Another interesting wrinkle in making a living as a photographer.

I kind of thought of myself as the "safety net" in a big experiment, this week. I was booked to shoot a conference but then so were about 100 other people. One of those people was my second shooter. We got paid. Another two photographers on site, who were tasked with specific assignments, were also paid professionals but the other 97 photographers were volunteer photographers who usually worked in some other capacity for that company. I know why each of the four of us got paid. We each brought something different to the table. I'd done lots of event work for the company before and in the scope of that work I'd photographed former presidents on two different occasions, as well as a number of other celebrities and political stars. Since I haven't screwed up yet the company wanted me to do that kind of photography for them again this year.  I had a list of people and events to photograph. My second photographer was there to cover the stuff I would normally cover, stuff that was tagged "public relations mission critical" but which I might not get to cover if my schedule got changed by a glitch in a celebrity or VIP's conjoined schedule.

One of the other two photographers was a former staffer for the company and he was tasked to go into the executive level meetings and document those. He has a day to day working relationship with many of the top people and there's no sense in taking a risk with a volunteer.

So, that left the other 97 photographers and videographers who were in attendance and shooting away. I'm sure some of them did very good work and, freed from the constraints of "having to deliver no matter what" I am sure they could stretch a bit and add more creative work to the overall mix. Their work got tweeted throughout the conference and they followed a series of guidelines that ensured no one stepped out of bounds. In a way it was pure crowd sourcing. But a crowd sourcing in which the corporation had nearly complete control.

In another sense it is perhaps an audition for future events. After all, a company that already has a legion of volunteer photographers on the roster and ready to shoot for free is a company that can afford to saturate social media and which has the luxury of picking and choosing from a large circle of styles and points of view. And, if they are doing the work on company time it's not hard to understand that the company would presume, legally, have the ultimate ownership of the images. It's a win/win/win for the company.

So what do the volunteer photographers get out of the experience? To start with many or most of them would not have been able to attend the show unless they had volunteered, and it was a really good show with lots of great keynote speeches and special events. Not the least of which was the draw of seeing former president Clinton speak on stage.  Secondly, they were able to show off another layer of their talents in front of people who mediate their existing careers as well as some people who will now come to see them as having real value in another part of the business. And to some extent the volunteers got an affirmation about the value of their hobbies.

What does this mean for the future of corporate event photography and documentation from the point of view of the paid professional? I think it's easy enough to speculate. For a while companies will still hire a seasoned professional for mission critical imaging but the foundational work that is part of the income pie will be eroded by another few slices. And, as the auditions continue, the companies will be able to comfortably source more and more in house volunteers for more and more work.

Tough times in which to provide photographs for money. The whole fabric of the business is changing. The tools are no longer a relevant measure of professional service. All that remains is the added value that comes from your brains, your social network and your resourcefulness.

Argue any point you'd like. I just saw the whole paradigm in radical shift and to me it's no longer anecdotal.  Yes, I was still working, as were four other suppliers, but there will come a time when only two are needed. And then only one. And finally another segment of the market will have disappeared. C'est la vie.

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.