Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Equipment Envy

I don't know very many photographers who don't suffer from this problem. There might be a few who come from an arts background, but certainly amongst hobbyists, there is no such thing as too much.

I have a friend who has a sticker on the fridge - "he who dies with the most toys and still married, wins" and some have been known to not worry too much about staying married when it comes to feeding their 'habit'.

There are several aspects to this problem. There's the 'I like shiny new toys' syndrome and it probably wouldn't matter whether it was a new pda, cell phone, power tool or camera, they'd all provide the same temporary fix. As this doesn't really relate to taking photographs, I will ignore it particularly as I don't have a fix for it (suffering, as I do, from the condition (as do many males and some females too).

More important though is the syndrome of "if I had a better camera, I could take better pictures, the corrollary of which is - to take pictures as good as Ansel Adams, I need to use a large format camera - even if it is completely unsuited to my style, my skills and my personality, not to mention what I photograph. There are people out there who do street photography with 8X10's but except for a very few (Nicholas Nixon is one), you seldom hear from them.

So, you are convinced that better equipment would go a long way to solving the problems you are having with your images. Let's look at that premise and see where it goes.

Let's imagine that we are currently photographing with a) a 40 year old Pentax with screw mount lenses (of which we have three - inherited from our uncle, or b) we have a used Sony 707, purchased from our best friend when he 'upgraded to a DSLR, c) we have a first generation digital Rebel, 6 MP camera with it's so so kit zoom, or d) someone like myself with a Canon 1Ds2, already an absurdly expensive camera who oggles medium format backs at $40,000+ even though Hell would freeze over before my wife would let me make such a purchase. In each case the photographer desperately wants something better so he can take better pictures. All four feel the same angst, to the same degree, even though their current equipment and possibly budgets are radically different. How can it be that four people with such different equipment could all have the same 'issues'?

The four photographers make similar arguements - the pictures would be better, sharper, more detailed, larger, sexier, more impressive and somehow more like Ansel Adams (substitute your favourite photographer here).

So, what if we put some fairly strict limits on prints we are going to have in an exhibition. Each of the four photographers is told that he may exhibit a series of 5X7 prints. Let's assume that all four are landscape photographers so their equipment needs aren't all that different and issues like camera speed and long zooms are not pertinent.

Lets further stir the pot by also inviting to this exhibition three of your favourite photographers who you really admire.

So, the obvious question is: could you tell who took which photographs? Obviously I've set up the test so that you couldn't tell based on camera equipment - all four photographers have equipment capable of some darn nice detailed and sharp 5X7 prints. Likely the work of the experts would shine through in their expert printing, superb composition and selection of interesting material shown in ideal lighting.

Ok you say, but who wants to limit ourselves to 5X7 prints - well gee, there are quite a few photographers running around with 5X7 inch cameras making nothing but contact prints so they do.

Right, but 5X7 is pretty small and doesn't even take advantage of the smallest inkjet printers at 8.5X11.
OK, the old Pentax has no problems here, none of the DSLR's hesitate to produce really nice images at this size. The fellow with the 5 MP used 707 is straining a bit but he knows about stitching and has seen the lovely work by Max Lyons (some of the early work done with an old Nikon 990) so he takes four images of everything, in a square, with about 1/3 overlap. After all, he's a landscape photographer and it doesn't take long with a simple camera like this to fire off four images. Now his 8X10 prints look every bit as good as all the others, professionals included - at least technically.

We could carry on this scenario to larger and larger prints but the point is that many photographers in the wet darkroom days had no print trays or easels bigger than 8X10 and that's the biggest print they ever made, and were prefectly happy.

Just because it's possible to make really big prints doesn't necessarily mean you should, or for that matter,convince yourself you need to.

The only reason to make big prints (which you probably can't afford to get framed anyway) is because you can get some other poor sucker to buy them and let him pay for the frame, and if you are not selling your work (regularly), then the large prints is mostly an ego thing and just to prove that you can.

Large prints cost a lot to make, a lot to frame, they take up a lot of wall space (thus leaving less space for other photographs). They demand expensive equipment and perfect technique, tripods and optimum apertures, cable releases and slow e.i.'s.

Three of the four photographers can't see any difference in the quality of the prints and the fourth has a relatively painless workaround (stitching) to keep him in the game. So, really, it can't possibly be equipment that is limiting the photographers - it has to be the guy pushing the button. That's really depressing - sure would be a lot easier to upgrade equipment than photographer, not to mention it's a lot easier on the ego to blame the equipment.

Ansel Adams shot large format so he could make the gigantic prints 30X40 and up which he sold often enough to justify the trouble he took hauling 4X5's and 8X10's around. Hell, he even had his own burro. Ever suggest your wife haul your tripod to the top of the pass? didn't think so. (actually there are couples who work as a team but that doesn't count).

Well, it's true that better cameras have more features but features never take pictures - mostly they just make life easier - so how easy did you really need it?

Mirror lock is nice but I shot for 20 years without it - self timers can even replace cable releases (that's what I did on my 707). I might envy someone with a 100-400 zoom for $2000 but consider, there are not a a lot of landscapes shot with a 400, and besides, ever carry one of those suckers.

I've always discounted the inexpensive 75-300 zoom by Canon but I have seen winners in magazine contests shot with it - how many contests have you won lately?) Makes you think.

I still remember an episode of Father Knows Best from my young childhood in which the son bemoaned the quality of his trumpet, begging Dad for a better one. A guest appeared (Al Hirt?) who of course took the junk trumpet and created beautiful music with it. Do we really doubt that if Ansel, Edward, Paul, Bruce, John or any of the other greats grabbed our equipment, they couldn't make it sing? Damn right they could.

If I had a choice between some wonderful 8X10's which could never be made larger and some so so 13X19's which could, there's little doubt I'd go for the 8X10's. Most of us have probably never seen really large prints by our favourite photograhers anyway, seeing the images only in so so mechanical reproduction in magazines and books, at sizes rarely larger than 8.5X11 (and often much smaller) yet we still drool over their work and still dream of better equipment with which to equal them - yeah, right.

So that's the common sense. Unfortunately our hearts aren't listening, and we still drool over better equipment. It's human nature - drive a nice car long enough and you start oggling nicer, faster, sexier cars. And lest you think this is a male only issue, let me ask if a Gucci purse really holds more?

Truth is that for 99% of us, our equipment already exceeds our ability. Hmmn, wonder how much a photographer upgrade costs?

1 comment:

Gary Nylander said...

Yes its quite true about what youy have posted, but I love getting new gear! but I am also happy with what I have, I also have the good forunte to work for a newspaper that provides me with my camera gear ( a double bonus ! ). For my personal work I have been using the same gear for the past 15 years or so and my main lens for my 4 x 5 is a 120mm Schnieder I have owned for twenty years.