7.04.2012

The Walk-Around Camera.

Ben.  September 1997. On the move in Austin.

"The dollar doesn't go as far today because people won't go as far for a dollar... " -old folk saying.

Could it be that photographs are being devalued, in part, because we don't put as much of ourselves in them as we used to? I was trying to figure out why I have such an instinctive dislike for the idea of pocket cameras and phone cameras. I understand that technology has gotten better and better and the images from iPhones are pretty good, technically.  And I know from experience that the 10 megapixel wonder cameras that are pocketable are also pretty good picture takers.  So what is it that's going on in my head that keeps me thinking that defaulting to the tired old saw, "The best camera is the one you have with you." Which implies that you, as a photographer, are too damn lazy to carry around the right tools with you to do the job so you're happy to default to  whatever is most convenient; if even you know it compromises your vision and your style.

For casual amateur photographers I get it. They aren't interpreting a scene they are documenting it and in their minds as long as the content is conveyed they've accomplished their mission.  And usually their mission isn't to go out and get great images it's to do something totally unrelated to photography but with the potential to create an image that speaks to the reality of their experience to all their friends on Facebook or Pinterest. 

Where does that leave the artists?  Where does that leave real photographers? Trapped between convenience and intention.  For years now I've spent Sunday afternoons walking around with a camera.  It's a nice change of pace from the studio and the pool and it gives me a chance to practice with whatever camera I've chosen to carry along.  

I go through phases. For nearly a year after the Olympus EP-2 came out it was rare for me to go out with anything else.  I carried it because it was small and light and because the VF-2 finder let me configure the camera as a square shooter.  That spoke (in a slightly diminished way) to the style I've been working on for nearly 25 years.  Shooting big square images with a Hasselblad film camera and a normal or slightly long lens.

The EP2 kept me happy enough but somewhere deep inside I had the gnawing realization that many times the final image was a compromise from the way I see things.  I had chosen small, light and free over the exacting parameters of my real vision.  With an equivalent angle of view the backgrounds didn't look the same as they did with my bigger camera.  The meatiness of the black and white negative was missing.  The rounded shoulder of my Tri-X film had been replaced with a snappy curve that clipped highlights quick in order to make the files fit into a color space.  

That all started me thinking about the difference between carrying a camera as a diletante as opposed to carrying a camera with a sense of my own real intention.  If you pack a camera in your pocket in order to be ready for the unexpected you are, on some level, like the guy who carries a condom around in his wallet on the off chance he might get lucky.  You're out on a beer run or buying something at the hardware store or drinking with your friends and you have your phone--with built-in camera--- in case Chuck drinks too much and hurls, or you see a power saw and need a price comparison photo. Or you and Chuck and Joe want a photo of yourself bracketing some poor girl who works at the car show.  Your primary intentions are to leave the house to do whatever normal people do in normal life. The camera is an afterthought.  The iPhone is a substitute. It's the Power Bar instead of the nice lunch. It's the instant coffee instead of the stuff they brew at Caffe Medici.  

So lately I've been trying to match my cameras to my intention.  Really.  I'm trying to match up the cameras with the reasons I bought them in the first place.  More and more my Sony a77's come out when I'm going to work for a client.  We have images in mind and we use the right tools to get them into file form.  Long and short lenses. Big files. Tripods and lights.  But it's rarer and rare that they go out on walks with me.

My Olympus EP2 and EP3 cameras come out when I'm shooting personal projects that are all about color, shape and textures and abstraction.  I really like them when it's my conscious intention to go out and look for patterns and symbols embedded in the urban landscape. The smaller cameras are like the Moleskine notebooks full of inferences and descriptions instead of the finished novel.

But now, when I take images of family, friends and interesting people I'm most likely to bring along my Hasselblad because it makes the kind of images of people that I know I'm going to like most.  Even with the 80mm Planar there's something very different about the way the lenses and the system differentiate my subjects and "remove" them one step from their environments.  To go one step further I usually use the medium format cameras with black and white film.  Not because that's some requirement from the art cult but because, when I started out shooting, color film was too expensive for me to use for personal work and too finnicky for people who did their own darkroom work.  But I learned to love it and look for tones and graphic separation of things and that love hasn't diminished.

It would be much easier to go out with the Pen EP2 and bang away with the aspect ratio set to 6:6 (1:1 in reality; Olympus was just riffing off the fact that square medium format is also known as 6x6...) and then take the raw frames, massage them and then run them through Silver EFX.  But the range of tones would be different and the ability to grab tenuous and precariously balanced highlights would be gone and the optical magic that happens when shooting to a bigger frame would also be gone.  Could I replicate the look and feel with lots of little PhotoShop tricks?  Sure but it won't be the same.  It will be a diluted fascimile of something that can still be done first hand. 

So now, even if it looks dorky, when I leave the studio and my intention is to photograph people I put the Hasselblad strap over my shoulder because that system is closest to my intention.  And life it too short to continue down the avenues of half measures and recitations about how something is "almost as good."  It never is.

Am I making some sort of statement to the effect that everyone should rush out and buy a Hasselblad even if your very first camera was a Canon G2?  Nope. I'm saying that if you work as an artist you will have some perfectly formed aesthetic that bangs around in your mind day in and day out.  That aesthetic is served by a unique set of tools and when you know and feel which tools are the ones that can best recreate your vision you have an obligation to yourself to match your aesthetic intention and your tools, even if they don't fit in your trouser pockets or allow you to tell everyone on Twitter that you are now at Denny's and will be ordering a Grand Slam.  (For my European readers: Denny's is a down market chain restaurant that specializes in packaging traditional American trash cuisine with maximum fat calories.  The Grand Slam is a breakfast special for four people, served to one...).

We have a vision in our minds of something we collectively call a "walk around" camera or a "street shooting" camera and we judge it to be something that will focus quickly, not be heavy or bulky and also be somewhat discreet.  We love the idea that Henri Cartier Bresson and his confederates roamed the streets of the world with small Leica rangefinder cameras, swathed in black tape to diminish their profiles, almost invisible to the world.  But those were their only cameras! Hank didn't have a Leica in his hand and a bag full of Rolleiflexes over his shoulder or a view camera waiting in the car.  All of his work was done with the same camera. (He changed models as improvements came along but the ethos was always the same: small, light, simple.)

His camera perfectly matched his intention. It was perfectly chosen to match his vision. As were William Klein's cameras and Robert Frank's cameras.  But my vision is not a "middle distance" vision of a scene unfolding so my choice of cameras shouldn't be the same. Even if it's in the nature of a walk around camera.

Many of my friends and associates have been drawn into the lure of the new walkaround cameras. They are currently flitting between the Olympus OMD EM-5's and the Fuji Pro 1's. The more financially robust are sticking with the Leica M9.  But they also have Hasselblad digital systems and Nikon D800's or Canon 5Dmk3 and their day-in-day-out vision is more accurately described and ascribed to their integration with interpreting through those systems.  Most of the folks I know honed their vision looking through the finders of 35mm SLRs.  A smaller sub-group gravitated early on to either medium format or, in the case of landscape and still life shooters, even bigger cameras.

Their training, their vision and their technical demands all scream "No!" to the cameras they feel compelled to acquire for their "leisure" work.  In my mind there is no difference between the leisure work and the heartfelt work.  An innate style is hard to change and even harder to translate to new and varied tools.  Few make the transition successfully.  

So I've moved back to shooting with what the little voice in my head keeps telling me I should have been shooting with all along, the big square.  And it's hard to "go backwards" on some fronts.  We've trained ourselves that everything we shoot is free.  Needs to be without cost. (financially and emotionally).  No more film purchases, no more lab costs.  If we go back to our big black and white square we're back to paying to shoot.  Client or not.  We're back to scanning our work.  I'm putting up one or two scanned frames at a time to share instead of glops of twenty or thirty similar but not quite identical digital frames.

But as I look through notebooks full of old school negatives and contact sheets I remind myself that we figured out how to pay for our own personal work back in the day, why can we not figure out similar budgeting compromises today?  Film, for my family, may mean that we don't go out to eat as much or that I keep my car a year or two longer than I intended.  Since all the work I'm doing with film is personal (for me first) I don't have to rush to develop it.  I can put it in a light tight box in the file cabinet and dribble it out when budgets are plumb, delay the processing when times are lean.  Opening the box and taking five or ten mystery rolls to the lab will have the same celebratory feeling we used to get when we'd pop the cork on a nice bottle of Champagne (Louis Roderer Brut, SVP) at the end of a lucrative project.  Film processing and celebration for doing well in your occupational art.

The bottom line here is that I'm not making any impassioned plea that you return to film or arrive at film as a virgin but that you choose your vision camera  and be true to that camera and that vision when you have the intention to go out and do your art.  Even if it's a tight squeeze to get that Hasselblad in the pocket of your pair of tight designer jeans.  But don't kid yourself that you somehow have  secondary vision and that it's being well taken care of with popular but inappropriate tools.  Whether or not a tool is appropriate depends solely on where you are in the process.

I wish my vision were all about the Fuji Pro 1 today. They look really cool.  But what's the use for me when I'll just end up cropping it square and trying to make the background go away in a very distinct fashion?  I'm looking for a digital back for my Hasselblad film camera.  I want one that has a big square.  When I find one I can afford I'll see if it can replace film.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Only me shooting it for me will tell.

One thing I am sure of is that buying all the different cameras is a great way to move you further and further from what it is you really know you want to shoot.  Happy is the man or woman who has found his subject, his format and his camera and who can now settle down and just use them over and over again.

When we are willing to go all the way to make photographs that fit our vision they will have more power and more draw. They will be truer art.  When we choose a tool for convenience it's hard to push past "pretty" to "wonderful".  People talk about using the right tool for the right job but maybe we've been confusing ourselves as to what the real job is......

Steven Pressfield has a new book out that will be of much interest to many of the VSL readers.  It's called Turning Pro and it's a follow on to his great book, The War of Art. I recommend both of them highly.  I am thinking of writing a rejoinder called, "Turning Amateur: Making Photography Fun Again."  But that might be too much.


















36 comments:

sixblockseast said...

Great post Kirk. This is classic: "If you pack a camera in your pocket in order to be ready for the unexpected you are, on some level, like the guy who carries a condom around in his pocket on the off chance he might get lucky."

Claire said...

Ditto, I really laughed at that !

Frank Grygier said...

Still on my quest to find the imaging format that connects my vision to the photograph. Studying the works of artists like yourself is leading me towards the larger formats. I have almost pulled the trigger a number of times on a medium format film camera. Maybe it is time to see where it leads me.

Claire said...

First, this is a fantastic picture, and more fantastic is the fact that I clearly see BOTH you and Ben in it.
Second, it tells me I AM a portraitist at heart, and I can dare calling myself that (as in, I'm worth it). If takes one to be moved by this child portrait the way I am, a lot of unfortunate souls won't see more than a kid in his stroller.
Third, I've been struggling with that concept for a while now. I'm torn because unlike you, who have a clear vision of what your perfect tool is, there are things I adore about my current cam (Panny GX-1), and things I desperately miss from my previous one (D700), without being able to abadon the former (touchscreen, native 1:1, live exposure) to get back the latter (DOF control, continuous AF). So right now it's all about good enough for me. I think for us portrait lovers the X Pro is probably a more than "good enough" portable solution, but the price point puts it out of reach of any of us, me included. Thanks for this thought provoking post, have to re-read and try to see the light.

kirk tuck said...

It takes time and experience to really know which format and which camera fits for each of us. At the end of a year or two you tally up the pictures you've taken that give you the warm, wonderful feeling of discovery and you'll know.

lsumners said...

A question that we should answer on a regular basis " is our procedure, ie camera, film or digital important to us or is the output what is important". For many people it is all about the process and the output is secondary. I must be an artist because I use a view camera and make palladium prints. But in the world no one cares how hard or complicated your work flow is, all they care about is the end product. So if you love a particular procedure, great, but do not get bummed out if no one cares- do it for yourself.

kirk tuck said...

Using the tool that is best for you is one way of ensuring that the "output" is what you want. There is a difference between a camera and a procedure. On this blog I hope we all agree that the image is all that matters. Getting there is as varied as the number of readers.

Eric said...

I found myself very moved by this article. The assumption is that you know enough about your style / artistic persona to make ongoing technical decisions based on that insight.

I'm still trying to figure out my style. I keep experimenting. Sometimes it's portraiture, sometimes it's cityscapes. This article dealt honestly with "who I am -- what do I want -- how do I see things -- how can I capture and express them?" Thanks for posting it.

kirk tuck said...

It really is my pleasure. Thanks for the response. I think style occurs over time. It's a reduction process.

Carlo Santin said...

Wonderful photo of your son. That is the type of photography I am most interested in, and much of my own personal vision as a photographer can be found in your photo.

I'm still very much struggling with finding the right gear for me. I stopped buying stuff about 8 months ago just so I could get more familiar with the stuff I already have to see where it would take me. I really do love film but I've been resisting a move in that direction. I'm very much hooked on the immediacy of digital and I don't know how to break that dependency. Truth be told, I love my Nikon FE with a 50mm 1.8. When I use that camera I find that all the distractions just melt away...no menus, no settings, no WB issues, no blinkies to worry about, no art filters etc. I find myself just thinking about the photograph. I would probably love a medium format camera and I am on the verge of just doing it. Every time I see one of your MF photos I get nudged just a little bit more.

In the digital world my old Nikon D50 does everything I need a camera to do. I'm almost turned off by all the new cameras, way too many bells and whistles that have little to do with taking a photograph that speaks. I really treasure simplicity, in my photos and in my gear. At least I'm clear on that point.

Ken Hurst said...

One of your best essays on photography I've read Kirk. All of us at one time or another have been through the amateur stage, some remain there, and some return to there occasionally. No one starts out as a professional photographer or a professional musician or a professional athlete and so on. Most, if not all, started out in whatever it is they do because they enjoyed it.

kirk tuck said...

Exactly. The secret is to figure out why you enjoyed it and keep doing....that.

Robin Wong said...

Agreed. that has got to be the best quote I have heard about photography in a while. having camera with you all the time does not equate to making more or greater images. it is a lot more than that.

Dave Jenkins said...

No help here for me. My best/favorite photographs have been made on film with 35mm Canons (RF and SLR), Leicas, Olympi, Nikons, Mamiya 6s, twin-lens reflexes, Hasselblads, Bronicas, RB67s, Pentax 6x7s, 4x5s, and even the big 6x8 Fujis, and on digital with micro 4/3s, APS-C, and full-frame. All have advantages and all have drawbacks.

At this point in my life, I'm more interested in the subjects I photograph than the cameras I use to photograph them. I love the light weight and compactness of my digital Pens, but I really, really, miss the simplicity of analog controls. Some days, that factor alone is nearly enough to send me back to film.

Paul Glover said...

Absolutely agree that it's not so much the camera which matters in the end result (which is what most people think) as it is the *bond* between photographer and camera.

I have had cameras which felt dead in my hands, where nothing looked interesting through the viewfinder. Jimmy Hoffa and Elvis could have disembarked from a UFO that just landed in my front yard and these cameras wouldn't give me a compelling frame. A couple of them are cameras I used often in the past but which I presumably have grown out of in some way.

Other cameras just feel right in my hands and produce results which make me happy with much less effort. I can't really say why, they just do.

I would say I'm format agnostic, but I find a well-executed square somehow satisfies me more than any other type of composition and I seem to be leaning heavily toward preferring to shoot black and white now. God help me if I ever do get to hold a Hasselblad!

Ron Zack said...

This is the most dangerous post I've read from you yet. I've had a little voice in my head telling me about a niche that I could possibly exploit using a FILM based medium format camera and some Kodak Portra, and maybe some good Ilford black & white film. I keep telling that little voice to go away, no one wants that old crap anymore...but yet it insists it's still relevant...people will like it, and more importantly, I will like it. So I clicked a "buy it NOW!" button, and will soon be in possession of a Mamiya 645. You like squares, I like 4/3 (really I prefer 4x5, but 4/3 is close enough.) I have no idea where I can even get MF color film developed anymore; the b&w I can do myself.

I love how you compare the Pens to Moleskines, which is pretty much how I use mine...well, that and the condom analogy, as I try to always keep the E-P2 with me at all times. But I'm not looking to "get lucky"--I know that it's there just to record the odd thought, the weird occurrence, just for the fun of it. Not really looking to make art, that's what film is for, and DSLR's.

As for digital...I'm very happy using an "old" Olympus E-3 and high grade lenses for certain subjects where that combination works wonders. As long as Olympus keeps 4/3 alive, I'll keep buying. Sure, I'd like a 24mp sensor and clean ISO 128,000 files, but honestly, for the kind of things I do, it would be overkill. Having learned to tune JPEG's out of that camera to my liking, all my post-processing just consists of occasional cropping, and that's about it. Even RAW files can be overkill at times.

I think Leica is the only camera company that really gets it. Fuji is onto that vibe, but they are still stuck on auto-focus, which is nice, but can often just get in the way. Leica uses the same mount and the same lenses that have worked for the past fifty years or so, and give the people who want digital their sensor, but they keep the film line alive for those who just like doing things the old-fashioned way. Just a shame they couldn't extend the favor to the R-mount crowd...oh well, maybe some day.

Claire said...

Paul, your comment is fantastic. Cameras, dead in the hand. I've had those, too. And the bond, oh yeah, the bond. And last, the "well executed square, more satisfying than any other type of composition". Gosh, did you sleep in my head last night ?? I so totally FEEL those concepts. To me the end result makes a large part of that bond in the first place, if a camera delivers files that move me, I feel compelled to work and merge with it. Looks also play a great part, I think if the D700 was halfway as sexy as the GX-1, I wouldn't mind carrying it around all day. That just makes me think that portability is really nothing but an EXCUSE to get other, prettier, newer, fun gear. And I suppose that's the exact point of Kirk's post (duh, that just dawned on me over my morning tea). Once you know what camera REALLY works for you, it becomes as portable as it needs to be.

Claire said...

Kirk, I think what really makes my dilemma much worse is the square format, and that's entirely your fault (and I'm forever grateful, I started taking better photos the recent day that I started trying to emulate yours). So every time I think I could go back to such or such DSLR, that combines most of me needs, I think DANG ! no 1:1, and it breaks the spell. Please kick my butt and tell me "Just crop, fool". Please.

Ken Hurst said...

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about things like this - probably way too much. Maybe it comes with reaching a certain age or something. As a lifelong musician - professional and educator, mostly educator - and nearly lifelong photographer I've thought hard and long about my passions in both pursuits, their similarities and differences. Looking back I can see that my passions have shifted from music (although I've found that I can rekindle it in a heartbeat) to visual arts, particularly photography.

maxx said...

A note for European readers - nice touch, Kirk! I enjoyed every word of this article and the comments. This is how I feel exactly.

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Claire - the format question makes me consider the Nikon D800 (and -E) because you can set it to 4:5 format in-camera. And I find that tho I love 4:3, when used in portrait orientation I often crop to 4:5. Square is nice, but IMHO much more challenging - it really takes an artist to make something with that...

Dunno, Maybe it's just the three focus points in my humble E-520 that drive me to crop it later ;-)

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Hmmm. Thanks for the interesting article Kirk. I understand and interpret it like this:

- digital is for work, and for snapshots, and fun, and art which maybe doesn't really turn out as such
- and analog is for personal projects, your family and/or humans in general

That is how I'm using them at the moment. Sure the E-PL1 is nicer to carry than a DSLR, and tho yesterday I took the OM-2N out onto the streets, I normally reserve film to those special moments (the costs alone dictate that for me).

Until now, I could overcome the temptation to just click "buy it now" on some 645 or 6x6 or even 6x7 camera, maybe because what I'd really want would be 4x5. And *that* would be a challenge to take everywhere, not to mention the cost on film for those...

Digital backs? Not as long as they cost as much as a nice middle class Mercedes (or Toyota)... even those Pentax and Mamiya digital MF which are considered "cheap" are still more than our used car was. No thanks. I'm an amateur, but I don't love what I can do with these tools *that* much that I could justify a sum like that.

Claire said...

Hmm, I started using 1:1 (or as Kirk reminds us, 6:6) a few weeks ago trying to emulate his portraits, and it was a revelation ! It's now my default setting on the GX-1, and I find it incredibly natural and easy to compose within that format. OTOH, I do see a lot of squares these days and am wondering if we won't tire of it after a while... I think the square is really ideal for portraiture, maybe not so much for other genres. As far as sensor sizes and DOF control I was a huge fan of Canon's APS-H (x1.3) which was a really sweet spot for me between slight tele gain and super sweet blur if needed. Unfortunately it's always been limited to the behemoth 1D bodies that I don't wanna lug anymore. Sigh.

gaianautes said...

Thank you for an interesting and helpful article Kirk. Your "it's a reduction process"-comment hints at what I like to think of as finding your late-Picasso-phase, where over a long career continuous reduction has lead to a stage where craft, vision and tools has been distilled to the essentials in output. In terms of photographic equipment I find it very interesting that the great Anders Petersen, who is close to 70 years old and perhaps at his 50-years' career peak both in terms of quality work and international recognition, now works with three Contax T3:s. I don't know if the image of old-age Robert Frank using his compact Konica Big Mini is evidence of the same.

kirk tuck said...

If you are a generalist you may need more than one camera.

kirk tuck said...

""Once you know what camera REALLY works for you, it becomes as portable as it needs to be."" Exactly.

Jamie Pillers said...

Kirk, fyi, the Fuji XPro1 can be set to square format. The viewfinder then shows a square frameline. And the LCD screen becomes a square! Now you can get one. :-)

kirk tuck said...

You tempt me. A little. Do they have all the focusing glitches worked out with new firmware?

Keith I. said...

A great line!

Frank Field said...

Kirk - What a wonderful image of your young son. It really speaks to the curiosity of a child. Beyond that, it says "Kirk Tuck style." Thanks (again) for a thoughtful holiday post. Frank

Alex said...

>Film, for my family, may mean that we don't go out to eat as much

"Now that vodka prices went up, are you gonna drink less, dad?"
"No son. You're gonna eat less."

A Russian anecdote

kirk tuck said...

Son, now that film prices have gone up would you consider a nice trade school instead of four boring years at _________???

Claire said...

So I read ;)

Callan said...

Great writing, Kirk. I wanted to add "as usual", but this is one of my favourites to date. Thank you for stating eloquently what I've been trying to say for years.

Also, Oleg Novikov, whose landscape work I actually enjoy (and I usually dislike landscape work), also featured this post here: http://www.olegnovikov.com/whatsnew.shtml#20120705

Clay Olmstead said...

Going back to the Latin roots, "amateur" is "one who loves." I hope to never leave that stage.

ohnostudio said...

I started out when I was 13 or so with 4x5 film. What kind of letdown do you think I had when I went to 35mm? I loved MF 120 film, and yes I am going back even though there is an arsenal of digital gear here. It's what I love, plain and simple. A 3:2 world is just not for me.

The digital stuff will still be used for "regular work" of course - all those faceless catalog and product shots and other things with no soul.