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How the cameras that I use change with how I approach photography

Once per year, often around the summer, I get in this mood where I need to revise my photography kit radically and want to sell of equipment to finance new purchases just to repeat this the next year. This year, I want to do things differently and write down what I use specific equipment for and find out for myself if it is necessary to make a change. This concerns all my photography equipment and spans both film and digital.

Over the past two years, my approach to photography has changed. Two years ago, I would go out to shoot for the sake of taking photos and come back with a roll of pictures of which most would never end up on paper. They would disappear into my archives or end up on a hard drive. Now, I go out to shoot with the purpose of making a print in some form or another. This got even more so when I started using large format cameras, where every sheet is expensive by comparison in terms of materials and time needed per photo. Switching to large format also opened another dimension to the way I approach the entire process: I now have the ability to tune a negative completely in terms of exposure and development to match the wanted effect in the print. Even though I had to go through the pains of calibrating my process, making prints became easier and more fun. Where I started with ‘taking pictures’, I feel that I am now more on the ‘making pictures’ end of the spectrum and perhaps also more creatively engaged with each separate image. The entire process is as much part of the fun, if not more, than is the final product. With this in mind, my digital kit has seen less and less use, and I now mainly use it for family events or vacations, where I don’t want to bother my girlfriend with waiting for me due to the setup time required by the LF cameras.

When I look at the occassions that I bring a camera, there are three clear reasons. The first one is what I would label my “serious photography”. This is largely what I described above, and currently mainly centers around (urban) landscapes and (abstract) architecture. This is what I do as a hobby and what I enjoy most about photography. Second is what we can call my “personal shooting”, which concerns mainly vacations, days out and other events such as doctoral defenses of friends. This is what I do as ‘the photography guy’ in my social circles. The last reason is what can be called “casual shooting”. This can be anything where a quick picture is in order, such as a quick memento or something that I snap for work. These are the snap shots that are shared, that end up in a shoe box or on a hard drive, or that lose their significance briefly after the picture is taken.

When I go out to make photos, I bring one of my large format cameras with three lenses, a tripod and several other accessoires. These go in a large backpack or in a hard case. The kit that I carry weighs a ton, but I gladly take it with me for it is a necessary means to an end. My current options here are a Toyo 45A field camera or a Sinar P2 monorail camera, a Schneider Super Angulon 90 mm f/5.6, a Rodenstock Sironar-N 150 mm f/5.6 and a Nikon 210 mm f/5.6. For the occassions that I want to shoot color, I revert to my digital SLR camera: a Canon 6D with a Sigma 24-35 mm f/2 and Canon 70-200 mm f/4 L lens. For what I called “personal shooting”, I currently use the dSLR kit. I do also own a Pentax MX with 40 mm f/2.8 pancake lens and a 50 mm f/1.7 lens, but those get rarely used. I do occassionally take it out for a spin, and I keep it more for the fact that I find it a fun little camera, than that I actually need it for anything in particular. Since I got it, I only shot a hand full 35 mm film. For the last occassion on the list, “casual shooting”, I just use my smartphone. I do occassionally grab the dSLR when I have it at arms length or when I need the better quality files, e.g. for listings on sales/trading forums or platforms or photos for the blog.

The doubts I currently have, focus on the dSLR kit and are caused by several reasons. The first reason is that I do not grab the kit very often anymore, but that it is currently my only option for high quality color photography. At the moment, I do not process color film or make wet color prints. I am not sure whether I will miss it though, because the majority of the prints I make are black and white.  The second cause is that many of the occassions that I use it for do not justify carrying the bulk and weight of the kit. For example, when I am on vacation, I tend to shoot two kinds of photos: ‘serious’ landscapes with the intention of making prints, and your typical family vacation photos. Some of which will never see the light of day again after the first screening to the people that stayed at home. For the former application, the kit works perfectly fine, but for the latter, it is overkill and often a burden to carry the heavy bag. I would favour anything roughly the size of the MX in terms of weight and ergonomics anytime over the 6D. Also, my current two-lens kit is not snapshot friendly. A more general purpose lens, like a 24-70 mm or 24-105 mm would be better suited as a one-lens vacation kit.

This leaves me to wonder whether I really need the dSLR kit anymore. I clearly favor the LF cameras at the moment, and feel like I am only keeping the dSLR kit to keep my options open for the future. Isabel Curdes suggested on Twitter that I check the photos of the past year and see how many I really like. If more than 10 of those are shot with the 6D, I should keep it, at least for a while longer. If it is less than 10, it has to go. This sounds like solid advice. If I don’t use it enough to generate work that I like, the financial value of the kit is too high for me to justify letting it sit on the shelf (in contrast the to Pentax MX, which was so cheap that I don’t mind not using it often). I still have to go through the archives, but I doubt whether I will make 10.

If I am going to make a change, these are the options I can think of:

  1. Get a small form factor digital camera to cover for the times where the dSLR is overkill (for example a Canon G7x MkII)
  2. Sell the dSLR and replace it completely with a small form factor digital camera (for example the aforementioned G7x or a Fuji X100F)
  3. Buy a 24-105 mm f/4 lens to act as an allround lens for occassions where I want to limit the bulk and weight of the dSLR kit.

In the first scenario, I buy more equipment to use when bringing the dSLR is more of a burden than a joy. In the second, the LF cameras will take an even more prominent role in my photography and I lose access to high end digital files for color photography. If I want to do color, I need to accept the limited capabilities of a smaller camera, or start shooting and processing color film. In both cases, I would then leave the heavier and bigger camera at the hotel/car, and only bring it when I will focus on making photos, instead of taking them. In the third scenario not much changes. On vacations I would be bringing roughly 1 kg less in terms of glass, and be able to bring a smaller (and thus lighter bag).

You may wonder whether this is motivated by a yearly attack of Gear Acquisition Syndrome and in past years I might have reluctantly admitted that was part of the reason for a change. This year, however, I am not looking for the latest and greatest or to make an upgrade. If anything, I would be making a step back in terms of performance to get a camera that I will take more often with me again. This is also what currently bothers me the most, I am just not using the 6D enough.

At the moment I am undecided to what my final choice will be. If you have any helpful insights or comments, I’d be happy to hear them. If you go through similar processes, perhaps occassionally, perhaps more regularly (Matt Day, I am looking at you ;-)), let me know! I am interesting in hearing your motivations and choices.

Published in Miscellaneous