How many channels are there on cable? How many apps are available on your smartphone or tablet? How many new cameras are coming out this fall? There are more new toys arriving on the market now than ever before, and one of the most difficult things for me is determining what new technology will make a difference to me as a professional photographer. Now, when it comes to software apps and firmware, there is no question, keep up! But with hardware, there is a big gap in the quality-versus-cost scale, and often I am gambling with the concept that very few who buy or view my work will notice the difference between what was created on old equipment versus new equipment. Having spent at least an entire calendar year of my life drum scanning film, I understand that those image files look different than those created with a DSLR. I also know how to make old film look similar to new digital files. Understanding this has helped me to realize the difference between the old and the new. I am fortunate to have a lifetime of experience that forced me to redefine my career every 10 years, and I draw from this when deciding about new equipment.
While on a trip in the High Sierras my friend Ron Werft told me he had been compelled to purchase a new Sony DSLR while in the camera store. We laughed about how victimized we become while browsing camera stores, and lose any common sense we might otherwise retain. These days new cameras are arriving on the shelves as fast as the seasons change. Of course, it is usually the salesman to blame for selling us something we don’t need! As the trip went on we were sitting around the campfire when one of us leaned back and noticed how beautiful the night sky was — it hit me like a ton of stars! He actually could justify that new Sony. I went about explaining to him he needed to test his new camera and he was thrilled to comply. We set the ISO to 3200, the aperture to a wide-open f/3.5 on his lens, and the mode to manual with the shutter speed to 30 sec. Soon we were giddy at how wonderful the images looked. The stars lit up the night sky above the trees with a faint glow of the campfire. The photo on the camera looked better than reality! I think he spent his money wisely.
We all reach times in our lives when there must be compromises made. The only way to make those compromises is by compensating, and usually on the fly. For example, when digital began competing with film, I studied color more intensely than I ever had while working with film. I also studied resolution in the hopes of determining when the quality of digital would match that of film. When Kodak introduced the first 14megapixel DSLR I was given one to test, and I hoped it was going to rival 4×5 film resolution. At that time Canon was making the 1D which was a full-size sensor, but at only 11 megapixels, it lacked the right stuff. I shot with the Kodak 14N body in the hopes it would replace my medium format film systems and maybe even my large format. But it never works quite the way we dream. The 14N body had one of the oddest issues/compromises I had ever seen, the sensor required lens profiles, which controlled improper color balance within regions of the sensor. This meant if you had the wrong lens profile, you would end up with pink, green, and yellow regions in some areas of your image. In fact, even if you had the correct lens profile there were similar color variations throughout any given image. The compromise was too great at that time to switch to digital.
The same goes for today. We all want “one” camera system that is lightweight, captures clear, high-resolution image files, a wide variety of lenses that are sharp, fast, and light. We all dream of the perfect camera, but usually end up with what we can afford. The truth is, now we can afford all we need. And there is no reason to upgrade more than every 3 years. I use this rule as a guide to keep me from buying stuff I really don’t need. For example, I have used a Canon 1Ds Mark III camera body for the past 5 years, paying for itself over and over again, as it’s lasted 2 years longer than I thought it might. Then the Nikon D800 arrived, offering new technology along with some other features my Canon did not have. I upgraded!
My other guide for self-restraint is whether a new camera offers a feature that allows me to create an image that would have otherwise been impossible. In my case, since I was using the Canon 1Ds Mark III, the increased ISO sensitivity coupled with the almost doubled resolution of the Nikon D800 became two reasons for an upgrade. The Nikon D800 has such a beautifully high-resolution sensor, that when I photograph wildlife and crop, there is still a great deal of resolution to print with. This is something the Canon 1Dx and 5D M3 do not offer. The icing on the cake for me is that the D800 has an in-camera intervalometer, something that comes in very handy for doing time lapses. I look forward to 2 and a half more good years of working with the D800……. unless Canon comes out with some camera that does something the D800 can’t!
Life is short, take pictures!