#1288. Does the Gear Choose the Photographer?

By pascaljappy | Opinion

May 20

If your nonsense-clickbait detection sensors are blinking red, they’re only partially correct! While gear has no mind of its own, it does shape us as photographers, and calls to us in subtle ways.

Yellow roses
 

Get out today, and grab a lens, camera, or lens+camera combo you’ve not used in a long time. Will your photos be the same as what you typically make? I don’t think so.

The ideas in this post came to me while reading an article on the fragmentation of the web. It’s a very interesting discussion about how the very platforms who rose to multi-billion stardom by uniting the “social” planet under very few roofs, are today crumbling away because of their inability to cater to the desires of theme-centric or protocol-centric communities. Their feature set and protocols are now too generic for the more and more numerous specialty communities.

We’re well past Peak Facebook, and unless Elon Musk has genre-defining ideas (he often does) for Twitter, the erosion will spread fast to his 40 billion pet project as well.

Four eyes
 

It’s hard not to see an analogy with the photo camera market. The success of the mirrorless camera, and Sony’s apparent rocketing up the relative-share podium, was built on the intense promotion of the “do it all” camera. Shooting envelope became the dominant dogma, and content creation, rather than photography, became the promised land. Whatever you want to do, the camera can do it.

This enabled tremendous experimentation, and led to the publication of types of photographs that would previously not have been possible without expensive dedicated gear. In other words, the strategy worked and conquered new territories of expression. Much like Faceter and Twitbook.

But, at the same time, the whole pie shrunk by alarming proportions (-90% in 5 years, more or less) because those pesky outliers who enjoy something different ran off to phones and film. Or, in lesser numbers, to more exotic brands such as Ricoh, Sigma, Leica, Hasselblad … All in search of a different experience.

Those greens …
 

Of the two types of communities – theme centric and protocol centric – I find the latter far more interesting and pertinent to the analogy with photography.

In truth, though, the two concepts are probably strongly correlated. The type of theme you are interested in dictates a kind of communication protocol. And – more importantly for this post – vice-versa. Extremist anti-democratic keyboard-warriors just need a shout box, while citizen scientists working on collaborative research projects, will require far more elaborate sharing and mapping tools. And photographers, something else again. The article that spawned mine made the interesting point that Twitter’s impending downfall was due to the fact that it used to alienate only the former (extreme-right democracy haters), but the repulsion factor has now spread to far more areas of online discussion.

That might be downplaying Musk’s first-principles ability to reinvent more or less anything, but it seems certain that Twitter in its current form can only go South. And, similarly, the future of the do-it-all camera is severely compromised by it’s makers’ constant refusal to acknowledge that a large proportion of the photographic community has other priorities than “getting the shot”. Unbelievably, said makers are also refusing to acknowledge the voice of the market-share. Innovator’s dilemma?

RIP
 

The most interesting proposition made to save big platforms, that I have read about, it giving users multiple algorithm choices for their feeds. I’d venture that goes for Google, too. Instead of one centralised algorithm reflecting the worldview and business model of the company owners to define the contents of your feed, you’d get to choose between multiple user-defined ones. The challenge would be to couple that with good profitability, but it doesn’t seem impossible to achieve, although it wouldn’t be as optimized.

Likewise, I think it’s protocol (or process) that separates photographers, more than theme or genre. I annoy readers every time I write this but some photographers love (and thrive on) the limitations of film and the surprise of receiving developed images days (or more) later. It’s not for everyone, it’s just one corner of the photo world. Others enjoy haptics, build quality, luxury, quirkiness, novelty, retro, nimble …

Intense quantitative marketing for a decade, relayed by ad-dependent media, has sadly made it almost impossible to survive as a camera manufacturer without following most of the do-it-all protocol precepts (resolution, speed, ISO, you name it). And we’ve seen delightful brands close down because of that. But it hurt its inceptors as well, as communities who couldn’t find solace in niche brands fled to the most generic value of all: simplicity. Hence the rise of the phone camera. This is one downfall the social platforms have at least managed to avoid.

It’s the new sensation
 

Things get interesting when you realise that same people communicate differently on different networks. The network’s protocol shapes the user, to some extent. Which brings me back to the original idea that we do not produce the same photographs with different gear.

The usual trope goes “gear doesn’t matter, it’s the photographer that counts”. Yet the (good) photographer has created a process in which gear plays an integral part, and gear does matter, a lot. Gear takes us places. I’m not just referring to using a fish-eye lens compared to a 90mm. But the existence of zooms in the range, the speed of the camera, its menu system, its weather sealing, its viewfinder, the lens rendering, the colour science, and more, all condition the sort of photographs we end up making.

And our inner desires, whether conscious or not, attract us to the type of gear that (we think) will enable the sort of photographs we aspire to make. It’s in this sense that I believe that gear – as it is marketed – draws us or repulses us like opposite ends of a magnet.

 

To summarise. The promise of a greater shooting envelope that created the mirrorless boom may well be crumbling in the same way that all-in-one ‘social’ platforms are. As more and more photographers discover their calling and – more important and more difficult – begin to trust their gut, they might gravitate to more special tools, just like online discussions are shifting to discord and other specialized places.

For those who do not find solace in the mainstream do-it-all lane and do not feel a calling for some clearly defined experience, simplicity (hence the smartphone) has become the default refuge, draining the traditional digital photography market of its blood.

For those who do pine for some special type of shooting or experience, I hope there is still energy and bravery enough in the market to create new, and original cameras. Not only do those draw photographers to them like magnets tuned to their specific dreams and aspirations but, more interestingly, the ‘protocol’ and experience they offer (like film, but in new ways) can also shape the photographers and create new ideas, much like mirrorless encouraged new experimentation.

Monochrome beauty
 

It’s easier said than done. I’m currently very interested in the Leica SL2-S, but years of pummeling by quantitative marketing have made me insecure about that choice. Simply put, would 24Mp be enough, whatever that means?

But new entrants to the market may feel differently. I do believe that new gear, different gear, can choose its photographers and inspire new ideas in them, in the way specialist social platforms are drawing more communities. Maybe the niche brands that got swept away were not different enough?? Here’s to hoping 🙂

 

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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Pour moi, it depends – how do you put it all together? – does the cart go in FRONT of the horse, and the horse pulls it? – or do you turn the cart around, so that it’s in front of the horse, and the horse PUSHES it?

    I see one review after another of “cameras” – things that “take photos” – where the main areas the reviewer is concerned with is all stuff for videographers. Pardon? I just want “photo”, not a “movie film”. And then they proceed to analyse whether the camera is good or bad at taking movie footage. One absolutely withering review of Nikon’s recently released Z8 mirrorless, for example, junked it – why? – because the SD card couldn’t keep up with his demand for movie footage. I told him to take the blood card out, and just use the CF card – he bit my head off, so now I’ve junked him, I’m blocking all HIS stuff, I don’t appreciate rude mannerless people in my life, the end. But not quite – two days after he bit my head off for suggesting that the solution to his problem was to shoot using only the CF card, without using the SD card as well if it didn’t work for him, a well known pro was reviewing the Z8 and suggested exactly the same thing!

    Why am I even bothering you with any of this? Simple – the dude screaming about the Z8’s performance on high speed video famously just shoots nude females. I simply cannot imagine what the hell high speed movie has to do with his genre of photography. No doubt he’d bite my head off again, pointing out – quite rightly – he was “reviewing the camera for EVERYONE” and some of his readers very well might shoot formula 1 race cars or something, requiring high speed video.

    But I was left with a very rude pro, making extremely destructive remarks about a brand new product from a company that HAS had a rough time of it, over the last few years, and is only just starting to turn round. And ignoring suggestions of a solution to his “problem”, coming from two different directions. When it has seemingly nothing to do with his camera needs anyway.

    “Next, please!” I don’t know who that will be – so I’ll just volunteer myself.

    Sooner or later I want two more cameras that I don’t yet have. One is the Z8 – I have been waiting and hoping, and telling everyone I believed Nikon was eventually going to bring out a Z8 to fill the gap between the Z7/Z7II and the Z9. Why? Because I actually have the Zfc, and I am deeply impressed with the advantages Nikon has built into its Z range, by getting rid of the mirror and then re-thinking what is needed between the lens and the sensor. None of the others has done it And it seems to me to be ground breaking. I only have a very small range of Z lenses, but I’m mightily impressed. And far from being the only one.

    So while I love my D500 & D850, I can see the Z8 raising the bar and I want “in”. The barrier is cost – not just the camera, but the basic accessories, and a new set of Z lenses.

    The other is similar, in a way – yet completely different. SIGMA’s full frame Foveon- je veux! They’ve been telling us all for years they doing developmental work on it, they’ve even told us they’ve finished that but it would be another year before they’d produce the camera. Still waiting. Why? because Ive seen an exhibition of photos taken with a half frame one, and was over-whelmed. But when I found out they were doing a bigger (full frame) version I held back. And still holding. Because it is a fascinating technology, for a wide range of my usual types of photograph – architectural and landscape. And would offer a whole new medium to explore – something I chose to do, when I turned off film and switched to digi. Something I imagine you are doing yourself, switching to your Hassy.

    Yes I can see that “a lot” of ‘togs use still cameras these days as movie cameras. Not something I’ll ever comprehend. Trying to follow cellphones, perhaps, into a realm where your camera has to be able to multi-task, to a point way outside what cameras have usually done up till now. I suppose it’s progress – of a sort – but I kind of resent being expected to fork out a great deal more money, to cover the costs of providing all these “extras” that I have no need for, no interest in. And it’s not just “cost” that makes me feel like this. The production of “manuals” for these multi-tasking machines has gone mad. Do any of you actually get a manual with your cameras, any more? All mine are only available “on line”. Or they were, till now. And an enterprising outfit in the UK has decided to start publishing the manuals FOR the makers.

    Right now, sitting on my dining room table, are three of them. The thinnest is the one for the D850 – the other two are two volumes! – they are so long, the producer can’t fit them into his style of binding without splitting them into two volumes. And the smallest of the three – the Zfc – scores a two volume manual running to 640 pages!

    The final crushing blow is a oneliner, on the front cover, urging the new camera owner to make sure he reads – learns! – every last bit of it, the whole 640 pages if you bought yourself a Zfc like I did – before you even think to turn the camera on, or take any photos with it.

    This is plainly utter nonsense. And it is an inevitable byproduct of making a “do-everything” camera. But I will shut up now, leaving you all with this thought – do ANY of you want to read a 640 page book before you’re allowed to start using your new camera? I don’t – I just want to take photos with the blasted thing. I’ve gotten past “AUTO”, I set aperture according to what depth of field or bokeh I want, i set shutter speed to suit the subject, and I’ve left ISO to look after itself.

    Which means I’m ignoring all that twaddle, and my settings are not much more complicated than you’d get on a “point & shoot”.

    Instead of messing around with WAY too much tech, too many options, I just take photos. That’s the ONLY thing I find important, in all of this.

    Photos of what? VERY eclectic – always have been – whatever catches my eye – sometimes heaps of planning – sometimes none whatsoever. I leave it to my eye to make those decisions.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Interesting take, Pete. The fact that you are drawn to two very different cameras is probably a good sign. One for image quality, one for ergonomics & lenses. It’s a shame that only one exists, and that it’s probably not profitable to make niche cameras, and won’t be while so many photographers stay trapped in the performance groove, when most of them photograph mountains and other immobile objects. Oh well …

      I think the only chace for a niche camera today is to really push the boundaries and provide a very clear and compelling use case. Anyone trying to compromise or please two crowds is dead in the water.

      Good products do not need manuals. Steve Jobs and Jony Ive understood this and created the most valuable brand in the history of mankind. That simple fact seems to elude all the others.

      Oh well …

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Pascal, I much enjoyed this post–and the photos, particularly the B&W ones, are superb! I think you might be interested in a recent op-ed from The NY Times on “The Tyranny of the Best” by Rachel Connelly. It aligns with your thoughts, albeit in a quite different context.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Lad 🙂 I’m very pleased you like them!

      Thank you for the reference to that article, I will try to get access to it. That sort of thinking fascinates me.

      All the best.

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      Thanks, Lad, for that article!
      In Sweden we say:
      Låt inte det bästa bli det godas fiende.
      I.e.: Don’t let the best become the enemy of the good.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Lad, someone kindly shared the article with me and I found it very interesting. By chance, my weekend was spent doing one of the things I enjoy most: touring wineries and tasting.

      There are two ways to go about this: look at ratings from professionals (which have become a small army, by now) or taste for yourself. I use the first for remote wines that are hard to taste, and taste whenever possible.

      To me, the first option is slightly different from what the article describes, because the ratings are left by professionals (although some websites allow amateurs to volunteer their own opinion). But it stems from the same desire not to get it wrong.

      The second is the complete opposite. It’s about trusting your own taste, educating it along the way. And it’s about finding rare nuggets that have so far escaped the tsunami of ratings.

      The problem with the rating system is that it drives everyone to the same places. So, once a good place is discovered, it literally loses its soul. We’ve seen that happen to so many domains here, bought out by investors and turned into soulless money streams. So when we’ve found a nugget, we are constantly praying that it never gets discovered by that unspeakable plague that influencers have become, and remains a quiet quality place for discerning treasure hunters 🙂

      In photography, given the vast investments required, the monoculture created by Sony and the media means that it’s almost impossible to find hidden nuggets anymore. They simply die off because all their goodness is nulled by the fact they cannot shoot 243 frames per nanosecond. I see that as a tragic loss for the community as a whole, because photographers who actually need the all-powerful envelope that drives what remains of the camera market are very few and far between.

      I’m hoping that if more and more photographers get bored of their phones and are not in the hunt for a 102000 ISO, 20fps camera, some nuggets will reemerge, different enough from the mainstream not to be cannibalized by it. It’s probably wishful thinking, but it’s happening elsewhere, so I’ll keep my hopes up 🙂

      Thanks again for pointing me to this article (and to Frank for his share link 🙂 )

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Yes Quite. I still dream about my Zeiss Contarex. It was made for me. It had everything I wanted. Everything I needed in a camera. And nothing else.
        I never needed a manual. All I needed was a remote (cable) release, various filters, a tripod, an absolute beast of a flashgun (made by Graflex, for press photographers – each blast consumed a bulb the size of a then-standard household lightbulb – I managed to buy up a great big carton full of them, for almost nothing!), a tripod, and an independent Sekonic light meter.
        The glass was A+++++ grade (Zeiss – top of the range at the time). Three magazine backs, I could change film speed in seconds, or switch between B&W and colour.
        MADE for photographers! You want cine? Go fetch!
        Sigh – it was always like that in film days. My Voigtlander Bessas, my Zeiss Super Ikontas, my brief flirtation with a Linhof 4×5, my Zenza Bronica. Even my vintage postcard-size roll film camera – it was fun, it was great – and no such thing as “grain” in the resulting prints! – the images were actually 6.5 x 11, somewhat larger than a normal postcard.
        NEVER needed a 16-year old alongside you, to tell you which button to push!

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Pascal, you ask
    > “Simply put, would 24Mp be _enough_, whatever that means?”

    Keith Cooper of Northlight Images writes about
    “Printing low megapixel images at large size”
    ( https://www.northlight-images.co.uk/printing-low-megapixel-images/ )

    and about a 3m x 2m print from an 11MP 1Ds photo.
    ( https://www.northlight-images.co.uk/making-a-giant-print-from-an-11mp-image/ )

    Of course, some subjects simply need more detail to make the intended image.
    – – –

    You are right, of course, man chooses his clothes, but they influence him or her – and also his/hers photographs.

    And the camera influences the results also by its size and portability in addition to its photographic envelope and ergonomics.

    And how many cameras can be operated without taking your winter mittens off? I’ve had one!

    A great advantage of the phone-camera is that when that photo “gets you” you are immediately ready to catch it – if the camera’s angle of view corresponds to your personal awareness (in my case it doesn’t).
    – – –

    Last but *not* least, Pascal,
    I *do* like your photos!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Kristian. I have seen 40 inch prints made from a Leica M8 that would make most modern cameras cringe 😉 Quality matters. But it’s true that modern cameras have made more extreme situations (low light, stormy weather, exotic subjects …) much more accessible. All I’d like is for the market to recognize there is room for the two, and that starts with users knowing and trusting their gut on what they really want. If that was the case, exotic new ventures would have more chances of sticking around. A camera made for the cold for you, a clean UI with a large pixel sensor for me 🙂

      Ah well 😉

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Exactly, Pascal!
        ( And you made your point very clear in your post – I just wanted to widen it a little.)

        When the highlight advantages you’ve found in video cameras finally trickle down to “normal” cameras (unless the NIH syndrome rules) many of the enthusiasts who now use film will find alternatives. And their requirements may very well support your wishes.
        Or if Pixii grows enough to also introduce a model with an EVF…
        There’s always hope…
        – – –

        I once read a story about a motorcycle company having done market research asking future customers what kind of bike they wanted.
        They then produced such a bike … but sales were too low! Sic.
        One recognizes…
        – – –

        P. S.
        Just curious…
        That M8 print, a good lens, of course.
        But was it also because of some special quality in the M8 (in addition to the advantage of large pixels) or just the good work in PP and in Printing?

  • Allan Dew says:

    Hi Pascal.
    I’ve just gone through this journey. Over the years I’ve owned a Leica M8.. M9.. M240.. Q and Cl. All fine cameras. The only one left in the bag is the Q which doesn’t get much use. After selling the CL and much research I decided to purchase the new Lumix S5 ii. I only owned M mount lenses with the Leica M to L adapter so the Lumix seemed like the best choice. It lasted one month! I quickly realized the Swiss Army knife approach to photography was not for me, too many buttons, sub menus, and an owner’s manual the size of a phone book! No joy there for me.

    I have since settled on the Sigma FPL. A small 61mp. Full frame camera that I can build out my way.
    I didn’t like the expensive bolt on EVF so I purchased two sigma autofocus contemporary lenses (45 and 90mm) and have found the large screen ideal for composing.
    Unfortunately the screen does not flip up for ease of use but I have found an inexpensive kit that can retrofit the screen to a flip up.
    I source a grip that fits my hand perfectly. And best of all there is a switch that sets the camera to “cine or still” I doubt that it will ever move to cine.
    Leica spoiled me for using small lenses, on a small easy to hold camera. My IPhone and IPad spoiled me for using a large screen for composition…. FPL has got all this covered… Perfect
    As in all cameras there are a few things that are not ideal but so far I’ve been able to work around them.

    Happily this powerful little rig that most bloggers love to trash has rejuvenated my creative juices.
    As old blue eyes Frank Sinatra used to sing “ I’m doing it my way”

    All the best
    Allan

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Allan, very interesting. That “system-build” approach is the default one for Cine cameras and I really don’t understand why it hasn’t caught on in the photo world. It allows someone to buy the “brain” (sensor & processor box) then add grips that fit their hand, viewfinders that suit their tastes, screens that match their needs, battery pack that adapt to the conditions …

      It would be a huge opportunity for the market to seel vast amounts of accessories, when camera bodies themselves struggle to sell, and would allow for more creating system building for the user.

      I would love to see that come to pass. So happy it has got your creative juices going again 🙂

      All the best,
      Pascal

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Ha ha – well Pascal, seems you ain’t the only one thinking stuff like this –

    https://www.digitalcameraworld.com/news/i-cant-understand-how-taking-photo-got-so-complicated

    • pascaljappy says:

      So true. I suppose that, if the camera is to be seen as the saviour, it also needs to be at the center of our attention. The second we start thinking about the creative process again, the camera’s bubble starts to deflate rapidly 😉

      Cheers

  • Jens says:

    I believe we have to endure a few more years before we can enjoy more unique still cameras again. There is no denying that modern cameras are very complex products and the costs from development to production is likely one reason there are such few companies left. To some degree that Pareto principle applies here as well. And as long as people want ‘improvements’ on the tech side manufacturers have two choices:

    1. they feed the frenzy. And to avoid the cameras getting even more expensive they throw everything at it hoping for a sufficiently large volume of sales (there are some improvements for everyone)
    2. they target a specific audience, but the final product gets more expensive.

    But there is some hope: Take a look at TVs – there was a constant race for larger screens, more resolution, contrast etc. for years. People eventually realized that there is only a limited amount of space on their walls and the thirst for 8k isn’t really there either. Sales declined and manufacturers started to offer ‘high quality TVs’ at smaller screen sizes, since the market eventually got saturated.
    Similar smartphones have hit a point where most core features have reached a level that further development doesn’t appeal to the masses anymore, that once used to drive sales. To differentiate the products we now have phones aimed for gaming, as camera accessory, usual form factors, …

    In short back on cameras I think we’re getting closer that a new AF, more resolution or burst speed won’t drive sales anymore. And you cannot really segment the market based on these specs either anymore – a Nikon Z9 or Sony A1 has virtually no trade-offs if you care for the technical part alone. Eventually the last person will realize that the bodies are ‘good enough’ in these aspects. Besides there are other limiting factors such as the lenses. Even better once all manufacturers have reached that level.

    At that point the focus likely moves to other areas and/or more unique products. Bluntly the ever increasing development costs will take care of it once they cannot be compensated by the sales anymore. At the very least the development cycles will slow down.
    Not an area I care for, but you could argue Sony does already something similar with their video focused cameras – they offer cameras with fairly similar tech, but different form factors for different types of users. Since the development cost of such variants is likely much lower compared a really new product eventually users who care for still images are bound to get some love too.

    And a smaller market doesn’t have to be a bad thing – HIFI used to be way more popular, but there still exist great and unique products (albeit at a pretty penny). When I recently went out to get a new system I didn’t miss the mass products that once used to clutter even specialized stores or the much slower development cycles. And it affected how I consume music. It’s quite a different thing to pick a record and listen to it in its entirety – something that I lost doing for many years. Besides I don’t expect any urge to buy something new for a very very long time. If that’s the route still cameras take I’d be happy.

    • pascaljappy says:

      All very accurate and to the point, Jens. I hadn’t thought about the phone analogy, but it’s very true and gives me hope. And yes, HiFi now caters to more niches than we can count while still offering both affordable gear that’s seriously good and no-limit gear that’s tailored for very specific needs or tastes. There is too much charlatanism in the hobby for my taste but, apart form that, it is an interesting model to look forward to. Cheers

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