Choice, sufficiency and intangibles

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Nobody needs one of these to tell the time, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want one.

The incredibly strong and polarizing responses to the Hasselblad Lunar post in the last few weeks have lead me to think a bit more about why exactly people are so riled up about it, even those who aren’t going to buy one. I’ve even had people who’ve never commented on any of my other posts before either leave comments on the site, Facebook or Flickr – or in the case of a couple of people, email me and openly question my sanity and whether I have a financial interest in Hasselblad (!)

Firstly, I have zero financial interest in any camera company. I was in private equity and M&A for many years before turning pro; I would never invest in a camera company because the business has such incredibly low margins and high risk that any potential returns are simply not worth the risk. There are other reasons, but it’s not necessary to go into them here. The only financial interest I have in any camera sales are referrals via Amazon, and that’s both constant across all camera brands, as well as completely irrelevant here simply because you cannot buy a Lunar from Amazon.

Now that I’ve cleared up my personal position, lets take a fresh look at things. Clear your mind and try to be as objective as possible for the next thousand or so words; put aside your personal biases and preconceptions for the moment. And ultimately, remember that you are always free to vote with your wallet.

Let us begin.

I’m going to start with a bit of an analogy: the auto industry. In the early days, everything was quirky and heavily manufacturer-dependent. You might not always find the accelerator and brake pedals in the same place from car to car, for instance. To drive one effectively – and end up at your destination without breaking your car or your passengers – you really had to know your machine. Today, with few exceptions, the accelerator is always on the right, the brake is always in the left, and the stick between the seats controls the direction and speed of travel.

Cars have reached a point of development where not only so they all operate the same, but they are increasingly looking the same, too. For getting from A to B, pretty much anything will do the job just fine – yes, a Bugatti Veyron can get you there faster than a VW, but to do so requires some skill to operate and seriously diminishing returns in cost terms and general usability. That said, under most driving conditions, the VW will be easier o operate and produce exactly the same outcome. (Hell, my wife’s VW Polo will happily do over twice the legal speed limit without breaking a sweat.) For most people, it’s not necessary. But that doesn’t stop you wanting one, no matter how impractical and expensive it may be. At a more achievable level, plenty of people buy BMWs or Mercedes over Hondas; they don’t fundamentally do the job any differently (ironically, I’m writing this post on my iPhone while waiting for my car to get a new battery*) but we still want one anyway.

*And here’s a good example of sufficiency – I would prefer to write this on a proper keyboard with my 27″ monitor, but I’m certain the content and message of the article wouldn’t have been any different. The same applies to using a pen and paper, etc. I can make do just fine with something less, but I would prefer to use something else – and do so, because I can.

Your car choice is as much a personality statement as it is a tool. You probably use it every day, so you want it to be comfortable, familiar, and perhaps have some of the conveniences that might matter to you – it could be a third row of seats or wheel-mounted shift paddles. A mom of three is going to have very different requirements from a professional race driver. Even within our budget and specification requirements, there are often myriad similar confusing choices; I hate car shopping because you never get to try one for long enough to decide if it works for you or not in the long run.

The moral of the story is about sufficiency. Once we have achieved sufficiency, we then have choice. Once mass penetration has been achieved, proliferation is the only way that such consumer markets can sustain themselves, especially when most buyers are only going to make one such large purchase every few years. The investment required to develop a complex consumer product is enormous; I have no doubt that a new sensor easily runs into the millions, if not tens of millions.

As much as I like quirky products as much as the next guy, there has to be some commonality or economies of scale to make these products sustainable in the long term. I don’t want say Brand X to produce the perfect camera for me only to find that they go bankrupt three years later, leaving me with no upgrade path or after sales support. I want them to be able to survive and continue evolving the design. If that means the sensor has to be one bought and shared with other brands – take the 1/1.7″ prosumer compacts for instance – then so be it. I’d rather be able to buy a Ricoh GRD IV with the same sensor as the G15, S110, XZ-2 and LX7 than be stuck with the GRD I because the company went under making its own sensor.

Such competition is not a bad thing. It forces manufacturers to improve their product and make a compelling argument for the consumer to choose it over similar alternatives. This is a buyer’s market; if there were only one or two products in this category, we would be forced to buy them if we needed the functionality – regardless of whether we liked it or not, or if the rest of the camera was an ergonomic disaster. I, for one, don’t like the the feeling of being at the mercy of the manufacturer. Why should I hand over my hard-earned money if you don’t deserve it – don’t earn it yourself – by making something that I want to buy?

Photography has always been about making pictures. It still is, but a lot of people have now confused it with equipment collecting. (Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that so long as you know you’re a collector and and don’t pretend to be a serious and competent photographer just because you own some exotic lenses and cameras.) We have now past the point of sufficiency for the vast majority of uses – getting from A to B in the automobile analogy – but the difference is most consumers don’t know that. If you lose control of a 300km/h car, you’re probably going to lose your life. If you lose control of a 50MP camera, at worst you get an enormous blurred file. This lack of consequence I suppose is the root cause of a different psychology in most consumers; you want more if you can afford it.

But like with cars, we all want choices, individuality – look how strongly people identify with their camera brands. They are an extension of your personality, your choice of camera seems to have become a semi-religious thing that must be openly defended and fought over on Internet forums. I’ve seen people who are normally sensible, rational individuals in their real world dealings become infantile zealots. It’s almost a wonder that there aren’t riots and lynchings a Photokina – you’d never see a trade show of all the world’s major and minor religions without things descending into primal chaos.

Yet this is what photography seems to have become for most people. Just as there are religious extremists who give things a bad reputation, there are also sensible moderates who are decent individuals who just get on with their lives and contribute meaningfully to society. Cars, religion, cameras. We now have a choice, and lots of them at that. You don’t have to buy one particular car because it has a lower chance of exploding than another brand; nor do you have to switch religions because one now offers you slightly faster resurrection than another.

The ability to make a free choice according to one’s personal preferences is a first world problem. Pick whatever camera that suits you – both in technical requirements and personal aesthetics/ ergonomics – and just use it. If you don’t like it anymore, get another one, but don’t think that more of something will improve your personal skill level; at best it might make you want to shoot more, which is what will up your game – not more fps or megapixels. If you like to shoot with a large DSLR, then do so, and don’t attack others who prefer compacts. One won’t give you improve composition over the other, that’s down to the driver. There will be people who don’t understand why anything more than a compact is required; others who don’t go smaller than medium format (I know both) and still others who swear that Leicas give them a certain feel. But all of them have one thing in common: they will shoot more with a camera they enjoy using. This means if somebody wants to cover their camera in gold and vajazzle it because they think it suits their personality, why not? It may not be to our personal tastes, but I’m almost certain that they’ll probably produce better images with it than an ordinary camera simply because they want to use it in the first place.

The only reason this is becoming such a hot issue in the photography world is because the proliferation of choice is now reaching a point where it’s noticeable. Not every camera has to be black – you’d probably be mortified if you suddenly found that Honda now only made cars in one color – just as you also don’t have to buy it. But there will be somebody who does, and those people will put some small contribution back into the industry which will eventually let the manufacturers produce something that might well be perfect for you. Without these products, we face a period of stagnation and lack of choice – and I think we can all agree this is something nobody wants.

I don’t have to like every product, let alone buy it – and neither do you. But I think for the industry to survive and grow, products like the Lunar are necessary – and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of them in future from other brands. I say let the manufacturers go wild, and let the market make it’s choices; I’m almost certain that they know what’s going on in the general market sentiment (or at least they should if they’re worth their salt) – but at the same time, I double Bugatti are going to make a budget hatchback for those who complain the Veyron is too expensive, and if you can’t afford a Lexus, there’s always Toyota. In the meantime, I’m going to appreciate the good problem, pick up a camera that feels good to me and get on with the business of making images. It’s the main reason why I hate making camera recommendations – I’m sure a 5DIII is capable of as good or better images than a D600, but I know I won’t be able to make them because the way the camera feels and operates is simply counterintuitive to me. I’d still be stuck trying to think about which button to press, and as a result miss a shot that a seasoned Canon shooter would have nailed. Personal preferences matter.

Ultimately, if your photo is good enough, nobody is going to care what you shot it with – but if you hadn’t brought the camera with you in the first place, or didn’t feel like shooting with it, then the image would never have happened. And that definitely does make a difference. MT

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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