Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Buying Cameras: Refinements

Cameras are curious things: they're simultaneously indispensable and secondary to photography.

An unavoidable fact about cameras and lenses is that there's always something better out there. Some people take that as a challenge, and lust after gear that's sharper, faster, or bigger; I choose to see it as permission to use whatever I like without coveting my neighbour's glass. If it's not a question of having that unobtainable best camera, then it's a matter of choosing the right camera.

Like a sculptor who can create art in a stack of rocks, not all photographers need elaborate equipment. But having the appropriate tools matters immensely – just try to find a woodcarver who exercises her craft using putty knives. The key is to not let the tools dominate the art, either in execution or in conversation.

At its best, picking new camera equipment isn't something that someone else can do for you. While a technical review may show capabilities and anecdotes might provide perspective, neither of those can give the entire answer. With that in mind, here are the four self-diagnostic questions that I use to guide my own purchases.

What does my current equipment not do that I want; what could do it better? Changing camera equipment is an exercise in codifying dissatisfaction. Be specific, because the better a shortcoming is defined then the more likely it is to be resolved.

Take a look back at your past years' worth of photos, and pick out your very favourite images. How will your next purchase improve them? Consider your failed images, and look for common themes and problems. Do you need what you think you need?

If you don't have a body of work that's large enough to really go through and learn the answers to these questions, then it's not time to buy anything new. Take photos with what you already have instead.

Can I work with my limits; what other solutions are there? Everything's a compromise, but nearly every problem can be solved. If you want better low-light performance, buy an uber-pro camera and a half-dozen fast lenses. If that's too expensive, then use almost any camera and a good tripod. If that's too bulky, take bursts of photos and processes them through a stacking application. If your subject's moving too fast for long- or multiple-exposures to work, then buy an uber-pro camera.

The other easily available solution is to take a different photo. If iso-gazillion isn't an option, that doesn't mean that you can't take photos of your little one's gymnastics competition. It just means that you can't take crisp photos from the bleachers during the peak action. So if you don't like the answer, ask a different question: how can a photograph capture the poetic essence of movement through motion blur instead of freezing it into an unnatural tableaux? Limitations can be an incredible creative force, so be willing to redefine success whenever possible.

What does it cost? Cost isn't just financial, although that's an unfortunate part of photography. Don't fall into the trap of having a "photography budget", or at least, remember that a life lived well can make everything into an outlet for your passions. Would dropping four figures on a camera every three years really improve your photography more than taking a workshop, or improve your life more than a family vacation? Perhaps it would, and prioritizing money is always an intensely personal decision, but unless you're a professional photographer – and my condolences if you are – every purchase and cost is an elective one. Buy whatever you like if you can afford it, but don't let the want-generators of web forums and technology blogs disort your sense of what actual photographers are doing and using.

Is there a significant difference? "Significant" means that it's easy to choose between two options. If you'd leave one camera at home because it's too big but carry a smaller one, then there's a significant size difference between them. As always it's subjective and situational: sometimes even a small MILF – yes, Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Format – is too much to carry, while other times a medium-format SLR is no big deal. Conversely, if it's difficult to choose between two cameras or lenses, then one of them is probably redundant. Fight the tendency to give disproportionate weight to minor differences.

Another aspect of "significance" is whether the new equipment will actually be a substantial improvement. Buying a new APS-C digital SLR for better 40x60" prints isn't the right answer, but going from 12 to 18 megapixels might be worth doing for a really good 11x14". As unfun as it is, being realistic doesn't hurt when the credit card has your own name on it.


Of course, pragmatism can be over-rated. There's nothing wrong with wanting a camera just to have something new or different, and there's no rule saying that everything must fulfil some fundamental purpose. I have to admit that I like cameras just as much as I like photography, and as hobbies those two don't always have much to do with each other. The key is to have fun – and I always have something else to buy on my list.


Matthew Robertson writes for the popular website `thewsreviews, and although he's still a novice photographer, he does really like his cameras.

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