Staying ahead and getting behind. Why the current gear buying model is bad for individual businesses.

Shot, pre-digital, with an old 35mm camera 
and some film.

Lordy. We all love our cameras. As long as they're brand new. I'm stunned at how often I hear (and say) stuff like, "I'm waiting for the new XXXXXX camera.  I just sold all my YYYYYY stuff and I'm switching over as soon as it comes out."  Boy oh boy! Are we ever great shills for the camera industry? (I am pointing my finger at myself and every photo blogger out there who consistently reviews all manner of digital cameras...).  Remember back when camera companies had to do their own advertising?

There's an old saying in political advertising.  It started with Karl Rove. It goes something like this:  "If you lie about something consistently and persistently it becomes, in the minds of the masses, the truth."  From the dawn of digital cameras there's been a mantra that grows each year in intensity and scope.  It says, "The newest technology is the best technology.  You must own it and use it if you want to remain competitive."  For the amateur the mantra is the same but ends with, "....if you want to live up to your artistic potential."

The last ten years has been somewhat of a revolution in the world of buying and selling cameras. With the ubiquitous nature of the web, the ease of blogging, the cult of photographic personalities and the magic of affiliate advertising programs (the 800 pound invisible carrot in the room) we've turned a quasi-logical process (evaluating and purchasing cameras for our hobbies and businesses) into a frenzied entertainment process.  Bored with your subject? Buy the latest camera. Too lazy to learn good technique? Buy the latest camera. Too scared to get out and show your portfolio? Stay in, buy a new camera and push some stuff out onto the web. But by all means, get a new camera.

We've all done it so often we've all come to believe it.  I've owned more different cameras in the last ten years than I owned in the previous (and very, very busy) twenty years. Probably by a factor of two.  And the tragic thing for me is that while I've "mastered" the process of discerning which cameras have the highest coolness quotient I've produced the least amount of really good work.  When your focus shifts from the art to the tools it's an inevitable consequence. I spend way too much time reading the goo on the web about cameras now than I do actually using them or getting myself into the right position to use them.

At this point two or three commenters usually rush in to tell me that they are the resolute masters of their impulses and that I don't have to look.  Let's not be so literal.  While I'm writing from my own experience I am using myself as a foil to discuss something that I think is very, very wide spread. People are becoming convinced that a constant churning of cameras is part of the photography business because that's what they hear at every popular portal.  Hobbyists are convinced that the success of the current "hot on the web" photographer is the result of the new camera he or she is touting. (Of course the logical assumption should be..."If they are such good and successful photographers why the hell are they wasting hours and hours a week on the web talking about photography equipment instead of spending their time making art?" I don't buy the "I love to teach so much I'm more than happy to walk away from hundreds of thousands of dollars of assignment revenue from world class clients, shooting the things I love to come to this mildewy general purpose room at the Red Lion Inn here in Des Moines in order to help middle age professional IT people get more out of every shutter snap.  It's my life's calling."  You've got to call "bullshit" on that).

It's worse for the professionals who think their lives depend on getting their hands onto the latest Nikon and Canon offerings, even though the cameras in their hands have been satisfying good clients for a year or more.  The majority of the time photographers are getting zero push back from clients on which camera they bring to bear.  It just doesn't make a discernible difference in most situations.  Very few projects ever hinge on the "per pixel sharpness at 100%" which is a goofy way to look at most imaging. 

But it can be highly detrimental to the financial health of their businesses because they lose money with every trade. They divert money that could desperately be used to do more marketing and advertising into equipment that merely duplicates the performance they already had in hand while perhaps adding 3 to 5% more of something vaguely worthwhile.  A slightly faster focusing system for the still life photographer, more art filters for the corporate shooter who will never use the filters....

But here we are. I have a friend who is an amateur photographer.  Three years ago the Nikon D3 was his "everything" camera.  The camera he dreamed of owning.  That was until the D3x came out and then the D3x was his everything-I-ever-wanted camera. The new camera of his dreams.  When we talked a few months ago I asked him how he liked his D3x.  His quote, "I could be happy with this camera for the next ten years. It's that good."  And now, last month?  "I've got to get my hands on a D800. Do you know anyone who's got them in stock?"  

The amazing thing to me is the way Olympus has managed to steal and transform the process yet again with their EM-5 camera. I've talked to otherwise rational people who bought Canon 5D3's and Nikon D800's who've turned around and added a OMD as, "Their walking around camera." They are not necessarily abandoning their traditional cameras as much as they are adding to the inventory.  And once you buy a OMD camera how can you bear not to have the 45mm 1.8 and the Leica 25 and the Panasonic 14, etc, etc? Now the second, smaller system is almost mandatory.  

And then, of course, you also have to have your state of the art pants pocket companion camera to stick into your skinny leg jean's pocket.  The start of the moment?  That would be the Sony RX-100.  For those times when the micro four thirds camera is just too big...  And the cost is the same as 1,000 big post card mailers with postage...

In days of old we would have settled on a system and nursed it for a decade but now we're convinced it can't be that way.  To not move forward would be too painful to our own imagined process.  Amazing. The bottom line is that the churn rate barely allows us to get to know our cameras as tools, much less develop a sense of mastery about them.  

But you know what I say......"Be sure to use our Amazon links!!!!"  right.

Note:  Comments are now open to everyone. But they are being moderated. If I don't like em I chuck em.  If you think that's not fair get your own soapbox.


The ever changing perspective of the marketplace.

Chanel boxes at Primary Packaging in NYC.
Was my camera "unprofessional"?

It's funny how perceptions change over time. In the higher ends of advertising photography no one wastes time trying to divide cameras into categories. There is no litmus test as to what might constitute a "professional tool" versus an amateur tool.  The new fascination with classification seems to have accompanied the rise of the quantifying class.  The information technology workers who are desperate to make sure they have just the right Swiss Army Knife of cameras to cover their every "creative" impulse.

The shot above was done with what was (and still is, in some circles) considered a reasonably good camera, in the early 1990's.  It was done with a Hasselblad camera body and a 120mm Makro Planar lens. It might, in some circles, be considered unusable today because of all that it lacks.  It didn't have auto-focus and by extension it didn't have lots of focus points or focusing programs.  It didn't follow focus at 10 frames per second (you'd be lucky to wind one frame every two seconds...).  It didn't have a motor drive, you had to wind the film for your self.  There were no automatic modes.  The camera I used didn't even have a metering prism.  You used a thing called an incident light meter to calculate your exposures.  Of course there was no LCD screen on the back to facilitate "stinky baby diaper camera hold" and there was no EVF for the enlightened.

The real deal killer is that you actually had to know what you were doing. What you wanted to come out of the whole exercise and how to make the right adjustments to get what you wanted without the endless iteration of the screen-o-roid.  But the biggest deal was that each click of the shutter cost you about a buck.  You actually had financial skin in the game.

The trade-off is/was that you were able to get images of spectacular technical quality and, in the right hands, brilliant visual poetry. The camera was there as a transparent facilitator of your vision, not as a prosthetic for the otherwise hobbled diletante. 

In the present when I write about or mention my attraction to a new camera and it's inevitable that someone will jump in and scream that the camera mentioned cannot be used for professional work under any circumstances because: (you fill in the blanks...) it's not weather-sealed, doesn't shoot at 8,10, 12 frames per second, doesn't autofocus quickly, is made out of plastic, is too small, has small batteries, isn't a Canon, isn't a Nikon and so many more tiring and gratuitous parameters.

It's a weird universe of new camera users who are dogmatic in their beliefs.  And underlying their belief system, vis-a-vis cameras, is the idea that a "professional" photographer swings from shooting weddings (which must, in their minds, always be shot with fast lenses and cameras with high ISO capabilities) to the next day shooting professional sports to the following day shooting architecture with a bag full of shift lenses.  In their minds every professional camera must be proficient at every thing ever imagined.

But it really doesn't work that way.  Most professionals I know don't shoot weddings and have never shot sports. The majority of the good incomes in the business still come from shooting advertising concepts and architecture and people, in the studio and on location.  We almost never need fast autofocus. Rarely need weatherproofing. And absolutely never need 12 fps.

I bring this up because DPReview.com had a lead article yesterday about a photographer who'd been hired to "cover" the Olympic games with the new Panasonic G5 and a bag of Panasonic lenses.  The usual culprits rushed to the comments barricade to foam at the mouth about the idea that this little camera "wasn't professional" and had no place at the august sporting spectacle.  Someone added that if the photographer were good enough he might struggle mightily and pull something decent from the camera. Of course every one conveniently forgets David Burnett's remarkable coverage two Olympics ago using a 4x5 inch speed graphic camera----which is loaded with one sheet of film at a time...

There's no way to really soft peddle this.  Those people are just full of crap. They have no idea beyond the theater of the web  with what or how professional photographers really do their work or what the ultimate client in this case is looking for.  Performance (speed) can't be the defining parameter because at some point quality is also an issue.  IQ can't be the sole parameter because at some point being able to carry the gear all day and point it at the right stuff is more important.

Here's the contextual reality they always seem to miss:  The stuff we can buy now for $899 (G5) or $1299 (The Olympus OMD) is so much better when it comes to on sensor performance than anything that pros shot at the Olympics four and eight years ago that it's laughable.  And the two targets for the work haven't gotten one lick better.  All the images are destined for magazines or the web.  The paper and ink are the same.  The magazines  are not using high density ultra gloss papers.  Magazines are printed on high speed web presses. On mediocre paper.  Quality is a fixed equation.  Just having a better camera is in no way going to improve the line screen of the press blankets or the alignment of the dots. The images, from a quality point of view, whether from a 16 meg Nikon D4 or a 16 meg Panasonic G5 are both ultimately limited by the conversion to CMYK (much more limited gamma, weaker blacks), the transfer to a lower line screen resolution, the lower reflective value of the cheap paper and the vagaries of matching inks to an electronic sensor output.  

The images that make it to the web, because of the bandwidth constraints, will hardly ever be shown bigger than about 1200 pixels at their widest and any of the current camera sensors from all of the majors can double or triple or quadruple that.  Bigger isn't going to make a difference.  Same with relative noise performance.

I spoke with a swimmer friend who is in London, at the Olympics, right now. He told me that the venue for the swimming is lit for television.  It's bright.  Really bright. Big HMIs bright.  Shooting at ISO 200 bright.  Makes sense since many of the broadcasters and their attendant advertisers are aiming their take at 60 fps 4K video.  That takes a lot of light.  What it means for the photographers is that this venue is nothing like that experienced by "uncle Joe" at the local Boys and Girls club gymnasium, lit by a few old sodium vapor nasty lights up in the ceiling. The still guys at the Olympics can use lower ISOs, coupled with fast lenses to make incredible photographs.  And they can do it well with just about any camera. Granted, the sports cameras are fast focusing and good at follow focus.  They also have massive buffers.  But, believe it or not the Sports Illustrated guys are shooting Jpegs for faster workflow and greater throughput.  Limited to 8 bit capture!

But my basic point is that these two hundred photographers out of the millions and millions in the world are doing something that is not routine for the photographer working in Des Moines or Cleveland or even on the beach in Miami. 

What makes for a "professional tool?"  It sits in the hands of someone with a vision and a client.  The camera facilitates that vision and the photographer delivers his point of view to a client, who, in all probability, hired the photographer precisely because he liked what he saw in the photographer's portfolio. Which probably came from the same camera he's using right now.

To hammer down my point.  If the mark of a pro camera is speed, waterproofing, high ISO functionality and big ass battery capacity then how do we explain the success at the top end of our business by the elite photographers who are shooting work with very slow medium format cameras and pricey, slow medium format lenses?  None of these cameras are weather proofed, none excel at high ISO shenanigans and none of them shoot faster than about a frame per second.

But people using these kinds of cameras are making the majority of high end ad images that you see in international advertising for cars, perfumes, fashion and consumer products.  People are also still using larger format cameras with tilts and swings and they are not using them to do low end jobs shooting soccer for kids clubs.

The idea of the professional camera in this day an age is really all about marketing. No one will keep one of the new bodies long enough to get fair use out of their implied indestructibility.  They are purchased, in part, by people who really do need the performance they offer (1% of the market) and the rest are bought by people who "want the best."

Is it any wonder that there are now two camps firming up in the market place?  One camp are rational users who've found cameras like the Olympus OMD and the Panasonic GH2 and the Sony a77 and Nex's who realize that new paradigms are at least as good in an all around sense as the older genre of cameras that came before them.  The second group are people who worked hard to join a club that is quickly becoming more and more irrelevant. And now they are dismayed that the implied exclusivity of membership which they think they bought is turning out to be largely irrelevant.

I always remember the story of artist and amazing photographer, Duane Michals, who showed up for a job with his camera and lens and twenty rolls of color slide film stuffed into a Macy's shopping bag.  He sat patiently while his client waited for the "professional photographer" to show up. He finally spoke up and they got to work.  That day Duane Michals, with one camera, bereft of ANY of the fey little miracles we take for granted on our present day cameras, knocked the socks off the client and the ad community by creating an ad campaign for multi-national client, Eli Lily (Pharmaceuticals). A campaign that still holds up well thirty years later.  

When the gadgets and over weaning capabilities of the cameras are more important than timing, vision, ideas, access and skill we have truly hit the point of ultimate wimpy-ness amongst photographers.  How will they ever function without automated tripods and built in "art detectors?"

A proficient craftsman masters the right tools.  And more times than not the right tool is a big slow camera with lots of magic.  Or big bright lights with no automation. Or a new pint size camera with outsized performance. Suck it up.  The "professional camera" can often be more of a crutch to the process than a panacea for being creative.

Edit:  I rarely indulge in "featured comments" but I loved this one by reader, George:

"When I stumbled across your site a few months ago I knew I had found a photographer who was concerned about the beauty of the final product as viewed in the real world (not at 100% pixel peeping zoom). If the same critics had examined Georges Seurat canvases only with a magnifier they would have tossed them into the waste bin; now they hang in the finest museums around the world. People forget that the human eye/brain system is incredible complex and subjective. What is pleasing to the eye is not necessarily the sharpest, exact image. I recently visited my son who had the latest and greatest HDTV and HD signal coming into his house. I found in watching a movie on his system that the images were so sharp and clear it somehow the actors seemed separate from the background as if they had been superimposed on the image. This is just my perception. Keep up the good work."