The recurring fantasy of starting over from scratch.

It's a mental game that I play and I'm sure many of you play as well. We're sitting there with our pile of XXX brand cameras and lenses and we've had them around for a few months. Long enough to find out what works well and long enough to find the little glitches that linger in our minds and color our enjoyment of the cameras. Then, even though the current technology in our hands is better than anything that came before (?) we start advancing along a dangerous line of thought. It goes something like this: "If all my gear was struck by a flaming meteoroid and totally destroyed; what would I replace it with?"

Did you like the stuff you had so much so that you would replace it exactly as you had it? Would you make changes here and there or would you take the opportunity to jump to a different camp and start all over again? The fresh start scenario.

I think there are two kinds of people in the world, the gamblers and the planners. The planners are meticulous and somewhat linear. When it comes to camera gear they seem to assess what kind of work they like to do, plot that against their rational budget and then narrow down with research the smaller subset of cameras and lenses that will fit for them. Oh to be a planner... The money and heartache we gamblers would save...

The gamblers fall in love with the ideas. The idea of a better camera.  The idea of the mythic lens that will change my imaging paradigm. The idea of there actually being an ultimate camera for us.
We are the ones dashed on the rocks of unwitting despair by the siren call of the German exotics (Leica and Zeiss) and more often then not were working with the same kind of budgets as the planners so we can only afford incremental changes rather than being able to have it all at once.

For professionals the whole abstraction and truth of the two approaches is further muddied by the fact that most of us have to make our cameras do many things well and that, in itself, means that our final choice of system is almost always some sort of muddled compromise. My overwhelming passion is to shoot portraits and if I were logical and rational as a portrait shooter I would be shooting with a medium format digital camera like a Phase One or a Mamiya or Pentax, and I would have just a couple of lenses. The workhorse 150mm portrait lens, a normal focal length for two people in a frame and a slight wide angle for group shots and environmental portraits.

But the reality of my business, in a second tier city, is that we shoot a lot of architecture, food, and (the biggest fly in the ointment) events. The events move fast and we shoot a lot of frames. Fast AF is nice to have as is automatic flash. We also need lenses that go pretty long and fast (NOT the provence of MF digital) as well as lenses that go very wide.  That means we can either have multiple systems (which is too expensive to entertain in this environment) or we compromise.  The usual compromise is a full frame camera and three or four fast zooms with overlapping ranges and some highly automated flashes. If you specialize in something you probably also have a lens that corresponds to that specialty. For me it's fast 85 or 100 mm lens for portraits. For architectural shooters it's probably the 24mm shift lens and for sports shooters it's probably a long, fast lens, like a 300mm 2.8 or even a 400.

But once we buy into a system and use it for a while I can pretty much guarantee that a certain percentage of users (the gamblers) will tire of the glitches and gotchas and start looking over the fence at the greener grass on the other side. The micro four thirds shooters crow about not having to carry around a ton of gear to get the same kinds of shots but some of them are already licking their chops imagining all those shallow depth of field shots they could get with an 85mm 1.4 on a full frame camera. Canon full frame users no doubt look at some of the amazing large prints being done by Nikon 800 shooter and wonder if they shouldn't jump ship to partake in some of the big megapixel magic.  And Nikon D800 users who've had to carry around a bag full of big lenses for days or weeks at a time probably look longingly at m4:3 and Nex cameras and wish they could go all light weight and sneaky and get nearly the same results for most of their day to day stuff.

I got a Sony a99 camera a couple of weeks ago and it's all pretty and works well and does all the professional stuff I need it for. It's full frame so the depth of field control is there. It's got the EVF I really like (regardless of camera brand).  And it shoots under a wide range of lighting conditions.  Oh sure, I was very happy with it in the studio and as I walked around shooting for fun with just a fast 50mm hanging off the front but......

.......then I spent three and a half days shooting a big show. Bag full of big, heavy zoom lenses, a back up body. Two flashes. Lots of extra batteries. And at the moment the show ended so did my unalloyed and untempered love for the whole idea of full frame work cameras. I slept in on satuday and went to the late swim practice (I felt so lazy....) and I was sore from carrying everything around. And as good as the images were technically there were nothing I couldn't have gotten years ago by being more careful, or using a tripod, or getting my timing just right, or some other permutation of those variables.  Sure, the dynamic range was great and the high ISO stuff was really cool but I remember shooting events five years ago, never going over ISO 400 and still being able to shoot equally nice images at shows.

And so this started me down the path of what camera system would I have if I could start over from scratch right now???

The sad truth? There's no one system that's clearly superior for the melange of work we do.  If I shot only for myself the choices would be simple, a rangefinder style full frame cameras with three lenses: Maybe a Leica Mx with the 35mm, 50mm and 90mm. But I've done that before in the film days and always found myself (for work) adding a Nikon or Canon body for long lenses or ultra wide lenses. And then we're right back into the mix mess.

Since the show I've only wanted to take my Nex 6, with an itty-bitty lens, out to play with. Today's fantasy is to pare down to just the two Nex cameras and the little lenses I have plus an adapter to use a small sampling of the lenses for the Sony "A" system.

In reality I know I'll always need to have a range of options at hand as long as I work as a generalist. But I played with the new Leica S MF camera a few days ago and that seemed like a wonderful toy/tool for a portrait guy.......is it worth the gamble?  I think I'll just keep that one as a dream.

Thus far the Sony a99 keeps me from looking into the camps of the two majors. Now my real focus is rationalizing the lens choices. I wish the 70-200 wasn't so heavy but I like the fast aperture. I'm looking at the 16-35mm as a wide angle addition to the system and, while I know logically that the 85mm 2.8 is a great lens at a bargain price, I am also getting sucked into the promotional gravity of the 85mm 1.4 Zeiss lens. But wait. Haven't I been here before? The names on the cameras and lenses were different but weren't they basically the same? Have I come any distance at all?  Probably not.  And that's a scathing indictment of the gambler mentality.

Round and round in circles while the planners smile smugly and we all end up with the same kind of gear.

There's a sea change though. The little cameras are taking over. Once the get bigger chips (Sony RX1) in smaller and smaller bodies there will be no turning back. Why would there be?

So today, flaming meteor hits the tool chest. All cameras are disintegrated. What do I buy? For me, right now?  Two a99 bodies. 16-35mm CZ, 24-70mm CZ, 85mm 1.4 CZ and replace the 70-200mm 2.8.

What's that? A smaller chunk of the meteor broke off and hit the Domke bag in my car with all the Nex stuff?  To replace:  Two Nex7's (yeah, I'd go with the 7's over the 6) the two Sigmas, the 50mm OSS 1.8 and the unannounced 60mm f2 OSS.  That, and a bunch of batteries....

But caveat! That's only what I would do today.


Frank Grygier said...

Meteors..shmeteors...You know you want the new Panny GH3. Just think 24-70 & 70-200 2.8 zooms that weigh mere ounces. OLED EVF and the new "Sony" sensor. Oh Oh..I think a meteor just hit my Tenba with all my OMD stuff. Do over!!!

Kirk Tuck said...

I've always loved the concept of "do over." Especially when it came to taking tests.....

Brook said...

I hear your quandry and can especially relate to the last line. Sometimes "today" could even be "at this moment".

Claire said...

Kirk, do yourself a favor and slap your PEN F 38/1.8 on the NEX 6. That's my absolute favorite combo, and they seem just made for each other. This is the only PEN F lens I managed to buy (they tend to be more scarce and spendier than more common MF lenses)but if the others are even half as good, then having a collection of them must be heaven.
Today the NEX 6 does everything I want except fast AF and 1:1 ratio. I too love FF but after a few months with m4/3 I'm content with APS-C DOF control. I guess a Fuji XE-1 with focus peaking would be dream, but then the AF sucks even more than on the NEX. There's no perfect camera, and no perfect system.

Anonymous said...

A Flaming-Golf-Ball would wipe-out all my cameras/lenses (everything I own would fit in a 1'x1' cube) 8-) I'm not into storing things I don't used every week 8-0

I'd replace my FilmSLRs and DigitalSLRs with a couple of M4/3s with 17mm f/1.8 and 75mm f/1.8 lenses. Also a E-PM2 w/15mm f/8 lens as a pocket camera. And rent specialized cameras/lenses if/when needed, same as I do now.


Anonymous said...

Sooner-or-later we all reach a time in our life where we need to re-invent ourselves. Me. I'm too old to schlep around a Winberley gimbal head and long lenses - so no more Surfing or Auto Racing. When/if there are long lenses for M4/3 (150mm or 300mm primes), maybe I'll shoot some more surfing.

Maybe it's time to re-invent your self as a high-end (read very expensive) portraitist. Also do editorial portraits for high-end magazines that are read by the affluent (Barrons, Fortune, etc). Buy a camera that will separate you from the hoi-polloi. Maybe an Alpa, Arca-Swiss or Silvestri with a digital back and a couple of Schneider Digitars. You already have the wood tripod (only plebeians use carbon-fiber). Think about it.

My friend, the late Eddie Miller (who built aluminum car bodies), liked his customers to say "He's too damned expensive, but he sure is worth it." Words to live by.


Dave Jenkins said...

I am already in the midst of my own do-over, switching to the OM-D for everything except architecture. Reminds me of my first do-ever back in 1979, when I dumped Nikon F2s and Nikkormats for the Olympus OM system.

For architecture, however, I still need a full-frame Canon with shift lenses. For now. The Canon stuff travels in a rolling Porter Case, which is okay. Slow to access, but okay. But I'm no longer going to carry that kind of weight on my body. My Olympus system fits in one of the smaller Tamrac bags and altogether weighs not much more than a 5D series Canon with the 24mm TS-E lens. Lovely.

I have to admit, though, that I'm not as much a fan of the EVF as you are, Kirk. I can get along with them, and I appreciate the size and weight advantages, but I really prefer OVF viewing. Not enough to switch back, though.

Philip Ho said...

My Nikon FE would probably survive a meteor strike.

Anonymous said...

Greetings Kirk

There is no answer to your question. In todays world of digital photography it's all the same. I'd love to a full frame OM-D with 5 primes and 3 fast zooms with a flash system that worked. I can not tell you how many time a flaming mentor has hit my bag. I shoot in the rain, snow/cold, mud and dust so weather sealing is nice to have. What did we do in the old days? Well my OM's were mechanical (except for my OM2 and OM4) and full frame, a flash system that worked, I had 4 different films 4 different looks they all worked great.

So what do you do? If you keep changing you never get to know your system, but that's the world digital. Instead of using a new film you buy a new system spending more hard earned resources.

I'll keep reading to see how you answer this question.


Kirk Tuck said...

Got no answers for you, Roger. We're in the same boat. Still waiting, in many regards, for digital to be as good as film was twenty years ago.

Libby said...

Kirk as the end of the world is coming on Friday the flaming meteor could be well within your realm ;-)

For me, I would be heartbroken if the Kodak SLR/n bit it. That would be hard to replace. For starting over, two Oly OM-Ds, 25mm 1.4 Lumix and the great 45mm Oly lens, another Nikon D3 (or D3s) with my present Tamron 28-75 2.8 and the 40mm Voigtlander 2.0 (I have the Voigt and love it), and the Black Magic Cinema with a set of desirable and/or quirky lenses. And my little pink Canon Elph HS 100 which, at a hundred bucks, has oddly turned into one of my favorite cameras.

I'm pretty much happy where I am. I got over the DSLR upgrade mania earlier this year. I'll only buy another if one of the current Nikon bodies breaks down. I'm even looking to sell the Leica M8 but I may hold onto the lenses.

Skip Hunt said...

So strange stopping by your blog to see what you're pimpin' next. One month it's Nikon v1, then the next it's Panasonic gear, etc. etc. Now Sony all the way. I've always bought one, learned how to use it. Then stuck with it until it doesn't serve me any more. I really don't get this stock-piling gear thing.

I don't really see the actual aesthetic or quality of your images changing much. Just the camera/lighting gear company or book being promoted. What it confirms for me is that it really doesn't make that much difference which brush you use. :)

Kirk Tuck said...

And there: Skip has presented the opposite side of the argument. Find a tool that works well enough and use it over and over again. Over and over again. Brussel Sprouts at every meal.

Two points: We don't "stock pile" here at VSL. The gear that no longer pleases is kicked to the curb and sold off. The second point: While my shooting style doesn't change much (thank goodness) it's not fair to say that the images themselves don't improve in many technical ways that are inefficient or ineffective to showcase on the web at 1800 pixels wide.

In the case of the new a99 camera being able to shoot several speeches and photo opportunities, one with Michael Dell and one with President Bill Clinton, last week, at ISO 6400, handheld at 6000 by 4000 pixels, handily paid for my investment in the camera in one and a half shooting days and provided sharp, noise free images which previous generations of cameras were unable to provide. The camera did so easily.

It's easy and disingenuous to take the moral (camera) high ground if you shoot only for yourself and not for clients on assignment. Keeping up with technology is part of the commercial business for many working photographers, like it or not. Few clients want to pay larger fees to indulge the "gear obstinate."

Finally, while we do make some income linking to products that are interesting or products that I use in my business I wouldn't say that we "promote" them. Most of my blogs have the implicit, and often directly stated message, that the only real thing that will make one a better photographer is to spend time taking photographs. I often state that better gear doesn't make for better seeing. But it can make for better technical quality in images.

We live in a capitalist society. If the links to interesting photographic books and products, and the possibility that I'll make some money to offset a small portion of the time I spend writing this blog for all to share for free, bothers you so much, and you find so little value in it, I suggest you stop reading it. You probably have better things to do with your time.

Skip Hunt said...

Oh WOW! You really seem to take offense at my comment. Please let me elaborate and clarify.

1. Your work always looks great and it doesn't seem to matter which gear you are using. I like your take and opinion on gear and that's why I visit every now and then to see what Kirk likes and why. Your writing is often compelling as well.

However, I've mentioned you in conversation with other local photographers and when we ask each other, "Is Kirk getting paid by these companies? He seems to be all over the map with his recommendations, etc.?" "The response is always, "I dunno. He says he doesn't get paid a dime to promote one piece of gear over the other, but it sure looks like he does from his blog..."

I too believe that some gear is better suited for some jobs than others, but what bugs me is the general mentality of stock-piling gear and incessantly buying whatever the flavor of the month gear is thinking it's going to make you a better photographer.

My favorite work of yours tends to be your old-school film stuff with German glass, but all of it looks good from the little Panasonic G3 stuff up to your new love the a99? I forget. I haven't visited your page in a couple months. Last time you were all about the Panasonic gear, and before that it was non-stop Nikon v1 praise. Then I stop by this time and it's pretty much nothing but Sony all across the board.

Then I look through your most recent images and compare with the last group you've shot... and there are subtle differences, but for the most part... they all just look like Kirk Tuck images and whichever gear you're favoring this or that month does not seem to matter all that much.

I'm very sorry you feel like I'm taking some sort of "moral ground". That was not my intention. My belief is that photographers make images and not camera designers. They make the brush a little easier to hold and glide across the canvas, but it's the photography always driving.

I've actually bought gear based on your recommendations and will continue to do so. Recently dumped a bunch of video lighting in favor or building a fresh LED kit. Largely based on your recommendations and blog posts. So no, I won't just go away and not read your stuff, but I will think twice about commenting I suppose.

Take care and keep up the good work.

Skip Hunt said...

ps. It's true that I mostly shoot for myself first and foremost, but that doesn't mean the work isn't for commercial purpose. So quality of gear and the right tool for the job does matter to me.

It's also true that I don't do the meet & greet VIP gigs and shots of department heads for annual reports stuff, but I do license a fair amount of my work on a regular basis in domestic and foreign markets. Most of that stuff doesn't get put on my blog or Flickr set due to contractual agreements.

And, I don't have the slightest bit of problem with your product links, books, etc. I link my own stuff every chance I get. Almost bought your recent LED lighting book, but after reading some reviews it looked like it was more targeted at beginners instead of those who'vea spent time lighting professionally. Are you working on another one that's more geared toward pros?

Kirk Tuck said...

Equally true that the most demanding work we do is either embargoed or contractual unavailable for the blog. That's the nature or working corporate.

Comment all you want. If I were not happy with your comments we'd talk about it. It just seems like the tone of the first comment was a basic attack on my intentions for the blog with the implication that we're nothing but a big gear catalog.

It's good to call a different perspective to my attention. You know we get pretty isolated in our one person offices. ;-)

Love the LEDs. But I've pretty much written everything I needed to about LEDs. They are getting to be so good now that it's more just a question of using them like any other continuous source. No new book planned.

I'm more interested in writing about portraits. That's the next book.

The overlooked elephant in this comment stream is the fact that lots of photographers like buying, handling and learning new gear and are very interested in the technology of cameras separate from the art of photography. Some people collect stamps. Go figure.

Kirk Tuck said...

Snap! I know what set me off. It was the word, "pimping." Oh well. Different inflection points for different writers.

Here's a link to one of Skip's galleries (Travel, one of my faves) : http://skiphunt.carbonmade.com/projects/2184283#1

We may have mild disagreements about gear acquisition but his work speaks for itself. Nice stuff.

Skip Hunt said...

Kirk, sorry about "pimping". You don't know me well, but I like to drop street slang into dry comments as a way of amusing myself. Didn't mean it in a negative way. A late 40's anglo-photographer with short white hair using terms like "pimping" and "all up in my grill" etc. just makes me laugh a little inside. ;)

And, you're absolutely right about the "collector" aspect to it. I completely forgot about that and there's nothing wrong at all about folks who just be diggin' on the tech-gadget-tip Yo!

Kirk Tuck said...

right dat, bra.