A place for me to share my recent work, random musings on photography and reflect on my thoughts, experiences, ideas and revelations.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Price of Commitment, Continued

In the last couple of days I have been preparing to pack for our upcoming cruise, an annual tradition for the last 9 years. In recent years I have managed to convince myself that I was on vacation and took only a point & shoot camera - albeit a good camera - the Canon G9. With the exception of our first couple of cruises when I was still shooting 35mm film, and our one trip to Alaska where I had just purchased my Canon 20D, all I have ever taken on a cruise was a point & shoot camera.

A couple of months ago I decided, with Kathy's blessing since it does effect her, that I wanted to do some more "serious" photography on this cruise. We're going to visit several islands that we especially like, consider particularly photogenic and have only been to a few times. Given my current lack of gainful employment it is uncertain when we will be able to justify another cruise, so I wanted to get some "good" photos from this trip.

Herein lies the dilemma: how much gear is enough? In keeping with the theme of my last post, once you decide to do "serious photography" there is a certain minimum level of equipment you are committed to. I want to make sure I have enough equipment to do what I want to do, without taking so much gear that it becomes a burden. I started by deciding which camera bag I wanted to take, figuring that the size of the bag would determine the amount of stuff I would take. Something more than a point & shoot but less than my entire large 40-pound airline-legal rolling bag, preferably. My rolling bag would be a good solution for getting stuff there, since it is easy to handle and designed for travel. But it holds literally everything I use, and that seems a bit excessive. I'd still have to take my backpack, which would need to be packed separately, because I would want that for carrying my gear with me on the islands. My backpack seemed to make the most sense, since it was the bag I took to Alaska with me, holds as much as I can reasonably carry but is not too much to handle.

When I start paring down my gear I long for the days when I shot with my Mamiya 7 rangefinder. A nice compact body, three excellent lenses and a box of 220 Velvia would get me through a productive weekend. For a trip like this I'd probably take 5 or 6 boxes of film, perhaps as many as 10, and it would all fit into a small doctor bag-sized bag. My 3 lenses were 150mm, 65mm and 50mm, roughly equivalent to 75mm, 35mm and 28mm on a full-frame 35mm camera. My favorite lens, the Canon 24-70, for all intents and purposes covers all three of those focal lengths, and while the combination is a bit larger than the Mamiya kit it doesn't take up a lot more space. So why do I need more than that? Let's look at what I'm taking:

Canon 5D Body w/ RRS L bracket
Canon 40D Body w/ RRS L bracket
Canon G9
Canon 17-40 zoom lens
Canon 24-70 zoom lens
Canon 24-105 zoom lens
Canon 70-200 zoom lens
Canon 580EX flash
Gitzo tripod with RRS head
3 spare batteries for the 5D & 40D with charger
1 spare battery for the G9 with charger
Spare AA batteries for flash with charger
7 - 4GB compact flash cards
4 - 4GB SD cards
2 polarizers
Remote release
3 bubble levels
Lastolite Tri-Grip reflector/diffuser
Various cleaning supplies: Sensor Loupe, Arctic Butterfly, Blower, Microfiber cloths
Various tools for tightening brackets and tripod heads
Apple Powerbook laptop with 2 card readers and an external hard drive
Business cards

This is traveling light? From all this it doesn't look like I'm leaving much behind, but there is still a lot of stuff left in my regular bag! Most amazingly, what would I leave behind? It all fits in my backpack, so if I take anything out I will have empty space. Can't have that! Besides, other than the 70-200 there isn't any single thing or combination of things that would make enough of a difference to matter, and I'm not leaving the 70-200 at home. No way! I'll use it all, and there will be something I don't take that I'll wish I had, like my 2X extender, extension tubes or closeup lens. But I think I've covered 99.5% of the situations I'm likely to encounter, and that's about as close as I can hope to get. Besides, I'm going to be doing a lot more than taking pictures!

It's amazing to me how much stuff I feel like I need to take just to take "serious" pictures. But given that I want to be sure and cover as many bases as possible, I just can't imagine getting by with anything less. Let's hope the results are worth the effort!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Price of Commitment

I don’t generally spend a lot of time on message boards, although I will admit to doing my share of posting. I recently contributed to a discussion on the CNPA forum about printers and printing. I made what I thought were some reasonable and well-explained opinions on the type of printer one might look for when getting started printing, the many types of papers involved and the importance of having a properly-profiled monitor so you would have some assurance that the colors on your screen would be well-represented on paper.

During the course of the discussion one of the posters stated that she had a printer that she “bought used 2 years ago. It is still in the box. All the horror stories about not calibrating printer and monitor before attempting to print scared me so much I dismissed all ideas of trying to print.”

First of all, CNPA is an organization of what, 2000 members now? And this particular person is one of the nicest, most social and outgoing people I know. She surely could have asked for and received help from someone in this organization! One of the dozens of people she regularly shoots with would have had exactly the knowledge she was looking for.

Secondly, how much does a colorimeter cost? In the context of the money we spend on camera, lenses, tripods, computers, printers and accessories, why would one not properly calibrate their equipment to get the best possible results?

That got me thinking about all the little odds and ends that we often don’t factor in when we sit down and calculate how much it costs to do what we do. Photography is expensive. Whether we do it as a hobby or as a profession, it costs a lot of money. And that’s not just the gear. The travel is expensive, too. We do it either because we love it, because we’re trying to make a living from it, or both.

There aren’t many inexpensive hobbies, at least not hobbies that I know of. Does a golfer spend several thousand dollars on clubs then shoot with “x-out” golf balls? I grew up in a town with the only (at that time, at least) free public golf course. I played with second-hand clubs and balls I had found. But you don’t become Tiger Woods playing that way. Would a musician buy an expensive guitar then listen to himself play through earbuds? I don’t think so.

It is possible to do photography well with used equipment (it’s all used, right?), old computers and even old printers. But for most of us that is an exception. There is a certain level we want to be at in order to enjoy what we do, produce results we can be proud of and go to the places we want to go. There is a certain pride and satisfaction that comes from pulling out a new lens or some gee-whiz accessory and using it. There is nothing like visiting a fantastic location for the first, or second or twentieth time and taking nice photographs. But then what? We want to share them, either by posting them online, selling them to publications or making prints. That’s all part of the fun, but it’s also part of the cost.

There was recently another thread on the CNPA forum where someone shared a checklist he had made to keep track of the gear for certain kinds of trips. That was great stuff and very helpful. I have my own checklist of things to take on various types of trips, from weekend get-aways to cruises. It’s a great way to be organized. How about a list of all the things we need to be photographers? How many people, if confronted with such a list, would decide to take up another hobby because of the expense? I’ll bet a number of people would, especially once they realized the cost!

Since we don’t have that list, at least not that I’m aware of, we sort of accumulate things as we go. We buy a camera and lens, then a polarizer. Maybe a nice bag. Then another lens, or a tripod. Then a bigger bag. We buy a computer but need a bigger hard drive, or some kind of software. I once heard Tony Sweet tell a group that “digital photography is really not that expensive. After the first $20,000.” For many of us that’s not too far off!

Everyone has to decide their own level of comfort based on their own personal situation. That can be determined by time, budget or other factors. But there are some things that no one should do without. One of those things is a properly profiled monitor, and it doesn’t matter which colorimeter you use as much as is does that you use one. There are many more things that are equally important or more so, but you don’t always have to buy the fanciest or most expensive version. You need to get the best one you can afford that does the job. Does everyone need a $1200 tripod or a $200 polarizer? Of course not. A good sturdy tripod is not cheap. My polarizers, and I have several of them, cost more than many of the cameras I see tourists carrying. In fact, that is often the response when someone asks me how much my camera cost.

I’ve always been a believer that whatever is doing is worth doing well. That’s why I gave up golf a long time ago. I was horrible at it and no matter how hard I tried I could never figure it out. I’ve had somewhat better luck with photography, but it is not any cheaper!

I'm also a strong believer in 'to each his own' but my personal opinion is that being the best photographer I can be means being able to own good equipment (not necessarily the newest or most expensive) that gives me good results, learning to process my own photos and competently print my own work. That carries a certain level of financial commitment. Not everyone shares my goals. For many people sharing photos on Flickr or Facebook is their aim. That’s great, but even then there’s still a minimum cost to play. Maybe not as much as some, but it’s there. Camera gear is great and I always want more, but to me, the ability to experiment with paper and processes and tweaking my photos to get them where I want them is part of the learning process. I consider a good printer to be an essential part of my photography equipment, and it is as important to me (or more so) than another lens or camera body. And that takes a certain level of commitment as well.

To wrap up, my point is that there are some things you just need to have in order to do any hobby. Some of them are expensive, some not. It’s sometimes hard to come up with another $75 or $100 or $500 when there are lots of other things competing for our funds, but some things are necessary, and some are just worth it. When it comes to printing, whether you print your own work or send it to an outside lab, you need to be sure that the file you are sending is accurate, and that takes “just another piece of equipment.” There are a lot of those, and as hard as it is, sometimes you just need to do what it takes.