Longing for the Perfect Camera — Expectations and Reality

It’s a new industry in itself: the market for what’s not here yet. The camera industry in particular plays with the hopes, doubts and expectations of photographers. In part because ever new improvements, functions and promises make believe a photographer’s work improves proportionally to the money spent and technical improvements gained. Fact is, chances are that your best ever photographs are shot with an unspectacular, average, no hyped camera that just happened to be there with you in the right place at the right time.

This in itself, being in the right place at the right time, is the most fundamental requirement to good, rewarding photography. Good photography has little to do with the brand or type of gear a photographer is using.

Simple, essential -- Nikon's campaign for the upcoming retro full-frame Nikon Df promises "Pure Photography."
Simple, essential, hitting the nerve — Nikon’s marketing campaign for the upcoming retro full-frame Nikon Df promises “pure photography”…
Gear that delivers, gear that’s nice to hold and work with, gear that encourages the photographer to go out because, as Robert Capa told us many years ago, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” now that sounds like the perfect gear. What we mostly get these days, however, overwhelms with buttons, functions and a myriad of customization options.

So busy trying to set up basic operationability, you just missed another decisive moment — in the end those are the moments photography is all about.

These portable convergence devices disguised as cameras churn out photographs by the thousands. However, did you count the keepers. Without vision the most expensive, the newest and the most promising tool is useless.

Yet we’re exposed again and again to temptation. It’s what PetaPixel calls Overdosing on Hype; occurring when a bold new promise is made, packaged in a beautiful marketing campaign. The Nikon Df Pure Photography teasers are a prime example for raising hopes and expectations by touching photographers’ heart mind.

Promising “No clutter, no distractions,” accompanied by a melancholic adagio, a Bohemian no-frills photographers wandering through beautiful Scottish landscape with a mysterious camera around his neck that delivers beautiful mechanical clicks, this lonely soul in picturesque land cleverly personifies what many of us wish for: undistracted, simple, pure photography.

This really hits the nerve of the time. In the words of Luminous Landscape:

Most of our cameras today are full of ugly clutter, convoluted menus, useless functions, an unnecessary explosion of buttons and dials, lack of direct simple access to critical functions, major ergonomic mistakes and big compromises (…)

We need simplicity. We need you to cover the basics properly.

Adds Kirk Tuck, talking about the “graying of traditional photography”:

Apple has it just right. Make things that are simple to own and simple to use. Make menus easier and not harder. Eliminate the need to make unnecessary decisions. Make design more important and ultimacy less important.

Going retro is the latest newer trend initiated by camera manufacturers to move away from these portable computers disguised as cameras. As the megapixel and miniaturization races are finally over for good as well, we may indeed witness a movement away from hyper-technologized snapping back to photography’s essentials.

Slow down, decelerate. All you need is aperture, shutter speed and ISO control.

Don’t get me wrong. I want you to buy as many new cameras as possible. Please consider these Amazon, B&H, Adorama and eBay links for all your purchases. I will earn a small fee and you don’t pay one single cent more. It’s time to get those Christmas gifts — for yourself as well!

But only do so after very careful consideration what’s best for you. I for myself must confess: this upcoming Nikon Df and me look like a match in heaven. I’d hate Nikon if they were to deliver a hyped up dud that’s just more of the same that. I trust Nikon reads the signs of the times — or you’re “not going to be around in five years,” says market analyst Christopher Chute in an article by the Financial Post predicting big camera companies are the next BlackBerry.

So CaNikon might not be around by the turn of the decade? Consumer DSLRs, CaNikon’s former cash cow, are “dead in five years,” promises EOSHD‘s Andrew Reid. Sony on the other hand has seen the writing on the wall better than the past’s market leaders with their ostrich-like mentality.

To be fair: cameras today are a lot about style and differentiation. They all take good enough images. Ultimate quality is now sitting next to the newer trend towards intimacy and immediacy. A big camera is no longer a prerequisite for a place at the table. But where is photography going?

Kirk Tuck:

Where it’s always gone. It’s going along for the ride with popular culture. It’s the traditionalists that feel a sense of loss but the sense of loss is from the constant evolution of tastes and styles. If you look at photo history you’ll see generational warfare at every junction. Resistance to smaller camera formats! Resistance to color film! Resistant to SLR cameras! Resistance to automation!

And in the art you see Robert Frank as the foil to the arch perfectionism of Group 64. You see William Klein as the antidote to the preciousness of Elliott Porter. You see Guy Bourdin as the antithetical antihero to Snowdon and Scuvallo. Each move forward was contentious and cathartic. Just as Josef Koudelka was the revolutionary to Walker Evans.

The camera market is in the doldrums now because it is conflicted. Go with the aging money? Or go with the maturing new markets? Go with a shrinking but loyal market or blaze a new trail based on new cultural parameters? The spoils will go to the companies that get it right.

So… still overdosing on hype? Or too confused to know what’s the perfect camera for you? No reviewer, no analysis, no online research can make that decision for you.

And why would there be a perfect camera. You might have found it even if you go through cameras like others through underwear.

The delivery systems change. Photography doesn’t.

The perfect camera for me is the one I can grow together with by inspiring — well said Nikon — pure photography.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Pure Photography.
    I’m all for it.
    The Nikon DF.
    I don’t know yet. Extra complexity and extra mirrors, OVF AND EVF.
    An old slogan in American advertising encourages you to “advertize your weaknesses.”
    Is that what Nikon is doing, or is there really a link of reality between Pure Photography and the Nikon DF.
    I hope so.

    Keep in mind that technological simplicity no longer exists and that it does not mean that the product itself is simple.
    It means that every day handling and operation of the product should be simple.
    In the case of a camera, great complexity is of course hidden in the technology and the firmware of the product itself. Necessary complexity is also showing itself in the menus made available to set up your camera so that it can be operated to your liking and with great simplicity.

    The Nikon D800(E) is a good example. Vast complexity and versatility is built into the menu system. Some people may never use it. Others take advantage of it to make every day shooting as natural to them as possible. And once set up to suit you, you may never use it again.

    Photographers often romanticize about a camera with just one button and three dials: Aperture, shutter speed and ISO control.
    It’s a kind thought but the market for it would be essentially zero.

    However, augmented with a clever menu where you can assign the camera to optimize what you don’t want to bother with, while making each dial one of the variables to which you feel that you are the master, now that is a different story.

    Maybe the Nikon DF will be just that.

    • I’m talking reductionism the Apple way, Bengt.

      Doesn’t mean anything’s missing. You get what you need. Not more, not less, no compromises.

      • Bengt Nyman

        “Reductionism the Apple way”
        “You get what you need. Not more, not less.”

        Scary thought. Is there a blue overall to go with that ?

  • Scarlet_Billows

    I use film and feel entirely content. Tried a 5D2 for two years but just didn’t like the look of digital in the end so sold it to buy a second film scanner. I’m perfectly happy with what I have and seem no reason at all to change it.

    Personally, I think a problem today is that many who have jumped on the digital bandwagon are so susceptible to marketing of ever better spec’d cameras. This weekend I went shooting with a group of amateurs, all using digital varying from the X100 to various Canon and Nikon DSLRs. The latest Sony cameras, which I had never heard of but of which there are apparently two slightly different models, were the focus of a lot of attention. Ohhh, should I get that one because of that function, or that one because of this other function which the former lacks, such went the discussions. Decisions, decisions, people said and felt overwhelmed by the choice. Image quality was frequently debated, too, and the “rendering” of sensors was discussed until the cows came home.

    I am certain each and everyone of the people in the group would not become a better photographer if they switched to the latest models. I am not saying that they should go all in on film – film is definitely not for everyone and I respect that there are many who prefer the virtues of digital – but I am saying that they, and almost everyone who regularly follows gear-based fora, would be better off simply sticking with what they have. This requires a conscious decision to be content, and the mental stamina to continue making that decision in the face of the temptations of rumoured future wiz-giz cameras. Only this will make them better photographers.

    • I wish I could go back to film but the immediacy of digital has become such a necessity that there’s just no way back. Certainly agree with you that making the process of photography a bit more challenging — by means of not the latest and greatest gear — may benefit the photographer, as long as the camera doesn’t limit the photographer in any way. If the photographer is completely capable of handling a D4, it makes complete sense to upgrade to a — fictional — D5. But again and again concentrating on and internalizing the essentials of photography — aperture, shutter speed, ISO — doesn’t even harm a “pro”…

  • Richard Owen

    The “perfect camera” to me is the one that makes me want to carry it with me all the time. And, for me, I have had several. First, it was an Olympus OM-10 w/manual adapter and Zuiko 1,8/50mm. The next one that I really enjoyed carrying was a Nikon D2H (variety of lenses) when I was working as a newspaper photojournalist. Since retiring and no longer needing the superb capabilities of the D2H, I have opted for a Fuji X100S and X-E1. I carry one or the other everywhere.
    And isn’t that what it is all about. Having a photo-producing device that you want with you all the time whether it is a smartphone or a pro DSLR!

  • Ramayana

    To me, the true genesis of modern cameras is, actually, the Canon EOS-M. I have tried many cameras – compacts, mirrorless, DSLRs – and to me the EOS-M is what will feel most natural to the iPhone generation. I dare say it is the Olympus OM for the digital generation.
    It’s small, light yet high quality and well-built. It does both photos and videos. And it does almost everything via touchscreen. It’s not the perfect camera (add a VF and it will be nearer to that), but with the Leica M on one end, the EOS-M, not the Df nor the Leica-wannabe Fujis, is the logical opposite.