Where Should You Focus Your Attention?

Camera makers, Web sites/influencers, and customers all face the same problem these days: where exactly should you be focusing your attention: past, present, or future? Do you even know where you're focusing your attention?

Don't dismiss those questions, as many of the discussions people are having about photography and gear today are rooted in those different periods:

  • Past — You learned nomenclature, control systems, and workflow. "Learned" is in the past. You accumulated lenses, accessories, and other tools. "Accumulated" is in the past. It took time and money to do both things, and generally you don't like throwing away time and money, as both are finite. 
  • Present — If you are out photographing today, what is it you're using, and is that good enough for what you need? Virtually all of you reading this site have a full set of gear and do regular photography, so the relevant thing here is has to do whether that is working for you. 
  • Future — FODE (Fear of Dead End) is gripping many of you. You want to know where you're headed with your gear and skills, and if you need to make changes to stay current, relevant, and competitive. But more often you just want "more better." 

You can't change the past, you can change the future, but you live in the present. How's that work?

Meanwhile, the camera companies are dealing with the same three periods in a much different way. For example, multiple companies built up huge resources and assets predicated on a bigger market, so now they're trying to figure out how to jettison that "past" with as little disruption to the company as possible. Plants close, suppliers are let go, employees are transitioned to new jobs or out of the company. For the past decade, dealing with "past" things has been a big problem for top management in Japan, and has consumed much of their time.

Of course, today (present) the camera companies would like to sell you something, because keeping the cash engine working is what sustains the company. This, too, has turned into a time-consuming management issue by the pandemic, as supply chain and shipping issues keep popping up that keeps the "present" from working the way they want it to. Market analysts are all over the place right now—as are camera company internal analysts—in just how many units will end up sold in 2021. Is it fewer than 6m or more than 7m ILC that will be sold in 2021? The range of estimates is dramatically large, and the differences between the low end estimate and the high end one are big enough to completely distort sales plans.

The future is something that all the camera companies spend a lot of time on. There's a relentless progression in R&D to continue to move products forward and make them more desirable so that future sales exceed present sales. Here, however, some differences show up. Sony, for instance, worries about Canon taking away future mirrorless market share. If Canon does that well enough and the market doesn't grow enough, Sony's sales go down. So Sony needs to focus on "newness" and "better." Nikon, on the other hand, is more worried about playing catch-up: they have clear camera and lens gaps that will hold back future growth if they don't fill them. So Nikon needs to focus on "completeness." 

I've been reasonably consistent with the following statement since about 2005: "If a current ILC camera doesn't produce good images up to about the maximum size a desktop inkjet printer can product (13x19" or so), then the problem isn't the camera." I've phrased that in slightly different ways over the years, but it was true with DSLRs in 2005, and it's true of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras in 2021: the gear we already have is quite good. Good enough for most work (and yes, it's still better than smartphones for a lot, if not most, work, though if all you're ever doing is publishing at Instagram sizes, you probably wouldn't see that). 

Because I'm past retirement age, I sometimes wonder: "should I just shut down the product pipeline I currently consume (and produce), take a carefully chosen set of what I've already got in the gear closet and just travel while enjoying it?" Half of me would love to do that ;~). The other half, unfortunately, is a geeky, tech-oriented nerd that's driven by curiosity and loves seeing new things and learning what they can do. I actually see more difference between what I could do in 1975 versus today with video than I do with still photography, but I can point to lots of little things that all start to add up on the photography side; my long history of quickly adopting future products has produced better and better results. I'm a collector, I want to add more ;~).

Rumor sites tend to denigrate the present (and past), while embracing and embellishing the future. Many of the bigger photography sites tend to try to live in the present, probably because advertising and affiliate programs need present sales in order to work. Other sites, including mine, tend to wander around, mainly because we're wanderers to start with (it's so nice not having a boss telling me what I have to do).  

But I bring all this up because it's becoming more important to keep track of when you start thinking about photography and gear. I get a ton of "what should I do?" questions, but many of them are crossing multiple time boundaries in ways that the questioner isn't aware of. In particular, the past gets included into present and future questions because of the perception of "investment." Financial investment, typically. 

I have this quandary myself with the 400mm f/2.8 lens. Those lenses are expensive. Very expensive. I've got a very nice DSLR sample that's never let me down: beautiful images and rock solid build. However, having to contemplate using it on the FTZ adapter in the future is problematic. When bouncing around the veldt in a Land Cruiser, you have to keep your gear stable and not being stressed. Adding another mount to the equation complicates that. Moreover, the upcoming Nikkor 400mm f/2.8 S includes a built-in 1.4x TC, eliminating yet another mount I sometimes am using. One mount is much more secure than three mounts in the work I do and the places I go. Or, I could switch to the Sony 400mm f/2.8 on an A1 (I have the A1, after all). That would save me 61 ounces (1729g). Yowza. 

The thing keeping me from getting either benefit—mount or weight reduction—in the future is that I have an exceptionally good piece of gear to use in the present, and I spent a lot of money in the past to obtain it. So I have to balance benefits against consequences. Those of us with photographic businesses do have the ability to depreciate gear, which changes the money issue, but the mental aspect of replacing expensive gear can't be denied even if you can justify it dollar-wise. 

If you made it this far and didn't TL;DR on me, you're probably looking for some advice. Okay, here goes:

  • Most of you are overvaluing the past. You get too locked into how much you paid for something versus what it's worth today (and you don't account for inflation or useful gain while using it, either). If you didn't get intangible value from your older gear that equalled or exceeded what you paid for it, you either got the wrong gear in the first place, or you didn't commit to using it. Either way, you have to get past that.
  • Most of you are undervaluing the present. You have a camera or lens (or cameras and lenses). They take remarkably good photos (see my 15+-year-old comment, above). It's unlikely that you're being held back from doing interesting and excellent things photographically. When you are, you probably know exactly what the feature/performance/product is that would fix that. You get mad when the company you've been supporting won't provide that ;~).
  • Most of you are overvaluing the future. Some product about to come out "is going to change my world photographically" is the common thinking. While that does happen from time to time, it's a rare occurrence in reality. For instance, viewfinder blackout is something I've coped with for years. I was looking forward to the day when that would go away (as far back as 1978, when I was using ENG cameras for video productions and realized that I'd be using something similar for still photography some day). But you know what? While I definitely like and appreciate the blackout free viewfinders of the Sony A1 and A9 models, using them also made me realize just how far along Nikon had gotten with the D5 and D6 mirror slappers. The blackout on those DSLRs is minimal enough that I don't lose composition on moving subjects, which was mostly what I was looking forward to.

This site has a relatively deep section on Technique, including one called Improving the Photographer. I'd argue that improving your photography starts with improving yourself. There are things you (and I) don't know about photography. Learn them. There are things you're not doing in your current photography. Start doing them. There are things you'd like to try in photography (e.g. multiple exposure or astrophotography or panoramas and so on). Start trying them.

I see a lot of people going down rabbit holes they don't need to be going down. The one that comes up most often is dynamic range and noise. I see photographers trying to correct noise that wouldn't be seen at 300 dpi at any common output size they'd use. They drop into the hole thinking that "camera noise ruined my image" when that wasn't the case. If the image was truly problematic, it was for some other reason. They missed exposure, they didn't light the subject, they are trying to print too big for the gear they've got, or they're just deflecting ;~). 

The pandemic gives us time to think about these things and get ready to do something about them for when life returns more to normal and we're out doing unencumbered photography again. I'm not off in the stadia and wilds taking pictures at the moment, so I have time to think about what it is I need to get better at, spend time learning how I might do that, and even set up some practice sessions now and then to test how I'm doing. It's rarely "new gear" that comes up as I consider this. I need to better myself first. That's probably true for you, too. 

This is not to say you shouldn't consider any new gear. Sometimes the solution is in a product you need to acquire. If you want to master panoramas, for instance, how are you going to rotate around the nodal point? If you don't have the accessories to help you do that, you'll do less well than if you did. Maybe you do want to print really big but only have a 24mp camera. So, sure, a 45mp or higher camera or maybe just stitching might be the answer. 

But those "gear answers" come because you take the time to study your "photography practice." 

So, final words of advice: take the time to study your current photography practices. Are they the best they can be? Are you quick at executing them (because photos are moments in time that don't tend to repeat, so you need to be fast to catch them)? What are you really struggling with? Often times I find it's not gear but inspiration I struggle with, and you need inspiration to drive composition. 

Homework:

  1. Define your photographic past. What have you actually studied? What have you practiced? What gear did you accumulate, and why?
  2. Describe your photographic present. What prompts you to go out and photograph and what keeps you from doing so? What can you do photographically, and what can't you do? Where do you photograph, and why? How quick are you to respond to photographic opportunities, and can you improve that? 
  3. Envision your photographic future: What's next? What do you want to accomplish that you haven't? How do you measure success versus failure? Is it gear or technique that will give you the next boost in accomplishment?              
 Looking for gear-specific information? Check out our other Web sites:
DSLRS: dslrbodies.com | mirrorless: sansmirror.com | Z System: zsystemuser.com | film SLR: filmbodies.com

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