7.01.2014

Relentless Gear Snobbery and The real reason why Canon will not "lose the war" to m4:3.


I've been thinking a lot lately about the relentless way in which most of my friends and colleagues, even those insufferable boors who pretend they care nothing about gear and posture that they are not moved by avarice or gear lust, rely on their idea of the intrinsic value of their chosen cameras to bolster their enthusiasm for the process of making photographs. I buy into it as well even though on so many levels I know that none of the goodly-gook we spout is true. A metal shelled mini-camera won't get you to Moonrise over Hernandez New Mexico any better than plastic... Knowing my psychology at least half of my decision making is about choosing the anti-hero camera. The dark horse. The outsider choice. Which is hilarious since most photographey is a total insider experience. And I can't imagine any one more in the mainstream circle than myself...

I'm beginning to think that we buy our cameras as fashion statements and not logically as we would with a selection of righteous tools. A cross cut saw for on application, a framing hammer for another. In hand tools we would look for solid construction and the right fit in the hand.  Carbon fiber handles? Ridiculous. But I think the last four year wave of camera buying has everything to do with American Appareling and Tommy Hillfigering of hobbyist photography and not the performance we say we are chasing...

Since I seem to be as big a slave to the fashion of photography as anyone else what is the reason for this particular column? Why am I revealing to myself and anyone who reads this that we are, in our chosen field, as fickle and as bendable by the fashion of the moment as the women who wore bad, pink sweatpants with "Juicy" emblazoned across the rear end a few years ago. Most of us are manipulated by camera fashion even as we rail against the concept that we are embrace cameras not for what they can do for our picture taking but what we want them to do for our status and image.

My abrupt epiphany came a few days ago when I played with a non-photographer friend's Canon Rebel T3i camera and two kit lenses. I hadn't played around with one of these cameras in years and years and I expected it to feel like cheap trash in my hands. I expected every frame to be marred by the cheap lenses' mediocre performances and I expected every image file to be rendered banal by the camera's many imagined compromises. But it didn't really happen that way and when I shot a few frames I kind of sat up a bit and started paying attention.

My friend didn't have any kid's soccer games on her calendar for the next few days so she lent me the camera to play around with. It's like every Canon APS-C camera in that it uses the traditional mirror mania and it comes complete with the Canon standard 18 megapixel CMOS sensor. And interestingly enough the sensor is pretty good. Oh, I am sure the D800 will blow it away once we get around to printing stuff really large but I've gone five years now without having more than one or two requests for any prints bigger than 12 by 18 inches and I think just about all the cameras I've played with in the last ten years can handle that pretty well.

The camera feels consumer-y (another snob designation) but my friend tosses it around her Suburban and drops it on the soccer field a lot and even lets her six year old boy use it for long periods of time and it's held up remarkably well. I can see where little, inconsequential stuff, has been broken off but like a Timex watch the body seems to "take a licking and keep on ticking."  Could it be that the consumer-y polycarbonate is at least as bullet proof as the precious, milled metal dials and multi-position touch pads that keep falling off my other friend's more expensive and chic cameras?

The bottom line, at least as we keep defining it in our relentless need to justify new purchases, is the ultimate imaging performance and certainly there's no way a $500 camera (and that's with two lenses....) can rival, say, my new GH4 system, right?

Hmmm. Well, if you are doing video for clients I'm going to say that the Panasonic is generations better. The video is sharper and available at higher resolutions. There are also ports for microphones and headphones as well as manual level controls. But...if you are shooting the kiddo trying to keep up with a soccer ball and you are playing back the Canon 1080i 720p video on your Samsung or Vimeo 540i quasi-HD television set I'm going to say there isn't really a big difference. The end display being the ubiquitous weak point in all of this.

And guess what? If you go head to head on sensor performance for noise and resolution, again, not much difference, if any. But surely the lens performance between my Panasonic X glass and the woeful kit lenses of the Rebel is outrageously huge, right? Well sure. If you always shoot wide open you'll get a faster and (as far as I can tell) sharper lens but here's the deal, if you go all real world and you are shooting that swim meet under the blistering, Texas sun or that soccer match under some other state's more tepid sun you'll be spending most of your time around f5.6 or f8 and I'm going to bet that at f8 there's not a lot to cry about with either lens. Keep thinking $500 versus $4400.... Put a 50mm 1.8 on the Canon for an extra hundred bucks and all of a sudden you've got a low light shooter that gets close to the performance of any m4:3 system. Really. Especially when you factor in the money.

In the studio it's the same story. That nasty, consumer-y 70-300mm zoom becomes very well behaved portrait lens when you clamp it onto a tripod, stop it down a little bit and stop all unwanted motion with a diffused blast of studio electronic flash. You'd be hard pressed to tell the difference under those conditions (at f5.6 or f8), at a decent enlargement, between the masterful D800 and the mighty Rebel.

I think this calculus of price and performance is the dirty secret that keeps the faux rangefinder GX-7s and Fujis X's, as well as the retro Olympus OMD's and mini-DSLR styled Panasonics at bay in the war to gain total market share. The fact that for a fraction of the cost (and a hit to your style consciousness...) the entry level, traditional cameras do a remarkably good job at keeping up with what matters----ultimate image quality. They are not the best overall but they may be the best compromise. For most actual users. All bets are off if you just buy the gear to wear it.

The D800 is the best IQ producer in the 35mm style, mass production cameras at the moment. Let's peg it's performance, on sensor, at 100. And let's be generous and give the 24 megapixeled Nikon cameras (APS-C variants) a solid 90-92% for on sensor goodness. And maybe all of our other wonderful mini-framers come in between 85 and 90%,  but that doesn't mean that the recent Rebels make a failing grade of 59. Far from it. If we X out handling and frame rate, X out the so-so viewfinder, and shoot all the cameras in Raw I think we'll find the Rebel is also in the wonderful 85-90 % range which signifies a solid B+.

We overlook it because it is not pretty as understood by today's design ethos. It's more like the Juicy sweatsuit knock-offs of yesteryear. We would also like more dials. But at the heart the T3i is one of the top selling cameras in the entire world because Canon gets something that the photo cognoscenti don't really seem to understand: To the world market the Rebel is a tool that delivers everything most people need (for taking photographs)  except the high fashion aspect of it's physical style. No faux rangefinder. No small enough to fit into the pocket of your dinner jacket. And the exterior styling is as exciting as a 2002 Toyota Corolla body. But, like the Corolla, it's a reliable,  and for the most part comfortable appliance and it gets you where you are going.

Does this mean that I plan on abandoning all the gear I've accrued to date in order to pursue a rational course with Rebel gear that's good enough ?  Not very likely but from now on I'll work a bit harder to separate actual performance that matters from stylistic touches that have very little real value.

I still remember my lust to get my hands on the Fuji Pro 1X when it first came out. I was at the door of the camera store waiting for them to open. I loved the feel of the body because it reminded me so much of my old Leica. And then I brought it to my eye and the finder was out of focus. I looked in vain for the diopter adjustment, a feature that's been standard on even the meanest, little viewfindered compact camera for well over a decade. The Fuji Pro 1X did not have one. I left the shop without one. I watched my friends, confirmed raw shooters, agonize over the new, non-Bayer sensor's special needs. I read about the focusing issues, etc. Yes, it was a fashionable camera but I'm pretty sure I could have outshot it in a heartbeat with a Rebel. For one third the price.

Pride of ownership? Not with a Rebel. Rational behavior? Not with a Pro 1X.

I'm picking on the Pro 1X but we could just as easily pick apart the new Sony A7 or the oil and dust spattering Nikon D600. Or the devil-spawned menus of the OMD EM-1 (as well as the product name...). The bottom line, whether we like to concede it on not, is that most of our camera purchases these days have little to do with technical proficiency of the tools and a lot to do with our fashion sense. It's good to be honest about it. Doesn't mean we have to change.

Anymore than those lovely young women wearing seven inch heels are thinking about the logic of wearing a nice, comfortable (safe) pair of running shoes.....

This line of thought coincided with a good article on The.me.com here: http://www.the.me/a-hobby-for-the-very-wealthy/

I think we tend to skew our priorities because, in one sense (financial) we can really have just about any camera we want and so we look beyond workable to aspirational or "the best" just because we can. It's an interesting confluence today. At least I think so.


30 comments:

AlexG said...

I have grown to love the G series Panasonics, the G3 in particular (its what I have) as they just get on and do the job. They do not look fancy like some of the Oly's or Fuji's but that means I can find them for peanuts one cost £40. I do like the look of the GX7 but here its more or less the same as the GH3. The G's are just a continuation style wise of the Canon T90 and I remember how desired and stylish it was at the time.

John Krill said...

Boy I can't wait to read the comments.

And not once did you call the APS-C sensor a Cropped Sensor! Good for you.

Now if Nikon will provide me good mid-price primes and normal range zooms. But then there's Sigma and Tamron.

Hans @ Fortakort said...

Is it me or isn't this exactly what our beloved Ken Rockwell has been repeating the last ten years or so..? Buy entry level Nikon D70/50/40/3100/3200….good enough for just about everyone, the rest is fluff! I love your work Kirk, nice low tempo, contemplative experience, delivered with an incessant curiosity mixed with insight.

farshore said...

The whole concept of "fashion gear" very strange-gear are tools intended for performing a specific function. A camera should allow the photographer to take pictures (with adequate image quality for the intended use), and feel comfortable in the hand, since the hand, and not the ego, is what does the actual work.

Jim said...

I have an EOS Rebel XTi and, as you observe, the quality of the images is right up there. I have to say I don't like the camera much though. It's a handling issue, too many buttons located where they are too easy to push unintentionally. Maybe it's just fat finger syndrome on my part but the Canon "D" series controls are laid out much better IMO. I'm currently using (mostly) a 7D although I find it a bit large and heavy sometimes. If I had a camera store handy (the nearest is at least a 2 hour drive and across the border to Canada) I'd like to handle a Panasonic GX7. It looks nice in the photos on a computer screen but handling is what it's really all about for me.

mgr said...

Heh, well, I don't consider myself a gear snob; I got my K-01 because it was the least expensive APS-C on the market. (Well, OK, now I want a blue one. And what the heck, maybe a 645z, but only because it would be more portable than my K-01 with the viewfinder attachment. No, really.)

Does family tradition count? My dad was a Pentax guy. I like using one of his old lenses to photograph my grandchild. :)

Frank Grygier said...

Hopelessly devoted to EVF. If I would compromise it would have to be a MF camera.

christian said...

Hey Kirk, thanks for that great post. I agree that photographers can be a real pain in discussing their equipment, especially if they don't have the work to back it up. I do think that it is perfectly ok for you, doing commercial work, to be very concerned about gear and high quality. However one can never lose sight of the fact that it is the image that matters. I was particularly pleased to see iPhone photos in the current issue of National Geographic. 'It's the photo stupid..' is stil the bottom line, as far as I am concerned. At least my painter friends don't sit around talking about brush manufacturers, paint companies, and canvas quality all the time!

Kirk Tuck said...

Frank, The medium formats will feature EVFs soon enough...

Kirk Tuck said...

Ken Rockwell. Who knew that he knew the answers all along??!

Bassman said...

Pretty much all cameras built today have high levels of image quality. As you say, the difference might be (on some imaginary and arbitrary scale) between 85% and 100%. There are also some differences is the fundamental ability of the camera to get a specific shot; if you need 300mm/2.8, then you have to spend a lot on the lens. If you need 6 (or 8 or 10) fps then you need to spend a lot on the camera.

But the biggest difference to me comes from the User Interface. Because I need to control the settings on my camera, having real buttons to push makes it much easier to use than diving into menues. We wind up paying a lot for buttons and dials. Although I must admit, I've gotten outstanding results using iAuto on both my E-M1 and GX7. So much for buttons and dials ...

Anonymous said...

Heh, I agree with Jim. It's all about the handling. I grew up using a Pentax ME. The Olympus m43 cameras just feel right for me.

Loads of my friends have Canons, and they're fine, fine cameras. I could never get on with them and I never liked the rendering of the kit lenses.

Will they win the war? There's room for all in the new world, I reckon. But interestingly one friend has just replaced her Canon with a Sony (slt), another has replaced his with a Panasonic G5.

People are looking for more from their cameras now and I don't think it's a fashion thing. Some of these cameras just feel better ergonomically than the old dSLRs did (I know this goes against the conventional wisdom - but I really think there was a significant number of people who liked the photos but hated the form - also, cheap dSLR ovf's are awful when you've been brought up on the Pentax)

Mark

Rosco said...

Funny; if anyone had told me two years ago that I would be using V1's (instead of my D300) for my magazine work I would have laughed at them!

But the thing is they are paying the bills (fulltime). and; they are being used for full page, double page spreads and covers. They are being used in good quality mags too; not just for web "articles"

The fact is that todays modern cameras are better than 95% of the photographers who use them(including me)...We're pretty damn lucky where great gear is available at great prices.

The only other cameras that interest me now are the Samsung NX30 and a couple of the m4/3 to use to shoot 16:9 and 1:1 through the evf. And to shoot when it is black cat in coal mine conditions! :-) Cheers

Claire said...

Right off the bat, I'll take ANY recent Rebel (starting from 550D, and maybe as early as the lowly 450D, of which I owned two copies, both being unashamedly great) over ANY m4/3 camera, E-M5 included, just for sensor size related IQ.
Secondly, I've owned all the latest, most fashionable Sonys (in which I am a camera snob as much as anyone), including the A7 and A6000, yet all have been returned in favor of shooting a very old, severely battered, almost comically outdated (and in my eye never properly replaced by Sony) NEX7, and IMO it still can kick the A6000 around quite a bit, and stand head to head with the mighty A7 without too much effort.
And yes, my other cameras are Nikon DSLRs, the antique but still very capable D90, to which I just (Bday present to myself, you only turn 45 once ;) added a shiny (used) D7000, because after testing both for a week I came to the conclusion that the advances in the latter were substantial enough to justify the upgrade. Basically I shoot with three cameras that went out of style I good while ago, and they hardly ever are the weakest link in my imaging chain (hint, hint). And yes, I have to smile at those laboring under the pain of turning the new XT-1's dials without bumping the one underneath (an impossible task, I was appaled by this camera's UI despite its nearlike deity status), or bearing the cross of having to deal with Olympus menus (I might give up photography altogether if they were the only choice...).
Oh, and by the way, I wouldn't be totally opposed to wearing one of the old "Juicy" butt sweatpants, if I touched those, that is ;-)

Anonymous said...

Be it cars, cameras or blenders, our purchasing decisions are based 90+ per cent on emotions. Whatever we like to keep telling ourselves. Nothing wrong with that per se, it's just a fact of life.

As for the price vs. performance of devices, it's the same with nearly any industrial device. Or be it about speed, horsepower or whatever. To get to 80% performance level is easy and relatively cheap, hence the performance of the entry level cameras, but to get from the last 97% level to the proverbial 100%, each percent at the top will cost almost as much as the whole 0 to 80% below it. Which may seem seemingly unjustifiable from the pricing point, but that's just another fact of life.

The reason why the entry level Canikons still rule the market is the fact that they are still the market leaders and they rule the distribution channels. Don't underestimate the pack animal nature of the masses.
The Canikons are everywhere, and they are cheap. They can be cheap because they rule the distribution channels and are produced cheaply in masses. You can find an entry level Canikon in every Walmart/Costco/whatever-style big box store in the world. They've become commodities that you can literally pick from a shelf or a pallet next to kitchen and toilet paper department while doing your grocery shopping. It's easier and cheaper to pick one than, say, some Olysonic camera.

Add to that the fact that even though the entry level models are cheap commodities, they can still ride on the halo effect of the traditional Canikon brand.

To say gear snobbery is the main reason the righteous hobbyists and pros don't buy the entry level Canikons is over-simplifying the issue. There is gear snobbery involved in choosing an entry level Canikon, too.

For every Canikon Rebel Dxx00 that get actively used around the children's football fields, there are equally many, if not more of them collecting dust on the upper shelf of the clothes closet most of the time.
Thats because the people who don't really have the time and passion for photography decide to buy a Canikon Rebel Dxx00 with a kit lens because they were on sale at the big box store, and because a real camera = a Canikon, and every self-respecting photographer uses a Canikon DSLR. And because the next door neighbour / coworker and uncle Bob has one, too. Even though a compact camera or just a smartphone would have been the more practical tool for their needs.

Then, after a few weeks of use, the camera ends up ignored on that upper shelf, and no additional lenses get bought for them, ever. All because of, well, camera snobbery.

As for Canikon, or Canon, not losing the "war" to mFT, well, the whole concept of a "war" between Canikon and mFT has to be a one only fought inside the heads of the mFT nerds. Whether or not Canikon will 'lose the war' at some point is up to certain market dynamics.

WilliamJns said...

As a non-artist who is struggling to understand the concept of “creativity”, I have a question… Can you be inspired by the camera itself? If you see a camera and think, “Wow, that’s beautiful”, can it be the source of your inspiration even if produces the same images as any other camera?

Gingerbaker said...

As I read this posting, all I could think of was - "This is very reasonable." That's because I am still shooting with my Canon 5D (no mark)!

Not because I am a wise sage, but because I can't justify an upgrade. You work with what you got, and if the output is good enough, well, that's all you need, right?

Plus, I quite like the old girl. But I'll tell you a secret - if Canon or someone offered a rare wood grip really cheap, I would LOVE to dress her up. This anti customization bias is some kind of old-school mindpoison to which I am evidently immune.

Anonymous said...

There is a distinction between the art and the craft of photography. To a person for whom creating a compelling image is uppermost, skill and artistic talent quickly show themselves to be the primary needs. To the technician, mechanisms, procedures, and ergonomics matter more. Heck, there's even a hobbist website devoted to the study and critique of camera ergonomics. The pictures on it are secondary. Then there's the websites that have developed a self-awareness that lets them balance the gear with the art and understand what's important. I find those folks most satisfying, because they concur with my feelings.

The tool aspect of a camera can inspire one to shoot more, but if it's not done right to your needs rather than style, the inspiration will be fleeting. I respect my D7100 but loved my D90. Both are now too cumbersome for much of the photography I now do. Both are tools that for me work.

And yes, we should all think for a minute about the message of the article you linked to, Kirk. It doesn't take much to make a surprisingly good photograph, and that's available in a smartphone. It's not necessary to take a photograph at all. We are all privileged to do so, and often so self-centered as to not realize it.

Anonymous said...

Great post. These days virtually any camera can capture a respectable image. What I look for in a camera is how well it can stay out of my way. "Film" sensitivity (ISO), aperture, and shutter speed is all we need from a camera. OK, white balance is important too. The rest is marketing fluff. My meterless film cameras have 2 settings on them. My most simple digital camera has pages of menu options with countless settings. Makes my head hurt. Nothing in these menus is essential to good image making. Bells, whistles. Bah!

John Dana said...

In our developed world, the onward march of innovation, technology and desire can get a little weird. Combined with targeted marketing (we've now pretty much all grown up in a petri dish of fertile marketing goop designed by psychologists), people sometimes identify their value with what they own (hence the many who end their posts with a list of all their gear).

On the one hand, lots of choices; on the other, lots to argue (even fight) about. Thus the very concept of a "camera war."

In the end, it's all just a really silly (or tragic) distraction. I also like gear, and generally am happy with my choices and grateful to be able to purchase them (and change them from time to time).

Anonymous said...

As the article you linked to implies, I think we should all be happy that our wars are over the incidentals of life, like cameras (except for people who earn their daily bread with cameras), rather than food or water.

The only thing that gets hurt in our "camera wars" is egos...

theaterculture said...

We've seen that sensor capabilities, video bitrates, and resolution standards trickle "down the line" in most cameras, so that by now virtually any ILC you buy hits the "good enough" point on the image quality curve. The ACTUAL killer apps of the future for people wanting to move seamlessly between still and high-quality audio-visual media will almost certainly be mundane things like (both) mic and headphone jacks. For those who need them (and you know who you are) binaries like "gives me great control over levels of production-quality audio" are the real deal, and all the ISO-CAF-LMNOP stuff we've been beating each other up about on forums for years is deeply secondary.

Charles "Rain" Black said...

Ah yes...Gear Snobbery and Equipment Wars. It brings to mind the scene from the movie "The Boys in Company C" in which out of frustration of being sent on a mission to attack a target which didn't exist, their Sergeant calls an artillery strike on an empty hill. The troops sit back and watch the fireworks.

I think photography gear fixation is like that. While the explosions erupt between those arguing about gear, the rest of us sit back and enjoy the show, unless we are out making photos, of course.

Dr. Singer said...

Kurt, you of all people should know this whole camera fashion statement thing didn't start with Fuji or Olympus M4/3's though it competes with Leica "red dot" fever. Walk around downtown Manhattan and you'll see what I mean. He's the guy trying to look casual, holding his M6 between thumb and forefinger, in a just-so hipster kinda way. Yuck!

On your recommendation (one of many in VSL), I bought a Sony SLT-A57, then another, and two more along with the Rokinon/Samyang Cine glass and a Sony 16-50/2.8, and why? Because they're cheap at under $300 a piece on ebay. Nevermind that Kurt's VSL spoke so glowingly of all the Sony SLT's and their groundbreaking EVFs in late 2012. We read what you write, Kurt, and we're moved to act. In fact, didn't buy a Nikon D800 because Kurt keeps scoffing at the amazing quality of the 36MP Sony sensor. I bought one because a violinist client shouted at me from across the stage asking "Is that a D800?"...It is now. The APS-C 12MP D300 it replaced is has since pressed into service for roller derby and for the extra reach the 1.5x sensor-equivalent gives me.

All this to say, it's ALWAYS about the right tool for the job and not the stupid fashionability of the moment. Great discussion this post generated, Kurt, and it really shows who your audience really is. And who they aren't.

Kirk Tuck said...

Dr. Singer: It's KIRK, KIRK, KIRK. Not Kurt, Kurt, Kurt. And I honestly can't understand what the f*#k you are trying to say in your post. Are you angry? Are you sad? Are you happy?

I just can't tell. But I know it's: KIRK, KIRK, KIRK and it says so all over the blog...

The D800 is just fine. But I'm not buying one. Do you need one for the violinist? Again, not a f#%king clue what you are trying to say...

Dr. Singer said...

Kirk, got it this time, my apologies for messing up your name so consistently. And I should know, it happens to me all the time and I hate it in the worst way. So again, I'm sorry...

No not angry at all...it's amazement (and just a little gear envy).

Your original post covered a lot of ground so it brought up a number of points for me:

1) Leica started the "camera as fashion bling" years ago. Oly and Fuji have just figured out how to tap into it.
2) The prices of high image quality cameras, like the Canon T3i, have made it possible to do amazing things I couldn't afford to do before, like offer multi-camera video services for clients.
3) I'd never earn back the price of 4 x GH3's from the gigs I shoot, thus I shoot A57's with Rokinon glass, instead)
4) Seems like every other week, you never fail to mention why you didn't buy a Nikon D800. Just funny is all, each time I read that.
6) As followers of VSL, we really do read your gear rants and reviews with vicarious pleasure.
7) My D300 rccks now that I figured out what event it was actually meant for: sports. Again, the right tool for the job.

Have a great %$^^## holiday, Kirk!

Cliff R. said...

My sister does exactly that with her Canon Rebel XSi (12mp) and 50 1.4 lens. She takes beautiful pictures of her children who are 1 and 3 years old. She'd like video (other than from her iPhone) but the files that 2009 camera produces are still excellent.

She did have to send the 50 in for servicing to Canon after one of the kids pulled on the strap and knocked the camera from the kitchen island to the tile floor. Unlike my experience with Nikon's factory service hers was quick and easy and less expensive.

Kirk Tuck said...

Dr. Singer, Now I totally get what you are saying and you are absolutely right about Leica starting the camera bling trend. Amazing how much people believe in the magic of the gear. And I'm still not buying a D800! :-)

Have a fun $%&*ing Holiday. I'm taking two naps tomorrow....

Andrea said...

I bought an E-M1 after coming from 20 years of film srl/medium format photography and 4 years of M4/3 use. But when a collegue and a friend asked me what camera to buy, to the first I suggested a Nikon D3200 for shooting soccer matches and kids birthday, and to the second a Canon 1200D for landscape, street and lifestyle photography - IMHO seeing real-life examples the Canon has more dynamic range expecially in the high-contrast situations in wich my friend shoots more. For me, it is better to suggest a camera with good characteristics at an honest price, then the both of them will evaluate their needs and, in time, perhaps they will move to more specific gear.

Laurent said...

I shoot Canon 550D and 50m 1.4, even though I honestly can't say I am really in love with that camera. I started with that camera mostly as I needed to find the best possible camera under a budget (got it refurb for less than $350), and I learned a lot with it.

Now I am considering sticking to it, mostly as test for my real motivation. In other words, if one day I start to look for a sexier (and equally capable) camera, maybe it would be a sign that I need to switch to a different hobby. Like watch collecting or something similar.