The Wanting and the Having

The other day I went online to learn more about neutral-density filters for photography. The idea is that sometimes there’s too much light, and to manage the light you can crank your lens down, limiting your creativity, or you can essentially give your camera sunglasses. I came across an article by an Australian bloke (rhymes with ‘guy’) who liked to use very very dark filters (“Black Glass”, he called them), to take super-sweet photos of running streams and things like that, using exposures that lasted minutes. A side effect of the technique is colors that reach out of the picture and slap your face.

I was distracted from my original goal of looking at less extreme ND filters, and found myself looking at cameras. The leap from filter to new camera is tenuous at best, but by God I made it.

The day before I had been looking at lenses that were pretty cheap with pretty impressive performance numbers. The catch: they were manual focus. My camera doesn’t have the parts that older cameras have to help a photographer tweak the focus. Auto-focus is so good these days that the extra cost of adding a split prism or whatever just won’t resonate with the typical purchaser.

But there’s another way to get good focus with old-fashioned lenses or practically opaque optics. Live View. Crappy little digicams have had live view for a while now, but for reasons I won’t belabor here, high-end SLRs have only recently gained this power. What it means is this: you can see the picture you’re about to take on the screen on the back of the camera. You can zoom in on the image, choose your favorite eyelash, and adjust the focus until it’s perfect.

My camera, snazzy though it is, doesn’t have Live View. For almost the same reasons, it doesn’t shoot video.

So I started pining for Live View. I have a lens that can really benefit from manual focus, and I plan to substitute pinholes for black glass. The Want took root in my soul.

Flashback: Several years ago, during year zero of the Muddled Age, I was sleeping on my cousin’s sofa in Bozeman, Montana. Let me tell you, there are things to photograph up there. I borrowed his gear for a visit to Yellowstone, got exciting results, and Cousin John set me up with my own rig while I basked in the euphoria of good beer and a few nice photos.

John is a Canon man, and he likes his toys. He filled up a shopping cart at B&H, I said “go”, and shortly thereafter I had a DSLR and three lenses. It’s worth noting that although he likes the high-end stuff, the camera he chose was entry level (though I couldn’t even tell that at the time). The main investment was in the glass, and those lenses have determined my course ever since.

I told anyone who would listen that the Canon 10D was more camera than I would ever need. Perhaps the Gods chortled. The 10D was all the camera I needed for many years, but through a series of events that could not be anticipated but must be appreciated, I began taking a lot of pictures, and I started to feel limited by my camera. No one was more surprised than I was, and no one was more pleased.

My upgrade was a big jump: 10D to a used 5D I bought off a coworker. Canon’s wacky numbering system goes 10-20-30-40-50-7-6-5-1. I think there’s a 60, too. Not all those numbers are available anymore. Anyway, I went 10D to 5D and it was a huge jump, and, gratifyingly, my pictures improved. I wasn’t just buying gear for the bragging rights.

Back to now: Honestly, I’m not feeling that limited by the 5D. It can take a pretty picture or two. But the 5D mark II has way more pixels, and Live View, and video. The person who sold me her 5D had just bought a Mark II. Now there’s the Mark III, out last spring to great excitement. It is a ridiculously awesome piece of consumer electronics. The biggest improvement over the Mark II: it’s much better in low light.

I started following Mark II’s on ebay. They are still manufactured, largely because people who have studio lights don’t need mark III’s most compelling feature. I have lights. I’m getting better at using them. Mark II is enough. Mark II is enough. Mark II is enough.

But you know what? I shoot other places than the studio. Sometimes I don’t control conditions and I have to adapt. A more versatile camera gives me more options. I spent ridiculous hours doing ‘research’, weighing the 5D Mark II, the 5D Mark III, and the brand-new 6D, which has some intriguing features. This research happened over the course of several nights after the light of my life had gone to bed, and resulted in what must have seemed a fiat to her: we need a Mark III. (Yes, “we”.) I haven’t hit the ceiling on the camera I have, and I was calling for a new one. A really expensive new one. I tried to play it cool, but inside I was a knot of commercial lust.

A funny thing happens when I relate this story to the folks around me: “At least you actually take pictures,” is the almost universal response. That I do, that I do. But I still feel something of the poseur when I indulge myself this way. I get good shots with the 5D I already own. It is for my own pride that I feel I have to develop my abilities to warrant carrying a prestige item like the Mark III. I can’t feel proud of owning it, that’s just a matter of spending money. That sucker’s in the mail now, and I better do something to justify holding it.

Also, I check the shipping status roughly every fifteen minutes. I’m giddier than a schoolgirl on free pony night.


8 thoughts on “The Wanting and the Having

  1. At least I know I’m not alone in my insatiable gear lust. I already feeling hemmed in by the camera I bought in April. I’ve been telling myself, “Look, this thing takes better pictures than the top-end pro cameras of ten years ago and it’s not like the pros were taking crummy pictures back then, so this ought to be good enough.” All true. Yet, I *really* want to upgrade. Badly. I too feel like I have to earn a purchase by advancing my skills enough to “outgrow” what I have, and at this point I feel like I can actually defend that point with my inner critic. But I also feel compelled to play a zero sum game with my toys. So I’ve been looking around the house looking for stuff to put on Craiglist to fund and justify a camera upgrade. ;-) Congrats on the new camera and I look forward to a review and some pix!

  2. I second the emotion of “At least you take pictures” and you really should take that as compliment and justification for the purchase. You and Dahveed write for a peer audience, but I really do like just looking at y’alls pictures. Also, giddier than a …. may have to go on the phrases I like list.

  3. Oh, dear, I hope Gerald doesn’t see this! He’s been making noise about wanting some fancy new equipment for his photography. We’re trying to figure out a benchmark for when he might deserve to have parents and/or grandparents spend big piles of money on something that so far has not gained him a significant amount of income. Becoming gainfully employed and/or significant progress in his education might be positive steps.

  4. Harlean’s twelve days of christmas on Facebook is going off the charts. Some pretty good photos, if I do say so myself. Taken without the wonder gear that arrives in the mail tomorrow. It’s a catch-22: I get good pics with my current camera, so I don’t really need the upgrade. If I was taking bad pictures clearly I would not be ready for an upgrade.

  5. More than eight years have passed, and we’re still happy with that camera body. That’s a pretty amazing run for a piece of consumer electronics.

    Mostly happy… today was the first time I have seriously looked at an upgrade. I came back to look for this episode to figure our how long we’ve had the 5DIII. The R5 looks… pretty sweet, especially in less-controlled circumstances, that we keep intending to do. And it would make a great webcam!

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