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This page of the site contains the latest 10 articles to appear on bythom, followed by links to the archives.

On the Other byThom Sites (Jan 15)

byThom also publishes gear-specific Web sites. All gear-specific articles are posted on them. Recent such articles (January 9-15) include: — covers Nikon Z System  — covers all mirrorless cameras

  • Sony 35mm f/1.4GM — Sony continues to round out the fast GM prime set
  • Laowa Argus lenses — three new f/0.95 options, for m4/3, Canon M/RF, Fujifilm X, Nikon Z, and Sony E mounts  — covers Canon and Nikon DSLRs

This list of postings on the gear-specific sites is provided about once a week on If you're a time-sensitive junkie, you need to point your RSS reader to the News/Views page on each of my sites, as that will push to you all the latest articles as they appear.

The Wayback Machine

bythom INT FR Paris NotreDame4edit

That's me back early one morning in February 2001 on the Quai d'Orleans. I was working at creating a cover image for a photo magazine using the Nikon Coolpix 990. This "selfie" was taken with my Nikon F100 and 14mm lens on a tripod using the self timer, and judging how well lit I am, I'm guessing I had a Speedlight snooted on me providing fill flash. 

Why was I restricting the flash output to just me? Because this area is not only unlit this early in the morning, but it's also decidedly dim due to the embankment behind me. There'd be no motivation to seeing light in this area naturally. At the same time, I didn't want me to just disappear as a shadowy blob. Given another chance at this shot, I'd probably pull the flash output down another third or half stop. And then some photo editor would probably ask the creative department to pull me back up a third or half stop ;~). 

This is a tricky situation (how much fill light to give a subject in shadow). I'd argue that since I'm an integral part of this image, you can't let me disappear or get muddy. On the other hand, at this level of flash I'm about the brightest thing in the scene, which is a little on the unnatural side. 

NikonUSA Changes NPS

Nikon Professional Services (NPS) members late yesterday received an email announcing changes to the NPS program in the United States. Whereas the program used to be entirely free, now we have one free and two paid tiers to the program. 

In some ways, the program is simpler, but in the details are some strange idiosyncrasies of what gear does and doesn't qualify you for the program now.

The free "Pro" program—still only for professional photographers who qualify and get past the gatekeeper—requires you to have at least two Nikon bodies and two Nikkor lenses. The primary changes to the free program are that you no longer can get free loaner equipment and you don't get repair discounts. The US$149 "Pro+" program adds equipment loans (up to 5 items), free checking and cleaning (3 times), a 20% repair service discount, and overnight delivery on repairs. The US$299 "Platinum" program ups the number of loans (10) and check/cleans (5), and increases the repair discount to 25%.

As many of you are aware, I've long advocated that Nikon move to a paid program (Canon and others already did). In theory, this would allow us to speak with our wallets, among other things. Virtually every professional photographer understands costs and value. The old NPS program had no cost, but it returned very questionable value. 

I'm not sure that the new program is tuned correctly. NPS Priority Purchase (PP) is still part of the free program. It probably shouldn't be, as it distorts distribution of product too severely at times. Personally, I would have put PP in the Platinum category, or limited Priority Purchase to some very specific items as well as the number of times you can use it for free.

Early reaction is mixed if I'm reading my emails, direct messages, and Internet posts correctly. My position is this: you were getting something for free, now you might not be getting that (loaners and repair discounts, both of which have costs to NikonUSA). The question you have to ask yourself now is whether you get something of value (services) for value (cost). This allows us to vote with our wallets, basically. Thus, my advice is simple: if you don't think the Pro+ or Platinum tier offers enough value for the cost, don't join it. 

But my advice to Nikon still stands: NPS really doesn't need the P, it should really just be Nikon Services, available to all. And it could be more nuanced and differentiated in the tiers, with the top tiers not only paid but only open to clear professionals. 

Finally, there's this: NikonUSA waited until renewals were due before announcing the changes. Actually, renewals were supposed to happen in December, but got postponed while NikonUSA sorted out the details. Thus, the first that members heard of the changes was in an email to them announcing the changes and telling them to renew. Once again class, what is marketing? Marketing is managing expectations. No expectations were managed here. Just another "here it is, take it or leave it" from Nikon. That's not embracing customers, and in this case, key customers. So while I don't at all mind the changes to the program, I do mind the way it was handled. 


Update: as more responses came in, I decided that there were a few more things I wanted to say.

Here are the things Nikon still needs to improve:

  • The qualification process is still opaque. Obviously, with expedited repairs and cut-in-line Priority Purchase, just letting anyone into the program—particularly when those things are free—would be problematic. But it's still unclear who really qualifies as a "professional" or not, and how you get past that gate. 
  • While NPS has long provided "loaners," that process is even more opaque. I know some who got a loaner while others who asked for the same lens were told that that lens wasn't even in the loan pool. It's totally unclear what's in the loaner pool. Moreover, at times the pool gets tied up by a few selected and privileged workshops (how's that work?). I'd prefer that Nikon just publish what's in the pool and each item's availability status via a Web database accessible by NPS members. If someone abuses the loaner pool—and I've heard plenty of examples of that, too—just revoke their NPS status. 
  • One of the "perks" is a "dedicated NPS Representative." Do you know who yours is, and have they ever reached out to you? Didn't think so. My understanding is that this is basically really "regional NPS staff assignments." Given that NPS staffing has been cut back in recent years, I'm also not sure that there's enough remaining staff to serve us if we really need help.
  • Likewise, "member-only webinars, product launch events, and virtual meetups" isn't something that I don't recall ever being invited to, so either this is new or it's the usual NikonUSA "if you know about it you're in" sort of perk. 

In other words, while Nikon has categorized a bunch of perks, many of these are all opaque, vague, or completely unspecified (what's a "premium welcome gift"?). Now that Nikon's asking for money, all of us are going to be looking at what we actually received when December 2021 comes rolling around and NikonUSA wants us to charge our credit cards again. I suspect that NikonUSA is going to find that a lot of cameras come in for free cleans and checks in late 2021 as NPS members realize that they haven't gotten US$149 or US$299 of value back. 

Capture One Pricing

Capture One Pricing continues to be a subject that keeps popping up in my In Box this week.

People want to know "why" the pricing and promotion seems to be so heavy handed with Capture One. Basically, equity capital. PhaseOne, the originator of Capture One software, turned into one of the most Western style companies in the camera business in terms of management. Phase One took on equity investors in 2004 (Silverfleet Capital), and were pushed hard to become more efficient and growth oriented. Silverfleet themselves point to Phase One as one of their more successful investments, and claim that the software side had at an annual growth rate of 38% when Silverfast sold their investment in 2019 to Axcel (and Phase One managers). While Silverfast pushed Capture One hard, Axcel is doing so harder, as they have to justify their purchase.

The real complaint I keep getting is the old "value for money" one. Simply put, many Capture One users are feeling like new features, performance, and camera/lens support lags what they expect for what they're paying. 

Just to be clear, here's the current situation:

  • Full Capture One Pro — US$19/month (annually) or US$299 for version 21 perpetual license
  • Full Capture One — US$19/month (annually) or US$179 for version 21 perpetual license
  • Capture One for BRAND — US$14/month (annually) or US$199 for version 21 perpetual license

The company also promotes a lot of +Styles packages that increase the confusion and prices, and the monthly subscriptions cost more (US$24 and US$19, respectively) if actually paid monthly. 

It's a lot to decipher. 

Personally, I don't have a lot to say about the prices. Yes, they're aggressive, but you can be the judge of whether they present real value return for you. And, of course, Capture One is very likely to keep running promotions as they did (excessively) in the 2021 holiday season, so there's that.

The real problem I see is the confusion that Capture One has sown. In December I had no idea what the actual price of upgrading my license really was. I received three different offers (that were as much 2x apart in savings!) and had already heard rumors about upcoming price changes. I had no idea how to value their product, and thus did not upgrade. 

What I find ironic is that Capture One is doing the micromanagement of pricing changes (mostly upward) that everyone was sure that Adobe was going to do with the Photography Plan. As it turned out, no. The Photography Plan has been stable, and we're now getting a reasonable stream of new features and performance along the way, as well. Jumping from Lightroom/Photoshop to Capture One just because of Fear of Creative Cloud (FOCC) turned out to be a false escape.

Businesses want your money, as they need it to survive. You vote with your money, determining their survival. It's really a simple proposition. The way I call it: Capture One has gone out of their way to make it not so simple, confusing to understand, and with pricing getting more attention than the features of their product. I see exactly why everyone is complaining. 

Meanwhile: Capture One 21 version 14.0.2 was just released, and it has the official support for the Nikon Z6 II and Z7 II cameras as well as the Panasonic S1M, S1RM, and S5 cameras, the GFX 100 pixel shift files, and some bug fixes. 

The Baseline

I've been writing about "the squeeze" now for over a decade. The squeeze is about the range from the bottom of the dedicated camera market to the top of the viable consumer-oriented dedicated camera market getting smaller.

At the bottom end, smartphones have been constantly moving upwards in capability, slowly gobbling up the potential for the very low-cost, low-end, dedicated cameras. At the top end, Medium Format really sets costs at a point where you can't make enough volume to sustain a large, healthy camera group. 

Thus, where the range used to be US$200 to US$6000 for dedicated cameras with reasonable selling rates in the first fully digital decade, now we're in a position where the "viable reality" is US$500 to US$4000, and the bottom end of that is suffering greatly and declining rapidly in volume. 

To some degree, the image sensor is dictating things. On the old 8" wafers used to make sensors, the best possible case was going to always say that a full frame sensor would be 4x to 5x the cost of an APS-C sensor. That APS-C sensor was about the largest size you could make without making multiple passes for each layer of the sensor, so full frame sensors took longer on the fab and had more things that go wrong with them. Moreover, the yield goes down with full frame for multiple other reasons, including wasted space on the wafer. For a while, sensor prices were going down. These days, due to low volume, they're going back up.

For a long time most of us analyzing the camera market concluded that you couldn't make a <US$1000 full frame camera viably. A few things have happened since, which makes that potentially possible today, though margins would be very, very tight. The bulk of the dedicated camera sales, even today, are in the US$500-1000 range, so there's some willingness from the camera makers to get to US$999 full frame (witness Canon RP), but it's not a comfortable position.

Then there's another thing that happens to influence things: user expectations increase. 

When automakers first introduced innovations such as air conditioning, those cost extra and weren't on most of the models they built. Over time, more people opted for AC, and over even more time, it became an expectation that an automobile always came with air conditioning. The same was true for air bags (plus safety regulations eventually required them), backup cameras, and other items that started as options. That process is on-going. Consumer Reports, for example, is now advocating that every automobile have the full suite of safety electronics (e.g. blindspot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, etc.). 

Which brings me to this: in any product category that has a history (as opposed to being the first of its kind and establishes a new category) eventually we get a "baseline" of expectations that need to be met in order to have an appealing product. So what's the baseline for dedicated ILC (interchangeable lens cameras) these days? Good question.

Let me put a stake in the ground and suggest that this is the current baseline:

  1. Sensor. Minimum of APS-C. Minimum of 20/24mp. 
  2. Image files: JPEG and 12-bit raw.
  3. Stabilization: IBIS. (Alternative: every lens in the mount stabilized.)
  4. Frame Rate and Buffer:  6 fps. Minimum of 20 shots, especially for JPEG.
  5. Video: 4K 30P, 1080P/60. Time-lapse.
  6. Viewfinder: Optical or 3m dot EVF at 60 Hz.
  7. LCD: 3" 1m+ dot, tiltable or pivoting, touchscreen-enabled.
  8. Focus: Face/Eye/Animal detect with other options. Widest possible area for focus.
  9. Body: Weather-sealed, hand grip of some sort, reasonably full set of accessible/customizable controls.
  10. Other: USB 3.1 and Bluetooth/Wi-Fi connectivity. Hot shoe and/or flash. Remote trigger capability.
  11. Lenses: Full set of lenses available for mount. Full set means: kit zooms (3), superzooms (2), fast zooms (1-2), compact but fast primes (3-5), macros (1+), telephoto options (2+).

I'd also suggest that there are size/weight considerations that come into play with the baseline product, as no one wants it to be large, heavy, and bulky. 

So, my contention is that any product that doesn't meet those baseline minimums isn't a viable entry-level camera any more. Even more important is this: if you want to stand out from the competition, you need to do better than the baseline. Yet even more important: the entry DSLRs that are dying off come very close to meeting this baseline, so that baseline really is moving up and you'd better be prepared for that. 

The Nikon Z50 is a good case in point. It fails at #3 and #11. So it's what I'd call barely a baseline camera. It's a really good camera in actual use, but we're talking about market viability here: it's tough to sell a marginally baseline camera, particularly as the expectations keep rising. The cameras that people already have—all those D3xxx's for instance in Nikon's case—are also incredibly close to the baseline, so what do those customers need a new camera for? Moreover, as the volume of sales gets lower, you need to move the baseline price up (otherwise you're the definition of a contracting business that will ultimately fail if contraction continues indefinitely). 

Which, of course, is why the Z5 is a better baseline for Nikon. It does meet all the requirements I set (and exceeds or extends them in a number of ways). But a Z70 might do the same.

This isn't an idle conjecture on my part. Every camera maker is stressing over where the bottom of their lineup should be and why. What feature set? What performance? How many would we sell? At what margin? Will that product live on or is it a one-shot as the baseline moves up? Does it appeal enough to new-to-market customers? Will it get upgraders who have waited? How does that product lead into our higher-end products? 

The problem is that the camera makers got hooked on volume, and built capacity to fulfill it. (Fujifilm is one possible exception here, as they backed away from the market, then re-entered again later.) Olympus never managed to make their on-going volume targets, and fell ruthlessly below their own minimum viability to carry on. The group that took on Olympus Imaging—now called OM Digital Solutions—has far lower volume targets and doesn't carry the overhead of overbuilt expectations. They're below my baseline bar for #1, which means that they need to raise the baseline elsewhere to compensate. 

The devil is in the details. Just having Wi-Fi connectivity isn't enough. The ease of use and usefulness of that connectivity has to be higher than it is today, as the smartphones slowly gobbling upwards will keep pushing the baseline higher. It's important to note that the baseline isn't just a gaggle of specs: it needs to also represent solutions to user problems. That's why IBIS has gotten added to the baseline; it solves a problem users had. Ditto face/eye/animal detect. 

The tricky part for camera makers is that the baseline will keep moving up. It went from no video to 720P to 1080P to 1080P slow motion to 4K, and it will eventually get to 8K. Will things like pixel shift become new baseline features? Camera makers themselves keep upping the pixel count as a baseline. 

The Camera Maker Dilemma

I've written extensively about why the lower-end of the camera market is causing issues for the camera companies. With word that the D3500 and D5600 have finally dropped off Nikon's production lineup (though still available for the time being), there's little doubt in my mind that the tri-opoly of Canon, Nikon, and Sony are all wondering about what they should do with their APS-C (crop sensor) cameras.

On the one hand, crop sensor cameras can be produced at lower prices and thus trigger volume that best utilizes those big manufacturing plants each of them has put in place over the years. On the other hand, those lower prices can quickly cut into gross profit margin in ways that are destructive if the market keeps collapsing in size. 

Let's make some assumptions and see how that maps out. I'm going to posit a camera that sits sort of in the middle range of APS-C pricing. Further, I'm going to say the all-in costs on producing such a camera are US$400. That includes cost of goods, R&D, manufacturing, and facility depreciation, among other things. Please note I'm pretending that this represents Nikon's fully burdened cost. It doesn't really matter how accurate that number is. I'm just putting a stake in the ground so that we can see what happens as volume and price change for such a product. 

One word of caution: the camera makers build their charts from the company outward; I'm building from the customer backward because, well, you're a customer and you see things from that viewpoint The difference between these positions is that the camera companies will tend to base everything on GPM to establish what the price of a product is. I'm starting with the price we see at retail and working my way back to a calculated GPM using some of the numbers I know about how pass-along pricing of the distribution network works.

So here's a highly simplified spreadsheet to show what happens:

bythom costprofit

Typically, a products company wants gross margins in at least the 40% range, which happens to be somewhere between my two rightmost columns. If we price the product initially in the right-most price column (US$1200) and offer discounts over time that reduce it down to the third price column (US$900), then we're probably going to have a lifetime GPM that is in the range we want it to be.

To date, the camera companies have mostly centered on reducing cost of goods (which effects line c: in the chart). At some point, however, continuing to do so weakens the product by making it do less or be of lower quality, so you can't do that forever. It is a reason why mirrorless is preferred by the camera makers over DSLR: the same basic camera built as a mirrorless entry will cost less to make than the DSLR one; the mirrorless version has fewer parts—most of which benefit from economies of scale—and mirrorless has fewer manufacturing steps and alignments.

Which brings me to a point I've made before: the real problem for the camera makers in a declining market that is mostly mirrorless is in the a. and b. lines, particularly a.). 20% is actually probably slightly higher than the average discount the camera makers are giving on this sort of product to retailers and online vendors. But I'm using it anyway to illustrate my point: let's cut that discount rate in half:

bythom nodealers

In such a scenario, the camera maker can either (1) cut the product price to customer, thus likely increasing demand; (2) pocket more money; or (3) a combination of the two. We haven't made any change to product. We haven't changed the cost of operating subsidiaries (line b.). All we've done is something impacting how the product is sold to customers.

What would that be?

Simple: direct sales supported by more advertising and affiliate program fees. A typical affiliate program fee is 3%, not the 20% the camera makers have been offering the large dealers (note my change to the wording in line a.). That leaves us another 7% to deal with other costs and promotions associated with doing direct sales. 

I've been asking this question for about a decade now: which camera maker is going to be first to completely back away from retailers and go all direct? For a long time we all thought that would be Pentax, but they're still mostly clinging to their old ways, but doing so with far fewer dealers and much smaller subsidiaries. We've seen a few lens makers use Kickstarter-type campaigns—essentially a direct outlet—to get new products off the ground. But we really haven't seen any of the major companies go all in.

OM Digital Solutions, the new company that inherited the Olympus Imaging group, may be the one that does it first. Indeed, if I were their advisor, direct would have been at the top of my list of things to do. The current m4/3 crowd is reasonably loyal, there are strong ambassadors/influencers available, the volume is going to go down in the transition almost no matter what OM Digital Solutions does, and they are going to want to get "closer to" each and every remaining m4/3 user while searching out some new ones.

Note that the camera makers mostly all have been concentrating on the "easy" part of the market. Full frame is sold at a much higher price than crop sensor, but with really only one part that costs significantly more (the image sensor). Thus, it's easier to preserve margins with full frame. Indeed, you may have noticed that other than Nikon—a curiosity since that isn't their usual position—the trend has been towards higher priced full frame products. Lower volume, higher margin is one way to keep the boat afloat, though over time the boat becomes smaller. 

And so I return to my point: crop sensor is the place where the camera makers are all trying to figure out what their strategy should be. Yes, you can push more volume at US$500 than you can at US$2000, but that low-end market is the one in most decline in volume, so margins start to get problematic unless you've really nailed the product lineup. But you and I as customers couldn't correctly tell anyone what "nailing the product" means at US$900-1200 right now, and that's awful close to the full frame entry point, so there's confusion and head-scratching going on all over Tokyo as they ponder the same question. 

It's not helping that we have supply chain issues, a pandemic that's altering spending/saving habits, retailers that may or may not be open to customers in some jurisdictions any given week, and even trade disputes/agreements that aren't fully resolved. Thus, when the camera makers look at their current numbers, they have to try to figure out why they are what they are. Is it a short-term disruption taking away volume that they would otherwise have, or is the problem they're seeing today permanent? They can't even accurately predict when the factors that are adding to their confusion will be resolved. 

I don't quite know what to say (okay, I always have something to say ;~). 

Cameras like the Canon M6 Mark II, Fujifilm X-S10, Nikon Z50, and Sony A6100 live in the "gray zone." They're all very good cameras. They're all I (or probably you) need for a lot of tasks, particularly travel photography. But do they have a future? Hard to say. But for now it's looking like the D3500 and D5600 don't have a future, and I suspect that Canon will decide the same for most of their Kiss/Rebel lineup, as well. 

One word of caution to the camera makers: the expectations of customers for something that costs US$700 (e.g. D5600) is different than the expectations of customers for something that costs US$1300 (e.g. Z5). I've written it before, but this is another clear example of why I write it: as you charge more for something, you not only have to make it more desirable, but you also have to get closer to your customer and make sure you're fully serving their expectations and needs. 

Put another way: we may be seeing the end of the consumer camera and the consumer customer. What would remain is the enthusiast and professional customers, and products for those groups. But enthusiasts don't stay enthusiasts if you don't give them what they want. Professionals move to another provider if you don't give them what they want. In other words, getting rid of consumer cameras won't actually "fix" the problems that the camera companies have, it just changes them to something they traditionally haven't been as good at doing. Eek.

The Thing About Brand Loyalty

No matter what brand camera system you're using, you're going to have complaints. Simple as that. 

The problem stems from a number of sources. For instance, patents and intellectual property may protect a feature or attribute of a particular brand. Though that's a bit less true in Japanese consumer electronics than elsewhere, I still see instances of it, and some of the licensing that is done across competitors is done only as horse-trading. 

But the real issue facing the Japanese camera companies that impacts us as users is simple: lack of volume coupled with lack of customer engagement. Those two things are related. Because the Japanese companies are so bad at engaging customers globally, they don't hear complaints and issues directly or in a timely fashion. The lack of volume means that the cost of engineering something new is high and reduces product margins. Together the whole thing creates a sort of "take what you get" attitude from the camera makers. 

During the last year I tried to compile a list of the "customer complaints" for each mount. In sorting through that, I found two common ones: poor quality control, and degradations in service/repair.

Actually, it's also the way the customer sees the problems. One real problem with quality control is that at 60mp FX—which is about the state of the art in terms of pixel density across all dedicated camera sensor sizes—manufacturing tolerances are exceedingly small. So much so that "perfect alignment" isn't exactly possible. Moreover, maintaining the tolerances we do get is tough given the abuse that many subject their gear to.

Putting it another way: the camera makers have hit a ceiling they're bumping their heads against, something I predicted back in 2009. At the moment, nobody has figured out a way to raise the roof and get some more breathing room. (I'd point out that alignment tolerances aren't the only ceiling that's being hit, but it's the one that's coming up more and more as the most determined users try to figure out how to get the most from their gear.)

Meanwhile, in terms of service, support, and repair, it's okay to move more of that to the Internet, but the problem is that this is almost always done as one-way communication (company to customer), and much of that gets hung up in bureaucracy or translations. When the customer has a question, it isn't answered directly (or is answered wrong in many of the cases where the camera company did decide to reply). 

On reason I maintain my Web sites and create my articles and books is to act as a conduit for "better answers." But I'd be happier if the camera companies would just up their game.

So, on to the specific aggregated brand complaints I compiled in 2020. Here's how I structured the primary complaints that were not feature specific (every brand had feature-specific complaints):

  • Canon M — no M5 update, lack of lens choice
  • Canon RF — sensors on older cameras, overheating on newer cameras, speed up the lens introductions, price
  • Fujifilm XF — various model specific issues, model line clarity, lack of telephoto lens choice
  • Fujifilm GF — too small a volume to have concentrated complaints
  • Nikon F DX — no D500 update, no higher density image sensor, lack of lenses
  • Nikon F FX — D6 didn't feel like a true update, D780 too high priced, lack of compact lenses
  • Nikon Z DX — lack of lenses, no Z70
  • Nikon Z FX — focus feedback (esp. AF-C), missing customizations, speed up the lens introductions, quality control
  • Olympus m4/3 — what's really happening? 
  • Panasonic m4/3 — no GH6, stalled product offerings
  • Panasonic S — focus performance, price
  • Sigma — no new Foveon, performance issues across the board
  • Sony E — A6### ideas seem aged and not improving, menus, lens option issues (e.g. 16mm still needs redesign)
  • Sony FE — A7 update needed, menus, price creep

Jumping from brand to brand as your most important complaint is addressed is both expensive as well as not actually dealing with the real problem. You're just going to find the new brand has something different to complain about. Just as I documented Leakers, Samplers, and Switchers in the 2007-2017 period, I'm now seeing Returners. Returners are people who left a brand because of a complaint only to find that their new brands created new complaints while the old brand finally got around to addressing their problem.

We as customers are going to have to make our voices heard more clearly. The camera makers don't have as many folk "listening" to us due to cutbacks in staffing, so we're going to have to be louder and more directed in our complaints if they're to be heard at all. 

I'm not 100% certain how we do this—and it's something that many readers will realize I began attempting over 20 years ago in regards to Nikon—but if we don't the bean counters in Tokyo will slowly eradicate all enjoyment we do get, and the net result is that we'll stop buying cameras and find new professions/hobbies.  

Looking for Mr. Goodgear

It still amazes me how many "gear" questions I get versus "photography" questions. The FOMO, angst-driven, self abuse people get themselves into because they have a few less pixels or dynamic range is .2 stops lower or the MTF is only 97% at center instead of 99% is not at all useful. Taken to an extreme, it leads to excessive fandom, heated Internet arguments that degrade into name calling, and much smaller bank accounts, all while not producing any better images.

The increasing quality and utility of smartphone cameras has no doubt produced some of the problem. Technically, if all you're going to do is post images on social media, you don't really need any more than a current iPhone or Galaxy can provide. You'd have some limitations to framing, as you're really constrained to something about 12-50mm (equivalent) in terms of focal length, and of course the fact that photons continue to insist on being random means that you either get noise or highly processed images that, when looked at closely, reveal a clear fauxness to them. 

Our goal as photographers is to...well...take photographs. Good ones. Interesting ones. Compelling ones. Storytelling ones. Attention-getting ones. It's not to brag about feature X or performance Y. A great photograph is a moment in time as seen by you and manipulated by you.

Whoa, Thom! Manipulated? 

Yes, manipulated.

“A camera, like a guitar, is just a box with a hole in it. Until it is placed in the hands of a true artist, it will not make music, only noise. What do you want your music to sound like?” – Tim Mantoani

You—or sometimes the camera—make hundreds of decisions when you produce a photograph. Hundreds. Workshop students of mine know that I've identified several hundred such decisions, all of which interact in clear, documentable ways. The least useful decision you usually make—though there are exceptions—is how many pixels you'll use. Or what brand name is etched on the front of your gear facing the subject. At a minimum you should realize that you choose where to point the camera and when to press the button, but if you take a deep dive, you'll find those hundreds of other decisions you're making, as well.

Now don't misunderstand me. I've been pretty clear that I want the best tools possible. That's because I want the most optimal data capture possible. And I want that optimal data capture so that I can produce optimal final results. It's the Ansel Adams' inspired geekness in me that pursues this, partly because I know that to stand out, you have to do the best possible work. 

But I try not to obsess over this, I just try to make sure I'm using the best possible gear while making the best possible decisions using it, or as near as I can get to that.  

Now what prompted this short essay? Obviously a gear post ;~).

An assertion like this: "my Camera X is only getting 25% of the images right, while my Camera Y gets 50%, so obviously there's something wrong with Camera X." Nope, the problem here is almost certainly Photographer Z. They simply haven't learned how to use Camera X or Y, as they should be getting near 100% of things right with pretty much any modern camera. 

No doubt our gear has gotten more complex, technical, and requires more study than ever before to control it well. The corollary is that we have many more things that we can control, whereas we had fewer things we could do so with in real time before. Consider this: if I was walking through a landscape setting with my film camera in the 90's and suddenly decided that what I was seeing would make a great black and white image, I'd have to note where on the roll I was, rewind the film while still leaving the leader out so I could reload it later, unload the film, put new film in, and then probably change at least one dial manually. Today I can press a button. And, of course, going back to using color triggered the inverse of the process with film, but is still just a button today.

We're going to see new cameras in 2021 that once again push the bar forward in some, perhaps many, ways. They'll be promoted with marketing terms like "more" or "less" (as in "more pixels" or "less noise"). Personally, I want more control (I'd also enjoy them to cost less money, but that's not going to happen very often). 

The real question is this: does a new camera actually improve your photography? For most of you the answer is going to be no because you haven't actually yet managed to do everything you can with your current cameras and lenses. I've written about this before, particularly in "Blame the Equipment." But it's worth repeating the ordered priorities I presented in that article:

  1. Upgrade the photographer
  2. Upgrade the support and shot discipline
  3. Upgrade the lens
  4. Upgrade your understanding
  5. Upgrade your camera

These days I might even put #4 above #3, as most modern lenses are quite good, and understanding them might be more important than having a particular one.

The camera companies believe that their problems are basically all engineering and marketing related. The engineers will continue to add pixels, add features, and increase performance, while the marketeers will try to promote those changes with the biggest bullhorns they can find. 

The question you should always ask though, is "what does this do for my photography?" Moreover, you should always be asking yourself "have I done everything possible for my photography with the gear I have?" If the answer to that latter question is "no", then it's far less likely that the answer to the former question will be "something great." 

One useful thing about the ongoing pandemic and the reduced number of photo opportunities most of you are experiencing is that it gives you more time to contemplate that second question. So let me put that into a homework assignment: 

  • What might you be able to do with the camera and lenses you have that you aren't? 
  • Do you fully understand how your current camera and lenses work? 
  • Do you have a complete and nuanced assessment of what your gear can and can't do? 
  • How often are your photographs disappointing not because of pixels or dynamic range, but because of decisions you made? 

Every year at this time I tend towards self examination. You should, too. We have this tendency to blame something (or someone) else for our own faults, mistakes, and missed opportunities. That's the easy way out. So, to inspire you, a few more quotes:

"A true genius admits that he/she knows nothing." —Albert Einstein

"Screw out the bolts of your life, examine and work on yourself, fix your life again and get going." — Israelmore Ayivor

"Painting what I experience, translating what I feel, is like a great liberation. But it is also work, self-examination, consciousness, criticism, struggle." —Balthus

"What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others." —Confucius

How are you going to upgrade your photography this year? What's the biggest hurdle holding you back from getting more wows when people see your images? Are you making images that are uniquely yours?

I'm betting it's not a new camera or lens that will fix your problems. If it is, I want to know more about that magical piece of gear, because I don't seem to have it in my gear closet. 

The Wayback Machine is Up

bythom US Alaska Denali 8-1994

Finally got around to hooking my film scanner up to my new computer. Of course, I had to test it out ;~). Pulled up an old slide from 1994 (this is Pete's Glacier going up the side of Denali; at least that's what my label on the slide mount says ;~). Seems like the Coolscan 5000 still works. 

Nikon's software doesn't still work, though. So if you want to use one of these old Nikon Coolscans with modern computers and OS's, you may need a dongle or two (the 9000 connection was Firewire) and either VueScan or Silverfast

The pilot of the Helio Courier I'm in was the legendary Lowell Thomas Jr., who had also served as a member of Alaska's Senate and later Lieutenant Governor. He had the knack of being able to put that plane pretty much anywhere you wanted it (including on the glacier), and given that the Courier can fly in control as low as 28 mph (!), he would tend to set you up for very long, slow passes that were perfect for photographers.

Oh, you wanted to know about the camera. I'm pretty sure this was taken with a Nikon N90s. Not sure about the lens, but my vague memory says 24mm.

On the Other byThom Sites (Jan 8)

byThom also publishes gear-specific Web sites. All gear-specific articles are posted on them. Recent such articles include: — covers Nikon Z System  — covers all mirrorless cameras  — covers Canon and Nikon DSLRs

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