A lot has changed since digital came around in 1999. Film has always been about quality – all kinds of it, too. It was about resolving power – we have >Fujichrome Velvia for that now; it was about color accuracy, which also suits the former as well as, say, Fujicolor Superia Reala; or, for those who want sharp and vivid, there‘s always the beautiful Kodak Ektar. Now, however, there’s one kind of film for all those purposes. Just as film was finally providing the quality, the age of digital sensors came. And, some think, wiped film‘s quality ambitions off the table as if it were dust. We now have one film that can do everything – low light, color accuracy or vividness, sharpness and endless manipulation possibilities. One film that fits all.
I am a wedding photographer and I love what I do – it wouldn’t be quite as exciting and rewarding without digital photography. The speed, flexibility and quality I can get out of it in almost any situation is a must and has to go without saying in this kind of business today. Every year feels like a leap – better cameras, better lenses and even when it seems there’s no way forward anymore, manufacturers surprise us again and again. But there’s still something missing. With all the advances and new technologies, new ways of making our photographs more technically perfect than ever before, with all the new cameras every year, it always seems to me as if there’s something vital missing. What is it?
I remember buying my first ever camera – it was about 5 years ago. A cheap, rather bulky even by older standards, it was a very basic point-and-shoot, Canon Powershot A430. I loved it. Every bit of it. Those 4 megapixels were amazing (you still think that the D700 has low resolution?)! I was thrilled. Took it everywhere I went. It even did video, which was just as great.
The next time I was thrilled was when I decided to buy my first DSLR and retire the point-and-shoot (I really only now understand how much I miss it). I bought myself a used D80. Suddenly those 4 megapixels were almost nonexistent. I left my point-and-shoot and never looked back. The realization of what quality and speed is hit me so hard I could never believe I was satisfied with the point-and-shoot I used to have. I didn’t quite know at that time I was slipping away from photography as a form of art and expressing myself into technological abyss, where the point of everything was to shoot with better equipment just because it was better. Not because I loved photography or needed that equipment. Thrilled. I guess I was in the very far left of the “Stages of a photographer” chart, where everything I shot was pretty, just because the camera was better:
The D80 was great, but lacking something. I realized that my need for higher quality, no matter the circumstances, was growing rapidly – I pixel-peeped instead of concentrating on composition and visual content of my photographs, my emotional attachment. And I wasn’t happy with the noise I was getting above ISO 400. It sounds silly now. I saved up – it took a while – and bought myself my first lens (apart from the kit) – the Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4G, my most used lens today in both my daily photography and wedding photography business.
When I bought it, I expected a quality leap once again – the same kind I had when I switched to the D80. It never came in the form I thought it would, and there was one simple reason for it… At that time, I don’t remember myself stopping down below the lens’ widest aperture, f/1.4. Not once. It was a revelation. It stayed there, glued, a constant, as if there were no other settings I could ever use. I then thought it was what I wanted. The quality was fine and I was able to use lower ISOs even in difficult light, but the best part was the shallow depth of field. “This is it”, I thought. “This is my big break. I’m now ready for a masterpiece of my own”. And I shot. I shot my first wedding with this duo. And looked at reviews I’ve already read before. And pixel-peeped. Same as before – I was thrilled. Same as before – I was thrilled by the wrong thing, and because of that I failed to see why I needed it in the first place. Why I truly needed a camera and a lens.
Quality matters, don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t go far in my business – won’t go far – without understanding that, and that’s why digital is great. The thing is – the important thing is – quality doesn’t matter as soon as you get that piece of gear into your hands. You have it. If you have it – it’s good enough, or you have to make it good enough. Then, only photography matters. Only the composition, the visual content and emotional attachment. The context. The story or lack of one. I failed to see it. I failed to see the difference between my work and my personal projects.
Then I bought a used D300. Now, I thought I’d be in love with its amazing autofocus system. I was. I thought, too, I’d be in love with its speed, and ergonomics, and build quality. And, again, I was. I knew I’d be in love with its better sensor and better high ISO performance (I even tried to measure it against the D80, how silly I was!). But none of this mattered. Not a single thing. What I liked the most – and I mean the most – was the color. One would think – “Color? Get a RAW converter, you mug.” No. The color made all the difference. For the first time since the Powershot I had, I enjoyed my camera for my own projects. For capturing my day, my family, my friends, my art, even – not just work, which goes without saying. And I didn’t pixel-peep – I wanted the see the whole picture, literally. I then found myself shooting the D80 at ISO 1600, which, for my business, wasn’t very nice. But I didn’t care – not at weddings, at least. I shot that D300 at ISO 3200. And also didn’t care. For the first time since the Powershot, I was thrilled by the right thing – by photography, and not the gear. By the aesthetical part, and not the technical one.
Lets get certain things straight. For wedding work, D300 at ISO 1600 is bad. And I mean bad. There’s basically not that much detail to speak of, nor dynamic range. It’s true that, with careful exposure and quality light, the shot might look a stop better than it is in your everyday situation, but weddings don’t usually give you the luxury. At ISO 3200, in real life situations, shooting at f/1.4 in terrible light, it is dreadful. But there’s this simple question that puts everything into places – is it better, for personal work and sometimes weddings, to have an image with poor technical quality than not have one at all? I’d choose the poor quality simply because sometimes (more often than not for personal photography), it works. I’d choose aesthetics over technical stuff any day.
This shot was made using the Nikon D300, AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8G at 17mm, f2.8, 1/50 at ISO 1600. There was no light. And I really mean no light, only a couple of those disco lights you can get, very direct and focused, and it also was colored, very vivid too – it alone was enough to smear the detail. I had to use a lot of fill light and some exposure compensation in Lightroom later on. The AF, as can be seen with closer inspection, missed somewhat. Yet I chose to not use the flash. It’s terrible, technically. But works. I gave this particular image to the clients with full confidence, although only this time – I wouldn’t push my D300 so far very often.
I used flash for this next shot; I liked the slightly club-like light it gave me. ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/60th of a second, same body and lens. I like both shots even though the second one is of better technical quality. They are both, in my opinion, just as valuable – the first one just for the moment of it alone.
Let me give you another example, one that concerns my personal life and not my business. This shot was made using… I don’t really know what. It may have been an old soviet Zenit-E SLR with an Industar-50 50mm f/3.5 lens. The technical quality is, frankly, barely a match for some mobile phones. While the dynamic range is much better in a printed (enlarged in a darkroom, I mean) version and the color is not shifted nearly as much (I only scan/reshoot the negatives for preview purposes before printing, and this one was done using a very old Fujifilm super-zoom), there’s still lots of grain and not that much detail in there. But that’s my father! Would I only take a 36 MP image from the D800 of this moment or none at all? No. Any day, I will choose this. And that won’t change anytime soon. In this case, technical quality is irrelevant. Completely. In our memories, we don’t count eyelashes of our friends and wives and fathers – we see lines, shapes, smiles. Not exactly detailed or accurate in color, or anything at all. I want the photographs of my life, of my family to mirror what I remember. I want my memories to mirror my photographs.
I started out as a photographer, a beginner, with a budget Canon Powershot. I then became a pixel-peeper with a D80. Only a couple of years later I, again, started to become the photographer I wanted to be in the first place. I lost two years. Have you lost any? From the D300 I moved to the D700. It’s amazing, and yet again, while it gives me great technical quality in all kinds of situations, I mainly chose it because of the aesthetics. I didn’t get better as a wedding photographer, because it gave me 1.5-2 stops better high ISO performance over the D300, although it helped a lot – I got better because I tried to learn my gear. Because I learned photography, and not pixel-counting. I was thrilled by the right thing. My passion, finally, was photography – the very point of having a camera and a lens.
That’s me and my work. I strive for quality – I need it, I will take it whenever I can. And my clients need it, too. The thing is, they need less of it than one would think. And thus it’s not my primary goal. I don’t spend countless hours reading and reading and reading about gear I may never have, simply because I may never really need it. Shooting and thinking the way I do gives me the pleasure I work for. It’s fun to work. You should have fun photographing, too. If you’re thinking about reviews and what others said while you should be looking through the viewfinder, there’s a slight chance, dare I say, that you’re doing something wrong.
Be thrilled by the simple things. Pursue your passion.
I just had to sell my comprehensive collection of half a dozen Canon ‘L’ lenses to pay the mortgage for a couple of months. On top of that the camera I had been using for the last three years died electronically a few weeks ago. (It was a Canon 1Ds ii – a big heavy beast, but a lot of camera for not a lot of money – but with hindsight I see that there was an element of posing in using a camera like that, in the way that I used it, when something half the weight would have done the job just as well)
So out of necessity I am back to shooting with my 8Mp backup camera, a 50 f/1.4 and a cheap 28-135 lens (Canons very first IS lens, the 28-135 f/3.5-5.6 IS USM – given terrible reviews by everyone but Ken Rockwell). Technically you’d have to print at A1 to see any real difference. But with the simpler gear I have returned to being a photographer rather than an equipment and technical perfection geek.
Great article and thank you! I’m really glad I didn’t fall into the G.A.S. trap :) I didn’t have the means to be able to afford that luxury anyway haha! I did know right away that I wanted to photograph birds that’s why I got a 250mm right after I started using my first DSLR. I got interested in photgraphy as a backyard birder and I used a 5MP Canon Powershot for the longest until my husband surprised me with a 550D last 2011 and I literally exclaimed “holy $*%#” when I opened my early Xmas present LOL! WTH am I supposed to do with this?!? SO, I got pushed into the DSLR arena a bit apprehensively. But the love of photography took over everything, I was pretty much inseparable with my camera and transitioned pretty quickly to manual and it did change everything for me. I did get a 50mm a year later but other than that, I didn’t really feel that immense need to get more. I dabbled a little with macro using extension tubes and got introduced to the vintage Russian lens Helios and I have two priceless cheapos from eBay :) I had plenty of advices along the way, well-meaning and not so well-meaning preachers of the trade who has a vast arsenal of gear and not a whole lot of output to show for. So, 3 years down the line, since I first clicked that shutter, I am pretty much just working with what I’ve got and still very much in it for the love of it :)
This line resonated with me so much: “For the first time since the Powershot, I was thrilled by the right thing – by photography, and not the gear. By the aesthetical part, and not the technical one…” thank you!
Romanas, Very encouraging and I love your writing style. Your passion shows vividly and your English is fine.
Thank you, Ralph, you are very kind!
I have been reading gear reviews non stop on your site and on others… I started to get that feeling you describe of something missing there is really nothing my equipment can’t tackle at the moment I just have to remind myself of that and get out more! great article!!!
Great post ! I have a D7000 with the 35mm 1.8 dx and the 70-300 fx lens. I still waste time reading about D300s, 610 etc. Photography is only a hobby for me and I’ve decided to send more time shooting than reading.
Icredible story, incredibly accurate, I can see myself…
Great post! I was just given a Canon 40D and a few lenses. (I have been truly blessed! Praise God.)
I’m a techy and love comparing things, so being caught up in specs and gear is hard, but this is a great reminder to just go and shoot and capture memories! Thanks!
Love the chart! I definitely feel like I’m in the middle at “I suck” and climbing back up to ~10%… haha… but I’m on the way out and hopefully back on a “healthy” track!
Awesome read. Really enjoyed reading till the end. Keep posting.
Yes! These were the sentiments that were running in my mind as I closed pages reviewing all these exotic lenses, as I left online forums that spouted negativity more than constructive creativity under the self-righteous banner of “technical correctedness.”