Leap Day: Obsessive Gadget Disorder


Motorcycle at Van Buren and Clinton

It is a leap year. And that means we get one “free day” to squander as we like. It is all designed to help in the maintenance of seasons on the Gregorian Calendar. This is kind of like getting that extra hour when we change from Daylight Savings Time (DST) to Central Standard Time (CST) each fall.

But today is also a day when you can ponder the ongoing status of amateur photography as camera bugs gaze at their collective navels in anticipation of the next upcoming release of lens and camera bodies to satisfy their gadget appetites and to lighten their wallets a wee bit.

DPReview is a hangout for the photographically insane. I mean that in the kindest of fashions. Obsessive Gadget Disorder is something that many of us live with on a regular basis. It is essentially the need to keep your electronic gadgets updated more or less to the latest version. What is crippling about the disorder is the fact that some of use actually cease to use our gadgets and instead scan catalogs and haunt forums for the smallest crumbs of rumors about upcoming hardware or firmware releases.

Actually this would all be quite comical if it were not for the fact that reasonably intelligent folks suddenly become slaves to gadgets that they have a love-hate relationship with and like gambling it sometimes costs more money than the individual can reasonably afford to part with.

It usually is something that creeps out of its hiding place each spring as the camera companies start their never-ending release of the upgrade to the camera you got for Christmas. A sane individual waits at least one year before trying to chase the dream. Unfortunately, the upgrades are sometimes disappointing in that a beloved feature has been sacrificed to bring onboard something that the manufacturer mistakenly thought would tickle your fancy.

But there are some folks who can never “pull the trigger” on a camera choice. It is like the businessman who wants to wait until the current laptop model is cheap enough to be affordable for his staff and then when it is about to be orphaned he discovers that a new feature has been added to its successor and decides to wait on its eventually drop in price. That is a treadmill of enormous proportions and usually results in stagnation. Meanwhile the office staff is floundering with out-of-date technology and become less productive because the software to which they  would like to upgrade requires the expanded memory capacities of the newer operating system which if course only runs on the latest hardware. It gets very ugly this demon of a thing.

Amateurs are constantly trying to find the “perfect camera”. This is because they envision being able to take some of those pictures they see in the brochures of their favorite manufacturer and that requires (in their minds) an enormously versatile device. Of course since that particular camera will never be invented they tend to hang out on DPReview and talk about why they are so disappointed in this or that model which does not have this or that feature. When you ask them to show you some of the images they have made they are offended that you would try and put them on the spot that way.

I can only surmise that working pro photographers are about as jaded with equipment as are professional bicycle riders. These guys don’t have to pay for the very expensive bikes they ride on the professional circuit. In fact I doubt they pay for any bicycles ever, at least while still active pros. So their clothing and shoes and bikes are freebies that the manufacturers are glad to hand over because they get free advertising every time a wannabe rider sees his favorite pro riding a bike that he covets. That is what makes Capitalism tick.

Amateurs are far more into the hardware they buy than the professionals no doubt because they are forced to cherish it since it is a deficit purchase rather than one being used to fund the production of more images for sale. So it makes very little sense (at least to me) why we amateurs get so tied up in knots over a choice of camera. I’ve only ever taken back one camera after having purchased it. That was the Nikon Coolpix P7100. It turns out that the number of buttons and levers and doodads not he blessed thing just overwhelmed me. Having spent the past decade using the more basic Coolpix cameras this one simply was over my head. So I bowed out of the picture and purchased the Nikon 1 V1 on the strength of its promise to be a compact camera with interchangeable lenses which was still quite happy to serve as a point-and-shoot camera. I was happy once again!

Nothing about the P7100 was bad. It was just more horsepower than I needed. I am done with aperture and shutter fiddling. I came out of a view camera world where the only meter was a spot meter and every image was made with the camera mounted on a tripod. I liked that sort of image making but frankly as the years have passed I have decided that schlepping around 40 pounds of gear to get perhaps a half dozen images on a good day is not my cup of tea.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered the Nikon 1 V1. Here was a camera that was small, fast and fun and it did not require darkroom work to bring finished images to fruition. But all I seem to hear from the guys who already own quite capable full-sized sensor DSLRs is that they simply cannot live with the limits of the camera because despite the fact that it costs far less than a top-of-the-line Nikon DSLR and has very sharp lens and blazingly fast autofocus they dislike the smaller sensor size and the resultant image noise.

But we humans are seldom if ever satisfied with “good enough”. It is in our DNA to chase the perfect thing which though we know to be unattainable gives us cause to lie awake at night dreaming of one more firmware update that could perhaps make a far too small sensor behave like something on the manufacturers flagship model. I liken this to buying a Toyota Corolla and then complaining that is isn’t quite the same car as the Lexus we already own. What’s up with that?

A Closing Argument

After writing the prose above I awoke to find out that someone had been attempting to address this rather vapid obsessive mindset in the course of a thread on image quality (IQ). It should be pointed out that much of the obsessive nature of photographers results from a quest for the perfect picture. This is not the same as the “decisive moment” but rather an attempt to find a squirrel or leaf or granite statue or whatever that can be photographed with such exquisite detail and perfection that you colleagues will know that you know how to use a camera. Of course about all they will really know from such an exercise is that your lens is pretty sharp and perhaps that is enough for some.

But in the final analysis you are making images that evoke memories of times past. At least that is what drives the photographer. If he or she manages to connect with his audience it is because the image “transcends” the moment and becomes something capable of appreciation by others. A really good image triggers in the minds of others some special moment of their own. Adele, the singer, does that sort of thing for many listeners. In fact most of what we think of as timeless music transcends the era in which is was written. Take the signature song of the late Etta James, “At Last”. Others have covered this song but her rendition is the one I will always remember. It has such a genuinely haunting delivery that I feel for her in ways that I had not expected to.

What we photographers miss sometimes is the obvious. Making images has to be joyful. If you can capture your children or your grandchildren or your significant other in a moment in time that allows you to experience a bit of reverie long afterwards you have made for yourself a bit of joyful imagery. If it connects for other too that is “icing on the cake”. How clearly the hairs on the head of your subject are focused is probably not as important as their facial expression or the general sweep of light coming through a window or their body language as the sit enrapt in the enjoyment of a warm summers day or in animated conversation with a family member.

I would hope that my photographic taste is such that I can enjoy most of what I see when examining the images of others. No doubt there are times when you are shown for the umpteenth time the pictures someone has of their grandchildren. But sometimes you see such an image made by someone who really knows how to use the camera that takes your breath away. It is more than just an exercise in the technical aspects of photograph but moves beyond that into an art form. That is when you feel connected with both the image itself and the moments in your own life when you have experienced something similar.

No amount of mindless searching for just the right camera with all the mandatory buttons and levers is going to allow you to achieve images of transcendency. That is something that is both a stroke of luck but also relies in you forgetting the audience and going deep within yourself to find what truly pleases you. If you can make images that you yourself want to capture that is enough. If you can connect with your audience that is great. But it is seldom likely that anticipating the criticisms of your audience while in the act of making an image will result in a timeless image. Not unless your aim is to use this picture in the next monthly camera club competition. I would much rather have it be cherished by the members of my family and requested in framed condition for their walls.