Five Things That Drive My Gear Churn

Who was it that said something along the lines of doing the same thing over and expecting different results was the definition of insanity…

We all do that — it’s okay as long as it’s only on occasion. As I was taking a bit of time here and there yesterday messing around with matching up color negative film looks in Capture One for some presets I might get done sooner or later I stumbled upon one of the rare occasions I shot a DSLR and actually had a square final image in mind. This combined with a blog post titled 8 reasons you should buy an X100T instead of an X100S I stumbled across sparked a thought. Most of the things I care about regarding gear, method, output, etc… most of the technical as well as the not so technical about my particular bent in photography I figured out a long time ago.

That doesn’t mean I’m closed minded, far from it. In fact I need to be more closed minded as my batting average of trying stuff I already know doesn’t do much for me is very low. I still do it but rarely if ever do I have any epiphany of insight. Rarely do I change my mind. There’s a bit of sanity here… First off, every once in a while I do find that something in the photo universe (as defined by me and my wants/desires/needs) has actually changed. The other bit of sanity is that I don’t spend way too much time chasing things I know won’t make a damn bit of difference nor do I make excuses about why I cannot do something.

So for me here are some things that might never change for me and I know it.

I Like Square Pictures

You might not know it but I love square compositions. I love square prints. I like square viewfinders. Too bad square is not super compatible with the web, then again neither is 4:3, 4:5, or anything portrait oriented. I also find it very strange and almost impossible for me to shoot square pictures on a 3:2 viewfinder camera. Not that I can’t, I just don’t unless I plan far in advance that I’m going to do that. Combine that with the EVF is just a no-go for me now and it leaves me without a viable square picture digital camera in the way I like to work…

Maybe someday the very few square sensor backs for my square picture cameras will actually be so obsolete they’ll be cheap. Maybe someday we’ll get that imaginary super high-tech digital roll of film that you can just slap in any camera where the film used to go. Until then the enjoyment of shooting square as the default will be limited to my film. Keyword is enjoyment.

I Care About Viewfinders A Lot

If there’s one thing I find distracting, annoying, and a barrier to making pictures it’s a viewfinder I just cannot get along with. I won’t limit this to my nemesis at the moment — the EVF. Even back when film was the only way to make pictures there were cameras that were otherwise great but had viewfinders I just couldn’t live with. Yes, I try cameras without viewfinders, I try EVF’s for sustained periods but at the end of it. Viewfinder is at the top of my list. If it doesn’t feel good for me to look at and look through it’s a no-go.

Why do I go berserk about EVF’s right now? Let’s call it self-interest. The more people screaming and shouting the praises and miracles of today’s current EVF’s the more likely the cameras on the market will increasingly use them instead of a more costly, better optical viewfinder… Cheaper + people like them = that’s what will be made. See… I have a self interest in making sure that they are not the only choice out there. The current state of the art in EVF’s sucks. Sucks, sucks, sucks. They give me one thing and one thing only. A not-so-accurate preview of what my picture will look like…. I don’t need that, and I don’t care. Everything else is a downside. I enjoy looking through a beautiful viewfinder. Again keyword is enjoy.

I Don’t Care About Autofocus

I’m the odd man out here for sure. First of is my working method. I don’t count on focus tracking at all. Never have and probably never will unless something happens where I all of a sudden shoot sports from long distances with long lenses. I’ve known this ever since I bought my first AF camera. Well, I really didn’t I just kept buying AF cameras for better AF. Every single time I tended not to use that camera and went back to my manual focus cameras for the vast majority of what I take pictures of. Auto focus is just not part of how I work. For the life of me seeing what other people shoot I find it hard to even understand why most people give a shit about autofocus.

Amusing aside regarding AF: Let’s take Fuji, you know I like to pick on Fuji (note, I only pick on companies that I’m a customer of unlike most armchair quarterbacks.) That X100T post I referenced above. The writer’s perspective was that the X100T is sooooooooo much better at autofocus that the X100S feels like it’s five year old instead of the year or two it is. Hmmmm, okay. Yesterday I was involved with a twitter conversation about a Nikon user that was now an X100T customer. He is extremely frustrated — enraged at Fuji that the X100T is so god damn bad at autofocus. Of course he’s trying to use Autofocus the way he’s used to it working for him — IE… let the camera do the thinking with respect to focus and it gets it right most of the time, or all the time.

I stopped chasing this way, way back with film. It’s not required for me. I just don’t care. We’re past the three decade mark on autofocus now. Yes, we are. I’m talking mainstream AF… not special shit AF. How come it’s so so so big a part of the fucking gear conversation still? Hmm, I opted out of that a very long time ago. So we have two wildly differing points of view on the X100T and it’s autofocus capabilities. Let’s back away from that really far and remember like way way back to say the XPRO-1 when all the Fuji shills loved it so much and didn’t give a hoot about autofocus because it sucked. What do all those guys talk about now? How much better the XT-1 autofocus is… really? I kinda thought that wasn’t a factor when choosing to go Fuji? Now all of a sudden you’re chasing the same thing that DSLR AF-guys have been for two decades. Feel good to be back on that treadmill?

I Don’t Care About Exposure Modes

I use manual exposure at least 80% of the time. If I do use AE it’s always aperture priority. Always! Corollary: I don’t care about auto-ISO. Come to think about it I never cared about DX coding either. I almost never shot box rated speed. Kodakchrome I generally shot about a 1/3 stop under. Color Neg almost always 2/3 to a stop over. Black and White I shot all over the map depending on the film and how I was going to process it… I learned this when I got my first film camera that had all the modes. Who cares.

I Like Cameras And Lenses That Feel Good

Cameras that feel good in my hands are important. My criterial is probably different when it comes to size blah blah. I like smaller, denser feeling stuff. I generally use manual focus but how I do that depends. If I have newer autofocus glass I tend to use back button focus… why? Because it’s faster? More accurate? Better? Ummmm no, not at all — because AF glass feels like shit to focus via the focus ring. Hence I shoot manual focus glass most of the time. Combine that with the above and you’ll see I only care about a very few external controls… and it’s those controls I care about, not all the buttons that do all the stuff I don’t use.

The Point

A few take-aways from this. First is yes, I’m the odd-man out when it comes to what the market is catering to. Not important to anyone except me and a few other crazy people. More importantly, what I want, what I use, why aren’t relevant to you — what is relevant is the question about what really is? If you take a step back from the hype, the marketing, the manufacturers, and all the 1000’s of people that are either trying to sell you stuff or self-justifying what they just bought (which they’ll never talk about again after the first couple months) you may find the things that are really important to you are pretty narrow. Knowing what they are can be a huge advantage to your mental heath, what you are really going to try or experiment with, how much time and energy you put into pursuit of solving problems you have (or don’t have), etc.

Example… Landscape guy? Really do you care about AF??? Really do you need/want/want to carry a 14-24 monster. You’d prolly be better off with a manual focus 18 or a 24 tilt-shift. All those are not just solutions to technical problems or theoretical ‘what-if” problems you don’t actually have but have a shit load to do with enjoyment of the process. I mentioned that a lot. That may sound all gushy but honestly enjoyment of the picture making process is very high on my list of criteria and it helps me make better pictures. Do I enjoy my Nikon 50mm 1.4G? I enjoy it more than that monster of a 28-70. Do I enjoy it as much as my smaller better feeling 50mm 1.2 AiS? Not a chance.

My Own Digital Progression

Let’s look at my progression of digital cameras for a moment.

2003: Nikon D2H. My first digital camera. About as big as my F5 and the first digital camera that was actually okay as a camera from lots of perspectives. Still shot my F2/F3/FM and Leica cameras more. Also enjoyed them more.

2005: Nikon D2X ooooohhhh more pixels. Meh whatever.

2006: D200, finally these things are getting reasonably sized. Can’t wait until next year when I can get something like my F3 and then the year after something like my FM/FE. Oh, can’t wait until Nikon delivers that small, fast, cheap DX glass. I mean that BIG 17-55 is okay, and this 12-24 I guess is okay but what about my 24 f/1.4DX and my 35 f/1.0DX… Never happened.

2008: Nikon D3. This thing is friggin great, too bad we had to take a step back into huge camera territory. At least my lenses act like my lenses again. I kinda wasn’t feelin’ the DX thing anyway. Maybe I’ll get a 35mm film sized camera that has a 35mm film sized sensor next year…

2011: Nikon D7000. I dallied with the idea of a D700 pair to downsize from the D3’s but never did it. It made no real difference in size. The D700 is still a really big camera. I really tried to build a small D7000 kit I would be happy with. No joy, again Nikon really didn’t have a glass line up I was happy with for DX.

2012: Fuji X100. Now this is the same size as my 35mm film cameras. It’s pretty good. I like it. It kind of feels good, not REALLY good but better.

2012 Later: Fuji XPRO-1. Finally a DX camera system with DX glass that makes any sense. It is pretty small. But… How come’s it doesn’t feel as good as the X100 and why is it like twice the size. Not huge, the body feels mostly hollow like it’s filled with a lot of air, too big for it’s weight. At least I’m back to the same sized bag I had when I shot film 35mm. Hmmmm… lenses are really pretty good, about the same size as my 35mm film lenses. Hold on a second, why are they bigger than my manual focus lenses that make a much bigger image circle. They don’t feel like I hoped they would either.

2012 Even later: Nikon D600. Wow, finally we are going in the right direction with the whole Nikon Full-Frame thing. Look mom, the dynamic range is actually really good. Even better than my D3. And it kind of smokes the XPRO1 in like every way, and with my small primes AF or MF the kit is the same size as my XPRO1. I kept the Fuji kit for a while… but never used it. Same sized bag for Fuji kit an D600 kit. Now we can’t be very far off from an FM sized camera with a real viewfinder can we? It’s got to be right around the corner right?

2013: Fuji X100S. Ummm, this thing is kinda the same thing as my X100. I even tried them both side by side. I thought that it was a lot of money for not much even then. The really big deal for me at that time was that I didn’t EVER have to go into macro mode for my typical subject distance. I think they fixed that on the X100 in a firmware update didn’t they??

2014: Nikon Df. More in the right direction. We’re almost at F3 territory. Handles great with my MF primes. Feels pretty good. Actually best digi feel so far. Especially with all my old Nikkor glass. Small camera bag. Very cool. Hey — discovery. The sensor has better dynamic range at my 3 most used ISO settings, 400, 800, and 1600. Nice. I’ll keep the D600 for when I use speedlights since it has the commander thing. Sold the X100S due to non-use at the time, still liked it. Ended up using speedlights a grand total of 4 times. Grabbed a GR because it really is small… same size as a film compact. Nope cannot live without VF but it was cheap enough so no big loss. Yep, used XT-1 a bunch of times, body plus lenses not really smaller than my Df, still can’t stand EVF’s oh joy the pixels are magnified more. GR gone but it does make nice pictures… better than X100S if u really want to optimize for IQ.

2015: I never use speedlights, well almost never so… D600 gone just because it never saw actual real sustained use after Df. SU-800 instead = same thing just on Df. Hmmmm, I do like that X100S, and now there’s the T. Looks like I’ll actually be able to do bag-free with camera again so let’s get one. Holy crap X100S brand new for $800, I’ll take that since they are all the same anyway…

You get the point. It’s easy to see my mission since my very first digital camera. To get back to the same size/feel as I had with film for 20 years. Does that mean I’m a fuddy-duddy? No, not really. Do I know how all this stuff like AF works? Absolutely, have I tried everything in terms of function, features, etc… sure. Did I find where it does a better job? Sure — just not for how and what I shoot. I skipped one camera… A hideously expensive medium format digital. You know why? I only ever shot it on commercial jobs and exactly one workshop I hosted. I hated that thing compared to my medium format film cameras. I owned that for the last two years I did mostly commercial stuff. Sold it immediately after taking a giant break from photography.

IQ? for the most part who cares. We’ll depends on how you define IQ I guess. Dynamic range… that’s a good thing for sure. Other stuff, meh.

Do you actually know what you’re chasing when it comes to all this gear churn? I do, at least most of the time. Take a look at your camera history and really how things turned out, and what you really wanted when you took the next leap.

RB

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