By Chris Stump | Opinion
Who, I wonder to myself, is buying these new cameras and lenses and, again, why?
Are they more capable? Depends on your definition. Large of sensor while incrementally smaller and lighter than their predecessors? Appear to be.
But, towards what end? What are enough of us doing with these state-of-the-art image producing machines to justify the huge effort of the industry that produces them, and the expenditure of such large amounts of discretionary income to own them?
Many of us ask similar questions of Leica owners spending upwards of $10k for a basic digital outfit, but I spent that much on Hasselblads back in the film era, so I get that.
Have to admit I didn’t really notice an improvement in my prints moving from a Bronica S2a/Nikkor 50mm f2.8 outfit to equivalent Hassy gear, but there were other benefits like leaf shutters, removable backs, etc. I don’t see that level of increased capability or flexibility today in going from, say a Canon 5DS to the new R series, but OK. Maybe you do. That’s not what I’m questioning today.
I’m wondering what we’re all doing with this stuff. The statistics are staggering…number of images captured per year, number viewed by each of us every day. And yet I seldom see a gallery show. No one is buying prints. There are apparently still working photographers, but the school I went to has shut down, as I think most have. It’s no longer a viable profession for all but a very few. And ‘fine art’ photography, if it ever existed, seems to be stagnant.
In fact I just sent a breezy email to thirty or so art galleries in my area asking if I could have a show or be part of one, and received three replies. One said ‘we own photography but don’t show it in our gallery’ because ‘photos don’t sell’, one referred me to a gallery who did specialize in photography which it turns out closed this month, and the third said he was doing website work now but I was free to produce my own show before the gallery doors were locked.
In this market who is still spending the time and money to produce highest quality work? Do we do it for ourselves? Do we hope that our boxes of prints will be discovered someday, a là Vivien Maier, and we’ll finally be recognized for our vision [if too late]?
Mike Johnston recently posted about a fellow student at Corcoran who always had the latest cutting edge gear, the most critically sharp lenses [always used at their optimal aperture regardless of the light], and the finest grain film regardless, again, of the conditions. His work was of course crap. But that description resonated with me. For decades I was more of a gear head than artist. I’ve always had an engineer’s temperament and approached even the art of photography as a technician. I’d always had my own color darkroom and good gear, but my prints were little more than pedestrian.
But over the last decade there’s been a tremendous shift in my work and I credit the digital workflow in general, and honestly the recent affordability of used full-frame digital cameras in particular. I had a friend comment the other year ‘is it just me, or has your work really improved?’ My response was that I was finally getting in the finished print what I saw in my mind’s eye when I pressed the shutter. The camera producing that work can now be had for $350 used.
I imagine an awful lot of us are feeling the same way in the last ten years. Film was great, it had a unique look and all, but the quality and flexibility of digital capture and reproduction is just staggering. So what are we doing with it? Where is all this great new art being shown, purchased, and hung?
It’s not. Who, honestly, who appreciates photography enough to have it around doesn’t produce and prefer their own? What photographer would buy another photographer’s original work unless one particular image was especially motivating or, if you’re well off, as an investment?
There are a few making it… Cig Harvey produces beautiful work for instance, Onne van der Wal too in his sailing niche, and JP Caponigro seems to be successful taking landscape images half-way in a Jerry Uelsmann direction. Between us we could think of many dozens more having success. Having said that, I suspect most are earning more speaking and leading workshops than actually shooting these days. I could be wrong. But, they are not purchasing the millions of dollars of new gear sold every year.
The rest of us? We post our hard-won images on social media and websites at 1024px. Folks click through and go ‘I could do better’, or ‘I gotta buy that camera’, or ‘I really should get out and shoot more’, hit a like button and move on. Our gear in the closet. Our prints on the shelf. Our hard drives full, ready to be wiped by accident or EMP.
I’d love to hear what drives you. Do you print? Why? Do you buy new gear every year? How does that work out for you? Is it just disposable income that you’d otherwise spend on cars or whisky or second homes…and this is less harmful?
Where are we going with all of this…I wonder.
—Chris Stump is a fine-art photographer [whatever that means] living on the coast of Maine with his wife and young son.
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I enjoyed reading your article.
When I started taking photos there was only black and white film, colour was too expensive. I still like black and white best.
But whenever I take a photo today whether it is a digital camera I use or an old middle format Mamiya the ultimate reason for taking the photo is to produce eventually a print ready to hang on a wall in my house.
If I keep it on the wall for longer than a year then I am happy because the competition for wall space is fierce since I like large prints.
When my 40 inch printer died I decided to get used to smaller prints and bought a 17″ printer. It is difficult to downsize but still better than having the prints stored away or only looking at bthem on a computer screen.
Yes, b/w was the main game in town when I started as well…back in the early 70’s.
I started messing with color in high school, and then got into it for real after that, printing RA4 and Cibachrome for commercial clients.
And I still prefer b/w, as you do. 🙂
The 40″ printer sounds like heaven…but every time I consider one I think of the sheer logistics of handling that paper, mounting, framing, glazing, let alone transporting and showing! Ugh.
I’ll stick with the 17″ as well, for now anyway.
I have always loved photography. I have developed and printed most of my B&W analogue photos. I now post process and print most of my digital photos. I respect and take an interest in other people’s photography. But I keep mine pretty much to myself, my family and a few close friends – people who have some connection to the subject matter of the photos, for example.
As with all consumer products the manufacturers are driven by earnings per share and this in turn forces them to keep abreast of the latest fashions. In terms of sales, sales to professionals probably represent a relatively small percentage of the total. Enthusiastic amateurs intent on being up to date with the latest fashions account for the rest.
In many respects the photographic hardware industry mirrors the golf club industry. A thousand or so pros play with the latest and greatest (mostly provided free of charge except to the real stars who are well paid to play certain brands) and the 22 million or so golfers in the USA believe that the clubs used by Tiger Woods or Dustin Johnson will deliver the results for them too.
Are both industries not “fashion” businesses?
The truth is that nobody can buy a better game – it will always be the indian not the arrow that gets the results.
” – it will always be the indian not the arrow that gets the results.”
Well…that little bon mot is going in my quiver for future use!
Don’t know if this article was written by me, for me or about me, Chris, but everything about it fits me to the “T”.
Now, about your opening question of “why?”: Having spent a large part of my adult life in marketing I can answer some of that. A good product mix increases sales and bottom line figures for the stockholders. That wasn’t happening quickly enough with the traditional DSLR mix. That market was apparently worse than stagnant, it was sliding backward and downhill.
So, a new product, the mirrorless camera gadget, was introduced. And now comes the hard part. All of the marketing departments of all the camera manufacturers in all the world have to convince the buying public that they need this gadget more than they need the disposable income.
And it does have to be disposable income because the mirrorless camera was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist for photographers. From my point of view the only advantage of the mirrorless is that it is going to be so much quieter than the old mirror kalack-blap of the DSLR. That could mean something to us bird photographers, street photographers and clandestine stakeout photographers. Not sure it means much to anyone else or if there are enough of us special category people to make a huge bulge in sales.
The next thing to consider, and it was introduced as part of the introductory one-two opening punch, is add-on sales. A lot of those nice little extra goodies that you already have for your DSLR and would never have to buy again will now need to be bought for the mirrorless camera. The first one being the lens adapter for all your good old lenses. And then some new lenses specifically for the mirrorless just because they must be better on that new body than your old lenses w/adapter…… right?
Having said that, I have to admit that I can see myself owning the Z8 one of these days but not until I have come upon a situation that the Z8 (yes, I said 8) can handle so much better than my D850 that I can convince myself that I absolutely want/need (have to have) one to complete the project.
It could/might happen (maybe).
I’m reminded of a poem I learned in 10th grade Lit class: There there, little luxury; don’t you cry; you’ll be a necessity by and by. 🙂
Thanks Cliff, I’m glad my post spoke to you so well!
You and others well describe the market forces that pressure manufacturers to constantly re-invent and innovate.
I get that, believe me. What if Canon had stopped at the F1? Would I trade that for my 5DS? No way.
And to be more clear, my headline was really meant to be more rhetorical in nature. I buried the lede.
What I was really asking was “Do you [me, we, all of us] do all of this [buy, upgrade, edit, print] in order to print and show our art?”. And if so, have we had any success?
And from the responses I’d have to gather the answer is “no”.
I think there is a new side to the camera market with mirrorless.
It’s not so much about better cameras, it’s more about a shift to a different technology, like with cars from rear drive to front wheel drive.
Once the technologies for EVFs and AF are really good enough and the development costs are covered, the simpler construction versus SLR will win. Mirror slap and AF calibration will be no more and wide angle lens design will become simpler.
So we photographers will just wait a bit while the gearheads help pay for this transition.
– * –
My father introducet me to b/w photography in the -60s beginning with hand pulling the film through the developer and making contact copies. The 6×6 rangefinder Superikonta w. Tessar 75mm/3.5 he gave me could do all I wanted except close-ups. When we moved, there was space for a permanent dark room with an enlarger.
( My school organised a course in colour printing, but I found it to complex and too expensive.)
When I moved out, I had to rely on photo labs and changed to colour film with a used Vitessa w. Ultron 50mm/2.
( I remember a shopkeeper asking what camera I had used for a larger print I’d ordered. He said it was so sharp it couldn’t have been made with an SLR because of mirror slap!)
Many years later I added a used SLR, and by then I had my films scanned and made large b/w inkjet prints – twice the 13″ width of the printer (to get enough resolution from 720dpi) and the joins were hardly seen.
Now I miss my 2/3″ pocket zoom that died and use a Canon M5 (no mirror slap..) with a few lenses. (There’s a good used market here.)
My inkjet is long dead and I use a 12″ oled tablet.
( I tend to go away unplanned and I don’t want to return to a clogged print head.)
When my urge to print (b/w) grows again, I guess I’ll try to find a used A3 laser printer with good grey scales and see if I can find a way to print that turns the coarseness of laser output to an advantage…
– * –
You ask why we do it all…
Wasn’t film photography for most always more about the small prints in the album? Plus a minority with enough creative urge to try to make better than that?
Now the i-net has replaced the album for many, and the simplicity of that and cheaper (and phone-) cameras with a smaller learning curve has made it accessible to all.
But the i-net has added a problem the photo albums didn’t have, that too many compare too much with what others publish!
I’m just an amateur who likes to photograph and see if I get a result I like, and I occasionally look again at older stuff. And printing gives me more satisfaction than processing for the screen.
( I made my first digital prints with my matrix printer, and I enjoyed it despite the horrible banding!)