More Than Enough

You never know what is enough, until you know what is more than enough. ~William Blake

This rant (and it is exactly that) is as close to a gear-related post as you will find in my writings. I deliberately omitted brand and model names, because to me they are not important, and because I don’t quite understand why some are moved to tribal allegiance to such things. A tool is a tool: it should work in a way that is practical and intuitive, and otherwise stay out of the way. The logo imprinted on it, doesn’t serve any purpose for me.

I remember a time when getting a new camera was exciting to a point of keeping me awake at night in anticipation. That has not happened in a long time. Today, shopping for a camera feels like visiting a used-car lot to purchase a vehicle, along with the same relief when it’s finally over and I can refocus my attention on putting the thing to use. In truth, I have become bored with cameras. In recent years, I’ve also become annoyed with cameras.

Purchasing a new camera, to me, is something I do reluctantly, and only by necessity. Cameras used to have clearly-labeled buttons and dials—this one sets the aperture, this one sets the shutter speed, and so on. Switching from one camera to another was a matter of getting used to some slight variation in the controls that do pretty much the same thing on all cameras. No longer. Buying a new camera today involves the never-pleasant ordeal of figuring out how to set up the new camera like the old one—a task that camera manufacturers seem intent on making progressively more complex and unintuitive.

My work requires the same camera controls it always has. In the digital age, that means I need to know how to put the camera in aperture priority mode, or in manual mode, how to make it capture RAW files, how to set the ISO, how to move the focus point, how to put it in self-timer mode, how to display the histogram, and… well, that’s pretty much it. And I need these controls to be quick, easy, and intuitive to access, without digging through menus and trying to remember which squishy and cryptically-labeled little button I configured to do functions that should have had dedicated controls to begin with.

I don’t mind that cameras do so many other things than the simple function of capturing still images; but I do mind that, in order to accommodate all those things I don’t need, the things I do need have become harder and/or less intuitive to use; more prone to misconfiguration; more automated and complex than they need to be, etc. In the words of Sherry Turkle, “We do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating.”

My first response when my “professional grade” camera failed recently was annoyance. I finally got everything configured (to the degree possible) the way I wanted it. My next thought was a more positive one: this is an opportunity to find a camera that gets the few simple functions I need, right.

As is my habit, I purchased a former-generation used camera in good condition. Of the reasons for this habit, perhaps primary is that I despise consumerism. Another reason I don’t bother with the latest-and-greatest is that, in practical terms, there’s a certain level of performance and quality I need for my work, and that level was met (and exceeded) by many entry-level digital models, more than a decade ago.

When it comes to the elusive concern of “image quality,” my credo is simple: if a viewer can’t tell the difference when looking at a print, let alone a book or a web image, all options are of equal quality. I don’t care about the specifications of top-of-the-line cameras for the same reason I don’t care about the horsepower and torque statistics of the latest Lamborghini. While perhaps anecdotally interesting, to me, these specs serve no practical purpose, and, all things considered, there’s no shortage of things to occupy my mind with, that I find considerably more useful and interesting.

More important, as a photographic artist whose raw materials are experiences and the natural landscape, the two phases in my process that offer me the greatest room for creative expression—composition and processing—have little-to-nothing to do with what camera I use. I just need a camera that can function reliably in the sometimes-inclement conditions I work in. This is the primary reason I end up spending extra money on such features as metal construction and weather-sealing.

And so, in replacing my former camera, I have proudly taken another step “backward” to eliminate needless “quality” for the greater virtues of simplicity and robustness. My former camera was a “cropped sensor” model. My new (used, older model) camera has an even smaller sensor; and the few features it has that I need, are simpler and easier to access than its predecessor’s, thanks to a considerably-less-cluttered user interface. It also has fewer megapixels than my previous camera (and that camera had fewer megapixels than the one it replaced).

With few unintended exceptions, I don’t know what cameras were used in the making of those works I consider as masterpieces of the photographic medium. I am referring here to those photographs that, when I look at them, I don’t need to study their technical qualities; I can feel their effect in my gut—I can almost breathe them. Nearly all these photographs fall short in their technical qualities when compared with the digital pyrotechnics I see in great abundance every day, and that impress me far less. In the words of Minor White, “I’m always and forever looking for the image that has spirit! I don’t give a damn how it got made.”

I still print photographs made with older cameras having 80-90% fewer pixels than current top-of-the-line models, and as I work on these files, it never seems to me that more pixels would make them in any meaningful way, “better.” Some photographs in my catalog (even some that hang in galleries) were made with pocketable “point-and-shoot” cameras. Can you tell which ones they are? I didn’t think so.

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7 thoughts on “More Than Enough

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  1. I’ve been saying all that you wrote for a decade. I have friends that got caught up in the megapixel wars, and as far as I can tell, it didn’t make their images any better than before. In the end, it only made them poorer for their efforts.

    I recently ‘upgraded’ my 12 year old camera from full frame to micro four thirds to save weight. I gained 4 mp but now only have 2 lenses for a combined 3 1/2 pounds. I have weather sealing on all three pieces, less bells and whistles to deal with, and couldn’t be happier.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. Wish you well Guy!

  2. I remember hearing you state in a podcast interview that finding a system that works for you, and sticking with it until it breaks down (or words to that effect), will liberate you in a deep way. I think your point was that using a system like this becomes second nature and you can stop worrying about upgrading or falling prey to gear acquisition syndrome. I think we all know this intuitively, but it takes some discipline to resist the longing for an upgrade.

    I shudder when I think of how many cameras I bought and sold over the years for no good reason. Fortunately I put an end to that a few years ago. Now I find myself having downgraded from a full frame DSLR to a lightweight, cropped sensor, mirrorless system with a few zooms and I love it. I can hold almost the entire kit in one hand and there is no difference in the raw files compared to its full frame predecessors. “Full frame,” I’ve come to learn, is largely an advertising concept designed to make photographers feel that their smaller sensor cameras are inadequate. I also discovered recently that I can print beautiful 13 x 19 photographs off of my phone, which means I have 2 perfectly adequate, smaller sensor cameras at my disposal.

  3. Good read, Guy. As someone who got caught up with the gear too much for a while, I can say it only led to annoyance and dissatisfaction and wasted time away from the creative process. And ultimately an older and simpler model was one that provided more excitement to get creative again!

  4. Good read Guy. I wish young photographers could learn about these things from the beginning.

    As to complement your ideas, here’s an extract from an interview with Freeman Patterson (although I find the word “freaks” a bit derogative but I’m sure you will get the point):

    “Equipment and technique freaks aren’t photographers either. They’re technicians. What I’m saying is that getting out of a rut requires a shift of focus from photographic hardware and software to considering thoughtfully why you are doing what you are doing. Why are you in the wilderness anyway? What does it do for you? Are you escaping from work, family, your daily life? Or, are you there because what lives and happens in wilderness stirs your soul? If you want to get out of a rut, then it’s important to stop obsessing about “how to do it” and to start considering “why you do it,” to start asking seriously what really matters to you.”


  5. Every time I come across a description of a camera I might like it turns out they stopped making it years ago.
    I agree the new offerings are all flash and no dash; a confusing mess of ‘features’ that most people will never use presented in a package that’s as far from intuitive as can be.

  6. I was all revved up to get the new Canon mirrorless, replacing my crop sensor camera. Someone generously offered to let me compare files from my camera with files from the new camera, which he had (sorta). We set up side by side and took shots of a few different scenes, I went home and loaded them both on the computer, couldn’t see a difference. This was good for two reasons – got rid of the urge to upgrade, and now I don’t feel like – man, this picture is good, but if I just had a better camera it would really be something. So yeah, I think cameras have reached a level where for most purposes, most cameras are more than adequate.

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