11.10.2021

Regressive upgrading. Going backwards to go forward. Or...why I like the older cameras.

Chef at Nutty Brown Cafe. On the way to Dripping Springs and destinations further West.

It was an amazing moment last week. We just finished swim practice, took our showers to rinse off the chlorine stick, dressed and walked out into the parking lot at the pool. The lot was filled with the usual Austin cars. Mostly Teslas, Range Rovers and Audis with sprinklings of Subarus and Mercedes(es). But there in one corner sat a 1965 Pontiac Lemans convertible; fully restored. One of our newer swimmers came walking out of the pool house, she got into the Lemans and fired up the 445 cubic inch V8 and we listened, hypnotized, to the throaty burble of the dual exhaust. We gathered around the Lemans to get a closer look, like cavemen gathering around a warming fire in the middle of a cold winter day. There was something about that old muscle car technology that emotionally trumped all the other fine cars around it. 

After she drove off the remaining audience started down memory lane, remembering the favorite cars of our youth. One person told the story of his BMW 2002 and another brought up his father's original Porsche 911. I thought wistfully about the Buick Wildcat I bought after high school. The one with a GM air conditioner that could keep beer chilled. The one with a backseat the size of a twin bed. And a trunk that could swallow any gear I tossed in. There was something exciting that we loved about our earlier cars which was replaced by practicality and, sure, reliability in our newer, safer and more boring cars. 

It's the same for some of us when it comes to cameras. I remember my old Canon EF with such affection. It was so good. Or it seemed to be in the era of its ascendency. I have good memories of a Nikon F100 which I enjoyed using much more than the F5 with which it shared a camera bag. And one never really gets over their time with their first Leica M3 rangefinder camera. That, and a 50mm Summicron just seemed like magic.

Today everyone is talking about upgrading from whatever their current camera is to a newer model that's just been introduced. Maybe the new one locks onto focus just a bit quicker or has two tenths of a stop more dynamic range. Or it has mouse-face detection. Or the maker has successfully removed the second most expensive part (the mechanical shutter) while raising the purchase price over the previous model by hundreds of dollars. Whatever little addition they can add to separate you from last year's model and this month's paycheck...

But I also see so many people who love photography going backwards to go forward. They may have purchased one of the newer cameras only to find that it's just not as much fun to shoot with as an older one they used to have. They remember back and decide that the old camera had some charming aspect to it that they missed. They also have come to grips with the reality that whatever improvements the manufacturer added to the new models they are mostly invisible in the final files and some of the new features are even more cumbersome to set up and use. Then they start looking around for good pre-owned versions of the cameras they loved in the past. The recent past or even the deep past (see: people regressing/evolving back to film!).

When I bought my first digital Leica SL model, the current SL2, I thought I was choosing exactly the right camera for the kinds of photography that I like best. It's a great camera and it keeps being technically improved with multiple firmware updates. But somewhere along the line I was introduced to the previous model; the original SL (601). I picked it up and fell in love with it. Ostensibly it's the same body style and size of the SL2 but it felt somehow different. Maybe it's the metal finish across the entire body instead of the SL2's addition of leatherette on the grippy parts. Maybe it's the four unmarked buttons on the back instead of the marked trio of buttons on the SL2. Maybe it's that the older menus are less complex and less encumbered with newer options. Whatever the reason I found that I really liked using the six year old model more than the newer model. It just felt right. It still feels right.

I have a theory that the first new flagship model from a camera maker or any other complex gear manufacturer is its purest form. That all the stops were disengaged and the engineers and designers given all the space they needed to make a halo product, to launch a make it or break it, top line object. The idea being that they'd come out of the gate with their best shot; their best hope at attracting first line customers. 

Then, after the product proved to be financially and mechanically feasible and somewhat popular the accountants and business school guys could step in and cut parts and qualities that aren't readily apparent to most end users. A cheaper part here or there. A thinner shell. Less expensive switches. Etc. They'd figure out how to cut costs while maintaining at least the appearance of "improvements." And once they found a financial sweet spot they'd iterate into more similar products with small points of differentiation. 

After my first episode of handling an original SL the hand feel and general essence of the camera stuck with me.  It was almost weird. I finally sourced a used one, in a box, with all the accessories and even the packing material...down to the little plastic bags that held stuff like the battery. When the SL came into the studio it was pretty much the last time I took the SL2 out for anything but paid assignments. The SL had superseded the SL2 in spite of the SL being five or six years older. With older sensor tech, a less impressive EVF and fewer comfort features, such as a more complex and usable touch screen.

But what the SL had was a design aesthetic that triggered my idea of exactly what a professional camera should be. A solid piece of alloy. Real (not Sears or Sony) weatherproofing. Solid performance. The right heft. And really good "in file" performance. After a couple of months using the SL as an almost daily shooting tool I felt a solid connection with that particular model that transcends stuff like goldfish face detection and other puffery. I liked it so much I hunted down a second SL body because...they just aren't making any more new ones...

I'm sure it would be the same for a died in the wool  Nikon or Canon photographer. There were models that just felt perfect to those photographers. And I'm not sure that the latest models necessarily have the same allure as the older stuff. A person who started with a Canon 5D and worked their way up through successive models might always have an affinity for the best of those 5Dx models (maybe the III?) and after using one of the newer R models might have the desire to pick up a used version of their old favorite. 

It's hardly a risk to go backwards a bit since the image quality difference is, for the most part, invisible in most daily use. 

It's been odd to watch Leica flirt with a higher resolution sensor in the SL2 only to come out with a newer camera that resets back to the 24 megapixel resolution. It'll  be odder still when they realize that they over gentrified the SL2 and newer models appear sans the leatherette but with added Industrial Strength Visual Body Design and they step back to re-engage with their ultimate design expression as expressed by the 601 (SL). Of course they'll probably add a few hundred dollars more to the price tag in the process....

But what's new?