In many ways, the two industries are frighteningly similar: technologically complex, requiring huge capital investment for relatively small margins, enormous marketing machines, some semblance of ‘celebrity’ endorsement, and ever shrinking improvements just waiting for whatever technology is just over the bend (hybrids, Foveon sensors, etc.). Perception over substance rules, too. And there’s a lot of crossover between the enthusiasts of both – I have a huge number of students who are also petrolheads. But there are enough differences that one could learn from the other, I think…
For most, a car is a necessity. A camera is not. Multiple cameras or cars are almost never a necessity unless you are a professional – I suppose that’s more like running a fleet of hire cars rather than being a race drive, to be honest. (I cannot think of an obvious photographic equivalent to that – weddings against advertising hotshot or Magnum PJ, perhaps.) So, for most people, a car buy is driven by need rather than want: you might want the convertible but go with the van because you have four children and a dog. But the difference is that because of the size of the financial commitment – both relative and absolute – a lot more effort is given to being objective about that choice. Even if most people wanted to buy multiple cars, they couldn’t – especially not in Malaysia, where our wonderful taxes to protect the local car brands mean that a basic Honda costs more than twice what an average employee makes in a year – before tax. If you have to take out a ten year mortgage on something, you’re going to make damn sure it’s the right thing.
I suppose that means the vast majority of car buyers buy the closest thing to what they need that fits in their budget; few buy what they want because it might not exist (e.g. a convertible minivan) or they cannot afford it (e.g. a Rolls-Royce). And in any case, much like modern cameras, modern cars are all so good that there are very few true dogs out there – and most of the time, their fatal flaws do not manifest themselves at normal city speeds. You have to be doing something very stupid to get into trouble.
This is of course NOT the case with cameras: though we have the same bewildering array of choices, aftermarket enhancements, pushy salespeople, slick marketing crap and the rest of it – the reality is that function is often so obfuscated that the buyer isn’t really even sure of what they need. I blame part of that on a lack of buyer education by anything other than marketing; I blame the other part of it on the average buyer’s unwillingness to learn. You can afford that medium format thing, so why buy a compact even if that’s what really fits your needs and skills best? There are plenty of Ferrari drivers who could probably benefit from a little instruction; the number of crashes due to driver panic is a strong testament to that.
Speaking of Ferraris, a couple of months ago I had the opportunity to test a 458 Italia. I’m not a novice or inexperienced driver, but it was clear from the first stab of the pedal that it was a machine that’s capable of things far, far beyond my level of skill. I think I used third gear once, half throttle, and that was about it. An unscheduled meeting with the scenery or another vehicle was the last thing I wanted to do in a car that – in this country – costs the better part of US$750,000 after taxes. (If we paid US prices, a mid-level 3-series would put you into a new 911 Turbo.) Interestingly, this odd pricing structure forces people to get far more out of their cars than in other countries – you make it work because you have no choice. That said, the standards of driving are abysmal – going out on the roads during peak hours is like doing battle in molasses. I suppose a ‘skill tax’ on cameras isn’t going to work, then.
I am thankful not to derive all of my income from photography, but even so, there’s absolutely no way I’d be owning a 458 in anything other than 1:10 scale RC or my dreams. On one hand, that makes me sad, because even that limited window into what the machine could do was a glimpse of enormously exciting potential – but on the other, I’m glad I won’t be frustrated in the traffic molasses. The Z4 I currently drive is just as fast as the 10-year old little hatchback in the next lane if nothing is moving. And that driver probably has more cabin space, too. It goes fast enough to blur the scenery, perceptually seems twice as fast with the roof down, and if I turn off traction control, go sideways very easily. But I don’t do that, because I like my license and tyres are expensive.
Unlike cars, I probably do have the experience and skill to get the most out of whatever camera I use, hence the recent 645Z purchase. I know my output needs it, too – the Ultraprints are demanding mistresses. I can drive the F1-equivalent of cameras and probably post a pretty competitive lap time; I can justify having an entire race team because well, that’s my business, and that’s what my clients are paying for. Does this mean I drive F1 on my days off (assuming I have any to begin with)? Sometimes, but most of the time, no. I don’t need to push the limits to have fun; I can do interesting things with a moped (iPhone, I suppose) or a Golf GTI (I suppose that’d be a Ricoh GR). Or I’ll go with a vintage Ferrari (Hassy V), or even abandon land altogether and take the yacht out (Arca F-Line 4×5″). But how many camera buyers have really mastered their equipment, much less push the limits on a regular basis? Very, very few, I think.
Here’s an interesting idea: much like the car buying world is self selecting based on income and need, I wonder if a camera company that only sold cameras by merit would work: we make the best possible camera for that target audience2 at any level; but in order to be eligible to buy the next level up, you have to show that you’ve mastered what you’ve already got. There would be a team of experienced and respected photographers – pros and amateurs – to decide if you made the cut or not. And you would have to sell us back your old one. We’d probably have to charge a lot of money because we wouldn’t sell any and we’d have to pay the curators, but I think it would probably be the only time when the quality of the images really does correlate with the quality of the equipment. You don’t see hobbyists entering Le Mans or taking check rides on 747s; the commitment is simply too great. Yet there are still a lot of entrants, and I’m sure all of them are making some sort of justifiable return – be it financial or advertising. Perversely, I actually think such a camera company might do quite well. MT
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