I’ve recently been accused by several people of ‘not being objective’ and ‘losing credibility’ since representing a brand, and I’d like to address those critics today. Firstly, I don’t get paid for doing so. I enjoy a somewhat higher level of support and some loan equipment, but I still have to buy a good proportion of my own hardware. Secondly, the whole of photography is subjective in itself – equipment is only fit for purpose or not, there is no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ since no two people shoot the same way or same subjects. Sure, we can do quantitative measurement – but as most people (correctly) point out, there’s more to it than numbers. Thirdly, if the only thing you associate me with is equipment reviews, then I breathe a sigh of relief: you might be missing out on 90% of my site, but the gear-related questions and emails I don’t have to answer leave me time to focus on making pictures and the philosophy of photography. Lastly, the philosophy of photography and image-making and human psychological response has nothing whatsoever to do with hardware beyond its necessity as a tool for achieving a certain expression – you cannot have a compressed perspective with a wide angle, but two 500mm lenses are going to give you the same perspective regardless of pedigree.
Clarification number one: hardware is nothing more than a tool. I might write about it, I might review it, but it makes no difference to me what the letters on the front of the camera say so long as the thing does the job. Cameras are not religions, though on some fora you might be hard pressed to tell the difference. You need a camera to make a photograph. That is all.
From a business standpoint, we should choose the tools that give the best return on investment and that deliver the highest productivity. Note that productivity is both quantity and quality, and the highest value combination thereof. Anybody doing anything else is either not in this for a living, or is not optimising their business. Optimisation of return on investment does not mean buying the most expensive equipment: it’s investing the least that lets you get the job done to an acceptable level. I use Hasselblad because it gets the job done to the satisfaction of myself and my clients, and because it gives me a tangible difference in image quality that we can both see – forget web size images, because that’s not what I deliver. I am an ambassador because it makes financial sense and because I use the product already anyway – people seem to forget that I’ve owned a V system and digital back since 2013, far earlier than I had an official relationship with the company.
If this post comes across as an irate rant, that’s probably at least somewhat true: it really does bother me that I’m frequently accused of a) not being objective when I buy equipment with my own money to assess whether it works for my photographic objectives and report my own findings, b) losing credibility by working with a brand whose equipment I already bought and owned beforehand, c) being gear-obsessed. The irony, of course, is that accusers of c) do not read any of the other articles or posts I write, which are 90% photographs and philosophy and have no mention of gear anywhere, and when I stop writing about gear, most of the audience leaves.
Clarification number two: yes, hardware is a tool, but choose the right tool. The tools are complicated. The process of choosing them is necessarily going to be complicated too, compounded by the complexity of one’s own changing creative objectives. All you can do is be as clear about the desired outcomes as possible, and in turn be true to oneself. Long term, there’s no point in doing otherwise: you’re just deceiving yourself and inevitably wasting time and money.
There are no absolutes. I don’t claim that X is the ultimate over Y, unless there is some valid quantitative way of proving it (i.e. an Otus 28 is heavier than Nikon 28/1.8G). You can’t even say lens X renders better than lens Y, because the whole concept of ‘rendition’ is a subjective one: it may render better to your eyes, tastes and preferences, but not necessarily to somebody else. Therefore every review or assessment is subjective. The difference is whether the objectives are clearly defined or not: a generic review probably tries to cover all bases, but in the end isn’t really useful to anybody. If I write a review, it’s probably only useful to a small proportion of the total audience who shoots the same way and subjects I do, but at least a) I make that clear upfront and b) it’s conclusive and consistent with every other review I write.
What few reviews I do write have always meant to be taken from the point of view of assessment of fitness of purpose (or not). I cannot do anything if the reader chooses to interpret it otherwise – if you think my dislike of your camera is an affront to your masculinity, that in itself probably says far more about your own psyche than anything else. I am merely saying that I dislike it for my own photographic objectives. I’ve even said many times here and elsewhere that I would not recommend a Hasselblad for everybody – it is a specific tool to a specific purpose, and 99% of the time, you’re probably better served by M4/3. I’ve also gone on record saying that diminishing returns diminishes vanishingly quickly at the high end: yes, the H6 is better than the H5, but we’re now talking about the 1% of the 1% – if I were to buy something with my own money, I pick the H5 – it’s a simple question of business economics and ROI. But if you’re Annie Leibowitz or Platon, and in the 1% of the 1%, then you already know what kind of tool you need.
During my own journey of evaluation of tools and searching for information online, I found that there was a remarkable lack of coverage of medium format compared to 35mm; whilst this was somewhat expected due to the much smaller market, it was still surprising given the internet’s need to live vicariously. What few assessments did exist were either clearly not evaluated from the point of view of an actual user, or failed entirely on objectivity or coverage or comprehensiveness – or multiples of those. I sought to fill that hole by documenting my own journey through several medium format options – early readers will recall that I really didn’t like the H4D much for reasons of responsiveness and UI, and found the CFV-39/V system great, but very limited in shooting envelope. I didn’t see much of a tangible difference between the S2 and D800E, though. However, there was something undeniably different in the rendition the larger sensor – and couple with the jump in image quality from the current generation of CMOS sensors, the difference became too large to ignore.
I now know why there’s a relative drought of information. It’s not because nobody wants to know, it’s not because the gear isn’t accessible – the credible reviewers can easily get hold of this stuff to test if they want – it’s much simpler than that. It’s because either it works for you, and you’re done with the search and can finally focus on making images, or you lost your way somewhere along the road and have gone back to searching for the face tracking and auto-smile shutter setting. I got into photography to make images. I had to master my tools to be able to control them to make the images I want – like learning a language before you can write a book. I’m sure there’ll be some loudmouth who uses this article as a springboard to criticise my approach, say I’m blatantly wrong, or just do their derisive trolling: it’s only further proof that the author really lacks the wisdom to differentiate between excreta and chocolate. Personally, I’m pretty much done with the hardware bandwagon. I need to even better understand the relationship between audience, idea and creator – and the subtitles of human psychology underpinning it all to create an even better image: but in the meantime, I’m going to say it again: photographers make pictures – and there are many levels to this statement. That is all. MT
My ultimate photographers’ daybag in collaboration wth Frankie Falcon is available here until the end of October, in a strictly limited production run.
Ultraprints from this series are available on request here
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography. You can also support the site by purchasing from B&H and Amazon – thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved