Consumer Capitalism and Gear

‘The pursuit of gear is not photography. It’s a distraction from photography.’

They were the words of YouTube photography blogger Jamie Windsor on his video ‘How PHOTOGRAPHY can make you UNHAPPY’ and they were words that really hit me and made me feel a bit sad. With good reason.

I knew before I clicked on the video, what it was going to be about. It was pretty obvious. Jamie is one of my favourite YouTubers, quite simply because he’s my kind of man. He talks a lot of sense in every video I’ve watched. This time, the main points were regarding the endless obsession people have of looking for new cameras and new equipment. I’ll hold my hands up, I’ve been guilty of this and especially recently. I absolutely love my Sony RX100 and I still don’t honestly believe there’s anything on the market that’s better for me, despite the fact that it’s a 7 year-old camera now. Sure, there have been updated versions since and we’re now on the sixth installment, but I appreciate the zoom of the MK1. Sure, I wish I could have a tiltable screen and I wish I had a viewfinder but for the price I paid, I don’t care what anyone says, I got an absolute bargain and I’ll defend this little guy to the hilt.

Where I’ve been guilty, however, is in the DSLR market. Or should I say, the mirrorless market? Technically both. I’ve read plenty of articles recently, relating to the trend in consumers ditching DSLRs for shiny, new mirrorless systems and I’ve had my heartstrings pulled in the direction of the Sony A7. I know how Sony cameras work, I love the menu layout and I’m just comfortable with them. I love the idea of a smaller form factor than my Nikon D5300 and if this is the way the market is leaning, you know that the technology will greatly improve over the coming few years. It’s that old chestnut of not wanting to be left behind.

Watching Jamie’s video made me realise a few things though. All I’m currently seeking in a mirrorless system is instant gratification. It’s a material desire based on fairly scarce knowledge. I don’t understand cameras inside out, for a start. I care and when it comes to looking at cameras, I do my research, but I’m the type of guy who has to Google what every spec’s relevance is each time I have a hunt around.

The other thing I thought about was the fact that I’ve been made to feel like my current gear isn’t good enough. Review sites such as dpreview and TechRadar love feeding interest into the industries they have their hands in. Why wouldn’t they? They probably get a pile of free stuff and are in a privileged position here. They’ll argue that I don’t have to read their reviews and comparisons, and they’re absolutely correct. However, the damage is done to consumers from a fairly young age. We live in a consumer capitalist world, here in Western Europe. We constantly want new and better things and we’re encouraged to chase them, whether we would consciously want to or not.

Where this video got particularly interesting was at the very end. Windsor posed the following point:

Think about what sparked that passion. I’m willing to guess it was something creative and nothing to do with ISO performance or image resolution. So when you’re passionately debating in the comments section of a YouTube video on the merits of the Sony versus the Canon, remember, it’s just cameras. It’s not photography. Go look at your photographic heroes from the past. Look at the work they produced and remember that what they shot on was most likely far inferior to what you already own.’

Can’t really argue with that, can you? I think I’ll be sticking to my RX100 and D5300 for now.

Shooting Modes & Exposure Compensation

I learnt something today, and it’s something that will be a bone of contention for many photographers. Particularly professionals!

Manual mode is more of a hindrance than it is ideal.

I discovered this point of view in Henry Carroll’s book ‘Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs’, and the more I read and the more I thought about it, the more I found myself coming around to it and agreeing with it. The main point being made was that when in manual mode, your camera is still advising you of what exposure setting you ought to be using. This happens in every other mode too, the only difference in manual is that (you guessed it) you have to do it yourself. This is great in some ways because it gives you ultimate control. What your camera tells you isn’t necessarily what you should be doing for the result you want. The issue is that it’s a slow and fiddly process.

I like to underexpose images at the moment, particularly at night. Adjusting to every scene by flicking between aperture, shutter speed and ISO is just too much. Listening to my camera all the time has slowed me down because I’ve trusted it and got the wrong results most times. This is a problem, because I’m trying to get more into street photography – a skill that requires you to have everything set up and ready at any given moment. Slowing down means missing shots, which is far from ideal. What I’ve learnt to do instead – and what I’ll be trying out next time – is using modes P (Program Auto), S (Shutter Priority) and A (Aperture Priority) and playing with exposure compensation. I’ve assigned one of my camera buttons to this command to make it quicker.

The issue with most, if not all cameras, is that their meters try to approximate something called ‘middle grey’. Middle grey is what many manufacturers have determined to be the average tone of most photos. Your camera is most likely built to recommend settings based on hitting middle grey and that’s not always ideal. Think of snowy scenes and night scenes and what you want from them. You don’t want a load of mid-tones, do you? You don’t want your night scenes washed out, you want the depth in the blacks so that everything stands out as it would to your naked eye. Equally, snow, frost, whatever it might be, needs to stand out in the landscape instead of being darkened. This is where exposure compensation is helpful. It gives you control of the overall, well, exposure.

I was always afraid to play around with exposure compensation. I thought ‘well, the camera knows better than me’, but quite frankly, it doesn’t. It doesn’t know better than you either, regardless of whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro.

I have a rule for myself now where I underexpose every night photo by -0.3 at the very least. Just because I want the depth of the shadows in my original shot. It saves on post-processing. I had always been under the impression that shadows held more detail, meaning that brightening afterwards was the better idea and would produce less grain. However, I’ve since discovered that ‘exposing to the right’ and overexposing images with the intention of correcting them afterwards is a thing. I’ll experiment with that and post the results at a later date. I suspect it could result in losing highlight detail.

Hopefully this reassures some people to under/overexpose their shots when they see fit. If you’re intimidated by manual mode or scared of missing out on shots using it, the solution is simple. Don’t use it. Use priority modes and P along with exposure compensation.