Rule number two is very simple — stop buying cameras.
Over the course of 37 years Nikon introduced five top of the range film SLR’s, the F1 to F5. With the recent announcement of the high end Nikon D5 it has taken only 17 years to get to the same stage with digital. Seventeen years, is of course, a very long time in the world of digital. Step down from the professional level cameras to the consumer end and things speed up considerable. It took Nikon less than six years to move from the D5000 to the D5400 — that’s a new model every 18 months. I’m using Nikon as an example because I have the information to hand. The same would be true of the other major camera makers.
Not only do manufacturers replace — or ‘upgrade’ as we’ve been taught to say — models more frequently, they generally have a much wider range of models available as well. The end result is that each year photographers are bombarded with dozens of new cameras, launched with glitzy advertising campaigns and devoured by the photographic internet, desperate to fill up a few more pages with near identical articles largely lifted from the manufacturers’ press releases.
Now, I understand that comparing film and digital cameras is not comparing like with like. The rate of development in the digital world is unmatched by the slow evolution of largely mechanical film cameras. Most significantly, the move away from film as a separate component to a digital sensor as an integral part of the camera has changed the way we think about and buy cameras. Nevertheless, do we really need all of these new cameras? Does each new release genuinely represent significant progress over the previous model? When was the last time a newly released camera offered a real, decisive step up in photographic capability compared to its predecessor. The only two that come to mind are the Nikon D500 and the Fuji X-Pro2, the former replacing a camera originally introduced seven years ago, the latter replacing one introduced four years ago.
Routinely, though, each new model brings no more that a few design tweaks, a few more megapixels, marginal gains in dynamic range, noise control, autofocus speed and the like — things that many photographers, being honest, don’t really know how to make the best use of on the cameras they already own. The camera makers need us to believe that every new camera represents a fundamental step forward so that we’ll keep buying the new, slightly refined, version of the previous model. My reflections here will make no real difference, nor will those of anyone else. Yet, for me, the best thing any committed photographer could do would be to get off the camera consumer merry-go-round.
There are two main reasons why I think this is a good thing. First, it saves money. There are people out there with sufficient disposable income that they think nothing of acquiring a fleet of high end cameras and upgrading them regularly. Most of us, though, aren’t in that position. With money to spend on photography, it might be better spent on other things, whether that be equipment — lenses, tripods, flashguns — or things that will make us better photographers — photo books, training courses, workshops or a airline ticket to somewhere we’ve never been before.
Second, and more importantly, if you are never happy and comfortable with your equipment, you are never going to be the best you can be as a photographer. Never happy? If you constantly expect that the next camera will be ‘the one’, that it will solve all the problems that you have with your current camera, then that suggests to me that you are not happy with the results you are getting from your current camera. However, as the old saying has it ‘a bad workman blames his tools’. If you don’t like your photographs, it’s probably not your camera that is the problem. Pretending that the next model, or even a completely different system, is the solution, will prevent you from ever looking to yourself as the element that needs ‘upgrading’.
Never comfortable? With ever lengthening menus, multiplying buttons and dials and thickening manuals it takes time and patience to master a camera. Increasing customisation can help, enabling us to set our cameras up as we prefer, but it can also make things more complicated still as we try to work out which function to assign to which button for our ideal set up. Unless you’re the kind of person who sets everything on auto and shoots away, using a camera well does initially require some thought. I say initially, because the photographer’s goal should be that, ultimately, everything becomes instinctive. However, that presupposes familiarity with your camera, and if you change your camera every year for a newer model with new features, or a different brand with a completely different layout, how will you ever become familiar with your camera? Not only in the details of how everything works, but in the particularities, or indeed peculiarities, of your specific camera — the metering system or the autofocus system, for example, both of which are increasingly complex systems on all cameras.
If you are not comfortable with your camera, if your camera doesn’t get out of the way when your shooting, then your camera is going to be a distraction, a barrier, limiting your photographic potential. Perhaps there are some remarkable people out there who can become familiar with a new camera in a few days, but if there are, they are few and far between. Perhaps there are those who can run two or more camera systems and switch with ease between them. Again, I suspect it’s not common. Most of us aren’t like that. Getting to the point where the camera becomes so familiar that it practically disappears takes time, lots of time. Unfortunately, time is something very few of us are prepared to give, especially when a big announcement is coming and we start dreaming of a shiny new toy. The truth is, though, that new camera probably won’t make you a better photographer; it might even make you a worse one.