The "Aspirational" car. The "Aspirational" camera. Do you age out of that paradigm?
I was having coffee with a friend and we went down the conversational path of..."What if money was no object....?" It all started because we were talking about cars. Now, you have to understand that both of us have spent the last thirty or so years pursuing photography as both a hobby and business so it's not like we're going to wake up next Monday with some uncontrolled impulse and rush out to buy a Bentley or Ferrari, (or the cash with which to do so) but when the question, "If money was no object and you had to buy a new car what would you get???" came up we both paused to think about it.
When I was in my thirties I could have blurted out a laundry list of cool cars. I could go vintage with a fully restored Sunbeam Tiger. I would have been equally thrilled with a restored 1967 Pontiac GTO with the triple carburetor set-up. There were a couple of BMW Alpinas that I would have lusted after and, of course, there was always the gull wing door Mercedes. I might have also tossed in a Lancia Beta Scorpion and, of course, one of the perennial Porsche 911 variants.
In my more practical forties I thought the BMW 5 series cars were the right blend of comfort and performance along with having a trunk big enough to haul around gear for most photo shoots and, at the time, I was happy to buy one. I was even happier to trade it in four years later after and endless series of repair bills....
But somewhere in my mid fifties my perspective about cars changed and I started thinking about them less as toys, status symbols, and fun and started thinking about them in much more practical terms. My interests had more to do with how much photo gear I could get inside, what kind of gas mileage could I get and how small my total cost of ownership could be.
So when we played the "What if money was no object?" game this time I just blurted out the first thing that came into my mind and it was: A Honda Accord. That was it, my "aspirational" car.
I guess I've realized that Austin traffic will never get better, all cars on the local highways spend the majority of their time going less than 20 mph and, as long as the air conditioning, the radio and the bluetooth connection all work well then I think I would find most sedans of a certain size more or less interchangeable. I've owned Hondas for the last ten years, have found them to be cheap to own and reliable and, so, why would I want anything else? Besides, if I had gazillions of dollars I think I would just contract with a luxe car service and never have to worry about parking, dead batteries, pumping gas or getting lost ever again. No car ownership needed.
The car conversation naturally led my mind around to the idea of aspirational cameras. Cameras that you lust after but are just way out of reach. Cameras that are a decided luxury but nevertheless keep calling out to you like the sirens of Greek mythology...
In the film days there were no cameras that were so outlandishly expensive that we could not afford them. I was never drawn to the silly cameras like Leicas cast in platinum and wrapped in the hide of extinct animals but I rarely met a high end Hasselblad I didn't like. But in those days crazy expensive was less than $5K.
When we hit the digital days I'll admit that it became much more difficult to afford the newly developed, stratospheric level cameras. I lusted after the medium format Leaf A7i and some of the very pricy Schneider glass for quite a while. The system I'd mapped out would have run me a bit shy of $60,000 but I could never pull the trigger because my CFO could run the numbers every which way and show me how I would never re-coup that "investment." Not with a practice photographing mostly people for mostly Austin clients.... And in the back of my mind I realized that the tech in the camera would be superseded (not obsoleted) by something better and cheaper within 18 months. But I still wanted that camera. I had the brochure in my desk drawer for a long time.
Then fate stepped in and a photo magazine called and asked me if I would like to review that very system. "Would six weeks with the system be enough time?" I jumped at the chance to be one of the very few people to play with the 40 megapixel, medium format camera and its near perfect German lenses. But you know that line from the movie "The Adventures of Buckeroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension"? It goes, "Wherever you go....there you are."
When I actually started working with the camera and lenses there was no big change in what I shot. Of course the images had more detail but it was detail that was only useful in certain use scenarios. I shot a couple of images that I had the local lab make some large prints from. At 30 by 40 inches you could readily see a difference in resolution when compared to the 12-16 megapixel camera files of the day.
The difference in sensor size was nice as well. In terms of focus ramping and that special, out of focus background look one gained about as much as one would going from an APS-C format to a 35mm full frame format. In the end I came to realize that while owning a $60,000 system might be fun and ego gratifying it wasn't really going to change my game as a photographer and it wouldn't be a very smart long term investment.
I also got to test the Mamiya and Phase One cameras in their age of ascendancy and found too that they might provide the potential for better files (where larger print sizes were needed) but not so much better than they shifted any business paradigms which might make them financially productive. As far as personal work went I spent a day walking around shooting with the seven pounds of camera and 180mm f2.8 medium format lens and quickly discovered that the medium format digital cameras were too slow, too heavy and too......ponderous for any sort of normal street shooting. That and, at the time, about one hundred shots per battery charge.
The Leica S2 camera was another camera I considered "aspirational" until I played at length with one. Same issues as above. Different logo.
But now that we've hit the age of sufficiency I'm finding no cameras that I lust after and can't readily afford to buy. My choices have so much more to do with what the cameras will do for my day to day work than anything else. I am in no hurry to step up (or sideways) from my Sony A7ii camera as my mainstay portrait camera because it just works. And it was cheap. And it works. I've used it on 14 portraits in the last two weeks and each one exceeds the technical parameters I need. Hell, it exceeds the best I could get just a few years ago for any reasonable price. It's a camera I bought used last year for about $1,000.
I guess I should want a Zeiss Otus 100mm f1.4 (if they made one) with which to make portraits but, again, it's the age of sufficiency and I'm finding the all purpose, 70-200mm f4.0 G lens is the perfect lens for almost every work portrait I shoot. I lock in at f5.6 and just blaze away. That gets me just enough focus at the 110-135mm focal range I seem to work in to get sharp focus on lips, eyes and almost back to the ears. Any less depth of field and I'll spend my life explaining to clients why "Bob" isn't totally sharp......
I wasn't chomping at the bit to rush out and buy a Panasonic GH5. It's not the ultimate portrait camera. It's not as good as the cheap, used Sony I bought used when it comes to handling most of my still imaging work. I bought it to make my video look better and to provide video features that make my work in video more productive. Hardly an "aspirational" camera.
But I'm starting to realize that all my notions of "dream" cameras seem to be vanishing. Just like my appraisal of cars. If meteor hit the studio today (and I wasn't there to see it...) what cameras would I buy to replace the splintered and melted remains of the meteor impacted previous cameras? Would I rush out and buy a Phase One 100F? I'd probably buy another A7ii and another 70-200mm f4.0, along with some wider stuff. If the Sony gear was out of stock I'd buy a Canon 5D mk4 and the same kind of lens. And if all the video oriented cameras went up in smoke then the next time around I might just buy a really cool video camera like the Canon C300ii. But the idea that all of these digital cameras will soon be superseded by more able cameras diminishes their allure as "ultimate" cameras after which we just have to lust. Maybe it's the impermanence of the new gear that removes it's sparkle as something you might cherish for 20 years or more.
I still remember when the camera I wanted, and had to scrimp and save up for, was the Leica M5. That, and the 50mm Summilux lens. Once I was able to eventually write the check for that combo the glow of satisfaction lingered on for years and years. I conferred a relative immunity to camera lust. Every time I pulled the M5 out of the camera bag to use it I appreciated it more and more. Sadly, that feeling about current, digital cameras as left the building. Now my emphasis is on practicality and use parameters and not much more.
I'm curious to know what your aspirational film cameras were and if you've got cameras that you'd love to own in the digital age that give you the same feeling.
I can't be the only one thinking this way, right?