Posted by: kerryl29 | March 15, 2021

When It’s Time to Upgrade

I have made the case, right here on this blog, that many photo gear upgrades are misguided attempts to overcome some sort of problem that has nothing to do with equipment.  There are a significant number of folks out there who believe that a general dissatisfaction with the images they’re making will be magically solved by a purchase of Camera X or Lens Y…or, hey, maybe both!  This kind of thinking is, of course, encouraged by camera manufacturers, but it’s rarely true and purchases of these sorts seldom do much of anything other than lighten someone’s wallet.

Sturgeon River, Canyon Falls Roadside Park, Baraga County, Michigan

That being said, there are legitimately good reasons to upgrade.  An obvious example is someone interested in photographing birds in flight who has found, after careful experimentation, that his/her camera’s autofocus doesn’t track flying subjects well, making it difficult to get a sharp image of the intended subject.  Or perhaps the buffer or frame rate of the current camera is making it harder than it ought to be to produce the desired result.  Getting a camera that will address these technical shortcomings wouldn’t, I would argue, make someone a better photographer; a more successful photographer very probably, but that’s not the same thing.

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Still, the point is that there are practical, pointed reasons to upgrade photo gear.  If you can identify a specific shortcoming with your current equipment–like the examples above–that can clearly be addressed by obtaining something else, that’s a solid reason to at least consider a purchase.  Broadly speaking, if your gear is impeding a fulfillment of your photographic vision, it should be replaced, if at all possible.  I don’t see this sort of thing in the real world all that often, but when it does rear its ugly head, it’s a revealing experience, and that’s what happened last fall.

Merced River, Mist Trail Yosemite National Park, California

This past October, I met my friend Jason Templin in northern Wisconsin and we drove up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from there for roughly a week’s worth of photography.  Though he has a digital camera with a couple of lenses, Jason is still primarily photographing with a medium format film camera (a Pentax 67, for those of you interested).  While there must be others out there, Jason is the only person I know still using any kind of a medium format film camera.  What’s more, Jason’s film of choice is Fujifilm’s Velvia Classic, an ISO 50 transparency emulsion, that many people (including Jason) historically have photographed using a camera ISO setting of 40.  Over the years, many photographers have been partial to the look of the highly saturated renderings obtained with Velvia.

Kealia Beach at Sunrise, Kauai, Hawaii

I shot my share of Velvia back in the day; it’s a notoriously finicky slide film, with an extremely limited exposure latitude (film speak for “dynamic range”); you get about five stops to play with, at best.  It’s generally inadvisable to use this film under even modestly contrasty lighting conditions, due to the tendency to blow the highlights or block up the shadows.  It also frequently requires long shutter speeds (the effect of shooting a film at ISO 50, to say nothing of 40).  If you’re getting the idea that Velvia is naturally limiting, you’re on the right track.

Fire Wave at Dusk, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

For those of you with little or no familiarity photographing with any film, let alone an emulsion like Velvia, there are countless limitations relative to shooting digitally.  Want to change the ISO?  You have to shoot out the roll of film (assuming you’re using rolls of course, which you are with medium and small format cameras), then go with another limiting roll.  In other words, you can’t change the ISO shot to shot.  You get far fewer images per roll of film than any flash card in circulation today.  You can’t preview your exposure.  You can’t review your exposure or focus after the fact.  Even metering through the lens isn’t a given (though many film cameras do have this capability).  Focus stacking?  Forget it.  HDR?  Forget that, too.  15-20 years ago there were countless articles written about the film/digital tradeoffs that I’ve barely scratched the surface of summarizing here.  Today, so few people are shooting film relative to digital capture that the issue almost never comes up.  If anything, the disparities are much greater these days because digital capture has continued to advance while film essentially has not.

Ohio Pass Overlook, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

In short, I think it’s fair to say that digital capture is, objectively, far more flexible and forgiving than film capture ever could be.  In the parlance of the first three paragraphs of this post, digital capture doesn’t really make you a better photographer compared to film, but it really does make–again, I think objectively–it easier, most of the time, to carry out your photographic vision.

Ferns & Cascades, Old Man’s Cave Area, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

This subject is something I hadn’t actively considered in years, but photographing with someone shooting film–magnified by someone shooting film with a medium format camera (where focal length/field of view conversion factors mean shooting with longer equivalent focal lengths…which leads to even more significant depth of field issues…which leads to shooting with smaller apertures…which means even slower shutter speeds)–made the matter even starker than it would have been otherwise.  The number of times during our days shooting when I heard Jason say–wistfully–something along the lines of “if I photograph that moving water scene it will end up looking like a white blob” (due to exceptionally long shutter speeds and how water is thus rendered) or “I’m going to need a shutter speed of 15 or 20 seconds” (during which time foliage would blow incessantly) for a frame that I was comfortably shooting at 1/4 of a second or thereabouts, was positively depressing.

Buttermilk Creek, Buttermilk Falls State Park, New York

Add to this the fact that Jason really didn’t have flexibility at the telephoto end of the field of view spectrum, a function of limited lens availability for his camera (limited affordable lens availability, in any case), which produced another entire category of images that weren’t accessible, and it became readily apparent to me just how heavily impacted his image making opportunities were.

Tangle Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta

It wasn’t that Jason was complaining; he wasn’t.  In fact, he was resolutely upbeat.  But I could see how many photographs Jason wasn’t getting; critically, this was not because he wasn’t seeing them.  It was because his equipment made it effectively impossible to obtain them.  Jason’s a fine photographer; he knows what he’s doing and he has a genuinely good eye for composition, but–here it comes–his gear is impeding his ability to fulfill his photographic vision.

Jack Brook, Orleans County, Vermont

I will add that I’m deliberately oversimplifying the situation to present a real world version of the theme of this post.  There are perfectly good reasons that are preventing Jason from updating his equipment (i.e. it’s not as though he doesn’t realize everything I’ve written above) to date, which are beyond the scope of this piece.  But the point remains:  there are times when equipment upgrades are warranted and gear impeding the process is the most salient of those times.

Koyukuk River, Brooks Range, Alaska


Responses

  1. Bravo Kerry, this is an excellent blog post and a thought provoking perspective on gear. I now reckon a fancy new easel won’t make me a better painter.

    • Thanks, Tom.

      The new easel might not help, but a new set of brushes or a new smock? Who knows? 🙂

  2. Couldn’t agree more, Kerry. So many people don’t really learn how to wring the maximum potential from their current gear. Having said that, another valid (IMO) reason for upgrading is weight. As soon as Nikon releases a pro-level, mirrorless body optimized for landscape, I’m moving to mirrorless. I love my D850, but I know I will need to lighten my pack as I age, and the pounds I’ll drop with a bag of mirrorless lenses and bodies will make a meaningful difference and allow me to remain on the trail for more years than with heavier DSLR gear.

    • Interesting timing, Steve, I’ve been eyeing a mirrorless option for at least two years, primarily due to the size/weight issue, and have actually taken the first step in that direction in the past two weeks. I’m actually planning to blog about this in the relatively near future.

      I’m curious as to what you consider “optimized for landscape” to mean, specifically. (Feel free to punt this discussion to email, if you prefer, or continue here in the comments.)

  3. Sometimes a self imposed limitation can expand creativity as one tries to get the most out of the medium. I will say I love shooting digitally and even more editing in the Photoshop/Lightroom darkroom.

    • As a learning/motivational exercise, I would agree; limiting oneself to, for instance, a single lens or a specific shutter speed range can be an eye-opening experience. But over the long haul, I would hate to be restrained indefinitely.


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