Sufficiently Sufficient?

Performer at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Several years ago.

Sufficiency. It's a word that Ming Thein uses and I'm starting to warm up to the concept. The nature of many photographers over the years is to continually strive to own and use the absolute best gear they can possibly afford at any given time. My pursuit of the Nikon D810 and then the Sony A7Rii is an example of that. My clients were perfectly happy with "lesser" cameras like the D610 and the A7ii but something vulnerable in my psyche kept pushing me toward potentially "better" cameras. 

My recent purchases of two cameras has stopped me in my tracks. Two cameras, one ten years old and the other one twelve years old, made me pause and consider. How did the two different 12 megapixel formats stack up to the cameras I'd been reflexively buying since owning them? Were there files better or different? Was my photography better now? Or worse? Or the same?

When we are trying to justify new camera purchases, especially if we already own perfectly good and reliable ones, we mostly talk about resolution, and the way the cameras handle low light/high ISO situations. With the exception of things like in-body image stabilization and different viewfinder options there's really not a lot else to compare. 

Like many other photographers I presumed that the cameras I used nearly ten years ago would have been eclipsed by the newer models and that the differences in actual performance (in "real" use) would be so glaringly obvious that one would have to be a dolt not to see it and want the newest magic sauce, if for no other reason that the color improvements in the latest sensors. Right?

Then I found a folder of images I'd taken a while back at our local music festival, SXSW. There were a bunch of images of performers on stage. I know they are nearly ten years old because the camera data in the files shows that they were done with a Nikon D300 camera and a (non-stabilized) Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 zoom lens. I started clicking through the hundreds of images I'd taken (on assignment) that at the festival that year and I have to say that I think the skin tones and colors are as good as anything I've taken since. In terms of dynamic range I am fascinated that the camera (and I) have nailed exposure on the performers face (above) but the backlight on her blond hair is not blown out at all. I can also see into the shadows without much strain. 

The D300 had a more limited raw buffer than we are used to today and the finder was smaller as well, but the body itself was stout, reliable and easy to handle. 

I guess the question I keep asking myself is: Why did I continually upgrade? What metric was so bad on the older generations of cameras that I felt compelled to keep buying and selling them? And, controversially, where was the sweetest sweet spot and how do we get back there?

I had an interesting comment on the blog yesterday. I'd posted an image of the Nikon D800e sitting on a tripod in the studio with a 105mm lens attached. One daily reader (MM) wrote to ask what I had done differently when shooting the image. What new sharpening routine had I embraced? 

All I had done was to put an "ancient" Nikon D2XS on a firm tripod, focused a 30 year old, manual focus 28mm f2.8 lens as well as I could, locked up the mirror and shot at f8.5. The file started life as a Jpeg. I tweaked it a little bit (as I normally do...) in SnapSeed, dialing in some shadow lifting and a little bit of "structure." No more or less than I would do with a file from a Panasonic GH5 or a Sony A7Rii. But something in the file from the ancient Nikon resonated with an experienced and savvy viewer. 

Did we hit the peak of camera performance for some subject matter, use targets, and points of view a decade ago? Were we so focused on the "potential" of new technology that we failed to see what we actually had? I wonder. 

I know the improved high ISO performance of sensors has helped many. The higher resolution comes in handy for some demanding applications. Live view can be handy. But if we come to grips with the nearly universal experience that the web is our real target for 99% of photographs then the larger pixel wells and various other attributes of the older cameras might be a better match for much of what we do. 

I point to recent cameras from Sony and Panasonic as examples of a re-consideration of larger pixel aesthetic pursuits; both in the GH5S and the A7Sxx cameras. Perhaps more camera makers will embrace the offering of cameras with sensors adapted for more than just resolution horsepower. 

Me? Just snapping up old D2XS and D700 cameras as fast as I can find them....Might look at D3S cameras as well....

Thanks to Ming for introducing "sufficiency" into the dialog. It's an interesting and worthwhile concept to consider. See Michael Johnston's ruminations as well: http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2018/04/whats-adequate.html

Buy yourself something nice at Amazon. I have an idea.....