My love-hate relationship with gear

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The guilt (and equipment) stacks up like tetris: this is only one of my equipment cabinets; if I don’t put everything in just so, then it won’t fit. And lighting gear, accessories, tripods, bags etc. are stored elsewhere.

Any photographer who tells you that they are a hundred percent, completely indifferent to equipment is lying. It is almost (I say almost to cover myself in the unlikely event there really is somebody out there) impossible to be immune to the lull of new cameras, lenses or accessories; we’ve all felt the pull at one time or another, no matter how weak or irrational. Actually, it’s the irrational that I’m going to talk about today – purchases that are necessary from a professional standpoint (e.g. you have to buy lights if you’re going to be a studio product photographer) don’t really require justification; at least insofar as there are degrees.

These degrees keep getting wider and wider, I suppose. Before you know it, you need to buy another drybox just to keep all of your extra gear; and then suddenly, from having a couple of bodies and a handful of lenses (say, immediately before I decided being professional was adequate justification) to what has now become three core systems, seven system bodies, twenty-seven interchangeable lenses, six fixed-lens cameras and countless accessories. And that doesn’t include any of the stuff I have on loan to review, which is usually a couple of bodies and lenses. I know. I keep preaching the virtues of being equipment-agnostic, but the reality is really somewhat hypocritical.

Or is it? Yes and no, I think. Being able to create the images you see independently of the gear you use frees you up to use…whatever you want. I know that I am not the limitation; you compose for a 75-degree angle of view with the same fundamental principles of light, perspective etc. regardless of the format or the box holding the medium; sure, some media may render differently from others, but one could argue that as a creative choice, too. When you have choice, freedom and business-related tax-deductibility rolled into one, why would anybody consciously choose to use something substandard? I am a strong advocate of using what you enjoy above what delivers technically the ‘best’ results, though. This is simply because something that gives you pleasure is far likely to be used more often, which in itself should result in more practice, experimentation and the improvements associated with it. (I go into a lot more detail on why the tactile pleasure and ergonomics of using a camera matters in this article.)

At this current point of technological sufficiency, one’s photographic choices are wider than ever. The notion that pros must use certain types of equipment is utter nonsense; it doesn’t affect the composition of the final image at all, and for the vast majority of applications, makes very little difference to the output quality. The myth is perpetuated as much by pros themselves as clients to keep barriers to entry as high as possible; even then, things are falling. Reality is today’s high-end compacts – the RX100/RX100M2 for example – deliver much better image quality than the top end DSLRs of just a few years ago. It’s forced manufacturers to start filling ever-shrinking niches – just look at the recent Df – to keep themselves in business.

But that doesn’t stop us from buying them. Do I, or most of my clients, need the resolution of the D800E? No; let alone the CFV-39. Do I use it because of aesthetic value in some cases – or with the Hasselblads, all cases – yes. Could I get 95% or more of the way there – even by my standards – using just one system and a little bit more postprocessing (tonal work, dodging and burning, stitching) – absolutely. ‘Need’ doesn’t really enter into this anywhere; it’s pure want want want. I don’t use any of my film cameras enough to justify having them; the F2 Titan makes me feel positively guilty sometimes because I just don’t have the time to use it. And if I did, I’d probably not really be doing it justice. But I tell you what, it certainly pushes all of the right acquisitory buttons, and I admit, there’s some odd elitist snob factor to opening your drybox and seeing it parked there (especially with a Noct-Nikkor on the front).

And here comes the hate: it just seems wasteful. I don’t know if there’s anything inherently wrong in that, since I suppose my drybox is just as good as the next guy’s, and if push comes to shove, I can still make decent images with it. But I suppose there is a substantial part of me that feels quite guilty for having handed over a significant chunk of cash to own this stuff; moreso because I’ve got so much of it that I don’t feel like I’m getting value out of it. And it’s not like I couldn’t use the money for something else, either. Usually when this feeling takes hold, you’ll see me put up a post about a garage sale – which assuages things until the next time. Most of the time though, I somehow manage to put all of this out of my mind and continue acquiring on the flimsiest of pretences.

I suppose there’s a distinction to be made between photographers and camera collectors; the former use their gear, the latter just like to have the objects. (And let’s not even get started on the fanboys; that’s a separate discussion I don’t want to go into. Unfortunately, photography is such a technical discipline that it’s very difficult to separate gear from art; they’re interdependent.) I’m fortunate enough to know several people with extraordinary collections; there are cameras which are so legendary you’d be lucky to see just one in your lifetime; they have two. Mint, in box, of course. I can’t blame them; there’s both tactile and aesthetic pleasure in appreciating rare, well-designed and well-made objects. (I can’t blame them, I’d certainly own a couple of F2 Titans – and the uber-rare unpainted version – if I could afford it.) Perhaps it’s all the more enhanced for us as photographers since I believe we have above-average appreciation of aesthetics anyway. Perhaps what I’m really having trouble reconciling internally is that over the last year, despite ostensibly focusing increasingly more on the productive side of photography, I’ve actually bought a hell of a lot of unnecessary equipment. I’m sure there are creative development benefits that have resulted – my foray into medium format film with the Hasselblads, for example – but one could also argue that I could have reached that point if I’d just forced myself to shoot square with a 50mm on the D800E. Compositionally, the result should be much the same, and I should be able to get pretty close (but admittedly, still not matching) the tonal result in postprocessing, too.

I’ll come to the point of the article now: is there really any more justification today than want? I keep thinking of fanatically religious reactions – both ways – that I get after posting thoughts on new cameras like the A7 and Df; none of them come from photographers. And that’s the disconnect that’s happening in the industry now: camera makers want to sell cameras, they don’t give two tiny mouse droppings about who buys them. Photographers want to make images. It seems that often these two things are at odds with each other.

Perhaps all of this is a consequence of the nature of today’s society: instant gratification and constant stimulation is required to keep us from getting bored. There’s no point in buying an old model simply because there’s a new one; I don’t want to wait til tomorrow, I’ll drive to the other side of town to buy it so I can have it today. And why hasn’t Ming posted his review yet, the embargo has been lifted for two hours already! Of late though, I find myself enjoying two somewhat strange aspects of the collecting process (note how I admitted to ‘collecting’) – the search, and knowing that I have the ability to buy or not buy, as I please. The latter is sometimes enough to overcome the desire to own in itself; for me there’s no pleasure in ownership, just responsibility (proper storage, proper use, servicing, etc.) – the pleasure is in the experience and the creation. Using the equipment to make photographs. And I think that’s justification enough for the rest of it- remember that before you pull out the credit card.. MT

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Comments

  1. liramusic says:

    HI, Old jim writing in. I do not have the time luxury to read all these entries here but it occurs to me that this thread is– by extension– not just about photography but about life. Where do we draw line n the sand, or no, that’s not the question. Do we ever want less to be more? Consider Tiny Houses & that sort of idea. Do we as people begin to be subsumed by our possessions? I collect everything and so: “I am a hamster.” The opposing idea would be that I loose sight of what I should be enjoying and noticing. I begin to want more and cannot appreciate what I have (two fx bodies and four prime lenses). Well, at any rate, I love this thread and this blog in general. Swim upstream! How many photography magazines are this sort of equipment porn… I have sat with coffee in hand and stared at the lenses and the D4 and how about those video lenses, or the 1D. Thank you for this thread and chance to write in. / jw

    • Photography is interpretative, subjective, and by definition, reveals just as much about the photographer themselves as the subject captured. And since we’re talking about the philosophy of it here – yes, it’s very much about life, too. I vacillate between extreme minimalism and going the whole nine yards; it’s actually worse if you have a commercial or logical justification for owning something and the ability to use it, because you just become the mother of all hamsters…

  2. I think the images you produce more than justify all the purchases you have made. I have personally skimped out on 1.8 primes instead of f1.4s. So maybe now when I can eventually afford that lovely Zeiss Distagon 15mm, maybe I won’t feel so bad. It will cost more than all of my other lenses put together though. I thought I was beginning to become immune to all this consumerism… apparantly not.

    • I went for 1.8s both because there do not appear to be any 1.4s that work well wide open on the D800E, and because I’m increasingly shooting stopped down anyway – by f5.6 it’s all the same. I’d rather have smaller and lighter. I’m definitely not immune, my Zeiss Otus will be arriving any day now…and guess what: I’m very excited about it, too.

  3. I often think to myself, if I had $1,000,000 what would I buy? Would it change the images I capture for the better? I recently told my wife that if we won the lottery I’d run out and purchase the H5D-40 with a 4/120 lens to start, may be a wide angle lens as well…

    And then what…

    I love the equipment I have. I usually upgrade every 5 to 6 years, purchasing a few lens’ along the way to see what I can do with them, but I always end up with my 50 on my camera. So what does that say about me? I’m in a rut? I know what I like? I see the minor upgrades that camera manufacturers have been putting out the last few years and laugh a little when people act as though they will change the world, or more personally change their image making ability. If you can’t take a decent picture with your 3 year old camera, a new one won’t help. I understand collecting for the sake of collecting, and for those that do so, go forth and feed the camera companies coffers so they might make some truly revolutionary changes to our cameras. But go back and use a D200 or a 50D or for a thrill head by a used camera shop and pick up a manual film camera with a light sensor and manual advance lever.

    You said one thing that really struck home with me, “Photographers want to make images.” Yes. Yes we do!

    • But not everybody is a photographer, and beyond that, the collectors seldom buy new so the manufacturers don’t really benefit – there’s nothing much made in sufficiently small quantities to appeal to serious collectors…

  4. I do increasingly believe, and even increasingly follow, a few simple principles. There is often a right tool for the job. There may be the best tool for a particular job and there is always a variety of good enough tools. It is nice to use good tools. It makes the job easier and if you are delivering professional work you must have certain standards as you have so well pointed out earlier. But that does not mean you must have the best possible tools. Every job is the same, why would photography be different? if Nikon has 24 Mp body and they come up with a 36 Mp body, you most likely do not really need those extra pixels. If you did, you should have got the 80 Mp medium format digital already. Yes, focusing and frame rate is faster, but if you really need so many pixels you would at least have used it whenever possible. Important to separate needs and wants. We need to follow technology but absolutely don’t need to get the latest and greatest all the time. Let manufacturers find their way, no need to support all their silly antics. By all means put that 36Mp body on the list of equipment upgrades and get it when it is time to replace one of the older ones you have. Not next week. Only when the time is up. And by then they might have a 45Mp body which may or may not be better still. Follow a plan. Just like you do when you replace your car. It is not easy, but I am starting to get there after having filled two cabinets, that look a bit bigger than yours. Plus the lights, of course. Four cases of them.

    • The lights are the one thing I won’t compromise on. The rest is somewhat less of a difference, I think.

      Yes, best tool for the job – the challenge is when you have a lot of different jobs… :)

      • Good lights last at least half a photographers lifetime. Good tripod and head can be passed on to grandchildren.

  5. I believe we have difficulty separating ourselves from our things. In a sense, camera gear (like all prized tools) feels like an extension of who we are. So getting better equipment (or simply more) feeds a sensation that we are improving our creative influence, productivity, and – sometimes – our status. It is up to us to grow up enough to choose what is true and what is illusion (which seems to be at the centre of many a thinking photographer’s agenda).

  6. andygemmell says:

    I took some time out of photography for a few years and jumped back in last September. I initially bought the x100. Good fun yet also frustrating camera. Then had the OMD. Fantastic camera and enjoyed it more than x100. Though my curiosity about using a range finder AND only shooting in B&W got the better of me. I sold the OMD for the Leica MM. I absolutkey love using this camera. It’s just so simple and uncluttered that it allows some headspace. For me it has been a bit if revelation. I do have a clearer picture of what “I want”. The new technology is interesting and I’m as curious as the next person but there’s nothing that’s been released I really want.

    I could justify a second camera for colour options….though ergonomically nothing’s really caught my eye out the latest releases….EM1, a7, DF and as for M240…..it would not be the camera is go to if colour was an important requirment:-(!!

  7. You’re absolutely right; now where’s that A7R pre-order link…………

  8. I know where you’re coming from. I recently started my own site and currently have five cameras sitting on my desk, a few that I’m reviewing and a few that I wish I had time to shoot with. It’s only going to get worse with a loaner Leica M and the Sony A7r on the way. After that, it’s that painful time to start selling stuff.

  9. I photography is a multi-faceted activity/hobby and every facet can be full of pleasure. It can be exposing images, printing, collecting books/websites, surfing Flickr, collecting gear to fondle and acquiring gear to use. All of this requires research and search and the acquisition of knowledge and experiences. Nothing is bad and nothing needs avoiding apart from over extending yourself. Don’t feel guilty, or wasteful; your just filling in a big canvas.

    Cost can be managed with a little care and before the digital age it was possible to invest in gear without depreciation. I’ve lost more money in the past 5 years on M9s and 1D cameras, than in the previous 25 years on Leica, Hasselblad and Ebony. Even so, the costs are minimal compared with my brother’s habit of acquiring £60,000 cars and losing £10k a year. In comparison, I’ve got a valuable set of gear, a portfolio of photos I’ve shot over the years http://www.flickr.com/photos/rolophoto/ and a collection of inspiring books by fabulous artists.

    Whatever you do, don’t sell the Hasselblad. It will survive you and cost very little to own. Keep smiling.

    • I’ve got no intention of selling the ‘Blad – one of them was a gift from a friend and fellow artist, and that reason alone is enough to keep it. The fact that it’s really extended me creatively is of course a nice bonus.

      I’m just glad I can’t afford to play with cars – especially not in this country…

  10. Thought-provoking article! My personal experience: A lot of people these days are talking about GAS – gear acquisition syndrome, specifically for photographic gear. I have a few nice lenses attached to a nice body, and I am likely not purchasing any new glass for a long time (ever?!), but I suffer from extremem GDS – gear desire syndrome. Just knowing that my lenses are lacking in some manner makes me desperately want new gear. The Zeiss Otus is really nagging in that respect – for a huge price premium, I can have technical perfection that weighs in at 1 kilo! Never mind that a decent, digitally-correctable 50 1.4 can be purchased for ~$400. Often, I find that talking things over with my wife or non-photography friends will put things into perspective (why is a 450hp car with only two seats useful better than our sedan? What’s the real difference between a $4000 lens and the ones you already have when you post the pictures onto facebook or flickr?) I’ve tried to relieve myself of GDS by posting my best pictures to an online “portfolio” on flickr, so that I’m not into gear so much as I’m producing nice photos and trying to get them “out there” for feedback. I guess the only real cure is to earn the big bucks and buy whatever you want :p

    • Well, because some of us don’t only post on flickr, but have clients that make 50-60″ reproductions with very short viewing distances…

    • John McMillin says:

      One cure for that might be to rent or borrow the premium gear for an hour or two and see what it’s like to haul around in real life. Recently, the last remaining camera shop chain in Denver held a demo day, with scads of the latest gear on offer. Just plop down a credit card and be on your way. I chose a Zeiss 24-70/2.8 and mounted it to my a850 (sorry, but I turned down the a99. I don’t do EVFs, and I wanted to keep the equation to one variable). Riding the downtown mall shuttle, I was suddenly aware of carrying a big camera. When I started walking, I knew I was carrying a very heavy camera. If this was my main walkaround lens, I’d quickly be missing my Minolta 24-35/3.5-4.5 zoom. That’s no larger than many fast fifty prime lenses, and its sharpness leaps off the screen, as does the Zeiss. My old Maxxum weighs about half the Zeiss, making the body + lens no heavier than an APS-C body with a 2.8 zoom.

      When ever you deal with the level of premium gear that “makes no compromises,” be aware that it’s you who will have to compromise.

      • Well said. And the magnitude of that compromise gets ever larger for ever smaller incremental improvements the further up the diminishing returns chain you go…

  11. Well here’s hoping you will “Collect” an A7R and slap on your favorite 28mm for those of us who yearn for the Ming perspective on this MF impersonator :)

  12. Great topic and discussion if only because so many of us are still trying to deal with this issue ourselves. I dumped my “old” Panasonic G camera for a brand new OMD-5 on a very nice cruise in Patagonia. It deserves the best equipment, right? Only going there one time. But on the same ship I met someone who proclaimed the sanity and rationality of always buying the latest camera AFTER its newest replacement just came out. In other words, he buys the “old” latest, best camera for a huge discount and uses it until the next new camera comes out. Then he always sells the old old one on ebay. Imagine the savings, he said, and in a sense I’m always using the best camera, but just a little displaced in time. I have never come up with a way to refute that sensible point of view and solution to GAS and really really great marketing, reinforced by good reviews on web sites like this one. As you just said, “The E-M5 doesn’t suddenly become any worse because a new one became available …” I just bought the new OMD-1 as a replacement for my OMD-5. I would do it again just for the improved EVF and repositioning of the buttons which has made it much easier to use. The great m4/3 lenses don’t factor in because they work on both. And it’s only US $ 1,300, not $3000. So, now I have to justify it by saying the OMD-5 is my “backup.” Nonsense. I’ve never had to have a backup. Ever. It may still happen, but I still have other “old” cameras that were put aside for the same purpose. Man, do I have backup! Just no need for it yet.

    So, what to do with old equipment that is still very good but may only have a resale value of a couple of hundred dollars? (Not the OMD-5 yet, but you would still lose to much value by selling it at its current used price.) I’m about to search for an non-profit organization or web site that takes used camera donations and then gives them out free to (let’s say) kids who cannot afford a camera at any price. I’d love to take my two Panasonic G’s with kit lenses and donate them to the Camera Club in Havana that must be involved in promoting and teaching photography. Anyone here know where high quality but “old” gear would be appreciated? It’s not getting the new gear that bothers me, it’s what to do and how to justify the old gear left over these days.

    Meanwhile, the proper tool for the job makes it “acceptable” to hang an OMD-5 with a telephoto lens around your neck AND the DP2 Merrill mentioned above because the two of them together are still light enough to handle, and they complement one another rather than overlapping. And the relative prices for all that quality are still good, compared to any system that could “do it all” with one camera that starts at over $2000, say. GAS or not, this is golden age to be taking photographs.

    • Financially, there are only two sensible approaches to this: either buy the latest as soon as it comes out, then sell the old one; or buy one and use it until it dies. Backups are necessary if you’ve got no excuse for not getting a shot; otherwise, bring something else that’s going to extend your shooting envelope instead.

      The easiest solution for your old gear is to sell it…

  13. I think you are right in your analysis Ming. However you have repeated a comment made in a previous article defining a difference between photographers and camera collectors. You assert that photographers use their gear whilst collectors just collect it. As a collector and (amateur) photographer, I have to disagree with you about that. Fair to say that some (perhaps many) collectors don’t use what they collect, I have to say that I do. I personally can’t see the point in having nice cameras and not using them!

    I bought a mint condition, boxed and complete Konica Auto S3 (neither this nor any of my collection are particularly valuable in money terms) and was contacted by someone who saw my Flickr set of it, who immediately said it was very nice “and obviously I wouldn’t be intending to use it”. I don’t understand why not. In real life unless it has never been taken out of the box, using it now with appropriate care and understanding, will not harm it. More harm is done to old cameras by not using them in actual fact.

    I also have a fairly rare and unusual almost mint condition 1968 Omega Constellation which is worth something, but I use and wear it because I like it. I won’t be increasing its value by using it I know, but I didn’t buy it to gain value, I bought it because I liked it. The same with the cameras. Unless we use them, they have no value beyond their cash value and investment potential. I accept that you do not labour this point, but I’m sure many collectors do use their equipment and gain pleasure from so doing. That pleasure is what we have paid for. Of course we all have more gear than we need ………

    • You’re probably one of the rare ones, then. That said, I don’t count those who take their cameras out occasionally, shoot a few frames and put them back in their boxes…you’re going to have to shoot a whole load more than that to get any degree of intuitive familiarity with something.

  14. At least the dry cabinets are a sort of measurement unit for how much gear you have — here where one has no need for such equipment, it’s much easier to think “just one more item” as the item can sneak in any available space.

    I found it easier to deal with GAS when I admitted that there are items that I want beacuse they are cool and it can be OK to have some such items. My Rolleiflex is for the tactility, look and entire feel despite the fact that I rarely use it. Digital cameras, OTOH, are just for the ergonomics and results. But that doesn’t mean I still want irrational purchases, like looking for the lens with the perfect balance of features.

    The reason for all of this I guess is that large groups of people have spare money and time to spend on non-essential things and one of those is photography and the gear. Doesn’t matter if you’re a pro or not; in a profession where certain devotion to the craft is required in order to stand out, it’s not possible to just work 9 to 5, reducing everything down to a fixed routine.

    The cure? No idea really… ignore the fanboys, those discussions go nowhere. Keep a balance; it’s ok to have something excessive as long as it doesn’t negatively affect the rest of your life. Since your wife is not into photo gear, she can probably provide the sound of reason in this matter. I know my wife is right, I just sometimes fail to listen :)

    Now they’d only make the full-frame 6×6 back for a reasonable sum… my biggest hurdle in using film is simply the inconvenience, but I love the 6×6 look.

    • And then when you misplace an item because you put it into a strange nook or cranny, then there’s an excuse to buy another one :D

      I don’t think it’s possible to work 9-5 at anything and be anything other than mediocre anymore. The bars have been raised, the barriers to entry are higher, and there’s just a lot more competition.

      The wife is almost always right, but we almost always don’t want to admit it, either :)

  15. Hi Ming,

    I think you’re preaching to the choir. Their is plenty of guilt and ennui to go around, not including the guilt piled on to us from our family and significant other(s) over gear acquisition syndrome. “You spent how much on what…?!?!???”

    I’ve been trying really, really, really hard to move away from materialism, and I’ve tried to come up with a new philosophy to guide my hobbies and interests.

    Bottom line: if the near camera or gear does not help in terms of making the hobby fun, then I don’t need it..!
    And only buy what you need…

    That being said, the EM-1 looks like one of the more fun cameras (easy to carry, relatively easy to use) that have come around since the D700. I appreciate that about Micro Four Thirds. Hopefully, they come down in price!

  16. Its simple really, if you have the money, why bother thinking, just get the latest toy. Not because you want it, its because you can own it.

    • Well, its your money, so, of course, its entirely up to you if getting the latest toy is worth it. But since you asked “why bother thinking”, the answer is because if you don’t buy the toy, that savings almost certainly will sit for a time compounding in some investment, such as a stock, bond, or bank account where it is working to fund future purchases and in the meanwhile to help others by funding the civilization, for example, to start or expand a business, to invent and develop the next big thing, to come up with a new drug that might save your life, or to help someone get an education or a mortgage so they have a nice place to live, etc.

      • I’d also argue that given the state of the economy and companies these days, it’s possible that your investment might just evaporate entirely into somebody’s Ferrari.

        I suppose it’s a good thing that equipment investments generally pay off if you’re a working pro :)

  17. compulady says:

    I have always thought great photographs can be taken with any camera, it is what is behind the camera that really counts. When I went to university to study photography long ago the first thing they did was make us put away our shiny new SLRs and use a plastic Diana for 6 weeks and that was before plastic cameras were hip. That being said it is fun and interesting to explore new and different cameras and options. You should consider it part of your job to research and learn more about these options so you can best inform your readers, fans and workshoppers of the options you prefer and why. I’m sure you don’t feel too dad about it.

  18. There is a reason museums have design collections. There is a reason companies hire designers. Nothing wrong with liking well built equipment or equipment that solves problems. I love my equipment, but I love the three boxes of 17 by 22 inch prints that I made this year a lot more.

    Reminds of the trip to the hi fi store in the eighties. I always loved the guys who bought the $10,000 stereo ( a lot of money then) and owned 10 albums– one of which was Dark Side of the Moon. My advice: buy half the stereo and spend the rest on albums.

    Jack Siegel

  19. A few years ago, an American photographer who’s URL I honestly forget, set up a site devoted to ‘doing without’. His attitude toward equipment was ardent fundamental puritanism in a way that only Americans seem to be able to generate. Don’t misunderstand me, I hold no animosity towards any single person or group for what they want to do or believe in. Life is too short it and would be very dull if one did. I replied to his opening manifesto stating that basically if I were to limit myself to one camera and lens I basically would not be able to make a living. Which sort of defeats the purpose. One needs specialized kit to do specific work. Any how I was seriously flamed by a very well known photographic personality. I did not reply.
    However my point is (and I agree with you Ming) that because digital technology is evolving so quickly it is neigh impossible to hold on to gear and not need to upgrade every two years or so. But I think we have reached a bit of a plateau now as the digital image have from a qualitative perspective surpassed film, one may question the look and feel but commercially I would venture to say that the vast majority of work is being created digitally and it has to be that way. I find it takes about three months of constant use to really know a modern digital camera fluently in every situation and I don’t think there are any which one could say is perfect for every situation. So if it takes two or three systems to cover the variety of work so be it. We previously had dozens of choices of films for the different varieties of work in the days of film and often three bodies of the same camera brand. So what’s new or wrong in the accumulation of a few cameras…
    One of my first cameras was a Rollei, the two and a quarter square format had a profound effect on the way I view the world through a camera, I still find myself seeing pictures and wanting to crop them square and pinching myself every time I think about buying another TLR!

    • I just wish somebody would make a full 6×6 digital back…

      Minimalism can be refreshing and force creativity at times – but not all the time. There’s no excuse if you’re on a job.

    • Speaking of puritanical thinking, the Rolleiflex is a wonderful purchase that – lens and body – will hopefully last happily together for many decades. But an expensive superb Zeiss 35mm lens with great potential longevity that can’t be removed from its camera’s short lived digital body just bothers me as a wasteful temporal mismatch. I also wonder whether people who are used to film bodies and lenses, may be seriously miscalculating the economics of modern lenses because the expected lifespan has unnoticed become so limited. That metal manual focus Nikon 105mm f/2.5 lens that I got in the 1970’s has been wonderful ever since, and remains ready for indefinite future use. But a plastic autofocus lens bought today has electronic circuitry and electric motors so will likely be broken and unrepairable for lack of replacement parts in only a decade of so, and lacking an aperture ring is also not adaptable for possible mount conversion (unlike, for example, the Leica R lenses that live on mounted to alternate camera bodies). Do hobbyists who buy tens of thousands of dollars of modern autofocus telephoto lenses actually realize that they have to (unlike in the past) mentally divide that nerve-wracking price by only a small number of years to appreciate the annual amortized expense? Are they really prepared for the sudden cost of replacing each of those mega-expensive lenses when they inevitably fail beyond their short serviceable lifetimes?

      • I don’t know, but the newer electronic stuff does concern me a bit – too many first-generation SWMs failing and requiring expensive fixes.

        On the other hand, Hasselblad Zeiss V glass is dirt cheap, built like a tank – in Germany, no less! – and even has a built in shutter…

  20. Hi Ming.

    Very interesting article again, thanks for your effort.

    Would a pro (or anybody who is serious about it) use a spanner or a wrench to put a nail in some wood? Probably not. Would it work? In most cases, yes.

    Using the proper tool for the job, within the margins of efficiency, is a sign of professionalism and respect given to your customer. You could maybe use your iPhone to photograph watches. With proper lighting and low resolution, the result may even be sufficient for web use. But would you do it and risk your reputation? I don’t think so. It would feel like cheating, even if the customer may not be aware of it.

    Improvising is fine from time to time, but that is what personel projects are for.

    That said, of course any entry level camera of the last two or three years is able to deliver a sufficient quality for most jobs. But using one of those, despite of the availability of more appropriate gear, just makes no sense. Using the gear you love is the best thing to do and should be done whenever possible, I believe. Results are usually getting better when they achieved with fun, I guess.

    Best regards
    Matt

  21. Ming, I recommend you start with a course of treatment of your “elitist snob factor syndrome” by placing the pathological agent, Noct-Nikkor, out of sight in the back of your drybox. But if you want a cure of the condition, you could do worse than transacting that nocturnal scourge for a pile of sunny cash, with me. :-)))

  22. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Reading the last paragraph,
    I imagine a scene…

    Hamlet standing by the grave
    with a camera in his hand…
    “To … or not to …

  23. You’re starting to sound Catholic with all this guilt :-) “Father forgive me, I bought a Phase One and my wife doesn’t know about it yet”.

    It’s interesting. I chopped and changed cameras like nobody’s business in my first few years. I always joke that I don’t have GAS, I have GES: the “E” being for “exchange”. Japan’s good like that: as long as your camera is in decent condition, you can trade it in against something else. I did this more than a few times and I’ve never had more than three cameras at any one time.

    However, since I got hold of the DP Merrill 3, I have lost almost all desire for another camera (I have a film Canon too: that’s the third camera, but it’s a family hand-me-down which I feel like I have an obligation to use, although I do enjoy using it a lot). I did get an X100S for low light, but in retrospect I probably don’t really need it: if I really want a night shot with the Sigma I just have to put it on something and use the timer.

    The thing is that the output from the Sigma is so far ahead of any other camera I’ve used that it would feel like a step back to get anything else (that’s in IQ, not usability). I recall reading in your review of the DP3 that it was possibly superior to the previous generation of MF digital backs, and that’s quite a statement. It’s not much fun to actually use compared to the X100s, but the results are so impressive time and time again that it just doesn’t matter to me. Three spare batteries, as little chimping as possible and I’m good for a day of shooting. For now, the DP3 ticks just about every box for me and it has stopped me seriously contemplating buying gear which I know I don’t need.

    The only way I feel I can go now is sideways, rather than forwards (and that’s one way to avoid collecting: aim at things you know you can’t afford!) I was considering MF film but that’s only a half-baked fantasy at the moment. There’s the SD1, but I imagine you’d need Sigma’s absolute best (expensive) glass on it to match the Merrill’s dedicated lens-sensor combo. I’ve seen a used SD1 here for around 120,000 yen (around 1200 dollars) with what looks like a pretty cheap zoom. So you’d have to add a lot more to that to get some good glass (I’m told their 35 1.4 and 120-300 are extremely good), but then you’re starting to get pretty expensive for no guarantee of better IQ than the 90,000 yen Merrill.

    Fact is, I can’t imagine anything giving me the results I get from the Sigma short of spending way more than I can justify. It’s a useful problem to have!

    • That’s a good thing: it means you’ve gotten to the point of last camera/ sufficiency…I reached it with the Hasselblad, I think.

    • The Sigma DP3 Merrill and a lightweight tripod are the 11th and 12th Essentials of hiking (#1 – #10 essentials are survival gear: map, compass, water, and the like). Rendering of foliage, rock texture, water – amazing. Simplicity of shooting with a fixed lens camera – refreshing. The camera can’t do everything, but what it can do, it does supremely well.

      • Any particular reason why the 3 and not say, 1 or 2? I’d have thought something a bit wider would be more versatile for landscape work. That said, I suppose you can always stitch if you’ve got the tripod – but you can’t keep cropping.

  24. You got GAS!

    • I don’t think there are any photogs who don’t.

      • I’m all for gear acquisition, which is great fun if your budget permits, but I’d think long and hard before taking the fateful step of getting a camera or lens with a different mount than the [hopefully just] one you standardize on. It’s just too easy to wind up with four sets of incompatible lenses, one set with Canon or Nikon mounts, plus micro four thirds, plus Leica M mount or Sony E mount, plus Hasselblad V or other medium format. All that duplication gets very expensive very quickly especially if you are seeking the quality of world class optics which can easily cost $1,500 – $5,000+ per lens (fortunately I don’t need long telephoto lenses that get really scary expensive). I’ve got half a century behind me using the Nikon F mount and am so grateful that Nikon didn’t orphan their lenses like Canon did to all their FD lenses, but very upset that Nikon messed up manual focusing on the D800, etc. I’ve been fortunate to be able to collect a variety of Nikon F mount lenses, mostly used at substantial discounts: Nikon AI/AIS, Zeiss ZF/ZF.2, Voigtlander SL/SL II, Leica R with Leitax Nikon mount conversions, and Coastal Optics. I do have four Hasselblad F/FE lenses, but with adapters so that I can use the Hasselblad Zeiss lenses on my Nikon bodies where their large image size can also be adapted for tilt/shift. In fact, my favorite portrait snapshot of my daughter was taken with a Hasselblad V Zeiss 110mm f/2 lens mounted on my Nikon D700 body. I’m thinking of getting a Sony A7r with Metabones Nikon F to Sony E mount adapter (instead of a D800) to improve the ability to focus manual Nikon mount lenses on a mirrorless camera electronic viewfinder (not so much for the smaller size), but not to buy E mount lenses. Not sure if that is realistic, and I’m concerned if even high quality mount conversion adapters will be mechanically accurate enough.

        • Actually, I think it’s a lot simpler – if you’re clear about what each system does, then there’s no duplication. If there’s overlap, and no good reason for it, then you probably don’t need that system at all. I’m not in favor of adapting lenses because of planarity issues, non-native optics making compromised results, and moreover, frequently defeating the point of size advantages. In short: it’s often a compromise, and that defeats the point of having multiple systems in the first place.

  25. Very interesting and informative article Ming-as usual. I really need to know what to search to find more info on the “SUN DRY” cabinet I assume is used for de-humidification for your valuable equipment!!
    Thank you in advance

    Greg Hall

  26. Keep it simple and use what you have. Like many who traverse these pages, my photography is my hobby and no longer a profession. I dumped all my FF gear to begin traveling. I left Costa Rica with a K5IIs 3 lenses & some speedlights. Lugging the iMac 27″ is another story altogether, but hey, spoiled is spoiled. I returned one lens to B&H after the autofocus failed. The Zeiss 2.0/50ZK lives on the body nearly all the time, but having a Sigma 2.8/70-200 laying around really helps. Yes, I want a Pentax 1.8/31 for its angle of view, but I’d rather eat instead. I do not need more then 16 megapixels for any reason.

    The addiction to “new and improved” becomes nauseating after a while because the gear does not change the scenery, composition, lighting, etc. Sure, your kit is delicious and you use your systems for job-specific reasons supremely, so I would encourage you to shed the guilt and be proud of your accomplishments and stockpile as they really do speak volumes about who you are in your career.

    Post processing has been an ongoing adventure of tutorials and practice. And the more I study post, the better I become at using my camera, because I don’t really like hanging out in CC ’til my eyes bleed, which I have done for years. The thread on Clarity a while back was literally an eye-opener because it made me think of how I can amplify the sensations I was feeling when I shot the image and make the shot more engaging. No, learning composition and post isn’t nearly as disco as buying a new Phase. Sooner then later I will be buying your entire collection of workshop videos.

    Keep up the great work, Ming!
    Thank you!

  27. Hi Ming Thein,
    I have just purchased your app, but I can’t find it in my iPhone, I see it in my iTune “downloaded”.
    I have iphone 4 and the IOS 6+
    Thank you :)

  28. “I don’t want to wait til tomorrow, I’ll drive to the other side of town to buy it so I can have it today.” — uh-oh, I *might* have done this for the new MacBook Pro last week… :s

    • Haha! And? Do you compute better?

      • It replaced a 5-year-old MacBook Pro (easily the longest a laptop has ever lasted me) which couldn’t handle Photoshop anymore, so I suppose so. The Retina display is very nice for editing photos on, I must admit. “Retina” is just a marketing buzzword and totally overhyped, so I was expecting to be nonplussed, but it’s very sharp, has nice, rich blacks and required very little calibration on my end.

        • I’ve got an issue with retina, personally – it’s the pixel density. I know this is the main selling point, but it’s actually too high for retouching – far too easy to miss stuff your client won’t because they’re not on retina…

          • One step forward, two steps back!

          • You can turn on Zoom in the Macintosh system preference for Universal Access. Then just hold down the control key and a use two finger up/down swipe gesture to enlarge. (Much easier to use Zoom than to describe it. In short order Zooming becomes a habit so that you adjust the size without really thinking about it.)

  29. Great article ming! I don’t own nowhere near the gear you own. Nor am I a pro. Got an FF and APS-C Nikon DSLRs. some advanced P&S and the e-pm2 with an vf-4. With a decent enough collection of m4/3 and Nikon lenses.

    But for whatever reason I always keep coming back to my e-pm2. I’ve used it every week I’ve owned it, and the camera has really grown on me. It’s the right size, it fits easily in my small laptop bag, with no compromises, I can even take it mountain biking. It delivers the right compromise of usability, size and image quality for me. I’ve had one or the other OM-D in my shopping cart a few times, but I always change my mind right before checking out. They are really great cameras and I would love to own one. But what do I do with my e-pm2 if I get the OM-D? I guess this is what’s keeping my GAS at bay. A feeling of guilt for replacing a perfectly good tool too early.

    After all the, e-pm2 has replaced my APS-C DSLR and I rarely use it other than time lapse photography on a rare occasion. My D600 I use for non-travel landscape and low light and macro and tabletop photography. But more often than not I just use my small m4/3 camera anyway, because it’s easy and fun to handle.

    • You could always rationalize and consolidate your gear if it makes you feel any less guilty about upgrading. It’s not so much buying more stuff – it’s knowing what extra functionality it’s going to bring you, and what it replaces…

      • Thanks for the response Ming! Consolidating is a great idea. I really dig m4/3 for the size, but could use little more control over what e-pm2 offers. When the size is of no importance I just use my D600.

        After contemplating for awhile, I finally pulled a trigger, ordered an e-m5 for a really nice price ($700). It’s no e-m1 but the size (I have limited space in my laptop bag) and price really won me over. I own the vf-4 so hopefully it won’t feel like too much of a downgrade when using e-m5’s built in viewfinder. While great I rarely traveled with the vf-4 because I didn’t trust my laptop bag protecting it from being snapped off the camera.

        I am listing my APS-C gear I am not really using any more for sale.

  30. Agree wholeheartedly.

    This is the sentiment I’ve had lately with the industry (i.e. last 5 years or so!). Knowing your motivations for photography can sometimes be a bitter sweet experience. For me anyway ;>. I used to think fashion was the biggest industry of peer pressure but technology is perhaps even more insidious in how it gets under your skin.

    That being said, some great things are happening now thanks to unlikely contenders (Olympus, Sony – no, not you Nikon/Canon ;)). Sometimes industries need to reinvent themselves. The general feeling I’m getting from review sites in general these days about new gear is “Yeah, yeah this camera (or lens) is certainly better, but…” So I guess you’re not the only one feeling this, Ming!

    Photographers want their experience of photography to deepen or change dramatically – i.e. there is always the hope that a faster lens or larger viewfinder magnification will do this for us. Sometimes the price pays off but more often the motivation is from a feeling of lack of one’s own ability or gear. I know it was for me.

    Anyway, I owned a Canon whilst working at Nikon but now have an Oly…. Quite a journey of conflicts and envy. And there was always someone in my life saying (nah, nah, this [system] is the bomb, man) . Always.

    The main reason for my switch to micro 4/3 (apart from cost / weight / discreet factor) was a way to cure my frame envy with an attitude of if I can do it on a sensor/system this size – I can do anything.

    The (personal) expectation now is to make great photographs.

    …Not just to ‘live up’ to your gear.

    Sorry for the essay. Love your posts.

    Vincent

    • It makes sense. So do you feel you’re coming closer to realizing the potential of your gear now?

      • Absolutely. Though not if I keep changing cameras ;)

        I finally feel happy working within the limitations and advantages of the system I’ve chosen. It’s a kind of truce/promise between my creative self with my gear-munching self. It’s early days but it just feels right for me. My style is a bit more introverted when I pick up a camera so not having too big a system and big lenses really works for me.

        Mind you I couldn’t hold a candle to any half decent street photographer yet but I’m now curious exploring these new fronts thanks to site’s like yours. Until I picked up an EM5 I never gave two hoots about street photography.

  31. I think different ways of interacting with gear can change the way imaging solutions proceed. Large format is slow, and the movements bring in an entirely different way of working. Yes, you know you still want a view camera. ;)

    Probably the oddest for me is the Bronica RF645. The default framing is vertical, which is a way I need to shoot on many projects. Obviously any other type of horizontal framed camera could just be turned on it’s side, but the RF645 just places everything where I want it, leaving me with the ability to provide a ton of concentration upon my subjects. I suppose for many of us, there is a camera that gets out of our way, but then again why do I still want an Xpan?

    We’ve discussed this before, that professionals are expected to carry certain types of cameras, and certain types of gear. Anything too far off the expected can sometimes raise doubt amongst some clients. There are astute clients for whom what you bring is not questioned, beyond the ability to get them the image files they need in the time you’ve agreed upon. Professional photography can sometimes be a bit like performance art, though the basic idea is that good clients will work with you because they like what you do, and they want to work with you on creative projects.

    • “Professional photography can sometimes be a bit like performance art, though the basic idea is that good clients will work with you because they like what you do, and they want to work with you on creative projects.”

      But you and I know that’s about as rare as finding diamonds sitting there for the taking in the street.

      There’s definitely an expectation aspect to it, but there are some things which cannot be gotten around – tilt shifts, for instance…

      • Perhaps I have been lucky in I have rarely been asked what cameras and lenses I used, when getting a request to write a proposal for a project. There have been times I was asked what camera could a client buy to create images like the ones I make, to which my only reply is “the one with me behind it”.

        I hear you on the rarity of smooth projects and clients who are wonderful to work with on projects, but I’ve had enough experiences like that to want that to be the norm. Until that time I will have to put up with some “what camera do you use” questions from small business owners.

        • Joel Venable says:

          Photography is rather unique in that many people seem to think they can pick up a camera and instantly take great photos.
          No one assumes they could just pick up a violin and play a fabulous concerto without any practice,

          It’s funny that very very few people question an artist about what brand or type of paintbrush or paints he uses unless they are also a painter.

          I could pick up an expensive Stradivarius and still sound like a dying cat!

          • There’s a reason why I don’t play the violin. But you by the same token, you could give a lousy instrument to a master and he’d still produce wonders with it – even if they might not match what he could do with the proper tools.

        • My answer is always ‘the right tool for the job’.

    • Yep, I want a view camera! Every once in a while – ok, every week at least – I spend 5 minutes fantasizing over view cameras on eBay. What stops me? Well, for one, I think that I could use a lot more screwing up on “free electrons” (digital images) before I get good enough to go back to film – at least, film that costs $1 to $10 a frame. The other thing that stops me is that tripod use with the digital camera has the hoped-for effect of slowing me down enough to plan and think through the shot. Yes, I am a (questionably recovering) GAS addict. Yes, I have my old film equipment, and that film body is just there as a nostalgic reminder for the time being. The old film era lenses, all M42 mount, and old darkroom lenses are seeing new use on digital via adapters and bellows. I still love manual focus.

      • That makes two of us. The Arca-Swiss Misura calls out to me late at night…and then taunts me by reminding me it can be used with the Hasselblad’s digital back.

  32. As an I.T. consultant, I relate similarly to the electronic tools of the computing realm; as I’m sure most photographers here, as well, can relate since most of us are balancing our Photo Gear Budget with the Computing Gear Budget to manage the ever evolving workflow created by the rapid advances in sensors, pixel depth, and RAW processing capabilities. I’m close to sixty, so the old mantra was always “it’s the glass”, which is not as true today as it once was, due to the fact that the sensors and the logic in the cameras are impacting the resolving capability and IQ of the glass. Although resolving capability is only one of several virtues that a lens needs to create impactful images, it hasn’t escaped the pros that a given pro lens on a body with older sensor technology will often be sharper with better IQ on the latest body with newer sensor, sometimes by a very significant margin. But as you gently remind us, the joy in what we do is not strictly contained within the confines of any given piece of hardware, but rather in the interplay and connection we make with the subject(s) of our attention and finally in the bringing it to light out of the darkness to share with others or just enjoy for ourselves. And having said that, I’m still going to acquire an EM-1 at some point, with the new pro zooms, because I think they will add a little more creative range (beyond the EM-5) to my passion. ;-)

    • It’s the system these days – if any part of the chain is week, it shows. If your support isn’t up to your sensor resolution, or you can’t process the raw files, IQ suffers…

    • Joel Venable says:

      I find it very fitting that this article came out today, as I’ve just made the hard choice to keep my E-M5 and cancel my E-M1 preorder. I’m sure I’ll still get one at some point, but for now I’ll hang on to my “old” camera. I’m still gonna get a shiny new lens to put on it though! :)

  33. Does my new desire to own the 75 Lux count?

  34. While agree that every photographer is a gear-head one way or another, one time or another, it’s a good and bad thing. As it could help, or stand in the way of pursuit of good photography. Obviously attention allocation between collecting and using is one. Though I think getting new stuff, if one’s credit card (and the husband/wife) allows, at an interval that fits with this person’s skill development, could greatly push forward one’s photography level. Myself for example, I could not forget the hit I got when I bought my first light and umbrella, after shooting available light for long; Also the first Zeiss lens after using Nikon for so long. The differences are so vast to me and it’s like opening a new channel to me. The manual focus significantly slows down my pace of shooting and got me to think a lot more before pressing the shutter. Though also admittedly that some tools are meant to be practiced much longer, before a new one is acquired to see the difference. For example umbrella and soft boxes in my case. Nevertheless thus far I find it generally helping my advance and I’ve been enjoying it.

  35. The problem with too much gear is that the photographer brings to lose focus on what they are trying to capture. And instead focus on how it will be captured. I am at least as guilty as every one here. To continue my confessional; I am only a photographer advocation, yet I use four rangefinders, 2 medium formats, one large format, and one Polaroid converted for 4×5 film. I have made a promise to my better half that I will not enter any camera shops until January of 2015. This means if I need film, or need to process film, or need chemicals, she’ll have to purchase it for me while I wait outside. It is a nice, if not torturous, exercise in self discipline, patience, and focus on the actual photography.

  36. A somewhat odd variation on collecting/using is my desire to purchase favorite equipment in user condition. I can admire the beauty of the design, construction, craftsmanship and at the same time use it without worry of damaging a mint condition camera or lens. Lenses purchased with some haze make nice portraits, soft and glowy, noctilux like.

  37. Let me begin by noting two obvious points: (a) I’m not a patch on you as a photographer; and (b) I don’t own nearly as much gear as you do.

    With that said, let me note the following: It’s great to devote oneself to learning one system thoroughly–and by that I mean one body and one lens.

    But why not impose further limits? Why not one body, one focal length, one aperture, one ISO, and one shutter speed?

    Tell you what: Spend a year at f/5.6, IS0 400, 50mm (equivalent). Then come talk to me.

    I think that we can learn faster by trying different gear. Yes, we’ll spend more on it. But the point is to engage in learning–not to engage in some monastic exercise.

    • Or shoot with the iphone. You have no control over aperture (doesn’t matter anyway, everything is always in focus) or FOV or ISO or any of the other parameters. I do it from time to time, and all you focus on is light, composition and timing.

      To your point b) a lot of it is special purpose gear I need for commercial work. There is no way you need six speedlights if you mainly do urban abstracts and travel reportage for your personal work, or focusing rails, etc.

      Sure, we can learn faster by trying different gear – but sometimes we also acquire for the sake of it, and learn nothing.

  38. Such a great article, Ming!

    Listen to your own wisdom. If you hadn’t gotten into the medium format thing, maybe you would have lost interest and switched professions. Their is a Quality in design and in fine objects (like watches) that permeate the experience way beyond what is necessary. But they infuse our passion and our interest. It keeps us from getting into the well-worn path and keep us sharp and alive. Even if some of the cameras just cycle in and out, their is some intangible value to that that informs our desire and creativity going forward.

    Having said all that, I had my girlfriend over this summer and she was almost speechless when she realized I had 7 cameras. It hadn’t even occurred to me that that was a lot and I’m NOT a collector!

    If I had the budget, I’d try out your Bald gear for a couple years just to learn and change it up. I love my new Olympus (waiting on the E-M1) and the Ricoh GR is making better photos than I ever made on my 5D Mk II. It’ll be the Sony or something we haven’t heard of next year. But it keeps the process informed.

    Almost always, however, I come back to the Leica M9-P. There’s a personal involvement in the creation of photos without all the menus that just makes produce better work, in some cases.

    I love your honesty, Ming. Thanks again for all your great work. Can’t wait to hang again soon!

    • I don’t think I’d go so far as to say I’d quit out of boredom, but I think I’d certainly not be shooting in a certain way without it – it would certainly not be easy to shoot the D800 at waist level, for instance. Or compose for a square without any finder markings. I suppose so long as we realize that, master our tools – not let them master us – we’re okay…it doesn’t remove that slight nausea when you open the dry cabinet, though.

      Cuba will happen. Waiting to hear back from Mitch…

  39. I am not indifferent, but in a strange sort of way. I have a D800, I know where the controls are and I know what it can do. I can process raw files with some degree of certainty. If I were to buy a camera from a different manufacturer, it would probably be a competent camera, but I would have to stat all over again, not to mention my investment in lenses. If I were to get something like the new Df, I would have to cope with a completely different system of controls. The bottom line is I am happy where I am; there may be imperfections, but at least I can cope with them. Anyone who owns a good, up to date camera system and thinks they can switch to something else and experience a quantum leap in their photography is mistaken.

    • Different cameras are more conducive of certain ways of working than others. A view camera is probably better for still lifes than an iphone, for instance. Thus a change may well result in a change of artistic output. But it doesn’t mean it has to. And you can always take those creative learnings back to your original system…

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