Diminishing returns and cutoff points

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The look of money evaporating in frustration

Written as a counterpoint to the earlier justification for being a lens hoarder, I have a feeling this is going to be one of my most unpopular posts ever. It will be widely circulated by I will be metaphorically burned at the stake for it, because it will not make me popular with camera companies, fanboys, enthusiasts or anybody who has a single bone in their body that appreciates a good piece of hardware – I know I do, and it pains even me to write it. But the common sense logician in me demands a stage, so here we go.

Firstly, ask yourself where most of your output goes. The answer for all of us is not ‘online’, or ‘my screen’, it’s actually the trash can: most images taken are deleted. Partially because of curation, partially because many of us just shoot something to ‘see how it looks’, and partially because the subject matter simply isn’t that interesting. The second most popular location is into the electronic graveyard that is your hard drive – taken, seen once or twice, and then consigned to history and never looked at again. If you, as the creator, don’t view the images, and don’t remember they even exist – how is the audience ever going to be greater than one?

Even for the most careful and disciplined of us, or the most prolific, this is going to be the case – now that capture costs have decreased dramatically*, we’ve got even more images clamouring for the same finite amount of attention – there is simply no way more than a few will ever reach the status of remembrance. There are of course two related solutions for this: shoot less, or curate more (and delete more). Those that get left behind should hopefully at least be viewed more often and stand a higher chance of staying in mind. This of course does not apply if one does not actively seek to improve one’s skill, because there may well be nothing left to curate at all if standards are high and input quality is low. As they say: you cannot do the same thing and expect a different outcome.

*Digital is most certainly NOT free, especially when you take depreciation and costs of storage and processing into account, not to mention time required in post processing, software licenses and the rest

Even if you curate and perhaps produce ten amazing images a year that your friends and family talk about for time to come, that’s only half of the battle. There has to be some more permanent medium than memory to preserve the images a state which you want and believe is representative of your creative intention. This is of course the print, the negative, or some other physical archival medium in which the image can be viewed and appreciated with the naked eye only. A digital backup is only useful if there still exists hardware and software that can access it.

The next question to consider is entirely around output: what is your own threshold of need and acceptability? If you have clients that are demanding medium format TIFF files, then perhaps you really do need that Hasselblad. But if you are purely working for your own enjoyment and find yourself frustrated with the pointy end of keeping things working (and up with the Joneses), then perhaps some reconsideration is required. It has become only a very relevant question because I feel things are changing: we have long past the point of sufficiency and are sitting in emotional territory. This is all well and good – we each make our choices and pay our money – but of late, there seems to be a lot more frustration than normal around.

In the last month or so, I’ve found myself fielding a lot of questions and email from friends, readers and other people seeking advice on hardware. This is normal, but I get the impression there are two very serious disconnects trending. The first is the constant necessity for better/more/harder/stronger/faster/longer – we have turned into a bunch of malcontents with short attention spans and perhaps lost sight of the original objective of the game, which is and always has been the creation of images. The hardware is inseparable but no more than a tool; all you need is for the tool to be transparent in operation and get out of the way of the creative process. So long as the tool is not the limiting factor, then you’re good (and should stop reading the reviews). At what point that happens is down to the individual – somebody may actually need a camera with a leaf shutter because 1/2000s flash sync is part of their intended look or style; for others, it may not make any difference at all. Self awareness matters here.

The second trend is more disturbing: even for those people who are happy with their tools, the frustration emerges from an increasingly large number of random failures – double images, shutter shock, electronics dying, anomalous image artefacts and simple mechanical problems. Even though some of these may not affect the pictorial content of the image and the composition – they are deal breakers because you never know when one of these failures might be game over. If your power switch stops working, then you can’t make a picture at all – and if it takes months to get it repaired, then that’s not really an option, either. I used to think I was the only one who broke cameras on such a regular basis – apparently we are now all paying to be beta testers. This is rather shocking since hardware prices have only been increasing – and will only continue to increase as the overall market shrinks. I do feel that modern digital photography has already peaked in popularity and somewhat fallen off in the last year or two.

It makes me think that perhaps serious photographers are better off waiting a generation or so for things to mature before pulling the trigger even if the newest XYZ solves a problem that might have held you back creatively. Even more so if you were happy with something you were using previously: if it breaks, buy another one. On an absolute level, image quality is no worse even if a newer model supersedes it. It might make well sense for those of us with a choice** to be less concerned with image quality and output and go back to really focusing on translation of the idea whilst the camera makers get their cards in order.

**This is a touchy topic: how many of us really need the last drop of resolution or dynamic range or other performance parameter? Objectively and firstly, how many of us can extract that performance consistently, all the time? Secondly, for how many of those people does it actually make a difference to the output? And thirdly, of those, how many are deluding themselves? Having seen files from literally hundreds of photographers, and of course my own, I can say that the proportions decrease with each step. And even I have to question if I’m being objective about my own work sometimes – it’s impossible not to be emotionally attached. I think part of the problem is very few people can see it as I intend it to be seen: as a print. There is no way to display all the information in the composition simultaneously otherwise. And for those who say prints and presentation don’t matter and a great composition will always be great, I disagree. You can have a very good meal alone in a windowless, featureless box with plastic cutlery, but if it’s by a spectacular sunset on the side of a hill overlooking a blue sea with your partner, it becomes something you remember forever. The presentation matters.

We are perfectly entitled to drive Ferraris if we can afford them, and they give us pleasure – even if you do not live in a place with good roads that are free of speed restrictions; let alone have the skills to utilise ten percent of the performance potential of the car. You have to deal with the other frustrations that go with the performance: fuel consumption, fine tuning and maintenance required to maintain the design performance, and the envy of others. Most people will actually be far happier and better served by a humble Volkswagen or equivalent – even if we can afford the Ferrari. Unless you can drive at ten tenths all the time, it may simply not be worth the frustration (which of course in turn affects creativity and the final image). That is the nature of chasing the bleeding edge: the more performance there is from anything, the more skill and care is required to extract it, and the more temperamental the tool is going to be. There is no denying that better tools can make the job easier or more fun, or give us more options for the output. But sometimes we also need to remember what that objective actually is. MT

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