#915. Appreciating the gravity of photographic gear

By pascaljappy | Art & Creativity

Oct 14

A full bag of medium format camera and lenses will pull your carrying shoulder down, culminating in sweet agony by the end of the day. But that’s just the Earth’s gravity and your gear’s mass conspiring to maim your body. What we’re interested in, in this multi-author post series, is gear’s gravitic tug on your lightness of being, joy, fun, happiness, meditative introspection, elation, or lack thereof, and the Newtonian counter-pull of your creative drive on your gear choices.

 
Check out the genius who lets his strap dangle off his wrist … ๐Ÿ˜‰
 

It is said that we are the average of the 5 people we frequent the most. As gregarious animals, we do pick up on the habits of others and try to blend in, consciously or otherwise.

And I think the same can be said about many outside influences that go beyond who we hang out with. The commute traffic we face every day frays our patience. The media we consume shapes our beliefs. There’s that story of the old monk who spends 21 years alone in a cave, reaches enlightment and gets into a mad rage when stung by a bee on his way back down to the village, illustrating how living in solitude ill-prepares us for the real world.

We are emotional and intellectual sponges. Gorged by our neighbour’s morning singing, last night’s movie, the friends that came for a drink, the book we’re reading, the gallery show we attented, and … the gear in our bag. And photographically, particularly by the latter ๐Ÿ˜‰

 
 

Cases in point.

I’ve spent my photographic life avoiding exposure extremes. Avoiding deep shadows in the film years, avoiding blown highlights in the digital (btw, is it manichaeism to note that digital photography is scared of light whereas analog is scared of the shadows, I wonder). And now that my camera is one of the least worried by exposure extremes, I’m constantly creating images with tons of pure black or pure white. It’s taken me to new places.

Philippe, in his recent appraisal of the lovely Laowa macro 100/2.8, divides his evaluation into 4 sections, one of which is “where the lens takes me”.

But, wait. Shouldn’t we be in control of the gear and the rendering, not the other way around? Are Philippe and I photographic wimps. Well, yes, but that’s not the point.

 
Huge distortion?
 

The point is it works both ways. The point is we chose gear according to our projected dreams and aspirations, true needs and the look and rendering we have seen it provide in other people’s work. It’s a meeting point between personal desires and technical reality.

Meeting points are always where the magic happens when human beings are concerned.

  • A musical interpretation is the meeting point between a factual score and personal vision / technique.
  • A composition is the meeting point between a factual scene and a personal worldview / artistic sensitivity.
  • A church (the building) is the meeting point between a “universal” faith and a local culture / means.
  • Middle management is the meeting point between strategic planning and operations on the shop floor.
  • A tire is the meeting point between engine torque and a road/path surface.
  • The Law of Attraction is the meeting point between our dreams and our dedication.
 
I love, love, love, love … love ™ my Hassy system because it is so rigorous that I can create images that “drift away” but never look sloppy.
 

You’re better off tackling slush with a 2WD city car on snow tires than in a landy on slicks. Crappy middle management not only brings a company to the ground (so can bad strategy, and lazy workers, don’t get me wrong, but that’s another topic, as are diff locks and snow quality) but also create tons of burnouts and breakdowns. Show the same scene to 10 advanced photograph and you won’t get 2 identical shots. It took XXXX 20 years to become an overnight success (Connor McGregor phrases it differently: “I’m not talented, I’m obsessed.”).

Apparently, Glen Gould’s favourite composer was Orlando Gibbons. The pianist said : โ€œever since my teen-age years this music โ€ฆ has moved me more deeply than any other sound experience I can think of.โ€

I’m guessing he chose and fell in love with his piano for very similar psychological reasons. Because where the piano would take him – due to the undbendable technological choices of its maker – is where he wanted to go : a place of deeply moving sound, to his ears.

 
 

And the same goes with our photographic gear. We choose it based on a meeting point between our financial constraints, technical ability to use it (although, today, monkeys take selfies, albeit chimpanzees, not gibbons), our dream look and use case, and the actual technical makeup of the gear itself.

The key to a good choice, then, is adequate description of thereabove colliding factors.

 
 

Photographic gear is being communicated somewhat laughably, with technical considerations still at the fore, as if it’s still 2004. So, it’s up to us to test what we can ourselves, or seek information relevant to our individual psychoses from credible (to us) sources ๐Ÿ˜‰

Financial constraints, we know about.

Ease of use is something else. In the ever-growing USP of getting the shot in any conditions, technology is disposessing us of choice as it makes life easier. Either that works for you or it doesn’t. Depending on that, you’ll want to stick to low tech gear like me or to the latest full auto body.

The real kicker in the above equation is understanding our dreams. It’s a job very few of us do with any sort of methodology. It hurts to look inwards (soo much squinting). But that is where you gain control over the meeting point.

 
A three bike post! It’s got to be Christmas.
 

Buying gear is an act of faith. Disappointment can follow. But when you get it right, its unmoveable technical makeup takes you to the places your aesthetic / ergonomic aspirations wanted you to go.

I’ve been dissatisfied with excellent gear for the past 5 years. Now, I’ve come home to the cuddly X1D. Not only does this thing work like a smartphone, point and shoot and get it absolutely right first time, but its files can be tortured in ways that would have been unthinkable with gear less sure footed at the extremes of exposure. I love it to bits.

Adrian has recently delighted us with reports of un-gear (here, here, here and there) that matches his vision and use scenario in vacation mode.

 
Mobility dreams (what? A sixth bike?)
 

So we all need to appreciate the gravity of photographic gear in our lives. When its pull on our mood and rendering is guided by our pull on its selection, life is sweet. When we are swayed by media tides and choice considerations that aren’t deeply ours, not so much. In follow-ups to this post, I will invite other contributors to describe how and why they selected their gear and how that has panned out for them.

 
 

In fact, I’m doing that right now! Who wants to join in? How did you pick your gear, why, what works best for you and what didn’t work out?

More formally, here are the answers I’d like to see answered and will pubblish as summary of, if at all possible : what were your aspirations? What were the efforts you thought detracted from the quality of your results? What where the efforts you felt helped your results ? For example : I know someone who makes incredible photographs of dogs jumping and running, with a shallow depth of field. His lenses are manual focus, probably because this helps him focus his mind very very intensely at the right moment. AF may help you get better results or it may simply make you lazy. What’s your story ?

’nuff reading, speak up ๐Ÿ™‚

 

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  • Sean says:

    Hi Pascal,
    I really like these words of yours “… we all need to appreciate the gravity of photographic gear in our lives. When its pull on our mood and rendering is guided by our pull on its selection, life is sweet…” However, I haven’t found to secret path that takes one directly to that ‘sweet spot’ we all aim for. I don’t obsess over design and technical aspects of a lens, but I appreciate it when a lens ‘draws’ in a way that resonates with what both stirs and touches what I’m after in an image I’ve crafted. I like lenses that gives an image an organic presence – no I can’t define that – in contrast to a lens that’s not aligned to this presence. In essence, it’s been a journey of trial an error. When the ‘bits’ do align there’s an immediate connect, and something is revealed in the image so crafted – in the way I want it to look and how I want to positively respond. Some images, that I have crafted, have come into being with either a Leica M8 or a Canon 5D MkII using various branded ‘older designed’ lenses by Voigtlander, Zeiss, Canon and Olympus. I hope this short overview adds to what you’ve discussed above.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Sean, thank you for the kind words. I think trial and error is how we all got to where we are and am simply hoping that, if we run a series of articles of what worked for some of us, we can come up with some guidance, if not rules, for others to save time on their way ๐Ÿ™‚ So I’m after the winds and the mistakes and any possibly analysis thereof. Not sure what will come of this ๐Ÿ˜‰ Cheers

  • NMc says:

    Pascal
    I have owned so little photographic gear, that I cannot really discuss the question. I have only 2 digital ILC bodies and the second purchase was the follow up model to the first, and was being sold very cheaply after release of the next camera in the series. The simple summary of my choice at the time goes like this;-

    Cannon and Nikon do not properly support their apsc cameras with lenses optimised for the smaller format. Pentax cameras had better viewfinders, ergonomics, build quality and value. Pentax retailers did not carry the lenses that make that system interesting. So no DSLRโ€™s.

    Micro 4/3 cameras big enough to fit comfortably in my hand were expensive and complicated. Great lens choices available though.

    Sony system direction and lenses did not quite make me confident, a bit inconsistent or lacking direction or something.

    I purchased the Fujifilm XE1 (with grip extension-very important), it was on sale because the XE2 was announced, the system direction gave me confidence and the smaller size compared to DSLR came at only a small reduction to ergonomics. By luck or good sense it has worked out because it is still the only system that is attainably aspirational when, or if I decided to update or try new lenses.

    Regards Noel

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Noel. What you describe is *exactly* what I would like to help others with. That decision tree of selection can be guided by asking the good questions. To me the important questions are:

      * What are your aspirations (for example, what photographers do you admire most?)
      * What efforts required by the gear detracts from your experience and the quality of the resutls?
      * What efforts dictated by the gear actually reinforce a positive workflow for you?

      If at all possible, I’ll try to post guidelines but want to read as many life stories such as your before I do. Cheers ๐Ÿ™‚

      • NMc says:

        Pascal

        Aspiration is probably over thinking my motivations which were simple; I wanted to have better image quality than my digital compact and a better user experience in particular an eye level view finder and decent ergonomic feel. Any current (at the time) crop sensor camera with a better than basic lens would cover the image quality improvements I wanted. The rest was โ€˜Goldilocks-ingโ€™ for the best fit with room to evolve in the future.

        I had (and have) no delusions about some special ingredient โ€˜fixingโ€™ any real or imaginary problem, you could argue that I am letting my camera down rather than it detracting from my experience. The biggest motivation to upgrade would be a better EVF for better pre-chimping and confidence at point of shutter release.

        For me just pulling out a โ€˜properโ€™ camera and bringing it to my eye, as opposed to waving a small screen in front of my face, makes me think more about the image.

        I am probably the simplest or most basic photographer you have commenting with the least gear experience. I think that part of it is that I tried several times to purchase a โ€˜goodโ€™ camera over about five years prior to the XE1, and every time I started researching or going to camera shops I was always put off by meaningless priorities of reviewers, rapid turnover of new models, and the type of people who were selling cameras at the lower middle of the market. Think small improvement in resolution or frames per second getting a whole star more in review, or, the upgrade path pushed by retailers; who wants to buy something with the expressed intention of being able to replace the whole system several times over to get to proper photographer status.

        Sorry about the negative finish however the not purchasing it is part of the story too.
        Regards, Noel

  • Brilliant post and images, as always, Pascal. First, thank you for the intro to Orlando Gibbons. Second, let’s get this gravity issue out of the way; I recently invested in a Lowepro ProTactic BP 450 AW II and the onerous battle between mobility and lugging “tons” of gear has been settled! This brings me to the meeting point between my dreams and desires and resultant gear.

    I’m confining my response to one lens (well, sort of) and the fact that I, four years ago, choose an A7R (and then A7R2 upon first issuance) over the Nikon D810, even though I had been shooting Nikon for 10 years. The A7R felt quite like my Minolta X-570, which was home to my hands and fingers. The mirrorless approach freed me toward many pursuits – vintage and modern.

    Now closing in on my fourth year as a professional photographer (successful 25 year communications exec who probably dumbly walked from a top perch by choice to pursue the crazy notion of professional photography, which is not for the faint of heart), I spent at least 250 hours, researching rendering and the look that was/is me. Minolta long ago stole my heart (the MD 50 1.4, MC 58 1.4, MD 135 2.8) and Zeiss then courted me… the Sonnar, the Distagon and the Planar all quickly entered my life once I took the Sony A7R path. But it was the rare-ish Zeiss Biotar that stopped me in my tracks. That was me. I just knew it. I would steal hearts and minds with that lens. There was no other!

    I began a discussion with a reputable European bokeh shop and just as I was about to commit to purchasing a vintage species, a certain Oprema Jena (Meyer Optik) announced the great resurrection of the mighty Biotar! Thrilled was I – even more excited by my $2.5K USD investment in the Biotar 75 and 58 than my pursuit and purchase of the BMW K1200R Sport. (All German, eh?) I lived for this lens… obsessed over it… wrote a marketing plan… drafted a news release for local distribution in eager anticipation. The Biotar was and is that very spot in my dreamworld. Then the project lingered… and lingered… and more and more lens were curiously announced by Meyer Optik. Then a terrible car crash occurred and Herr Direktor was seriously injured but apparently alive and in good spirits. Then more announcements and then silence, culminating in bankruptcy. Whether by poor management or a deliberate Ponzi scheme to stay afloat via lens announcements, my Biotar dream blurred into painful despair and anger. All that I had hoped for was lost – no, incinerated. I was bitter for weeks… I just could not believe that this was not meant to be. The idea of spending another $1-2K on a good copy of an original was unpalatable. Unrequited love and desires were abated by children of a lesser god. Once Zeiss released the Batis 135 at 2.8F (not 2.0 or 1.8), I overcame another round of frustration to mark the first and only time I have purchased a lens that I did not truly “love.” The Sony 135 1.8 GM has proven to be a loyal and exceptional performer. The rendering is not mysterious nor swirly, but it is decisively sharp and beautifully creamy. The Biotar was likely but a dream…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Scott, thanks a lot for the kind words.

      I’m so sorry to hear about that misadventure with the Biotar crowdfunding. The idea is always so great and the executions so often leaves so much to be desired. I had similar misadventures, thankfully on less expensive projects, and can relate. It has definitely cooled my enthusiasm and redirected me to more traditional purchases. Shame, really.

      I’d never really seen samples from the Biotar but this post (https://www.casualphotophile.com/2019/02/13/carl-zeiss-jena-biotar-58mm-f-2-lens-review/) clearly shows what you were drawn to. Really lovely rendering.

      Don’t let that bad experience put a damper on your search for gear that suits you, though. We all kiss a lot of toads before finding our princes ๐Ÿ˜‰ Although, as a pro, particularly one with a high-level management background, it’s understandable that you don’t want any more such hickups in your flow … Maybe cheap old Jupiters and low risk adaptations?

      All the best, Pascal

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Pascal,
    a great post!
    And photos!
    ๐Ÿ™‚

    > “.. and I photographic wimps.”
    I can have no idea,
    but,
    judging by your photos above,
    you’re most certainly not, ๐Ÿ™‚ !

    – – * – –

    Meeting points…
    ( – somewhat OT.)

    You manage slush best by also practising the handling of skids.

    A CEO must visit and communicate with the shop floor regularly – or the middle management creates havoc in the end.
    ( Of course, continuously supervising the middle management is also necessary.)

    A church becomes a better *meeting point* if it was built with love and humble faith – and shows it.

    But…
    > “.. understanding our dreams.”?
    Yes, it can hurt to look inwards, and we gain some understanding of our *meeting point*, but control? Perhaps to some extent.

    We can reach out to our inside *source*, and then only indirectly, only by prayers and, I think, meditation.
    And prayers are by tradition directed to an outside Entity – which is really our deepest inside. There is danger in directing them inside oneself, that might result in a viscous circle with any feedback one gets.
    ( And then there is, of course, danger in praying for the “wrong” things.)

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Pascal: I must first comment on the wonderful images included in your post – my favorites were 2, 3, 4 & 5 – so dramatic and strong!
    As far as my gear goes – less is more in my opinion. I use a Canon 5D MarkII and I own exactly two lenses – an EF 70-200 mm f/4 zoom and EF 24-70 f/2.8. The zoom is my favorite lens, by far. I have a tripod, but never use it as I prefer hand-held. When I travel, I take a Sony 6300 and 16-50 mm & 55-210 mm lenses for a backup. Everything goes into a smallish lightweight water resistant backpack-style bag. My advice is to buy good glass and not worry about constantly updating your camera body.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Nancee. Sound advice. Bodies are well good enough these days and don’t need constant updating. So focusing on finding glass you really enjoy makes a lot more sense. Thanks for the kind comment about the photographs ๐Ÿ™‚ Cheers

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    1 – ” . . . we are the average of the 5 people we frequent the most. As gregarious animals, we do pick up on the habits of others and try to blend in, consciously or otherwise”

    Arrggh! Oops. Sorry – that just slipped out. Well actually – I don’t frequent 5 people, so it’s a mathematical impossibility to point to the 5 I frequent most. And I’m not gregarious. I don’t pick up other people’s habits. And I’ve never tried to blend in. There’s hardly anyone I hang out with – they all died. I don’t commute. I’m not a monk. I don’t have a cave.

    So I guess that all explains why I am allergic to bee stings.

    As for the gear in my bag – it’s all a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. I rather think that the gear was selected to profile “my” photography, rather than t’other way round. But of course now that I’ve chosen it, it certainly confirms what my photography is.

    2 – who’s in charge, me or the dog?

    Back to the chicken and the egg. Or rather, this takes us back to a form of “philosophical” argument common in the medieval period, known as “sophistry”. Or Alice and Humpty Dumpty arguing over the meaning of words – Alice contending for the conservative line that “the question is whether a word CAN have so many meanings” and Humpty vanquishing her by retorting that “the question is simply which is to be master – that’s all”.

    Ignore it. The camera does what the photographer tells it to. End of argument. If the photographer doesn’t like it, the photographer changes the camera – not the other way round. Within the limit of our budget, we ALL choose the gear we want, for the way we shoot, for the subjects we want to capture.

    But I’m pre-empting things – we’re being invited to explain our choices, and how they enable “our” photography. ๐Ÿ™‚

    So –
    3 – why did you do it? I’ve been sitting here thinking about this for the past 5 minutes, and I can’t think a better way of summarising all or this.

    • pascaljappy says:

      The camera does what the photographer tells it to. End of argument.

      I wish it was that simple. My lenses don’t have shallow depth of field, my camera doesn’t have IBIS, it has strong rolling shutter, it can’t go under 1/2000s, it weighs a bit, it takes a really long time to wake up from slumber, … For me, it works perfectly, but anyone in love with an A9 might find it difficult to live with ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Adrian says:

    This sentence more than any other struck me: “The point is we chose gear according to our projected dreams and aspirations, true needs and the look and rendering we have seen it provide in other peopleโ€™s work.”

    Dreams and aspirations? Most definitely, the more expensive, the more “professional grade”, the more desirable it is to the majority of men who are amateur photographers, as it stimulates the male collector gene and also our tendency to play top trumps with specification as a way to superiority and self confidence.

    True needs? I’m less than convinced that many amateur photographers know what their true needs are. They may think they do, because they’ve been told what they need (X100 for street photography, ultra wide lens for landscapes, “professional” weather-sealed SLR for landscapes…). Tradition and familiarity also play a part in forming “perceive need”, which is what kept mirrorless from being taken seriously initially, because “professional quality” cameras always had to be big, or have an optical viewfinder, or a big battery – or whatever specific attribute could be chose in shrieking denial as a reason to stick with what you know.

    Look and rendering? Most definitely again. Ironically, most of the look and rendering that may influence purchases may well be as much a result of software, post processing skill, photographer skill, or just really good light. Any host of other things that actually bear little relevance to the camera or lens being lusted after result in the belief in the magic bullet. Camera brands know this, and can further influence via marketing, celebrity photographer social media, and internet influencers.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hear, hear. The whole market is under the influence of the manufacturers. At least, what’s left of it, as the manufacturers have been extremely successful at making it dramatically smaller, year after year. Until dreams and aspirations are artistic rather than gear-related, this will probably continue. And, yes, perceived needs are very difficult to tell from real needs. I think we should all take inspiration from long-distance motorcyclists. Thye have to travel light and everything they buy is for a purpose.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    A small illustration to questions on choice of gear:

    “However, in the last few movies made by Pixar, there has been a real attempt made to replicate camera techniques and lens characteristics that seemingly most of the audience wouldn’t notice.”

    From
    https://fstoppers.com/video-editing/how-animation-toy-story-4-evolving-replicate-real-filmmaking-416644

  • Percy Seaton Smythe says:

    the story of the monk losing his equilibrium upon being stung by a bee is, according to the Vedic texts, quite unlikely if he were “self realized”. However after 21 years there could easily be residual identifications with the body that would generate such a reaction. This would not be “enlightenment”….he would not be sufficiently baked. I would have to conclude that the argument that very long solitude ill prepare us for the real world is made by someone who has concluded that what is “real” is outside of Self.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yes, the “anecdote” was indeed about false enlightenment and the dangers of being alone rather than “in the world”.

      • percy seaton smythe says:

        “In the world” essentially means identification and attachment to objects outside the Self….money, status, gender, politics, religion name and fame etc., (camera equipment) This is how we derive our identity.. until we don’t. Those who know that “alone” and “loneliness” are different things often embrace the freedom of their solitude. There is no danger there.

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