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?


  1. One of my favorite aphorisms is "A difference to be a difference, has to make a difference." Once upon a time, there was a real hierarchy of lens performance that went from barely adequate to really superb. My Argus C3 was at the bottom, and the Leica M3 was at the top, to be lusted after. Eventually, I had a pair of M4s with 21, 35, 50 and 90mm Leitz lenses. LIfe was good. Fast forward through the digital revolution. For while, each new iteration of sensor added some real benefit, and we endured the curse of frequent obsolescence. But now I think we've reached a plateau of "everything is good enough," and most cameras are great compared to the old days. My pocket sized Sony RX100 gives me files that equal the old Leicas shooting Tri-X. I'll grant you, it's a different look, but you can actually post process to match almost any look you want. Choice of camera for me relates to particular tasks. Am I shooting sports with a tele lens, or available light in a dim venue? Will I be using a tripod for maximum landscape quality, or channeling Robert Frank on the fly? I agree completely with your thesis, there is no longer any "aspirational" camera. Just a range of tools, and I can probably afford the one that will help me do my job.

  2. I already have what I need with my collection of various Lumices and native and adapted lenses. I occasionally add to my inadvertent collection of old film cameras, which includes my first 35mm, an Argus C3. I would love to add a Kodak wood 8x10 like the one I foolishly sold a couple of decades ago.

  3. I know that dashboard view! The prism added to my current prescription-- one lens slightly up, one down -- corrects for it.

    As to aspirational cameras, the first was a Pentax K1000. When it was stolen I bought another. It resides in the back of a dresser drawer now, pulled out only ocassionally to muse over the value/cost aspects of having it restored (yes, the mercury battery died in place and sealed itself shut forever). The OMD EM5.2, acquired about a year after your "Definitive Review", handles much like the old Spotmatic, only lighter. Something tells me that brings gear lust to an end. Except for maybe another lens...or two....

  4. back in the film days I used a canon T90 and was mostly happy but aspired to Contax 159 with 25/50/85 lenses or an Eos for the TS-E lenses (I’m an Architedt...).

    When digital came along I still aspired to a FF Eos and TS-E Lenses. I have that now and don’t really aspire to anything. I do however like playing with old film cameras and currently aspire to a Olympus OM-4ti, Minolta TC-1, or Leica R7!

  5. I actually still own both my aspirational cameras -- a Leica M3 with 35mm Summicron and a 4x5 Deardorff (technically a 5x7 with 4x5 back, but close enough). I enjoy both as objects of mechanical craftsmanship as as much as for their photographic purpose. Maybe almost entirely as fine objects now, as it is very unlikely I will ever again put film in either of them.

    The only digital camera I ever loved was the weird and quirky Sony 828. I have liked a few of my Panasonics well enough -- the GX-1 comes to mind -- but mostly they are plastic boxes that make cool photos and serve well enough until the next upgrade. The two digital Nikons I owned I mostly found annoying. I could make nice photos with them, but never much enjoyed using them.

    I was very much into cars in my younger days, but these days I find it hard to care. My current ride is a 15-year-old Astro van. Pretty much a zero for cool or style, but it sure does get the job done. I could, however, really go for a Sunbeam Tiger. At least I think I could. The first drive around the block might cure me of that.

  6. In the late '60s my aspirational car was the MGB GT, because that's what the girls aspired to be seen in. (I lived in the UK) I couldn't afford anything with wheels and an engine until the late '70s, and during that same period as far as photography was concerned it's wasn't the film cameras that were aspirational, it was the film itself! I had a very basic second hand 35mm rangefinder of no significant name and a no-name 120 folder. Leica, Nikon, forget it! I eventually (1976) got a Pentax SLR and had it for many years.

    Now I can afford pretty much what I want so I drive an AWD Lexus (reliable and just right for Canadian winters), but I would be happy with anything that was reliable and comfortable. (The 'girls' in my life now: wife, daughters, and grand daughters don't seem to care what I drive!) And as far as cameras go, I buy what I know I will enjoy using and get the best pictures from. I have no desire to own a D5, or Hasselblad. I do like my Leica's however (digital and film), and I like my folder film medium format Fuji GF670. An Olympus kit serves when I need AF, zooms, etc. but it's hardly aspirational. On reflection, I notice that the cameras I prefer now are in fact highly improved versions of what I had in the very beginning.

    The technology moves forward, our needs change, we get wiser. It all has an effect. (But perhaps there is a Tesla 'MGB GT' in my future after all!)

  7. Aspirational film camera.

    A Gandolfi 8 x 10 with a Cooke Series XVa Triple Convertible Lens. Although Gandolfi are no longer in business, Cooke very much are, particularly for their cine lenses, which are made in Leicester, England. They still make their large format lenses too.

    Aspirational digital camera.

    None. I have a Canon 6D and Sony Nex series, all do the job very nicely. When the Hasselblad HC with 39Mb back came out, John, the photographer at RCS England had just purchased an outfit, costing north of 50k. I played with the camera and all the lenses, very impressive, but I didn't particularly want one (irrespective of the cost).

    But I do love my little Ricoh GR (APS-C)! It looks like it cost £10 from a charity shop so people take pity on you, smile and they let you take photos all day. If they stopped production I would buy a couple and squirrel them away. Curiously, it's the only camera from the digital age I have any emotional attachment to.

  8. My experience mirrors yours, Kirk. When I was young I lusted after Leicas and had quite a few (M3, M6TTL, CL, SL, R6, R6.2) and loved them. My aspirational camera was the Hasselblad. Got one of those with 50, 80 and 150mm and nearly bankrupted myself doing so. Liked the results, but in general as I entered my 40s found them too bulky to give me pleasure, coupled with problems of getting good prints from them when you have no home darkroom and limited means. Now I am fully Canon digital and my camera lust has completely vanished. I have everything I need and I cannot see myself buying anything new for a long time. I feel certain that in a decade I will be mirrorless and I will have downsized my kit still further. Sometimes I think it may reflect a diminution of photographic passion, but I don't think so. The only camera that has really caught my interest recently is the Leica Q, which I found to be an enchanting product, but at the price it is out of league, and, of course, I have no real need for it anyway as my Canon 5DIV and 35/2 takes just as good pics. Still the Q is a beaut...

  9. Just thought you might like to know Honda is making a nice Accord fastback for 2018. 250hp, yes horsepower not megapixels, and a 6 speed manual transmission. Very aspirational.


  10. I'm not a car guy , the only name listed I think I recognize is the Sunbeam Tiger because I think that is one of the cars driven by Agent 86 Maxwell Smart on "Get Smart" ( think it was the gold one maybe ? Couldn't been the red or the blue, I'm not that good with cars ).

    Your post made me think of the Proust quote " we do not succeed in changing things in accordance with our desires, but gradually our desires change. "

    I got an F5 that I wanted because it was the biggest baddest camera and honestly I still lust for that viewfinder and grip but the weight was massive and I don't shoot film enough to have kept it.

    Some days I dream about a Hasseblad 500CW and I may make that come true with a digital back. I guess I like really large viewfinders. After fulfilling my D600 dream December 2014 and using it quite a bit, its hard to really feel that I'm missing out on something massive. The Sony A7R2, Fuji GFX and maybe the A7R3 may have the specs that give me that urge but they are missing a little bit here and there as a total system to make me think that I'll be complete when I get "x" camera.

  11. Always wanted that Hasselblad Superwide, which I never did get. Now? The iPhone 8 plus.

  12. Sunbeam Tiger/GTO. What memories from my youth. Horribly impractical, but great fun.

  13. For Cats, a G wagen Mercedes,older model not the stratosphericly expensive new ones. Creat 4x4 for Winters and small dirt roads I love to to to.

    Cameras,not so much lust.. lenses... Yes please..

  14. My aspirational 35mm film cameras included at different times the Olympus OM-4T, Nikon F3, Pentax LX, and Canon F-1n. I had to make do with the Olympus OM-1, Nikon FM2N, and Nikon F801S.

    My aspirational medium format cameras included the Hasselblad 501C and Mamiya RZ67 and Mamiya 6. I had to be content with a Yashica mat 142G, and a Mamiya C220f and C330f.

    My aspirational large format cameras included the Sinar P, Linhof Technikardan, and Wisner Field cameras. I instead designed and built my own (mostly crude) cameras out of wood and other parts available at hardware and craft stores. (I used a photos of a couple of build-it-yourself 4x5 kit cameras as inspiration.)

    I don't really pine for film cameras any longer. Digital is more my thing now. My aspirational digital cameras would include the Nikon D500, upcoming Nikon D850, Sony A7Sii A7Rii, and A9, Olympus EM-1 ii, and Panasonic GH5. Instead I am getting by (quite nicely) with a Nikon D7000 and two V1s.

    They may not be aspirational cameras, but those that I have owned and used have been very good picture takers (and in some cases video makers). It is largely how the equipment is used that ultimately counts (although with digital, having a good sensor and imaging engine always helps).

    I have aspired to take photographs on par with those of Ansel Adams, Yousef Karsh, Aubrey Bodine, Irving Penn, and numerous others. I rarely (never?) take photos that are remotely as good as best work of these photographers. But that won't stop me from trying. In the end, that's what really counts.

  15. The best photos from friends and relatives lately are all shot on iPhones. But I still lug cameras. Next one will have great IBIS and readily use legacy lenses. Other than that, meh.

    For car... at my age and with a Texas retired teacher income....that is, for poverty level income with the prospect of health care costs that will bankrupt me...how about something that can avoid all accidents and get 100 mpg minimum.

    That's reality. If I won the lotto, then a GH5 pending Tuck's review, and a luxury AWD maybe from BMW that I could roll in the Big Bend and not give a rip.

  16. As one grows older and finds that one has everything one needs and 'most everything one wants, except for those things that are too far out of reach financially even to be thought about, it does take a little bit of the fun and anticipation out of life.

    But I am finding the Fuji X-Pro 1 to have possibilities as an aspirational camera. We'll see how that works out

  17. For me growing up in WI, the Nikon FM was my first great camera - I got the grip/film drive and had a blast shooting sports while in high school in the late 1970's. I sold it to a film student a few years ago since moving into digital. If I had a Nikon F3, I would keep that one for life. My 1st car was a retired Plymouth police car - 7.2 liter, 440 police interceptor engine. I spent lots of time and money at the gas station!

    Digital is now an Olympus EM-1 with mostly the 9-18mm zoom mounted, plus a set of 8, 14, 17, 25, 45mm primes and the 50-150 basic zoom. The newer 12-100 might make an appearance once pricing drops down a bit.

    I'd love to have the Nikon D500 with the 200-500 for wildlife and lowlight (two area my current kit does not cover well). Car might be a BMW Mini - lots of fun in a small package.

  18. Any 1 series Canon SLR would have been my answer for a very long time. That and a couple of lenses such as the latest big-aperture stabilized 70-200, 100-400 and a short wide-angle zoom. I can't imagine what else I would have needed. But... I could never afford them and now I don't have to. I don't shoot paid assignment anymore, neither sports nor weddings, and my APS-C sensor body does just fine for the few times I do require higher quality images.

    That said, as long as I keep the ISO levels low, I can get very usable images from the Micro 4/3rds body and lenses I currently own and even from the Canon G7X Mark II I carry around in my work bag. Most cameras now are really, really good, better even at the entry level than most of what I could have afforded in the film days.

  19. Did you know that Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame and 1%'er drove a 1996 Honda Accord for many years? He was and perhaps still is a "good enough" type of guy.

    We're a three Honda family. We added a '16 Accord Sport last year to our '08 Civic and '12 CR-V stable. For cars, I want reliability, be a good value, and be fun-to-drive (it just needs to take freeway on-ramps well). After straying to other brands for a couple of cycles, I came back to Honda. Reliability is king and I need my cars to turn on and just go, only having to deal with the rare hiccup -- dead battery, flat tire, etc.

    If I were less frugal, I'd probably still stick with an Accord and add something like a new Civic Type-R, their newly launched "hot hatch." If money were no object, I'd add a little Porsche Cayman, to add to my freeway on-ramp thrillseeking.

    On the camera front, I agree, there is nothing on the super high end that I want. The marginal utility for the extra dollars spent doesn't make sense. Right now, my goto cameras are a NEX-6 and an A77ii. My aspirational kit would include these three:

    1) A6500
    2) A99ii
    3) A7ii

    Nothing too extreme ... I think I like to just blend in.

  20. If you lusted after an M5, whatever you do don't even go close to an M10. :) Same feel. Same beautiful glass. Large ding in bank account....


  21. You are not the only one.

    Your anecdotes parallel mine in an eerie way.
    I did lust after Hasselblad gear for ultimate image quality in my early years but settled on a Leica M4 as the object of my desire.
    I had a friend who had an M5 and while it was superb, I preferred the smaller, denser form of the M4.
    It was a delight for years but additional lenses always seemed to be a month's pay. This was before I got the used lens religion.

    In digital I did always cast a covetous eye at the high res, large sensor cameras thinking that they possessed some magic juju that would transform me from a decent local pro to a rock star international photo icon.
    In the cold light of day I knew this to be patently false but we all delude ourselves in some manner.

    When the Fiji GFX was introduced this precipitated the most recent (and hopefully last) bout of GAS. I STILL have the brochures. However I knew after working with a variety of files from a variety of cameras that the differences were not worth the money to switch.
    Nonetheless, I bought a 5DsR in the belief that the 50MP would make a difference in my architectural work and found that it really didn't.
    If the meteorite hit my studio I would probably get an Olympus or Panasonic kit.

    As for cars, my lust object was a Citroen DS21 Safari wagon.
    New cars are appliances.


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