Buying habits are different for amateurs and professionals? Total bullshit.

One of the wealthiest men in my circle of friends is so thrifty that he only allows himself to go out and buy coffee at a coffee shop one day a week. A bunch of us meet to socialize and the lure of the social network outweighs his aversion to spending any money whatsoever.  When he joins us he gets a medium sized coffee. He has an affinity card (free for the sign up) at the coffee house and it buys him a refill for free. When we're all getting ready to leave he gets his refill. This is not to drink on the way home. He explained it to me once. He puts the cup of coffee in the refrigerator at his house and then, the next morning he microwaves his free refill and enjoys his "free" cup of coffee.

If he were a photographer he would buy one camera and one camera only.  That camera would be so carefully researched it would make Phd. candidates flinch. He would use it till the leatherette peeled off, the screen darkened, and the buttons were no longer usable. And, yes, he would maximize his initial investment until it was no longer possible to use the camera.

And then I have friends who have modest jobs but they spend their money with pleasure. They take vacations and splurge on fun stuff. They have hobbies and they buy books instead of ordering everything for free at the library.  They'll buy another cup of (fresh) coffee the next day.  They enjoy the things that spending money can buy them. 

If they were photographers they'd change gear when they saw real advantages from new product introductions.  Things that would make their jobs easier or, the files better. They wouldn't be focused on the gear, especially, but they would be cognizant of how innovation could bring them pleasure.  

Finally I have a group of friends who have to have the best of everything. If they vacation they do it in St. Moritz instead of Durango. They drive just the right car, own just the right automatic watch and eat in the restaurants of the minute.

If they were photographers they'd be lining up to pre-order the best of everything.  The newest Leica M10, the Fuji X1 Pro type 2 and whatever cool Canon or Nikon body was "of the moment."  And just as they have a Range Rover to drive to workout and an M6 to drive to the office they would have the "walkabout" camera system (Nex or M4:3) as well as the full bore, big dog system. If they were really into photography they'd also have the cool medium format system of the day as well.

But these are not photographer specific types, these are people types and they exist on some inexact curve from thriftiest to most indulgent.  The profession of photography is made up of all kinds of people.  There is no one successful type that dominates our industry.  There is no single set of buying habits that signals the highest probability of success.

One professional photographer I know here in town is so cheap he's probably still using the Nikon D1x he bought when he first started to dip his toes into digital photography.  He does okay in business.  There's another professional photographer who always has the latest of everything and the best. He's into medium format for his work, and the latest Canon, with all the lenses relevant to his business, and he dabbles in smaller camera systems as well.  Hell, he's even into film Leicas and Hasselblads (it's not me, honest) but even though he outspends the first photographer by a wide, wide margin when it comes to gear he is also at the top of his game and is the busiest and highest paid photographer in our affluent market. As a percentage of income his gear acquisitions are not out of line with anyone else's.  He just has more to spend.  It's like the tax argument with Mitt Romney:  He's only paying 13% but he's paying more in sheer volume than the other 99%.

Lately, when I read a forum response about my own "reckless spending" and fickle buying  nature, when it comes to equipment, some self proclaimed "old sage" will chime in and mention that "the real professional photographers would never rashly buy equipment." As if to dismiss my professional relevance and tenure with his specious pronouncement.  He always goes on to say, "They buy the best stuff out there and use it for a long, long time."  This tells me that the poster has no sample group of photographers large enough to make any kind of statistically relevant observation of fact, and also that he may live in a severely depressed market where every family and business must make due with what's at hand instead of upgrading.

There is no statistically sound basis for understanding the spending models of different working photographers. There are some with huge trust funds who can buy whatever they want.  Some are optimistic about their chances of success and so are willing to take risks to buy the ever evolving tools they see as necessary.  Some are aging out of the profession and are reticent to buy stuff that won't give them some sort of quick and guaranteed return.  Some feel trapped in the profession and are looking for a way out.  To them the easy money is gone and it doesn't make sense to throw good money after bad.

Gear has gotten cheap for some photographers. You can buy so many really great cameras for under $2,000 dollars.  Lenses hold their relative value which means changing camera systems isn't so onerous. Former president Reagan re-wrote the tax laws so professionals can write off, in the year of purchase, large amounts of equipment (ACRS). Some states have sales tax breaks for gear that you use in the creation of images for resale.  The old, film age accounting rules no longer apply.  The adherence to the old rules might actually be a hinderance for creative workers who use tools to their maximum effect and then evolve into the next tool. There is an advantage to being the first adopter of a trend or style... Who could have guessed that video in still cameras would become so good so soon? If you shoot a lot of video upgrading to a camera system with EVF's might make all the economic sense in the world. If you got a travel assignment with no budgets for assistants you might consider dragging around a huge roller full of big, heavy Nikon professional stuff but, if the subject matter allows it, you might also find it a smart investment (even for one extended job) to buy a much smaller and lighter micro four thirds system (Olympus OMD?  Sony Nex?) and save your shoulders, back and luggage overage charges. For most applications the files may be just right.

The logic that a photographer buys and holds is a logic based on a time when most equipment was carried around by assistants, used with lots of lights and didn't change much from year to year.  That logic is upside down now. Absolutely upside down. We're almost at the point where it makes more sense to buy and use your gear for the big job at hand, sell it and then choose different gear for the next, different style job. Matching your gear to the project.  Or to rent specialty gear as needed and keep personal systems small and cheap enough so that you can turn direction in heartbeat.

When  someone tells you, "That's the way professional photographers do it." Take their statement with a big grain of salt because every professional is different and follows their own patterns of acquisition for pleasure and for business. I can pretty much tell you this, the photographer who rarely changes equipment has either lost their pleasure for the business or is so involved in what they shoot that any upgrade is just meaningless.  In the first camp are the gruff old cusses who wear the khaki vests and talk about "how we used to do it in the old days."  The second camp is filled (sparsely) with artists who found their tools and can't imagine using anything else.  Then there's this giant Bell Curve in the middle. And for the reading impaired........"That's just my personal opinion."

I might tell you (out of generational spite) that no professional would ever use the LCD screen of a camera to compose and shoot with. That an OVF or EVF was mandatory "pro gear." But I would be wrong and at a disadvantage because of my reticence to use a tool in the way that thousands of younger photographers (and their clients) are comfortable with every day. When reading the forums be sure to put your bullshit detector on high. Not everything you read on the web came straight from the keyboard of an infallible genius.....

Added today (August 20th): Think that pro gear is what you really need to do great work?
Read what Michael Reichman found out: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/reviews/kidding.shtml


atmtx said...

Love this post, Kirk. A great example of why I love your site. You have a wide perspective because of all your experience and all the people you meet. I love tapping into that knowledge.

Frank Grygier said...

I agree with Andy. The wealth of knowledge and experience you bring to all who visit VSL is a gift. Thank you.

cidereye said...

Nice read Kirk. Another relevant slant on things as always. I remember that Reichman test too, $500 v $40,000. Hehe

Anonymous said...

Hobbyist photographers fit the picture too Kirk. Rich ones, poor ones and everything in between. Gear heads, old farts who can't get rid of anything,(that one be me) and other cranks.

Anonymous said...

There is one thing that is troubling about the "You've got to be kidding" article. That is the "quit worrying about image quality" statement. If no one "worried" about image quality, would there ever be progress?

I can certainly agree that the eye of the photographer creates the vision captured by the tool we call a camera, but if no one ever "worried" about image quality we would not be using digital image capture tools or even color image capture (film) devices. I say this from the perspective of having had the opportunity to shoot a pair of D4s with the newest Pocket Wizards controlling SB-910s.

When shooting with available light the sensor in the D4 has an astonishing dynamic range. It is able to pull detail out of shadow without blowing out highlights the way many earlier cameras tend to do. Equipment like that allows the photographer to focus on his art and craft more than the technology of the tool he is using.

The flash system worked remarkably well, again freeing the user to concentrate on what he wants to accomplish.

I thank those who "worry" about image quality for making better tools...otherwise who knows what we would still be using to create images.

That the images shown in the article were created by cameras of dramatically different cost merely illustrates the march of progress.

kirk tuck said...

That article was written by MIchael Reichmann who is the acknowledged godfather of expensive, medium format cameras. Go back and re-read it all the way through to the end. His point is that the last 2% or 5% is very expensive and not that useful to most users. His opinion.

On another note, how does one shoot two D4's simultaneously? Do you hold them vertically, pentaprism to pentaprism and look with one eye on each finder? And if you do that don't the flashes get in the way?

Or am I misconstruing your message as well?

Anonymous said...

Kirk, OK you've had fun poking me in the ribs about shooting two. No, I am not a "two fisted" shooter. The two bodies were configured differently and shot the old fashioned way, one at a time. They are not mine. Yes, I am impressed with their capability. I suspect you would be too.

Insofaras the observation that the last 5% is expensive is concerned, what's the surprise? I would be more surprised if that were not the case. Marginal costs on "the bleeding edge" are always high and, most likely, always will be. Now former SecDef Robert Gates was well known for talking about "the 75% solution" for that very reason.

I agree with most of the rest of the premise that good results may be achieved with even an inexpensive camera in many circumstances, although the test shot favored the inexpensive P&S because it was a static subject. I continue to believe that this situation exists because people pushed the edge of the envelope of image quality.


kirk tuck said...

Sorry about that. Just couldn't help it. And I do absolutely agree with your final statement. Someone needs to have the fire in their belly to be pushing the ragged edge, and we do all benefit. I spent some time at the bleeding buying edge now I'm happy to be in the front 25% of the curve instead.

I've played with the D4 and it's a magnificent and perhaps ultimate expression of a "last decade" camera. Now if Nikon could step up and put a perfect EVF into it they would be right on my wavelength. Everything is in play.

Tom said...

Maybe Nikon should make the viewfinder interchangeable like thy did it up to the F5. A pentaprism for the "purists" and an EVF for the more advanced ;-) I formyself wouldn't miss the VF2 on my EP3. As always a very comprehensive AND entertaining Article from you. Keep up the great work! Thanks!

kirk tuck said...

That's actually a great idea, Tom. See which one sells more. I know what I'd bet on...

Jay Fleece said...

i have a very successful photographer friend, who does "lots" of images with a Holga.Actually a few of them..different types and models. Shooting film plus the Digital images on all the latest Nikon stuff and big lenses.
It's not about equipment but a very special vision and the method of selling!
He shoots almost every day for himself, only a number of days for actual paid work.When he shoots those, it gotta be 100%.
i also know some photographers who ONLY use their original equipment, one or two cameras sometimes a third system. They command prices that place them in top earnings..anywhere in the world..
New equipment may add to your visual but sometimes it detracts..
Equipment is changing rapidly.One must be wary of entering the hamster wheel circle.It's enough that business, is a carousel..

Tom said...

About the Vf2, sorry I meant that I would miss it a lot. Typing on an Ipad, being tired and being non native english speaking doesn't really help to write correctly. I know what I'd choose too, but I don't want even imagine the price for that...