What do these two things have in common, other than they’re from (very, very loosely, give or take a decade) the same era?
By way of comparison, these two are again similar, but lacking the the one thing that makes the first pair unique: and it isn’t age.
I’m talking about compromises. A compromise is when you’ve got to find a workaround or accept some limitations; the interesting thing is most people don’t notice them because they seldom ask of their tools anything beyond ‘normal’ design specifications. Our first pair – a Nikon F2 Titan and Ford GT40 – are both incredible pieces of machinery, but so purpose-honed that unless you’re willing to wrest control and be on the ball all the time, it’s going to wear after a while. And even then, you may not technically get better results in some cases than the more modern (and more mainstream) equipment. (Let’s not even talk about the cost.) Our modern pair, on the other hand, has everything 99% of the population will need: ease of use, performance, affordability, and reliability. I’m sure that given the choice, none of you would choose an original GT40 race car as your daily driver – unless you’re a period racer, I suppose. By comparison, a Canon Rebel/ three-digit EOS will do just about everything most people will want to do with it; you won’t have to worry about pesky things like focusing or metering or even having only one sensitivity for the next 33 shots, even though it’s now dark outside. And you won’t worry about where you park it or how you handle it or if you scrape a bit of paint off.* Likewise, the Polo GTI seats four, has folding seats for extra load, a perky engine, fun handling, surprisingly frugal consumption – and will allow you to lose your license in just under 7 seconds.
*I admit I rarely shoot the F2T/Noct combination because frankly, the small possibility of scarring it frightens the crap out of me.
This brings me to today’s topic of discussion: I wonder if choice is spoiling creativity and skill development. I’m going to get to this a roundabout way: let’s take a thought experiment example. For the last couple of years, depending on which magazine you read, the Car of the Year spot has been contested by the BMW 1M Coupe and the Porsche Cayman R; both are excellent drivers’ cars (I believe, not having had the fortune to drive either – it’s not the kind of thing you can get a test drive in here), but both have flaws. The question is, if money weren’t an object – which would you buy?
Absolute performance on the limit isn’t really a question for either car – nor is it something exploitable 99% of the time anyway – so we’ll leave that aside for now. Let’s take the 1M first: it’s small, but still seats four (in a pinch), has ample luggage space for a weekend (or an assignment’s worth of gear) and a very healthy amount of low end and midrange torque. Having driven a diesel for the last four years, I can tell you that it makes an enormous amount of difference to normal-speed tractability and response. However, it is manual only, the handling can be a bit lairy on the limit due to the torque and short wheelbase, and the looks take a little getting used to. If you lived in the middle of a mountain pass, I don’t think the former would be an issue, but if you live in a city like Kuala Lumpur where the traffic is so bad that any journey takes an hour in constant stop-start traffic, that third pedal might get a bit tiresome.
Then there’s the Cayman R: arguably, the handling is more precise, and well, it’s a Porsche – so it looks fantastic. Until you sit there in traffic and try to disappear into the car because everybody is staring at you and your rear wing. This car can be had with a PDK (double clutch robotised manual with paddles) gearbox, so there’s no third pedal. It has an automatic mode. But the engine is strictly naturally aspirated, so you have to rev the crap out of it to get any power; at low speeds, it feels, well, slow. (I’ve driven a regular Cayman S, and yes, that feels very sluggish below 5,000 RPM. Above that, it’s magic – but you can’t drive like that every day.) There’s also precious little luggage space, no extra/ emergency seats, and the fixed-shell racing buckets. It’s not exactly the easiest thing to get in and out of.
The obvious question in this case would be simply why not get something more practical, but perhaps just a little less focused? Simple answer: because it’s just not the same; because you just know that you settled. I think this is a problem for obsessive personalities like mine: if I decide to buy something, I hate the idea that I have to compromise at all; whether it’s cameras or cars. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have either the 1M or Cayman R – but the reality is that I’d probably be annoyed most of the time because I have to sacrifice too many things that actually matter to me.
The same goes with cameras: many of you will recall the Nikon Coolpix A vs Ricoh GR battle from a couple of months ago; both are fantastic cameras and very focused pieces of equipment – much like the 1M and R – but they’re similarly compromised. (Don’t ask me which is which, because I have no idea. I suppose the R would be the GR, and the 1M would be the A…) Only having the option of one or nothing makes the choice much simpler: you simply live with it and make it work for you. It’s only when you’ve got two very similar choices that things become tough. In the end – I still haven’t bought either camera. I believe they call these ‘first world problems’.
In general, the more you care about the result (caring about the journey only makes things worse), the more you care about your tools; the diminishing returns are very, very steep. In practical terms – let’s say web viewing and small prints, a pro-grade prime isn’t that much better than the kit zoom, but when you can tell the difference, it bothers you. (It’s why I have eight 28mm-e options; or at least that’s what I tell myself anyway.) Collectively, we photographers have a tendency to look to the limitations – deliberate by design or otherwise – of our gear to find excuses for why an image isn’t as good as it should be. ‘If only’, we say. But, if we only had one camera, a fixed-focal lens and ISO 100 film and didn’t know any better, I’m sure we’d find a way to make it work. Actually, not only would we find a way to make it work, I’m sure most of us would make some pretty amazing images, too. And a viewer would see the image rather than technical deficiencies.
Choice and consumerism have turned all of us into a bunch of lazy whiners**: there are many cultural stereotypes around this, but I feel it to be true. I’ve got to consciously catch myself before buying yet another piece of equipment (none of us are immune) thinking that it might result in different output: it won’t. Opening my mind would probably work much better. In the creative industries, limitations are actually much easier for humans to work with than a completely blank slate – simply because they both focus our thinking and rule out impracticalities that we shouldn’t waste our time on. Try it for yourself: it’s much easier to write an essay on a given topic rather than just ‘write an essay on anything’. The more limitations we have, the more we stretch ourselves, and the better we tend to do. Perhaps that’s why I find my hit rate with the Hasselblad and one lens – 12 shots – much, much higher than a D800E with a 24-120. I’m forced to think.
**The car industry is even worse than the camera industry: not only are there more choices, there’s even less distinction between them. D800 vs D800E was tough enough for most at the time; can you imagine if the D800 came in SE, Luxury, Executive and Sport trims, and if some options were interchangeable between some lines and not others? The forums would die of sheer server overload. “Should I buy a D800E Sport with the leather grips or a D800E Luxury with the Handling Package?” “Does anybody have photos in daylight of Midnight Black vs. Imperial Dark Blue side by side?” etc.
That said, I don’t really want to do my thinking while cursing my heavy twin-plate racing clutch in traffic. To the car enthusiasts amongst my readers, I’ve got two questions. Firstly, for entertainment value – money/ practicality being no object – what car do you think would suit me? And secondly, more practically…what would you pick for a) fun b) fast c) easy to drive in traffic d) has practical load-carrying ability e) has some style f) is affordable and g) preferably doesn’t drink like a sailor on shore leave? 🙂 MT
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