Diminishing returns and cutoff points

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The look of money evaporating in frustration

Written as a counterpoint to the earlier justification for being a lens hoarder, I have a feeling this is going to be one of my most unpopular posts ever. It will be widely circulated by I will be metaphorically burned at the stake for it, because it will not make me popular with camera companies, fanboys, enthusiasts or anybody who has a single bone in their body that appreciates a good piece of hardware – I know I do, and it pains even me to write it. But the common sense logician in me demands a stage, so here we go.

Firstly, ask yourself where most of your output goes. The answer for all of us is not ‘online’, or ‘my screen’, it’s actually the trash can: most images taken are deleted. Partially because of curation, partially because many of us just shoot something to ‘see how it looks’, and partially because the subject matter simply isn’t that interesting. The second most popular location is into the electronic graveyard that is your hard drive – taken, seen once or twice, and then consigned to history and never looked at again. If you, as the creator, don’t view the images, and don’t remember they even exist – how is the audience ever going to be greater than one?

Even for the most careful and disciplined of us, or the most prolific, this is going to be the case – now that capture costs have decreased dramatically*, we’ve got even more images clamouring for the same finite amount of attention – there is simply no way more than a few will ever reach the status of remembrance. There are of course two related solutions for this: shoot less, or curate more (and delete more). Those that get left behind should hopefully at least be viewed more often and stand a higher chance of staying in mind. This of course does not apply if one does not actively seek to improve one’s skill, because there may well be nothing left to curate at all if standards are high and input quality is low. As they say: you cannot do the same thing and expect a different outcome.

*Digital is most certainly NOT free, especially when you take depreciation and costs of storage and processing into account, not to mention time required in post processing, software licenses and the rest

Even if you curate and perhaps produce ten amazing images a year that your friends and family talk about for time to come, that’s only half of the battle. There has to be some more permanent medium than memory to preserve the images a state which you want and believe is representative of your creative intention. This is of course the print, the negative, or some other physical archival medium in which the image can be viewed and appreciated with the naked eye only. A digital backup is only useful if there still exists hardware and software that can access it.

The next question to consider is entirely around output: what is your own threshold of need and acceptability? If you have clients that are demanding medium format TIFF files, then perhaps you really do need that Hasselblad. But if you are purely working for your own enjoyment and find yourself frustrated with the pointy end of keeping things working (and up with the Joneses), then perhaps some reconsideration is required. It has become only a very relevant question because I feel things are changing: we have long past the point of sufficiency and are sitting in emotional territory. This is all well and good – we each make our choices and pay our money – but of late, there seems to be a lot more frustration than normal around.

In the last month or so, I’ve found myself fielding a lot of questions and email from friends, readers and other people seeking advice on hardware. This is normal, but I get the impression there are two very serious disconnects trending. The first is the constant necessity for better/more/harder/stronger/faster/longer – we have turned into a bunch of malcontents with short attention spans and perhaps lost sight of the original objective of the game, which is and always has been the creation of images. The hardware is inseparable but no more than a tool; all you need is for the tool to be transparent in operation and get out of the way of the creative process. So long as the tool is not the limiting factor, then you’re good (and should stop reading the reviews). At what point that happens is down to the individual – somebody may actually need a camera with a leaf shutter because 1/2000s flash sync is part of their intended look or style; for others, it may not make any difference at all. Self awareness matters here.

The second trend is more disturbing: even for those people who are happy with their tools, the frustration emerges from an increasingly large number of random failures – double images, shutter shock, electronics dying, anomalous image artefacts and simple mechanical problems. Even though some of these may not affect the pictorial content of the image and the composition – they are deal breakers because you never know when one of these failures might be game over. If your power switch stops working, then you can’t make a picture at all – and if it takes months to get it repaired, then that’s not really an option, either. I used to think I was the only one who broke cameras on such a regular basis – apparently we are now all paying to be beta testers. This is rather shocking since hardware prices have only been increasing – and will only continue to increase as the overall market shrinks. I do feel that modern digital photography has already peaked in popularity and somewhat fallen off in the last year or two.

It makes me think that perhaps serious photographers are better off waiting a generation or so for things to mature before pulling the trigger even if the newest XYZ solves a problem that might have held you back creatively. Even more so if you were happy with something you were using previously: if it breaks, buy another one. On an absolute level, image quality is no worse even if a newer model supersedes it. It might make well sense for those of us with a choice** to be less concerned with image quality and output and go back to really focusing on translation of the idea whilst the camera makers get their cards in order.

**This is a touchy topic: how many of us really need the last drop of resolution or dynamic range or other performance parameter? Objectively and firstly, how many of us can extract that performance consistently, all the time? Secondly, for how many of those people does it actually make a difference to the output? And thirdly, of those, how many are deluding themselves? Having seen files from literally hundreds of photographers, and of course my own, I can say that the proportions decrease with each step. And even I have to question if I’m being objective about my own work sometimes – it’s impossible not to be emotionally attached. I think part of the problem is very few people can see it as I intend it to be seen: as a print. There is no way to display all the information in the composition simultaneously otherwise. And for those who say prints and presentation don’t matter and a great composition will always be great, I disagree. You can have a very good meal alone in a windowless, featureless box with plastic cutlery, but if it’s by a spectacular sunset on the side of a hill overlooking a blue sea with your partner, it becomes something you remember forever. The presentation matters.

We are perfectly entitled to drive Ferraris if we can afford them, and they give us pleasure – even if you do not live in a place with good roads that are free of speed restrictions; let alone have the skills to utilise ten percent of the performance potential of the car. You have to deal with the other frustrations that go with the performance: fuel consumption, fine tuning and maintenance required to maintain the design performance, and the envy of others. Most people will actually be far happier and better served by a humble Volkswagen or equivalent – even if we can afford the Ferrari. Unless you can drive at ten tenths all the time, it may simply not be worth the frustration (which of course in turn affects creativity and the final image). That is the nature of chasing the bleeding edge: the more performance there is from anything, the more skill and care is required to extract it, and the more temperamental the tool is going to be. There is no denying that better tools can make the job easier or more fun, or give us more options for the output. But sometimes we also need to remember what that objective actually is. MT


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  1. Funny that this post came out just now. I decided to put photography on hold as a hobby, ie something I would pursue with some degree of seriousness and specific goals. I simply don’t have enough time to invest in shooting to improve from where I’m at the moment. A nice thing about such hobby is that it does leave you with a useful skill. I’m on travels right now, carrying just a Lumix LX15, and enjoying the time with my family. Whenever I have a chance, whether I’ve spotted something nice while pushing the stroller around, or taking a short break for myself, I can always shoot photos with entirely satisfactory quality & apply all the exposure and composition principles that I’ve learned. I think it takes some overinvestment to explore what equipment can do and how far it can carry you, but it’s also liberating to scale back to the minimum given the intended output. Who knows, maybe I’ll even shoot raw when we’ll get to Yosemite, just in case there’s something worth making a print of 😉

    • 🙂 Have fun! I’m planning my first vacation in six years in April – we’ll see how long that lasts – travelling ‘light’ with just one H6/100mm… 😛

      • Thanks! 100mpix & 100mm? That sounds like a tripod will follow along. In any case, it’s a well deserved vacation!

        Btw the “live photos” of the new iPhone are absolutely brilliant for family documentary. I didn’t think the feature would have any use until I saw how it looked on my own grabshots… (fortunately it activates automatically)

  2. Seeing only one mention of ISO, I have to disagree that improvements have reached the marginal for all use cases. Digital is approaching, but has not achieved maturity. When I can capture an owl in flight on a moonless night with no flash and resolve feather details, I will agree maturity has been achieved. I for one am quite pleased to see continued progress, and hope that physics does not spoil the party too soon.

    Similarly, I expect the grandchildren I hope to have a decade or so from now will view Grandpa’s family photos on 8k or higher resolution screens. 32mp 16×9 is the entry bar for resolution that won’t look dated to a generation that I hope will appreciate seeing my photos as family history. A generation later may find all 2D images quaint, but higher resolutions will age better than lower as display technology and pixel density improves. Prints will one day lose their status as highest quality reproduction of a photograph, and 75″ displays will want well over 100MP at 16bit or greater color depths. If your intent is longevity I would not be too quick to be satisfied with 16MP.

    Even so, I agree that the improvements come on longer cycles now, so less value to chasing every new release. Hopefully manufacturers will adapt quality accordingly. Not so long ago a camera made to last 4 years was over engineered as it would be far surpassed within two or three years, the cost of higher build quality would not be justified. Today a leading model may remain competitive for five years and still have good resale value, so engineering build quality for 8+ years begins to make economic sense – but that build quality costs money so prices would rise even if the market were not shrinking.

    To me the market appears entirely rational, gradually adapting as the pace of improvement gradually slows. It is the individual passions that stray from rationality. Would that we all had the self awareness to know what we really need out of our gear as opposed to our technique, and could calmly assess the pros and cons of the latest camera or system to arrive at the most rational course of action. The absence of such rationality is sometimes called humanity, and we each count it a blessing one day and a curse (usually upon our wallets) the next. Railing against humanity’s influence on our gear selection is more likely to be cathartic than effective, so I expect manufacturers have little to fear.

    I gladly support Ming’s thesis, but expect this post to have the lasting impact of the proverbial New Years resolution. Few have the discipline to follow through, GAS rates will not wane any time soon. Marketing will remain effective at creating irrational desires.

    What I greatly admire about this blog is the quest for self awareness and discipline in pursuit of our passions. That is the hallmark of a man who is both artist and craftsman of the highest order. An inspiration and aspiration for us all. Thank you Ming.

    • Good observation on rationality: underlying psychology supports the increasing steepness of diminishing returns. Not sure about your owl in the dark scenario though – firstly, you’d need to know it was there to compose, and you still need some directionality of light to not have a flat boring image… 🙂

      There’s one last thing: 10, 20, 30K displays are all good and well: but if the photographer doesn’t have the discipline to get that resolution it, then there won’t be any more information than 4K.

  3. Good post. When there are so many fancy gadgets out there, it can be a struggle to admit to oneself that what we have is sufficient. For a non-pro, having kids and other responsibilities certainly helps as a dampening function! As someone who does underwater photography, the problem is somewhat exacerbated by having to have the housing matched to the camera. So upgrading the camera necessitates upgrading the housing. I haven’t been able to convince myself, for nine years (and not for lack of trying), that anything else I could afford would be worth it to replace the Canon 50D I currently have. I don’t dive as much as I used to and the cost of completely starting over is unappealing. The image quality itself isn’t so much the problem now as my ability to practice. And for above-water, I sold off most of my old Canon glass (the 100-400 I bought for $1600 in 1999 sold for over $900 last year — what a great long-term rental that turned out to be!) and bought a refurbished Oly EM1 for $575US during an Olympus outlet sale. It and the lenses are somewhat smaller and lighter and it serves my current needs just fine . . .

    You also make an interesting point about the archiving of photos. I have thousands of photos stored on hard drives, thumb drives, memory cards, etc. The only ones that ever see the light of day are the ones on my wall and in the books I have made online to show to my kids or co-workers. The joy is really in re-living the moment, telling the story and engaging other people, not hoarding the “almost good” images on a DVD somewhere because maybe someday the software will let me make it “actually good”.

    Final note on digital archiving — I recently discovered a whole bunch of stuff I archived in .stn files back when memory cost a lot more. To your point — how permanent are they when I don’t even know if I can decode them anymore?

    • Thanks. I guess shooting underwater make you think twice, because everything costs twice as much 🙂

      Glass is generally a good investment because value never goes to zero; especially for the really good stuff.

      Archiving, and future viewing: the only way is really print…anything else requires a device other than the human eye.

      • Yes. Good glass. I love the Oly 40-150 2.8. Makes my $575 EM1 that much more appealing!

      • superstar1977 says:

        These Oti have taken quite a beating. Down $1000-$1500 from release. That’s minus $3500 for the set. (or what a 95% as good set of Sigma’s would have cost with some spare change).

  4. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious schmuck, I won’t get too far into my opinions on the philosophical side of gear collecting: if your goal is to create great images, you will know what your needs are and where your budget is and get the best you can afford for what you want to do. If you can’t get the latest and best you will still make images because that is what is important to you. You won’t make excuses. In 2017, most gear is more than what 95% of photographers will ever need.

    If you like gear and enjoy having the best/latest/most (which is certainly fun) and making images is secondary to that, it is much more complicated. But that is different than photography, even if it involves cameras and pictures.

    On the technical side:

    I was a prepress artist at a commercial print shop years back. It was amazing for me to see how the seasoned pros would come in, using a 5 year old 5D Mark whatever and could consistently produce beautiful files up to wallpaper size. Because they understood that megapixels/dynamic range/bit depth/ etc. are just pieces of information used to produce a good file. Photo technique + decent gear + knowledge of how to prepare for your output is what produces a good printable image, no matter what the medium. We would also get the occasional not-so-learned customers that wanted big prints made with their super camera (or from stock photography made with a super camera), but with the poor file quality the upper limit of acceptable print quality was much lower than they would think. Its funny to see how a demanding pro can produce great images with equipment that the amateur would scoff at.

    We’ve been printing billboards since the days where the pro cameras were 12 megapixels and no one complained. A sub-$1000 used D600 can beat medium format quality from years ago. The new breed of super high resolution cameras make it easier and faster to produce huge prints, but most photographers will be held back by either their own technique or their own lack of expertise (or they will never get to the point where they need such quality). It is much better to do the best with what we have and let our kit grow to accommodate our needs as they arise. It is easy to get distracted, but if w’;re clear with our photographic goals, we will know where our needs really are.

    We have the greatest imaging technology ever at our disposal nowadays, and at a pretty reasonable cost. Why don’t we just stop complaining for a bit and enjoy making some fine images?

    • I haven’t been complaining for a long time: just the opposite…

      • I wasn’t insinuating that you were complaining, I was speaking generally about the perpetually cranky state of the gearheads. You are in a position to be picky because your needs are MUCH higher than the average user. Most other users, on the other hand, should quit their complaining and be happy with the great gear we have available.

        • Sorry, I didn’t mean to insinuate you were insinuating…aargh, the perils of online communication! 🙂

          The point was I’ve been crying ‘sufficiency!’ for years. It does unfortunately appear at odds with my own personal escalation (D700 and M4/3 to 100MP MF in six years) – and sometimes I do wonder if it’s hypocritical to talk about ‘enough’ when one is personally chasing the last 0.01%. That said, I can and do deploy the difference…but it’s a) impossible to tell online, and b) people tend to have selective comprehension 🙂

          • No worries.

            I think what you and other high-end photographers are chasing is not necessarily the last drop of quantitative quality, but rather shifting towards looking at specs/IQ more qualitatively.

            So few photographers NEED 100MP that is less about X pixels to fit X print size at X DPI but more about having the most raw information to give the whole image a qualitative boost. That “less tangible” quality that medium format digital users often tout. As if we’re so far past the point of resolution sufficiency that we can start perfecting other areas of the imaging spectrum. For example, I can certainly say in my time using digital there is just something much “better” about the files from my current D600 compared to my first DLSR (Canon 20D). It is far more than just the spec difference. I think this will be more pronounced as time moves on, and the next big jumps in IQ will be less obvious. Theres only so much further the spec battle can go.

            • Actually, it’s more about tonality (color, DR, linearity of response) than resolution – however, resolution is needed to get there because one needs more spatial steps to create a better tonal description of a scene…

              The jumps in IQ are less obvious because they’re much harder to a) deploy within the confines of most people’s shot discipline and b) output in a visible way. Both require another level up in mastery and education, which is of course at odds with the instant gratification roundabout…

  5. Thanks for the very insightful article. After reading it I looked back through my old photos and discovered that my photography has not improved at all since I bought my first 4 mp digital camera many years ago, that I have bought many more cameras then I care to remember, and at some point my hobby devolved from actual photography to passively wasting too much time and money reading technical trivia about cameras and buying cameras that I totally did not need.
    I hope other people also got an ‘aha’ moment so they can do some self reflection and start remediating if they wish to.

    • Time to delete the gear bookmarks and start shooting again 🙂 I’ll argue that looking at images is good though, because it at very least shows you examples of what can be done and forces you to curate what you like or don’t like…

  6. ghibimage says:

    Very interesting post. I love the tools of the trade as much as the next photographer but don’t have an unlimited budget. My way of justifying my purchases has for as long as I can remember been all about the glass. I have used Canon for all of my photographic life and at times it’s been the best kit on the digital market at others it’s been behind the curve. Reality is that in the long run the big companies in this business have to stay competitive or die. I learn the tools of my trade and work within its limitations but by knowing them inside out I can extract what I need for the vast majority of scenarios with excellent image quality. As we get deeper into digital the case of all cameras being good enough, as discussed in the article, becomes more and more relevant and as technology grows the depth of performance difference between the best and worst is ever shrinking. I can see the need for digital MF and the image rendering is beautiful and technically the best we currently have, especially with the latest 50 and 100mp sensors. However the jump in IQ from the likes of the Nikon D810 and EOS 5Ds is not that huge especially when you factor in lenses like the Otus and Milvus lines. Flexibility of one system being good enough for all work is still highly biased toward Nikon / Canon especially when you factor in availability of new lenses / repair centres and perhaps more importantly for most of us bang for your buck. The difference in IQ between FF and the small MF sensors is clearly there but it is tiny compared to the film days between MF 645 or 67 compared to 35mm. We live in a fantastic time for photography equipment and the image quality available to the masses.


    • “Reality is that in the long run the big companies in this business have to stay competitive or die. “
      I think that’s true for all of us!

      The resolution difference between the best 35mm FF options and 44×33 isn’t big – but dynamic range, color accuracy and tonality are. The 100MP sensor is 54×40, which is more than double the area of FF…there’s a difference, but here’s the thing: it matters for fewer and fewer people.

  7. nice post

  8. Great post. Last week I decided to give up my dream of upgrading to full-frame because after downloading and comparing some RAW files, it was clear that Nikon’s current DX cameras have more IQ then I’ll ever need. So I passed on the D750 and lenses that I thought I wanted, and instead bought a lightly used D7200 for $650. It’s the first camera I’ve ever owned where I find nothing is lacking (except for the grip, but some gaffing tape and a wrist strap helped). I worried that I would feel insecure about sticking with APS-C, but instead I feel a surprising sense of relief that I finally found a camera that exceeds all of my needs. Plus I saved $2,000 and I don’t need to lie to my wife about how much my new camera cost 🙂

    “I used to think I was the only one who broke cameras on such a regular basis – apparently we are now all paying to be beta testers.”

    This is why I stopped using mirrorless a few years ago. Maybe Olympus and Fuji’s products have finally matured, but I got sick of saying, “I like this camera, but ______ could be improved.” Seriously, do they really need “beta testers” to tell them that the AF sucks or that the manual focus is unusable? I realize that R+D takes time and money, but as a consumer I’m not going to keep bankrolling their baby steps toward a working product.

    • That’s a lot of money for travel, and creation of images 🙂

      ” “I like this camera, but ______ could be improved.” Seriously, do they really need “beta testers” to tell them that the AF sucks or that the manual focus is unusable?”
      Not if the test protocol was properly incorporated into the workflow to begin with – I’m not sure it is. But I do know that for all the companies I’ve worked with, I’ve caught a lot of stuff that showed its head in the field but somehow slipped through in the office…

      • I think part of it is that they just want to get the camera on the market, ready or not, so they can start getting a return on their R+D investment. I assume this was the case with the Fuji X100 and X-Pro1 considering their glaring shortcomings when they were released. I loved my X100/S; it’s a great concept, but even after 2 generations it still had some fundamental issues that made me want to change systems. I’m sure Fuji’s new cameras are better, but I’m already happily back on the DSLR bandwagon.

        • I don’t think that’s the way to promote customer loyalty: you’re not going to buy v2 if v1 was really that bad. Better to sell lots of v2 from the outset and have solid upgrades – think Ricoh GR…

        • Fuji always listening to their customers . Firmware updates,beautiful cameras ,etc
          Fuji GFX 50S is an amazing camera

    • Sometimes I wonder if we were spoiled in the early days of digital because it was almost exclusively big camera brands working on relatively tried and true concepts. Canikon, while certainly some of the most conservative of the modern brands, seem to be free of the silly problems that plague some of the other brands. I’m not sure if its SLR vs mirrorless or if its experienced brands and mature products vs inexperience and immature products.

      I’ve done done the “ditch the DSLR” thing twice now, and I’m back to a D600. It isn’t the sexiest or most advanced camera on the market but at least it works the way a camera should. No one has ever been able to properly explain why a $3000 technomarvel A7RII takes a few seconds to start up but a D3300 does it instantly, for example. Or why I look at Sony’s menus and think that I could have done better. Didn’t we solve these problems years ago?

      • Not quite true – Nikon has had it’s share of (mostly) hardware issues of late: D800 focusing, D600 oil spots, D750 shading…but for the most part, the cameras worked and did what they were supposed to. I enjoyed the D3xxx/D5xxx series a lot more than my A7R/A7RII, that’s for sure!

  9. Much of the “photography industry” has been crowded by folks who profess to be “professional photographers” or who are told they are professionals because they maintain the latest greatest gear to qualify for “professional” memberships with their 35mm DSLR manufacturers. We both know, Ming, that the it hasn’t been very long since the only person considered a true ‘professional photographer’ who used a Small Format camera (35mm, ie. Canon/Nikon/etc) was a Photojournalist or a News Photographer. (which I am myself) It’s not the fault of society that they all think they are/can be “professional” photographers; the blame lies solely upon the 35mm DSLR manufacturers. Example: I’m a Nikon guy. I own a D800E, a D4, and a D300s. I hold a membership with Nikon Professional Services and the News Photographers Association of Canada. (the latter has been instrumental in my development as a photographer since I was accepted to join in 2012, two years after I began photographing people)

    My “walk-around” is my Nikon D300s, and I prefer it in most cases. I believe the last truly “great” camera Nikon has produced was the D3s. My favorite lens on any of my cameras is a 40-year-old Tamron 90mm f/2.5 Macro (1:2) that’s (obviously) manual focus only. It’s the sharpest lens I’ve used in my 7+ years photographing…anything.

    People would do themselves great benefit to consider that camera manufacturers are businesses. The principal of conducting business is to generate profit. Until some time in this century, DSLR manufacturers catered to those who put food on their table. Photojournalists, Newsmen and Students. That has shifted to John and Jane Doe. CaNikonTaxOny now caters to retail clients. Since they’re now the largest client/customer-base for Small Format DSLR makers.

    I’ve been Following your posts for a couple or more years now, Ming. I’m not really the “Following” type, but you have some great insights at times, and you give me good food-for-thought on a regular basis. On behalf of the many in Toronto Canaduh here who don’t bother saying so, please keep it up. We truly *do appreciate hearing what you have to share.

    • I’ve always thought of it this way: if you make a living from it, you’re a pro. If not, no matter what you own, you’re not.

      The idea of complimentary hardware is important, too: that Tamron 90/2.5 has an excellent reputation, but I don’t know if it would still please you on a D810; and then you’d start having a whole load of other issues, too (e.g. computing power, storage, stability etc.). I was happy with the D700 until clients started asking for more resolution for larger print output sizes; things snowballed from there.

      All camera makers must now cater to consumers, regardless of the level of equipment: as a segment, they’re the only ones with any real financial power left. It’s necessary to stay in business. But that’s no reason not to make a solid or desirable product…

      Thanks Daniel!

      • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ming.

        It seems to me that practically every manufacturer of every product nowadays is pushing half-baked products on the market. What was once a BETA version is now “the current version”. Software and hardware in almost all computer/computerized applications seem to be following this trend. I find myself reverting to older versions of hardware and software so I can benefit and experience consistency and dependability that I pass-on to my clients as a result. For example, I just trialed CaptureOne Pro 10 but I’m sticking with C1 Express 7. C1 Pro 10 creates a mild yet notably more pleasing conversion, but it runs sluggish on my very strong PC and it still ‘loses’ its catalog every 10-15 days just like C1 always has done in my experiences since C1 6. I cannot depend on my i7 Pentium 3.6 MHz with 24GB of RAMM running 64-bit Windows 10 Desktop PC at all, but my laptop is 110% reliable. An IBM T410 ThinkPad with a Pentium i5 2.4 MHz and 8GB of RAMM running 64-bit Windows 7. My first D800, then my D800E before the one I own now both exposed inconsistently and produced horrendously green-tinged images. My D300s, introduced nearly a decade ago, reliably produces pleasing colours and consistent exposures. My D4 consistently and reliably produces colour-true images…provided I always fine-tune my White Balance to +1 Magenta. Even when taking a WB Sample. I struggle sometimes incorporating newer technology into my approach while remaining consistent and reliable. I can only be as reliable and consistent as the tools I use, which is true for all working photographers as you know much better than I do! (The most accurate colours I’ve personally seen came from a Pentax 645Z I tested while I compared the output from a variety of cameras in relation to the green-tinting dilemma many people complained about a few years ago)

        The Tamron 90 2.5 is every bit as good as people say. I adore it on my D800E, and I’ll be using it far more this year. I took care of computing and storage before updating my gear, based on the advice of people like and including yourself a couple years ago. Thanks again for sharing your wise words, and have a wonderful week.

        • I suspect the green-tinting is a result of limited calibration or batch variation – I don’t see it with the MF cameras in general because there’s more latitude before any channel clips; I don’t see it at all with the Hasselblads as each individual sensor is calibrated at the pixel level during the production process, with that calibration map loaded to firmware for individual cameras…

          Going to have to revisit that 90/2.5 personally 🙂

          • Martin Fritter says:

            Quick note. Based on this discussion, I got the Tamron 90 2.5 for use on my Sony A7. $125 and immaculate. Impeccable construction. Should note that it doesn’t stop down to close-focus, so you can do macro work at 2.5 but it will stop down to 32 if you want. Very nice results and a very elegant lens. What a delightful find. Thanks!

            • Martin Fritter says:

              oops. Of course as the barrel extends the effective aperture decreases. My previous experience was with a Nikon 105mm, which, if I remember did all the thinking for me.

            • All lenses lose light at close focus; this is known as the bellows factor. Not all of them report it, is all – if you look down the barrel of a Nikon f2.8 macro reporting f4.5 at 1:1, it’s still wide open 🙂

    • I still have both the d300 and tamron 90f2.5 (purchased in 1986 if i recall) and the combination produces quite painterly results albeit with blue sensor reflections in the center with many images. This occurs with more reflective surfaces. As a result the lens is now rarely employed. The lens retains much of its character but loses sharpness with my d800. Still a fun lens to use on occasion.

  10. Integrity has been the biggest issue for me, meaning integrity of equipment: reliable, well made, well thought out, no obvious drawbacks. Modern consumer camera equipment is built to a price, not to a standard. I’ve had too many disappointments with broken-down items or ones which basically don’t work very well because they are beta or just poorly engineered. So I’ve now drawn the line and decided to stick to M43 and only a small selection of lenses. I won’t move on if ever I do until I’m sure the next thing is really solid. Too many things were rushed out by the camera-makers in previous years. With high resolution mode on my E-M5 Mark II delivering 64mpx files, I can do huge prints of some some subjects. Enough, surely enough – just so long as the gear works when you turn it on. Otherwise the returns diminish to 0.

    • Well, some stuff is built to a standard – but it tends to cost a fortune (single digit N and C bodies, for instance; large and medium format). Consumer level gear, I agree, is generally not well built at all – if you’re a working pro, we tend to budget in replacement cost. Otherwise, smaller cameras seem to be somewhat more robust due to generally lower mass…

  11. Great post, Ming. I’ve owned numerous systems from 4×5 down, the one I use the most now is the tiny Pentax Q-7, when used with a wrist strap it almost “disappears” both in weight and its lack of drawing attention to itself—which are the characteristics I find most desirable in a camera. Image quality is limited at higher ISO’s but it exceeds that of 35mm film. Certain situations, like table top and macro, its extended depth of field is unequaled in any format.

    The important thing is to keep an open mind on equipment, there are different tools for different needs: don’t use a sledge hammer to pound tacks, or vice versa.

  12. Perhaps it is age (I’m in my 4th decade of photographing), but I just want it to be simple and fun. (I’ve outgrown my days as a Porsche 911 owner, too.) I’m halfway through reading The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, and I re-discovering the simple pleasures of things that bring happiness. Life, and photography, should bring us joy. I don’t want drama in my gear, I just want a simple tool to help me capture high quality images of what I see, think, and feel. That’s why, more often than not, I find myself reaching for my Leica Q. I just want to see, enjoy, and snap (after, of course, making adjustments for light and subject . . . I’m not a total bum). I want my equipment to be an extension of my mind (and heart) not a barrier between my world and me. As much as possible, I want my gear to disappear. (Yes, there are times when I need a 600mm lens on a camera body capable of ripping off a dozen images per second when photographing Polar Bears in the High Arctic Ocean, but that’s not my ‘normal’ world.)

    Your most recent wise musings fall upon ears (eyes?) receptive to the suggestion that technology can be both friend and foe. Gear cannot be our master; it should be our ally. Chasing the perfect “gear” cannot be allowed to interfere with our pursuit of Joy!

    Thank you for continuing to share your perceptive, insightful, and sensitive thoughts. You help make us all not only better photographers, but better humans.

  13. Yes. Very well said. I bought a Sony RX1RII the day it was released. It’s a lovely camera that can produce beautiful results, and has only one flaw that affects my style of working which is that the manual focus points defaults to infinity when the camera is turned off instead of remaining where it was set. Other than that, brilliant. Nevertheless, I find myself often resorting to my Ricoh GR which was my everyday camera before the Sony. Why go out on a shoot with the GR when I could be carrying a 42mp monster sensor fronted by a very good lens? Simple. The files from the GR are “good enough” to express whatever I see and want to publish, so in the long run, for my work–B&W square format images–there really isn’t any difference.

    • Pocketability, too. As for default to infinity: I was told by several companies it’s because CDAF lenses need to know where they are in the focus range to calibrate a reference point…

  14. ColinMac says:

    Far from an unpopular article it appears… when you have so much honesty people respond well. But I wonder if what you describe can also be attributed to digital moving to “maturity” on the classic technology S-curve model, where major improvements are more difficult and buyers increasingly do not value them. At digital maturity, many honest users truly do not see huge gains from upgrading, when they are realistic about needs as you explain well. I upgraded my EM-5 to MkII not to gain resolution, but better ergonomics (with same sensor). Once ergonomics are free of fatal flaws – where does it go next?

    So my non-professional user sense is: Sensors – nearing maturity very soon; Ergonomics and design: a personal thing but still areas where much hardware can improve (but do most users care?); Longevity and reliability: the weakest aspect of digital, both in the hardware/electronic sense and especially firmware.

    • I think there’ll never be a perfect match: on one hand, it sometimes seems that manufacturers deliberately build in flaws to make you buy the next model; on the other hand, our own creative requirements change, so what works ideally now might not do so in a few years…

  15. Martin Jones says:

    Photography is just consumerism. It is a tool to some but a fashion to many. The truly new features added each generation are few if any. Cars are the same. They look different & more modern but do they allow the user to perform better or be happier in the long term (not short term)? Once you find something that does the job then use it & learn about it. Others will have newer ‘modern’ versions but you will know your equipment. Replace it when it breaks or truly new & beneficial features appear. My unfashionable 11year old Ford Focus with 150k miles will soon need replacing as it is falling apart. I know it well though. I am still learning about my 4 year old camera.

    • True, but there’s one more consideration: speed of learning varies dramatically with use and personal commitment levels…somebody who leaves a camera on the shelf for ten years will obviously know much less than somebody shooting thousands of images a day. Of course that assumes some post-capture analysis takes place, too…

      Photographic equipment is consumerism. The creation of images is not. One should seriously question one’s own motives if otherwise…

  16. I am afraid you are on a bit of a quixotic mission here, although I in principle agree with you. But why should photography be exempt from our desire to improve, not only by improving ourselves, but also through the tools we use? I live in Norway, I have 8 pairs of skis, and yes I can justify each of them: XC for mountain or prepared tracks, cold and mild weather. Alpine for prepped slopes, off-piste, randonèe. Do I need all of them? Strictly, no, but they have different usage scenarios, and also reflect my own learning process.
    I agree that there is too much focus (sic!) on the latest and greatest in photography, and people don’t even take the time to learn systems before they change. At the same time there is definitely technical development. People see your images Ming, and think – how can I achieve this clarity, transparency, composition? Even if you don’t write that much about gear, it drives the gear aspect because they know what you use, and it is better than what most people have, so there must be a reason for it. Although they would better off taking some of your courses and workshops 😉
    I think all this is very human, at least in modern society, you see it in cars, hunting, tools, sports etc. Women buy fashion clothes to get the supermodel feeling, despite and with awareness of the “imperfections” of the ordinary people compared to the ideal. Most people would look better trimming their body a bit more than buying new clothes, still this is what they do.
    All modern cameras can produce good pictures, in my opinion it is more a question of how you like to work, style, usage scenarios, than technology. Do you like the slower, more manual feel of the Leica M, or the fast sport-shooting of a DSLR with a zoom? Do you travel, shoot landscapes or family? How much are you prepared to carry? And of course, how much you are willing and able to spend. Some persistency is rewarded – the most expensive thing is a full change of system.
    And I agree with you on printing – the tangible aspect of the print gives a special reward. Just yesterday I produced a 210*60 cm pano of my favourite mountain area, now lying on a carpet to dry, what a joy!

    • “People see your images Ming, and think – how can I achieve this clarity, transparency, composition? Even if you don’t write that much about gear, it drives the gear aspect because they know what you use, and it is better than what most people have, so there must be a reason for it.”
      They also conveniently ignore the images posted from mediocre equipment (iPhone, Canon 100D etc.) – that says a lot, too… 😉

  17. Mike Ross says:

    Its a lot like motorcycling, most new bikes are more capable than the rider will ever be. As for the costs of photography and riding, there is more than money involved. There is time and passion which can turn into obsession, but its better than drinking Vodka all day in a recliner (I say this from experience).

    • Motorcycling appealed a lot until most of the riders I knew fell off in a painful (and in more than one case, fatal) way – at least if I make a photographic error, I’m not going to severely injure myself! 🙂

  18. Excellent.

  19. mike gannon says:

    stop the world I want to get off, the chasing of technology is wearing me down

  20. John Barry says:

    Ming, what an insightful post, which has generated some reasoned responses. When I was younger I enjoyed travelling with a full SLR set up – a couple of Canon bodies and leneses from 17 – 200mm. The output, generally on Kodachrome and HP5 gave me everything I could wish for and I’m still in the process of scanning them for digital rendering years later. But interestingly I always felt under self-imposed pressure that the equipment ‘demanded’ I bring back something that warranted the investment. Bringing up a family, changing financial priorities and the onset of digital meant that it took a while to re-kindle interest in the medium. These days I get by with a Fuji X10; yes it has it’s limitations especially with the reach of the zoom and difficulty with isolating certain subjects, and yes I would love an XT2 or similar but I’m hesitant of getting back onto the equipment treadmill. I have no issue with those that have a different take on it. A friend of mine was fond of quoting the following when deciding if he ‘really’ needed the latest upgrade “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” It’s not a bad thought to pass on!

  21. I am fortunate to have access to high MP and SOTA cameras; yet I still find old 10 and 12MP cameras very capable and sufficient for 95%+ of my needs, even printing 17″ wide. Even the Leica M8 with its outdated 10MP CCD sensor can deliver wonderful image quality if used within limits. As with most crafts and sports–the best and latest tools/gear won’t make you the “best” craftsman or athlete; for that you’ll need skill, which comes only from practice, more practice and yet more practice. Despite whatever the camera companies would like us to believe, photographic skill cannot be bought in the boxes they are so happy to sell–but that won’t matter to the fanboys, will it?

    • Actually, the lack of filtration on the M8 made for some pretty unique monochrome images specifically because of the near-IR and UV pollution in red and blue channels…for want of a better word, it had luminous shadows. That said, not entirely necessary now given the huge dynamic range of modern sensors…

  22. Agree with everything you’ve said here. But the follow up question is: Why did you do medium format then?

    • A very valid question: because it does give me something in color and tonality that FF doesn’t, I can consistently deploy that to make images I’m happier with, and I can justify it economically.

      Furthermore, I like the feeling of there being somewhere further to push my own limitations – pushing what’s possible with available light work in both composition and image quality, for example.

      • But my question is, does MFD make you or anyone a better photographer? For fashion in controlled environments and lighting, one can maximize the differences between various sensor sizes. In so many ways the freedom of tripod-less image making emotionally supersedes tethering of any sort; however we that seek the ultimate quality image by maximizing hardware and process, sacrifice facility and spontaneity. In my opinion it is why so many look to the light, compact leicas or comparables in full frame to merge quality and instant reaction.

        So the question is, do you want a best photo experience or simply best possible end product – and is there an appropriate camera system which can give you both?

        So this is really imho the crux of the question we all need to answer. Technology has not quite caught up with producing 100p MFD imaging capability in a camera the size and weight of say a Leica Q, which by the way virtually all users love.

        As a discipline i will take my d810 with one lens on trail runs and will find ways of seeing without tethering. The results thus far tell me that the freedom to create by reducing physical and psychological impediments is inspirational. Truth be known, i would rather have final stunning results whether or not I “enjoyed the ride”.

        Chances are high that we will all be seeking alternatives (think diversity of vacation sites) to what we have to either enhance the experience or the result, until we are satisfied that one system will provide a happy medium (unlikely).

        A 36mp Leica M with AF and VR type in-camera technology which can use all current M lenses (of course with new AF versions), or something comparable from Nikon, might be the ticket. The Leica SL is well short of the mark, and I am not yet sold on Sony durability, facility, and oversaturated color. Seems since you posted Ming, there is news that Sony is limiting sale of its sensors to 3rd parties. Sony may have seen an opportunity to start digging Nikon’s grave. As far as competion goes and realization of the ultimate camera, R&D requires strong balance sheets and or access to gobs of equity. As companies fail in a declining market they aren’t usually replaced unless and until cutting edge technology is introduced and the playing field evened.

        The camera industry currently is always refining and tweaking. It will take a major upheaval with unexpected and dramatically visionary technology to stop the industry bleeding. We should feel privileged to have so many quality choices of equipment. Market contraction will continue unabated (interesting that Leica has somewhat bucked the trend by introducing its own camera systems bundled with a smart phone. Why havent the Japanese manufacturers sought this option – or did they but failed in negotiations with Chinese rivals of Apple?

        • “But my question is, does MFD make you or anyone a better photographer?”
          If a tool enables you to make better images without as many distractions, then I’d say yes, which is how I feel about it in this case. From an output standpoint, I know I can achieve more transparent images which certainly help to convey my intended idea more clearly.

          ” In my opinion it is why so many look to the light, compact leicas or comparables in full frame to merge quality and instant reaction.”
          Except the Leicas are not really the benchmarks in full frame (and get challenged by APSC even).

          “So the question is, do you want a best photo experience or simply best possible end product – and is there an appropriate camera system which can give you both?”
          I think there is, but as always with these things – there’s a third variable in the form of cost…

          ” Technology has not quite caught up with producing 100p MFD imaging capability in a camera the size and weight of say a Leica Q, which by the way virtually all users love.”
          Not yet, nor have the manufacturers been given enough incentive to make one. But the 50MP X1D and GFX are not far off the size and volume of the Q, and it’s only a matter of time before Sony does its usual thing and crams more pixels in.

          “Truth be known, i would rather have final stunning results whether or not I “enjoyed the ride”.”
          I thought that applied to me too: but it turns out the ride is as much part of the creative process as anything, and thought cameras like the A7RII produced excellent results, I didn’t enjoy shooting with them – which meant I avoided doing any ‘extra’, which in turn meant missing out on the benefits of creative experimentation. I do a lot more experimentation with my H5/H6 than the X1D, for some inexplicable reason – even though the latter has a much better size/performance ratio. I just don’t think it’s that simple, unfortunately…

          “A 36mp Leica M with AF and VR type in-camera technology which can use all current M lenses (of course with new AF versions)”
          I don’t see this being workable in an M-size body. They ditched the RF and don’t have VR and the SL is still enormous.

          “interesting that Leica has somewhat bucked the trend by introducing its own camera systems bundled with a smart phone”
          They haven’t. They got paid some royalties by Huawei to license the brand; a dot and some rebranded camera modules does not a system make…

  23. To address your first point: My photographs reside in boxes, flat files, and on the walls of my house. For me, if it isn’t printed, it isn’t really a photograph. Yes, I have an online portfolio, and an iPad Pro portfolio, but when people see those and like the photographs, I say, “You should see the prints.” There is nothing like a 17″ by 22″ inch print on fine art paper. As for forgetting my photographs. I would say that on average, I spend several nights a month examining and enjoying past output. First and foremost, I make my photographs for me.

    To address your second point: I am fortunate. I can have pretty much whatever gear I want. Do I shoot with a PhaseOne IQ3 100? Nope. Might be nice, but that is a bit of overkill. Moreover, I am not into paying $45,000 for a back that will be worth $15,000 in two or three years because 100mp will be readily available at a much lower price point.” It might make sense for someone else, but those are my economics.

    To address your third point: I pick the equipment to match the need and look. As of late, my preference has been two cameras: The Olympus OMD, Mark II that came out in December and my Leaf 50mp back. In part it goes back to the print. Both cameras produce native images that require very little cropping for a 17 by 22 borderless print, and the print is the end point. I had the Olympus for a ten-day trip to Paris, where I did urban landscapes. Some would call it street photography, but I am less interested in people doing funny things than capturing the light and shapes I see on the street. The prints have a different look than the ones using Leaf files, but a grittier, less refined look makes sense to me for old buildings. I have been using the Leaf for a series of photographs I am working on that involve landmark buildings at twilight or in extreme weather conditions or lighting. Here I want a more formal look, and I like the extra clarity, depth, and three dimensionality that I get from the Leaf.

    To address your fourth point, specific equipment features do matter to me. I am finding the Olympus to be an excellent camera for my jazz photography. I can put it in silent mode and view the image through the finder, so in a concert hall, I don’t disturb the audience. The ability to shoot 5 or 6 images in continuous or quick succession mode is very helpful with musicians and singers who are moving. The positioning of the person and his or her instrument may be perfect, but closed eyes, a tongue in the wrong position, or a slightly lower elevation of the sax can ruin an otherwise great shot.

    To summarize: I find most of the technical talk on photography forums boring, although I am getting better at understanding it and on occasional understanding does influence how I work. There is nothing wrong if people like that sort of talk and detail. For me, the bottomline is very simple: I have never had anyone (including at photo critiques) say, “I don’t like that image because the corners are soft or it could have been shot with a more expensive higher resolution camera.” Actually I did have one person say that–a semi-famous photographer who was teaching a 10-week photo critique course. He said to me, “Those would be great photographs if they had been shot with a medium format digital back,” but he was just giving me a hard time and he was going through a personal crisis about the value of his own work.

    • Fully with you on the printing bit.

      As for chasing diminishing returns: unless circumstances justify (or allow) it, being one step back from the frontier is significantly less painful than being over the hill. A 50MP 44×33 camera can be had as low as $6000 for a second hand 645Z or similar; it’s definitely not 1/8th the camera of an XF100 (and I’d also of course suggest looking at a H6D-100, which has much nicer color and is 60% of the price 🙂 ).

      Smaller format gear has a use for me, too: when you want everything in focus. It’s not at all easy to achieve with the 54x40mm 100MP sensor without camera movements!

      Does better image quality make a better image or a more transparent idea? Sometimes, but not often. But at the same time, it certainly doesn’t hurt 🙂

  24. I recently cleared out a bunch of photos on my hard drive after almost running out of room. Some were blurred photos of planes from an airshow, home cooking, stuff around my neighbourhood etc… It did take awhile before I was able to rationalize that it was fine to delete those.

    • Emotional attachment to images is not a bad thing, but unless they’re a total write-off, I’d hesitate before deleting. Storage is cheap these days…

  25. Samuel Jessop says:

    I have to agree and without hesitation. Since getting my finances in order a few years ago, I now have to work harder to justify spending anything at all. My current camera system is fully paid for, and is doesn’t get in the way of what I am trying to capture.

    The desire to “upgrade” is driven by two things: Firstly I would like to have the ability to print larger, and possibly eventually for sale, but I have been to plenty of photographic exhibitions where prints are at 72dpi or so and this hasn’t held back the creative intent at all. Secondly I would like to push my ability with the further, and by narrowing the shooting envelope the payoff is the opportunity for larger prints and greater latitide.

    The key here, is that it is all optional. My Fuji kit is quite modest, but absolutely blows away what I had been able to work with shooting on 35mm slide film fifteen years ago. Anything more than this is entirely optional.

  26. Well said Ming.

    re the Ferrari…. You’d love a Porsche Cayman… No drama and all the voooooom.

  27. I agree. The money I have spent and wasted climbing the technology ladder every time I see a better camera has forced me to stop. To that point, my level of output is fine at, dare I say, 35mm negative resolutions. So I bought my favorite camera I’ve ever owned, a Nikon F6. (Thanks for the fine review BTW) The impetus was when my wife said to me that she never sees our pictures and she didn’t even know which of our five computers they were stored on. So, I am shooting more with my F6 camera. I am sending the film out and getting 4×6 prints and scans for the ones I want to print or experiment with in larger prints.

    I also kept my D3s. I’ll use it for low light and my iPhone for table top snaps or when I want to be less obvious. That’s it. That suffices. The largest I’ve printed ever has been 16″-24″. I can do that with any of the cams I mentioned above. I can express everything I see with the subtlety of current color films, do film black and white, shoot in the darkest interiors with great results and always have a camera with me that no one ever sees.

    I have jumped off the upgrade wagon and my wallet and sanity is better for it.

    • “The impetus was when my wife said to me that she never sees our pictures and she didn’t even know which of our five computers they were stored on. “
      This comment is actually a bit scary. I know my clients and my audience see my work, but there’s a significant chunk that’s only for me; and a more significant chunk of family stuff that never really gets properly viewed – only sent via mobile and looked at like a postage stamp. I do wish there was a cheaper/simpler way to print say A4 sized images or so; big enough to appreciate with some finesse, small enough not to be inconvenient or demand significant framing, wall space etc…

  28. For me, I’m always more interested in what’s going on in the writer’s life at the time, that would cause he or she to write a post of this nature, especially when their own gear collection could supply a soup kitchen for years 😉 I’m a “back story” kinda-guy. New baby on the way? Business down a little? Priorities changed? While I do agree that many of us have way more gear than we need or can make the best use of…WHO TF CARES?!? If you’ve got plenty of money and all the bills are paid including big bucks put away for college and retirement, then why not indulge yourself in a gear orgy? Fill a warehouse with unneeded gear if that is what indeed butter’s your bread 😉 Usually an article like this one here at MT is a precursor to some big changes … do tell! 🙂 Well gotta go, promised myself I’d get that E-M1II and 12-400 ordered this morning before I go out into my warehouse and admire my gear collection 😉 BTW – I’m anticipating your response to include something about returns and investment and justification yada yada yada -something along those lines. Don’t even bother trying that logic on me; I have my own personal depreciation formula which applies 70% of the value of the gear towards the enjoyment I get out of collecting it 🙂

    • “WHO TF CARES?!? If you’ve got plenty of money and all the bills are paid including big bucks put away for college and retirement, then why not indulge yourself in a gear orgy?”
      …because potential alone does not make results?

      ” Fill a warehouse with unneeded gear if that is what indeed butter’s your bread 😉 Usually an article like this one here at MT is a precursor to some big changes … do tell! 🙂”
      Actually, nothing has changed: the site is still about making images, and figuring out one’s own psychology is a very important part of that.

  29. I completely agree Ming, and happily, have finally made it past the GAS thing. I still have my 9 year old Canon 40D, 10MP, and will use it until it is kaput. I almost moved up to full frame, and decided I just didn’t need to. It’s a relief to be thinking about photos instead of cameras and lenses. It’s like back in the days of shooting film, when I kept bodies until they were worn out or accidentally damaged.

    • You’ll see a much bigger change going from APSC to 44×33 – the area difference between APSC and FF isn’t enough to see that much of a difference both in rendering style and image quality (assuming similar generation sensors and similar photosite architecture; there is a significant difference between 9 year old APSC and current FF 🙂 ).

  30. I jumped off the carousel a year ago, sold most of my Nikon gear and after a short stint with an E-M1 bought a GX8 and a GM5 with the lenses I need, all second hand at half price (GX8 plus 3 lenses) or at fire sales new (GM5 plus 3 compact lenses). I even use my ancient GH1 sometimes, and hardly anybody notices. Although I don’t shoot professionally full time anymore, I do on occasions and I do shoot stock photos. The acceptance rate since I sold the D810 has gone down exactly zero percent.

    If I need to shoot some action or sports, I still have a D300 and a D2Xs with even older 80-200 and 300mm lenses, and since all my sports photography is in full daylight, I shoot at base ISO, so no problems with noise, even when using the D2Xs. Life is good 🙂

    • There was something about those older pro digital bodies: they just worked, with none of the strange electronic dramas we seem to get today. I remember the D3 being a particularly reliable brute…

      • I feel the same way about my old D700. In my eyes that was the generation where they really got digital right. They felt like the best film SLRs with a few adjustments made for digital. So many physical controls! Has there been a camera since with an AF mode with a switch?

        The day I (regrettably) sold my D700 kit for an original A7 was when I learned how “wrong” a digital camera could be.

        • Agreed. AF switch: yes, on the Olympus and I think some controls on the Nikons can be reassigned, but it’s now AF-MF and then modes using dials+buttons.

          The A7 series had it all, on paper. In practice…I tried through several generations to love it, but I never managed.

  31. As ever, an interesting and thought-provoking post.
    I’m noticing too a range of things that you’ve identified, in my interest in reading around on the web and elsewhere.

    First, while it has always been true that to avoid unknowing beta-testing one should avoid buying new digital hardware for 6 months or so, it seems that, as you say, this is expanding slightly – software/firmware not ready often being a factor, for instance.

    Second, I notice an increasing interest and proliferation of online content about diversifying output, rather than endlessly seeking out the next best thing. Admittedly, this is very much related to my own interest in the resurgence of analogue. The used market for medium format and large format film gear seems pretty buoyant from what I can see.

    For my narrowing-down of my own interests – intimate landscape with specific tonality and high detail, plus the better work-life balance that shooting expensive film actually has resulted in (I’m now happy to think about not shooting for a few weeks, knowing that the anticipation of shooting some 5×4 chromes will make up for it) – moving sideways (and upwards) into large-format film has been wonderful. I do still suffer from GAS, but I also know that the only way to go upwards would be 8×10 – don’t those large field cameras look wonderful! – but for that I’d have to redecorate my kitchen in order to buy a larger freezer, which isn’t happening!!

    The usual adolescent online digital forums will continue to berate these kinds of factors and options, but who cares?
    I do wonder, though, what the standard Japanese digital camera companies are thinking.

    • First and second points are nothing but common sense based on what’s happening at the moment: the lack of innovation from major players has meant grasping at straws and releasing unfinished goods sooner rather than later in order to have revenue now: companies must stop this in order to survive and not lose consumer confidence. Diversification is a more fundamental consequence of human nature: we get bored, and as the mainstream options change less and less, we need to look further afield. I’m sure there’s some terminology for this (acclimatisation, perhaps?) – and it happens to everything we encounter, not just photographic equipment.

      Film freezers: a small under-table type freezer might be the solution for you. I have to go the other way in the tropics: dehumidification cabinets to prevent the gear getting mouldy from humidity…

  32. Bill Walter says:

    The thing that amuses me the most about many pro photographers is this… A new camera will be released by Nikon or Canon. The photography websites will be filled with comments saying how great and outstanding this model is and how they can now provide the ultimate state of the art results for their clients. Then two years later, a new model is released and the same photographers rave about how they must have this new model because their livelihood depends on it. Meanwhile, the truth is, their clients would be happy with photos taken from either camera and couldn’t tell the difference if their lives depended on it. The previous model doesn’t deteriorate because a new one has just been released. I think buying the latest and greatest benefits the photographer psychologically more than any effect it has on their clients.

    • Totally with you on this one: until my switch to Hasselblad, I was still using the 2012 D800E for most of my studio/ controlled light stuff. And I’m very happy with the H5D-50c, which is a 2014 camera. But if I can justify the cost and generate ROI, I’m just as happy using the latest and the greatest – but I’m under no illusions that it will make significant differences except towards the edges of the performance envelope. And as the ‘current’ level gets better and better, those edges keep retreating further and further away…

  33. Stéphane Bosman says:

    Hi Ming. Great, great post!
    Having “downgraded” from a D800 to a Fuji X-T1 30 months ago, I can attest it has had no impact whatsoever on my photography. Neither better nor worse, as to be expected. Prints look just as good, or as bad.
    If I display side by side pictures from my old Leica, Mamiya 6×7, D800, Pentax K5 and Fuji, no one has any idea they were taken by different cameras because no-one cares, as it should be.
    I have totally lost interest in the whole subject of camera choice. I have one, it works, it’s fine 🙂
    And this is what makes your blog more and more interesting.

    • Perhaps not quite true: you might actually make better images because there’s less physical investment in carrying the hardware, so you shoot more…

  34. This is why EM1 MKI is fine compared to MKII since I don’t shoot video, don’t shoot action and don’t shoot in bad light. And I have only 2 lens left from 9 primes and zooms bought and traded in for…. 12-40 f2.8 pro and Pan/Leica f1.4 25mm.
    Sometimes would like Penn.

    • PEN F

    • I agree – the EM1.2 brings more speed and much better video spec, but if you’re using it only for stills – not a huge advantage unless you shoot very long shutter speeds and also buy the 12-100…but at least in this case there’s a clear value proposition to the upgrade.

      • Had the excellent 75mm f1.8 and found I kept backing up. Beaut but to long for most needs. So why go 12 to 100 f4 over 13 to 40 f2.8. Both sealed and excellent DXO numbers. Waiting to see Venus 7.5mm price and reviews for landscape. Otherwise standing pat.
        Love article based on actual needs and output intended.
        Bob in Chicago.

  35. Coisas EM'adeira says:

    Dear Mr Ming Thein
    I enjoyed a LOT reading this post!
    I (as long as I can remember) always loved photography, My 1st love came from my father’s Yashica GSN Electro 35. And during all my adult life I always had (at least) a couple of cameras and changing gear very frequently.
    In the last couple of years I was ‘stuck’ with only one simple 9mpx super zoom bridge camera. Frustration all day long… Until I made a few small prints and started to ‘understand’ that tool and use it more and more. Since then I came across a few blog posts on how to use what you have and improve your photography by it.
    Although I still dream with a new camera, being limited in the last years turn out a good thing!
    Thank you for this post

    • 🙂 Unless you know exactly what’s missing (which can only be determined by using what you’ve got) – an upgrade will not make you any happier…

  36. Per Kylberg says:

    No Ming, your posting is not impopular, it is needed!
    I have owned 16 cameras since 2002. Five different systems. One reason is the transition from film to digital; it has been a very interesting and expensive journey. Photo has a significant element of craftsmanship in it. Ask a carpenter about a hammer and you will learn a lot. Your next hammer may be much more efficient and comfortable to use. Still just a hammer.
    Now we are in a time with mature digital cameras and lens CAD used for the optics. It is very hard to find a poor alternative even on a limited budget. the other day I watched a (poor) video review comparing two lenses. The reviewer had to scale up the image to 300% to visualize any quality difference. One of the lenses was double price… No reason to change system or add gear – unless your needs are changed.
    I now own a camera that reflects my image quality needs, reasonably light. I own great image quality lenses, still not too heavy. (Worn out back here.)
    For the industry: Don’t expect customers to always upgrade to the next iteration. Adjust to a mature market. Some of you will go under, I don’t care which.
    For photographers: Spend more on making images, less on gear.

    • You got off lightly – I make my count no less than twelve systems (Nikon F; Canon EOS – twice, FF, exit completely, then APSC; Leica M; Sony mirrorless; Pentax 645; Four Thirds; Micro Four Thirds; Fuji X; Hasselblad V; Hasselblad H; Hasselblad X). I dare not think of how many individual lenses or cameras – I do know there are some 20+ lenses currently in my possession alone. In hindsight, it was about the elusive search for complete system maturity that didn’t really exist until very recently – the quest for as close as possible to one size fits all for both personal/creative and commercial. I’ve reached my endpoint with Hasselblad H, and Hasselblad X as the ‘company car’ – but I cannot deny that the process of going through all of that taught me a lot about the compromises I was willing to make and my own priorities.

      “Now we are in a time with mature digital cameras and lens CAD used for the optics. It is very hard to find a poor alternative even on a limited budget.”
      Yes: we have good, and better. Crappy simply didn’t survive – and a lot of people do not realise this…

  37. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    There were two tipping points, for me, Ming.

    One – that I’d had a good long run with analogue (just over half a century) and I wouldn’t have the opportunity to spend anything like the same amount of time and effort with digital, no matter how hard I pushed myself. So I decided to stop toying with entry level digital and take it seriously – quitting my analogue gear and re-equipping with what I decided would suit my purposes into the foreseeable future.

    And the other, that although I have generally processed my own films and made my own enlargements, I was always frustrated by the fact I needed to farm those functions out, when I shot colour. A “home lab” for producing colour would have been obscenely costly! Now, I can post process to my heart’s content, in colour or B&W, and produce my own colour enlargements within 70 cm from where I am sitting, typing this.

    That said – we all go to the devil on our own terms. Some people have GAS, with a matching super-charger, and you couldn’t stop them from splurging on gear they possibly don’t even understand – let alone need or use! Some seem to re-equip on a regular basis, as new products come onto the market, and their existing gear finds itself on eBay or on the second hand shelves of their local camera store. Pros have to get the flow of acquisitions & disposals to fit within the capital and revenue structure of their businesses, or leave the game.

    I rather like comparing all of this to cars. When I was younger I had a succession of sports cars – nothing quite as elaborate as a Ferrari, but four of them anyway, one after another. However as you move through life, and see people in their 50s or my age suddenly ditching the family sedan in favour of something like a Porsche Boxter or a Lambo, you simply scratch your head and shudder – they look so silly suddenly having a “second childhood” fling with high performance cars, without the driving skills needed to handle them properly, and with no thought to where the kids are going to sit, or where to put the luggage or the shopping. I had one living opposite, a while back, and I think that as he drove down our street he was still crashing and grinding the gears, whenever he changed from 1st to 2nd, or 2nd to 3rd, for at least the following 2 years. It was sad, really.

    So – how do I fit your text? Well for one thing, I don’t take photos to store on the computer. I take them to print. I share them with friends. I admit to using electronics to assist in sharing them with people at more remote locations, but I still don’t end up as the only audience – nor, indeed, the only one with copies. I don’t print ALL of them – but I print a substantial proportion. Costs are not “free”, as you so rightly point out – the paper isn’t cheap, the printer’s miles cheaper than enlargers used to be when I started out, but the inks more than compensate the manufacturers for that tiny concession to our bank accounts – I would have a suitable computer either way, but of course the type of computer and cost is largely controlled by my interest in photography, now, and high end computers are far from cheap. The all up cost of that gear is far more than a half decent half frame with a kit zoom to match, although a LOT less than rigging up a decent full frame and the set of primes I use.

    Yes I am scared of equipment failure. It hit once, while I was in the middle of France and miles from any half decent camera shop, but I managed to limp along till I made it back to Paris and a rescue. It hit again with a compact card, and for me, that was quite a costly item – but to be fair, Lexar replaced it immediately, no questions asked. All praise, Lexar – you are one of only two manufacturers of photographic gear who have done that for me (the other is Carl Zeiss – take a bow, too, CZ).

    And as to that last drop of resolution – no, I don’t do that stuff. I think it’s rather silly – it’s like chasing rainbows or butterflies. I have a range of 4 cams – they have different specs – I use them for different purposes – It’s axiomatic that I am happy with what each of them produces, otherwise I wouldn’t choose to use them – and more to the point, a lot of my photos are actually taken for other people (not for me), and THEY are happy with the results. I find that vastly more important than any opinions I might have.

    What HAS been of some importance to me, in that context, was the raising of ISO levels, without an unbearable increase in noise. Because one thing I love is low light and night photography, hand held. I only use flash in desperation, because it has an awful tendency to produce washed out areas – and OK if you have the time and a truckload of gear, but on the run that’s about where it ends – so I prefer to avoid it, and higher ISO’s have been a blessed release.

    • If I were you – and I think you understand yourself perfectly well already – I’d be loading the budget towards printing, consumables and the output end of the workflow. I’m already heavily invested in that direction because of client requirements and personal interest, but I’m also fortunate enough to have access to a great printer within 15min drive of where I live – so no need to have a big Epson sitting at home.

      It occurred to me on a flight home yesterday that if I were to stop shooting commercially, I’d probably choose to work with very different hardware. As much as I like the H system’s resolution and overall performance, carrying that kind of weight is rather unpleasant. In fact, it would probably land up being the 501CM, CFV and a single lens; the boxes I’d be aiming to tick would be very different: working slowly, thinking more, enjoying the tactile process as much as the output.

      • Martin Fritter says:

        Well said. The people whose photography I find important: their subjects chose them. Photography does attract – or create – monomaniacs, of course. But so do the other arts.

        Btw, do you moderate these posts? This may be the most civilized place on the Internet.

        • That could be argued for all arts I think: we create because something drives us to.

          Moderation: nope – as with all communities, dominant elements generally set the tone, and I think we got lucky 🙂

          • Martin Fritter says:

            We try to create. If we’re lucky we succeed from time to time. Photography is especially prone to the hamster-wheel of mechanical – now digital – reproduction. Even the greats get are subject – Winogrand left hundreds (thousands?) of undeveloped rolls when he died, having become immersed in process of shooting, seemingly for its own sake.

            • I often wonder about his motivations – it would drive me mad not being able to see what I shot, to know if I manage what I intended…

  38. Reasonable piece. And, I do not think that you will be burned at the stake for writing it as it is often touched upon in photo forums. Unfortunately, I think that we, and the camera manufacturers are, to a certain degree, products of our times. It seems that many companies making electronic products or software are just looking to get tot he next iteration as fast as possible. Little time is spent fine tuning a product because everybody is afraid that their competitor is going to beat them to the market with their next generation product. To some degree, we do benefit from newer technologies, but I am not sure how much is game changing, and how urgent we need that next new or improved feature.

    It also seems that craftsmanship in products is somewhat a thing of the past. And even things that are well designed and crafted are not expected to be used or kept for any significant length of time. Once batteries are no longer available for a product, it becomes a paperweight. People kept Leica M3’s and Nikon F’s for years, even decades, because they were well designed and well made products that could still be used to shoot films. Today, I still have my beloved D300, but any potential for “vintage” status is greatly limited by battery and memory card availability. The moment that either are no longer available or supported is the day that it’s “vintage” value starts falling off the cliff. It is somewhat a sign of the times that we live in, whether we like it or not.

    When I look for timeless designs and pride of craftsmanship in photo products that will last me for years, I look to my bags. I am partially kidding and partially serious. Some of my Domke bags are 25 years old (and still going strong), and my Tom Bihn bags are made in his own local factory by his own staff.

    I think that deep down we would all find some common ground with this post, but I also believe that life can be quite taxing, and that we find some enjoyment in treating ourselves. How to convince folks that there are other treats, that are possibly more meaningful that buying new products, is a whole other question.


    • You bring up some very, very good points: both on craftsmanship, quality and a general decay in the face of corporate greed and consumerism. Perversely, I suspect the opposite is true: a really high quality product will sell better than a fast and cheap one. Watches are a very good example of this…

      On the other hand, buying something because of underlying emotional motivations – because you like it want it – is perfectly fine and completely different to buying it because you think it’s going to make up for one’s own education or skill shortcomings…

  39. Ming, thank you – another thoughtful and thought provoking article. As you say, there is a definite steep curve of diminishing returns as you move up the gear scale.

    As you have previously noted the concept of the shooting envelope comes in play here too, in what you need to achieve the result, to have the necessary flexibility/envelope to complete the photography you are trying to achieve.

    I think there is another envelope that comes into play here too – the photographer skills envelope. If someone has a low skill level, then no matter how good the gear, there is going to be a limit to what can be achieved photographically. Conversely, someone very highly skilled photographically with the most appropriate gear for the shooting style, issues and envelope, should be able to achieve consistently high quality results.

    Where I have ‘landed’ recently is what you have noted in this article – I have a better appreciation of what type of photography I enjoy, the equipment appropriate to that photography, and the skill level I am currently deploying. Shall we just say the gear I have is more that adequate and appropriate. My skills on the other hand will benefit from more learning, and much improvement.

    • No question – to be blunted, most people are heavily skill limited, and don’t come anywhere close to maximizing what they’ve got – let alone what they covet. To paraphrase a certain Greek philosopher: knowing thyself has a lot to do with the intended outcome of happiness…

  40. All completely true and rational… if you measure everything backwards from a logical endpoint — the output (print, etc). But then almost no buys a Ferrari after a ‘needs assessment’. 😉 Given the consistent limitations of traffic lights, etc, the answer has almost always been Ford Mondeo (or market/time equivalent). I know that like most people, with a few hundred dollars I could buy something that meets my photographic needs and exceeds my photographic skills.

    On another tangent… someone asked me recently if I had found my watch to be accurate. I said I didn’t actually know… whenever I *really* needed to know the time I looked at my phone. 😉

    • Well, you might *need* to compensate or show off…but then I suppose one had other issues.

      As for watches – spoken like somebody who didn’t wear a watch for a while and then only picked it up recently. I’ve always worn a watch as long as I can remember, and checking the phone for time is completely *not* intuitive for me.

  41. Charles Millen says:

    I love gear as much as the next person, but I frequently ask myself what I actually need to get the results I’m after. Because of this I think I am far better off financially and creatively, I don’t get derailed from my goals and don’t get distracted by keeping up or shooting to current trends. I don’t have a cupboard full of gear (it’s half full!) and I’m yet to be convinced of a digital alternative to 4×5. If I had the financial means I would be pretty tempted to go for a 100mp digital back though!

    • I don’t think there is a complete digital alternative to 4×5: you can match the resolution but not the rendering, perspectives and technical movements…

      • Charles Millen says:

        Do you think the technology will ever be available for a 4×5 sized sensor Ming? I understand that currently the technology isn’t there and that the market would be very small indeed when compared to FF and MF, so who would bother?

        • The technology exists: but the costs are just always going to be proportionally that much higher because of sensor yields and wafer sizes.

  42. kris riley says:

    I’m glad you said this. I used to chase the idea that if I got this lens or this camera that my images would be where I wanted them to be. I have slowed down and went to film and set my digital down the last couple years. I have found photography to be fun again.

    • Small but important distinction: stop *when you feel you hit the limit of your own requirements* – anything before will probably still be frustrating.


    I think the frustrated parties you’re talking about are experiencing Peter Pan syndrome. They are refusing to accept that the age of digital photography is all grown up now and that this competitive nitpicking of differences is a teenage obsession. Moreover, it’s now become a defense mechanism, a hipsterish way to stay in Neverland to avoid dissonant thoughts. Thoughts like, “what if my neighbor with his iPhone can take better pictures than me with the best camera money can buy? What does that say about my skill and talent? What does it say about my significance as a person? How can I go on calling myself an expert photographer when I no longer have the advantage of gear expertise to hide behind?

    • Seeking to differentiate by association instead of merit? It’s really indirectly admitting there’s no merit 🙂

      • JASON A WATERHOUSE says:

        I think it’s about procrastination or dissonance. Researching and buying new gear is a way to avoid criticism, practice and a way to always have an excuse. Now those excuses don’t work anymore.

        • Arguably, they haven’t worked for a long time; but there’s more of a ‘support group’ for it now, which has made things worse…

  44. This is brilliant. I like the Ferrari example a lot. That’s exactly why I drive a Hyundai I10, in Germany, mind you. No speed limits on Autobahns – and still, I hardly ever leave Berlin.

    • And, hardly ever leaving Berlin, what do you shoot with? And why?
      I’m enjoying myself with my old em5 first generation since a few years now. Mostly nature. It gets in the way a bit in low- and harsh light situations. DR, of course, and a small 3/4 format. Adapting to hardware can be frustrating some times. I even put the camera away for a while. But then I remembered I got in the game for having fun and picked it up again. I know what it can do by now and I’m enjoying… And when it becomes financially possible, I’ll know why I’m upgrading, quickly start using the new found freedom, evolve and maybe start outgrowing the hardware on one or two details again. And that’s partly why I love this beautiful game …

      • Trading up makes sense only when you can deploy the difference – otherwise, the old adage about ignorance, bliss and all that…

      • I kept using my age-old Minolta SLR, as long as there was no digitalisation. And a Hasselblad 500C (Which now sits in the cellar in tis case). Later I went through a row of snap-shoot little digital ones (Kodak, Sony and so on) – not much fun. Two years back I decided for a bridge Sony – and am halfway ok with it. It’s capacitiy for true colours is somewhat limited, but otherwise, it suits my low key needs. I need some documentary pics for work, mostly sports. For private use, I just take pictures of anything looking interesting. Whenever I can find the time – which is seldom the case….

    • I like the idea of a Ferrari, but even in the unlikely event finances permit – I realize I don’t actually want the drama that goes with one…

  45. Probably one of the most honest essays on the status of vast majority of amateur photographer, and yes, you will be hated/debated/scorned. I admire you for that Ming
    I have a Hasselblad and a bunch of lenses neatly tucked away somewhere… have not touched it for years, not since I no longer get paid to photograph.
    I have no desire to schlep that mother around anymore and have liberated myself from the limitations of that format, mainly because so bulky and yes: too-much-tool for the job.
    For me is now Micro 4/3: the joke of just about any wannabe pro (and a couple of professionals as well)
    I no longer lust for that perceived quality that, as you said, can not be seen unless one prints, big, very big
    And when I do print from my “toy camera” I like what I see, honestly. I don’t bring my nose right up to the print and say… ah, I can see noise here. I observe the print at the distance that was intended to be viewed, anything else is being an insufferable snob.
    Of course, if I had to shoot for a client, things probably could be different, but only because most clients are ignorant

    • Fortunately, I’ve reached a point in my own photographic journey that I no longer care about what the forums think – life is too short. 🙂

      As for M4/3: I used it plenty for pro work when the needs did not involve specific resolution requirements…


  1. […] going to offer an alternative point of view to several of my posts from earlier this year (namely, this one on diminishing returns; this one on finding the right camera and moving on; this one on ideal formats for a given creative […]

  2. […] via Diminishing returns and cutoff points — Ming Thein | Photographer […]

  3. […] via Diminishing returns and cutoff points — Ming Thein | Photographer […]

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