How Do You Keep Up?

"Dear Thom: I've only got a couple of hours a week to devote to photography, but it seems like I can't blink and things change on me. How do I keep my head above water?" Signed DrowninginTechnology

Dear Drowning: don't fight the current. Swim across it and find an eddy. Enjoy the rest before trying to get further upstream to spawn. Sincerely, Thom.

It's now 21 years post-D1. In that time we went from a modal, 2.7mp camera whose batteries died quickly to a highly functional 45mp camera whose batteries might last a user for a couple of days. Photoshop has been through at least eight major revisions, and even Nikon's Capture is on its fourth major revision. Memory cards went from 1GB being huge to 1GB being a throwaway. Many of you now have terabytes of image data. In short, it's been a constant stream of new, new, new, better, better, better, bigger, bigger, bigger. 

I don't know about you, but I'm tired just watching that parade marching by. 

So there's a really important question embedded in that constant progression of technology: how do you keep up?

Well, let's get the most important part of the equation out of the way first. Remember that D1h you shot with 10 years ago and occasionally sold two-page spreads to Sports Illustrated with? Well, it still takes the same pictures. It didn't get pixel rot or faded Bayer filters and the shutter curtain didn't get moth eaten. It still takes mighty fine 2.7mp images (assuming you cared for the camera properly and have a fresh battery). Cameras don't get worse with time. Your perception of how they perform gets worse with time. 

Those shiny new toys are always beckoning. New, better, bigger. You're conditioned to want that new-fangled camera (lens, flash, tripod, whatever) because the Marketing Gods have so ordained it and have spent years mind-washing you. 

Let me remind you of something: in 1995 most of us were maxed out at ISO 800, and even that looked like dog excrement most of the time. Our film didn't stay flat, it got scratched by random things (including bad processing), diffraction was a real and dreaded acuity robber, chromatic aberration was permanent, and we had virtually no control over post processing unless we also had a darkroom that we kept up to snuff (which meant water at perfect temperatures and distilled, to boot). Yeah, things were that bad. Yet we still shot great images and sold photographs to publications, and those publications looked darned good most of the time. 

Do you need to keep up with cameras? Not really. I actually learned that from Galen back in the mid-90's. He got a new F5, used it for one shoot in Fiji, got tired of replacing 8 AA batteries all the time, went back to his F4. He got a new F100, used it on one shoot with me for Backpacker for just a matter of minutes before it started early rewinding his film, borrowed mine for the rest of the shoot, then went back to his F4. True, those cameras didn't have sensors in them. But the same was true for film. Once you found something that worked for you, you just bought a refrigerator full of bricks of it and shot it over and over. So what if Fujifilm or Kodak came out with New and Improved Velprokodaektachrome? 

Things are a little different in the digital world, but not a lot. As I've written before, it probably pays to upgrade your camera every two generations or so. Less than that and the gains are minimal: you'd be better off spending the time, money, and energy on improving your skills. (To those that say "but my competitor now has a SliceDiceMultiMegaPixel camera I need to compete with I say this: if you're selling your camera to your clients, you're not a very good photographer. You should be selling your photos to your clients. Yes, I know some clients say they want more pixels or absolute state-of-the-art. But you know what? They don't reject a McNalley image shot on a D3s or a Krist image shot with a D7000. Why? Because they're insanely great images, you dolt!)

So stop spending four hours a day on dpreview and the rumor sites and B&H trying to figure out just what the latest widget is and how many of your children you'll need to sell to afford one. 

What I see is a lot of people chasing rather than planning. They chase more pixels. They chase higher ISO. They chase more MTF. They chase a new Photoshop layer ability. They chase, chase, chase, always looking for the easy fix. New, better, bigger will deliver that last thing they need to be successful, and they're sure of that. 

But you know that's not really how it works. The successful plan what they need next and know why they need it and when they'll get it. All they have to do is wait for it to appear. That's it. No need to spend 100 hours a day wrapped up in Twitter/Google+/Facebook/Flickr/ looking for it. I'm pretty sure if you know what you're looking for it will be obvious to you when it appears.

So ultimately, the way you keep up is that you plan. If I've got a camera that's a generation old or less, I should be working on my skill sets: shooting and post processing. I know that I need at least X more pixels (and that's a big number) or Y noise or Z feature for me to even consider something new, and I really don't need it for awhile so I'm in no hurry to jump on anything that comes along that's close but not quite there.

Because here's the thing: if you keep using up all your 10,000 hours learning new camera, new software, new workflow, you're becoming an expert at change, not an expert at photography. Last time I checked, the D2x still takes pretty awesome landscape shots. Last time I checked, the D2Hs still shoots indoor basketball just fine. More to the point, by devoting time, money, and energy on shooting and post processing skills, both would be generating better pictures for me today than they did four years ago. Let's see, four years times 40 hours/week = 8320 hours. I'd be a long way towards being an expert using that equipment.

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