Well, that was fun. Amused myself, which is something.
Thanks for all the great comments.
Of course, "George" is fictitious. And I've never actually recommended that a beginner start with a D700 and two primes. Wouldn't be a bad idea, though. Especially if fictitious George could buy the camera used.
In real life, "buying and trying" is part of the fun. And there's no one right journey for everyone—just as there's no one correct destination.
The point of "Letter to George," of course, can actually be summed up in three words: "Sometimes, economizing isn't." You can do great work with very basic or inexpensive cameras, as I've said many times, but there's also no reason you have to start small. As long as you can afford it responsibly, I see nothing necessarily wrong with starting at the top. Assuming it's something you really do want.
This idea stems in part from an ancient ethos that I absorbed seemingly by osmosis when I got into photography. Basically, the idea was that you did what you had to do to get what you needed to do your work. That doesn't mean rob and steal. But...save up, sacrifice, seek bargains, even take out a bank loan if you need to. Get what you really need to do the work you want to do. Do it right the first time and then don't do it again...too soon. Granted, it's often expensive. But, as "Letter to George" indicates, sometimes it's more expensive not to do so, because instead of buying one expensive camera once, you end up buying five cheaper ones first...and then you still have to buy the expensive one you wanted all along in the end.
This strategy didn't work very well during the Digital Transition—it worked better in film days, only because you could keep using a good film camera for decades if you wanted to—but things have settled down enough that I think it's starting to be good advice again. At least, it seems reasonable to expect five years of service out of a good digital camera of today without suffering undue obsolescence.
But if I were to sum up my actual, real buying advice in very short form, it would go something like this:
1. Do your level best to get something you really, really like.
2. Make a promise to yourself—set a time goal in order to limit the time you might waste shopping and the money you might waste buying successive iterations of the same item. The best experiences I've had with new cameras were when I invested in exactly what I wanted and promised myself in advance that I'm going to commit to it for a certain period of time. I committed to the M6 for one year, and used it for nearly three; the OM-4T for three years, and used it for nearly five. Both experiences were great—very focused on pictures as opposed to gear. It's fun to shop, but it's crucial to stop.
3. While you own something, no matter what it is, use it as hard as you can and enjoy it.
Of course, that last bit of advice is redundant. You already do, I'm sure.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Tom Brenholts: "This reminds me of the Law of Tripods: Every beginning photographer has at least three tripods. 1) The cheapest one he could find, 2) The most expensive one at the Big Box Store, 3) The one he should have bought first."
Mike replies: Tripods are an excellent example. I still have, and still use, the first tripod I ever owned, a magnificent, sturdy 30-year-old Gitzo Studex I bought new. It's a bit the worse for wear but absolutely fully functional. It's true that more recently I've considered buying a carbon fiber model—those didn't exist when I bought the Studex, which is made of steel and anything but light—but I haven't wasted a lot of money on tripods over the years. I bought the best right from the start and have never really needed anything else. Far from being a symptom of profligacy, "buying the best from the outset" can be a money-saving strategy.
Featured Comment by Jillian: "Here's a random plug: I have the world's nicest and most expensive point-and-shoot camera. It is a D700 with a lovely lens that I can't describe because I don't know anything about cameras. It says 1:1.8G on it, is that a thing? When my husband the camera hobbyist had cancer, towards the end, he realized that whatever camera he left me with for taking pics of our toddler was going to be the camera I used for the next 20 years or so. So he quietly upgraded the D70 for a D700, and set it up for me. I haven't changed a single setting in nine months, and I take tons of truly gorgeous pictures, inside, outside, low light, sunlight, action, still, whatever. It doesn't zoom but that hasn't been a problem. I have no training or knowledge whatsoever, and I take amazing, artist-quality pictures. Seriously. I don't even post-process. They magically come out looking like that."
Mike replies: That's a very touching story—thank you. So sorry about your husband. And what a nice gift from him, in many different ways.
Featured Comment by David in Sydney: "Early on when I was about 12 I was given something like a 110 film camera. It lasted about one roll of film. Then a second hand Nikon FM (being sold by a trustworthy shop) that had been sprayed internally with WD-40 was gifted me as a 15 year old. Both experiences and both cameras made me lose my faith in photography for a while until the Nikon was fixed.
"Since that first Nikon 25 years ago I've had nothing but good cameras—the top Nikon, Leica and Hasselblad bodies. The bad tools are very depressing and soul destroying. The best tools have allowed me to enjoy photography. Buying cheap and nasty means you've lost the opportunity to enjoy yourself. And if you decide that this new hobby isn't to be you really can't sell a bad camera!"
Mike replies: I've had that same experience, David—cameras I knew I couldn't sell in good conscience.
Talking about bad tools being depressing and "soul destroying," a few more thoughts I've remembered—I'm not a guitarist, but I've heard it said that it's easier to learn how to play on a good guitar than on a bad one. And I recall once talking to a clerk in a big, very old warehouse store. He was talking about fitted clubs, and his opinion was that the common perception is exactly backwards. He felt that beginners really needed fitted clubs so they didn't develop bad habits compensating for poorly-fitting clubs, whereas he himself, on the other hand, was a scratch golfer and could adjust to just about anything. His opinion was that the only people who bought fitted clubs were golfers who didn't really need them, and the people who really needed them would never even consider them.