12.03.2013

Our fascination with indestructible tools should be over by now.....


The camera above is an Alpa 9D. It's an indestructible, handmade, Swiss camera from the late 1960's or early 1970's. If there is plastic on the camera I've never been able to find it. Everything is steel or some sort of magic Swiss alloy. It was built on the premise that we'd always be using film and that while film might change and lenses might get better the basic box would never change and precision shutter speeds would always be precision shutter speeds. And that's why these cameras were very, very expensive. They were expensive because we expected that they may last for thirty, forty or fifty years. That's what your money bought.

But why do we give a sh*t about indestructibility now? Why do people pass over the very, very good visual performance of Nikon D800s and Canon 5D mk111 cameras to (over)pay for D4s and 1DX cameras?  You may be able to strafe them with machine guns or drop them from your Apache attack helicopter and have some sort of reasonable (but irrational) belief that they will survive intact but the reality is that almost every camera out in the market will be tossed into the trash can because its sensor has become obsolete long before any of them blow a gasket or disintegrate. Since a tiny, tiny slice of professional photographers make any sort of money shooting sports it certainly can't be pragmatism that motivates buyers. I think it's more a matter of ego or talisman worship.

I haven't bought a "Professional" camera body in quite a while. The last one I bought, brand new, was a Nikon D2Xs which I had for..........all of eighteen months. And I re-sold it because Nikon came out with a raft of much cheaper cameras that materially out performed the D2Xs in image quality. And hey, as a commercial photographer I rarely needed to take my cameras out in the rain or drop kick them into some rigorous service. And I rarely struck the camera vigorously with ball peen hammers....

Now I'm getting into the habit of buying cutting edge consumer cameras that deliver great images in more or less temporal packages. Stuff that will fall apart if you beat the hell out of it. But you know what? Everyone I know who buys D4s, 1DXs, and all the other "indestructible" cameras out there sticks them into padded cases and then inside additionally padded, wheeled cases. The cameras are coddled like babies. And why wouldn't they be? The owners paid a premium to own them....

I talked to a camera repair professional who works on all brands and all models. Guess what? In the current digital age the cameras with the lowest shutter counts, which he evaluates as trade-ins for a retail chain,  are the "pro" cameras. The cameras most used? The mid-tier cameras. Cameras that deliver between 85 and 105% of the visual performance of the pro cameras at fractional prices. 

The new paradigm? Buy the cameras that work well for you and just anticipate that they'll be gone in two years. Need rugged? Buy three cheap ones at $600 each ($1800) and pocket the rest of the money you would have spent on a D4. Or you can use that other $3200 dollars to buy some really nice lenses. 

The Alpa 9D is like a rugged, aging biker who would look at the current crop of "pro" cameras as a bunch of "flash in the pan" poseurs. The whole rationalization of ruggedized cameras is so bogus in the digital age. I'd rather think of my cameras like laptop computers....if they lasted two years I'd be happy. If they lasted four years I'd be ecstatic. The lenses are a whole other story. 

Go figure. Need a weather proof camera? Have you tried spraying your cheap Canon Rebel with some ScotchGuard? Have you heard about ZipLoc (tm) plastic bags? Indestructible? A super premium for weatherproof? Get over it....



Studio Portrait Lighting













30 comments:

Willie said...

Yep agree totally.

I like the digital stuff I use, but don't seem to miss it when it's gone.

Lately however, I've been using my practically indestructible Nikon FE for personal work and the sheer joy of doing it. It's beat up, been through the mill, bashed, dropped, scraped and given merry hell.

Had it and used since 1981 - it's not a dust collector.
Also been using Nikkormat FTn and FT2 - ancient but still soldiering on relentlessly. What's not to like?

Someone recently wrote that to beat GAS - Gear Acquisition Syndrome - one should simply revert to film and enjoy oneself. There is a modicum of truth in that.

Still - when I was a youngster, I aspired to owning an ALPA. Fact is - I still do three and a half decades later. One day, one day *sigh*

Ananda Sim said...

I had a second hand Olympus E-330 with dual focus mechanism - Phase Detect even when using Live View. Then the camera lost connection to lenses and repair would cost more than a new body. And I dropped it from a sling bag whilst holding ice cream cones for a lost kid. Another one I dropped is my PEN E-PL1 - AF was slow-as, but it fell from a food court table on my first ever trip to New Zealand - and I did not bring another spare body, wasn't keen to buy a new camera in a different country on a family vacation. My loved E-620 has PASM and on/off contact issues - maybe because I used it in sheltered rain. I don't need a bomb proof camera, I do want a camera that does not give up too easily.

jrapdx said...

Wow, I actually remember when those cameras were new and yes indeed, expensive. But I never quite understood what an Alpa would provide that I couldn't do with the cameras I already owned.

Looking back on that era, it was clear enough that cameras, and photography, were changing rapidly. Clearly, no particular model would be useful forever, but I thought maybe a decade or so would be the limit.

Of course no one was talking about digital photography, or predicting the tidal wave of digital imaging technologies just ahead, even if it seems so obvious now.

In the last 10 years, I've owned at least 8 digital cameras. Shockingly, it means the average time-to-replacement is at most only about 1.25 years, a short "shelf-life" indeed. Thus, prior models mainly gather dust or are sold off, but I suppose that was the fate of many an Alpa too.

So how "indestructible" does a camera need to be? A few months ago, a bicyclist crashed into me from behind. I was carrying my E-M5 in my right hand when me and the camera crashed to the rough concrete pathway.

I was badly bruised, and still healing. When I got home that terrible day I was fearful about the camera's condition. To my amazement it worked perfectly, though acquiring a number of new "dings" in the course of the adventure.

The incident speaks to the answer: it's good enough when the equipment can endure the rainy climate where I live, tolerate abuse of travel, and survive a fall to the ground after collision with a bicycle.

As careful as I am and can be, adversity will inevitably happen. How high we rate photography's importance is exactly how much we need cameras that can go the distance.

Charles Flaum said...

There is a modicum of truth in that. Lighting For Artwork

Claire said...

Oh THANK you Kirk for this reality check !! I get so annoyed when people rant for hours over camera build and durability. Which is such perception over reality anyway. One of the most praised recent cameras for build (which is very subjective too, I found it very cheap feeling when holding it) is the E-M5, which actually has the worse falling apart issues of any model I've known in a long time... Now the Canon Rebels look and feel flimsy as hell, but I have yet to meet one that hasn't sustained the trial of time without a glitch. Go figure..

Andrew Lamb said...

Out of curiousity, how often did use the Alpa? And did you take many 'keepers' with it?

I think I'm saying it doesn't really matter whether a camera is rugged or not if it doesn't deliver the photos you're after.

Carlo Santin said...

This is why I am more than happy to lag behind one generation for the digital gear, or buy used. Rock bottom prices for gear that still makes great images. It will be gone or not functioning sooner rather than later anyway, so why drop thousands when you can drop hundreds?

Carlo Santin said...

This is why I am more than happy to lag behind one generation for the digital gear, or buy used. Rock bottom prices for gear that still makes great images. It will be gone or not functioning sooner rather than later anyway, so why drop thousands when you can drop hundreds?

Carlo Santin said...

This is why I am more than happy to lag behind one generation for the digital gear, or buy used. Rock bottom prices for gear that still makes great images. It will be gone or not functioning sooner rather than later anyway, so why drop thousands when you can drop hundreds?

Marvin G. Van Drunen said...

Guys buy the super expensive DSLRs for the same reason guys buy Ferrari or Bentley automobiles. As status symbols and, because they can. More power to them.

I totally agree that equal image quality is available for far more sane prices and to spend the money for the big guns is silly... unless you shoot for Sports Illustrated or other unique projects. Those guys are getting paid to lug those monsters around.

But my oh my, those lux autos are gorgeous, albeit impractical.

Roger B. said...

Er, so why am I like an Alpa 9D? I can't quite get the reference. I'm confused.

What we rugged aging bikers do find is lots of guys on cutting edge sports bikes who are apparently dressed to resemble tubes of toothpaste (No doubt thinking, "I'm a racer, me") : ]

They are great in a straight line but can be easily left behind by someone like me who knows what they are doing on their 30 year old bike, when it comes to the twisty bits. This is not wishful thinking, but the frequent experience of myself and many of my friends.

All the gear, no idea, is what we say. Perhaps the photographer equivalent of these guys are the ones who trade in all those "pro" cameras. You can buy technology, but you can't buy experience.

Er, still confused...

Gato said...

Yep. I'm with you on this one.

The last "professional" camera I bought new was a Canon F1n -- which I guess dates me a little. Even back then the bulk of my professional newspaper work was with small, cheap, light AE1 bodies -- often hanging off the back of humongous white lenses.

In digital, I saw from the first that those high-dollar DSLRs were going to be obsolete in a very short time, so started my digital work with "pro-sumer" cameras.

For the last 5 years all my serious photography has been done with Panasonic G series, most of them bought on closeout for under $500. I did buy my first G1 new, but on a promotional deal.

That said, I envy you the Alpa. In 40 years of photography I've only seen one in person. Wonderful objects, but not sure I'd want to make pictures with one these days. Sort of like I feel about vintage Mercedes -- wonderful artifacts of craft and engineering, but not something I'd want to put on the road.

Tarjei T. Jensen said...

Well, it all depends on the needs.

I have a EOS 7D and and a 1D4. At the time the 1D4 had the AF performance I really, really, really, really wanted. It could lock on to a puffin landing in front of a rock instead of the rock itself which the 7D locked on to. Hence sell 50D and buy 1D4.

However........

The 1D4 is a lovely camera and I enjoy it very much. BUT the people who designed the user experience of the 7D did a significantly better job than the 1D4 people.

You would think that a camera specifically designed for action phography would be completely dedicated to action photography? You would be wrong as far as the 1D4 is concerned. Just the task of turning focus expansion on and off is something you have to do in a menu. Extremely annoying when the reliability of the AF is totally dependent on being in the right mode.

But I really love my 1D4. It creates wonderful images when it is in the right mode.

Dave Jenkins said...

A tool is a tool is a tool. But. . .I love mechanical things. I don't love electronic things.

Dan J. said...

Never misunderestimate the attraction and value of ego or talisman worship.

thequietphotographer said...

I agree 100%, yes. No more worthwhile to overpay a camera.
But for people of my age (65) who always lived with the idea "I buy a good one and keep it for always" (ok, almost always!) it is sometimes difficult to accept the idea to buy a camera knowing that in a short time it will be outdated!
But this is how the world changed and I know I have to adapt myself!Thanks for your appreciated thoughts.
robert, still using sometimes a Minolta SRT101 or a Rollei 35T or...

Peter F. said...

You're right. We (including me) buy a camera with the idea that it will be last camera we'll ever need... then we replace it a year later.

KJW Photo said...

I adore my EOS40D, and lug that thing everywhere. Unfortunately, it's now at a stage where I have to replace it as it needs to go in the shop again as the computer is not registering any input from outside it's box. This is the second time in 8 months it has needed to go in, and if I was using film, I would have broken the bank, and destroyed a small forest with chemicals. That camera was not overly coddled, out in all weathers (from sub-zero to Jamaica's humidity) and all conditions (dusty rodeo arena sand is worse than beach sand) and rain looks pretty on the case - darn eagles. It has taken me many places, and opened my eyes to even more. It's a camera I feel naked without, and when it is back in my hands it feels so natural and right. Will I get a new camera, yes, but I need to first see if this one can be fixed again.

RFS said...

I know a guy who travels all over the country shooting thousands of frames a week at livestock shows and similar dirty, dusty events. I think he is getting his money's worth out of his D3.

And we all need to try to be more forgiving and accepting toward our fellow artists. We are all of us here dying, dying to express ourselves through photography, we want to share with world the innermost secrets of our souls. But we need something to protect our vulnerable inner children--prop up our egos-- while we go about the emotionally hazardous business of turning our feelings into photons.
Some people deal with their egos by anti-snobbery, they are proud because they can take amazing pictures with shoebox pinhole cameras. For others that ego prop is a $6,000 D4...Who is to say which is a better strategy when the emotional and creative stakes are so high?

RFS said...

Well said. But I am troubled by one thing. Why can't we be more accepting of the ego defenses used by our fellow artists?
We are all of us here aching, dying to express ourselves through photography.
We want to touch others by revealing the innermost secrets of our souls.
But turning feelings into photons is emotionally hazardous, how does one shield his inner child from the criticism, and even worse, disinterest of the cold cruel world out there.
Some protect their inner self with anti-snobbery, they are unassailable because they know how to take amazing pictures with a shoebox pinhole camera or a creaky old Canon Rebel. Others replace emotional danger with real danger and risk their lives amid the mercury fumes and cyanide baths of archaic photo processes. And then there are those who take cover behind the comforting size and heft of a D4 or a 1Ds.
Who is to say which is a better strategy when our lives are so very short and the creative stakes are so high?

Jason Hindle said...

This is why I ended up buying an Olympus E-PM2. Don't get me wrong, I love the feel and responsiveness of the more expensive models, but for 99% of the photos I take, the E-PM2 will nail it for me, with the same image quality. If it breaks, I don't care.

Oh, and not to mention the Pen + 20mm + 45mm + kit lens fits in a very small back that fits in the corner of my carry on bag. Not having to compromise when flying Eire O'Flot or (shudder) European charter, is awfully nice.

Dave said...

Yep. The most money I ever spent was for a shiny new D200 at full list. Never again. Today with the overstock of fully capable, wonderful cameras at bargain prices. I just picked up a G6 for less than $500 to do video work and take reasonable stills. My other carry around camera? A $150 EPL1 that takes amazing jpgs when I'm just out and about.

The bottom line is you can wait a year (or less) and scoop up great gear at firesale prices and though I'd love to have a new E-M1 I will never again buy the newest, hottest thing. At least not today... next week could be different :)

Craig Yuill said...

Well, I wish my quirky little mirrorless camera had been a bit more indestructible when it got accidentally knocked onto a hard floor a little over a week ago. It works as long as I use the electronic shutter. Shots taken with the wonderful, quiet mechanical shutter, however, come out totally black. I can't feel too devastated - I paid only a few hundred for it, about 40% what it had cost when it was introduced a year earlier. I am trying to decide if it is worth the hassle of taking it into a service facility to have it looked at.

Buying "old" high-tech gear (cameras, cell phones, etc.) is becoming the norm for me. It costs less (often significantly less) than the newest stuff, and it tends to be just as good. And there is one other benefit - major bugs tend to be worked out of a product by the time it "matures". My current policy is to not buy any high-tech gear less than six months after it has been released.

Saul Molloy said...

Kirk,

I certainly agree with you on this one, but I'd add that the manufacturers of 'pro' cameras have long known that a large amount of their customers won't be real pros at all but rather, poseurs with more money than sense. Let's face it's really not that difficult or expensive to put a couple of water-resistant seals on a modern camera body, they mostly haven't just so they can make sure that the dumb and the rich keep paying a premium to buy the most expensive bodies and then reassure themselves on photo forums that they couldn't take a decent photo without them. There's one born...

Mike said...

I think our fascination with NEW tools should be over by now.

There's a huge amount of dirt-cheap cameras on the used market that can fulfill 95% of photographers' needs at 20% of the cost of a new camera.

I lust after new stuff like the 5D Mark III and 1DX, but at the end of the day, I can get by fine with my 5D Mark I. And for a sports project, I'm picking up a used 1D Mark III for less than $1000.

Heck, if I was shooting in better light, I'd pick up a 40D (well under $300).

DrMickey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Godfrey DiGiorgi said...

I think I'll pull out my 1939 Berning Robot II and listen to it fire off a roll of film today. It was just recently overhauled and is working beautifully.

Much as I love it, and as ancient as my Olympus E-1 is in digital camera terms, I doubt I'll be able to have it serviced in 2077.

Of course, I doubt I'll be around to test that notion either—just like I wasn't around when the Robot II first rolled off the assembly line or for the first 15 years its shutter was clicking either.

We are stuck in time, but we can see backwards and forwards with some effort. Our devices are locked into the eternal present of their time.

Anonymous said...

I think you're looking at this from a local perspective.
There can be reasons for having a rugged camera other than longevity.
Where I live it rains > 1mm for over 170 days a year. Where I take most of my photographs it is over 230 days a year. It is also the windiest country in Europe so much of this horizontal rain. Add in the fact that I mainly shoot in the mountains (not strolling around a city street), sometimes in snow and ice with crampons and ice axe, and the rugged requirement becomes a bit more important.
Granted I also like small and light as well so a D4 would not be a consideration.

Anonymous said...

I read your other column today about how cold it was in Austin. 27 F... My sympathies...

I live 1300 miles due north of you in Winnipeg MB and if you look up the temperature, I assure you it is cold enough to kill a penguin.

The EM-1 is said to be freeze-proof to -10 C (like other cameras). That's a brisk fall day here.

I have routinely taken my Lumix G3 out in -25 C temperatures and other than eat batteries, no issues. A little care about the condensation when coming back inside. That's about it.

I have been caught in the rain too... again, no issues...

Have I been doing something wrong?

I, too, am unsure about this mania for gasketry etc other than to keep prices up for manufacturers

What is being guaranteed here for this sealing etc?

Alloy bodies? I remember in the mid 70's a buddy bought a Konica slr that was made of plastic, and he was so excited because it was so light...

And now metallurgical masturbation? Oy Vey!

Anonymous said...

It's not the cold, it's the cold and damp that can kill a camera.
Dry, continental cold is actually far less hazardous to both humans and cameras. Maritime climate's in winter are more challenging.
I've been in the Andes is temperatures below -20C and gale force winds and have been more comfortable than +1C in driving sleet and 95%+ humidity in Europe.
I've had cameras that are totally saturated even after being stored in camera pouch and then in a plastic bag lined rucsack. If they're not weather sealed I usually stop using them and a couple of them have developed electrical gremlins. I honestly cannot say whether that was down to moisture but strongly suspect it is.