game entirely. And it’s all interrelated.
The willingness to upgrade almost certainly follows some sort of curve. There are artists who crave more and more performance and who are chomping at the bit to buy the next piece of gear because they think it will move their art forward. I think of my friends who shoot landscape. Last year they were happy with their Nikon D3x’s. This year they can’t wait to get their hands on a D800. The extra pixels and the increased dynamic range are the lure.
Somewhere on that end of the curve are people like me who work for the fickle advertising markets. Whether it’s driven by our clients or our own imaginations we’re always interested in the “next great thing.” Because, in part, we can use that in our marketing to our clients. We can show them samples with higher resolution and better color. If the awarding of a job comes down to a “flip of a coin” we might rationalize that having the more recent, and more able gear will give us some sort of advantage. Even if it is realistically just the psychological advantage we accrue knowing we have at least one quantifiable base covered.
At the other end of the rampant acquisition curve you have the practical, rational, linear people who are still using Windows XP on a machine with a Pentium microprocessor hooked up to a cathode ray tube monitor who are happy to use their original Nikon D100 because it “does what they want it to do.” And who can logically argue with that?
I’m on a tangent of the curve. I’ve given up caring much about raw performance. I don’t have my name on a waiting list for a Nikon D800. I’m not waiting for the Canon 1DX or wringing my hands because the D800 seems to pound on the Canon 5Dmk3 in all the “important” metrics. I’m embracing the idea that all of this stuff is changing all the time and that there is no “ultimate” right or wrong choice among the 35mm style cameras. The right choice is “whatever is really cool right now.”
We’ve often made allusion to our camera’s “just being tools.” But I think we were looking at them like power saws or dremels. I think they are more like paint brushes. Where you might have one power saw for slicing through boards, and you would use different blades for different kinds of materials, the camera is getting to be more like the blades or paint brushes. Each job really requires a different choice.
This has given rise to the multiple system ownership syndrome wherein a photographer, hobbyist, pro or dilettante now owns his “Serious Camera System” (SCS) which might be a big Canon or Nikon and a carefully selected collection of premium optics, as well as a smaller system and, at the third tier, a compact, all purpose, small camera.
The smaller system will probably be one of the new mirrorless systems from Sony, Panasonic or Olympus, along with a secondary collection of fun new optics. The rationale is that these cameras are for use where the bigger cameras might be too heavy or cumbersome; say when you are out for coffee and you’d like to carry a camera. Almost every shooter I know, pro or not, is building two systems as fast as their credit cards will let them. And overall sales numbers point to these cameras as the fastest growing niche of cameras outside of the cellphone camera world.
And finally, there’s the mini-mini’s. The Canon S95 and S100. The Panasonic LX-5 and an ample sample of similar offerings. The rationale here is that all of these (with some shoving and wrestling) will fit in a pocket and therefore be available for near instantaneous use at any time.
But no matter which cameras we get we’re still trying to work in that paradigm of owning and mastering the tools for the long term. I’m done with that. I think our society is done with that. Our willingness to work with apps in the cloud instead of applications on a hot rod machine is helping to fracture the paradigm.
I am accepting that all digital cameras are a nasty melange of processing chips and confusing technologies that seem at odds with anything lasting. Three years ago the quality engineering logic was that fewer pixels on a given slab of sensor space would yield the least amount of noise and give us the most visual pleasure. That’s now been turned on its head and DXO, and other experts, tell us that everything we thought was wrong and now the pursuit is maximum pixel density in order to get low noise. But weren’t we just decrying how the marketers were duping the masses by selling cameras based on how many megapixels they had? What will be next? The admission that the chips haven’t really gotten much better but that the microprocessors and the software has gotten fast enough so that good processing in camera is no longer highly compromised by image/data throughput?
If you can process an image four times faster you could also process it four times better instead. At least in theory.
It’s my assessment that we have moved from being imaging owners to becoming imaging renters. We still buy the cameras and lenses but, in the back of our minds we are at least entertaining the idea that the new camera in our hands will be transitory. There’s a good chance that we’ll be attracted to something prettier and with more promise within a year. And, we’ll push our old camera into a maturing reselling/recycling pipeline and use the proceeds to welcome the new camera into our stash.
We’re in the middle of a very interesting sales cycle for cameras. Canon, Olympus, Nikon and Sony have all launched new cameras very recently. And now more than ever I hear the fever to migrate and “upgrade.” People who told me just a few months ago that the D3x would last them, happily, for many years are now eager to tell me how wretched is was to have a camera with no sensor cleaner! They are trying to move them out quickly, before the values drop. Canon users have been given just about everything they asked in the refresh of the Canon 5Dmk3. A more solid body. Much, much better autofocusing. Better and easier video. A more robust construction. And yet they seem unhappy because the grass looks greener, today, on the Nikon side of the fence. Now they’re starting to grouse about not having enough megapixels.
The many, many micro four thirds fans seemed almost rabid to get their hands on an OM-D (EM-5), even though the EP3 is still fresh and fun.
And I had the Sony a77’s in my hands for less than a month before I started craving a new model that would deliver less noisy high ISO files.
And I’m hearing the same stuff I heard at the last round of camera purchasing, “The D800 will keep my happy for years!” “The OM-D is finally everything I ever wanted in a m4:3 camera.
Given that we are never quite happy with our purchases how can we ever effectively sift through the calculus of defining our “ultimate” camera?
I wish we could just head down to the neighborhood camera store and rent the camera we want in the moment, and use it until the spirit moves us to try something else. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to walk into a store and say, “I’d like a Leica S2 and the following lenses for the weekend.” And have the clerk bring up a box with your requested camera gear, complete with batteries and charger. You’d use it and bring it back when you finished. The next weekend you might be feeling sporty and you might want to rent a Nikon D4 and a few long, fast lenses to shoot Formula One from your Sky Box seat. And so on.
We’d still have our every day cameras for our everyday photos but maybe we wouldn’t be so focused on finding the ultimate camera, capable of doing everything, because we know rationally that such a beast doesn’t really exist.
I am now shooting with Sony SLT cameras. You know, the funny looking ones with the pellicle mirrors inside. Why? Just for something different. You’ve heard the saying, “Evolve or die.” ? I’m not so binary. I like to say “Try new stuff. You might find something you like better.” I’m resigned to the fact that we’ll never be happy with our cameras for any length of time. We’ll be anxiously wondering when that D900 or OM-Dx will hit the markets, just a few months from now.
Then again, maybe all the crazy people are right. Maybe all we need is an iPhone and an internet full of filters.