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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