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.