1.07.2014

Rationalizing the systems for the coming year. What stays? What's going? And why....


Every website we visit these days (for photography) is talking about giant transitions. For some it's the transition from big DLSRs with seismic blast mirrors to much smaller, mirror less cameras. In many cases it's a transition from cameras that do video well and the rationale is that many smaller cameras do a better job focusing in video but have very similar image quality to all the bigger cameras because everything ends  up getting sampled down to 2000 by 1000 pixels or less. A lot of people are talking about downsizing from big, traditional cameras to smaller cameras (and much smaller lenses) in order to take a strain off their shoulders, backs and carry-on luggage.

I used to buy the smaller, lighter argument until I realized that when we go on location for corporate and commercial clients the cameras (any kind of camera) are the least of our burdens. We are usually carrying four to six light stands, some flags to modify light, some sort of lighting instruments and their attendant modifiers as well as a big, heavy tripod and cases to put all the stuff in and keep it relatively safe. And speaking of safety those four twenty-five pound sandbags don't lighten the load much either.  Now when I look at cameras I start weighing cost, efficiency, quality and usability more than anything else.

We like to think that there are objective measures to quality and, surprise! there are. But there's a sliding scale of where the crossover points occur between reckless costs and necessary quality. Most people aiming at the pro market have some sort of calculus that they use to divine that point for themselves. But I've always been into new math so my break points differ from traditionalists.


I think just about every 16 megapixel, interchangeable lens camera on the market will work just dandy for almost any conceivable commercial assignment. There are always outlier assignments but for the first time since I've been in the business the easy ability to rent specialty gear at the drop of a credit card makes buying wacky expensive specialty gear just to have for every contingency a silly exercise in bad asset allocation.

For example, I may get booked to shoot the USMS Swim Nationals once a year. Or once every three years. I might want to shoot the three day event with the finest sports camera and best lenses available. I could buy a Canon 1DX and a 200-400mm f4 lens (complete with red ring...) for the price of a new car or I could rental the ensemble from Lens Rental for a fraction of that, deduct the rental cost instead of depreciating it over years and also, quite possibly, bill the whole thing back to the client. I finish the job, send the stuff back and it's over and done with. I don't store it. I don't keep paying those payments on a credit card, like so many aspiring pros I know.

I may get more frequent jobs shooting architecture where I need a 24mm T/S lens. There are three camera and lens combos I can source locally, privately. Each person is more than willing to rent me a lens and a camera for maybe $100 per day. When the job is done the cameras go back. It happens three or four times a year.

I've made the decision this year that I no longer want to be an equipment warehouse for my clients. And I really don't want to become a rental house for episodic equipment use that's subsidized by me. Most of my work is portraits, location shots with people and videos that are either PSA commercials or web destined mini-programs. I've made the decision to stock the gear that I use day-in and day-out and not obsess about the need to own some company's whole catalog of lenses and bodies.

To that end I decided last year to start rationalizing my gear and getting my business head straight. What does that mean? Means I'm charging for what I know not for what I can buy. 

At one point last year I realized that I liked working with big, soft florescent light fixtures (with Osram Dulux tubes) better than I liked working with the original, large Fotodiox LED fixtures I bought when I was working on the LED book. I sold the LED lights. I realized that I had two different sets of high power, battery powered electronic flashes. One set had to go. I'd move the other set along as well (the Elinchrom Ranger RX AS unit) if I could be assured of being able to rent a set locally...

The minute a source told me that Sony may not ever add to the traditional Alpha line of cameras (traditional mirrored DSLTs) I divested three or four APS-C bodies and all of the lenses that only work with cropped sized sensors. When I finally sat down in front of a monitor and compared the video of the Panasonic GH3 to the best video I'd been able to get out of the Sony Nex cameras I put the entire Sony Nex system in a nice bag and took it to my consigner for disposal.

Now we're entering a new year where the herds of juicy, meaty client budgets have been thinned out and what the market wants has changed again (surprise...). Profits poached by sources beyond my control. Eaten down by cellphone jackals and stampeded by accelerating video productions. And I've posed this question to myself: Do you invest in the finest cameras and lenses when your market is shrinking and budgets are wavering like nervous bush prey?  Or do you make adjustments? Do you need to bring a sledgehammer (full frame, high res or medium format) to some finishing carpentry? Or will a less expensive solution work as well? Or better?

Will desire compel you to buy for bragging rights and the assurance that you might be able to handle anything that comes down the pike or do you defeat desire and buy tools that will do the job without bravado and the imagined conveyance of status?

I have two main systems. I have a micro four thirds system and a full frame, traditional system. The bigger system isn't nearly as good at video. Will I add to it? Will I make more purchases in a system that's giving me ever diminishing returns or do I stop and reduce my sphere of gear down to the basics?

My math tells me that the smaller system is more capable in the realms that clients currently value. Not the realm my ego values. Not what I wish they would value!!!  I always want the best because of the status it supposedly conveys amongst my peers. I like to think that same credentialing by branding conveys to my clients as well but I know better. Is buying and owning the "best" doing anything more than continuing to drain my resources? I have money tied up there. I have expectation slotted there and I have two totally different menu and set up systems to pay diligent attention to as well. I'm not just losing money I'm losing mind space.

My game plan for the year is to slowly divest the gilded glory of the full frame Sony system. I'll keep the a99 and the Rokinon Cine lenses till the bitter end but the rest of the stuff is exiting stage right. It's going the way of my big inkjet printer and my big tower computer that used to sit under the desk and pound away as furiously as a steam engine.

Clients? They'll be happy we're using bigger cameras than the cell phone that Biff in accounting used last time around. They'll marvel that we can light better than the guy who saw something on the web and walked around for a day with his flash taped onto a stick. They'll break out the popcorn when they realize that the video we shoot is sharp and crisp and well edited; well written and well planned. Stuff that doesn't really require amazing gear as much as it does amazing concepts and follow through.

Most of the jobs we've shot over the last few years will fit nicely into the range of capabilities of the smaller cameras. We proved that four years ago with the EP-2. If I can tamp down my irrational desires I'll put the extra cash in my pocket and try impressing those clients with my direction, my scripts and my lighting techniques instead. We can all buy good gear. We can all rent better gear but the best gear of all is the stuff between our ears and we get to rent that out. One project at a time.

In the days of old it made sense to buy the best. We did the same kinds of jobs over and over again. The best gear lasted a long, long time. The things we delivered to clients had a consistency over time. But it's business suicide to repeat the same pattern over and over again while the markets change and are looking for new and different materials.

In truth projects are so diverse now that there is no one set of gear that's best for everything. There's not a golden camera that makes everything easy. They are all a series of compromises. I'll be happy to see the last of the DSLR cameras go. That will mean no more focus shift issues. No more front or back focusing. No more brick hauling. No more five pound lenses. But I'll be sad to see them go because I am no more immune to nostalgia than anyone else. I pine for a security blanket even if there's nothing really secure about it anymore.

But here's the kicker. I think I'd be equally happy to see the micro four thirds stuff go too. If the Sony RX 10 is able to hold its own in low light I wouldn't be able think of a reason for 90% of the people using interchangeable lens cameras today to use anything else. I'm eccentric though. And I change my mind. But the trend is to minimize. The trend is to find the sweet spot. That means constantly evaluating where your inventory really needs to be. If you don't do it for a living then none of this makes sense and you can ignore it all and buy whatever the heck you want. I call that....Lucky.

What goes out the door with me lately? What am I taking along to shoot portraits on location with? What about little scenes like doctors at reading stations looking at CAT scans? My bag looks like this:
A couple of Panasonic GH3s. A small mix of not particularly speedy (but nicely inexpensive) zoom lenses. One goes from 14-42mm while another goes from 45-150mm. I sprinkle in some speedy single focal lengths like the 25mm 1.4 Pana/Leica, the 40mm and 60mm Olympus Pens speedsters and occasionally I'll take along a G6 body with a 20mm lens on it just to cover the stuff that happens in the corners of a shoot.

I'm likely to take along a set of four portable LED lights if we're working in a low light/no daylight intruding environment but sometimes you just have to take the bigger strobes along.

Video adds the need for more stuff. Microphones, more continuous lights and a bigger tripod.

When I look at the kit as it exists now I keep wondering just how far one could go with the Sony NX10. Could you run a business with that? You'd have to embrace and really believe that what you are truly selling is your vision and your creativity. As far as quality goes, it already meets the parameters I've talked about: Enough resolution and a great lens. Might be an interesting experiment for someone who doesn't mind taking risks...

29 comments:

Claire said...

One sentence of this long and interesting post stuck with me Kirk, and it's "I change my mind". Yes, you do, and often. Today it's all about "good enough" gear to get the job done, but it won't be long before you yearn for MF and long lenses goodness again for meaty portrait files ;) Am I wrong ??

G Gudmundsson said...

Another good post.

What comes to my mind, thinking about what you're saying, regarding gear, is this:

It's the light, not the camera. You need a camera or two, of course, you need a couple of lenses, but the key is the ability to light the scene correctly.

Best regards
from Iceland

WookieeGunner said...

You mentioned that you are keeping the Sony A99, I'm curious as most of your work is portraits, what does the the Sony give you that the new 42.5 f1.2 m4/3 lens Panasonic just announced doesn't?

Frank Grygier said...

You are on the cutting edge of the minimalist movement. You could leap frog the other's who are embarrassing small and go with bridge. All you have to say to your customers if they ask.... It's Zeiss baby!

mgr said...

The photo accompanying this post is from the K-01, yes? I'm saving up for a couple more 50-year-old lenses. And a Swivi. :)

ginsbu said...

I've been reading long enough to remember your move to Canon and I'm curious how the considerations that prompted it look now. Is it a case of the 16MP smaller sensors satisfying such clients now, client needs changing (or clients changing), or are those demands ones you'll satisfy with the Sony system or rentals?

I'm also curious what setup you'll be using for your Zach Theatre shoots now, since that's regular work that you obviously enjoy.

I must say that I particularly enjoy reading your business posts. As an amateur, I'm fascinated by how you grapple with the changing market for professional photography. And reading them quashes any desire I might entertain to become a professional myself: it's a good fit for you, but clearly not for me. I like knowing what I shouldn't be doing.

Glenn Harris said...

A very much appreciated post that adds some perspective to what we really need to do whatever type of photography we do. Thanks Kirk

Dave said...

Kirk have you examined the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema camera? Just curious as I'm weighing the GH3, RX10 against this camera which according to the "Internet" produces smoking video.

The RX10 is certainly an intriguing gadget for the ham and eggers such as myself.

Carlo Santin said...

Irrational desires indeed, they will be the death of me. As a hobbyist I'm quickly coming to the conclusion that all I need is something like a Fuji x20 and a couple of film cameras for some old-school fun. That's probably where I will end up shortly. I've been using a Sony Nex 6 since August, and it should be the only camera I need, but the AF on that camera is just disgusting, even in good light, so it's going to go.

atmtx said...

Carlo Santin, If you are unhappy with the Sony NEX's focusing, you might want to reconsider Fujifilm too. In general, I would put the Sony's focusing system above Fuji's.

I do like the Fujis better for color and other things, though. So I do understand your desire to ditch Sony and go with Fuji. It's just that focusing is not one of them, at least for me.

Anonymous said...

Great essay. Minimalism may be red herring here. Most pros and amateurs will acquire what they need, or think we need, regardless of how disciplined we think we are. So there will always be an ebb and flow of technical gear flowing in and out of our hands, depending on the market, state of the economy, technology, and perceived requirements. Plus it's just fun to use new stuff and retire the old boring pieces. The same applies to all in the technical arts, whether they are designers, architects, animators, photographers, whatever. Enjoy the thoughts of Minimalism while we can, but it's hard to extinguish the little gear-head that lives in most of us.

Dave Jenkins said...

And with all the money you save, you can easily afford a Leica M9. . .

Ron Nabity said...

I just finished unloading all my full-frame gear. Lots of space in the camera cabinet now, more cash in the bank and feeling like I'm cheating by not using "pro" gear.

I'm using Olympus M4/3 for all commercial and retail jobs now and I'm very happy with the results. Happy customers, good referrals, and cameras that are actually fun to use.

I feel like I kicked a bad habit.

Marino Mannarini said...

Kirk, though i agree with most you wrote, I wouldn't put all my bets on the Sony Rx10. Reason? the video codec. is the usual hypercompressed AVCHD that sony gives us in thei non-pro cameras. Panasonic performs way better on video, and you saw this yourself.

Claire said...

The X20 in particular, focuses faster than a NEX. I woudn't call the 6 "disgusting" in good light, it's decent, but that's in very good light only. If AF was paramount (it's not, loving NEX made manual focuser out of me !) I'd check out m4/3, they are truly impressive in that deparment, and still have a bigger sensors than an X20. Don't get me wrong, I had the X10 and loved it, it's awesome for what it is... but it's still a compact camera ;)

psb87 said...

Great post.
I have come to this same conclusion, and am in the process of refining my arsenal as well.

Gato said...

An interesting post, and one that hits home. I tried full frame last year and it didn't work out for me. Now I'm wavering between Sony NEX (or whatever they're going to call it next) and Panasonic. Each system has features I want/need. Neither alone satisfies all my wants, but neither do I want to deal with two systems, two sets of lenses, two types of batteries and chargers, two control layouts and so on.

One thing both these systems lacked for me was a really good, reasonably fast, general purpose zoom. At least that was the case up until the Sony 18-105 f4 hit the market. It's reasonably fast, the zoom range covers everything I really need and about 98% of my wants, and I really like the image quality. I could pretty much weld this thing to the front of the camera, except I will likely want to upgrade the camera before I grow tired of the lens.

Which brings up the RX10. My first serious digital cameras were an Olympus E-10 followed by a Sony 828 -- both with a 2/3 size chip and a fixed, very fine zoom lens. Back then I thought that would be the future of photography. Looking at the RX10 has me thinking I could have been right, just premature.

Brian said...

Last year I sold off my (gulp) 14 to 24 Nikkor and bought an x100s with the money. The wide zoom stayed in my camera case most of the time. the x100s stays with me all the time.

dave2 said...

It has not been properly reviewed yet but Sony's new 4K camcorder looks like you are right in their target market.

http://reviews.cnet.com/digital-cameras/sony-handycam-fdr-ax100/4505-6501_7-35833811.html?part=rss&tag=feed&subj=

Anonymous said...

With regards to focusing on the NEX-6 in low light, the best thing you can do is turn *off* the focus assist lamp. For some reason, the camera focuses much more quickly without it. There will be a few cases where there simply isn't enough light for the camera to achieve focus without it, but in my experience those are rare enough that turning the lamp off is a big win.

Romeo Dumpit said...

Wow, was just having these very same thoughts bounce around in my head.

Seriously considering biting the bullet before it gets too late and flush out my Sony NEX-6 arsenal and go with one of the Olympus micro four thirds.



Anonymous said...

I read a book about making money in photography and the writer recommended renting gear because then you could add the rental (plus markup) to your invoice. Somehow I guess clients are more willing to sign off on rentals than they are on a line item like "gear depreciation."

It was kind of an old book and so the question for me is this:
Is it cool to include the cost of rental plus a reasonable markup on your bill? (And how much would that be?)
Or should you only charge the amount of the rental (but lose money because you're not charging for the time it takes to pick up and return the equipment)?

Anonymous said...

No more Alpha SLR level cameras? I call BS on that. Sony has already published that at least one a-mount is coming and has stated that this line of cameras is being seen as their advanced to Pro level Your source has no clue what's going on.. Period End of Story

Kirk Tuck said...

Dear Silly, emotional BS-calling anonymous poster: My unwitting and impaired source buys more Sony photo product in the U.S than just about anyone outside of B&H or Adorama. He gets his information from the people who sell him the cameras. And their bosses and their bosses. Yes, we'll probably see one or two more mid-level DSLT cameras in the next year but you are insane if you think they want to continue to service multiple product lines when they can make hay with less costly to produce items like the A7's. I don't think Sony has figured out what they want to do yet but I'd bet real money that the traditional alphas will soon be collectors items. Next time, if you want to disagree, please do so nicely.

Richard Leacock said...

Once Sony has decided which direction their line-up goes that gains traction and makes money for them we'll find out. As more than one commentator has mentioned, there's a wide array of products that Sony is throwing at the wall to "see what sticks". Some companies not so much. Full frame, mirrorless, bridge etc. The only certainty is change and what we have to play with or use keeps getting better and better. Some have been head-scratchers and others have certainly been "wows"
History has shown that there's more than enough possibility that the herd gets thinned out. Say...whatever happened to 126 format film ; )

Scott said...

For most of my career I worked as the head of IT for large, global banks. At one point I started a new role and found that the "mission" statement for the IT department was something like "ensure we are using leading edge technology". That, of course, stopped quickly. As professionals, our mission was to deploy exactly the right technology in the service of the business - new, old or middling didn't make much difference, as long as it was right. Not a single one of our clients knew or cared much about our technology, only our banking products.

I've always taken the same approach in my personal technology - cameras, hifi, computers, guitars, whatever - and have almost never bought the most advanced (and most expensive) bits, but tried real hard to focus on what I can actually use, and what will help me be more successful in creating the output of my hobby. Not that I've always been able to resist the gearhead that lurks within all of us ...

Rich said...

Very timely article. The last few weeks or so has been a time of self reflection regarding my gear.

As anyone that loves gadgets, it's tough not to get swept up in GAS. The past couple of years I'd found myself getting satisfaction from acquiring more gear rather than making the most of the gear that I had.

This year, I've "downgraded" my body, have a few primes and will rent anything else I need for that rare time I need to shoot really long or wide.

I'll be reading fewer gear blogs this year and looking to folks that will inspire my photography this year.

Anonymous said...

Mirrored Alphas going? Well, yes, as have mirrored Olympus & Panasonics already & no doubt in time Canons & Nikons too ...
I think that A-mount is here for a good while yet though.

Kirk Tuck said...

Maybe. I was just remembering how abruptly Olympus's cessation of new product in the FT arena was and how long the strung along the faithful..... Not sure Sony isn't hoping to string along Alpha users until everyone has an adapter and an A-Nex camera...