« A Note From My Obsession-Compulsion | Main | Random Snaps: Clement Valla's Melted Bridges »

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

What do you mean by precision, precisely?

I kind of like the Kirk Tuck approach, using whatever cameras work and appeal to you at the time, even cheap lenses for some things. Pick up old pro bodies without high megapixels, new consumer ones, mix and match, use a Pen for fun with various manual lenses.

Adequately durable...

Lightly used Canon 30D - about $250 - probably still 50,000 exposures left in the shutter, nice solid little metal body.

I make that about 2 cents per exposure.
Can't shoot film as cheaply.

We're now at the stage that you can pick up a perfectly adequate DSLR for a few hundred dollars. Photography has never been cheaper.

There's also the acceptable level of complexity factor to consider. Some cameras are just to complex to allow a nice synergy between user and camera.

I got five years of hard professional use out of my 1D Mark II bodies. At $5000 each, that's $2K per year for cameras. That is pretty cheap considering all factors. In what I am sure is a total coincidence, the new Mark IV cameras also cost $5000 each. Again, well worth the price over a five year period of heavy professional use. Also, the improvements in image quality and handling are incredible.

I understand the precision concern, but other than marketing attempts to get us to buy the latest whatever, what evidence are you seeing that digital cameras are becoming useless after a few years?

My film Leica Ms lasted decades, but so far I see no evidence that my (or others') digital camera will somehow stop taking pictures in a few years. The M8 didn't even come to market until 2006 (not unlike many other digital cameras), so how do we know until time has passed about their longevity? In the meantime, customer service hasn't changed; the company still makes repairs as needed, usually at no cost if there is a major failure.

Mike, When you factor in the cost of film, processing & darkroom work, Digital is still very inexpensive.
Years ago a commercial photographer would need big strobes, many camera systems and tons of lenses. Today one maybe two cameras -- a few lenses some cheap strobes and you are in business.
My first Mac 30" monitor was $3,000 now I can get the best I Mac with a 27" monitor for $700 less.
My first Canon 1Ds was $8,500 -- my new Canon 60D was $900 and even with a smaller cell is a far better camera and does movies.
I've had at least 10 digital cameras and never had a problem with any of them and got a decent price when sold on E Bay.
Film cameras -- never had one that didn't break down at some point, even in my leica days M2 & M3 always had problems with them -- Hassablad lens lock ups all the time
shutter speeds below 30th of a sec never worked when needed, thats why I called the shutters "Com Poor" shutters.
Nope, I'll take the Digital era any day of the week over film & film cameras.

Many photographers, even here, have no particular intention of earning money with their cameras, which makes #1 kind of outside the range of discussion for us.

Although my first DSLR did pay for itself, I'm pretty sure.

Mike, I can only tell you what I did: I bought a Leica M8, a 28mm Ultron, stopped thinking about things like that and went out shooting...

Take care,

When I bought my 21 mp 1ds mk lll 2.5 years ago, I shot a cats arse with it. On looking at the photo, I realised that I was seeing a cats arse for the first time.

I've felt like a cats arse ever since

I'm not sure your sponsors are going to enjoy this post, Mike... ;-)
... but you're probably right all the way.

Yet I have an alternate third potential option:
- Look carefully among the cameras available in the market; then choose one which exceeds your current needs/expectations. Then learn to live with it and accept its limitations regarding future models.

That's what I did a few years ago: after reading tons of information, I finally decided that the Pentax K10D was the camera for me. And I think I did the right choice.

I got it in 2007, and since then, I learned a lot on photography, and enjoyed a lot using it, lately with a very old manual Tamron prime I got for very little money. It made me understand the huge charm of prime lenses, even if I have lost a few good shots due to the lack of autofocus.

Do I wish something else by now? Sure I do: I would get a new K-5 in no time with the three limited Pentax primes, if my budget allowed. At this point, I realize that the K10D has limitations in the response at low light, and in that respect, looking at shots made with a Nikon D700 or a Pentax K5 makes me all envious.

But you know what? My K10D still makes stunning pictures when used in the right conditions, and I know which are those conditions, and which conditions are not right. I have been the owner of this camera for 4 years, and I think it will remain with me for at least another 5 or six. In the mean time, if money allows one day, the primes will come home. If not, I will keep looking for inexpensive primes in good conditions from the manual days.

This sort of argues in support of the people asking for Nikon to make a digital FM3 manual-focus camera.

Some definitions are needed ...

1. Adequately precise.
2. Adequately durable.

My experience is that the mechanical bits are less reliable and fail before the electronic bits. This applies to most any device including automobiles, telephones and cardiac pacemakers.

Non-digital (ie. film) cameras have just as many mechanical bits as digital cameras of equivalent picture taking abilities.

In the commercial world, cost of ownership (purchase price, depreciation, maintenance and repairs) is always balanced against incremental revenue generation when making capital purchases. Commercial success of any piece of hardware is determined by the above so we can test your hypothesis by looking at how well that hardware does in the commercial market.

Restated ... a commercial photographer doesn't spend $40,000 on a Phase One back unless it makes money for her.

Hobbiests and joy riders are another thing entirely.

I have had only one digital camera fail on me so far and that was because I was caught in a downpour with nothing substantial to cover it. In 8 years since going digital, just one such incident does not tell me today's cameras are fragile. Also, I take far more photos than I ever did with film and I am surprised that my cameras still hold up.

What bothers me is the fact that new cameras are introduced at a breakneck pace obsoleting whatever I may own. I hope that a modular approach to camera building takes hold so I can just get the latest and greatest sensor or the viewfinder without having to buy a new camera every few years.

Mike, when you buy your audio equipment, do you calculate how much you would earn from the purchase, or how long it would take to 'pay for itself'? So why would you put up that barrier to photography?

Nearly all of your readers are invested in photography for the pure pleasure it can bring. Whether you are in it for the pictures, or just for the delight of owning really great toys, photography pays for itself in satisfying enjoyment.

At least that's how it looks from my perspective.

We've covered that issue thoroughly. See for instance here:



"My experience is that the mechanical bits are less reliable and fail before the electronic bits."

My experience is just the opposite. My brother even had an otherwise perfectly good 2-year-old Subaru totaled out by the insurance company for a computer failure. (Water got in over the floorboards in a flash flood and got into the electronics.)


I practice a combo of your two philosophies by buying high end cameras at discounted prices. I've had good luck buying demo units and good used equipment but my favorites are factory refurbished. Even the best products of the Japanese manufacturers use statistical quality control. By buying a refurb I get an essentially new camera (full warranty etc.) with the added benefit of it having been checked out by a real live technician. All at a substantial discount. The main drawback is having to wait a few weeks after the launch of a new camera for refurbs to become available.

I think you have made an excellent precis of what must have been a considerable amount of thought on this, Mike. I find using a digital (SLR) to be, in the final analysis, too complicated in regards to the process of capture and final output. I'm not saying it is beyond my abilities, because it isn't and I have sold many prints, just that the whole options process is immense: from camera setup to file conversion to print look. I know there are dozens of worthy articles about 'workflow' but they are usually oriented to investing in particular software that requires constant upgrades.
The Sony A900 was my 'best possible' camera, but I couldn't make it pay - I thought I could, but it earnt me no more than my Nikon D80 - so much for that route. At the moment I just cannot see a camera, that isn't film, that suits my needs/style. I'm looking to a radical reappraisal by manufacturers that just isn't going to happen: lower ISO (not higher !), simple functionality, sturdy design, etc., whereas what we are offered is more functions and complex processing algorithms that make it difficult to judge exactly what the image will look like.
It's fairly obvious that after 7 years of using digital capture, I'm just not cut out for it, yet. At least now I can wait and enjoy more use of film, knowing that I'm not missing out, and to get some decent digital snaps, I'll be getting a Canon G12, or something like.

I try not to think these or related thoughts, or otherwise I would never buy anything. I do appreciate the view above that today's digital camera is the film of old, though. A consumable.

I bought a used Nikon D200 in (I think) 2007. Might have been 2008. It makes photographs that exceed by far my own limitations, and I don't have to relearn new functions or button pushes that I would have to if I changed it for any other camera. I have now learned how it works (pretty much - some of the functions I have never used). It fits the same 3 lenses I have had since about 1995, all second hand. I have one spare battery, and 2 compact flash cards. It takes about 1000 pictures a year.

If the camera stops working tomorrow, I will replace it with the nearest equivalent, also used. On the other hand, if it keeps working at 1000 pictures a year for the next 50 years, I will still have it.

I think I am a loyal admirer of Nikon's ethos and quality of camera construction, but probably their worst customer!

In my relative ingnorance pertaining to the digital camera (holistically), this short comment made me stop and ponder my favorite photo equipment fantasy; which is, the existence of digital backs for my favorite old film cameras. If I had a choice of spending d700 money on a d700 or spending the same on a digital back for my old Rolliecord......it would be a quick decision for me. It would sure be fun.

"We've covered that issue thoroughly. See for instance here:


That just supports my point about marketing, and I should have added consumer GAS (gear acquisition syndrome). Did their prior camera(s) stop taking pictures? And, if so, the company didn't do anything about it? Really, now.

What bothers me is the fact that new cameras are introduced at a breakneck pace obsoleting whatever I may own.

That's not just the cameras. That's everything. New. Improved! CHEAPER!

But when you look at it, it's not cheaper and it's really not improved. Take this case, for instance...

Yesterday morning, my safety razor decided it's fed up with the world and wants to go to that big recycling yard elsewhere. It's barely usable now. It's a Gillette "Black Beauty" from the early seventies or, officially, from 1969. My late father gave it to me in 1980. He used it before that. About 40 years of service.

Gillette doesn't manufacture them anymore, they concentrate on disposable razors. Yeah, a disposable razor handle is cheap. But the pack of three blades for Mach-3 or something is about six times more expensive than a five-pack of safety blades.

The only people that Mach-3s benefit are the manufacturers. The same case with the "new" and "improved" cameras at the entry level and, particularly, in the compact market.

BTW, I agree with Mike that mechanical components are usually more durable than electronics. There's a lot less that can go wrong with a bit of metal that goes up and down than with an integrated circuit on a board.

The biggest difference is that mechanical bits can fail slowly, and be usable still, where electronic bits generally are useless when they fail. And can be more expensive to replace. A balky Hassy can often be coddled back to life, but a fussy digicam is just broke.

However - I paid 600 with tax for my used D80, and shot 24,000 frames with it - that's over 2 grand in black and white film alone, forget processing. Add in that it got me to shoot 24,000 frames makes it a steal:) I bought a new D7000 and have never been happier with a camera, forget about ROI.

Granted, I'm not trying to make money on this, so my judgment is on what's fun, what makes me smile, and what helps me capture the things I want to get. And then I look at the budget:)

I upgraded my camera. I went from the
Super Ikonta B to a new Fuji GF670.

I have no need for a cellular telephone. A cordless telephone is fine.

Dear Mike,

A question for you: are current cameras genuinely less precise or durable than film cameras were? Or is it just that you are more knowledgeable about the failures?

I'm pretty well convinced that the answer to the precision question is just one of awareness. That very small and elite subgroup of users who could dig into the mechanics and optical performance of film-lens-camera systems have always been acutely aware of their failings. Folks like me, Bob Nadler, Arthur Kramer, Norm Rothschild, and Bob Shell had no illusions whatsoever about this. We had tested and analyzed the stuff ourselves. Every aspect of the systems, from corner-corner sharpness to focus accuracy to exposure to alignment accuracy was fraught with drift and error. One just accepted it; it was part and parcel of such systems.

Thing is, only we elite could ferret out such data, and we understood its import and why things work that way. Today, via the miracle of the computer, almost anyone who wants to can pixel peep and see, clearly and objectively, the deficiencies in their systems. And they complain. Loudly.

Not that I'm objecting to that: every time someone writes a review that complains about lack of corner-to-corner pixel-level sharpness in their lens or camera alignment, or some focus or exposure inaccuracy that people simply would've lived with in the film days, I figure it's raising the bar for manufacturers. Whether or not the rants are realistic, the failures are objective and the objections legitimate. I am quite happy to see end-users making demands of the manufacturers that I think are unreasonable because it's forcing manufacturers to make better equipment. I win!

By the rising tide of prosumer standards, today's cameras are not adequately precise. I am not convinced they are less precise than previous generations of gear.

As for durability, I honestly don't know, but again I have to ask if this isn't perception and knowledge? In the bad old days, even most of us within the magazine business didn't have a good idea of breakdowns, failure rates, and which specific models were more reliable. We only heard about the extreme outlier cases, and we didn't have good statistics. With the rise of universal consumer interconnectivity, it's very easy for all of us to become aware of any systematic problems, even rare ones, that any product has. Also a good thing! But perhaps it's warping our perception into thinking there's been declining quality?

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

I agree about the "too complicated" statement: there just too many features packed in. But the problem is that each user seems to want a different set of features...

About durability I have positive experiences, as my LX3 has passed the milestone of 160,000 photographs taken, and is still working well. Not bad for such a little thing.

As a sidenote, I just received my Charles Cramer print (Aspen in fog), and it is a feast for the eyes. Thank you!

Yes digital DSLR can be complicated,but the user can make it simpler. I leave my Nikon D200 in single frame,single focusing,spot metering and RAW quanlity for more than three years with virtually not change. What I need to shift are ISO and white balance. I mostly use manual Nikkor so the focusing switch is at M almost all the time. We get along quite well.

I would say that our attention spans are not long enough to use cameras in an adequately precise manner. Jumping from model to model or format to format is the real problem and this isn't a new or digital phenomenon.

The aperture rings on my Pentax lenses move in a different direction from my Leica lenses. Same goes for the focus. Do I miss shots? Yes. Why? Because I'm a fool who switches between cameras.

There could be a point made about some of the auto features but manual mode seems pretty consistent. I think most advanced DSLR's have thumb and finger wheels that can configured to aperture and shutter respectively. Beyond that, I'm sure that most DSLR owners can navigate a menu to change their ISO faster than I can change the film in my M3.

"Current digital cameras are too complicated to be either a) adequately precise, or b) adequately durable."

No, I think you're wrong. Sometime in the last two or three years they've moved on past that stage.
Now, the problem is ME -- they are so complicated that I have trouble using them without having the instruction manual handy.

I'm afraid my answers would not satisfy a scientist. I'd say a camera is precise if it performs in a satisfactory or competent manner in the types of use which its design and capability encourages. For instance, if you have a digicam that has an f/4 lens and a highest effective ISO of 200 (say, because ISO 400 looks like crap), then as long as the AF system works well to within the effective DOF of an f/4 lens on that size sensor, in light levels where ISO 200 still yields more or less handholdable speeds, then you have a precise enough AF system. When you introduce f/1.4 lenses and sensors that yield usable quality at ISO 6400, then the AF system had better improve accordingly; if it doesn't--if, say, you encounter situations where your sensor is fully capable of recording, but where the AF will not work--then you have an AF system that is not precise enough, even if it is much better than the one in the digicam.

Similarly, if you have an IS system in a DSLR which improves image sharpness in situations where camera shake is likely to be extreme, but that does not allow you to take pictures at higher speeds that are as sharp as when the IS system is turned off, then I would argue that the IS system is not adequately precise. Compare this to a camera that simply does not have an IS system, and you see what I'm talking about.

Durability is easier: I'd say it means that the camera keeps working more or less as it did when it was new, at levels of maintenance expense that don't "total" it. My digital camera from 2003 is completely dead, and my digital camera from 2006 is effectively dead. But I have a Zeiss camera that my aunt bought in 1952 that still works fine. Well, not "fine," because it's a bit of pain to use, but it works more or less like it must have in 1952--all its designed-in functionality is intact insofar as I can tell. The reason this durability might be excessive is that my aunt died in 1988, so her camera has outlived her. And might outlive me, too.

To me, the necessity of a cleaning and adjustment every 3-10 years doesn't mean the camera isn't durable. Cameras that break down completely and are unrepairable for whatever reason, or that would cost more to repair than they are worth, could be considered to be not adequately durable past whatever time period passed before their breakdown.


I imagine there's similar but much worse angst on the supplier side. Something like: If you make a simple enough camera to be adequately precise and adequately durable, how many would sell? And could you charge an adequate price for it? How soon would the market consider it "obsolete"? How would you support such a thing? For how long and at what cost?

So do you make a precise, durable, simplistic, expensive camera that few would appreciate and even fewer buy at the prices you'd have to charge? Or do you make one with all the latest features, built to last a typical 2-3 years before "obsolescence", at a price the mass market will tolerate?

After typing all that, the GXR makes a lot more sense me.

They are also not of adequate quality, so don't be lazy; shoot film.

Sorry, but the 'shooting with digital is cheaper than film' statement can't be taken at such face value. It may be so, but, because I could take 100,000 shots a year digitally doesn't mean I would have off set that against the cost of 100,000 frames of film. The number of quality keepers would be about the same (assuming a digital camera had not in itself made me a better photographer) and I wouldn't trash that amount of film. When I did weddings pre-digital never once would I have thought, gee, I wish I could take a thousand shots of this: now it's (sadly) par for the course to take a thousand shots.
Getting pro-lab prints is now only slightly cheaper because of the investment those labs have had to make. On the highstreet 6x4's are cheaper for a batch of digitalprints: 100 prints for the cost of a 36 roll of D&P film, but how often do you buy 100 prints ? I certainly don't feel that I have saved any money going digital, quite the reverse.
So, back to thread, Mike, get a 'cheap' but good camera, you wont need to have it sat on your desk staring at you, defying you to make money each time you pick it up, but assured that it can make you money, if needed, because at the end of the day you are a photographer when you pick it up, not a slave to technology - technology may be necessary, but make sure you can feed your soul from it not vice versa.
Apologies for any pomposity.

I guess I'm in boat 2. I bought a GF1 to replace a Pentax DSLR (which I gave to my brother-in-law on permanent load) and I'm now putting up with it. Boy does sure smarts to have a camera that's barely adequate...

On the other hand, I've won a couple of ebay auctions, and now I've got 4 film Pentaxes. Two of which I've had to perform minor repairs on myself (which was fun... kind of!). I suppose this validates the adequately durable part... but in a very bad light for modern digital cameras (although I think from a megapixel perspective, at least that war seems to have died down somewhat).


It's just like many years ago when I bought my 1st electric guitar:

My first one - A two pick up Cort - I outplayed it in 3 years until the frets were sunken but I was still left hungry for more so I saved up and got myself my first Fender American Strat (B/W just like Hendrix and Clapton).But I knew I put myself in a corner since I had to convince my dad that I made a wise purchase - especially it was tuition fees savings for my first semester of University.

Pressure, the sheer pleasure of playing and wanting to sound like my musical heroes made me a better guitar player. Even my parents thought I was good enough to play in band since I was practising 2-3 hours a day at least. I don't regret my decision, graduated University just fine and still play guitar every day 25 years later.

Oddly enough, it was the same thing for photography:

Because I was new to photography in 2008, I did option 2 (Sony A200) and it didn't work out but it truth I didn't really know what I was doing but I wasn't encouraged with results anyways but I knew I could do better just like my adventures in guitars.

So I did some serious research, I bit the bullet and went with option 1 with a Nikon D700 and the 50mm f1.4 G lens and it smoked the best my Sony A200 did in every respect.

Because I went out and plopped a ton of cash for that base kit compared to the Sony A200, I deliberately put myself in a corner (thus blowing all my savings and annual bonus combined - again to my parents consternation) and it forced myself to get even more serious about photography. Again, I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn't going to be "that guy who buys the toys just to show off".

Now 1.5 year later, i've got the 24mm f2.8, 105mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8 VRII added to my collection and I use them and learn from them everyday.

Granted that drive, thirst for knowledge and other factors have greatly contributed to my growth as an amateur guitarist photographer but there's nothing like good equipment that gives you greater flexibility to tackle as many subjects as possible.

I guess that in my situation, "I buy it and it will come to me"

Dear Mike,

I think you meant your answer for someone else? I didn't question what you meant by precision, that was Paul. Quite agree with you about what precision means --especially that it's all in the context.

Had a slightly different take on what durability meant, but it's good enough. I see your point there; you're talking about differences in kind, not just degree.

Funny you should mention IS and its imperfect results. Something I griped after I got my EP1, as you no doubt recall. Well, having just come off of scanning some 150 of my best medium format negatives at 4800 ppi, I've discovered an appalling number of them, possibly even the majority, suffer some slight degree of camera shake. Not a lot, a pixel or three. Certainly didn't notice it in my 16x20 or larger prints. Wasn't really obvious until I was looking at stuff at what amounted to 40X on the monitor.

And, it's about the same level of shake I was complaining about when my EP-1's IS was on.

Hmmm, too much awareness... couldn't apply to me, also, could it? Naaah, I'm too enlightened.


pax / Ctein

"Current "xxxxxxxx" are too complicated to be either a) adequately precise, or b) adequately durable."
Criteria which could be applied to anything constructed by man or beast. KISS

I have to say, if I wasn't doing, or at this late point in my career, trying to do, professional photography, I wouldn't even have gone digital. I'm perfectly happy with the 'output' from my Deardorffs and Hasselblads, and perfectly happy with the process associated with making prints, or whatever I need them to do. They are robust, and functional, with very little upkeep.

Having been in on it at the beginning, I can say I think digital has been entirely forced by the client and the manufacturers, at least in the little market I ended up in, here in the mid-west. And the sadly-cheapskate clients I have to deal with, have forced it entirely because it's easier for them them to put it on a computer screen and do whatever they need to do with it, and because they 'think' it's cheaper because there is no film or processing. And the legions of photographers that constantly go in and out of business here because they allow the client to set the price, don't disabuse them of that notion. Hence the day-rates could never support the constant upgrade needed to stay current with technology and demand by the clients for a higher megapixel count.

If there are precision built 8 megapixel cameras out there, you would have had to replace them anyway to meet client demand for a higher megapixel count, long before they paid for themselves. I think as we've stated before somewhere, when it comes to digital, we are in the 1880's of conventional photography, which necessitates constant upgrading to meet re-establishing standards. What may be different is the extreme competition, which means purveyors get played off of each other until the pricing gets so low, they can't make a living and keep the equipment up! The market isn't paying for the upgrades, it moves to the next person entering that made the initial equipment purchase for later equipment than yours, and is also giving their services away; until their husband or wife, who is generally financing the larger share of household budget, puts a stop to it!

It may be fabulous to spend an afternoon with your Leica IIIg loaded up with Fuji Velvia and snapping around; but when the digital SLR starts approaching the look of 4X5 (there are people that claim it looks like 120 already), how much fun is it going to be to be snapping around with your precision built Leica M8 with it's then laughable output? I'm thinking: not so much.

As a person who made the minimum digital purchase to stay marketable, based on reviewing my usage, I could have gone way lower and been ahead. I should have bought Canon Rebels all along!

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007