Photography vs Consumerism

I was going to title this, ”photography and consumerism” but I think ”versus” is far more apt. This is a touchy subject for me. It honestly makes my blood boil a bit but I will try to remain calm as I write this… You might learn a little bit about cameras in the process. Those who know a lot about this subject will see I am using broad strokes here to cater for a wider audience.

I’d like to address this in a series of points rather than some long-winded piece.

  • There is an obsession with photography gear these days. Most people no matter what their level seem far too preoccupied with what is the best camera. Arguably the people who care less are people who have been artists for many years and using the same kit for many years, some pros who think exactly the same way, (they become experts in what they have) and some beginners who are just very happy to have any camera.
  • The obsession with gear manifests itself all over the internet. Photography Forums and Facebook Groups and YouTube channels are fixated on gear. Analyzing what the latest camera model does, comparing it with the previous model or a rival manufacturer. Comments from the vast majority of people on YouTube in particular show that most people who are into photography are hung up on specifications. The same applies to lenses but a little less so because there is less that can be done with a lens in terms of technology. Photography magazines are choc full of reviews and advertisements. Particularly advertisements. I understand why but I still hate it and think, as a result, most of them are a total waste of money so I almost never buy them.
  • Nikon, Canon and Sony, the top 3 biggest sellers, have a marketing strategy that is actually quite brilliant and I have noticed has had a big impact on aspiring photographers the world over including myself. The DSLR camera models (Sony also does it with mirrorless cameras) are classed into specially named categories. There is the ”entry level” (often with a ”kit lens”), a slightly more advanced level which I have noticed often caters to more video work, an ”enthusiasts” level where there is less emphasis on automatic modes. After this we have ”prosumer” and finally ”full professional” or ”flagship”. Now, each model is more advanced than the the one under it in terms of specs. For example, the entry level handles less well in low light than the prosumer one and the autofocus will be slower. Many other little difference which of course adds to the price differences too. One big difference stands out though. The prosumer and professional cameras are what we call ”full frame” cameras. I won’t go into technicalities but they chiefly do better in low light conditions compared to the ”crop” cameras. The first 3 lower categories are crop sensor cameras. When you put the same lens on a crop camera as opposed to a full frame camera, you get a different result. Most people will say the full frame result is better. Most. Not all. Most new full frame cameras are over 1000 euro. They have pro in the title and are full frame so this obviously attracts people who have the money for them. I have noticed photographers on forums and in groups online pining these pro, full frame cameras, saving up for them, as I did, in order to have what is deemed as the best or near to, the best. It seems having them makes many people think they are a pro or it could also be that having them is something to show off like a fancy TV. So you see, there is a hierarchy, an economic hierarchy and it permeates the art form itself which is rather sad and extremely misleading.
  • Cameras can be compared with televisions. There are TVs for 5 grand and there are cameras for 5 grand. There are also TVs for far less. The more money you pay, generally-speaking, the better the spec. Makes sense. Here is the problem though. Cameras and TVs are fundamentally different tools. One is a device for passive entertainment. The other is a machine for you to create art on. Thus a camera is closer to a paint brush or a violin than it is to a TV.
  • We live in an age where new stuff is coming on the market incredibly fast. So fast that many have seen a trend towards planned obsolescence. Where a company puts out a new phone, for example, and then as little as one year later brings out the next model which makes the previous one redundant. Looking at that. Between 1980 and 2005, that’s 25 years, Nikon produced four professional flagship cameras. F3 through to F6 (albeit with occasional modification models like F4s and F4x). Since the digital age of photography, if I can call it that, in the last 15 years or so, Nikon has released no less than 5 models. So 4 models in 25 years as opposed to 5 models in 15 years. Not only that models don’t hang around long. The F3 was I believe in production for twenty years! That is totally unheard of these days. Now the medium of digital definitely contributes to that but you get the point. Of course, in most cases you can still use the older model, but you don’t have the latest and that leads to the next point. Don’t be mistaken, the corporations are telling you that you will get better pictures with this new camera and not so subtly implying that you will in fact be a better photographer. That is the killer blow. It is also, undoubtedly, a lie.
  • Consumerism works largely on the principles of greed and envy. Greed for more and better all the time in terms of material things and envy. We envy the other guy for the camera he has and we want it so people will then envy us. The corporations know this and use it. People are seemingly real easy to manipulate. Show them fancy pictures of the new camera with its specs next to it and they will fall in love.
  • I see photographers who do reviews on YouTube in particular raving about some new camera that can do things previous models couldn’t and seem to overlook something so obvious. In 5 years, the camera they are raving about will be a dinosaur compared to the latest one on the market. What they are supporting is the idea that everyone should be part of this race to stay on top all the time even when the top will become the bottom in such a short space of time. What a terrible and terribly expensive waste of energy.
  • Photography is an art form. Go into a photography exhibition. Look at the pictures. What do you see? You see an image, it speaks to you or it doesn’t. That is the nature of art. You don’t, or I sincerely hope you don’t, try to guess the model of the camera from the picture. You don’t look in the corners for chromatic aberration or other technical issues that those reviews tend to go on and on about. If you do, you are missing the whole point of art.
  • Be wary of the obvious. The corporations want you to be part of the rat race. They want you to buy their stuff. They will push you into thinking you need stuff that you don’t. I would say that is the core of all successful marketing. You create a need that doesn’t already exist. Tell the people they need 50 megapixels and they will think their 16 megapixel camera is now worthless. The same people who raved about the latest camera will very quickly criticise the older camera too. You can easily be made to feel that you don’t have the right gear and you are lesser. There are deeper economic inequality issues here too but not for this article.
  • Many reviewers of course don’t rave about the latest release and that can be even worse. Canon comes out with a 2000 dollar camera and it has many things wrong with it according to the reviewer. Something is not good enough? That is perfect. Now you will want more and better and pay for it too. You will wait for the next model to come out. Salivating over the upgrade.
  • The so-called technology in many of these cameras already exists and has for years but it is being fed to people piece meal and I would argue flaws are even built-in to models so people will then wait for and buy the upgrade. That’s capitalism and it is disturbingly effective.
  • Most people put their pictures on social media like Facebook and Instagram. The files size is radically compressed. You don’t need a 50 megapixel camera if your image is going to only go on social media. People look at your picture for a second or two, click like or maybe write a comment and then quickly move on. The extra thousand you spent won’t show. Not without skill or luck.
  • Cameras come and go so quickly these days that few people really learn to exploit what they have fully. I certainly did. I got a Nikon D7000 in 2013 and really made terrific use of it. I got to know it very well. I knew what it was good at and what it wasn’t. My response time got faster, my skill at working with it improved too. Now think about a photographer from times when there was only manual focus cameras and lenses. He or she has to focus with their hand each time and yet this limitation was accepted. They became masters of their craft nonetheless.
  • An example of progress. When auto focus came in, many photographers refused to use it. They had learned to be the best they could be manually focusing. I find it smug that people talk about needing very fast AF for sports with hundreds of focus points when there have been decades and decades of iconic sports images with manual focus lenses. You see, you don’t need. You think you want. The only exception here is if  you are a pro your bread and butter depends on getting usable images to the press  and other sources quickly. Otherwise the latest camera simply makes it easier to get the shot.
  • Back to TVs. Image quality and particularly sharpness can look good on TV. It is not always good in photographs, for example, in portraits. The most expensive cameras do usually have the best image quality. It is a massive selling point, of course. However, how important is image quality to producing art? Just think about that for a while. I watched Apocalypse Now on VHS as opposed to digital 4K. Has the film become less valuable as an artistic creation? Or more importantly, do you really care which camera was used to shoot the thing? Whether it was the latest greatest camera of the time or not. Will it not move me still? It is absurd to tie artistic merit to how exceptionally clear a picture looks.
  • Think of a great iconic sports image from the past like Ali in the ring in the 70’s or a picture from the streets of Paris taken in the 50’s which is now considered a masterpiece. Do you think the camera took that picture or the photographer? Well, it’s both but the role of the skilled photographer is I would say 90 percent of what makes it work. I know photographers who can make a create picture from a phone with ease and others who have the most expensive camera and can’t at all. There is no correlation between the two. If you have no skill or talent then it is blind luck. If you have skill and talent, the medium pales in significance compared to this.

So that is all I have to say on that for now. A lot to take on board. Fortunately there is a lot of support for my line of thought also especially among people who are shooting film. They have in most cases stepped out of the norms of practice and the consumer mentality and I appreciate that so much.

To conclude, I guess I am saying to pay little or no attention to reviews and advertising. If you want camera advice, go to a shop and try stuff out and ask some questions but be careful not to overspend on stuff you don’t need. For most people, most of what cameras have to offer, you don’t need and mightn’t even use. Fact. The feel of camera in your hand is a lot more important than you might think. Be practical about it. Choose a camera and become an expert in that one. If you want more camera advice, you can also ask me. I have used many different cameras and can offer honest help. I won’t try to sell you stuff you don’t need. That’s for sure.

 

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