YOU ARE HERE : FINAL VERSION
This week I would like to discuss Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS), a common malady among photographers and hobbyists of all types. I participated in a discussion over a Chanukah meal the other night over whether a ninth kayak purchase by my friend's son was merely idiosyncratic or downright insane. This conversation seemed particularly apt during the holiday season, although most camera gear is expensive enough that most purchases are made for ourselves. Like most hobbies with expensive toys, it is difficult to resist the feeling that you are just one purchase away from your true photographic destiny. Which is not to say that modern, even vintage image-making technology, is nothing short of miraculous. Most of us have only a hazy idea of how our equipment actually works, and epochal changes like film to digital are muddied by the vintage terms still used to describe new processes that have little to do with their analog forbears.
LAN-SU BAMBOO B&W : FINAL VERSION
Take ISO for instance. Formerly an obscure international measurement of film sensitivity, which no one understood even back in the days of film, it was printed on the film box and that was that. Over the years, new chemical formulations made it possible to produce speedier films, and ISO 25 was joined by 64, 100, 200, 400,1600, and even 3200 before digital replaced it all. We weren't even fazed by the "competing" ASA which meant the same thing but was determined by a different international cabal. Since the rating was printed on the box, it was considered a given until professionals realized that it was just a "suggestion", and they began to push or pull film for various reasons that required extra payment to the labs if they weren't doing it themselves. It actually became a "pro secret" to under-rate your film, let's say from 100 to 64, which just increased its saturation a bit by underexposing it. In fact, the ISO of your film only really affected two things - the amount of grain in your photos, and the contrast of the negatives. Some people liked grain, or at least tolerated it, as the price to be paid to take photos in lower and lower lighting conditions.
DROVE MY CHEVY TO THE LEVEE : FINAL VERSION
The digital revolution came, and chemistry was overtaken by electronics and computer technology. But how were we to describe how sensitive the digital sensor was to light, especially now that we could change that sensitivity on the fly? Somehow ISO was retained, even though it now longer connected in any way to its origins. Which is not to say that more sensitive sensors did allow even lower light levels than ever, which did open up more opportunities for niche pursuits like astro-photography or police stakeouts. But why are we still talking about ISO 100 or 102,000 (not kidding), even when the basic rules have changed enough that we now have to teach the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) instead of just aperture and shutter speed? Even though sensor noise doesn't have the vintage charm of film grain, and we can successfully eliminate most of it in post processing?
MAPLE AND BRICK WALL : FINAL VERSION
Obsolete terms continue to exist because people hate change even when they are embracing it, and they still have to somehow communicate basic concepts. The trouble is that while the machines are more and more sophisticated, the concepts don't really change that much. A camera is a light-tight box which contains a flat plane that is somehow sensitive to light. The lens at the front regulates how much light that plane receives by changing the size of the hole (aperture) or how quickly it opens and closes (shutter speed). If this seems too simple, imagine how hard it is to sell you a new version of this device. Unlike automobiles, it is hard to say how a new camera will have any attraction to the opposite sex.
DICKENS - ONE THING WAS FOR CERTAIN... : FINAL VERSION
Yet GAS is still a problem because photography is a technological wonder, and people, even photographers themselves, can think that new and improved gear, even if only marginally, will have an impact on the images they eventually produce. Once in a generation change can be obscured by subtle improvements that mean little or nothing to 99% of photographers. This is only compounded by the public's misunderstanding of the relationship between the photographer and his or her equipment. You might be amazed at how many of my customers, even while graciously complementing my images, declare that I "must have a very nice camera."
SOUTH PARK BLOCKS : FINAL VERSION
Of course I have a very nice camera. It is nearly exactly what I need to take the type of photos that I take, even though it might not meet your needs at all. Some of its capabilities are in fact way beyond I need myself. While it was near state of the art when I bought it, that was 14 years ago; without me paying much attention, Canon has "improved" it at least a dozen times since. Most of my customers enter my booth with "better" cameras than the one that I own. It doesn't matter. It really doesn't.
FIAT : FINAL VERSION
And that is not because I am some idiot savant who triumphs over his outdated equipment. Newer cameras have improved, but only marginally as far as my needs require. Given unlimited funds, and nothing else to buy, of course I could justify a newer camera, or more lenses, or some new accessory - but I realized long ago that my images would probably only marginally improve, if at all.
FLOUR ON BROADWAY : FINAL VERSION
I take photographs of things that are usually far away, do not move, and do not talk back. Thus I need a longer lens than most people, but I don't need to take 10 photos a second because buildings hopefully don't move. I don't have to have a lens that will separate the supermodel from the creamy out-of-focus background; my urban landscapes usually require as exact a focus as I can achieve front to back anyway. The way to avoid GAS is to procure the photographic supplies you need for your type of photography, and to avoid new purchases only if they are obviously revolutionary or will allow you to do something new. I own a Canon 50D. There is a Canon 90D, four generations later, plus some other numbers they slipped in when people forgot that we were supposed to go by tens. Then Canon went full-frame, which meant they made sensors as big as old 35mm film. There are about half a dozen of those models. Then Canon finally reacted to market forces and went mirrorless, and another half dozen of generations have passed. The total result has basically been an increase in ISO range, an increase in megapixels, and the advent of better stabilization in camera.
VESPAS : FINAL VERSION
My camera will go to 1600 ISO. Newer cameras will go to 512,000 ISO, but that's only for photos so noisy that the only suitable subject would be First Contact - nobody would look at anything else that noisy. Yes, they can be used at 128,000 instead of just 1600, but for best results you should still stay less than 400 anyway. My camera has only 18 megapixels instead of 50, but I can already produce prints that are beautiful at sizes that my customers cannot possibly afford. While better stabilization reduces the need for a tripod, I know I still need one to achieve the sharpness that only a tripod will produce. My one lens is very sharp, thank you, has been improved only once, and its zoom range equivalent is just what I need - about 50 at the short end, 200 at the long end. 50 is a lot wider than I used to have, while the difference between 200 and 300 is marginal. I own three other lenses, all of which are broken and would cost more to repair than to buy new versions, which I do not need. My lens has stabilization in the lens, which I consider crucial at telephoto lengths, so I don't absolutely require a stabilized body.
DOES THIS MAKE ME LOOK FAT? : FINAL VERSION
Your needs might be totally different, and I would be surprised if they were not. Sports or birds require much longer lenses to "be in the game." Subjects that move benefit from more frames per second. Portraits, especially in the environment, require faster lenses and benefit from full frame sensors. Street photographers require cameras that are much smaller and less conspicuous than mine in order to not intimidate or attract as much notice.
ECO-TRUST : FINAL VERSION
The important thing is to get what you need, and leave it at that. The real evil of GAS is that almost anything else you could spend money or time in an effort to take better photos is much better than new equipment once you have the equipment you need. A photo class, a photo book, whether how-to or just a monograph of a similar minded great photographer, even a you tube video (no gear reviews) will be much better paths to actually improve your photography. As will a vacation. And the most useful thing you can do is go out and take pictures or work on post-processing. It's called practice. Aren't you better than when you first picked up a camera? How did that happen?
DONUTS + COFFEE : FINAL VERSION
It also depends on what you are used to. We all hate change. I picked Canon many years ago because all things being equal, and they are, I liked their logo better than Nikon's. The newer cameras are smaller, but I have big hands, and many of the new cameras are actually too small for me. I would have to buy the extenders, which of course they sell, just to use the camera which would then be closer in size to what I have now. I am one of the few people who actually benefit from the extended grip that allows me to take vertical shots (most people don't) without contorting myself into knots. Once you buy that extra grip, who cares how small the camera is? Even if you forgo the tripod, which you know you should have taken, and substitute a one-legged monopod, (think of pros on the sidelines at football games), who cares what your camera weighs if you routinely attach a one-pound weight to it? And speaking of weight, that's mostly due to metal versus plastic, which directly relates to cost and durability and how much you abuse your tools. As does ability to withstand the weather. If like most sane people, your idea of fun is not taking pictures outside in the rain, then why do you need a tank of a camera that can handle those conditions? When I bought my camera all those years ago I could have saved $1000, bought a Canon with the same specifications but not quite as robust. Considering how I abuse my camera, I would have replaced it twice in the ensuing years.
SUNFLOWER : FINAL VERSION
So as usual, buy what you like, but if you complain, you must explain. And yes, some photography does require special prices for admission. If you want to take very long exposures, you will need that tripod and neutral density filters (sunglasses for your camera) that will slow down the lenses you spent good money on to be fast. If you want to take better flower portraits you will need a macro lens, OR you could just use your phone, which will take better flower pictures than my camera unless I do buy that $1000 lens. By the way, none of the images in this essay, like them or not, required any better equipment than what they were taken with, and would not look any different at these sizes no matter what camera I owned. Do you really think that most of these images have more to do with my camera than my particular way of seeing and responding to the world around me?
SHOP 'TIL YOU DROP : FINAL VERSION
I just picked up an old book at the free library around the corner. "This Is Photography" dates from 1947, and except for the "glamour" shots that hint at what my father saw in my mother, it actually is absolutely relevant to photography 75 years later. My father's Leica was six years in the future, is still the inspiration for many of today's equipment, and is absolutely ill-suited for what I need as a photographer. Even that Leica, so state of the art that my father's camera was exactly the same as most of his photographer heroes, didn't have anything to do with the value of his photographs. Rest assured that your camera is technically superior to the vast majority of the cameras that were used to take every famous image of the past 150 years. Your gear has very little to do with your photography, as long as it works.
FRAN AND FRIEND (DAUGHTER?), LONDON 2008 : FINAL VERSION