'Tis the "Season of Spending"—at least that's what the radio commercials tell me. They wouldn't lie to me, would they? I thought I might devote this column to some consumerist advice. What goes through my head when I think about reviewing a product isn't a lot different from when I think about buying one.
Once some shiny bauble has caught my eye, the very first thing I contemplate is what I might do with it. Just what kind of photographs do I envision making with said lens or camera? Understand that this is a rather different question from the one of what kind of photographs I make in general. The answers to both questions may be the same. Case in point being the Olympus 45 mm ƒ/1.8 lens, which matches so closely how I see the world photographically. I use it for indoor, outdoor, low-light candid, landscape, urban/architecture, and night photography. Where I goes, it goes.
More commonly, the answers are somewhat different, and it's that specificity that informs one's decision-making around a purchase. Particular tools for particular tasks. For example, I didn't envision using the Rokinon 85 mm ƒ/1.4 lens for anything else but available light "candid" photography. Given the range of my interests, that's a fairly small subset of my photographic activities.
Which gets to my next point; can I imagine I'll be getting appropriate value for my money? That involves comparing the goals for the product with what it costs. I didn't see the Rokinon lens being generally useful to me. Had it been a $1,000 or even $500 optic, I probably would have removed it from my list. I'm not that interested in supporting my candid proclivities. $250, though, fell within the range of my "whim" budget.
Now, I know plenty of people for whom $250 is a substantial sum to spend on a whim (truth be told, it pushes a bit beyond the top end of my "whim" range). I also know plenty who'll drop $500–$2000 on a lens and not blink. They can indulge a much more expensive level of whimsy than me.
Everyone has individual comfort levels for price vs. functionality. It's one of the major ways you can legitimately disagree with a reviewer without even testing a product yourself. For instance, I rarely agree with Michael Reichman or Lloyd Chambers on what is a worthwhile purchase. Their photography budgets far exceed mine. It doesn't mean that I think their reviews are in any way inaccurate, but they're willing to throw far larger sums of money at a photographic problem that I am. Conversely, their standards are sometimes higher than mine. It's easier to complain about the rattle in your Camry when you can afford (and have driven) a Bentley.
Of course the reviewer's priorities may be different than yours, which is why it is so important to understand yours. After nearly four decades of carting around a Pentax 67, these days I put some premium on portability. Using cameras that I don't mind hauling everywhere changes what I do artistically, and I enjoy the freshness (see above).
I made this photograph with a large, very expensive camera. I could not have made it with a small one. But, is the high price and inconvenience of such a camera worth it to me to make more of these photographs?
At the beginning of the year I got to use a medium-format Contax with Zeiss optics and a Phase One back for several weeks. It was great fun, and I did some really good work with it, adding several extremely fine photographs to my portfolio.
Do I want to make it my standard go-to camera kit? Oh heavens, no! Can I afford such a rig? See previous answer. Still, it has had me thinking for the better part of a year on how I might review that medium format behemoth against my Olympus Pen. Yes, it sounds like the worst apples versus oranges comparison, but after some reflection you'll see it makes a lot of sense. There's a basic consumer question in there: "I am using X; what am I missing by not moving up to Y?" Specifically for me, given that I am a smallish-camera, smallish-budget photographer, what would I gain, photographically, if I could/would get one of those medium-format rigs?
Sometimes this just breeds dissatisfaction; other times it's genuinely revelatory. Harking back to the film days, I've known of more than one photographer who, upon using a 4x5 view camera for the first time, realized they had been making themselves crazy trying to exact almost-unreasonable levels of quality from their 35mm. Many others tried it and decided they had as little interest in routinely using such an ungainly contraption as I would have relying on the Contax boat anchor.
The question, "What should I buy?" has no answers. The questions, "What can I afford?" and "What do I want to photograph with it?" do. They are your friends. Remember, shop wisely, if not too well.
(Entirely off-topic...Steven Halpern, if you're reading this, could you please email me? I have a question about a future column for you. Thanks)
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Bob Rosinsky: "I use three cameras. Each camera is one magnitude cheaper than the next. Oly Pen EPL-1: cheapest; Sony a850: not cheap; Hasselblad H2f with 39 MP multi-shot back: expensive. As a pro and a hobbyist, each of these cameras serve a purpose. My favorite camera is the Oly Pen with the 14–42mm kit lens. It's a blast being able to have a camera with me in all situations. The Sony is great for photographing dogs and environmental portraits; the 'Blad is great for commercial product photography and fine art reproduction. Every time I pick up the Oly to take a snap, my blood pressure goes down. Picking it up and viewing the world through the nifty EVF is like taking a leisurely Sunday afternoon drive. It is fun."
Featured Comment by Jeff: "Another question I ask myself, which seems implicit in your post, is 'Will I see a difference in my prints?' For me, the benefits of a new tool may not relate to different types of photos, but rather to the quality of final product, which for me is the print. Generally speaking, I see greater gains from printing hardware and software than from any new camera and/or lens combination. (Perhaps use of Leica leaves little room for improvement, but I suspect the same would hold for most top end gear.) In my film days, the priorities seemed more on the 'front end' of the chain; now with digital there is increased emphasis on the 'back end' of the workflow. Testing new print solutions is unfortunately not as easy as renting cameras or lenses; one only knows through experimentation."
Featured Comment by Michael Bearman: "Your 'whim' budget is governed by Bearman's Laws. These may be stated as follows:
- The amount you will spend on goods without considering the price or undertaking a cost benefit analysis is known as the spending pain threshold or 'SPT.'
- The SPT applies to discretionary purchases.
- The SPT level is proportionate to the unnecessary purchase desire or 'UPD.'
- The greater the UPD the higher the SPT.
- Importantly, the SPT is inversely proportional to absolutely necessary purchases of 'ANP.' Hence, the higher or greater the ANP the lower the SPT.
- Finally, the SPT converges absolutely with the ability to pay for the purchase, or 'APP.' Hence, the less you can afford the purchase, the more likely its is you are to make it and vice versa. This is known as the likelihood of purchase or 'LOP.'
"Let us test these Laws by applying them to known two goods a) my wholly unnecessary new Zeiss lens or 'NZL' and b) my wife's badly needed new dress for a wedding or 'WND.' It is safe to assume that NZL has a high UPD and WND has a high ANP. Hence, NZL SPT is greater than WND SPT. It is known that in respect of discretionary goods in December my personal APP is A$1000. As SPT converges absolutely with APP, we can assume that the difference between NZL SPT and NZL APP (being infinitesimal) is zero. It follows that NZL LOP = 100%. And because UPD is inversely proportional to APP, it follows that WND SPT (being infinitesimally small) is also zero. Hence, WND LOP = 0%.
"Hence, assuming that the NZL price = $1000 and WND price = $500, I will necessarily purchase the lens because 100% LOP = ($1,000 SPT/$1000 price) and will necessarily not purchase the new dress because 0% LOP = (0$SPT/$500 price).
"And that, Darling, is why I didn't have any choice when I bought the lens I wanted instead of the clothes you needed. Really."
Mike replies: I assume she knew you were like this when she married you? [g]