#1320. More thoughts on system building

By pascaljappy | How-To

Nov 01

How to choose lenses, cameras and accessories should be your decision, not the market’s.


Judging by the comments and email my last post elicited, I can’t have done a great job of explaining my subtractive approach to system building πŸ˜‰

But first, let’s draw a line between collectors and photographers. Both represent valid hobbies, but collectors do have to (mostly) think in terms of adding, whereas I believe togs who buy to achieve a task should go about it the opposite way. So, maybe you enjoy buying for the sake of owning gear, and that’s fine. So do most people. But that’s not what this post is about.

Matt Day, on youtube is a great example of what I’m getting at. He starts with a project in mind, buys gear for it, works the project and then sells the gear. In between the collector and Matt, most people don’t have a clear way of thinking or deciding about gear. That’s why the media, and untold numbers of youtube channels and blogs have a business …


So what’s this nonsense about subtractive building? πŸ˜‰

Imagine you own a camera and a lens. Now you buy something else, thinking that adding it to your bag will bring benefits. That’s our usual way of going about it. However, in reality, we can own 40 lenses, but we can only use one at a time. And what new gear does invariably bring is extra problems.

That new lens adds weight, decision paralysis when packing, the risk of getting a dud, the risk of the lens not being a good match for the project at hand, the risk you’ll never get to know it well enough because you don’t have the time to use all of your gear very much, constant dust on your sensor when you swap lenses, buyer’s remorse, spouse bickering, and probably a lot more.


That is your investment. The price you paid isn’t. Once paid, the money pains are no longer in play (at least I hope you don’t put yourself in financial difficulty for a lens). The real investment is the list of ongoing problems that lens has added to your life.

So what is the return on that investment?

The way I see it, that return has to be of the same nature as the investment: i.e. problems. So what problems and pains does that new lens remove from your amateur photographer life?


I can only suggest a list, you have to do the problems maths:

  • Boredom. Maybe using the same lens for years is proving a little boring. Hey, even HCB had 2 or 3 lenses. But do note how often you see the media laud the virtues of one-year-one-lens challenges for stimulating creativity, boosting drive …
  • Image defects. Maybe your old lens isn’t sharp enough, and the new one is. But: sharp enough for what? 99.999% of photos end up displayed at less than 1Mp on a computer screen or phone.
  • Range limits. Maybe your current lens isn’t wide enough or long enough, or doesn’t focus close enough. A valid point, if you have a specific project in mind. Such as Philippe’s dedication to portraits of tiny roadside flowers that no one else even notices. Or Pete’s very long-distance panos.
  • Lingering AF. Again, an essential criterion for specific uses, though I’m not sure you’ll find a single AF photo in many credible Top 100 photo lists.
  • Weight. Letting go of a boat anchor for a lighter proposition does seem like a great idea, if the tradeoff is acceptable.
  • Slow aperture. F/1.4 is so 2015, right πŸ˜‰ Again, only you can tell whether more aperture will serve a purpose in your style/subject/shooting habits.

It’s not psycho-mystical mumbo-jumbo to say that material acquisitions rarely fill a void. Or that simple is beautiful. Ask Jony Ive how many hundreds of millions simplicity has made him. We all crave it, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not. Smartphones are simple, and they have buried the traditional camera in the sand, in terms of market share.

As long as we think of new gear along the lines of adding benefits and eliminating problems, we are playing according to the manufacturer’s rules. In reality, a satisfying purchase is one that removes a needle from our foot, as the French say. Bad marketers make lists of features to peddle on social media. Good marketers identify the pain that needs to be removed from their client’s life.

So I’m not saying we shouldn’t buy gear (if treecreepers and fairy wrens constitute your photographic life, that superfast AF long lens is a Godsend.) Only that when considering new gear, we should look at it from the perspective of what unwanted attributes of our current workflow it will eliminate, subtract. In the immortal words of Mandalore: “That is the way” πŸ˜‰ Cheers


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    If the first shot is your backyard, and the last is your home, you’ve surely solved your housing problems! Absolutely gorgeous – and well worth making an A0 sized enlargement to hang on the wall, if you still have any space!

    “whether more aperture will serve a purpose” – ha ha – one article after another extols the virtues of the extra f-stop. Then the REAL ‘togs come out of their corner, and tell you – “but the sweet spot of that lens is f/5.6 – or f/6.3 – or f/8 – and you’ll never want to use f/2.8 – or f/1.4 – so you might as well save your money for something else, and just buy the f/4 version, because it’s just as sharp at your sweet spot, and half the price of the faster lens!”

    Yes – the 600mm prime is fantastic – weighs less, super sharp. But hang on – I only want 400mm, 600mm is too close – well get a 400 as well – why not a zoom, and then I’ll only need ONE lens, and it will weigh far less than TWO! Yes but it won’t be quite as sharp! As sharp as what? I print all my photos on an ink jet printer, THAT makes them “less sharp”, I don’t think I could ever tell the difference!

    I wonder what Philippe’s going to add to all of this! I saw Matt’s comment – I did think that was a little bit extreme, in the opposite direction – when I start planning a photo, the process rarely includes a trip across town to my favourite camera stores, cruise them all three times, then make a purchase decision – only to find they’re out of stock – as they are, right now, with the one and only lens I WANT to shoot with for the moment. Released in June, but N/A in Australia, and I still have wait another 3-4 weeks – just long enough to save up the money to pay for it! ( Which confirms exactly what you’re saying.)

    • pascaljappy says:

      Re-housing, I wish πŸ˜‰ That’s an abbey and a wine chateau. No such grandeur for me πŸ˜‰

      And, well, we all have our own approach, and none should be condemned. Matt is a cross between a pro and an artist. He needs to feed his kids with his photography, but at the same time he only does it through personal projects, having long abandonned commissions, weddings … It’s a very brave stance, and one I wish I had the courage to take. But that makes his choices a lot more deliberate that mine or most others πŸ˜‰

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    As I contemplate a cupboard bulging with unused manual focus Nikon lenses, I wish I’d read this article 10 years ago!

    My interest was sparked by a chance reading of a post on Fred Miranda’s website extolling the virtues of the “old’ and durable Nikon Ai and Ais lenses that worked so well, after a little modification, on modern digital Nikon bodies.

    When a “new” lens became available in South Africa I was among the first to pick it up and, I must confess, using them on my D70 and D200 was a lot of fun.

    When the venerable D200’s aperture lever stopped functioning and Nikon no longer supplied spare parts, I moved on to a D500 mainly for birds and other wildlife and eventually to a Z5 for other work.
    As my eyes have aged, I find that accurate manual focusing, even with “in camera” aids. has become too difficult for me with the result that the lenses are not used anymore.

    I have resisted the temptation to duplicate the range of my adequate Nikkor Zoom lenses and regret having acquired the Z 40mm f2 lens as I very rarely use it and find it a little wide for full frame. In any event the 24 – 200 is more than adequate.

    Thanks, Pascal, for reminding me to put GAS in perspective πŸ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Peter. In all honnesty, this article is clearly a case of “do as I say, not as I do” πŸ˜‰ My shelf is also crowded with unused lenses. Not that many, but still too many by objective standards. I’m slowly selling them off, but there are some that have clearly fallen into the emotional/irrational collector domain. I suppose we have to learn from our mistakes, and recent purchases, more so in HiFi than in photography, have made me rethink my approach because they prove to be big disappointments. Once bitten … πŸ˜‰ Cheers

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    One can’t call a bad marketer a toad, can one?
    Because Mr. Toad of Toad Hall was rather a victim of markets, wasn’t he?
    – – * – –

    The Centipede was happy quite,
    Until a Toad in fun
    Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”
    And worked her mind to such a pitch,
    She lay distracted in a ditch
    Considering how to run.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Ha ha ha! What a brilliant comment, Kristian! I thought the author must be a nordic writer, but it seems to have been written by a lady called Katherine Craster, when she was about 30. Interestingly, one article I found describes it as “a playful poem” – and another one (which I imagine is a Y-chromosome job) describes it as “a silly little nursery rhyme”. Psuchologists have seized on it, as a sample “the centipede effect” – which occurs when a normally automatic or unconscious activity is disrupted by consciousness of it or reflection on it. Over-analysis!

  • philberphoto says:

    Pascal’s post has made me think. I also went back and re-read the post we co-wrote on our “perfect cameras”. Why is it that he, such a great photographer, needs his gear to tick so many boxes, and I, a far lesser one, so few? Then came my epiphany. Looking back at my newly acquired Laowa 58mm f;2.8 macro, I bought it with the expectation it would be the same as my 100mm f:2.8 macro, only shorter, and maybe improved a bit if Laowa had improved over time. Wrong. It turned out to be an almost-wholly different lens. So I had to learn to use it. Which hopefully by now I have achieved. But I get different images from what I would have gotten from my previous lens. So IT HAS CHANGED ME as a photographer. I remember when I lost gorgeous gear to theft. Gone were my Otus. After dealing with the grief, I started up again with what gear I had. An age-old NEX 7 with a Leica 28mm Elmarit. And I had fun. And it changed me as a photographer, learning to deal with this set of possibilities and also limitations. Now I am considering acquiring a Sony 70-200 f:4.0 macro zoom. It is so easy to use. Zoom range. Super fast AF. But will it change me (a big + in my book), or will it let my natural laziness take over? I fear the latter more than I hope for the former. So the perfect system for me is a one-lens system (changing lenses in the field is not for us, lazies) that has as many limitations as it offers possibilities. I am convinved that I make better images when I have to work hard at making them really good enough. Or at least trying and often failing to reach that lofty goal. Because one twin asset I have to combat laziness are my pride and vanity, forcing me to redo a shot again and again, until finally it gets done. Which makes me think I should mark ease-of-use and wide shooting envelope as negatives in my book. As though gear with limitations were the lesser photographer’s road to redemption.

  • John Wilson says:

    Pascal – I know of whence you speak … in a left handed sort of way. For the last 10 years my approach has been “what can I do without”. I pretty much have all the tools I need, including lenses (all zooms)
    and odds and sods like filters etc. The camera case is three bodies, including the IR camera, and four lenses. While it goes in the car, the field kit is one body and three lenses, one on the camera and two in a belt pouch. Any filters go into the pocket of my cargo pants and there’s room in the belt pouch for spare batteries. Other than the tripod where necessary. THAT’S IT!!

    For “Street”, its a Nikon V3 with a 10-100mm (27-270). Light, compact, fast, unobtrusive and quiet. I can carry it all day and not notice it. If I could only keep one camera, this would be it.

  • Jon Maxim says:

    Hi Pascal,

    I am late to the party but this topic has driven me frantic. I saved up for several decades waiting until retirement to be able to buy exactly the gear I wanted and use it for the rest of my life. What a disappointment! I am guilty of GAS in the first degree. I have acquired seven different systems (eleven, if you count the different sensor sizes) and an excessive amount of duplicate lenses (because each system HAS to cover the same range). What have I got from it? First of all, utter confusion whenever I pick up a camera on how to work the controls. Secondly, severe depletion of my budget from all the losses of trading in to the latest model which will miraculously improve my picture taking ability (which probably peaked about twenty years ago).

    Why has all this happened? One answer: reading too many photo blogs. I probably should have stuck to one blog that had a prejudice for one brand only. So it is refreshing to have a blog tell me I am doing it all wrong (although you almost made me buy a Hasselblad).

    I find myself constantly telling myself I should ditch all but one of my systems. But which one? I should probably keep Sony because it has the most options. But then I will miss the dials on my Fujis and the pride I take in fighting the X-sensor processing on Lightroom. But wait, the Fuji “medium format” doesn’t have Fuji dials (and it’s not really medium format). And now even Leica is getting a lot of extra gear because of the L-alliance.

    What am I to do? Help me Obi Wan KenPascal! πŸ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      πŸ˜€ Now you have me by my soft spot: Obi Wan πŸ˜‰

      Yeah, I know what you mean and feel. My recommendation would be to (1) decide which system is more pleasurable to use. You’ll use it more often than the others. And (2) try determine what system have left you with the photos you like best. If (1) and (2) align, you have a winner. If not, pleasure of use would be my priority. Whenever something feels pleasant and intuitive, that lets use focus on the photography. Unless of course you have a very specific need such as extreme macro, or very long lenses, in which case the decision is probably more technical.

      I wouldn’t focus on the most versatile system, necessarily. It’s more interesting to find something that works well (and enjoyably) for the type of photography you enjoy doing the most. It’s often by specializing that we get more comfortable, rarely the opposite.

      I hope this helps and may the Phorce be with you πŸ˜‰

    • John Wilson says:

      Jon – Several years ago I was forced to go through an exercise like this: choose 100 of your favourite images collection. Now look at the XIF data – which camera(s) did you most often use and which lens did you most often use. That should tell you a lot.

      • Jon Maxim says:

        Thanks John. I will do the EXIF exercise as you recommend. However, choosing favourite images will be a major challenge – I have only just started looking at my 500,000+ images than have never been looked at. I’m kind of like a digital Vivian Maier…

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Sorry to intrude on your Star Wars dialogue – I decided some years after I settled into digital (instead of film) that I would stick with one brand, so I chose Nikon. And I’ve stuck with them ever since – with one aberration, a Canon PowerShot that I have a love/hate relationship with, because it won’t keep the settings I choose and the manual was written in Japanese, which I can’t read. All went swimmingly – till the industry went mirrorless, and Nikon – always the laggard, but usually worth waiting for – finally joined in. With a revolutionary mirrorless range. And I’m slowly being sucked in. Leaving me choosing what I sell (if I can!) and what I choose to keep, because some of my DSLR gear is fantastic too. Sigh! Such is the price we pay for progress!
      What I HAVE fond, Jon, is that there is a lot of rubbish in the photography press – because we’re reaching a stage where even if something IS “better”, nobody normal could ever notice the difference, without maybe peering at two biopsies on a “twinned slide” under a microscope. I can’t put my hands on it now (I’ve been looking for it since yesterday), but I read a review by a guy who’d been a photographer for 40 years, and his conclusion on all this GAS stuff was brilliant – something to the effect people have lost the plot – when you look at one of Da Vinci’s paintings, you don’t go into his study and check out all his brushes, to see which one he used to paint his “Last Supper”! You look at the painting, and admire that, instead. And it doesn’t MATTER what he used, to paint it with!

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    And here’s another just shaking off a bit of confusion.
    I long for IBIS … but do I need it?
    ( But I hate having to carry and fiddle with a tripod!)
    And I’d like a shorter register for a certain adapter…
    But that would mean changing system, phew.

    So, just for the fun of it, I read up a bit on the Nikon sensor shift cameras…

    And found myself smiling at this:
    [ – from Thom Hogan on Nikon Zf & Z6.]

    “I’m not sure Nikon could have created a better conundrum. As I’ve pointed out before, there’s a school of marketing/sales that preys on confusing the potential buyer and then steering them to what you want to sell them. When our brains get confused over a buying decision, we turn to others for help making the decision. A good sales person can use that confusion to point you wherever they’d like you to go. That feels like help, but is really manipulation.”


    !! , πŸ™ , πŸ˜‰ , πŸ™‚ .

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah well, the IBIS *eliminates* shake. If you find that some of your best shots are ruined by shake, it seems like a win to get a new camera featuring this. My only wish for the X1D is that it would have IBIS. The X2D does, but my percentage of images lost to shake is generally too low for the investment to make sense. Plus, even the shaky ones do not bother me that much. Half of those published in the CHoco Sound EMEI review were blurry because of shake. So what? πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰

  • Michael Keppler says:

    When I recently took my old Contax out of the cupboard after – surely – more than 20 years, I suddenly realised something: In all the cameras and lenses I’ve bought and resold over the years, I’ve only been looking for one camera that feels exactly like my Contax.
    I don’t remember when I got my first Agfamatic from my parents, but I can still remember the exact moment when my father bought me a Minolta XG-M with a 50mm lens. A few years later, when I was still at grammar school and had earned some money during the summer holidays, I swapped the Minolta for a second-hand Contax 139 Quartz with a Carl Zeiss 1.4/50. I also got a new CZ 2.8/135, but I hardly ever used it. I photographed everything with the Zeiss 50mm for many years, neither autofocus nor zoom or other fashions interested me.
    The whole thing only changed around 2008 when I started using digital photography. Cameras and lenses came and went. Fuji felt good, after my studies and my first few years at work I had money and the equipment grew and grew. At some point it was too much for me and I sold everything. Then I made the same mistake with Sony.
    Recently I had the Contax in my hands again (a 167MT that had joined the family at some point). What a camera, how beautifully designed. What a great viewfinder, what a great feel of the lens. Focusing was a joy and completely problem-free, no wonder I had never missed an autofocus. Do you need more than a good 50mm? You can shoot anything with it.
    I’m not immune. I have four lenses on the table for the Hasselblad, I would love a Digi-Back. And the 903SWC too! But I’ve put the handbrake on. No more new equipment. Go out and take pictures! And anything that won’t be used in the next six months will be sold. Except for the Contax and the Zeiss 50mm. They’re staying.

    • John Wilson says:

      Michael – I never owned a Contax, but I agree completely. They were such beautiful cameras and the Zeiss lenses were gorgeous. My all time favourite is still the G2 … it just begs to be held and photographed with. The closest I’ve ever come to that feeling is the Fuji X-T1, which I still own … now superseded by an X-T2 and an X-S10, neither of which feel anywhere near as good in the hand; just better resolution, better noise characteristics plus IBIS and multiple exposure in the X-S10.

      • Michael Keppler says:

        For me, the Fuji X-T1 was the first digital camera, apart from the X-Pro1, that actually felt like a real camera. At last, everything was back where it belonged. Aperture ring on the lens, dials for mode and shutter speed. I don’t really know why I gave it away…..

    • pascaljappy says:

      That story feels so familiar, Michael !! Couldn’t agree more.

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