Process, equipment, creativity, photography and a confession

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Aargh!

It is an indisputable fact that photographers are all obsessed with equipment to some degree. Though online forums are perhaps a poor barometer of public opinion because one only visits if you are looking for equipment reviews or spoiling for a fight with a troll, I’ve noticed the same thing here – after running this site for more than three years, the most popular posts are consistently the ones that are equipment reviews, to do with system choices, or hardware. Philosophy comes a very distant second – by a factor of three or more – and then only images, which are dead last. Surely I can’t be the only one thinking this ratio is a little odd, given that the whole purpose of the exercise is to produce images?

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I was thinking as a collector when I bought this. I shoot with it sometimes, but I am under no illusion that it enables me to do anything the rest of my core kit can’t. Beautiful though, isn’t it?

The more I think about it, the more I think the majority of amateurs are really collectors rather than photographers: there’s nothing wrong with this, but the distinction needs to be made especially or the benefit of the majority of the public who still seem to think that large camera = professional and therefore whatever images come out must be good. Look at it them with fresh eyes! Do the images stand? If not, then the equipment is irrelevant. Or is it?

A photographer, in contrast, starts with the idea or intention, then chooses the right tool to aid in its production. This may or may not be a recursive process: you may well decide on a general subject (e.g. street photography) as an idea and then pursue it with the equipment you’ve got. But I bet you’ll eventually refine that selection to suit once you’ve had some experience. Photographers with a diverse range of subject matter and ideas will thus necessarily have a diverse range of equipment, too, especially if they want to go to the nth degree to ensure that they’ve done everything they can to make the best output or clearest translation of the idea possible.

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Medium format and watches with artificial lighting on a single roll with no bracketing or second takes – it can be done – but perhaps is not the best idea. But on second thoughts, perhaps there is something here…the full set is here.

Photography is not about pressing the button: it is about seeing, and communicating that vision, story or idea to another person by means of visual tools. The tools are important and the process can change the output, but both should be subservient to the image. This is not to say that we must exclusively box ourselves in: you could shoot wildlife with a wide angle on large format film if you chose, or landscapes with long-zoom small sensor camera. And I actually think part of the satisfaction of photography is doing just that: there are no fixed rules. Ideas can be derived from a process and a process can be created to suit an idea.

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Verticality XLI

I’ve got two very personal examples: Verticality and Forest. Verticality is entirely about the idea of towering monumentalism and the sheer scale of what man wrought over (individual) man himself – at the time of capture, the position and angle of view matters, but not the format. The output must be large and hung higher than eye level to produce the desired feeling of looking upwards and feeling small. Here, the process is entirely subservient to the image, and you’ll see that I’ve used everything from an iPhone to medium format to shoot these images – yet there’s still consistency of idea throughout. On the other hand, Forest only works as larger prints at very high resolution: the Ultraprint process was developed and evolved hand in hand as I was shooting Forests specifically to provide the right output medium for the idea, and vice versa. The more Ultraprinting I do, the more familiar I am with its strengths and limitations as as presentation medium, and I then gravitate towards suitable subjects; this way, the image and the medium work synergistically to provide a stronger idea. I think it’s quite obvious that any Forest doesn’t really work at web size, but I’ve never had that said after people have seen the large prints.

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Forest VII. Native size, 34×30″ at 720PPI – or about 530MP. Does not work as a 0.5MP web jpeg; there’s a little bit of information loss…

It is therefore quite clear that the relationship between equipment, creativity and output isn’t quite so straightforward; there is something to be said for deploying the right tool in the right way. It is also not a stretch to say that new equipment forces us to experiment: not just because we must figure out what the optimum shooting envelope is, but also its strengths and weaknesses. Beyond that, there is of course the excitement around having a new toy to play with: this makes us want to go out and take photographs, hopefully experiment a little in the process, and thus incrementally improve our images. There is no substitute for practice in this game.

Of course there are two elements of human nature we cannot ignore: our curiosity/ natural desire for more, and the frequently mistaken belief that effort is fungible. We work at our day jobs and that effort is translated into money, which should in turn be able to buy our way up the ladder: yes and no. Whilst money enables you time and hardware for experimentation and buying education, it still isn’t a substitute for practice. In any other profession, nobody would dispute the fact that better tools are only better if the operator knows how to use them: the more specific the tool, the narrower the window of application. Nobody would dream of doing surgery with a Swiss Army Knife, yet you wouldn’t take an ophthalmological scalpel camping. The same is of course true with photography: don’t make the mistake of thinking that more expensive always equals better. Similarly, don’t assume that what works for one person will work for everybody: there are no ‘absolute bests’ since everybody’s skill levels and needs differ.

That said, there is also something very satisfying about having precisely the right tool for the job: it becomes a transparent part of the process and an enabler rather than something that requires conscious thought and attention to operate. This leaves you with more mental capacity to deploy on the creative aspects of photography, which should of course lead to better images – or at very least, a more enjoyable experience since you aren’t fighting your gear.

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Stacking definitely required.

At this point I have to make a confession. Like every photographer, I am a gearhead, but not for the sake of gear: I have clearly defined photographic goals, and if a tool is going to enable me to reach them more easily or produce better results than the one I’ve currently got, I’ll jump. And I won’t jump until I’m sure that there really is a difference and I’ve squeezed every last drop out of my current setup. This should not be confused with jumping ship in the hope that the Next Best Thing is going to make a better image. It’s not; but it might enable me to make a better image, which is a subtle difference, but absolutely not the same thing. It’s also important not to be fixated on only one part of the imaging chain: there’s no point in having a medium format system and a bad tripod, or upgrading the body for more resolution then only using a superzoom. There is a reason, for instance, why I’m using a Novoflex Castel-Q rather than the Manfrotto 454; one has backlash and no anti-torque mounting for the camera, and the other does not. Both are of very critical importance when focus stacking, and I have a specific need to do that for my commercial work.

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Occluded observation. This image is only possible with camera movements, a large dynamic range, and clean long exposure – these are pretty specific requirements, but it does represent my personal creative direction. Limited edition Ultraprint available here.

This doesn’t mean every photographer needs one, of course. Nor does it mean that everybody needs more resolution, or cleaner high ISO, or faster apertures, or a longer lens – regardless of what peers and forums and friends and manufacturers try to tell us. Evaluate your own needs objectively: they’re different to everybody else’s. If you don’t see any potential for improvement, or not enough improvement to justify the cost, then stop reading and go out and make photographs instead. Be independent and make up your own mind. Much of the confusion and angst over equipment that I get in email, messages and comments seems to derive from a lack of clarity over a person’s own personal objectives: think why you are photographing in the first place. But also beware that once you reach the bleeding edge, incremental improvements become increasingly costly; the laws of diminishing returns apply to photography, too. Be open to process and opportunity and improvement, but make sure there isn’t anything you’re leaving on the table with your current setup, and don’t lose sight of your own goals…MT

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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Comments

  1. Hi Ming.

    It’s a sad fact that people are more interested in gear than in the results they can provide. I changed my opinion on that a couple of years ago – my collection of photo books (currently ca. 220) is worth more than my photographic equipment. As an amateur, there are limits in gear purchases, since another lens or camera body will never “pay for itself” financially. If it increases my fun when taking photographs, if it makes me want to go out and take photos, it’s worth it for me. That’s the luxury of being an amateur, I guess.

    Best regards
    Matt

    • Absolutely. I too need more shelves 🙂

    • penguins-everywhere says:

      I was definitely convinced of that the day Canon released their 5Ds sample pictures. There was one shot with a 24-70mm II at F/8, of Tokyo from a really high vantage point… When I inspected it up close, it was obvious that the lens used to take the picture was badly decentered, and the right side was a blurry mess, so bad it would have been noticeable at 1/3 the resolution.

      But I waited for someone to point that out, and no one did, in any online community that I was aware of. It was all “ooh, aahh, 50MP! So much detail!”. Likely none of the commenters I saw who were crazy over this camera had any use for its actual feature set…

  2. Megatron says:

    LOL 120 comments on this article and 50 on the Tokyo Cinematics, which is a more photographically-inclined article!

  3. People on the internet reading things about photography are indeed fond of cameras, and less fond of pictures. People reading books about photography 30 years ago, however, also tended to be fond of cameras, and less fond of pictures.

    Cameras, it turns out, are very fun. They’re intricate bits of technology. Chemistry is fun. Fussing about in photoshop is fun, albeit not necessarily for the same people.

    Pictures, well, they’re just not that popular. People don’t much like photographs. I mean, they’re OK, but most people don’t love photographs that are not of themselves of someone they know. Art is complicated and hard, and photographs As Art are even harder, being all muddled up with representational photography and so on. Most people don’t care.

    That said, virtually no photographers are gearheads. The ones that read this blog, or photography forums, or books, or whatever are, sure. But they’re a statistical blip. Most photographers use a cell phone and take pictures they like – of themselves, of friends, of loved ones, of their lattes. On even numbered days I think they’re the real artists, because they’re not lost in a maze of technological rubbish. They’re feeling, they’re being, their photography is rooted in something real and honest.

    • Your last paragraph makes a very, very good point: I wonder if there’s a very big disconnect here somewhere. Are the non-gearhead photographers interested in making better pictures, or just more pictures?

      • Andrew M’s point is very interesting – I would agree that the biggest number of photographers are the people out there with cellphones, and they’re not the gearheads. In response to your question, I think they just have different ideas of what “better” means, and what is an acceptable level. (See also all the comments addressed at you in other posts for “over-emphasising” sharpness.) If you don’t care much about technical excellence, it’s difficult to be a gearhead…

        Personally I enjoy reading your (and other’s) reviews, even though I have absolutely no intention of buying most of the items reviewed – the cube tripod head, for example. It’s secondhand gear lust, rather than an incentive to buy stuff 🙂

    • Most people are just looking to record the memories of their lives and where they’ve been. That’s not really journalism or art, but it does account for the vast majority of photographers out there, whether they’re using an iPhone in 2015, or were using a 110 Instamatic back in 1975. Same syndrome, different era, I should say. This era of digital has simply made that same syndrome more ubiquitous, admittedly in the process altering the industry, of course.

      Those who wish to record the lives of those they don’t know, or of events unrelated to their own narcissistic being, take another step up the ladder into the realm of documentation or reportage, I would say.

      Moving up that same scale you hit photographers who shoot a subject or an object for its own intrinsic beauty; fine art landscapes, still life imagery, fashion & beauty etc, etc.

      These latter two categories overlap into the realm of commercial, paid work, obviously.

      OK, I had a point to make in there somewhere … and I’ve completely forgotten now what it was.

      I quit. 😉

  4. Martin Fritter says:

    Very high quality comments in general on this site. Two from me which I hope don’t drag down the level too much: 1. GAS can keep one from improving. It takes time to understand equipment (especially lenses, I think). One must learn to work within one’s limitations, they are actually what comes to form a style, so changing gear is often a way to avoid that encounter. (Famously Paul Strand using one lens for 20 years) 2. Photography is obviously about seeing, but it is also about discovery. One of the fascinations of photography is about seeing things that one cannot see with the naked eye. There is also the “photographic unconscious” – when the picture shows you something that you didn’t know was there, commonly in street or documentary shooting, much less so in product, fashion, landscape and so on. See Winogrand’s also famous “Take a picture to see what something looks like if you take a picture of it” (more or less) or very large amounts of Friedlander.

    • Fully agreed: the second point is a good one. The ‘new factor’ of discovery is what makes us perceive and portray something from an alternate and hopefully more interesting perspective than the usual expectation/ preconception…

  5. I enjoy them all, but suspect that the main reason for the preference is not mere blind consumerism. For one thing, your images are a compelling reason to even bother reading the technical reviews or photographic essays (as in texts, not to be confused with pictorials). Your gear reviews are very different from those of nearly every site I have seen, which almost all inevitably become engrossed (understandably) with the technical details, which comes back to why reviews are king: we all want to produce those stunning images we love about your work, but there is no easily quantifiable way to get there. Gear brings very measurable things to the table: it is sharper, lighter, higher resolution, better dynamic range, higher ISO, etc. Even if our pictures from *our* Nikon D810 with a Zeiss Otus are no better compositionally than some other Facebook picture done with a smartphone, the sheer technical quality will stand out. We all want to shoot like you, like Lloyd Chambers, like… whomever, but are then given vague suggestions such as “know your equipment”, “practice makes perfect” and so on. I am new to the photography addiction, but have know enough people who shoot regularly and have done so for 30 years, and whose images are seriously lacking. I will not tell them they don’t know their equipment or shoot enough, since I know that is not the issue. Just from a photographic point of view, with that new gear, if all else fails at least that infinitesimal 0.3 EV extra DR at base ISO, is there.

    • Well, there *is* a way to get there, but paradoxically it isn’t through the equipment. Hence the need to educate around it through the articles and videos. Suggestions might seem vague in passing because it’s a) not that simple and b) I’ve already spent countless days writing articles like the four things and what makes an outstanding image on top of going into even more detail in the videos. Some things are not practical to communicate in a written only post of short length simply because of complexity of concept and even then, most are easily accessible with a search of the archive…

      • I love those articles and have read numerous. They are at the same time fascinating and demanding (in a good way). But don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t blaming you for the state of affairs, but making a general comment that no doubt applies to other sites as well. It is the same in many many other fields you know: fancy running shoes for the wannabe runner, fancy snooker cues for the wannabe snooker champion, and the list goes on.

  6. Homo_erectus says:

    Thanks Ming, I prefer your philosophical articles although I read your gear reviews specifically because you get into the details of what it’s like to actually shoot with the gear you are reviewing. I can’t take a lot of other sites seriously because the quality of the photography in their reviews is most often abysmal. My biggest motivation for reading your site is to look at your beautiful photos though.

    I was a musician in a former life and I saw just as much GAS there as in photography. The only real difference is that no one makes an electric guitar with P mode (yet). Nothing is sadder than a bad musician who thinks a new amp will make them suddenly be awesome.

  7. the worst part is when you know what you want and then go hunting and see a fair few options and then GAS takes over!

    we really are all gear heads in the end, the amount of discussion about gear we had during the Prague workshop was quite extensive! Though I should add we always discussed in the context of what additional value does it bring as a tool to make images….

    • I think better than having no options – then you’re just frustrated instead.

      There’s a difference between being a gearhead for the sake of the gear, and a gearhead because you have an objective to achieve. Plus, true gear heads have trouble selling anything 😉

  8. GAS is a very serious disease but cureable! I am only into photography for 5 years and was suffering much, looking permanently for the new stuff, asking questions (somtime Ming) etc.
    One day I asked myself what photos i cannot shoot with the gear I already have – Leica V lux 3, Nikon D 5100 and Fuji XE 1.
    I did Polo – got even in the local newspaper with this (Nikon), night markets – XE 1 up to 6400 ISO- and daily life – Leica Vlux 3 as it is light, flexible and we got a lot of sunshine during daytime here in Thailand.

    Probably Polo at nightime (doesn’t exist), watches for a catalogs and advertising billboards (I am not a professional photographer but in real estate)
    is what I cannot do with this gear.

    Prints at A4 or A3 have an excellent IQ, the limitation is more on my side than on the gear.

    Women buy clothes, guys cars or cameras, poor guys too lazy to make big bucks enjoy life and shoot photos.

    Best regards
    Heiner

    • Actually…you could do watches for catalogs just fine. If you’re working with controlled light and optimum apertures, the D5100 is more than good enough for most uses. I was doing it with the D700 which had worse IQ!

      • Dear Ming, thanks for the reply. Interesting – always when I get attacked by GAS I think of buying a D 700 so I can call myself a photographer because I got a FF!! So it seems to me that I don’t need it and can spend the money on something else, for example on traveling soemwhere to shoot photos. Maybe Ken Rockwell is right as he said about the Nikon D 5xxx that these are cameras for people who want great pictures and more expensive cameras are for people who want bigger cameras.

        Br Heiner

  9. Photography is, perhaps, unlike many creative pursuits in that it has both an artistic and philosophical element and a scientific or technological element. Both go hand in hand, but it also means that people can be attracted to photography for vastly different reasons. Speaking personally, I like old film cameras in the sense that they allow a different process, have different ergonomics and appeal to a different aesthetic. For instance, are these not beautiful? – http://sjp.id.au/oldgear/camera-collection-diana-kodak-argus-exakta/ But, I never forget that all of my cameras, old or new, film or digital, are merely boxes with a variable hole and a recording medium. The art remains the same across decades, even though the gear can translate into a different photo making experience. When the modern gear gets too much, all I have to do is look at my 1937 Box Brownie to realise that photography is actually very basic in technical terms, even though marketing departments do their best to convince us otherwise.

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      The box camera had three great advantages as a beginner’s tool: Its limited shooting envelope made you quickly understand in what direction you wanted to increase it. The small and often minuscule viewfinder forced you to learn to frame in your mind. The large negative format gave you a chance to learn darkroom work without first investing in an enlarger. It also gave ample margins for cropping disturbing details unseen in the viewfinder and so made you understand framing better.

      ( The Instamatic (et al.) replaced it with just a point-and-shoot.)

      The ultimate (to my mind) development of the box camera – and a good next step for the photographer – was the collapsible 6×7, 6×6 and 6×4.5 rangefinder, e.g. the Zeiss Ikon and Voigtländer series.

      The digital equivalents of these are few, e.g. the GR, the Merrills and a couple of zoom compacts.

      • I also sometimes wish for a Linhof 6×17 equivalent with just basic rise or shift…

      • Very interesting point actually; and it begs the question: if the collapsible Zeiss Ikon (et al) serves as a great progression for the beginning photographer, what is the next step in the digital world for that same photographer? Do we go from an auto-everything compact to a DSLR that still includes auto-everything? I think the lines here are a little blurrier. But maybe I’m framing it mistakenly.

        • Kristian Wannebo says:

          Depends.
          I don’t think you can find tools for a similar learning curve in the digital world.
          The cheap compacts are all auto and only some have A, T or M modes.
          For trying to master the technical side maybe the LX100 or similar is an alternative – you almost can’t help seeing what aperture and exposure time you are using. (Having to choose 2:3 / 3:4 etc before shooting may also be good for learning.)
          Or the Fuji X10 – X30 and XF1 with manual zooming for more precise framing, especially as the small sensor gives small margins for cropping.

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            EDIT:
            The in camera raw conversion in the Fujis is perhaps also a good learnimg tool, not so intimidating as all the options in photoshop et al.

          • I’ve found that going back to old manual film cameras with a limited range of speeds is actually very enlightening, and serves as a great teacher. Digital can sometimes be complex, for all of its auto-simplicity.

        • Moving from an auto compact to an auto DSLR increases the shooting envelope, but not necessarily control or creative freedom. I’d argue that perhaps even restrictions (manual, fixed focal) might help focus the shooter…

    • You won’t get any argument from me. I’ve yet to see anything modern that can compete with the 60s golden era for aesthetics – I’ll take the Titan and Hassy any day to look at and to shoot if the output isn’t critical or risky; otherwise it’s a D810.

      I think we need to make a further separation: those in photography for enjoyment of the whole process/ experience should probably use what they like because it makes you want to shoot more; those in it for a job or with production/achievement of a specific objective in mind should be goal focused and pick the right tool purely on its merits to deliver those goals…the confusion happens when the person tries to be one but is really the other.

      • Yes, I agree with your seperation. And I think we’ll find those goal-focussed individuals in other creative pursuits too, as well as the stylists and aesthetes. I’d always use my Nikon DSLR for low light situations, or critical photos, but certainly still derive enjoyment from wrestling film into a Soviet made Smena or Zenit.

  10. I was recently discussing this very topic with some colleagues. For me the gear is interesting to a point. But as a working pro I find myself thinking less about gear than about creating a better image.
    When I started in the 70’s I felt I had entered into a paradise of new experiences. Finely made instruments (or some engagingly quirky ones) that one used to make an image that others would marvel at irrespective of the camera. In those days we also obsessed over films, developers, papers and workflows. Everything was exciting. Its different today but for me the balance has changed to one of obsessing over the image and how I can make something wonderful yet still have clients want to book me always.

  11. Erling Maartmann-Moe says:

    Let me take a totally different view, and defend GAS. Why should photography be the only rational area of use and consumption? Yes, a great photographer can take good shots with any camera, like you prove again and again. Most of us are not in that league. We buy new equipment for at least two reasons: 1) If you are an engineer and/or like technology (like me), there is a certain joy in new equipment and getting to know it 2) Like a woman buying a new dress hoping she will look better in it, a photographer buys new equipment hoping it will conceal some of his weaknesses. Yes, it is mostly futile, but why give up hope, if it gives you some joy, as long as it is within your economic ability?

    And about brand loyalty – even more irrational: Why do people all over the world feel loyalty to Manchester United, to Barcelona, to Chanel, to Louis Vuitton, to Hublot or Girard-Perregaux? In the last examples, because they don’t want to be 0,8 seconds late to a meeting? It is not rational in the perspective of time only, especially not since your phone always shows time with decent accuracy.
    Why should not I be fascinated by Leica, someone else by Hasselblad, and a 3rd guy about Olympus? There are certain technical parameters that one can use to beat each others heads with, albeit not as brutal as hooligans in soccer matches, but it is basically emotional, creating identity.

    Especially now that ALL cameras produce more than decent results (ref. your Nikon exercise), I think it it more a question of what you like to work with, what you feel is an extension of what you try to achieve.

    Why do some prefer Audi and some BMW? Same issue. And in many cases different usage scenarios, conflicts and discrepancies are solved by having more than 1 watch/dress/car/bicycle/golf kit, you name it.

    I would argue that brand loyalty also has some rationale – I read endless threads bout fitting lens brand X to camera brand Y and vv., people swap their whole Canon kit for Nikon because of a new sensor, and swap back when Canon responds. This is not rational, and VERY EXPENSIVE. I think a more relevant question would be HOW SMALL should a change/benefit be, I think some of the GAS problem is not that people spend money on things they enjoy, but that they are too impatient and trigger-happy, have no direction, creating inconsistency in their gear, with added problems.

    OK, rant over. Let us more or less mediocre photographers enjoy our GAS, and get some good equipment reviews to feed it!

    • Nothing against GAS at all, Erling. But there’s a difference between a collector and a photographer. There is nothing wrong with being either. BUT: you cannot be the latter if you’re obsessed with the former, because you’re not thinking about the things where you make a difference but then expect a different or better result. This is the problem/connundrum/conflict/whatever I am constantly asked to deal with or solve for people – almost always by thinking a different piece of hardware will make a difference. Knowing which camp you fall into (which you clearly do, but most do not) makes life happier for everybody. Or perhaps I’m just making the mistake of thinking that at least some of my audience isn’t I this purely for the toys…

  12. Ming, this article is easily one of my favourites, just the amount of technicality, education, wisdom, affirmation and inspiration. Bravo, keep up the good work!

  13. First some comments about my relationship with photography, then why your gear reviews are so good and popular.

    My wife is a professional and very artistic photographer. She doesn’t shoot watches or weddings or anything where someone else directs her, but starting shooting for the passion of shooting – seeing something beautiful or interesting or abstract or jarring and capturing it. She has a natural talent for not only seeing, but also capturing and processing things in a way that is truly artistic and surprisingly, people buy. She uses gear, but has very little interest in keeping up with what’s new. I keep current on new developments and am the one that recognizes when a major step change in technology would do something for her artistically and therefore be worth her spending $ and climbing the learning curve of new technology. She has less GAS than probably anyone out there.

    I myself am more of a collector and enjoy the experience of shooting, probably more than I care about the quality of the image I get. I collect film cameras and enjoy the experience of deliberate shooting (e.g., metering, setting exposure, focusing, etc.). By the way, great article a while back on the Hasselblad V series – you helped me to obtain a gem that is truly a joy to shoot with and a unique experience. I enjoy restoring some of these gems to working condition. I even enjoy the challenge around getting unavailable film to be able to experience a unique photographic experience. E.g., there’s something about the challenge of slitting 35mm film down to 16mm, taping it to 17.5mm HIT backing paper and seeing what kind of pictures I can get from a Mycro III camera. That also gets me thinking about what life was like in post-war Japan, which taps into a deep interest I have in history. Another example is shooting a 1936 Leia IIIa on a recent trip to Berlin. That better connects me with the experience of what it was like there 80 years ago and builds a more intimate relationship with the city and country.

    So why do I particularly like your reviews and find them unique? Because you put more emphasis on the EXPERIENCE of shooting into your reviews than most others. Other reviews often spend too much time regurgitating the manufacturer’s specs. The experience of using the gear is what’s important. And that is true for me, the collector, as well as my wife, the professional.

  14. Daniel Boyd says:

    Ming, living in Bay Area, I’ve been at the Golden Gate bridge spot before and NEVER seen it the way it looks in your photograph here. Your image has soul, Ming. It has soul.

  15. I think the reality is that you gear posts are followed so closely because your images and philosophy resonate so deeply with those who follow your posts. Were you inarticulate or unable to capture your reader’s artistic dreams you would not have such a wide audience. Perhaps one hopes to lessen the process to mastery of this illusive medium by leveraging you equipment expertise. Vision is acquired through process and experience … many need time to develop the necessary skills and sight. When the equipment question is “solved” the weightier matters become of greater importance.

    I tend to focus on your thought and philosophy unless I am replacing a camera or lens … when I turn to your reviews and representative images.

    The trend to gear over philosophy is fairly common … perhaps most are more comfortable letting their images speak as the language and cadence of philosophy is difficult for many of us. I do believe that more growth occurs in the lesser followed aspects of your writings and do hope that you are affirmed by the small but devoted following they engender.

    The WEB would be less without your input.

    Most sincere thanks for your efforts.

    Bob

    • I can appreciate that, but try to help as much as I can in that regard by trying to demonstrate the gear really doesn’t matter…ah well. You cannot ‘solve’ the equipment question without knowing what you want to do with it first. Chickens, eggs and all that 🙂

  16. A few thoughts…Internet forums also have images posted to them. These threads may not be as popular as threads about gear, but they do get read. I know because my blog gets a large number of referrals from image threads. I think it is bad for a photographer to do only a single genre, even if they are very good at it. Going outside one’s boundaries improves creativity. Likewise, it is not good to try do do too many different things. I think there are folks making meaningless photographs of small birds sitting in trees just so they could justify buying a super telephoto. Just my opinion. As usual, a thought provoking article.

  17. Jon, Care to read one more? He does like Hasselblads……..

    Sent from my iPad

  18. Why do your writings concerning gear review trump every other meaningful thing that you write? It is a good question. And one well worth pursuing…..Find the answer and you will probably be able to solve most of the world’s ills. Imagine, being able to be satisfied with where you are, and what you have………And being willing to take the time and make the effort to make the best use of it. ……..

    Of course, faster computers, and better software, will be needed to accumulate and analyze the data necessary to the answer. Oh!, and more/better storage capacity. And then, there is the matter of convincing everyone that your answer is superior to the rest. You will have to figure out how best to attract an audience and convey advantages. I mean, everyone is going to want confirmation that they have obtained be the best answer to the question of attaining perfect inner harmony.

    I enjoy your gear reviews, and find them to be among the most practical and least leading. Keep up the good work.

    • I suspect it’s because today’s society wants and expects quick fixes – education is never a quick fix or low effort. A lack of education and understanding are probably actually at the root of the world’s ills…but that’s not a problem I’m about to solve on a photography site! 🙂

  19. Interesting article. Where can I find out more about backlash and anti-torque mounting regarding tripods?

  20. Jason Joyce says:

    Excellent article Ming. Guess I am in the minority here, your pictures and non-gear articles are what drew me to this site. Your compositions and use of light have taught me so much. Thank You!

  21. Pilots achieve proficiency ratings based on the amount of time they flown in a particular aircraft type. You often hear; “he had 15 years’ experience as a pilot and 2500 hours in this aircraft type”. I have adopted a similar approach with my photography & gear. My favorite lenses, of which most will stand the test of time, sit calmly and patiently on the shelf awaiting the next great body. When that body arrives, I’ll log as much flight time as needed to become proficient with it.
    By having lens loyalty instead of brand loyalty, I’m enjoying my photography and G.A.S on new levels. Personally, I find switching back and forth from bodies keeps me sharp as long as I don’t do so on a shoot -pre-season practice only :).
    Now having said all that, I must compliment you on this clever article. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you sold a print or two from it 😉

    • No ulterior motive here: just to try and smack some sense into the internet (as futile as that might be). Haven’t sold anything yet, but won’t complain if I do…

      If only reviewers had some sort of ‘proficiency rating’ – sadly that still does not correspond to ability, though. Photographing the same thing 40,000 times might make you very good at making the same mistakes, or a master, but not versatile – who’s to say?

  22. This is a great article – thank you! I am a hobbyist (yes with a dream) and it is mind boggling all the “gear” and tools that is available. It is easy to get lost with it all. I actually am not a gearhead – I like the idea of less is more for myself on the creative end. I enjoy challenging myself and the gear – as sometimes what is told as “wrong” can be something quite interesting. The companies market us crazy – that we must have the latest – what they dictate as better – but many times it is not. My purchases are well thought out – and perhaps not what someone else may do (purchase) – I do it for myself – for the enjoyment!

  23. More images and philosophy! 😉 Although your gears reviews are the most informative (where it matters). Thanks for your efforts!

  24. NeutraL-GreY says:

    You are so down to earth.

  25. This one hits a little close to home after our last few e-mails. Even then I wasn’t kidding myself that any new purchase would help me improve. To be shamefully honest, the only reason the D750 was so tempting was because it was so damn comfortable to hold and use!

    • I’m just as susceptible as the next guy to bouts of GAS; perhaps more so because I know I could probably squeeze every last pixel out of whatever it is I’m coveting. But I’m also very aware than with few exceptions, the images won’t be any better from a creative/artistic standpoint.

  26. For quality of work, their are few options that are demonstrably better for most compared to your Titan and a Nikon 50mm 1.8… For the most part we’re all trying to find a digital combination that will equal the output of that Titan or the F6, etc… Certainly a Rolleiflex is better, but only if your needs are that precise. Aside from the Titan as a photography tool, pride of ownership will outlast several generations of digital cameras. We can purchase a Pentax Takumar 50mm 1.4 and a camera to go with it for around $150 and for the most part be ahead of the game. I have much “better” cameras, but I most often take along an Olympus EPL1 and the Panasonic 20mm. If a film camera, the Hexar AF. I keep I read about people justifying digital against the cost of film and developing, yet along the way they’ve probably invested in several digital cameras, whereas the person really interested in taking pictures is cranking out work with the same film camera that they have been using for the last 30 or more years. For quality of work we really haven’t come that far. We especially need to realize that when people nitpick the differences between film and digital. Digital is a convenience, and can only ever be an approximation of analog. I mostly shoot digital, but I’m under no illusion that it’s ever been for cost saving. For that matter, there is nothing inexpensive about printing from a computer compared to a darkroom. I’ve spent a small fortune over the years updating computers, printers, software, paper and ink. I tend to hang on to things and my oldest computer with one of the earliest versions of Photoshop is still as good for my uses as much newer equipment and software. If were about images and philosophy, we might all be more practical. For myself, I finally figured this out over a year ago and since then have had no desire to purchase another camera or lens. This is not an argument for film over digital, or digital over film. While we in reality are more focused on equipment reviews, we want to believe that we’re all about philosophy and our images. Or, when we finally get that perfect camera and lens we will get to our first love, image making. Digital cameras will come and go but none will be as continuously enjoyable to handle and look at as the Titan, or the all metal Takumar 50mm.

    • Experience and quality of output are two very different things. There is no way the quantitatively measurable quality (tonal accuracy, dynamic range, noise, resolution) from any 35mm film camera is even remotely close to, let alone better than, a D810 in the hands of somebody competent. But there’s probably some relationship between enjoyability and artistic (not technical) quality of output, and perhaps the difference is made up there.

  27. pterosonus says:

    I think the reason I no longer devour each of your photo essays lately is that (perhaps due to creeping old age) is that there is only so much I can absorb from any one person to aid in strengthening the execution of my own vision and style. I readily admit to being both a gearhead and photographer and it was your writings on the E-M5 that steered me to m4/3 as my current system. These new whiz-bang cameras are electronic marvels but don’t fill me with the same awe as when I first used an Exacta VX IIa. That camera belongs in the steampunk hall of fame. And I loved my Topcon RE Super like you loved your Nikons. Reading your gear reviews lets me vicariously experience cameras I’ll never hold, let alone own. Thanx!

  28. It’s funny how I enjoy your images from film cameras a bit more. I don’t know whether you are being ultra careful when you use them, or if it is simply a coincidence.

    Nadav Kander in an interview, talked about modern cameras having no soul, yet our clients pushed for us to shoot only digital. I think in some ways the gear can drive our results, and not always in a good way. We can now get extremely accurate, extremely detailed images, and leave emotion behind in the process. Meanwhile those movie guys continue to colour grade their images, moving away from accurate colours to evoke different moves. I have to wonder if at times professional stills photographers have lost the plot.

    There will always be technically better cameras, and technically better lenses. I still find it funny that we talk about images of the past, and still like many of them. Go on most review pages and camera forums, and it would seem all that cameras of the past could accomplish was producing shots that looked like coloured oatmeal. 😉

    Absolutely there is enjoyment in using certain cameras. Those don’t always match what I need to use on a commissioned assignment. A few times I have tried adding in shots on some unusual gear, and ended up with results the client liked better, though I never could’ve gotten away with just using strange old cameras on a paid shoot. Anyway, the point is that I’ve never brought camera gear to a shoot, as the main consideration, though I have always brought ideas. 🙂

    • Honestly can’t say re. film. It could be because most were shot on the Hassy, and there’s a very noticeable difference in format between 24×36 and 6×6 – but less so between 24×36 and 33×44. Actually, I grade all of my stills with a similar process to what the cinema guys do; it’s just subtle most of the time unless I’m really going for a very strong emotional impact.

      Oatmeal was only at base ISO, Gordon. High ISO would produce a bowl of jellybeans 😉 Hear hear on bringing ideas.

      • By grading you mean playing with colour and emotions by pre-dominantly affecting the white balance right? I thought cinema guys nowadays mostly use the orange-teal combo. Not so subtle most of the time. Once you’ve seen it, that’s all you see.

        • Bingo. Cinema guys also use blue to a lesser extent, and sometimes also green-magenta (watch Wong Kar Wai’s work, for instance).

          • Wong Kar Wai definitely has some memorable image styling in his films. Cinema is something I think about often in stills images. When I was a painter, many of my paintings were influenced by scenes from various movies. After all, even with single images, we are still telling stories.

            • I’ve always thought the difference between cinema and documentary stills was creation of a mood or feeling rather than telling the whole story in a frame…a story yes, but in an emotional rather than rational or logical way.

              • I had a brief time working on documentaries. While there was a script, loosely to guide each shooting day, the scenes mostly just evolved. Editing later would solve the storyboard type of planning. Things that are more staged and planned start with storyboards, basically stills that define a theme. It’s not always obvious in short films and cinema, though there are times the references are obvious. Just an example, since I come from a formal art and painting background, I noticed that films of Claude Lelouch often had scenes reminiscent of French expressionists paintings.

                In my commercial work, images are often storyboards, either by me, or by someone at a creative agency. I suppose photojournalism and street shooting are more like documentary films, while advertising is a bit more like cinema. The order of when things are planned and edits shifts around a bit, though it may not always be noticeable in the results.

                • Sorry – I should have made that clearer; documentary stills not documentary video.

                  Clients in SE Asia forgo the creative agencies most of the time because they don’t want to pay them and believe they can do it better. They almost never listen to professional advice, and then get unhappy with the results afterwards which were executed to their spec. But that’s another discussion for another day…

                  • Ah, okay. That’s not exclusive to SE Asia; as budgets got cut that activity has appeared in many places. As a big ad executive once told me: “fear ruins good work”, meaning that playing it safe rarely leads to the best outcome. I’m not sure where that attitude always originates, though maybe cost concerns. The thing is that it only costs a certain amount to produce great work, but shoddy projects can cost a company much more in the long run (in lost sales). Maybe you have another posting with this, discussing the documentary approach. 😉

                    • Absolutely agree with “fear ruins good work” – the problem here is that even for those clients who start out creative, the fear takes over. It’s corporate CYA at its very best (worst?). They do not see the cost (i.e. losses) that doesn’t come out of somebody’s budget…that requires imagination, and we find ourselves in a circle again. No imagination = fear = mediocre results = mediocre sales = more fear.

          • Grant S. says:

            And Stanley Kubrick. 😀
            /shameless name dropping, heh: I chose the ending setting for “Eyes Wide Shut” in a meeting with SK. Colour (Barbie pink 😉) played a prominent role.

            • Ah yes – he also did a great job with colour…

              On a somewhat related note, I always thought he was an excellent documentary photographer too; there’s a book of his early pre-cinema stills work I’ve been trying to track down without much success (at least not at a price I can afford…)

              • Grant S. says:

                When I met with him to discuss the setting he wanted to take some photos for review, dug into his over-flowing pocket, and produced…a Fuji disposable. Which he proceeded to shoot off the whole roll. 😉 Obviously left his Leica at home, heh. (I was a touch dismayed, lol.)

                • You could look at it two ways, I suppose – dismay or affirmation since it could just mean he’s such a master any camera will do…can’t say I’ve used a fuji disposable, but I use the iPhone surprisingly often 🙂

                  • Grant S. says:

                    Well, this was 1998, so I’m pretty sure he would have used a phone if such a device had been available.
                    Dismay was tongue in cheek, of course, I guess I was slightly surprised that he didn’t use at least a compact, but since he was just scouting locations I think it made perfect sense just to shoot off a disposable at each place, and then have printed for the location notes. Less hassle, no need for anything fancy, and yes, I think he could have shot with anything, because he surely had an “eye”.
                    I watched him filming on “Eyes Wide Shut” and it was quite revelatory to see him at work.

                    • not sure this is the ideal place….but damn that sounds like an interesting gig….got a write up anywhere online?

                    • Watching him work must have been an awesome experience…

                    • Grant S. says:

                      Sorry..I know I’ve gone OT, apologies Ming. No, no write up online, I did an obit interview with the BBC and an Italian newspaper, but those were long ago.
                      Briefly, if I may, I was the building manager at Hamleys, London, where the final scene of Eyes Wide Shut was shot. I was principal liaison with SK, and also he asked me (😊😊) for my ideas for the final “set” . We decided on using Barbie displays, and the doll chosen by the child at the end of the film was my idea.
                      I have memorabilia from the film, photos of SK and me, his autograph, set lists, a few props, and yes, I watched him film for 2 weeks (making Tom Cruise exit an elevator 50 times, lol!). Maybe someday soon I’ll do a proper write up, because it would be fun. TQ for asking, inspired me to do it now. 😀

                    • Not at all – thanks for sharing!

                    • that is a hoot!
                      it also backs up what many people seem to miss in SK’s work.
                      there are thousands of people who analyze every single line, prop, continuity error, etc as being part of this 100% controlled master plan. i think SK could be quite spontaneous about incorporating outside influences.
                      as an aside I’m curious what Ming and co thought of that film’s aesthetic. soft and grainy and yet obsessively precise. it is largely considered his least liked movie but i still remember seeing it on opening week on the big screen and being totally amazed. incredible atmosphere, unlike anything i’ve ever seen. lush color palette of reds/blues/etc, visible source lights everywhere, and so on. a compelling and yet understatedly “dreamlike” vibe.
                      would love to hear any lingering details re lighting, lenses, etc.

                    • Definitely dreamlike. Didn’t get to see it on the big screen because I was living in a country that banned it…

                    • that’s unfortunate…there were even these cheesy cgi additions to censor the orgy scene in some dvds.
                      for some reason they removed most of the film grain AND reframed it to letterbox for the blu ray (although they took out the cgi censorship). the deep grain and elegantly blown out highlights had a magical effect on the giant screen. dreamlike (appropriate considering it’s based on “traumnovelle” (translated as dream story)) but not in any of the obvious ways you would expect using crazy shots, cgi effects, etc.

  29. Great article, Ming. I’ve seen you move to the 810 from the 800 only after wringing out the best of the prior iteration. Yet, your GR is also one of your go to choices with results that are equally compelling. And we aren’t even discussing your MF loves. You’ve used enough gear to know what you need for your missions. Bravo to that. But just like test driving new cars, it’s tough not to want to try a lot of different new gear. Lens rentals! 🙂

    • Thanks Roger. Even with the 800E-810 move I was on the fence until I was sure that there actually would be a difference – turns out the highlights, AF precision and lower shutter vibration were worthwhile, but even then they’re marginal unless (as you say) you can extract the most out of the 800E.

      I’ve exited MF because I know it isn’t the right tool for me at this time, and it makes no economic sense to maintain a system which I’d consider to be a luxury because it duplicates a shooting envelope I already have. That does not mean I don’t miss the 645Z though! 🙂

    • El Aura says:

      I obsess about camera gear but that applies to computers, cars and other things as well (I even obsess over the taste of mineral water). I also obsess over minimalism and carrying three lenses already feels close to excess. I keep cameras four or more years, skipping one or two generations, I also ruthlessly sell off anything I don’t use frequently. So, I feel I am less of a collector and rather more of a perfectionist.

      • Im glad I’m not the only one who’s particular about the taste of mineral water! But it’s important to remember that perfection also applies to one’s own skills…regardless of the hardware, *we* are *always* the weak link in the creative process.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Mineral water..
        In a hot climate it is also very much about its mineral content.
        Which can be very different and has a great influence on its thirst quenching ability.
        With a good palate I suppose you can taste this.

  30. Hands on heart I think I can say that the gear only has for one to be as much as possible ‘out of the way’ mentally when I am trying to distil what I see and wish to shoot. The gear should be as less distracting as possible out there in the field, that we could concentrate in full about the 4 things +.
    Second that the gear offers you just *enough* technical features and recording quality to fit the bill.

    Perhaps because it is still so difficult even in 2015 to sought out exactly *that* system that delivers on all fronts and fulfil the personal envelope, the interest and talks about the gear will never stop and we of us who are men seems to be gifted with a technical mindset that allow us to have something to say without becoming just meaningless fill into the discussions.

    Many of us loses our vocabulary when it comes to express ourselves about our photographic process and perhaps even more so when we want add something meaningful to the debate about photography being art. Not that I think it is imortant at all what photography is as per definition, but I am myself more restrained when I should express my taste and critisize photos I see and I never found a discussion on taste fruitful. It is not the same as evaluating if a photo is balanced or not or correctly exposed, that’s objectively possible to discuss, but if I like a photo or not that’s something completely different.

    Is that why then we see manyfolds the traffic and posts when the subject is the gear? Well I actually think it is.
    I think it’s good medicine to learn from Ming’s little game lately about the Nikon L25. This is so far the best proof I’ve seen it’s not about the gear when we talk about photographic skills and talent. But it also shows that you can’t shoot everything and get good results with such a camera.

    At last I wish to say that your blog Ming is to my knowledge the one and only which takes the gear back to the image. That demonstrates in clear language that gear is a tool and really nothing but that is not the same as launching a prohibition against discussions about the tool.

    • That system still doesn’t exist, Gerner. And I don’t know whether it’s because the camera makers really don’t understand or care about the process of taking a picture and the end output objective, or whether it’s deliberate to keep us buying the next best thing. I honestly suspect the latter, having dealt with a wide range of manufacturers. Far too many half-baked products go out even though they have known flaws. The E-M1 was released with the E-P5 shutter unit which was known to have shutter shock. And then they are surprised when people discover there’s a problem…

      Like vs dislike is intensely personal, and you’re right – one can express his or her preferences, but there’s really no discussion there. How can you claim to know what somebody prefers or even worse, should prefer? But discussing what we see in an image or how we read it is something entirely different, and I think actually quite important.

      I’ve never been against using the best tools. But I’m against collecting tools with no accompanying purpose or skills…

      • I think part of it is trying to hang onto a market, while not really understanding why sales volume is in free-fall. I’ve seen enough development stories to discover that nearly every manufacturer now begins with engineers, who seem compelled to drop as many features into a camera as possible. Japanese car design often suffers the same fate, as committees determine the features to throw into a car. There are rare examples, both automotive and in cameras, when singular vision results in an amazing product, and it’s been that way quite a long time.

        Get in any car, there is a steering wheel, gas peddle, and brake peddle. Some cars add a clutch peddle and gearshift, though that is now more rare. Most of us know how to drive a car, almost any car, even if we don’t know how to change the air conditioning settings or stereo. Most people now know how to operate touchscreen smartphones. However, cameras now lack much of the standardization of other things we use in life. My D3 has 42 things that can pushed, turned, or flicked, and that’s without a lens on the camera. 😉

        • Agreed. There has been no development to take into account fundamental changes in the way people interact and expect to interact with devices these days.

  31. Well said. Sadly I suspect the reason gear posts get eyes is that most people are more interested in consumerism than artistry. Artistry is elusive and takes untold time, effort, and talebt….consumer goods are attainable with the click of a button and are oh so tangible.
    Side note: 530 megapixels? Been doing some 200mp recently but this is a whole other size…
    That is some serious res.
    must make for a stunning print. Could do 4 foot square no problem imo.
    must have been a seriously still day.

    • Actually, I’m now in the gigapixel range. 720PPI means 530MP takes you to about 2x4ft or thereabouts. To go larger needs even more…

      • ah but only by your out of this world density standards.
        i’ve seen many shows where people hang 3-4 foot long prints from 80 megapixels off a phase one (or maybe a 3 shot pano from an IQ 180) and not only do they look really good but they are very much accepted as top quality prints and sold as such. nobody is complaining about lack of detail, believe me.
        I’m not saying you should compromise your ultra print standards….but i would say that if you WERE to print a 500+ MP image 4-5 feet across w non reflective museum glass, nice thin black frame, etc it would still look extremely impressive (even if less than 720ppi) and those without the close vision eyesight to take in an ultraprint would be blown completely away viewing from a couple feet back. if there was even one customer with the wallet/wall for such a thing….it would be cool.

        • They’re not complaining because they don’t know any better. Trust me…there is a difference, and a big one.

          • don’t get me wrong…obviously there IS a difference in perceived detail of 720ppi vs 400 (or what have you). i’m sure it’s crazy sharp detail, beyond what 99.90% of people have ever seen in person.
            I’m just saying that a 500+ MP file can make a stunning 4-5 foot across print by most standards, especially if somebody is slightly farsighted as many are and can’t really see 720ppi in a 2.5 foot print. there is also a certain psychological effect seeing larger prints you can step back from to appreciate. not saying better/worse than a 2-3 foot 720ppi print viewed at 1 foot…just a different kind of impact, especially if they don’t have a 720ppi print right next to the 400ppi print to compare. a giant lightbox style transparency like jeff wall uses would also be mind blowing for those trees https://artblart.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/wall-c2.jpg
            keep up the good work!

  32. Well said.

  33. Do you believe an amateur photographer can make professional level images?

    • The main difference between an amateur and a professional is that the professional gets paid for their work.

      • Sadly, even that isn’t always true these days – I’d amend that definitions to include an amateur shoots for themselves, but a pro shoots for others.

        • I agree with Ming. An artist photographer probably doesn’t make much if any money, but is still a photographer, and I wouldn’t say amateur, and lean more towards professional if you take the money aspect out of it. Professional photographer needs to be redefined. For instance, I wouldn’t call a Mall Photographer a professional photographer. i’d call them hacks.

    • Nearly every professional was at one time an amateur. 😉

      It’s not the gear, but it is the ideas.

      You also need to be consistent.

    • I think you may be confusing professional and amateur here. An experienced photographer will probably make a better image than an inexperienced one, most of the time. The inexperienced one may make a better image on occasion, but the experienced one should certainly be more consistent.

      The distinction between amateur and professional is really whether one makes a career or living out of it. Not the quality or content or creativity presented in an image. A skilled amateur is almost certainly going to make better images than a jaded or catalog professional because they won’t be restricted by the client brief or years of doing the same thing the same way.

      • I have met and known “professional” photographers who were never amateur photographers and have no interest in photography other than for their job. Depending on the application the quality of work demanded from a professional photographer isn’t at a high level. It’s just a job.

  34. I love my gear. I have reasons for using what I have though. I like small compact cameras as I’m a hobbyist, and hate lugging around large cameras. Also, a very limited budget affords me the second or third from the best usually. I make do with that. I do love the sharpness or type of lens of some cameras VS the lovely viewfinder or bigger sensor of another. The variety affords me a different viewpoint that matches my imagination. I shoot mostly digital but also still shoot film as it’s what i grew up with and know best. I wish I could get all my needs met with one camera, but that ain’t happening unless I buy a bigger D-SLR..

    • And then you’re going to trade off against weight/size again; sadly paying more doesn’t get you small AND good. So don’t worry, you’re not really missing out much anyway 🙂

      • Except for the DP Merrill Cameras and my Ricoh GR, they are small and good in files. Merrill cameras not much good in the way a versatility, but the files are beautifully detailed. I think that’s the best trade-off I’m gonna get.

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  1. […] a series of thoughts that fell out of an interesting discussion with a reader after he encountered this previous article. As most of these things do, it started off as a hardware – i.e. ‘what should I […]

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