I want to write you a letter about the lessons I’ve learned after shooting pretty much all the expensive cameras out there.
1. If your photos aren’t good enough, your camera isn’t expensive enough
First of all, I always had the wrong idea when I was younger that buying a more expensive camera would make me a better photographer
I started off as a beginner at age 18, with a little point and shoot digital Canon SD 600. I loved it. It was always in my front pocket. I followed my natural curiosity. I had no idea what composition or whatever was. I just framed what felt natural or interesting to me.
I then stumbled upon other photos online, and wanted ‘bokeh’ (that blurry background thing) that only ‘expensive’ cameras (DSLR’s) could achieve. I then ended up buying my first Canon Rebel XT (350D) and eventually got a 50mm f/1.8 lens. I shot everything at f/1.8.
I then found online gear forums, and discovered that my ‘crop sensor’ wasn’t ‘good enough.’ I learned that my potential was being held back, because I didn’t have a full-frame camera. I then took out a student loan, and happened to have some extra money left over. I bought a used Canon 5d (original) and a 35mm f/2 lens. I still felt like I was being ‘held back’ because I didn’t have an ‘L’ lens — the Canon 35mm f/1.4 L. I felt major gear lust.
I then discovered street photography, and thought that if I bought a Leica M9, all my life’s problems would be solved. I eventually got one through using my entire life’s savings. I bought a used Leica M9 for around $5000, and borrowed around $3000 from my mom to buy a used Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux (non-ASPH). But to my dismay, it ended up collecting dust like every other camera on my shelf after about a month.
2. All cameras are more similar than dissimilar
Now, at age 29, I’ve shot pretty much all the expensive cameras out there. I’ve shot most of the film Leica’s, most of the digital Leica’s, almost all the Fujifilm cameras (crop-sensor and medium-format digital), many point and shoot film cameras, many point and shoot digital cameras, several medium-format digital cameras, all the micro 4/3rds cameras, all the digital Sony cameras, and all the high-end DSLR’s.
And the funny thing— at the end of the day, they are all more similar than dissimilar.
3. Don’t get suckered by brand names
My biggest lesson is that really truly truly — the cameras are all much more similar than dissimilar. Which means, when you buy a camera — you are only buying it for the brand name, the ergonomics, the feel in your hand, or how it fits into your ‘lifestyle’, or how you want others to perceive you as a human being when you Instagram a photo of your camera with your cappuccino by the window at the coffee shop.
We all get suckered by brand names. I know I do. I feel more creative using my Apple Mac computer. I feel more powerful and cool with my Nike shoes. When I have a Leica camera around my neck, I feel more ‘legit’ as a photographer. One day when I drive my black matted-out Lamborghini Huracan through the In-and-Out Burger fast food restaurant, I will feel much cooler.
But the truth is — why do we care about brands? I think it all comes down to lack of self-esteem and security.
4. Don’t compensate
There is a joke that me and my buddies had in high school— the more expensive the car a guy owned— the smaller his (ahem, member) was. Many people were trying to compensate for their lack of self-esteem through buying expensive status markers— like cars, brand named clothes, watches, etc.
The same is in photography. Now whenever I meet someone with an expensive Leica camera and an expensive lens (let’s say a 0.95 Noctilux Lens, which is worth around $12,000-$15,000 USD) I actually think they are more of a noob or a ‘poser’ than a ‘real’ photographer. When I meet photographers with cheaper or more modest cameras, I actually end up respecting them more.
All the photographers I admire have pretty modest gear— most Magnum photographers use Canon 5D bodies, or their iPhones, or Olympus Micro 4/3rd bodies. Very few really good photographers use Leica cameras. And the good ones who I admire (like Charlie Kirk) use film Leica cameras for their best work.
5. Be like Benjamin Button
In the movie Benjamin Button, our friend Benjamin ages in reverse. He was born as a child with the face of a 99 year old. Then when he dies an old man, his face looks like a 1 year old child.
I feel like my camera interest has been like Benjamin Button — I have been going backwards.
I started with a small digital point and shoot camera, upgraded to a DSLR, upgraded to a full-frame DSLR, got a Leica digital camera, got a film Leica camera, then a medium-format film camera, then I’m aging in reverse— I have settled (for now) for a digital point-and-shoot Ricoh GR II camera (~$600 USD).
The funny thing is that now I have ‘F*ck you money’ (enough money that I no longer need to work on things I don’t want to for money) and can afford any digital camera on the market at the moment— I genuinely prefer using a small point and shoot digital camera that fits in my front pocket.
Eventually, when the technology gets good enough to me, I just want to shoot with a smartphone (like an iPhone or the Huawei P-series smartphones). My friends Oggsie, Brendan O’ Se, Shel Serkin have shown me the ability to make phenomenal photos just with a smartphone.
The truth is, almost all the camera companies are losing money — the only company making tons of money is Apple. Eventually we will all probably just be shooting with iPhones with DSLR-like quality.
6. You will get ‘used to it’ (HEDONIC TREADMILL)
So dear friend, the practical advice I have to you is to know that buying a new camera is a bit overrated. Like the ‘hedonic treadmill’ — however expensive the new camera (or house, or car, watch, bag, or luxury good) you buy— you will get used to it. It is in our human nature and DNA. There are a lot of other psychological biases you should be aware of in photography (and life).
Also when in doubt, buy books not gear (better investment for your money).
So I guess the secret is to be realistic. Still upgrade your digital cameras like you do your smartphone or your laptop. For me, I think it is a good idea to upgrade your digital devices at least every 3 years. And whenever you do upgrade your digital devices, buy the best one you can afford (at the moment).
And then, stick with the zen of ‘one camera one lens’ — you will have less stress in life. I would not wish to own 1,000 Leica’s and 1,000 lenses — I cannot imagine the stress that would add to my life.
Conclusion: Do you like your own photos?
Ultimately, don’t show your self-worth as a photographer through how many likes your camera will get on Instagram. Rather, show your self-worth through the quality of your images— and better yet, your own judgement of your own photos. Be your own harshest critic.
Be strong and don’t buy shit you don’t need.
If you want to find more personal meaning in your photography, pick up a copy of PHOTO JOURNAL: PERSONAL PHOTOGRAPHY REFLECTIONS.
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