Monday, July 29, 2013

of cameras and photography, a personal journey

e-m5 in hand

I've been thinking long and hard about my photography lately, and I've come to realize I spend way too much time (and precious cash) on equipment and far too little on the art of photography itself. Right now the most sophisticated camera in my collection is the one at the top of this post, the Olympus OM-D E-M5. I also have a collection of µ4:3rds lenses, the majority of them small primes. I carry them around in a bag, yet I spend too little time using it, and have too few quality images to show for the equipment investment.

Funny thing is I've managed reproduce, with µ4:3rds lenses, the type of 35mm film system I used back in the 1970s and 1980s, before I pretty much sold it all and bought a Nikon N90 and a single Nikkor zoom in 1989. The Nikon is what I used, in decreasing frequency, until I took up with digital cameras in by purchasing a Canon A300 point-and-shoot in 2003.

Over the last ten years I've traced a blazing trajectory from the Canon A300 point and shoot through various Olympus DSLRs (E-1, E-3, E-300) and on through various mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras starting with the Olympus Pens (E-P2, E-PL1, E-PL2), with side trips through a Panasonic GX1 and a Sony NEX 5N. During that same period I've participated in no small number of forum "discussions", usually because someone was wrong on the Internet about my choice of cameras. I wasted too much time buying and arguing, and not enough photographing.

And now, here I am, with what is arguably one of the best Olympus cameras ever made, if not the best, the E-P5 not withstanding. I didn't say it was perfect, I said it was the best, and that's not a paradox. Like any camera currently made the E-M5 has its quirks and perceived shortcomings. But if you back up just a bit and take a practical view of the camera as a complete system, I find it can more than hold its own and produce sterling results in just about any situation I find myself in. And if it can't, well, you know what, rather than go looking for something even better, I just turn the camera off, sit back, and enjoy myself.

I'm at a point in my life where I need to get off the perpetual camera upgrade treadmill. This not only applies to bodies, but to lenses as well. As I first wrote I've reproduced digitally what I had some 30 or more years ago in analog film when I found three 35mm lenses to be totally sufficient for my needs. They were the 28mm f/2.8, the 50mm f/1.4, and the 135mm f/2.8. All of them were affordable (at the time) Minolta Rokkor lenses. I eventually picked up a 200mm f/4, but discovered it spent more time in my bag than on my camera, and so I sold it, barely touched. Over the seventies I picked up three Minolta bodies, an SRT-MC, an XE-7, and an XD-11. I had, literally, one body/lens, and except for a pair of Vivitar 283s, batteries, and some film, that's all I carried in my bag. And the bag, I might add, was actually pretty compact and light. I could carry that entire collection on my shoulder all day long and not think twice about it.

Then my life shifted, and I unloaded everything I owned except the X-E7 and the 50mm, and lived with that until I got married. On a honeymoon trip out to San Francisco I picked up my first Olympus camera, an OM-4 with Zuiko 50mm f/1.4, and that was my main camera for about the next five years until I gave that to my younger brother and bought the Nikon.

My film period is starkly different when compared with my digital period. Over a 30 year period I purchased five 35mm cameras, or about one every six years on average. I purchased the first three cameras in the 1970se (three Minoltas) then the the last two (the Olympus and then the Nikon, in that order) in the 1980s, then nothing at all in the 1990s and the first of the aughts. I certainly purchased a lot of film (print and slide) and produced a lot of prints. And therein I think is a key to how I approached photography in those first three decades.

During my film period I was more interested in the process and product of photography (especially the product) than photographic equipment.

During my digital period, that somehow flipped 180°. When I add up all the digital cameras I've owned, this is what I get (in the order of purchase):

Canon A300 + E-300 + E-3 + E-P2 + E-1 (3) + E-PL1 (2) + E-PL2 + Sony NEX 5N + E-M5 + GX1 = 13 cameras. More than double the number of film cameras, in one third the time (ten years vs thirty years).

During my digital period I was more interested in the equipment of photography than the process and product of photography. Frankly I believe that to be utterly wrong. I have no-one to blame but myself. If I had been following the same buying process as I had with film I'd be on my third digital camera, not my twelfth (the E-M5) and the thirteenth (GX1) with some NEX 5N on the side (number eleven).

I'll grant you that at least half of those cameras were purchased far below MSRP, either as used (all E-1s) or heavily discounted (nearly all the rest, usually $200 or less). But still, I payed full price for the E-P2 and the E-M5, and that was quite a chunk of change all told. (To be honest, while the E-3 was on sale, it still wasn't cheap). That's a whole lotta cash just to satisfy gear acquisition syndrome.

Now I've hit a pretty large wall over gear purchases. It started with the realization that I'm no longer charging around photographing everything like I once did. The reasons why not are varied, but the result is significant. Even though I always carry a camera with me, I seldom go out of my way anymore to stop and photograph something. Anything.

And with that realization of low usage came the mental calculation of all the bodies I've purchased. I don't have all of them any more; I gave an E-1, my E-300, an E-PL1, and the E-PL2 to my youngest. As I wrote about last year one of my E-1s and my E-3, along with the 12-60mm and the 50-200mm zooms were stolen. And the Canon A300 has long since ceased to function. So that culls the number of working digital cameras in this house to six. Six. And I barely use half of them. The rest sit in their bag (the E-1) or in a drawer (the E-P2 and E-PL1).

I have reached an end. I've finally learned it's a fools journey to keep throwing yet more large sums of money after diminishing returns. 12MP really was good enough, and 16MP even more so. ISO 6400 really is more than enough. I've got three 16MP cameras (NEX 5N, E-M5, and GX1) that produce indistinguishable output with decent enough lenses.  And as it turns out decent enough lenses start at around $100 (the Sigmas). That's one reason I haven't gone chasing after $1000+ dollar (and up) über-fast primes or zooms.

I'm going to be finally finishing a review of the E-M5 on thewsreviews Real Soon Now. Here's a spoiler; I'm going to give it a rip-roaring high rating. It will be more than good enough. I'll go into specific details in the review.

I'm at my end of chasing camera gear. Perhaps Thom Hogan is right, and I've now flipped from GAS to Last Camera Syndrome. Only time will tell.

Oh, I forgot. Even my Samsung Galaxy S4 has two cameras built into it. *sigh*


  1. Good one, Bill - and an important thing to learn; you are as right about this as Thom is.

  2. Excellent post. I'm still chasing camera gear with some enthusiasm, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find problems that only a new camera can solve.

  3. Great writeup, Bill. Seems like a trend and there is some consistency with Kirk's writings.

    1. In the end it comes down to just how many cameras you really need (one, actually) and how often you're willing to "upgrade" to get the "latest" sensor tech. As Kirk once commented the last camera was always the best until whatever the current version came out... I'll say this much, from a personal perspective camera marketing is pretty effective. Why else would we keep buying and buying when the current model we own is still perfectly good?


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