This weekend I got an email similar to ones I receive on a regular basis. It used to be that I had a pretty stock answer to this type of email query. Today? I'm not so sure. Maybe it's the mood I'm in this morning, but more likely my gut is sending me early warning signals that things are changing and so should my advice.
"Thom: I'm entering into the final year in my college photography program and I've been given money to invest in equipment that I'll use in my photographic career. What should I buy?"
Normally, this email comes with the usual "Canon versus Nikon" question. For the record, my answer on that part of the question isn't "Nikon" but rather "both make fine systems that have some different nuances to them. I don't recommend jumping one way or the other because today one company has the best sensor (or the one with the most megapixels), but rather because you've examined the full system and evaluated how that would fit into your intended career."
Obviously, I had just published my Whither Nikon? article when the email came in, but I should point out that I could have also written a just-as-tough Whither Canon? article, too. Thing is, I believe we're near a crossroads in camera gear, and what happens next isn't entirely clear for quite a few reasons.
Implicit in the query is another problem: how does one graduating as a still photography student make money in the future? What jobs will they be taking, with whom, and how will their images bring them money?
Let me illustrate with an example from the past.
Galen Rowell made his reputation and money by putting cameras in places they hadn't been before: on the sides of cliffs; on glaciers and high peaks being climbed if not for the first time, at least for one of the first times; and even in "known" locales finding locations where photographers had never quite gotten to before.
There's still money to be made in this game, and it's a young person's game (Galen's feats into his sixties not withstanding). Not as much money, to be sure, and you have to be even more aggressive in stretching when and where you go doing this kind of true adventure photography. So what's the best camera for this type of work?
Might it now be an Olympus E-M1? After all, Galen was doing those adventure landscapes with a camera thought to be too small in capture area in his time (35mm film versus medium format used by most other landscape shooters). The E-M1 is better weather-proofed than the standard Canon/Nikon offerings, smaller, lighter, has great small/light lens choices to match, and is very competent, after all.
The safe choice, of course, is to just counsel people to buy the stuff that all the pros have been using (e.g. Canon or Nikon full frame DSLR with the standard trio of zooms, maybe a prime or two). But a two-body Nikon solution with the 14-200mm f/2.8 zooms is US$15,000 these days, and that's before any accessories like cards and extra batteries and flash and who knows what. (By way of comparison, an OM-1 based package would be <US$7000, though the wide angle zoom is f/4 and the smaller sensor coupled with f/2.8 m4/3 lenses means you are going to be giving up low light performance compared to the FX set, all else equal.) But let's put together a really full package for that aspiring pro, with virtually everything they need to be turnkey out the door after they graduate: US$30,000.
What gave me pause this weekend was whether those sums would really would be a wise investment for someone starting out these days.
Now, if that same student were asking about video gear for their future career, my answer might be a bit different. The video world is constrained by a couple of fairly low bars: HD (1080P/30 basically) and the emerging 4K (which would be 2160P/30). We're still basically using the same lens sets in video (mostly PL mount, but you can adapt most video gear to Canon EF or Nikon F easily enough). B-roll, auxiliary, and dramatic angle shooting can be done easily enough with relatively inexpensive things like GoPros or the BlackMagic Pocket Cinema. I can imagine coming up with several variations a graduating video student might find useful early in their career, though my tendency would be to say "buy two BlackMagics, a couple of lenses, a GoPro or two plus maybe a MacBook Pro with FCP and some fast external drives" and then rent anything bigger you need on a case by case basis. In other words: invest in gear with which you can quickly practice, prototype, and build sample reels with, but keep your Big Job gear to a minimum until you're regularly getting those jobs. Still, if they were sure that they were going to "go for the big time," it's still easy enough to configure for them a full 4K system that'll keep them competitive for some time and not likely lead them down any competitive dead ends.
Still, I'm hesitating about whether the same is still true for budding still photographers. Oh, I can recommend a practice, prototype, samples package easily enough. Exactly what that comprises would depend a lot on where the student thought they're headed visually (sports, nature, adventure, wildlife, portrait, photo journalism, etc.). But the days of just saying "buy the best Canon/Nikon pro gear" feels like they may be ending to me. The likelihood that a Canon 2Dx or Nikon D5 takes a slightly different direction than where we've been is getting higher. To stand out visually in stills isn't about just using the same old gear everyone else is using, either.
Now, it may turn out that the next generation of still gear keeps the lenses and just moves the camera forward (e.g. mirrorless design, more fps, more pixels, better AF, etc.), in which case part of a full package I recommend to that student would turn out to still be in their gear locker a few years from now. Still, I think the potential for disruption is actually fairly high right now, and it's no longer safe making the traditionally safe choices.
Last week I wrote that people were wrongly thinking of D600's as investments. A photography student with a one-time windfall to "invest" needs to really make sure that however they use that money really does have a bigger potential payoff down the line. I'm starting to think that buying a smaller, versatile set of less expensive gear is the right answer: use the extra money to make sure that they're taking plenty of images (practice and sampling, especially developing a unique style) and that their best images are being seen by as many as possible is a better investment, I think.
So I'm going to ask my questioner a few more questions about where they're at and what they see themselves doing in the future, with a point towards trying to understand how they think they're going to get from Point A to Point B. I'm guessing that "which gear" is the least of their problems.