I'm not smart with gadgets and appliances that have lots and lot of features. To make use of overly customizable devices one must either carry around in one's memory lots and lots of instruction sets and must have developed operational sub-routines (which, to my mind, complicate regular thinking) in order to really understand and take advantage of these "labor saving/thought saving(?)" features. It's all too much. Condemning people who just want to make photographs to the equivalent of memorizing all ten thousand plus pages of the tax code seems....counterproductive....at least from a creative point of view.
I guess this goes a long way toward explaining my own preference for cameras, computer applications, even washers and dryers that have few unneeded features and very straightforward controls and interfaces. There are many things I love about my Subaru Forster but the menus on the big screen in the center of the dashboard are not part of that love. In short, car/computer/phone interfaces suck...hard. We are only now, twenty some years into the new century, able to somewhat reliably connect our phones to our cars' audio systems. But earlier attempts were like pulling molars without painkillers.
I used to complain about some camera brands. I thought long and hard on what I really disliked about a camera like the Sony A7R2 I once owned. Was it really the handling? Yes and no. I could have adapted to the basic configuration of the body if only it hadn't been covered with endless, programmable custom function buttons. But it was the core operational stuff that left me cold. The endless and fragmented menus and weirdly cut out connections between menu driven features. Grayed out selections of great mystery and frustration. I'm sure I could have learned to play "all the keys on that keyboard" if I'd donated dozens of hours of time and practice but why would I waste so much time on some things that could have been made so much simpler and more logical? Why indeed?
It's the same with programmable buttons on lenses. Why on earth are they there? Or the dual position levers on some Fuji cameras and some Olympus cameras. Who remembers what that second set of settable commands is for and why do we care? It's more stuff to memorize. More stuff to deal with when changing conditions trick us into thinking we need to change the way our camera operates. It's all madness.
I remember when even digital cameras had simpler menus. Striving for a simple menu should be an enormous goal and one that is ultimately a net positive for consumers! We no longer require elevator operators to get us from floor to floor. It's as easy as pushing one button. When I look at my churn of cameras I notice that the periods of heightened churn correspond to buying cameras that promised better performance but sabotaged the enjoyment of the camera in order to "gift" the user with ever greater complexity. Ever the optimist I always felt as though I could master the menus and make sense of the offerings but my brain isn't built to jump through oddly connected hoops for tiny or non-existent rewards.
I have friends whose brains are wired differently. They get a new camera and settle in to "customize" it endlessly. They've got buttons set for just about any contingency and they seem to know, almost instinctively, what each buttons now does and how it can be re-customized to do even more.
I am routinely baffled by their excitement about gaining a new function button. Or being able to customize that button in dozens of different ways.
I notice that I haven't yet sold any of the core Leicas I've been buying over the last three years. Sure, I got rid of a Leica TL2 but only because its menu was so experimental and so out of touch with the way the menus operate in all the other L mount cameras. And this led me to try and understand why it is that I enjoy shooting with the Leica L mount digital cameras so much. It's down to the wholesale reduction of visual clutter on the external body and an equally wholesale reduction of menu complexity on the inside.
We can drone on and on about the "glorious" Leica lenses (and they are very good!) or the build quality of the bodies, or the color science "magic" of the sensor implementations but in reality, for me, it's all about how easy the camera is to use. When I compare something like the SL2 or even the now discontinued CL with a recent camera from Sony it's like being asked to drive a car with automatic transmission through rush hour traffic as opposed to driving an 18 speed manual with no sync between gears and a heavy, heavy clutch pedal. Masochism versus photography.
In many ways this very issue explains the popularity of the Q and Q2 cameras to a large segment of the market for high end compacts. Sure, the ads call out the quality of the lens and the resolution of the sensor but I conjecture that most buyers are coming from complex cameras and trading the complexity for a logical interface that gets out of the way of taking the actual photographs. They are buying back brain space, simplicity and time. And time is the most valuable of the three.
Tom Hogan writes after market books which are like readable, understandable owners manuals to deal with the complexity of new cameras. I remember him saying that each new camera model requires longer and longer books to cover all the "features" of a new, higher end camera. And he's just writing about Nikon cameras. Imagine the tomes he'd have to construct to cover and explain some of the cameras from other companies.
I looked in a filing cabinet and found the owner's manual for one of my old film cameras. It was a little over twenty pages, filled with illustrations and small enough to carry in the back pocket of my pants. Most people buying a camera back then looked to see if there was anything out of the ordinary with their new camera purchase, tossed the manual back in the box and were out shooting in minutes. Not now. Not today.
So, to the first topic, the cameras I like and am attracted to offer simplicity above all. They make setting the exposure and the basic color simple and straightforward. A photographer with a narrow set of requirements might only need to visit the menus in a number of my cameras to re-format a memory card. Or to (easily) update firmware. I like cameras that are plain and well designed. Designed as objects.
Why do other people seem to have different ways of assessing cameras? I can only imagine that they construe all the levels of customization as extras that they are getting for the purchase price of their camera. They equate added features with some metric of both financial value and operational potential in their camera purchase. They predict that they will use some subset of features that the camera offers in a much different way than I might use them. I might be put off by very complex autofocus menus while others might imagine that they need to complexity in order to ensure success in some sort of photographic endeavor. But, of course I am endlessly baffled by those who select cameras with super fast, continuous AF but who profess to be "landscape shooters." A speciality in which AF performance is as necessary as ventilation holes in swim goggles.
Some people are logical to an extreme believing a camera or hammer or tool of some kind can be evaluated by looking at all the features on offer, placing said features on a series of spread sheets and creating a numerical measure or score for each thereby allowing them to dispassionately see the advantages and disadvantages of each product under consideration. Then factor in the price and hit "compute."
Almost like a television-era Star Trek episode in which societies are controlled by omni-powerful computers that have become both misguided and malevolent. The computer controls all the decisions and comes up with the most logical conclusion. And it becomes law. Only to have Captain Kirk rush in, destroy the computer and bring back idea of love, individual freedom and so much more.
Okay. So I like cameras that just work. I like cameras that don't require frequent visits to the owner's manuals. I dislike cameras on which there are so many extra buttons that I have to handle the camera gingerly to prevent pushing something that will require yet another dive into the owner's manual to learn how to reset or correct. And I like cameras that are big enough to feel good when I hold them, point them and use them. Ah, now I begin to understand the owner's of Pentax K-1 cameras. And the new Hasselblad owners. Trimmed down menus, well done design work. Nothing archly rudimentary or banal about design.
Photographic styles. Here, once again, I am lost. I have a preference when both photographing and looking at photographs for portraits or candid images of people. I also have anti-preference for wide angle, wide frame shots of people. Which is kind of weird. I like seeing people clearly and without a lot of surrounding clutter which goes a long way toward why I'm not a huge fan of "street photography" done on the run with wide lenses, like the ubiquitous 28mm that seems to be the choice of a whole new generation. Even worse would be a 24mm and beyond that, when photographing people, you would lose me altogether.
If I could spend the rest of my life just making photos that I love I would wish for a never ending stream of interesting people to come into my small studio space and slow down enough to make really thoughtful portraits with me. But I hear from so many people that this is not what they are interested in photographing. They profess to want to photograph sports or wildlife or landscapes. And that's fine with me. But when I look around my office and my home all I see are interesting faces looking back at me. Not a landscape or a still life on any of the walls.
I have a theory about this. My father was in the U.S. Air Force. We moved a lot. My parents were okay with spending only one year at a time in a location. But as a kid it was traumatic to make friends only to lose them twelve to eighteen months later. Sure, we'd promise to keep in touch but what five year old or eight year old sits down with a neat and complete address book and crafts timely correspondence to multiple people he subliminally knows he will probably never see again? And where would he find the time in yet another location while trying as fast as possible to make new friends and new connections?
Is it any wonder that our memory keepsakes would revolve around trying to fix and preserve our truncated relationships with people whose company we've come to enjoy and even love? By the time my family settled down in one spot, with me starting high school at the time, we'd lived in a dozen cities, visited many different countries and I'd seen enough spectacular landscapes and monuments to last me a life time. And generally the landscapes are almost always re-accessible but the relationships are lost forever. Which should I document? Which should I cherish?
Then there is the question I am nearly always asked by some very diligent and well intentioned(?) web expert: Why does it seem that I only like photographing beautiful people? And drilling down a bit more: Why beautiful female people? Why do people enjoy eating delicious food? Why buy beautiful furniture?
I had a friend who is a documentary photographer. He photographs only in black and white. He photographs mostly people in distress. Farm workers doing backbreaking work. Prison inmates. Protests. Famine and floods. Victims everywhere. He asked me why I don't do the same.
I replied that one approach is the carrot and the other is the stick. One method appeals to guilt and shame. The other is aspirational. I want to photograph beautiful people to show their beauty to an audience. I want life to be beautiful. I'll only be here to savor it for a short time. I don't want to spend that time feeling bad, guilty, privileged or otherwise incorrect. You can stare at the sun or you can stare at a flower. You can spend your life pushing against social injustice or you can aim for some sort of balance.
When I grew up in photography documentary work was king. Prevalent. Lauded. But relentlessly depressing and for the most part it has never moved the needle on human suffering. There are exceptions just as there are in politics. But have things gotten better for everyone?
We create policies for the masses but as humans we connect individually. I want to look at a beautiful human face and see the glory of existence. I want to show a beautiful face as an example that is different than someone else's determination of beauty. I want to see eyes filled with compassion, curiosity and resolve. I'm not looking for easy sensuality but for consummate beauty that comes from confidence. And sometimes I am successful photographing that. Which, for me, trumps all. Why women? Because I don't understand them in the same why that I do fellow men. We're easy, they're complex. I'm always curious.
I photographed several national presidential conventions for a Texas newspaper. It was fun in an "event" sort of way to be in the middle of a big political transition and a big show but the images aged quickly for me and the fun, in retrospect, was like eating Twinkies or donuts. It got old quick. I photographed a series of landscapes on medium format transparency film for the Nature Conservancy. The landscapes were beautiful if you "lived them", if you were there, but much less so in the rear view mirror. Over the course of my career I've photographed architecture and an almost endless collection of products but they all pale in comparison to a single portrait sitting with someone who is destined to become a friend. Models who grow up and bring their children back to meet you. Faces that are so welcoming. Eyes that speak a language all their own.
Portraits are my souvenirs of human interaction and relationships. It's a simple as that.
When I read blogs and essays on the web or in newspapers I wonder why people who grew up in the same country and same relative demographic as I did can be so different, think so differently and believe so strongly that their experience and point of view is superior and....pervasive. My psychiatrist friends tell me it all stems from the result of childhood experiences tightly wired into the brain. Emotional strategies developed in early childhood to protect and provide some measure of security against the traumas of growing up. And in this each person is somewhat unique.
Some feel the clinging to "superior" expertise will provide safety or an advantage in our culture. They surround themselves with a moat of their learned knowledge. But a moat keeps people inside as effectively as it does keeping them outside. And so much energy goes into defending the territory. And then technology conspires to eradicate the value of that tightly held knowledge.
You've met them. The expert on 1950's vacuum tubes. The expert on wines from a certain region. The economic expert who appears at every rent in the financial system to make prophecies that are never accurate and never come true. The expert on aviation who has never flown a plane. The expert on photography who no longer makes photographs but instead expounds on historic photo lore. The person who can name every piece of classical music but plays no instrument. And can't read a score.
I'm not interested in being an "expert." It requires too deep a dive into minutia. It takes too much time. There's so much else to see. I'm happy enough just being curious and being able to also change my mind when new facts, styles, trends, inventions and even ways of understanding arise. I'd rather jettison a practice than continue it without any passion.
I can't tell you which Leica lens was made with a radioactive element. I don't memorize model changes by serial numbers. But I am willing to try a new way to look at stuff.
Being a simple thinker I am apt to divide the people I engage with online into two camps: The passionate artists and the logical rationalists. Each camp finds it very hard to cross over to the other team. We'll forever disagree about basic technical stuff because of the divide between the camps. One camp will always be perplexed about the other. I realize that now, so late in my career.
It's always hard to reconcile the difference. But maybe it makes no difference at all.
I think I'll go out for a walk.