Why the right hardware is liberating

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It might actually be better to start off with the corollary: why the wrong gear is frustrating, or at best, obstructive. First principle: what’s good for you isn’t necessarily good for somebody else, and vice versa. This may seem obvious, but the number of people who are chasing and lusting after hardware that simply doesn’t make sense for them is quite mind boggling – the internet seems to be full of them. Of course, it’s highly likely that those who have found camera nirvana are simply out there making pictures and have stopped thinking about the whole gear train – it seems much more productive to me to spend time making pictures instead of scouring fora for obscure solutions and rumour sites hoping for magic bullets. It boils down to this: most people make different images. Considering this objectively, it means that for different objectives, different tools are required. Yet what I can’t understand is the obsession with finding a one-size-fits-all; the manufacturers want to do this because it makes economic sense, but the whole point of having choice is so we as consumers do not have to.

Second principle: know what you want to achieve creatively, or at least pictorially. It’s all well and good to experiment – and necessary, in the pursuit of excellence and finding out what appeals to you personally – but the fear is always that one is going to ‘miss out’ on something by not having a full complement of lenses to cover 14mm to 600mm. The trouble is, even assuming the camera fits for you – there’s always the risk of finding that you don’t have what you need on the camera at the precise moment you need it. On top of that, it’s no fun being a pack mule. Even in professional situations on assignment, I’ve almost never found that bringing something ‘just in case’ ever works out well – I fall back to the core focal lengths. A spare body and ancillaries (toolkits, batteries, cleaning kits etc.) is definitely more critical.

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As close as I get to a general purpose solution that hits the right notes responsiveness, image quality and specificity of purpose – yes, they’re older cameras – a Hasselblad H5D-50c and 501CM/CFV-50c, to be precise.

This is the first place where one’s focus starts to waver: if you’re trying to visualise everything, then inevitably you land up getting nothing. It’s best to concentrate on one thing at a time, subject-wise or perspective-wise. Only then is it possible to create an environment that’s conducive to creativity. By introducing restrictions, you are forced to find a solution. If you’re only carrying 50mm, then you’re forced to find a way to make the composition work at 50mm – even if the instinctive ‘best’ framing might suit a 28mm or 100mm better. You are forced to either distill the essence of the scene and figure out what you don’t need, or to include additional context and structure to ensure that your subject still stands out despite the lack of punch-in isolation. I find that my best work from a creative standpoint comes when I have to make do – but make do with a tool that doesn’t get in the way. Experimentation is still possible under these restrictions, of course: beyond the obvious described above, you can still focus on different things at different times – just not all at the same time.

Those who suggested shooting with a single camera and lens for a year to learn the focal length were right: after that length of time, either you’re operating the hardware completely intuitively leaving you to focus on the composition, or you’ve given up and thrown the thing out the window in frustration. There’s a learning curve involved with any tool – and there’s no way around this other than using the tool under a very wide range of situations so both its behaviour and response is predictable, and you understand its limitations and strengths. The more complex the tool, the steeper that learning curve is going to be. There’s no shortcut, either – practice, practice, practice. I suspect a lot of the frustration online stems from simply not putting in enough hours and writing things off too quickly.

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Unmatched for street and documentary work. But not my first choice for sport.

Even though the operator is usually the limiting factor to the output, there are often restrictions that simply make no sense, too: there’s no point trying to shoot fast moving action with manual focus if you’re not experienced with manual focus, for instance; or if your camera has a finder that makes it impossible to determine critical focus at all to begin with. At the same time, one has to know when to quit. I’ve often been accuse of being a fanboy or biased critic by those who aren’t familiar with the way I shoot: if I can’t make something work for me, it’s not for want of trying. The tool simply does not work – it’s certainly not in my interests in any way to buy something and then sell it, take a loss and miss shots just so I can pan it. I’ve got better things to do with my time and money, and that’s secondary to missing the image altogether. There’s nothing more frustrating than the near miss, and here is where the scientific method becomes important: is it the operator, or the hardware?

Consistency of workflow comes into play in a big way, too: how is one going to evaluate results – especially when chasing diminishing returns or subtle qualities in an image – if your shot discipline is somewhat shaky or you use a different piece of software for each camera? Yes, you might be able to squeeze a little more dynamic range or resolution or lower noise out of something else, but remember that the software (and computer hardware, like monitors) is also a complex piece of equipment. If anything, more so than the camera since there’s only one way to make a picture, but there are probably at least a dozen ways to do any given thing in Photoshop (or your program of choice). If an experiment is run with more than one variable, there’s simply no way to determine which variable is at fault when the results are not as expected.

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Great for handheld video, but not landscapes.

I suspect the hardest thing to do as a photographer in today’s day and age isn’t making an outstanding image – we’re not wanting for subject matter. It isn’t selling your work; it isn’t being noticed on social media, and it isn’t finding a style or genre to suit you. It’s avoiding the trap of continually chasing unicorns in the hope that the next thing may be the one. With the frequency of today’s product releases, two things happen: we never fully figure out our hardware, and the new stuff isn’t fully debugged. Of late it seems that each new release promises much, but falls flat at something else – often with some pretty major problems such as AF, exposure, speed/responsiveness, ergonomics etc. It’s as though in the quest for bigger numbers on the spec sheet, the fundamentals have been forgotten. Despite how it might appear, I have no desire to be a beta tester or debugger – I just want to make images. I suspect almost everybody else starts out that way too, but somewhere along the road we get lost and find ourselves at B&H or Yodobashi or somewhere similar.

My own personal meanderings through the equipment landscape have been frequent and expensive. Frequent, because I know what I need my gear to do, but I can’t know if it can accomplish it until I’ve used it in the field; expensive, because you need to make an evaluation off a complete system – and because there is a price-performance curve, and the best simply costs exponentially more. I certainly don’t do it for the fun of it, and now that I’ve found a system that works for me – I’ve stopped looking. My interest in equipment extends only so far to its capabilities as a tool and enabler for my creative objectives. Despite this, I’ve often been accused of being hardware-obsessed or fanboy-this or hater-that; the simple reality is that I know clearly what my creative objectives are – that is of no importance to anybody other than myself and my clients. Making snap judgments to suitability make no sense.

Bottom line: know what you want to do. Figure out how that translates into critical factors for hardware – perhaps system completeness for a working pro; perhaps portability and weather sealing for a hiker or adventure photographer; perhaps resolution and dynamic range for the fine art photographer; speed and AF tracking for the birder or sport photographer. Don’t think there’s a one-size-fits all that’s got everything: there isn’t. And those that might come close will still have compromises in other areas; optimising our tools is about figuring out which of those compromises don’t matter. I’m willing to carry the weight and give up some speed and AF tracking ability, but not compromise on system completeness or overall image quality. I’d rather carry my H5D with one lens than a compact superzoom, for instance – but my mum wouldn’t be. Objectively demo and assess the equipment shortlist that meets those requirements; ignore everything else, no matter how tempting it might be. Once you find the gear that works for you – stop looking, and make pictures. MT

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Comments

  1. Hi Ming,

    Wondering how you find the Blad/CFV-50c for portrait orientation shooting? Also, has there been any talk of an update for the CFV back? I dream of a full frame (645 at least) to solve the wide angle situation.

    Thanks,

    • I tend to shoot it as square, or if portrait use a 90deg finder like the HC1 or HC3. Less so since getting a H system also. As for the CFV – I assume there’s something in the works since it’s the last product they have using the H5 platform architecture, but I believe right now the focus is on getting enough X1Ds out the door…

  2. Great article, right on!

  3. The problem is how to see things with a camera. One camera/lens/haptic helps one see better than another. Vexing that for digital, elegant/simple/minimalist solutions are the most expensive. Crap interfaces are not limited to cameras, of course. Btw, how good is Chinese commercial software, especially in terms of usability? The Japanese stuff is awful.

  4. Having cleared out all the digital gear in 2016, 2017’s buying decision is one I am resolving to make a long term choice, and for that I will try to make the decision a less impulsive one.

  5. Hi Ming,
    thanks for the thoughtful analysis that we appreciate so much from you !
    I am doing portrait, architecture and some landscape and plan to step up from DSLR to MF having narrowed down options to the Leica S and X1D.
    You have looked into the Leica S at an earlier stage (before the current 007) and commented last October in a similar context “I have no interest in the S system because of poor local support and zero performance differential over even the D810, let alone other MF options.”
    Do you not think there are optical qualities that the Leica S (and its lenses) have that X1D (and its lenses) don’t have? Some say that the Leica S has a particular pop/microcontrast/three dimensionality to it that makes X1D raws appear flat. A recent comparison I did might go into that direction. At the same time I very much prefer the X1D’s overall package with Hasselblad colours and the much more modern system/UI and the X1D price point.
    I would appreciate your comments and your opinion on the difference between the two.
    Thanks a lot, Regards,
    Jo

    • Honestly, I didn’t see it: if you want that clinical pop, the Otuses are a better choice. The X1D raw files are flat (and as is any camera with high dynamic range) because the output dynamic range is always limited by your screen: flat files give you more options for post processing, and is one of the reasons serious cinema is always shot with log gamma.

      Frankly, my experiences with Leica’s reliability have left a lot to be desired, not to mention rather poor service (4 months for a Q repair, for example). This is not really what you want when you’re spending this kind of money…and completely unacceptable if the camera has to be a reliable, revenue-generating tool.

      • thanks for the feedback

        • If you will indulge to excuse me for dropping my 2c in here… the S and its lenses, are a beautiful kit, high quality, intuitively simple to use and enjoy and the files – if you nail everything – just wonderful. I have demo’d the X1D – loved the feel in the hand – and will shortly have one for a weekend to try out. Files that I have seen from the S, the X1D (and in the past, the D810 and Otuses) easily surpass what I need file-wise (your requirements may be higher than mine), and mercilessly expose any lapse in my shot discipline. The main reason I sold my S kit, and am considering the X1D (or GFX) is the difference between SLR-OVF and mirrorless EVF. The latter for me, I have learned, improves my strike rate for critical focus (for which medium format makes all the more essential), even though the S’s viewfinder is addictive. Perhaps though this is not an issue for you, or you are willing to live with the narrower shooting envelope of the S (i.e. higher shutter speed to deal with the mirror slap, and lower ISO ceiling).

      • Martin Fritter says:

        So there’s corollary to your initial discussion: reliability and support. I suppose one might add shooting circumstances – e.g. weatherproofing, weight.

  6. gnarlydognews says:

    I like how you cover-up the Olympus logo but not the Leica one 😉

    • No, I covered the Leica one too – this was fresh out of the box. The Olympus had already been through several wars at that point. The only logos I don’t cover are the Hasselblad ones, for obvious reasons.

  7. Hey Ming, great article. Something I’ve tried to wrap my mind around for the past couple years as I battle through costly waves of GAS. Quick question – where did you get that handle for your V Hasselblad. Don’t think I’ve ever seen one like it before.

  8. Robert E Good says:

    Right tools for the individual. For me it is E-M1mk2 with PL 100-400 for birding because continuous autofocus is good, I don’t want to carry more, and it is quiet. For almost everything else it’s the Sony A7R2 mostly with primes for low weight and quiet or silent operation. Sometimes a RX100 mk3 in my pocket. These cameras provide the best set of compromises for my current needs. A back burner interest in mirorless medium format exists even though I know it doesn’t fit my shooting style very well just as I know an attractive sports car diesn’t fit my traveling needs very well – still interesting though!

    • Not to mention the crop factor that gives you 800mm-e with nowhere near the weight required from a FF system – M4/3 makes a lot of sense to me for wildlife work. About ten years ago I used one of the 4/3 bodies and a Nikon 500/4 for similar reasons…

      I suspect we’ll see medium format maturing to a wider shooting envelope in due course – think of it like one of those cars that can seemingly do everything, like a BMW M5…

  9. This is thought-provoking. I’ve spent the last couple of years using only a 50mm EFL lens, and recently acquired the Olympus 12-40 f 2.8. I almost feel lost with a zoom lens after having the structure of the prime lens for so long. Would you say this is something to push against, or just embrace my apparent preference for prime lenses?

    • Embrace your preference, or treat the zoom as an insanely flexible 50mm-e, or just use it as either end and think of it as being a convenient 2-in-1 (as most of us do, I think.)

  10. Good read. Well composed.

  11. I feel ya Ming but don’t you use your 810 for tilt lens stuff and macro? Aren’t you using a E-M1II for video? Near as I can tell, your having your cake and eating it too! 😉
    -Unabashed G.A.S.’er

    • I use what I need to use for client work to produce the best possible results: there are no excuses there when you are aiming to be at the top of the game. Personally, I use whatever is to hand. Composition does not change between and iPhone and a Hasselblad 🙂

      • Nikon finally admitting they’re missing the boat on Pro Mirrorless.So now they must enter the race and play to win -with, hopefully, the A7RII squared up in their cross-hairs. Imagine a Nikon mirrorless camera with all of the A7RII tech goodies but that felt like a D810 in hand?! I’d be SOOO in. And it’d be fantastic to see something other than Hassy getting play here at MT 😉 Rock on Ming, you have the BEST site!

        • Well, somebody needs to have the right product for that to happen – and despite a lot of searching (5DSR, A7RII, 645Z) the D810 was still a better/more complete product overall – until Hasselblad. I’ve got a finite amount of resources that have to be deployed in the most efficient method…anything else isn’t sustainable. 🙂

  12. ” I suspect a lot of the frustration online stems from simply not putting in enough hours and writing things off too quickly.”

    One of my mantras. Thanks for another excellent piece worth sharing. It’s timeless really. And then in the comments you mention Shinjuku (and by association Akihabara, to remind me of our blessed frailties. 😀

  13. Really nice article. I am very fortunate this year to have four photography trips lined up, yet I’m having sleepless nights already trying to decide what gear I should take. I have never visited these places before so my simple reasoning is that it is unlikely I will visit them twice in my lifetime. So the urge to take more than I need is a very strong one, as is the urge to buy something new that will magically answer all my needs. This technology race we are all caught up in really is a drug that fuels our human addiction to acquire. I have personally reached saturation point, I am sorely tempted to go back to shooting film again, or else to buy Canon….. 😉

    • I know the feeling; often the paralysis can mean your mind is elsewhere other than making images. Inevitably when I’ve personally packed for every contingency, I land up using one or two lenses and the rest stays in the hotel or the car. A tripod is a must, though: you can stop down with a zoom and save lens weight, but no matter how fast your aperture, you can still run out of hand-holdable light quite quickly…

  14. Werner Walther says:

    Hello, Ming, how right you are!

    Having the right gear means everything!
    This also includes several battery packs and car and hotel loading devices, when you’re on travel, a light tripod, a good package – your camera as a system. Since childhood, I always concentrated on an optimum which I can carry with me 7 days/24 hours. In the times of chemical photography, I carried the minox 24x36mm – often with a 1000 ISO film. And nowadays, so much easier – a so called “premium compact” (330 grams – always), a lightweight tripod (500 grams) or a so called pocket tripod (tripod plus a screw).

    This limitation means 85 or 90 per cent of maximum performance – but 24/7, and not only on 10 photography days of the year!
    That’s my personal approach, and I’m quite happy (and quite succesful as well) with that.

    Regards, sincerely,
    Werner.

    • The system is important: if one element is weaker than the rest, it’s going to let the team down: you’d be surprised what people overlook (or neglect, or deliberately decide to economise on).

      I’m masochistic, I think. Lightweight is now the H6D-100c and 100mm; ‘full bore’ is another H body and four more lenses… 😛

  15. Very sound philosophy Ming, thank you. For me it is also timely. I am now in the wonderful position of no longer taking photographs for a living but am an amateur with some time and enough money to get what gear I want (within reason). I have embraced high end Nikons enthusiastically and found them excellent. However, I find that the trap you have so well outlined to be true, namely lugging around gear that will cover all eventualities. This is particularly true if you are an enthusiast of multiple photographic genres!

    Recently, I have taken to carrying one body, one prime lens and making it work whatever the circumstance. It has proved to be liberating, very much as you have described.

    Somewhat to my surprise, I have also started shooting 5X4 (4X5 for Americans!) again. This used to be how I made my living and I am delighted to be using large format film again! As I only had my very heavy, studio monorail camera, I bought a beautiful Chamonix Field Camera from China so that I could use it outside the studio. To say that it is beautiful is an understatement. It is truly superb in design and manufacture.The pleasure that I am getting from using it is wonderful and the slow, philosophical discipline that it imposes is truly liberating. Almost as good as meditation sometimes! Of course it won’t take birds in flight, 170mph motorcycles or shots of my grand-children running around but I have my D810 and D500 for that! I have met people who simply do not understand and say to me that they can do ‘just as well’ with their iPhone. Well, as we know, they cannot, but even if they could, they would still be totally missing the point, for me at least.

    Just a thought.

    • There is perhaps nothing more pleasing to me than a well exposed (and composed) velvia 50 chrome in 4×5 or larger format taken in low light (incorporating grad filters as appropriate and taking into account reciprocity adjustments). One finds it frustrating with the limited selection of t/s lenses in FF after 20+ years of having VC movements on all lenses. Film and processing costs of velvia 4×5 make regular use prohibitive as are MF digital backs with techical cameras. Rodenstock digital MF lenses apparently dont perform well stopped down past F 8.

      We’ll see what T/s lenses Fuji rolls out with its new MF system. There are too many instances for me where stitching digital takes will not produce the desired effect (ie, moving water.)

      • The MF back-technical camera solution just doesn’t work that well because the sensors are still fairly small and tech cam movements somewhat coarse; I find this to be a cumbersome solution. If you shoot in quantity, the cost of film soon adds up to an entry level back (or Fuji GFX as a ‘back’) quickly. I can’t complain about my HTS though, it turns the H-cameras into a back and adds tilt and shift to pretty much every HC lens.

        • L. Ron Hubbard says:

          Photographers who pre-visualize their images dont need to shoot off enormous quantities of images to get their shot. I shoot a fair amount of film and it would take me years, many years to add up my expenditures to be able to afford a MF Fuji GFX and set of lenses. MF digital is an enormous expense, especially when you look around and see how quickly people drop their gear in the digital world. It’s always, always the next best thing right around the corner.

    • Your point about the method influencing the means is very valid: I found the same with medium format; I slow down, think more, have a higher hit rate and land up producing better images all round: no complaints here 🙂

      • L. Ron Hubbard says:

        10 shots per roll of film slows me down nicely. With such limitations, I have to ponder a scene far deeper than if I shot with my digital gear. I find, without exception, that I am personally happier, much much happier, with the output from my film shooting than with my digital.

  16. Points you made in this post is what Ive been considering for some time now(it is getting to a year). Ive been shooting with my old canon 400D for almost a decade now and I feel it is time to upgrade and I can’t decide to get the camera I want. The fear you mentioned is holding me back from finally choosing something.
    Thank you for your insight.

    • Easy solution: figure out what you’re missing, and then make sure whatever you buy improves on that area without compromising on anything else relative to what you’ve got now.

  17. I’d like to add a piece of advice, straight from MT’s own webcast, that I’ve found great: first consider what kind of photographer you *are*, then consider what kind of photographer you *dream of being*. The latter is almost always impossible to reach due to lack of time, money, connections, etc, and just purchasing gear won’t take you there. But maybe you can make small steps into the right direction, and choose your gear so that it allows you to do what you can, but also experiment with some of what you’d like to do. Most likely you’ll either a) find that you have adequate gear already, b) find that you’ve got the wrong gear for what you actually do, or c) make sustainable choices in the next purchase.

    Personally I’d love to do more deliberate/meditative/slow shooting of small-scale landscapes and such, but in practice 90% of what I shoot is travel and family documentary, and I’ve so far produced very few images worth printing in large size. 24mp DSLR with mid-range AF lenses serves most of my needs perfectly, but investing in an expensive tripod was a great choice that allows me to seize the rare opportunity to chase my dreams.

    • I’d add one more thing to your situation, Tarmo: consider stitching to improve printability. Landscapes don’t move much 🙂

      • Good advice – GAS tends to hit at first sign of system inadequacy, not when all opportunities to get more out of the existing gear are exhausted. I’ll start stitching when I have a better production rate, new apartment to hang pictures in, and actually proven that my output needs exceed 24mp. Getting to all three might take a while 🙂

  18. It wasn’t clear if you had used 4×5 or larger format film cameras extensively during your career.

    Having found that for a one lens choice (Usually carrying 4 lenses of differing FLs), I invariably deferred to the 90mm Nikkor in 4×5, I was frustrated with the paucity of high quality 24mm lenses (aspect ratio considered, closest to 90mm in 4×5) for D810 (zeiss is notably missing with an Otus or Milvus in this FL). The 24mm 1.4 was a mess in many aspects (owned abd sold).

    With the budget 24mm f1.8 purchased, it is freeing as you say to go into the field with one tried, resourceful and quality output instrument and my single favorite FL in a design where I don’t fear mushy corners, at times ridiculous CA , and focusing issues particularly in low light. Some whom I respect have said the 58 f1.4 Nikkor, others the 55mm or 28mm Otus, but for many Leica users, a one lens choice usually boils down to 35mm or 50mm luxes. Interestingly, the Q’s actual FL is prob closer to 25-26 as compared to the FOB of the 28mm lux, for me the Q is almost as fine a choice.

    One excellent lens, one great camera = Freedom to see.

    Thanks so much for confirming what we all knew but GAS gets in the way!

    • I have, but not extensively. The 4×5 monorail was pretty liberating because it does exactly what you want it to – no more, no less. Much like the Hasselblad V, actually.

      My one-lens is now the 100/2.2 on the H6-100 – the short tele drawing style I like, but with a long-normal FOV.

      • And it’s a pretty small and light lens as well 🙂

      • A very interesting focal length ~ 65mm in 35mm film format. A bit tighter than the ubiquous 50mm of Nikon, which is not wide not tele. The 85mm of Nikon has a different perspective. Already really tele.

        I loved this field of view on APSC (the 1,9/43mm of Pentax). Unavailable in 35mm format.
        The 75mm for the Pentax 645 System comes close…

  19. Very timely and poignant reminder. I’ve been slipping down this path the last week and being a passive observer in recent chat group debates. Refreshing indeed. Thanks Ming.

  20. As always, up to the point Ming. However, lesser souls will find our way into places like Map Camera and got lost there completely. Needless to say that building is a true man cave in more disciplines than photography.

    • I have been known to stray there on occasion…the problem with Tokyo is one cannot go without going to Shinjuku, and that whole area is just a disaster zone for the wallet. There’s always something obscure you find you cannot possibly live without, like 95mm lens caps…

  21. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Congratulations and thank you, Ming – that’s the most sensible article I think I’ve ever read on this subject matter. 🙂

  22. Hear hear Ming! I’ve occasionally tried the latest wunder camera with promises of amazing AF, etc. and wandering away from a system that works well and more importantly that I know how to make work for me, and it’s bitten me every time. I wonder if film shooters long ago were better off because they generally had no reason to change camera bodies every couple of years so they could get totally used to one mechanical interface and use it with fluency.

    • Almost certainly. The thing is, digital added a whole load more complexity to the equation, and there still isn’t a best-in-class control paradigm yet; it isn’t helped by the technology race contributing further to the feature bloat. It took a surprisingly long time just to standardise on play/menu/delete/zoom hard buttons, a pair of control dials and a D-pad…

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