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....