Thoughts on Photography, Luxury and Value

Ming Thein, photographer, blogger, epicurean.
Ming Thein, photographer, blogger, epicurean.

What do cameras, watches and handbags have in common?

Easy: for the most part, they’re luxury items. The most basic entry-level models have long past the point of sufficiency; if you can’t get a good image out of a Nikon D3200, then you should be examining your technique, not your camera body.

Similarly, precise, cheap watches are available to the masses — and have been for some time; yet people are still happy spending tens of thousands of dollars on a luxury timepiece. As a watch photographer, I’m guilty of supporting that industry. And let’s not even start talking about the legendary Hermes Birkin; even before you reach that territory, there’s plenty of choice inhabiting the $3-5,000 mark — and this is almost considered “mass market” by a number of brands.

We live in an era of conspicuous consumption. Most of you reading this will have the luxury of buying something because you want to, not because you strictly need to; yet we’re conditioned very much to think otherwise by our peers, the companies selling us the goods and society in general. Would you be prouder to own a Rolex or a Casio? Which would tell the time more accurately? (It’s the Casio; all quartz-operated watches are much, much more accurate than mechanical watches. Simply, there’s a lot less to go wrong — and digital technology either works or it does’t; there’s no semi-accurate state.)

Object of desire, not necessarily ideal photographic tools: Leica M9-P and the Noctilux ASPH | Ming Thein
The luxury markets do extremely well in developing countries because the goods are all visible symbols of status; having a Ferrari says to everybody, “I’ve made it!” — and possibly, that you are also compensating in the trouser department. Carrying the aforementioned Birkin signals that you’re either a successful businesswoman, or have a very rich husband.

Curiously though, the same can’t always be said for cameras.

The chief difference is that almost all luxury goods are an end unto themselves: you buy a Patek because it’s a Patek, not because it will let you tell the time with any greater precision, or aesthetic value, or with more information. Whether your Kelly looks better than the other person’s Chanel is subjective; you don’t create anything with it.

Cameras, on the other hand, are completely different: you do create with them. And for the most part, they are tools. Paying more usually gives you a better tool; this in turn, given mastery of the camera’s functions, should give you the ability to make better pictures.

Ming Thein | Flickr

There are three problems with this hypothesis:

  • Firstly, most people buy far more camera than they need, either because they can, because there might be some day when they need the 10 fps panorama stitch feature, the 600mm field of view or the weather sealing.
  • Secondly, most people have no idea what they need.
  • Thirdly, there are enough rich, tasteless people around that a limited edition platinum-and-whale-scrotum leather Ultraflex-9 will sell out. These accoutrements add zero functionality to the camera — I cannot think of anything functionally that the Titanium M9 will do better than a regular M9, other than perhaps not conduct heat or increase the size of a potential insurance claim. They will not make you better photographers.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with selling an aesthetically unique edition — photography after all is an aesthetic discipline. However, there is something very wrong in the marketing that accompanies such editions; as a result, there’s a whole group of “photographers” (perhaps “camera buyers” is a better term) who think that their images are superior for some reason simply because they were made with an expensive camera.

I’ve seen absolutely horrible images of somebody’s cat made with a Ferrari Edition Hasselblad H4D bought solely for that purpose; they were poorly exposed, out of focus and riddled with camera shake. Similarly, there have been many fantastic images made with a pinhole or iPhone. And I don’t think anybody will even think of turning a pinhole into a luxury item. You simply can’t.

Photography is moving further and further away from its origins as the means to create an image, capture a moment or share one’s vision with the world. It’s now become a consumer sport in which people try to out-megapixel or out-milimeter or out-aperture one another, to the detriment of the quality of the images and education of the user. And the only people who win are the camera companies — otherwise there’s simply no way you could just put a higher resolution sensor into something, make a few arbitrary software tweaks and then sell it as “the new model” for a 20% hike on last year’s already overinflated prices.

Yes, it’s great for choice, but it’s not going to help you when you’re wondering why your new, expensive electronic toy isn’t giving you the results you expect. Sometimes, there’s a lot to be said for having less gadgets and more mastery of the simple things. You, as the photographer and buyer, have a choice: if you’re collecting cameras, that’s fine, but don’t pretend that makes you a photographer.

If you are trying to be a photographer, master what you’ve got so you can understand what’s missing. Equipment is just a tool — a means to an end. Spend money increasing your knowledge and skill instead, and you’ll see that there’s a big difference in the output you accomplish.

Remember, the viewer remembers your image and your vision, not the tool you used to create it. A diner in a Michelin-star restaurant will never ask the chef what brand of oven or spatula he uses, because it makes no difference to the final output from their point of view — either the food was good, or it wasn’t.

I challenge you to think that way — your creative side will thank you.

Ming Thein is a commercial photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; he specializes in watches, food and architecture. He’s also a member of Getty Images and NPS.

Somewhere in all of that, he finds time to run — the thinking man’s photography blog, as well as offering workshops and customized photography tuition.

Ming is equipment agnostic and believes very much in using the right tool for the job, and never compromising on the artistic vision.

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  • steve

    Well this is an old statement and it isn’t getting better by repeating it. In filmdays it was even more true, as the only role of the camera was to carry the film and open the shutter for some time to allow exposure.

    Today, cameras are far more important, offering different options and possibilities, and those options are growing each year. If you want a better sensor, you will buy the ability to make video with it. And yes, flexibilty is a quality for it’s own. It allows you to buy one tool instead of five. Why not?

    Also, rember that you need the tool before mastering it, and not vice versa. A camera is not a Space-Shuttle, you don’t loose that much money if you don’t master it from the first day. You can buy it and try out the options when you have time for it.

    Yes, I agree, a lot of people buy things they don’t need or use, or both. But you cannot tell how the story goes on later.

    Maybe one day the friend with the Ferrari-Hasselblad will make outstanding photos with this camera. Better to help him than blame him, at least if he really is a friend.

  • Actually, still wonder why I sold my Contax G2 with the Zeiss primes. Looking through all my work, those G2 images are still my preferred ones. I’m not saying I’m just saying, but maybe it makes sense to stick with gear you’re comfortable with.

    Yes, “better,” newer and more modern gear can lead to better images. But not as a rule of thumb.

  • Eye Forget

    Perhaps where you live but not where I do. Lot’s in my USA neighborhood start at over $1 mil. I have an apartment in Europe in one of the highest net worth areas in the world. Many I know are avid photographers. While one might suggest a friend is “over-camera’d” with a Nikon dslr? It got 17,000 shutter pulls last year. That’s not exactly a “rich”, “tasteless” person. Its a person who could easily afford a lot more gear but, instead chooses to enjoy photography with what he feels is appropriate for him. I shoot with an X100, as well as a drawer full of old, well used, obsolete point and shoots.

    I would suggest you knock that chip off your shoulder as it appears envy has blinded you. If we were as stupid with money as you suggest, how did we get it in the first place?

  • Pablo Ricasso

    What a pretencious little brat, before you start calling someone on ‘chip on the shoulder’ you should really start eveluating quickest optios to knock your own one.

  • Bazooka Joe

    Agree. A spoilt little person with my I say ‘tasteless’ sense of commentary. Oh, and he still believes a number of what he calls “shutter pulls” defines one as a photographer or otherwise.

  • PWL

    Well, I’ve shot with my $7,000 M9 (guilty as charged), and my old $200 OM-2 ( and boy, have I seen those Olys take a knocking on any number of websites–“made of tinfoil” is one unkind comment I recall), and all I know is I love ’em both, and have gotten great images out of both of them. Call me a camera democrat….

  • Bengt Nyman

    Ming’s constant harping about the sufficiency of simple cameras is a tribute to his own excellence as a photographer, while surprisingly ignorant about consumerism in his own field of photography.
    Ignoring the possibility of camera envy, one wonders what he hopes to accomplish with his stubborn attacks on upscale cameras and other windmills.