How much camera do you need? No, for once I'm not talking about how many cameras. Though my inadvertent collection is growing and for every vintage camera that I sell or give away, it seems two new ones await. Gear Acquisition Syndrome (known also by the unfortunate acronym of GAS) is real and many are afflicted. Don't make fun of us. We're fellow humans. We suffer. Ok. Maybe not that much. I'm wondering instead about how much camera you need. How big, how rugged, how professional-looking does it have to be?
The question is simply this: How much is enough? Not just in terms of megapixels or high ISO capability, or flash sync speed, but in terms of how many functions you really need, as opposed to how many you want?
I've been very happy these past couple of years with a Fujifilm X100s as my main digital camera. Very little of my work needs high frame rates or long tele lenses or something else the little Fuji wouldn't excel at. I picked this camera specifically because I wouldn't be able to buy all that many accessories. I ended up with the two converter lenses sold for the camera and I have been using them, but that was pretty much it in terms of going all out buying more gear. That was my system, and I had consigned myself to work around its limitations.
Needs of the Enthusiast, Needs of the Pro
There are many gradations of what makes a professional photographer. This is indeed a topic so hot-button that just broaching it with certain people can spark hour-long discussions. But what unites most such descriptions is that they include a professional’s relation to their tools: a pro picks tools, uses them, and makes them his or her own. But a pro is also able to use just about any tool handed to them and make use of it and get the best out of it when pressed to do so.
How “much” camera you need, then, becomes a triangulation of what speaks to you and works for you, what you can afford, and what actually exists. Many discussions about gear include sentences like “if the D810 had a tilting LCD screen and was $500 less, it would be the perfect camera,” or “Fujifilm needs to make its X-series full frame, then it would be great.” The point, of course, is that it would in that case be great or perfect not as an ideal of a camera sent down from high heaven, but perfect for me. Great for the person making the statement.
Manufacturers have tried to cater to such needs since the beginning of the photo industry. This is why you will find a confusing mess of numbers and letters in the lineup of any camera maker. It’s a secret language, a code to decipher that will let you find the thing best suited for you, but only if you know its accents and dialects. To an outsider, there is little or no appreciable difference between a D7000 and a D700 (to not even speak of a D7000 vs. a D7100 vs. a D7200...), hardly a glint of understanding when you wax poetic how much the EOS 5D Mark IV has improved on the Mark III.
But understanding the mess of nomenclature will only get you so far. To understand what it is you need as opposed to what you want is an endeavor that takes some time. You need to use different kinds of equipment to see if that equipment makes a difference to you. What it can do in terms of technology, but also how it feels in your hand and how it gets out of the way of you making the shots you are after. What your needs are. Are you shooting for magazine covers or for art galleries? Intimate portraits or cutting-edge blink-and-you'll-miss-it sports shots?
For professionals who will miss shots and therefore miss possible future assignments, the needs are not necessarily the same as those of the enthusiast trying to get the best gear for the money. Where the enthusiast may save up for a new DSLR or lens, the professional calculates this in terms of business: would a new camera generate extra revenue, or keep me from losing the current clients? “Worth it” is a very personal decision, never a thing independent from the user or the use.
What’s the Use?
I got my current passport picture taken last year by a photographer using a 2004 Canon EOS 1D Mark II DSLR and a non-stabilized 70-200/f4 lens. They were then printed out on a small photo printer and cut by hand. That was a set of tools perfectly suited to the job. Said photographer had no compunction about using this equipment despite photo websites and magazines having reported for over a decade what the newer, better tools that were now finally available made possible. Using a more than ten-year-old camera was what he did in order to provide a very specific thing for a customer, a thing that did not warrant a later, greater setup.
When it comes to film, there’s a Leica on my shelf, but more often I reach for a midrange SLR when I don’t know what’s expecting me. I know the former makes me feel more artistic, but the latter will unerringly deliver repeatable results. What is the thing I am after at the moment? That’s the thing the tool needs to be able to let me do.
Whether your camera is a discarded point-and-shoot or a Hasselblad, whether your lens cost $100 or $20,000, in the end the they are the things that will enable you to take a picture in the first place. They are the chunk of glass between the world and the vision, the mechanical-technical contraption that saves light that once existed in a certain configuration for posterity. They are the tools you need at a certain moment for a specific thing. No more, but most certainly no less.
So before you look again at the manufacturer websites, the online shop portals, the trade show displays or the sales windows, ask yourself: How much camera do I need? Then make a pick, make a choice, and don’t be shy to upgrade to downgrade along the lineup if that turns out to suit you.
Now, if only the D500 was full frame, it really would be just about the perfect camera...
Photo credit: Pavel Fertikh (Leica camera).