1.19.2015

Don't you wish everything just stayed the same? Maybe someone could make one perfect camera and we could all buy that and be done with it. Wouldn't that be cool?


Remember the old days when you could buy one camera and use it forever? We'd get our hands on a crunchy good camera like an F2 and just bang on it for years and years and years. Nothing in the imaging chain really ever changed. As long as the "magic box" kept dragging film through the gate and the shutter kept clanking away the only upgrade you ever needed was a green or yellow box of the newest emulsions from the chemical boys. Good times. Really good times. Back then we hardly ever talked about cameras it was mostly about lenses and film. And developers. And condensers versus cold light heads. And enlarging paper. And enlarging lenses. But bodies? Naw, those things were just something to mount the lenses on.

Then those reckless bastards at Kodak set the world on a path which eventually destroyed Kodak entirely and plunged the photographic faithful into a long period of wild confusion. From 2000 (A.D.) onward we have had to deal with the insane combination of computer programming and silicon design progress when using cameras. We had to learn all kinds of stupid stuff that we really never wanted to learn because computers destroyed the world as we knew it. We became lab, color scientist, retoucher and IT department.

At first the magazines, pundits and smarty pants people in the industry told us to be patient and that one day we'd actually see cameras with native resolutions of SIX MILLION PIXELS!!!! And at that point we would have, for all intents and purposes, achieved parity with 35mm film. The road to six megapixels was littered with 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5 and 4 million pixel cameras that cost way too much.
Most of these cameras sucked and sucked hard. They were slow and gimpy. The files were shallow and brittle and the time between shots was the new reference standard for coffee breaks. Amazingly, we were all stupid enough to continue the march forward.

We were assured that everything would plateau right there around 6 megapixels. But it didn't turn out that way. First it was those nut jobs at Canon who drove up the pixel count to an astounding----eight. Nikon leapfrogged to ten and then Canon dropped the big bomb---12 megapixels in the 1DS FULL FRAME camera. The universe shook. Pigs flew and the dead rose from their graves and reached for their credit cards.

It was a revolution. Nothing would ever be the same again. Millions of hard core Nikon fans rushed to trade in their obsolete DX sized gear for pittances as waiting lists for Canon gear grew. Canon was invincible. They would be the Guardians for the Universe of Imaging for all eternity.

And just to toss some mud into the faces of Nikon, and any of the other upstarts, the all knowing Canon engineers (and marketers) came along and cemented their place in the heavens with both a 16 MEGA-NORMOUS-PIXEL full frame camera AND a super fast shooting 8FPS!!!!! Sports camera. All the Nikon believers could do was glare at their 12 megapixel, mini-sensor cameras, balefully, and plan their switching strategy. Exiles. Outcasts.

It was 2005 and the headlines were already being prepared by the photographic press: "NIKON WITHERS ON THE VINE AND DIES. OBSOLENCE THY NAME IS NIKKOR." Scores of Nikon shooters in countries around the world died of shame. It was also the year that Leica was pronounced, "The Walking Dead of the Camera World." Olympus's brave and virtuous attempt at birthing a new format standard and shiny new lenses was slowly dying as well under the onslaught of Canon's prowess and perfection.

We could have stopped the universe right then and there with the 16 megapixel Canon 1DS mk2 and that could have represented the ultimate, aspirational camera for generations to come. Had we stopped there future generations of photographers would have grown up assuming that all camera lenses were light gray. Everyone who could had switched brands. Everyone who couldn't just shuffled off into obscurity.

And no one blamed the people who switched. It had to be done. They felt that the writing was on the wall and that was that. But there was one little glitch. They hadn't counted on the scheming collaborative powers of Nikon and Sony. All at once Nikon delivered a Sony powered full frame camera that could see in the dark. It was the D3 and it was both bulletproof, insanely fast and able to shoot two or three steps higher on the ISO scale than anything Canon could put out into the market. Sports photographers went nuts and the Nikon faithful came out of their huts near the river Styx where they had gone, waiting to die, and re-embraced the magical machines from Nikon.

Another tidal shift happened overnight! The shock waves were everywhere. How dare these people switch systems when they had pledged their allegiance to Canon??? Was nothing sacred? Canon volleyed back with a higher pixel density camera, the 5D mk2 and trumpeted its 22 megapixels from the roof tops. Then they showed off how the same camera could also take pretty good movies and even make most stuff out of focus if you wanted it that way.

Movies and a bigger pixel count? The pendulum swung and the faithful followed Vicent Laforet back over to the Canon camp. Each time the trade-ins benefitted the retailers and the sheer volume of recent and now unwanted gear fed an almost insatiable used market. The Canon camp swelled back toward their original supremacy right up until Nikon tossed in not only a flagship 24 megapixel camera but also a never ending series of 24 megapixel consumer cameras. Cameras that uniformly could out perform the sensors in just about every Canon at any price. And just when you thought Canon would volley back with an incredible new product that would leapfrog over the Nikon offerings.... Nikon rushed to the net and slammed home their advantage with the 36 megapixel D800.

Now, most of this was only of interest to sports geeks and people working to produce commercial photography for the very high end of the market. And a few wedding photographers. The rest of us could pick and choose as we liked. If we didn't do print then the biggest buying filter was the 2560 x 1440 pixel count of the best monitors. Or the 2,000 by 1080 standard of real HD TV. That meant that we could select fun cameras with resolutions of 12 to 16 megapixels and have more than enough in resolution reserve; more than we needed. Most of us stopped printing with any serious intent in those years although we did talk about printing and showing prints for good long time....

During the great recession I'd given up the megapixel race and was exploring other interesting things like cool aspect ratios, nice color, smaller sizes, higher portability and lower costs. With client budgets down and the pixel wars raging at the esoteric end of the spectrum I figured we'd just cruise along with inexpensive gear and try to make some truth out of the web-ism of "Indian not arrow."

All the while wishing that film had never vanished (yes, I know some of you still shoot it. I am very impressed.) and that the cameras that cost us a fortune in our youth were still in service today.

While we all paid lip service to the idea that 12 megapixels was enough no one was ever pilloried for moving up to 16 megapixels when the change came to m4:3 cameras. As long as you only moved within your established systems.

We're well into switching fatigue now. The feeling I get from everyone is that they just want to snug in with what they've got; be it Fuji or Olympus, and chill for a while. A camera nesting phenomenon.
And I don't blame anyone. Every time the big switcheroo happens it always seems like a good excuse for a nap in the aftermath.

But for commercial photographers it doesn't always work that way. We can't always schedule a nap and sit on the sidelines. The field of photography is now a living and (ever) quickly evolving organism that reaches into everything. The recession ended in Austin early and the people in the lucky part of the cycle realize two things. First, that the money was coming back, and secondly that BIG and SHARP was going to be a photography industry differentiator for workers in this field. Especially in the most competitive and affluent markets.

I also realized that I'd love to have the same big, sharp gear shoot good video too.

For the last year or so I've waited to see how everything might play out. I bet on 4K video and the GH4 as my strategy for increasing profits last year. I should have realized that rich ad agencies would be the first to want "big" and also to replace their existing 2K monitors with 4K (retina) monitors. I should have realized that the payoff would extend far beyond just viewing video and would change the way art directors and fashion forward marketing people started to look at images. Still images.

The younger people, with fewer fatiguing gear replacement cycles in their recent history, jumped on the Nikon D800 bandwagon hard. They marketed the crap out of their gear's features and benefits. But at the same time no one in my camps (clients) even mentioned the need for 4K video. So I belatedly, and once again, became a switcher. I bought a bunch of Nikon stuff. And I'm not at all sorry I did.

You don't have to be an eagle-eyed forensic photo viewer/scientists to realize that 36 megapixels with really good technical parameters is a game changer for commercial (for profit) shooters. Now there's nothing scary about clients who like posters. Nothing scary about clients who do trade show graphics. But this only applies to people who have to justify their tools to the market!!!

But guess what? None of this is binary. Just because I bought a D810 doesn't mean I can't also have a drawer FULL of micro four thirds cameras and lenses. Lots and lots of them. I get to decide when I leave the big camera at work and bring the little cameras along for a nice walk, or a daylong assignment whose only missing parameter is the need to be printed at very large sizes. It's not binary. Owning one camera doesn't cancel out owning other cameras. It doesn't cancel the reality that you liked other cameras in the past. In their context. Especially when the camera budget for all these cameras is less than the amount I used to spend on film and processing in one year! That's right, in some ways I consider the cameras bodies to be more like film that our original thought construct of "cameras" back in the film age. The bodies are less precious now precisely because they do become obsolete.

In two years Canon might leapfrog over the D810 or Nikon might consolidate their new lead with an even better camera. If they do I might switch or upgrade (respectively) because it will be the equivalent of sticking a couple of new cases of film in the deep freeze (a common practice in the day...).

So why am I writing all of this? Why not just enjoy the new camera and get on with it? What's the point? Well, someone wrote to ask this morning if I hadn't betrayed my readers by writing in a nice way about some gear last year (or last month) and then personally switching to another system. I wanted to get across the point that nothing really stands still any more. That cameras are the interchangeable film of the process now. That professionals photographers might need to change just to reach new markets and new customers. That styles, client tastes and viewing systems change.

Look, I love to play with new gear. I'm as nerdy as the next guy. Maybe even more so. Put titanium on it or carbon fiber and I'll probably buy it.  I've owned every major system that's hit the market since I started working (with the exception of 35mm and digital Pentax ---- but in my defense I did own both the Pentax 6x7 and 645 cameras....) including Contax, Leica, Sony, Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Hasselblad, Mamiya and some I've forgotten. They are fun to play with. Current tax law allows full time imaging companies to expense a lot of the gear. It all has good resale value. It's almost like leasing.  So I get to play. It's one of the few fringe benefits of being a full time, self-employed photographer. A brief respite from paying self-employment taxes, your own health insurance, business insurance, disability insurance, liability insurance, retirement, blah, blah, blah.

So, here's the current and future disclaimer: 1. The only time I've been given free gear by a manufacturer or their agents was Samsung. I used their mirror less cameras for a year and a half before resigning from their program. I now own exactly one Samsung kit lens. All the rest of the equipment is gone. Traded, sold or gifted. Every single time I wrote about any Samsung gear or experience my relationship and perks were completely disclosed here. 2. Neither Nikon nor their agents have ever given me any equipment or any discounts that were not available to the general public in exchange for purchasing, using or writing about their gear. This includes the many articles I wrote as far back as 2009 at the inception of the Visual Science Lab blog. I am not a member of Nikon Professional Services. I don't get swag from them. 3. When I review cameras I am either using cameras I've borrowed from the manufacturers or purchased myself. If I borrow a camera there is no stated or implied quid pro quo. I am not ever given the cameras to keep. They are all returned. Mostly sooner than I'd like but some are here too long even if they've only been here a day or so and they are rarely reviewed.

4. When I review a camera or write about the performance of a camera (or lens) I am writing contemporaneously about how I feel concerning that camera in that particular time frame and under the circumstances of the moment. 5. If I write positively about a feature such as EVFs this doesn't create an obligation on my behalf to limit myself only to using EVFs for the rest of my life. There may be compelling reasons other than viewing and composing that make a camera useful for a particular service. Equally, my use of a camera with a particular feature or lack of feature doesn't obviate my preferences or my previous purchases. To state it simply, I wish the D810 had a state of the art EVF. It doesn't. But the performance of the sensor impels me to overlook Nikon's engineering shortcoming in that regard.

5. My use of, or appreciation of, any piece of gear, enjoyment of a television show, taste in wine or my shoe size is no guarantee that you will appreciate the same subjective characteristics of an object, product person or piece of art. It is always wise to establish the historic perspectives (and changes in perspective) of any reviewer whose work you might read. For example, I think Lloyd Chambers writes about gear by looking for objective measures of perfection. While he can tell me objectively which lens might be sharpest he can't convey to me whether I will like all the other characteristics of a lens because subjective analysis is an area in which he is tone deaf. Ming Thein's review are fun for me to read (and a subtextual insight into his struggle to find meaning in the craft) but the way he shoots and the way I shoot are nearly opposite. I suggest that you read my writings about gear only to whet you appetite to experience the gear and see how it might work for your uses. For example, if you travel extensively I don't really need to tell you that the sheer mass of a full frame D810 and attendant professional caliber lenses will suck the joy out of traveling quicker that a 500 HP pump draining a bathtub.

6. This is a two way street. I use my brain to write this stuff but you are required to use your brain when reading it. There's no "second coming" or holy insider knowledge being doled out here. Just the opinions and topical ramblings of someone who tries to work full time in an incredibly challenging and ultimately fluid business.

7. I will let you know every time I write about something that is on loan. If Nikon gifts me with a shipping carton full of D810 bodies you'll be the first to hear about it here and the bidding will begin shortly afterwards.

8. The Olympus EM-5 camera is still the most fun, most portable and most cost effective personal shooting camera you can buy on the market to day. Everyone should own four of them. Especially if they own bigger cameras. Contrast between products is good.

9. The market will change again. I will shoot some video with the d810 and if it is good I will write and say it is good. And the minute I do they will come out with a 4K capable D820 and I will buy that, and if the video is even better I will write that the video is even better. The D810 video will not cease to exist but it will be newly overshadowed by its predecessor. And I will have no guilt in buying the new camera if I can make a profit using its new capabilities.

Finally, if you had your own company wouldn't you sit down every year and ask yourself what worked in the past year and how you could improve your products and services to your clients in the next year? Would you wait for your competitors to define your market on their terms? Would you allow them to define you?  Could you consider product extensions? Could you use different tools for different jobs? Would you change tools if you felt that you could secure a more profitable market niche? Or, are you emotionally tied to your tools?

I write this as a business owner first, a photographer second. Although why I write it is usually a mystery to me since this is the least (financially) profitable thing I do.

It's a new year. My boss told me I could buy new gear. Who am I to leave allocated budget untouched?  :-)




12 comments:

G Gudmundsson said...

You are talking about my Voigtlander, with a 50mm lens...

had it for years and years, the family camera ...

wonderful photos,

I could blame you for my switch to Olympus in 1985, but it would be a bit far fetched, wouldn't it?

We make our own decisions ... us in the 'free' world ...

the Voigtlander, brown leather case, big wonderful viewfinder ... lots of things to change around the lens, never understood anything about that, then or there abouts,

'Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
La la la la...' *1

Voigtlander ruled the universe from 1960-68 in my corner of the world... (thanks to my mother who loved all things German ...

I guess I can't blame you for that, can I Kirk?)

*1 Mary Hopkins - Those Were The Days MetroLyrics)

AlexG said...

I think different cameras can be fun, I recently picked up a bargain Sony and Nikon mirrors and even though they miss an EVF they have been great fun.
Having followed you for a while, the last thing I would expect is you being stable in the camera cupboard. Its good, you say camera A or B is good or fun, but we all know you will dip your toe in another camera makers waters before too long and why not if it brings joy. Besides I can't think of a truly bad camera in the last few years.

Noons said...

Funny enough, I am totally emotionally attached to my film gear.
While with digital? Meh...

Comes from the "use it for 2 years and then throw it out" attitude that ruled most of the dslr era so far.

But when it comes to the Olympus EM5, I keep learning little bits that emotionally attach me to it! The other day I found out the 12-40/2.8 Pro lens actually has a programmable function button in it that talks to the camera. Man! Am I having fun with it!?

Yes, I know: I'm easily pleased. So what? Wasn't the film gear "attachment" a dead give away?
;)

Jeff said...

Why would anyone who read more than one blog entry think you would ever use just one camera/system? You are up front that most of the cameras/equipment are used to make a profit so different (and changing) tools makes SENSE. You have (or make) the time to really learn what the equipment can (or can't) do and use the tool you need for the job.

For most hobbyist (like me) who aren't making a profit, and have a finite amount of time to devote to photography, it makes no sense to be constantly changing systems. The latest body/feature/sensor isn't going to magically and dramatically improve abilities or vision. Constantly learning new menus/control placement just cuts in to my time using the camera.

I've settled on the Olympus M4/3 as my system of choice because it works I think my E-PL5, E-M10, and lenses will work for me for several years without being horribly limited, financially debilitating, or stupidly heavy/bulky.

Having said that, I enjoy reading about your equipment purchases, use, and general trials and tribulations in your work. Your "job" would put me somewhere between perpetually irritated and needing a backhoe to bury the bodies..........

Carlo Santin said...

I'm hunkering down in 2015 and shooting with what I already have. Instead of new gear I've started a portrait project, one portrait a month, with the end goal being a nice large photo book at year's end. My January portrait is complete and I'm quite pleased with it, now looking for my next model. New gear is nice but I'll live vicariously through VSL for 2015 to satisfy my GAS.

Alan Barnard said...

For the type of work that I do (gallery prints up to no larger than 20”x30”), digital cameras reached the point of sufficiency in approximately 2008-2009. At that point I took myself off of the 12-18 month upgrade treadmill. My current system is more than good enough for the work I do, but camera bodies do wear out, so I'm currently on a 5-year replacement plan. It's a relief to not feel as if I always need to have the latest and greatest...

atmtx said...

Love this post. Interesting that you need the equipment disclaimers. But I understand.

I'm guilty of having many cameras myself, though unlike you I don't seem to get rid of mine. I'm just having too much fun with all of them.

My parameters are different though. You're a professional photographer with competition for your livelihood. I'm a hobbyist that just wants to have fun with photography.

Keep doing what your are doing, Kirk. As always, I enjoy what you write.

Anonymous said...

Well, maybe not the gear, but looks like some things do stay the same, year after year. ;)

"…I was beginning to feel that no man should ever punch a shutter release without many years of instruction and at least $500 worth of the finest equipment.

My only salvation lay in a Hasselblad, a Nikon and quick enrollment in a photographers’ school. I pondered this for a while and soon found myself running in circles, going from one camera store to the next […] Meanwhile, I zipped my camera into a suitcase and stopped taking pictures altogether. They were bound to be terrible, and besides that, I was embarrassed to be seen on the street with my ratty equipment.

When photography gets so technical as to intimidate people, the element of simple enjoyment is bound to suffer. Any man who can see what he wants to get on film will usually find some way to get it; and a man who thinks his equipment is going to see for him is not going to get much of anything."


-Hunter S. Thompson, 1962

Godfrey DiGiorgi said...

Wow, Kirk. Am I reading 'the angst of camera addiction' or just a little buyer's remorse?

I have too many cameras too. I should stop buying them...
:-)

Enjoy your D810.

Kirk Tuck said...

No buyer's remorse, just free form realization that we'll be going through these plateaus for ever.

Charles "Rain" Black said...

Kirk, I think you well know one reason why people have the attitude that there is "One Camera System to Rule Them All" is due to two things. One is cost: a digital camera, because it is "expendable" inasmuch as tech improvements come along, is a bigger investment compared to the good old film days. As you pointed out, with film a given body was merely a device to attach lenses and expose the current emulsion that best suited your needs. IQ upgrade came from better lenses and improved film. So when, for instance, I bought my dream camera, a Nikon F2AS, I knew that expenditure would amortize out over decades if I kept using the camera until it stopped working.

Now we have digital, with an approximate 2 year upgrade cycle. Marketers would have us believe that the cutting edge camera we bought a couple years ago is now incapable of producing really good images today.

For some a single body, maybe two, is pushing the gear budget if for no other reason than people are reticent to invest too much in bodies they may be replacing in 2 years. That, of course, opens up the can of worms as to whether the standard 2 year upgrade cycle is really worth it.

It can be easier for a working photographer to justify multiple systems: you get the gear that will get the jobs done. For hobbyists, it can be a matter of getting the gear the "Boss" (significant other) permits us to get and not end up sleeping on the sofa.

The other reason is the degree to which people attach their sense of photographic accomplishment to their gear. I know people who own Canon or Nikon simply because it's Canon or Nikon and that's what most pros use. Beyond that they can't really explain why they feel Sony, Olympus, Pentax or Samsung are somehow inferior to Canon or Nikon. (But then, some people own other systems out of a sort of passive aggressive rebellion against the masses of people who own Canon and Nikon)

Some people's emotional investment in their camera of choice as being the one that is inherently superior to all other brands that buying into a second system is like admitting their preferred system is inadequate.

Interestingly enough, I don't know any working photographers with this attitude. They all are willing to own, or at least rent, whatever system will get a given type of job done.

Jeff said...

I shot a few rolls of film since new year. Feels like OCD & a long time before pressing the shutter. Been trying to recreate that with digital last year, slow down, think more & press less, but can't quite get there. With EM5 I still relapse into press-and-check syndrome.