Here are a couple of photos I made some months ago while out shooting with my daughter. They were shot late in the afternoon, the light was poor, the contrast low and the tones flat. They took a bit of post work to make them look like this but as they say: no amount of post-processing will make a bad image good. But still, I like how they’ve turned out despite being too soft and a little noisy.
When less than stellar technical results are achieved it is tempting to blame the gear. After all, there are times when good quality gear makes a big difference. Not that I would know first hand since I buy my gear based primarily on one criteria, namely, price. The cheaper the better. In any case there is no doubt that good quality lenses will deliver sharper results than cheaper ones and have bigger apertures to boot. Generally speaking. To be frank, if I ever get back into photography in any significant way (I’ve passed on all my gear to my daughter who is making good use of it), I will seriously consider buying quality equipment even if it means having only one quality lens.
However lately I have been wondering about the “upgrade” mentality that seems to permeate all facets of life these days; be it with photography, mobile phones, tablets, wearables or even cars.
I know of photographers who upgrade their cameras every twelve to eighteen months. They usually justify each purchase by pointing out the latest improvement believing that there is a direct causal relationship between the gear and the quality of the resulting images.
I would argue that considering the quality of each and every piece of gear they buy, any improvements are more likely to be attributed to improved skills on the photographer’s part than improved technology. Surely technology has reached a point where yearly releases of cameras is unnecessary and unwarranted other than for the sake of corporate profits. Of course some upgrades may be warranted if a photographer moves from shooting stills to shooting low-light video for example, but what if he is shooting the same thing?
I recently watched a number of short films shot by a young film maker my daughter put me onto and after watching six or so I noticed that the description of some of the films mentioned the camera that was used. On the first description I read, the camera mentioned was the GH4. Since I had not noticed any difference between any of the movies I watched – on a 55″ HDTV – at least in terms of technical quality, I assumed that they were all shot using the GH4. It turned out I was wrong. Each movie was shot with a different camera including a 5D Mark III, a GH4, a RX100III and a RX100.
Alright, so maybe I simply lack the appraisal skills to differentiate between the output produced by the different cameras in the same way that I cannot always tell why one amateur singer is judged better than another in a singing contest when they both sounded pretty much on par to my ears. After all, I don’t know all the possible reasons that people might have for upgrading on a yearly basis but no matter how I spin it in my own head, it seems, for the most part, rather senseless.
I do not wish for this to come across as a rant or some statement about consumerism or environmental responsibility. That is not my point. When I said that the “upgrade mentality” had me wondering, I meant it in terms of something far less tangible, perhaps insignificant. More of a romantic notion one could say, born out of some nostalgic contemplation.
It is fair to say that technology has become ubiquitous. So much so that many people, especially younger generations, have no sense of wonder when new technologies emerge. Self-driving cars? Whatever. Mission to Mars? Don’t care. More computer power than an Apollo moon mission in a mobile phone? Yeah but can I take selfies with it?
This absence of wonder for the great engineering achievements of the modern world saddens me but that’s not all that does. Appreciation for these things is also disappearing it seems.
The speed at which updates come out has turned most technology into disposable devices. There is no time to appreciate fine workmanship or to value one’s tools of craft. When a new camera comes out, lip service is given to design in as much as it impacts look-and-feel and then the talk quickly turns to pixels and sensors and focus speed, sometimes finishing with what next year’s model should improve on. Is it possible to decry a camera’s shortcomings but still end up feeling any sense of connection to it?
This is the part where the nostalgic, romantic part of my wonderment comes in. I seem to remember – as far as I can trust my memories – a time when photographers had an affectionate bond with their camera. When every flaw of the tool was understood and worked with. When the camera was appreciated for its strengths and loved in spite of its weaknesses. When every scratch and dint told a story of a photo captured or missed. A time when “upgrading” was not something taken lightly and caused a twinge of sadness for the camera that would be shelved. Perhaps I am just talking about caring. Caring for an object which may be inanimate but still has… How best to put it? Soul? Is it not one of our special powers as humans: the ability to imbue personality into an object; to turn a machine into an old friend? At least when given enough time and when our attention isn’t focused on the forthcoming announcement for the next model.
Of course I am romanticising the past but I’m still left wondering if something important isn’t being lost in the constant pursuit of upgrades. Something essential to our happiness.