A Year Without New Cameras. A New VSL Record.

Shooting the RX10iii on a freezing day in Burlington, Ontario.
Photo courtesy: ODL-Designs

For many years I was known as "one of those photographers who changes camera systems as often as he changes his socks!" I bounced around from one system to the other looking for the magic mix of features and handling that would create a shooting tool box that got me the results I wanted, in the way I wanted them. But looking at my current inventory I am surprised to see that my last camera purchase was almost a year ago, and it was not a wholesale system change but just an addition of one more camera from the same brand of cameras as all the others in my collection.

At my age I'm pretty sure I haven't somehow changed my stripes and somehow become more careful and measured in my proclivity for reckless change, and avaricious acquisition urges, so something else must be in play.

Could it be that a major camera company helped me to check all the boxes pertaining to the way I use cameras? Across six models from the same maker.... I am inclined to say, "yes."

One of the big reasons I switched from Nikon to Sony was my belief that conventional photography would continue to evolve as an ever diminishing business opportunity and that video would be the ascendant tangent for visual content creation. Video will continue to rise in popularity amongst clients while photography will continue its change from needed craft to utter ubiquity. (Commercial) Photography is quickly following the path that typesetting did so many years ago. Typesetting tumbled from being a poorly understood craft that required experts and dedicated machines to something that everyone can do (not always well....) with their word processors. Very few typesetters still exist. Graphic designers can do a better job (mostly) making type look good than can the general population but most people just crank out their written work and the idea of typesetting becomes as automatic as getting coffee. Maybe even more so. 

I believe that the vast majority of photography used in fleeting commercial applications will come from employees' smart phone cameras, sometimes aided by the gentle nudge of a canned "enhancement" filter or two. Most other still imaging will be purchased for pennies from the Stock Photography Walmarts of the world. 

I don't think the role of professional photographer will completely disappear. Perfect product shots (that are not just skinned CAD renderings) will still be desired, as will images that desperately need to be lit. Or perfectly styled. Or used enormously large. Or fill needs for a specialty market. But I do think the role of the generalist photographer is dying quickly and, along with photojournalists, will end up represented only in small niches for declining pay.

As with most trends things will change quicker in some locations than others. I'm not particularly pessimistic about my ability to make a living at traditional photography but I know I'll have to spend more time and effort marketing in the future to return the same income I earn now. I'm riding out the (hopefully) long tail of the decline. 

So the cameras I was looking for, and ended up choosing, needed to be as strong on the video side as they were on the photographic side. That necessary combination was the main driver of my 2015-16 camera change. I hedged my bets by getting a Sony A7Rii which is still regarded as one of the strongest still image making cameras on the market. It's a camera I can pull out when we are engaged in a traditional still imaging project that requires a highly competitive set of image quality parameters. 

Since its only weak point is the continuous focus performance required for shooting sports it is more or less the perfect camera with which to shoot traditional portraits, studio still life and general lifestyle advertising project. It routinely delivers very high resolution files with state of the art dynamic range and (with the tweaking made possible by a highly flexible profile interface) the color response is very pleasing. 

I also filled in some gaps with other cameras from the same maker. A fast shooting a6300. A cheap but effective "daily shooter" in the form of an A7ii, and a few "do everything" cameras from the RX family.

But the camera that more or less put a cap on new acquisitions was the RX10iii. If your idea of the future of imaging is based on the idea that photography and video will be intermixed and interchangeable; and that it is almost entirely made for display and distribution on screens, then the RX10iii represents a kind of camera possessed of a feature set that neatly checks nearly every box on the checklist. 

I believe it is the most subversive camera on the market today. Subversive in that it challenges the hierarchy of camera types that we've been conditioned, by experience and marketing, to expect for each application. 

The 20 megapixel sensor is more than adequate for almost everything we use cameras for commercially. The 4K video out of the camera is competitive with dedicated video cameras ranging anywhere from 2X to 5X the price of the RX10iii. The 1080p video is wonderful and detailed. 
The camera is highly flexible. Need better audio than you might get through the 3.5mm stereo mic inputs? Sony has an XLR unit that plugs right into the multi-interface hot shoe. Nice and clean. 

Need to shoot wide? The camera gives you a 24mm equivalent focal range with pristine software corrections of geometric distortions and other optical flaws. Need to shoot long? The camera gives you the equivalent of a 600mm super telephoto. Need a remote? Open up your cellphone and launch the free camera control software. Need to shoot fast? How is 12 fps? 

It's not just that the RX10iii has many features it's the fact that Sony made so many of the features to such a high level of performance and quality.

Why have I kept the system for so long (relative to my past experiences)? Because nothing out there currently matches or exceeds (in any real, discernible way) what I already have in my hands. If I need ultimate image quality (short of the nose bleed, rarified level of the 100 MP medium format cameras) I have that well covered by the A7Rii. If I need 4K video with great low light performance and fast, accurate AF, then the Sony a6300 camera is my choice. If I need a great, all around performer for video and stills, with ultimate flexibility, then I select the RX10iii. What else could I buy?

In a few years Nikon and Canon might catch up. They would need to embrace EVFs to even begin to make my curiosity twitch. I could never willingly go back to a DSLR with an optical viewfinder. It would be like going from a 60 inch 4K flat screen TV to a 21 inch CRT. Just not going to happen. 

A few of my friends have asked about my interest in the Fuji medium format camera but they misunderstand the needs of most video producers. Our goal is to get the people we interview into focus, not to chase after the thinnest, most vaporous pane of sharp focus imaginable. 

We've reached an intersection of sorts. The business in general no longer returns the large and easy money we saw in the 1990s and the earlier part of this century. Like most industries photography is continually being flattened out. The costs are being reduced. There's less margin per hour. What this means in an existential sense is that the old mantra that: pro's can afford to buy the most expensive gear because they can depreciate it and it "makes" them money, is becoming less and less true with every round of flattening and budget "normalization." 

For a smart business person this means we no longer want to chase ephemeral and minute potential enhancements to image quality that might be delivered by something like a medium format system. It all becomes a drastic case of overkill and creates an over-rich equipment inventory chasing an under-capitalized business model.

So, the flattening of photographer income nicely coincided with the maturity of the camera market, which means that once we find gear we love to work with we have the luxury to coast along with it into the foreseeable future because we are already bringing the equivalent of 50 caliber machine guns to a carnival target shooting booth. 

There is a downside to the diminishing of camera lust = lower readership for a photography blog. But I'm okay with that. (#NikonversusCanon: The Death Match!!!!)(#WhatIsTheUltimateLens????).

There is an operational calmness that comes from being satisfied with your current selection of cameras and lenses. If they deliver the results you want it frees you to think about different investments and different issues that impact image quality or profitability.  Would the $6500 you were thinking about dropping into that new medium format camera be better as an addition to your retirement account? Would it be more fun turned into a pair of plane tickets to see someplace on the other side of the world that you've always wanted to see? Would it buy you the time off you wanted in order to finish your short film, your novel, or your first person research on napping in the afternoons? 

To be truly happy with your cameras means knowing them better and better. There is some sort of bargain my mind has made with the Sony cameras. You may need a different set of parameters for the work you do. You might need the features that another brand does better. But we've all reached this technology plateau together and I don't think we'll spend our way to any radically better cameras any time soon. 

In other news.  We all got up at the crack of dawn today to take the kid to the airport. He's not flying back to his college in the northeast U.S., rather, he is embarking on an exciting adventure: A semester abroad. He's been inoculated, vaccinated, visa'd, etc. He applied spend the Spring and early Summer at one of the top research universities in S. Korea and he should be rolling into the airport in Seoul in about 18 hours. 

He's taken three years of Korean language and is enrolled in an intensive, six credit hour Korean language course this semester as well. He's got a full roster of other classes as well. 

As a parent I will miss him almost as much as his dog will miss him. As a video producer I am in the depths of depression because, with his exit, I lose my editing lifeguard. Ben is one of the best video editors I've worked with. I've been preparing for this event by binge-watching all the editing tutorials on the learning site, Lynda.com. It takes time to learn this stuff, but Ben didn't leave me empty handed. He gave me short list of alternate resources....just in case. 

I'm sure all you parents out there with grown kids have been through this same sort of thing. You want your kiddos to sprout wings and fly well. You want them to gain independence and have fun experiences but you sure do miss them when they are off somewhere else in the world....


Mike Mundy said...

All well and good.

But, we are still waiting for that "Video for Still Photographers" book.


Mike Mundy

Fred said...

It is very interesting watching (from the outside) the path of professional photography. I don't think that change is inherently good or not good. I think that coming to terms with change and dealing with it appropriately is good. Your analysis of the situation makes sense to me.
I also think that your comments about equipment pertain to those of us who are amateurs as much as they do to professionals unless those amateurs' hobby is the accumulation of equipment. This is not exclusive to photography. There are woodworkers who mainly collect tools, fisher-persons with more tackle than would be needed to feed a small country, etc.
And what a great opportunity for Ben. I hope he has a wonderful time. It is my belief that learning a foreign language and immersing oneself in a different culture is priceless.
By the way, how are studio dog's editing skills? I know that she has a critical eye.

David Lobato said...

Interesting, I bought no camera equipment last year. Nothing. I decided to use what I have, and have not been disappointed. I may spend a little bit this year but not planning on buying any new cameras or lenses. If anything it'd be a 13 inch photo printer, but I'd have to commit to feeding it a steady diet of paper and ink.

My older son has been working abroad for 2 and a half years. It was hard to see him go. But on his visits home it's amazing to see the personal growth and learning that has gotten into him. I appreciate him seeing a much larger world. And my younger son traveled overseas for a friend's wedding and he came back with a broader view of life. May Ben experience the richness of life overseas.

Anonymous said...

My son spent 2 years in S Korea teaching English. He is now back in the USA with a "real" job and is happy to be home. Ben is going to have an eye opening time! As others have said above it is all for the good. After a brief time to "re-calibrate" I'm sure he will embrace his new endeavor and get much from the experience.

Noons said...

I can so relate to your feelings about your son.
Mine are at the same stage and I've also had a shock intro to the "empty nest" condition!
We get so used to them around and then booom: they are gone!...
Anyways, wishing all the best for Ben. And may studio dog recover quickly! :)
Couldn't agree with you more on the typesetting analogy. Exactly what is happening.

Malcolm Myers said...

I always used to enjoy your regular system changes. It meant I could 'try' things out vicariously, you probably saved me a fortune :) I have had my own share of GAS but I tend to buy second hand or end of line and I now have more gear than I could ever reasonably use.

But I realised long ago that the technology far outstrips my ability as a photographer. I'm a left-brain logical type, not a creative. But I still enjoy taking pictures and every now and then I get a good one, I just couldn't do it to order.

I also wonder if we have reached 'peak camera' now. Let's face it, any camera from the last five years, and the better ones from the last ten, are all 'good enough' for people like me. But I am still interested in the art side, especially portraiture, so please keep the blogs coming.

As for your son I agree with everyone else, it will do him a lot of good to travel and work. I'm 48 now and I went from university to a 'proper job'. If I had my time again I would definitely try and work abroad just for the experience.

Wally said...

If all politics is local so is the economy. Interesting how what your needs as an Austin based photographer are so out of sync with the advertising we see for the photography industry. I am struck by your comment about razor thin Depth of Field on the new Fuji medium format camera. I have been researching using a large umbrella 59 inches or 70 inches for family reunion portraits -side light feathered with a large reflector-and was struck by the latest trend in fashion shooting using one big light and one reflector. Most of the “fashion” videos talk about using f8 of making one light images. It dovetails with your article about the right gear for your own business vs I gotta have it shoot at f1.4-1.8 while these one light fashion shoots use f8! Know your gear and how to get there and forget the rest. Think I will look for some classic glass with manual focus!

Steven Willard said...

I've lost track of how long I've followed your blog; back to your days with the original Pen cameras, at least. In that time we have been witness to Ben growing up...and away. Being someone without kids, I can only imagine your pride in the way he has grown into the young man he has become, and I can only imagine how you miss him. I think I see a family reunion in Seoul with your very own native speaker as a guide. Annyeonghaseo to him from me, and gomabseubnida to you. (I think I got that right. It was a long time ago when I was in Korea. A lovely people by the way.)

My hat is off to you and Belinda for managing to balance busy careers through difficult times with grace, and producing a son you can be justifiably of.

neopavlik said...

My last camera purchase was December 2014 (used D600 for $847) so I'm over 2 years now and it's gonna be hard to pay anything more than that for another camera. I'm looking at a used D810 but as you mention there is a lot of other priorities I can put that $ to before putting it into a camera.

Art in LA said...

I've been reading your blog since you were using a NEX-7 and A950 ... how long ago was that? IIRC, I first learned about you when you guest posted at TOP. At the time I was thrilled a pro was using the same camera brand as me. With Minolta and later K-M, and now Sony gear, I always felt like an outsider to the CaNikon universe. It's amazing how times have changed. It has been fun to read the logic you use to make your camera investments.

Has the industry reached a technological plateau? As a hobbyist, anything that I have purchased within the past 3-4 years has been "good enough" for my needs. My weakness though is my workflow, getting images off my camera, processed and then shared. This is where a smartphone has so many advantages. I need to figure out a better way to get images off of my "big" camera and shared to The Cloud (Facebook, Instagram) and sometimes shared as real 4x6 printed postcards.

What I'd like to see:

-- better ISO performance still!
-- faster AF for dark ice hockey rinks
-- automatic hi-res feeds straight to my phone or Mac or "Cloud"

BTW, I'm with Mike Mundy ... would love to read your "Video for Still Photographers" book ... I hope it becomes reality. I'm a very practical guy (3 Honda family here, including a CR-V) and hate that I'm not taking advantage of one of the core features of *all* of my newer cameras.

Ken said...

Great post! I'm in agreement and feel content for the first time in a long time. I'm standing pat with just an RX10 MII and the RX100 MI....plus the obligatory iPhone. Over the years I've been on 4/3 (Oly E-1/E-3, etc.) and m4/3 (Panasonic), Fuji X and before that starting in 2002 with Canon DSLR's and then Nikon.

I think we are at the point where you don't "need" to have "top gear" to get anything done you need to (in most circumstances). I remember back in 2002-2008 things changed so fast, 3MP, 6MP, 8, then 12, then on and on. The sensor changes were massive, performance gains huge. Then we had the same with video 2010-2015'ish, now it's to the point where most are all "good enough" and some, like Sony & Panasonic, offer stellar video + stills.

Plan? Run the cameras until they are dead or no longer useful. Not like in the past, where ran a camera until the next version (maybe skip a gen) and it was such a massive change I "had" to upgrade. I just don't see that. I recently did pick up that gen I RX100 and it's surprisingly current for an older model. The cost/benefit as a pocket cam vs. the MIV or V, fell in favor the old M1. Fun little thing! The RX10 II or III, unless there is an earth-shattering improvement in stills, I don't personally have a need for an upgrade on the video end at all for the foreseeable future. I'm actually content.

For me, camera gear has finally met my Apple gear. I keep my laptops and others for 4-5+ years and then "need" to upgrade due to age or other things. I just replaced a 2012 MB Air with a new Pro. Skipping 4-5 iterations is something I'm comfortable with in other technology, cameras seem to be there now. BTW, I'm still on my old iPhone 6 plus (skipped 6s and 7, may even skip 8)....it's still just as fast and useful as it was when new for me.

Kepano Kekuewa said...

Yep. I think my equipment arc has closely followed yours. My m43 stuff is gone. My Nikons are gone (kept the glass for use on my Sonys). I hardly do any pure photography work these days - mostly video, and a large part of that leans towards post and VFX. My 2013 iMac is still pulling its weight.

We have a pretty well stocked rental house locally, so I'm inclined to skinny down my existing gear locker even more. I can rent an a6500 for a week for $89 or an A7Rii for $154. So, I'm now pondering how much of my remaining gear I want to purge. Most, if not all, of my stuff has already penciled out, so it's more a matter of anticipating near-term future work and the equipment I want to have at my convenient and immediate disposal.

Thanks for continuing to keep it real here on your blog. Just as I'm working through my own business decisions, I look at your posts and realize I'm not alone in this. Maybe I gravitate towards some echo chamber confirmation bias, but your outlook seems spot on to me.