What I Learned from Acquiring Too Much Gear
The grass is greener on the other side. For many years, the Nikon F5 was my camera of choice. And when the world went digital, I upgraded to the Nikon D1, followed by the Nikon D2, and then the Nikon D3. For the most part, I was satisfied. After all, Nikon was the camera system preferred by professionals across the world… and, I was heavily invested in the Nikon F-mount system. But through all my upgrades, I always knew the autofocus on the Canon EF system was superior, which made my eyes green with envy.
Unwilling to part ways with my Nikon system - given how much I have invested, I began to flirt with the Canon system. First, I started with the Canon 5D Mark II and a single nifty fifty. Shortly after, I dove a little deeper with a couple more lenses. Before long, I was knee deep in the Canon system. How very unfaithful I felt in padding my exposure to more cameras and lenses from Canon. Still, I continued to add to my Nikon system whenever there were upgrades. But, I continued to hedge myself with Canon upgrades too.
In juggling between Canon and Nikon DSLRs, in addition to my trusty Leica rangefinder in tow, the thought of remaining completely loyal to a single camera system began to dwindle. Why should I be shackled to just one camera system? Nikon has a more extensive back catalog of greatest hits, while Canon has a better selection of chart topping hits. And why stop at just Nikon, Canon, and Leica M-mount rangefinders? Sony offers better high ISO low light sensitivity with the A7S, while the Leica SL offers the best EVF in the industry.
Over the last two and a half years, I have invested in many different camera systems. I’ve invested in the Leica M-mount system, the Leica SL-mount system, the Nikon F-mount system, the Sony FE-Mount system, and the Canon EF-mount system. And when Canon released their full frame mirrorless system, I invested in the Canon RF-mount system. I would have invested in the Nikon Z system, if it were not for the fact that Nikon Hong Kong went back on their commitment to sell me the first shipment.
Because I actually invested in these camera systems, the experience I had in ownership and long-term usage provided me a unique understanding which differed from other reviewers - who had new gear loaned to them by manufacturers, or followed the practice of buying and returning from vendors with good return policies. As such, I actually got to know each system well beyond a brief superficial interlude - and not just in isolation, but also in comparison to other systems in a comprehensive way.
Of course, my involvement did not just stop there. With each new release for every camera system, I soldiered on with this practice of accumulation. I had to. I had to know how each successive iteration measured up to its predecessor, in terms of performance and user experience. I mean, only in amassing that ridiculous inventory of camera and lenses - which span product generations - can one know with certainty if the improvements on each successive iterations are meaningful and worth chasing.
But over the weeks and months, I have come to a rather sobering conclusion. Having owned, used, upgraded, and compared multiple systems, continuously and concurrently, over a substantial period of time, I can safely argue that the appreciable differences between these systems, in addition to their product cycle refresh isn’t really material when you put it into perspective. I mean, it is not as if I took worse photos with any one system. Moreover, it is not as if I took worse photos in the past with older product versions either.
Believe it or not, most of us can take relatively good photos, regardless of which camera system or version we decide to use. Granted, newer refresh in the product cycle usually offers advantages in performance and user experience. I mean, let’s face it. Using an early model digital camera can be an extraordinarily frustrating task, given how unresponsive it is when compared to later model cameras. But, that is only because we’ve become so accustomed to how zippy new technology has made the task of documentation much less trying.
And that’s the point. Modern digital camera systems are all good at making the image taking process less of a chore - with faster startup time, larger buffer size, and brighter electronic viewing. Moreover, they also simplify the image taking process by offering greater consistency and certainty in documentation. Given that, how can anyone not like modern digital cameras? After all, they take the work out of the task and the thinking out of the process. That said, is taking the work and the thinking out of the equation really beneficial?
Look, I have had the benefit of owning, using, upgrading, and comparing many digital cameras for quite some time. In doing so, I have learned the truth of what digital cameras really are. They are devices used to facilitate instant gratification in documentation - not just in the image capture itself, but also in the process of capturing that image. So as technology advances towards ever greater automation, the distinctness which differentiates camera manufacturers becomes less defined. Fact is, they’re all the same.
For that reason, I just don’t think it really matters anymore which camera system anyone chooses. As far as I’m concerned, they all feel the same, perform the same, and render in much the same way - because, they are all really good. I can capture an excellent image with a Canon, a Nikon, a Leica, or even a Sony. And if I so choose to slum it with a camera from the previous product cycle, I can still take the same excellent image - albeit with a lag in instant gratification. And if I go to the nth degree with film, I can still take the same excellent photo.
When modern digital cameras are framed in this way, one wonders what’s the point of having them at all? Yes, they are excellent. They are reliable. They are easy to use. And in truth, we all need to have at least just one - in case instant gratification is warranted in capturing certainty with consistency. But, do we really need it? Do we really need to chase after each and every product cycle upgrade? This fixation we have to convince ourselves to want what we don’t need is just an excuse that holds us back from the task at hand.
Think about it. I need faster autofocus to be a better photographer. I need higher ISO to take better photos. Or I need more resolution to captured greater realism. And unless I can account for every shooting variables with just the perfect camera or lens - regardless of whether I may or may not encounter them - I cannot be a good photographer. I mean, how absurd is that logic? But we have all said something like that at some point in time; because, we want to believe we need more and newer gear to be better photographers.
Upon unpacking what it means to want more gear, you quickly realize how very perverse the logic is. We think having more gear makes us better photographers. But it doesn’t. Fact is, an all consuming preoccupation with gear makes us worse photographers, since it is very distracting. You spend half your time caring for your gear and reading up on the gear you want, that you invariably no longer have the time to go out and do what you’re suppose to be doing with your gear - which is to take photos.
When I finally saw the light, I did what I needed to do. I started to rationalize my inventory of redundant gear in the second hand market. Overall, I am a much happier photographer, despite the steep hit I took. Essentially, I have gone back to a more bare-bone approach in shooting film. And if film photography isn’t for you, perhaps a clunky CCD sensor camera like the Leica M9, or something aging like the Leica M Monochrom Typ 246. And if you want the newest, there’s no shame in it at all. Just don’t obsess too much over it.
Of all the blog entries I’ve written, I believe this one is the most important. I am a photo blogger writing about cameras and lenses, so it is only natural that my efforts may unintentionally stoke passions to want what is not needed. Personally, I’m very troubled by this connection. So, I am telling you now that you’re not going to find happiness in wanting what you don’t need. The fact that I’ve intentionally downsized and taken a loss over the last six months demonstrates how serious I am with the lesson I’ve learned.
Unless there is money involved, it’s all talk, as the expression goes. The fact that I sold what I owned at a steep loss makes all the world of difference in certifying my sincerity. In other words, my experience in acquiring too many gear wasn’t academic, but was in fact real. I have no ulterior motives, and I have no financial incentive to shift your point of view. But believe me, if you cast off this compulsion to want more unnecessary gear, there is no more liberating feeling than an overall sense of satisfaction.
I have actually reached a point in which I no longer want to accumulate anymore cameras or lenses. That said, the feeling is strangely very unfamiliar. To misquote Alexander via Hans Gruber from the original Die Hard film, I too am weeping, for there is nothing more for me to accumulate - not because I already have everything, but because I had everything and no longer want much of it anymore. That means I’m not interesting in reviewing or comparing cameras and lenses that do not interest me.
So what about this photowalk? I shot two rolls of expired Fujifilm Provia 400X. I did not know how the images I captured were going to turn out. There are already some color shifting and loss of definition, which could also be attributed to an accelerated thawing process - being thirty minutes tucked under my armpit on the subway journey to Heng Fa Chuen, at the eastern part of Hong Kong Island Line. That said, I do like the color rendering of this image set in how it accentuates the tempest before the storm.
After that, I also shot a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 in roughly ten minutes - just for fun - to see what I can capture in an abridged span of time. Much to my surprise, my hit rate was better than expected, which is why I’ve added these twelve images to my regular thirty-one and concocted this excuse to write a six paragraph epilogue. So if it does appear like I’m dragging a dead horse, I most definitely am. My compulsive obsessive behavior does require structure, otherwise it would be chaos on this blog.
If you have reached this far, then I have one last announcement to make. This will likely be the final year of this blog. With the time I have left, I will be focusing less on reviewing gear, and more on discussing what I believe to be relevant issues that aren’t addressed on other photography blogs. That said, this does not mean that I’ll be signing off for good. But, I’ve been working on this format for close to three years, and I believe it’s time for a change - if for no other reason than to spur personal growth.
Besides, I have already gotten as much as I can from this blog. In exploring my fixation to acquire a ridiculous amount of gear, I’ve rediscovered what it is I love about photography. It’s not the gear. Rather, it’s the process.
Images have been tweaked in Adobe Lightroom. All color images digitized on a Fujifilm S5 Pro + Nikon 40mm f/2.8 DX + Nikon ES-2. All black and white images digitized on the Pakon F135 and cropped in the digitization process.