Choices Choices

I’m looking for a new camera; it’s not for myself but for a new job I’m starting next month (will give more details on that when I sign on the dotted line). Despite the fact that I’ve worked professionally as a photographer and know the ins and outs of most of the different camera systems, I’m finding this a very difficult endeavour.
Photographers are notorious for “equipment obsession”; until the advent of digital cameras the discussions centred around lens specifications, film emulsions, and all the little bits and bobs that made up the chain from subject to print. Now we have the added complexity of digital; I spent a good amount of time yesterday in the camera store looking at various cameras (I’ve been given a bit of free reign on which system I choose since we are starting from a blank slate…which makes it even more difficult because that multiplies the choices exponentially). The good news is that most of the cameras on offer have higher specifications than the $30,000 digital cameras I was working with 10 years ago for 1/20 the price; the bad news is that those will be obsolete in a year. (Of course the thing with digital, with any volume of shooting, the camera quickly pays for itself…that’s why purchasing a $30,000 camera back makes perfect business sense if one is using $20,000 of film and processing a year anyway.)

I’ve not been equipment shopping for some time; my initial thought upon picking up most of the cameras yesterday was wunderplastik. Most of my professional work with with Hasselblad and Leica systems (imagine a group of Swiss watchmakers decided to build a precision brick oven and you’ll get something of the design ethos); everything else now seems rather flimsy. When one has a camera that’s been out in the pouring sea salt rain, freezing cold, blazing heat, dropped on the pavement, and still kept happily clicking away, it gives a bit of pause when handling what is basically a complex computer crammed into a plastic body. One camera I’m particularly keen on is brimming over with controls and has a huge screen that displays every conceivable bit of information concerning its status and exposure information. This is useful, as is the ability to immediately view the image one has just captured; however, how many times on my little digital camera have I stopped to look at the image I’ve just shot and missed the next one because I was gazing at the screen? The temptation is too great.

My Leica has exactly three controls: aperture, shutter speed and shutter release; there are two red arrows in the viewfinder that say give a bit more exposure or give a bit less exposure. Some of the greatest photos of the 20th century were made with a camera just like this (most of which did not have the helpful little arrows). For the majority of my work (on any system), I use only one or two focal lengths. The camera is way way over-engineered and, provided there is still film then, will outlast me. It is a very simple, well built instrument—which I have not yet learned to use.

Obviously, I know what it does; I spent several years in film school studying all the mechanics of photography (I was probably in the last generation of students that went through the laborious study of all the film and chemistry; it was just on the cusp of the digital era). I understand implicitly what the camera’s function is and how to operate it. But, as an instrument in the sense that a violin is an instrument, I’m still a novice at its operation. So I feel torn standing there in the camera store looking at all the new electronic instruments; it’s as if I’m starting up the oboe before really grasping the bassoon.

Cameras have become another mass-produced digital item that are obsolete as soon as they leave the store—and something galls me about that. Maybe it’s that I spent all this time learning about film and how it works and that’s no longer necessary. Or maybe it’s just the sense that I’m not really into disposable equipment (when one goes out to photograph with a solid block of metal, there is a certain mindset that comes into play). Mainly I’m thinking that, if Henri Carter Bresson could go his entire career with basically just one camera and a lens, why the heck do I need all this complexity?

I’m tempted to ask for a light kit and just use my camera for the time being; there is a digital Leica (though I don’t think they’ll drop £3000 to purchase one for me right at the start). But that’s probably not what I’ll do; I’ll put together a solid and flexible kit to cover the stuff I’ll need to cover. Of course, that will be thousands of pounds anyway…

I am aiming for simplicity and economy in everything; how can I bring that into this situation?