Is (camera) happiness a moving target?

It's funny, I'm trying to write a speech to give on Friday for hundreds of high school photographers and their teachers but I'm more or less lost. The gulf between the way I started in photography and the way they started in photography is so wide. We started in a culture where, for the most part, we had to search out good images. We had to subscribe to magazines. We had to buy books. Learning the visual/art part of photography was like belonging to a secret club where we passed along the names of the new stars of the medium like recipes or treasure maps. Certain books that were anthologies of photography were like sacred reference books to us, they opened up windows to new work.  And every technique we used was either gleaned from a magazine about photography or passed along by a more advanced practitioner who would take time to personally train an aspiring photographer. We dug for knowledge and we dug for images. We even had to dig around and listen to the grapevine to discern which cameras and lenses to buy. 

The generation I will be speaking to is part of the first inclusive Google generation. Need to know which camera has the best high ISO performance? There are 20,000 or 20,000,000 sites to choose from. And they all would love for you to drop by.  Want to know how to do Astro photos, time lapse, off camera flash, fashion, video interviews, make your own camera strap, clean your sensor, find a model or figure out which camera has the most haptical knobs???? There's a quick Google search for that. Or a Bing! search or whatever. 

Wanna know who's trending hot as a fashion/sports/news/war/hipster/wedding/baby/glamor/food photographer? Likely if you've read a camera review one time anywhere on the web you are already being inundated by sites filled with links and stolen images from the "next big thing." How does someone who started as a indigent field hand in the business explain anything to a spoon fed generation and find any sort of connection at all?  I guess we'll find out by Friday....

Today's real article: 

But today I want to talk about the cameras and art. I've given up. I've come to grips with the idea that I'll never be free from desire where cameras are involved. I'll never be happy to work with just one bundle of black plastic metal and fake leather. The desire for more and different is insatiable. But why? Why can we control how much we eat and how much we drink and bring to bear all the impulse control it takes to save money and work on long term projects but we can't seem to resist the call to arms when the shiny new camera is launched? How many of us took one look at the new Fuji and thought: "Pre-Order!!!!" ????

How many of you recent purchasers of the OMD EM-1 are already getting itchy for the EM-1A? And how many Nikon dF owners are already wallowing in post cognitive dissonance and getting ready to sell at a loss and move on to whatever Nikon tosses out there next?

I'm temporarily lucky when it comes to full frame cameras. I like my Sony a99 well enough and I like the lenses I have for the system but Sony fucked up the A7/r so handily that it deflated my reflexive need to rush out and upgrade. Now my choice of full frame camera is also being vindicated by its selection by Hasselblad for "improvement" and chic-ification. So I needn't even consider making any big moves. 

But seriously, I'm starting an exercise wherein I line up all the digi-cameras that grace the vault at the VSL world headquarters and each day I pick up the next one in line and shoot it all day long. Then I put it in the back of the line and the next day I pick up the next one in the front of the line and shoot with it. I calculate that I can go twenty days or so without repetition so we'll see if it's boredom that drives these purchases or what.

I suspect it is this: A new camera is presented and it has a new combination of feature sets. My brain starts to think about the feature sets and comparing them against what I shoot right now. On paper the new camera has attributes that trump the existing camera. I convince myself that I will be able to do better work if I have the new whatever. I buy the camera and find that I use every camera in nearly exactly the same way. This effectively neutralizes whatever I bought the camera for in the first place.

I bought the Sony RX10 because I read the specs and thought how wonderful it would be as a small, light but powerful video camera. I would be able to run and gun in exciting and fast moving situations and return with powerful, kinetic video. Then, in the course of a few weeks I settle into the way I like to shoot and find myself locking the camera down on a slider or a big tripod and plugging in microphones and doing some nice lighting. I have just gutted any advantage that the camera might have presented to me.  I can do the same thing with one of the GH3's with more control over the quality of the video files.

I bought a Sony a99 because I thought I'd be doing more low light work. I also bought some fast lenses. But I've found that I use it mostly in the studio and on locations where I have total control. Why? Because that's the vast majority of work I do. I would be just as happy shooting most of the work with the older sensor in the a850. If only it had an EVF........  But the idea that I might want to shoot in low light was enough to turn my craving into ownership.

There are situations where cameras can make a difference but not as many as we need to convince ourselves exist. But there is something about the eternal promise of new gear performance that drives us on to purchase. I'd like to pretend that it wasn't this way in the film days but I know we were only saved from ourselves because the product cycles were so much longer. Besides we could always look to cryptic improvements in film emulsions to give us a short term fix of "new and shiny."

On some level I know that the gear acquisition is just a form of resistance aimed at us by the evil forces in the universe to keep us from actually getting started or following through on the work we'd like to be doing. The work we see ourselves doing.....If we only had that one piece of gear that might knit everything together. ---

I re-found a new excuse to buy gear. It gives me more to write about. How sad is that?

So, are the changes being made in cameras really things which will make us happier photographers? Do wi-fi and touch menus and programmable buttons really make our lives so much better? Does the ever repeating menu learning curve outweigh the new features? Does the financial opportunity cost outweigh those extra two points on the magic DXO scale?

Don't look to me for answers I have the sickness as bad as the rest of you.  (and yes, before you comment I know that you are a rock of logic and still shoot with your camera from 2001 and the lens you picked up in high school. And I know that you are unmoved by any new camera bling. You must have clicked into the VSL space by mistake...good for you).


alexander solla said...

Kirk, I know you get your share of trolls on your blog... but I for one am glad that you are willing to share your thoughts as well as your experience. I could really care less about what new camera is coming out, except when it actually improves something that needs improving. I am glad when you point out something as being novel, especially when I might have deliberately overlooked that camera, because it wasnt NAMEBRAND X.... You keep me thinking. Thank you.

Patrick Dodds said...

You had to go and mention the new Fuji didn't you??


Bill Van Antwerp said...

Couldn't agree more. It is even worse in the Underwater world, where you not only have all the new cameras and lenses but new housings and ports and all sorts of new lighting. I can't count how many $400 underwater focus lights are available (and I own most of them). Sad but true

Anonymous said...

Fun article, Kirk. I feel the pull myself. Last year I got two new cameras, both of which are far more than adequate for any computer or TV screen (where most of them are seen) or for the size of prints I make on the now rare occasions that I do print. Yet I'm still reading reviews of new cameras on a regular basis.

This despite the fact that I recently got an excellent reminder of how little the camera matters. Several years ago I got a (for me) wonderful shot of Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. The one fly in the ointment was part of the Parliament building was obscured by scaffolding. A few months ago I was back in London and was determined to repeat the shot without the scaffolding. I had a newer/shinier camera with more resolution and less noise, better lenses at my disposal, and a full-sized tripod rather than the mini tripod I'd used the last time.

Unfortunately the light just wouldn't cooperate. I was there at the same time of day (dusk) with approximately the same conditions (cloud cover that gave texture to the skies but wasn't oppressive) but the colors just weren't the same. The previous time the clouds had a bluish tinge to them, which contrasted beautifully with the yellowish lighting on the buildings. This time the skies were just gray, and there was nothing my fancy new camera could do about it. The "old" image from my somewhat noisy 10MP camera blows away any of the images taken with my fancy new 16MP camera, even with the distracting scaffolding in the image. It was all about happening to catch the right lighting conditions the first time around, and "adequate" was all that was necessary from the camera. Obviously, time spent seeking out the right light is going to result in better images than time spent chasing the latest-and-greatest camera.

And yet I'm still paying attention to all the new camera introductions...

Dave Jenkins said...

There's something to be said for poverty. I have all the equipment I need to do almost anything I might be called upon to do, but business isn't as good as it used to be, so I don't have spare cash lying around to invest in the appealing new items that won't add a cent to my bottom line.

(The Olympus OMD-EM1 looks really good, but it won't make significantly better files than my EM5s. The new Fuji X-T1 looks really good, but not when I add in the cost of a complete new set of lenses. About the only way I can afford to indulge my GAS is by buying and selling old film cameras, just for fun!)

On the other hand, I much enjoy your write-ups about new items of equipment that captivate your attention, so keep them coming and I (and many others, I'm sure) will enjoy them vicariously.

Simon Morgan said...

On the first part: there is a similarity in that the actual art of photography is still very hard to learn about. While Google gives us access to no end of technique advice and bad photos, seeking out really good photography is still difficult.

On the second part: don't worry about it! There's nothing wrong with enjoying a fine piece of engineering. I wonder if watch collector forums are full of people trying to justify new purchases with careful measurements of precision? I doubt it, I expect they accept that they just enjoy the look and feel of a good watch. I don't know why appreciating cameras should be any different. We just have to accept it is a different thing to practising the art of photography and embrace either or both as we each see fit.

Steve said...

I can totally relate to what you say, though my excuses for looking at other cameras are hopelessly weak compared with yours (my images certainly don't justify any changes!).

Thanks for your wonderful web site.

John Krumm said...

My current knee injury has left me reprocessing photos from the last 6 years (my dslr years) and the experience shows me yet again that while little things like DR and low shadow noise matter sometimes, a good shot always matters.

Most of my favorite photos are still from the Olympus 420 with no IS and its 10mp, limited DR sensor. I was enthusiastic, experimented more, and took gobs of family shots. If I had an EM1 back then it would have helped with indoor shooting at high iso, that's mostly much it. It might have discouraged me from learning to use a tripod well. But it's a pleasure to use now and I would not trade it for a 420. Maybe an EM1-A... (and yes, the X-T1 also increased by Fuji fantasies, sadly).

Most of us are are "enthusiasts" or hobbyists or pro-sumers (whatever that means) and part of the fun of the hobby is trying out new stuff. You are a pro with some hobbyist love/addiction that we all share. That's probably a good thing, kept under reasonable control.

Old Gray Roy said...

Kirk you have my sympathy. As a retiree I can not scratch the new camera itch without very careful planning and budgeting; therefore, no spur-of-the-moment purchases for this household. God only knows how many pieces of photo gear would be bulging the walls of this house if I could afford them.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful! Thanks. Another insightful post, read from the other side of the world (New Zealand).

REP96st said...

Sadly, I am one of those shills that reserved the X-T1.
I think it's that camera for me. Honestly, the only camera I really fell in love with instantly, was my Canon G10. The size, layout and IQ won me over my Rebel DSLR. Since then, I went M43 and finally a Canon 6D.
I don't know, but when I seen the X-T1 for the first time, I thought about my G10. I hope I'm right.

MartinP said...

Unfortunately I don't understand the frenetic digital upgrade cycle. There is now a minimal quality difference over a period of a couple of years, and even that timescale is lengthening. Does this feeling originate from the pace of change ten years ago, when incremental improvements were relatively larger? And of course, marketing is a big-budget success factor for most of the surviving manufacturers...

Sadly for the industry, I'm still using the Contax gear I bought when I was twenty, more than thirty years ago - with the addition of a few older, and larger format, cameras too. I admit that I did buy a Pentax K5 a few years ago, but that is still perfectly adequate.

Alex said...

>Why can we control how much we eat and how much we drink

Can you??? I can't...

Anonymous said...

There was an interweb meme that the Df was a bad camera. When it was revealed that it was actually a very fine camera (overpriced though it be), focus was turned on the buyers: they were really really rich dentists or hipsters or retirees, or some other category of suspect judgement.

When it turned out that plain ordinary people actually bought and used it- as opposed to interweb reviewers messing around with it for a few hours and posting a review- thoroughly enjoyed it, the owners were then subject to close psychoanalysis.

The conclusion was that these deluded owners, unlike owners of any other overpriced camera- were victims of cognitive dissonance: these owners didn't really like the machine, they just thought they did, because, well, they had to. Even if the good feelings kicked in well before the 30 day refund period.

Which is kind of odd. First the cameras are bad, no wait the owners are stupid, no wait they're just victims of their own psyche. Which begs the question- who exactly are the ones with the cognitive dissonance?

Anonymous said...

Happiness is a relative term... that said, I like Panasonic G cameras because in my big mitts, I hold them like a hamburger...

Hamburgers make me happy, they are very steady in my hands, and I never drop them...

I suspect the problem with happiness whether general or camera has a lot to do with the definition

Frank Grygier said...

All digital cameras are a compromise in one way or another. The decease attacks the "no compromise in image quality" cells in our brains. The short term cure is a new piece of photo plastic and glass that somehow renders the image we see in our mind's eye.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, I'll sidestep the gear comment and focus on the first part of your post. As a regular reader what makes your site interesting is your insight into successfully running a business which creates custom imagery. I like your pictures, but I don't think that is what makes you successful. It seems much more likely that your success stems from your understanding of personal relationships, and your constant drive to understand how you can apply your skills and what you need to learn (or experiment with) to provide value. You only need to bridge the gap between where they are and where you are now. The past is the past. Your strength is your willingness to evolve and push into the future. Focus your efforts on that message. That's my two cents for what its worth. -Seth

Anonymous said...


re the first part of your post, while useful, Google won't help you learn to be either a professional or an artist.

It might help you to find clients, but it won't help you get your clients to come back to you or pay their bills in a way that keep you in the black.

Google won't show you the tones of a Bernd & Hilla Becher print, either.

Don't underestimate what you know.

Cheers and good luck.


Kirk Tuck said...

I can has cheeseburger? I like hamburgers too. I'm going to start channeling hamburger-ism into my work. I love that.

To the anonymous guy who thinks the df is a great camera. There's a camera for everyone. People can like whichever one they want. It doesn't mean they are right.

But thanks for the free psychoanalysis. Much needed.

Olaf Hoyer said...

Kirk- why not just point out that although technology has gone to a different level of ease of use, from being a craft that one had to learn to nowadays a simple press of a button- that it still takes some dedication, some good sense for a moment and understanding of what one is doing there to take a great shot?

What about the shift of paradigms from being a craft the old days to the transition of being a communication medium to spam around some meaningless pics of breakfast?

What about visual communication as such in our modern days? What role does it play, whats different from old times? Are pictures still important, what things will really attract attention?

Just my 2 (Euro)Cents on that topic...


Anonymous said...

"I re-found a new excuse to buy gear. It gives me more to write about. How sad is that?"

Well, since you asked...it's kind of pathetic and truly a waste of brain cycles for one of the greatest minds in photography. The latest bell and whistle laden black boxes shot at us out of marketing cannons as fast as they can load them are passing fancies. Meh. I don't come here to read about the gear. However,you seem to enjoy tinkering with these increasingly gadgety contraptions so I'll continue to humor your occasional post on the latest whiz-bang cameras while enjoying your thoughtful and entertaining prose on photography and life and, of course, your wonderful images.

Carlo Santin said...

I'm guilty as charged on the new Fuji, though I didn't pre-order, only because my wife would kill me. Thank God for her otherwise my GAS would be out of control. My fear of her wrath is greater than my desire to wear out the Visa, which is saying something.

My brain knows darn well that a new camera doesn't make me a better photographer. My fragile male ego is convinced that there is a magic camera out there that will sync with my mind's eye, and make me look ultra cool while doing it.

Anonymous said...

Looks like your first two paragraphs comparing the two eras already contain the seeds of the introduction to your talk. Seeing as how I (and apparently many others) often enjoy your writing, just treat the talk like an extended (verbal) blog post and the kids will get a great education. :)


Brian said...

Awesome post. I try to be rational but they keep making great cameras.

But the best part of this post was Kirk dropping the F-bomb. I've been reading your blog, it's a daily read,and it's the first one I can remember.

Great post.

Unknown said...


One question I have asked myself recently is, "How much time have I spent shopping for cameras when I already have what I want?" Could I have used those hours more constructively? Hard to say; maybe I'd just start watching TV. Mike Johnston said it well, "The stopping of shopping is the hardest thing for photographers to do."

Best regards,

Jeff said...

I think this coincides with re-learning how to be a beginner. We expect the automation to add to our skill, but doesn't. It only detracts from us using our full knowledge to its limits. Ming Thien had an article about using manual mode which I read and then dismissed it as too cumbersome. Yesterday I put a 500mm mirror lens on my E-M5 in A mode and found out that manual mode with spot meter gave me a moment of beginner feeling. Focus on the part I want in focus, meter the area I want to come out ok, turn the shutter dial until meter scale is zero, frame the subject, recheck focus, realize I can't hand hold it steady enough, mount camera on tripod, redo/check previous steps, press the shutter. I bracketed two more shots. The first shot was best to me. Perhaps the camera happiness comes from knowing I worked out a problem and not the camera.

Rufus said...

Did Sony really fuck up the A7?

I am not sure they did. It has all the boxes ticked: EVF, total lens compatibility and a design that is sympathetic to the more considered style of shooter. The run and gun stuff is for EM-1 guys.

Sure, the shutter mechanism seems a bit clunky but, truly, the A7 ( not the R) is no worse than the NEX7's you enjoyed in terms of shutter noise.

I think you have dismissed the A7 rather prematurely. Why not borrow one for a while? It really does throw off some lovely files.

I guess the GAS will never end.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Fuji have a very nice way of stopping GAS: they often release firmware that updates supposedly out of date cameras (such as the X100).

I have the X100, and it still receives updates with new features and improvements (and I heard it will soon get yet another one!).

This is quite clever, because this stops me to look around for other cameras (and other brands!). And in 2 years down the road when I really upgrade then I will pick Fuji again (pretty much certain!).

Alex said...

Kirk, you recently fired up my GAS again. Here is my new/old camera setup:


The lens is Mamiya 300mm F/5.6 ULD and... you can recognize the rest.

Is it possible to use it handheld? Difficult but manageable due to the Pentax's excellent IBIS. The image quality is outstanding! Most of the pictures in this gallery were shot with this setup: http://www.gridenko.com/p344462936

Anonymous said...

Given our illness, I recommend you adhere to your opinion of the A7 and not try it out for a few days......Should the opportunity present itself.

All the best,


Anonymous said...

Actually I come regularly to confirm that my R1 is a great camera even today.
A months ago I bought a X-E1 with a XF 35mm 1.4 lens, and although the image quality is superb the reality is that I enjoy taking photographs less (noisier shutter, afraid of expose the sensor, low flash sync) because the experience is so digital in a bad way. I am always changing things in menus and not just pressing buttons.
With a tripod and photo ninja there is no much distance in image quality, so I am thinking in give the X-E1 to my little brother, buy I am not sure because I like the R1 experience of shooting more and that would be a better present. And no, in my country I couldn't sell the X-E1 to buy another R1.
Well, I come here because more than read about cameras I like to read stories.

Godfrey DiGiorgi said...

I bought the Olympus E-M1 last October and have been delighted with it. So why did I buy the screwed up Sony A7?

Simple: Because the one thing that I cannot do with the E-M1 is use my Leica R lenses on a digital camera with the original format that the lenses were designed for. Just look at that lovely photo you posted a couple of days ago with the Leica R ... Just magnificent lenses.

The A7/A7r are indeed clunky, oddly feature rich and feature poor at the same time. But for my intended use, the A7 serves nicely. It has just enough customizability I can make it work the way I want to use my beloved lenses on and I forget the other stuff they packed into it.

Still have the E-M1. Still have my E-1 (and I still make photographs with it...). Cameras are an addiction, an affliction. But relatively innocuous.

I'm pretty happy with the camera junk I have now. I should sell a bunch of it. Probably will. But it doesn't matter ... I make the photos I want with them and ignore what I don't care about.