A Bit About Gear Vs. Everything Else

I had an interesting exchange on film, film gear, photo psychology, etc. on twitter with a bunch of folks yesterday evening and continuing this morning. It was all kicked off by my semi-random film camera gifting to what I consider talented photographers in need of some photo-therapy. These conversations combined with my delayed organizing of some images that I shot yesterday for the above referenced post and I thought I would share some somewhat disjointed thoughts. Maybe you'll find it interesting - maybe not. It's sort of a bit gear focused but in the end I hope it clarifies maybe a smidgen of why it doesn't matter all that much technically.

The image at the top of the post was shot about a year ago. Maybe more. It happens to be from a group of images that I shot on a whim to test out my Fuji XF 60mm Macro lens just to get used to it's imaging characteristics. In my little mini-review I declared it a bargain. While that opinion still stands (the people that malign this lens are idiots - imnsho), today I am going to reverse that whole thing a bit. Compare the top image with this one…

These are completely different images obviously but just for the sake of argument let's compare them. I will tell you up front I like the top one better but that has nothing to do with any special Fuji X-Trans wonderfulness nor super special properties of the magical XF glass in fact technically I would have to say it's a tie at best and I could argue that the second one shot on my boring old broken from the factory Nikon D600 and my literally broken Nikkor 105mm non-D AF micro have superior imaging characteristics all the way around. We'll get to that in a second. First here's why I like the top image better.

  • I like the composition and the crop better as well as the angle I chose to shoot the first picture. I like the closer point of view as well.
  • I really like the combination of mixed lighting which is a world apart from the mixed lighting in the second photo. I just like the colors better. Has nothing to do with the Fuji. Has everything to do with the color temperature of the light coming in the window and how that's altered when it bounced around a completely different room than the second picture. I could make one of the color balances the same but not both without way way too much fiddling around.
  • When I was shooting with the XF 60mm I actually spent about an hour seeking out light that I liked. I even when so far to use a black sweatshirt as a scrim/anit-reflector that served a couple of different functions to alter the lighting to just the way I wanted it. Contrast that to the maybe minute I took to shoot the second image which happened to be right where I was at the moment about 4 feet away from my computer.
  • I like the camera in the first image better. Yep the subject is actually a better subject. It's pristine - for an antique it looks almost like it's never been touched, used, fired, or even outside. It's as close to perfect as you are going to get in a camera that old that was actually used. The paint is perfect. I also took the time to blow off the dust for a close up. The second picture the camera is in good shape but far from perfect and all dusty.

Okay - none of that has to do with what camera I shot it with, what glass I used or anything else. You cannot judge a piece of gear by how much you happen to like a particular picture that was taken with it. Really you cannot. In terms of post processing I processed both of these in Aperture 3 just this morning. It's the first time the X-Pro-1 shot at the top has ever been imported to Aperture - back when I shot these Aperture didn't support RAW. I haven't really bothered to compare the old version in the old post to these. I will bet they are more similar than they are different for sure. There goes the all the time spent obsessing over which particular tool does some ultimate better job right out the window. It doesn't make that much of a difference overall from a technical standpoint and definitely isn't going to revolutionize your pictures… Use what you like, use what works, unless it's broken it will be fine.

Now let's take a closer look - everyone likes 100% - the magical all in most-est magnification you can get. The pixels as captured. Well okay then why not, what the hell it's all in the name of science. First the Fuji…

Of course you will have to open them up in a separate window to see un-browser-re-sized images. Now for the Nikon…

Hmmm. Biggest difference is probably the plane of focus which is more flat on that particular area with the Nikon. The reds are much warmer on the Fuji - I could prolly make them the same but again this is a nit and the color is a bit different between the FM red 125 and the FE 125 from years and years of differing storage conditions let alone the mix of actual lighting color temperature. Let's go into a bit more depth of analysis here though.

  • The Fuji image is actually a tighter crop and taken closer but the dials are just about the same size or within a hair of each other in the crops. This is because we have more pixels in the Nikon hence more magnification when you zoom in to these idiotic magnifications. We are therefore looking at the Nikon image through a more powerful microscope and it should be way worse in terms of IQ shouldn't it. Everything gets worse as you magnify it more and more.
  • What about the super-genius complicated X-TRANS solution to get rid of the AA filter… Hmmm, hmmmmmmm. Really is it night and day to you here? Meh - whatever. Even under a microscope it's hard to see the influence of those nasty old useless image-softening AA filters from my POV.
  • What about the lens. The Fuji has 20 years of optical technology as an advantage I used it wide open here. The Nikon is used, broken, a couple of decades older in design and I shot it 2/3 stop down from wide open. It's also longer and has less DOF. Let's call it even since the Fuji is shot wide open and closer vs the Nikon at 2/3 stop more stopped down and a little farther away.

Honestly both of the images have more than sufficient IQ for just about any reasonable purpose even under a microscope. The biggest reason for that is probably more about how they were shot, considered manipulation of the plane of focus, and last but not least the fact that I was not touching the camera when they fired. I used the self timer on both occasions as any vibration at these magnifications this close up at the slow shutter speeds these were shot at are about 100x a bigger factor than AA filters or the resolution of the glass is.

What does this boil down to? For me it's a good signal that the quest for some mythical ultimate IQ from a technical standpoint is a giant distraction to important things. It's not going to make you like your images a whole lot better for sure. Gear as a end all be all solution to some mythical IQ issue is probably not a worthwhile pursuit. Obviously if you just cannot do something without a particular piece of kit that will definitely let you do something that is very well defined in your mind then go for it.

So what is important about gear? That brings us right back around to that twitter conversation I referenced. After you are all done sorting out some sort of skill set to make reasonably competent images from a technical standpoint the up-hill battle is all mental - that's the hard part. It's also the important part. This is where gear can sometimes come in - sometimes. Not as a placebo to some perceived inferiority complex but more in how it makes you feel when you are using it. This is a very complex and personal thing and definitely deserves some trial and error, a lot of consideration, and some self-truthfulness. Shoot what makes you feel good when you use it. Shoot what works for you. It doesn't matter what some internet-celeb says it only matters how it plays with you and your subjects when you are working. That's it. Don't like something because that's what you are supposed to like or not like. Really get a handle on your own photo-psychology.

What does that have to do with film? I will save that for another day but again it's less technical than mental for sure.


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