Getting queasy thinking about buying new cameras.

Let's call it camera buying fatigue. Or maybe it's the realization after so many years that a slightly better camera isn't going to do squat when it comes to making me a better photographer. Seems like a short time ago I was waiting anxiously for the new Sony a99 camera to float down from the stratosphere of a camera design and convert my pedestrian vision into world class art. But now that the delivery date is drawing nigh I have nothing but ambivalence about parting with ever more money for fractional perceived improvements in the imaging minutia that may not trickle down through my heavy handed usage into the final images I give to myself and my clients.

What happened to extinguish the camera lust that has always burned so brightly in my psyche? I think it's been the process of thoughtfully reviewing selections of images I've made from the inception of my interest in photography to the present. And truthfully, there is no mechanical or technological confluence of factors that makes one image "better" or "worse" than the other.

To my mind my best work came when using tools with which I had long term familiarity. We pay lip service, nowadays, to the idea of mastering our cameras but if we look at this assumption rationally, knowing that we are now impelled, seduced, moved to rationalize, persuaded to "upgrade" our magic boxes and their attendant lenses every eighteen months to two years can we really say honestly that we have the time and tenure with the gear to create a man/machine relationship that is truly, really, genuinely transparent????

The image above was taken with a film camera. After loading film (autopilot function) the only choices open to me as the operator were aperture, shutter speed and focus. That's it. Exposure measurement was largely a function exterior to the actual camera. I didn't worry about "creative" settings, color spaces, focus adaptations, noise reduction, color temperatures, parameter adjustments or even raw versus jpeg. The camera operation almost instantly became subservient to the process of actually taking the images. 

With digital cameras I find myself wrenched into a mode of heightened vigilance. I become overly aware of all the settings and "gotchas" of the digital workflow.  Not with just one digital camera but with all digital cameras.  There are hundreds of combinations of settings we can enable or disable and all of them, in one way or another effect either the image quality or the quality of making the image.

It's like the "Tyranny of Choice" for average consumers. Careful studies find that consumers mostly want three choices in a category. If they are looking for a jar of raspberry jam they are looking for "good, better, best." And, unless they are budget constrained, most will pick better. If confronted my too many choices and too many variations they may (if they do not already have a brand preference) skip the purchase altogether.  One several levels I'm sure this dissonance to effecting a cascade of choices drives a wedge between the camera and the user when it comes to comfort with the process. How else to explain our almost constant search for the next camera and our supplementation of a our "primary" camera with a growing selection of secondary cameras, rationalized as "carry around" cameras? Aren't they almost all "carry around" cameras?

In my personal situation (what else can I know?) I've had the Sony a77 cameras for almost seven months and I've used them to make over 30,000 images. Frankly, I am just now becoming comfortable with all of the menu settings. And that is not because the Sony has more or more complicated menus but because there really is no "right or wrong" setting and not all settings apply uniformly to the creation of all images. So I'm asking myself "why?" when I am just becoming comfortable with the way the cameras work and shoot, why am I considering "upgrading" to yet another device and another set of things to learn and implement. It surely isn't any perception that the cameras in hand have failed me in some way, or that my clients are demanding some decisive jump in overall image quality. It's because there is always the implied promise that I will somehow generate more interesting and profound work.  But I'm here to tell you that a recent browsing through my archives tells me that meeting the right people and being in the right situations has far, far, far more to do with creating images that I will like than some tiny movement in the calculus of my taking camera's ephemeral ability to nail down a performance paradigm that causes me to exceed my own limitations.

In fact, I feel like the rejection of the newest toy and a dedication to wringing out the best performance from my current two main cameras is much, much more likely to allow me the transparency in taking images that will make them more fun to look at and more fun to share than anything that takes place on the pixel level. If you think about it, shooting in raw is just another way to not have to knuckle under to the tyranny of choice, at least not in public and not until you are comfortably ensconced in your own little cave to privately tend to your wounded ego as you come to grips that a new camera won't make your work more universally successful-----no matter what Canon, Nikon, Sony and Olympus would like you to believe. It really does all boil down to you.  And that's more reason to dig in and move toward man/machine transparency than to kick the can down the road and just upgrade the stuff.

I like the idea of the Sony a99. I like the idea of a full frame sensor. I like the idea of some of the cameras new features but I'm pretty sure it won't make my interaction with portrait sitters any better, more exciting or more intimate. In fact, in the short run I'm certain that my uncertainty with the nuts and bolts of the camera will have the opposite effect. When I audit, with searing honesty, the kind of work I like to do with cameras and, by extension, the kind of work that comes to me as the result of showing the kind of work that intrigues me, I realize that there's nothing more in the a99 than there was in any of the endless line of digital cameras that have paraded through my hands. At the end of the day the camera is generally on a nice tripod and the lights of the studio are shining and winking and glowing. I'm still trying to engage the person in front of the camera and the less time I spend engaging the camera the more time I have to do what I consider my real job: selecting and collaborating with people whose images I'd like to interpret and share. Nothing else really matters.

In 2009 the people at Leaf lent me an AFi 7 medium format digital camera with a whopping 39 megapixels of resolution and an $8000 Schneider 180mm f2.8 lens. This should have been the ultimate camera for the kind of subjects I like to shoot. The lens is among the best in the known universe and the camera, at the time, represented the state of the art.  After six weeks I sent it back with no regrets. I was so overwhelmed and hyper-vigilant in the operation of the camera that I couldn't relax and just take portraits. Batteries constantly needed attention, settings beckoned, and the auto focus took a lot of attention away from the real action. Here I was with the $50,000 image machine that my peers drooled over and in the short run, at least, it stymied my ability to make great images.  Oh yes, they were sharp and possessed of awesome bokeh and infinite tonality but I would have been better served to have dumped everything but one species and genus and family of camera and plod onward.

And the appreciating tragedy of using lots of different cameras, all together and serially, is that the personalities of the cameras mash and wiggle and jostle together in your mind so that each implementation is like another layer of chaos in your mind. And since it's impossible to flush no longer needed information from yout mind you just have an ever escalating and very poorly organized catalog of facts and settings that slows you down, distracts you and diminishes the enjoyment of the moment.

All something to think about as we start the next round of "upgrades."


Jim Fitzsimmons said...

This is great article. I've been jones-ing for some new gear, but as I'm just an amateur/enthusiast, one have to ask themselves - do you need it?

My DSLR gear is now a 5 year old Nikon D300 that goes for a fraction of what I paid for it and the sad part is I picked up an $84 point and shoot to toss in my pocket recently and I am having more fun with this point and shoot than the 20lbs of gear I have to slug around and end up leaving at home due to the weight. I'm old enough to realize that you don't need to bring it all with you just to go for a family picnic.

I'd love new gear, and the m4/3 stuff looks like fun, but an OM-D or NEX 7 is a mortgage payment, and then of course, there would be new lenses...and a motor drive and cases and strobes and.....it never ends.

Frank Grygier said...

From time to time you show an archive of images from various digital cameras. I honestly cannot tell you what camera was used. I can only say that I know a Kirk Tuck photograph when I see it. I think you can bend any camera to your imaging will. The question is can you bend it far enough to replace the vision you have of medium format film.

ODL Designs said...

The voice of reason :)
I have been going through the same feeling, after ditching the a850 for the OMD (and sold the E-3 for the a850) I look back at the money that was lost in each exchange and think... That would have been nice to keep in my pocket.

While ditching the E-3 for the a850 was for pure resolution (a client had asked for more and I reacted) I consolidated back to the OMD for a fondness of the Olympus SCP and enjoying the results from their lenses more.

So at this point, I am certain 16mp is more than enough for my work. I am certain my lenses are good enough for my work... I had the 75mm f1.8 on order and paid for, then thought... When/if I need it I will buy it, I dont need to sit on any more gear than I have.

Funny you should post this now Kirk, I really enjoy what I have, I am coming to grips with producing more of my own projects, and have lost almost all interest in new equipment. I know this as I was at the Henry's imaging show in Toronto yesterday, all the big players were there, all the new cameras sitting for me to play with... I just couldnt be bothered to fiddle with another camera.

Enjoy your A-77 I know we enjoy your images.


John Krumm said...

Sure, just as I succumb to "grass is greener" syndrome... I finally put my not-so-used GH2 on ebay (first time selling anything on ebay) and put in an order for the OMD. I love in-body IS and I'm definitely not as steady as I used to be... But I know what you mean, and all I have to do is look through older images to remind me that the older cameras have done just fine. The great leveler, gear wise, is printing, whether photo books or single prints. The three photo books I've made for my family use images from four or five different cameras, and they all look good, and they are the lasting value from these devices. I need to bet busy on another one.

Gregg Mack said...

Thank you for the very insightful thoughts you put into this post. I think you are hitting the nail exactly on the head. This is why people don't care what brand of camera that you use, Kirk. I enjoy stopping by and reading your post almost every day!

Paul Glover said...

I feel a strong urge to simplify. It seems silly to have several 35mm cameras and a medium format TLR, all of which handle very dufferently to each other, when what I really want to be shooting with is a medium format system camera and maybe the TLR where appropriate. One camera (maybe two, both not too dissimilar in handling), one handheld meter, one format of film, one format of archival storage sleeve. Much reduced complexity, no "wrong default settings" as long as I remember to set the ISO and filter compensation on the meter and a better chance to master the gear and just get on with shooting.

Erik Helgestad said...

I'm in Jim's shoes myself as well. Heck, I got burned out for a while and just honestly didn't want to shoot - anything. My D300, D90, bags of lenses, flashes, etc just sat there. I'm coming back though, but more so because of my phone - it's quick and easy to take a shot, but I'm getting those creative juices flowing again, wanting to do more. Thankfully the cameras feel right at home back in my hands, I know the controls, and I'm picking back up again - and it feels incredible.

Claire said...

Kirk, 1st of all congratulations on the 9 million page views you celebrated yesterday. I've faithfully followed and avidly read your blog for the past 8 months, so I feel responsible for my share of those views. Keep up the great work, you're by far the best photographic read around.
Secondly, over those months I've read your posts, I've seen you doing a constant two step dance between two opposite views. You're a gear head as any of us, but you're also a highly skilled and talented photographer (furthermore a master portraitist), and the constant pendulum you're swinging between those two points of views, I can relate to. One day you're lusting and dreaming over a new, or future camera. The next you get your head straight and come to the obvious, and wise, conclusion, that said camera wont make any of us better photographers, and you celebrate our older, our current gear. Then the curiosity and love for desirable machines strikes again and you're back pining for the next best thing.
I've been going thru this same cycles countless times, so I think it boils down, not to IQ and the end result image, but to the ease and fluidity with which you achieve it.
Ive been shooting a NEX 5n for a few weeks and had no doubt I DO want and need the 6 upgrade. I'm not expecting ANY bump in IQ with this move, nor am I hoping that the new camera will suddenly unleash my photographic vision. I only count on it to free me from many of the small but nonetheless annoying quirks of the 5n, hence letting me pay attention to composing my pictures rather than battling with the camera.
I'm sure your A77s are awesome machine and we've all seen what glorious images you can get out of them. However, don't underestimate the irreplaceable benefits of FF in your specific genre. As far as we've seen, the larger chips have been delivering more goodness than smaller ones, and I don't think the laws of physics are gonna change anytime soon.
I do get your point about seamless operation of perfectly familiar gear, and how it enhances your creative ability. But I'm being the devil's advocate in pointing out how the A99 might indeed give your work the extra mile, if not by wider DR, cleaner noise or thinner DOF, but by your profound knowledge those tools are available for you to squeeze the best portraits you know how ;)

Bold Photography said...

C'mon - we all know it's not a "photograph" unless it has infinite tonality, taken with the latest top-end Hassel-something or other - if it's not 90MP, it doesn't count...


Carlo Santin said...

Still shooting with my 6mp Nikon D50 and still quite happy with it. I think I might be ready to add a new lens to my modest collection but no rush. When I'm not using that I'm shooting with my newly aquired Yashica 24 trl, wonderful 6x6 squares. My next purchase might well be a Mamiya 6 or 7...too many new digital cameras to choose from and when I think of life without my D50, I just can't do it.

Kirk Tuck said...

At least you won't have to buy more lenses or change lens systems.

Bill Van Antwerp said...

I think the question should always be "are there photos I can get with the new gear that I can't with the old?" If so then maybe you should get the new stuff but for most of us I suspect the answer is not so much.

Dave said...

One of the things we enjoy about your site: You tend to over-think each camera purchase. It is a refreshing change from writers that tend to under-think the same question.

Low Budget Dave said...

One of the things we enjoy about your site: You tend to over-think each camera purchase. It is a refreshing change from writers that tend to under-think the same question.

Clay Olmstead said...

I think camera manufacturers are to the same point that PC manufacturers were a few years ago, when PCs were fast enough for anybody's general use, but they were still pushing faster clock speeds. It took the invention of pad-type devices to render clock spped moot. Today, camera manufacturers are pushing more megapixels at us, that we don't want and don't need. ISO speeds are plenty high enough for most of us, so what's next? Google glasses for everyone? A LEGO-camera, where you assemble just the features you need? What I really need is a device that will put the rest of my life on hold so I can go shoot.

Anonymous said...

There are advantages to being one of little means. Short arms and deep pockets as they say. That and as a hobbyist, no need to put beans on the table. But as much as I would like to think I'm smarter than that I have the nagging feeling that if only I had the disposable income I'd be on that not-so-merry-go-round. So I can't really feel superior that I still use my one and only DSLR, an Olympus E-410, purchased new but discontinued in March/2009. Although the door over the card slot has to be taped shut the little beast refuses to die, thus giving me an excuse to replace it.

John Robison

El Inglés said...

Kirk, I agree. It's the myriad of camera settings that I find so deflating about digital. And that's before we've come to the raw conversion software where many settings seem to do similar - but not the same - things. For fun, give me 35mm and an SLR with big, chunky controls. Yes, I'll take a Nikon F4 every time.

Clay Olmstead said...

The card slot door on my D80 no longer latches well - it has a tendency to slide open in the bag. I know one day it'll slide open and get snapped off on some trip. Then I'll be doing the same as you, rather than send it in to Nikon for repair. (Nikon no longer supplies dealers with replacement parts.) At least we'll be keeping the tape manufacturers afloat.

Allan Jackson said...

Kirk, your posts have really got me thinking. I keep up with all the new camera releases and would just love to upgrade my D90 but I have gradually come to accept that an upgrade is not going to do much for me except the very fleeting satisfaction of buying new toys. There are a few things I would really like, such as better high ISO performance and cross-type autofocus sensors on the intersections of the thirds in the viewfinder, but I can't even kid myself that they'd improve my photography.

I also hear what you say about operational complexity and have been thinking that a digital camera with fewer (or no) menus would great. You could prune a lot of inessential options such as in-camera processing and playback options and the essentials such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure compensation and autofocus mode could have their own buttons or knobs. Other functions could be accessed by muliple presses on a function button and adjusted via a control wheel or even a single easily readable menu with no more than 10 or 12 items on it. I shot a pair of EOS 10's for a long time and they had a particularly elegant and uncluttered interface.

javaristas said...

"What I really need is a device that will put the rest of my life on hold so I can go shoot"
That is priceless! Quote of the year ;-)

Godfrey DiGiorgi said...

Great post.

After going through several DSLR and mirrorless systems, I decided that I wanted simplicity in operation first, just like I used to enjoy in "the time before digital" ... manual focus, simple metering, few controls—just the obvious basics and little else. And that a couple of really good lenses are the most important part of the game. I bought myself a Leica M9 and a few of my old favorite (and new favorite) lenses.

Ah. One modest-sized menu. All manual focus. All controls immediately apparent in function and use. One metering pattern. Great lenses. I felt like I returned home again. Even bought a couple of film bodies and am enjoying shooting some film again too. That led me to re-discover 6x6 once more ... and I acquired a Voigtländer Bessa III for that.

Satori. This is exactly what I have been looking for ... equipment types and shooting techniques that I was so comfortable with from 30+ years of photography prior to the digital paradigm shift. Film or digital capture, digital imaging workflow. I need little else.

It's not a solution for everyone and it certainly has a price tag associated with it. But it suits me well, I can afford it, and I like what I'm seeing in my photographs. The rest of the stuff in the gear closet is for sale. ;-)