1.11.2019

Can a new camera or lens make you a happier photographer? I'll vote "yes."

A work photograph. One of those times when everything should be in focus.

Sometimes it works for me to separate out act of photography from experience of owning and using a camera. The more rational among us will choose cameras that are cost effective, fulfill some needed photographic mission, and are straightforward and logical to work with. Apparently, as people age, they also gravitate toward cameras that are lightweight and easier to carry....

None of this really enters into my eccentric process for seeing, choosing or buying and then using cameras. Sure, they have to meet certain minimum criteria; they have to produce salable files, they have to make photographs on demand and on my schedule, but as long as they check the right boxes for image quality and reliability everything else is more negotiable. But the one thing that's not really negotiable is that the camera be fun. Fun to shoot, fun to own and aligned with my particular nostalgia of what a camera should look like and how the physical controls should present themselves.

I'll be frank, I get a lot of pleasure out of owning certain cameras and also trying out new stuff that's well made. I'm sure my predilection for the craft of camera making is a hold over from having come of age in photography at a time when there were a number of different cameras made to the highest physical quality. From mid-century Leica M series cameras to titanium Nikon models to the stellar construction of the Hasselblad SWC series cameras, the bodies were made to be handled for decades and to be totally stable platforms for the films moving through them, driven by gears and cams. At that time in camera history a dense and well made tool conveyed one of great accuracy (tolerances were important for film flatness in the gate and accurate focusing) and reliability. The idea of reliable cameras was especially important to professionals as camera bodies, pre-digital, were expected to earn their keep not just until the next cycle of Moore's Law but for spans of a decade or more of near daily use.

I like well made cameras. I don't particularly care about size or weight. A camera has to be big enough so that the controls aren't crowded and finicky. A good user camera for a person who is mostly mobile has to be limited, at a certain point, where weight and portability are concerned too. I remember testing the Leaf Af7i medium format digital camera. The camera, prism finder, digital back and the 180mm f2.8 Schneider lens together weighed in at nearly ten pounds. That's a bit much to drape over one's shoulder and use as a walk around, street shooter....

On the other hand I've handled a number of smaller cameras that are nearly unusable because their external controls are so minute, and clustered so closely together, that any real use of the camera is largely luck and hit or miss. Those smaller cameras are usually plagued with equally diminutive batteries as well... There are "right sizes" for cameras and they have evolved in the same way hammers and garden tools have evolved; after years, decades or even centuries of trial and error designers have largely figured out what configurations work (for most people).

I recently ditched Sony full frame cameras because I didn't like the way their cameras felt when I was holding them. Sometimes just holding them in my hands and other times when holding them up in the shooting position. It's all very nice that a camera can produce a pretty, 42 megapixel file but it's much nicer if the camera's design makes it look and feel good while you are using it. Same for the Nikon D810. It felt a hell of a lot better to hold than the Sony but was ungainly for carrying while urban hiking, just the same.

Truth be told, the Fuji XH1, when combined with battery grip, is just a bit too big for comfortable, long walks as well. But when stripped down to it's essentials the body is more or less just right. I like it a bit better than the XT3 and I love the design of the basic body. I haven't shot enough with the XH1 but I'm carrying it with me everywhere because it feels like a real camera and that makes me happy. Other cameras that had that feel (but missed on other parameters) were the Nikon 600 and 610, the Sony a99, and even the Canon 7D. Not too big, not too small. And with good proportions and control layouts.

I'd guess that many photographers are less immersed in their cameras. Mine travel with me everywhere, from the car to the pool to lunch and back home. I carry one into my doctor's office and it works great as a kind of security blanket. Once, in the midst of a medical emergency, I stopped by my office to grab my Leica M4, and took it with me to the emergency room and into ICU. It was a comforting companion and never complained about the hours or the service.

There are times when I've left the cameras behind. Usually when the gravity of a situation (which by its very nature is non-photographic) mitigates against it. I don't take a camera into the pool with me (although strapping a Go Pro to my kick board has crossed my mind... And I don't take cameras to funerals or business meetings (although there is always one in the car).

Sometimes the ownership of a fine camera is less about taking photographs than having the intention to make photographs. And sometimes carrying a camera is less about making a good photograph and more about having the potential to make a good photograph should the situation arise.

Intention and potential. That, and an appreciation of the (too few) times when camera makers get everything just right.


11 comments:

  1. I had a period where I real hard time getting motivated again for photography. It was shortly after a very successful exhibition but also at a time where I had to take over caring for ill parents. I'm sure you can get where I'm coming from..... What made the difference for me was buying a Nikon V1 camera.

    All of a sudden I had the camera with me all the time because it was light, small and fun to use. Instead of the bulky DSLRS I took the V1 everywhere. And; the end result was getting back into the groove and hitting upon another project idea which lead onto another bigger exhibition.

    Now the LX100 does that for me. The best camera I've owned as a take anywhere/project camera. So much fun to use and the output really punches above it's weight....

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  2. Hi Kirk, I think you were onto something with the post from 1/10/2018, but this one seems like a non-sequiter: what if The Good Old Days seemed that way because of what we of what we were able to achieve despite a lack of resources? In other words, maybe it’s not so much about the hardware as our attitudes. I’m using the same first generation Sony A7 that I’ve had for years, and have gotten to where I hardly notice shortcomings like the long startup time because I’ve learned to work around them without giving them a second thought.

    Jeff in Colorado

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  3. From reading about your "bread & butter" jobs I can imagine they could become routine enough to crush out your enthusiasm for photography. Chasing after the latest gear seems to keep your juices flowing, even though everything is at such a high level now that not much will have an appreciable technical effect. This seems like a perfectly natural and valid way keep yourself loving what you do.
    I'd say you're "powered by natural GAS"!

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  4. Interesting juxtaposition with the previous post. I'm voting no. I don't think art and happiness have much to do with one another.

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  5. Briefly happier, possibly. But not a better photographer to my mind.

    However there is a pleasure of ownership and an enjoyment of God product design... Even an excitement to use new gear, but I don't think they have any meaningful impact on doing good work.

    I am also an artist, I use many media from paints to pencils, various printing like woodcuts and lino... I can be guilty of buying a new pad to get me drawing, I don't find it works as good inspiration.

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  6. I think having the money to buy a new camera makes for a happier photographer even if they don't actually buy one.

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  7. Sure it can, but for me it's conditional. I've also bought new equipment and did not find happiness. I made a bad choice, period. So much depends on making the correct choices in gear, and I suppose this is an extension of the same thought processes and logic which tell me making the correct choices about every relationship, whether it be personal, professional or with equipment, is unique to each of us and highly subjective. I've made bad choices with all the above........ The interesting dynamic is to realize what we think we want is not always what brings us happiness. We have to know what we want, and need, and prefer, and find compatible. So yeah, Kirk, I think new gear can bring us happiness. Hopefully we're wise and honest enough to know our happy spot.
    ~Ron

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  8. My answer to the title question was going to be "No" - but I think I ultimately have to answer "Yes". I find that when I acquire a new camera or lens I want to go out and see what it can do. I tend to experiment with exposure modes, close focus, far focus, different exposure modes, and features previous cameras and lenses don't have. This experimentation can lead to new ways (for me) to take photos, which in turn can lead to better photos overall.

    I tend to want new cameras or lenses when what I have seems lack features or quality that I want or feel that I need. The problem is, what to get. Many of the system cameras and lenses I want tend to be too big or are outside of my budget. My mirrorless system has been discontinued, and my DSLR system is sure to be on the decline due to the shift to mirrorless. I am actually looking at acquiring fixed-lens cameras like the GoPro Hero7 Black, DJI Osmo Pocket, and Insta 360 instead, all of which have capabilities (weather sealing, top-notch stabilization, funky fisheye/360 modes) that none of my current cameras have, and are (relatively) inexpensive to boot. I guess I will just use what cameras and lenses I have until they no longer work and cannot be fixed.

    Here's an idea - instead of getting a new camera, put a current camera away for a few months or years, then start using it again for a period of time before getting bored with it and moving on to another camera that hasn't been used for a while. Each reacquaintance will be similar to learning how to use a new camera. Just a thought!

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  9. Good post Kirk. Although we all know that a camera system probably will not actually make much difference to the execution of photography, the right-for-you equipment can give pleasure, which means you may use the camera more, and be more enthusiastic: surely a good thing for the soul and your photography. I am experiencing this difference now, largely replacing my Canon 5DIV with the Olympus OMD system. I liked my Canon 6D, but somehow the 5DIV tipped me over the edge: it's just too bulky and with its lenses just altogether "too much". The m43 system has taken me back to my youth of smaller SLR film cameras and the size of a Leica M system. I can have all the lenses I like in a small bag, but in no way feel compromised in the quality of images I end up with, and in the capability of the system as a whole. I still have the Canon, but it really does seem absurdly large these days. I only keep it for low light sports shooting where it is much better than the m43, but I am sort ot looking forward to jettisoning all my full frame stuff in the near future.

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  10. As a scientist, I must talk from experience: yes! every time I got new equipment I am happier. Better? not a chance...

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