Pursuit of the Latest Gear

(commentary)

Camera buying is not rational. At least not the way it’s practiced by most. 

At the height of the Sony A7rII fan boy flame fanning I got an email from a Nikon owner who had two of the latest, greatest Nikons (one DX, one FX). OMG he wrote—well not literally, I’m trying to summarize his tone—it’s time to switch to Sony. 

Really? Is it?

I’m in a position where I could do that, but I don’t. Why? Well, let’s start with the notion of optimal collection of data: my 36mp Nikon captures 14-bit data that loses no information and produces no visual artifacts, while that 42mp Sony captures 11-bit data that can and does produce visual artifacts on high-contrast edges [now fixed on the A7rII by a firmware update, still pending on a few other recent Sony cameras]. 

At Photoshop World in August there was one instructor who pointed out that we should actually be converting the deepest bit-depth raws we can capture to 32-bit DNG for black and white work, and was able to demonstrate why and how to do just that. I’m not giving up three bits that potentially lose data; I want more bits if there’s a way to get them, and there is.

Back to our response to that photographer email: I have no problems with a user taking a step backwards in their camera gear, but only if they know that they overshot in the first place. Plenty of folk who bought a Nikon D810 don’t really need that much camera. It’s overkill for them, and I’ll give you an example of that in a bit. They’d be perfectly happy with the results from a Sony A7II (note: no r), or even a Nikon D610. 

Some of this is people thinking they’re buying a DSLR that will last them for, oh, five, six, seven, maybe even ten years, and they’re afraid of obsolescence occurring during that period and forcing them to re-buy. Uh, any DSLR or mirrorless camera on the market today would probably last you many, many years unless you underbought to your needs or end up growing significantly in capability. 

Plenty of folk that bought a D300 back in 2007 are still happily using it. Sure, they can’t shoot in as low a light with results as good as the current DSLRs, but they either didn’t need that in the first place or didn’t grow enough in their shooting to need it now. Plus, if you were shooting with a kit lens in 2007, a new fast lens can mitigate some of the D300’s current deficiencies compared to the latest and greatest gear, too. 

Of course the marketing departments at all the camera companies want you to keep buying at the front edge of technology and for you to think that if you don’t you’re going to be greatly disappointed in your photos. To a large degree the camera companies are perpetuating the “gear makes a difference” story. After all, they sell gear, and if it doesn’t make a difference they’d be out of business. 

Too many folks are spending money on the wrong thing. I’ll once again point to articles I wrote on this a long time ago. First, improve the photographer. Second, improve the support system. Third, improve the glass. Better cameras are way down the list. Why? Because you can hand the best camera in the world with the worst glass and worst tripod to the worst photographer and get what? Right: terrible results. Now hand the same set of gear to the best photographer in the world and what happens? First, they discard the support system because they can figure out another way to stabilize the camera that’s better. Second, they take darned good images because they balance the limitations of the remaining gear with what they’re trying to do.

Yes, I know we all aspire to being the greatest living photographer.

But ask yourself this question. At any given time in history did the greatest living photographer actually use the latest and greatest gear? 

Which brings me to another thing that many think: that if they use better gear than the pros did (are), then their results will be better. In other words, it’s the amateur driving a racing Ferrari hoping to beat the pro driving a stock BMW. 

You shouldn’t really be trying to “beat” anyone. You should be aspiring to create great images that reflect your view of the world. While we “serious photographers" malign the smartphone crowd from time to time, note what they’re doing with simple cameras and filter- and preset-laden processing software: they’re creating images that look the way they want them to and have impact when they share those with others. Back when Instagram was mostly used for its processing as opposed to its sharing, several publications had their pro photographers try shooting their regular work on a phone and processing it in Instagram. The resulting images were not 42mp, not deep in dynamic range, and didn’t have have absolute color fidelity. Yet the images were creative, interesting, and thought- provoking. Just as you’d expect from pros. 

Tools matter, but not as much as your brain matters. It’s your brain that’s controlling use of the tool, after all. 

I laugh when I keep reading on various blogs and fora that Canon really needs to up its sensor game because they’re so far behind Sony it’s becoming shameful. Oh, that’s why I haven’t seen any pros producing great images with Canon cameras lately. (If you can’t detect sarcasm, I’m not sure why you’re reading this site, as it’s filled with it.) 

I laugh when I keep reading on various blogs and fora that the latest sensor has just revolutionized what we can do in photography. In some cases, new technology does allow us to stretch our capabilities from where they’ve been, no doubt about that. I’ll certainly attempt to take advantage of any gains that new gear provides me. But revolutionize? Hasn’t happened with a recent sensor generation over another.

Here’s the real reason why you want more dynamic range and less noise: optimal data. With optimal data you have more ability to change overall and micro contrasts as you see fit. In the old film darkroom terms: you’re able to crop, burn, and dodge more without revealing the wizard behind the curtain. 

As it turns out, another email came in while I was writing this article, an email that illustrates a different part of the “latest gear” puzzle. In short, a new D800 user wrote in about having blur issues and wondered whether he should pursue a camera with fewer pixels to get rid of the problem.

Same answer: first and foremost, improve the photographer. (In case you’re not understanding: a 36mp image from a D800 will have the same amount of blur in it as a 12mp image from a D700 if your handholding technique is consistent. You don’t see the blur in the D700 image because either (a) when you pixel peep you’re getting data with less spatial information in it; or (b) you’ve been enlarging the D800 image more. The cameras moved the same amount, but the D800 recorded that movement better.)

In this instance, we have a common reason why some people avoid buying new gear: they’re afraid that it might force them to learn something. In which case I’d point out that it really doesn’t matter what camera those folks shoot with. If you’re not going to master your tools, then you don’t need very sophisticated tools. Indeed, you may be better off picking a tool with more automation in it (e.g. just shoot JPEG on all Auto settings).

You should enjoy taking photographs. But if you take photographs on anything more than a truly casual basis I think you should also seriously consider why you’re creating them, what you really want them to say, how you’re going to process them, and where you’re going to share them with others. 

If you consider those questions, you'll start naturally running into gear-related issues and you can research how a piece of gear might improve your work. If you’re not considering those questions, then new gear is just a random walk. It might help you, it might not, though what it does and how well it does it might be dictated to you by a mega-corporation in a far off land.

Stop buying the marketing lines. Examine your needs and desires and choose equipment that’s appropriate. Improve the photographer and make steady and considered changes in gear as you discover real ceilings to what you can do.

Oh, and send me half the money you didn’t spend because you read this. ;~)


  

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