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...