Tools for Giants… Or How I Learned to Love My Camera and to Cease the Whining…

Nikon-1-V1 with SB-N5 Speedlight

Hi Beezedog,

You are correct, however, Cristopher Strachey is quoted by Bill McKeeman as having said “The fact that it is possible to push a pea up a mountain with the tip of your nose doesn’t prove its a good way to do it”. (I hope I remembered it correctly)

Strachey also created a macro processor called GPM which, whilst largely impossible for mere mortals to use, was used by giants to write compilers.. (yes, I’m an IT nerd)

One can get great photos (or great results) with the tools of experts. I can do things with my Triton work bench that are very hard. But, I know that If I had a proper saw bench, these things become easy.

As so many people say, it’s the monkey behind the camera that makes the difference.

But, there are situations where the effort to learn things is more than many of us will tolerate, and, I think those who will not tolerate some issues in learning new products are justified. Its the year 2012, and we now know so much about design.

At the end of the day, many of us will extract results using familiar tools that others have trouble getting from later (unfamiliar) products, or, even “better” ones.

In my view, generally, designers can make things easier. I do not know about PS, but, I could use a lot of space describing systems and tools that are only usable by real experts.

I think all this needs to be kept in mind when people post either praise or criticism of new products.

Sometimes, the customer knows what they want, and, a supplier didn’t give it too them!

My parting shot is.. try using a plunge-router.. A simple tool but, capable of removing bits of you, or your work-piece if you don’t know how to use it!


I live in a suburban town where folks have enough money to afford the housing and want to send their kids to nice schools. Some of us are teachers others middle management and still others skilled union electricians. It’s a nice assortment that makes it a place where you could raise a child that has a clearer view of the makeup of the world than most.

Because these folks are a generation or so from having had to struggle they know the value of a dollar. And for that reason they sometimes make poor judgments. A case in point is a neighbor who having moved to the suburbs found he had a vastly bigger job of snow shoveling that he had realized. That neighbor is of course me.

My first snowblower was expensive in my eyes. It had a small Briggs and Stratton motor and was a single stage unit that could work well if the snow was in the one to three inch range. But Chicago is not the place to ignore the possibility of heavy snow fall.

So when we got something over 6-inches falling one winter and my little snow blower struggled and literally stalled out I bit the bullet and bought the large single stage blower I could afford. My wife and I loved it because the thing gobbled up 80% of the snow we faced each winter and cleaned right down to the pavement. But as time went on we decided to upgrade our lifestyle and moved into a larger home.

There were two things about this place that were different enough that I should have expected problems but sometimes you learn best through trial-and-error. It was a corner lot which has of course two sides to shovel. And the house sits sideways on that lot so that the front walk is three times as long as side walkway and the real kicker is that the driveway has a garage that sits sideways as well.

So while the entry to the garage is the width of one car the real driveway expands as you turn left into something that can accommodate a two and a half car garage. In fact it takes as long to shovel or blow snow from the drive as it does to do both the front and side walkways and you still have to do the walkway leading to the front door by hand because it climbs up two stairs to reach the portico.

Even this heavy duty snow blower simply was no match for that find of snow when it came in over 6 inches and was wet and heavy. I finally bit the bullet when the end of my driveway kept getting plowed in to the point that the blades of that single stage blower could not handle the now freezing wet and heavy snow that was at least four inches higher because of the downward slope of the drive to the street. And of course the plows that come by always but always pile up snow as they push it along. It fairly explodes onto the entrance to your driveway where you are forced to walk a shovel out to the street and dig out by hand.

When I went back to the store the salesman saw an easy mark and wanted to sell me a riding mower with a snow plow attachment. I was sorely tempted. But in the end I purchased a two-stage blower with a tad bit more horsepower than the large single stage mower and discovered what my very first neighbor in our first home had been raving about. Finally the idea of a two stage mower sunk in. This entire scenario unfolded over a 30 year period.

Now today I come across young couples who having moved into the neighborhood want advice on buying a snow blower. Most of the guys in our area are technically savvy folk. I guess we attract that type in our area. Folks who have some computer backgrounds or teach science are a dime-a-dozen on our block. I know because I was both a teacher and afterwards a software engineer who loved tackling problems.

But frankly folks have a way of seeing things differently when they are applying their own dollars to the purchase of what they need than when they can expense it on their business credit cards. When the company is paying for the thing the often find a way to justify to their middle management why the computer they want to buy that has the latest and greatest processor chip and that outsized amount of internal memory is what they need to get their job done.

Now through all those years I did photography as a hobby. I suspect that most of the folks I encounter who describe themselves as “serious photographers” are like me just hobbyists. And when we get together with our cameras hanging around our necks we like to let others know that we too have the latest and greatest whiz bang camera from manufacturer X or Y. In fact there is an indisputable rule that the longer the lenses you own or the bigger the format you use the “better and more serious” you are as a photographer.

You eventually either decide to join a club where the number of folks with large lenses or larger formats increases dramatically and everyone stomps around on group shoots with tripods and bags so large that they need help when trying to climb up a steep slope to collectively gather at a good vantage point where the lead club member lectures to them about the history of this area and points out the other great vantage points from which to take the best pictures. This sort of thing usually happens when a group visits a National Park or a New England Town where someone like Fred Picker holds forth on using the Zone System, etc.

Meanwhile there is a busload of leaf peepers who climb out of a tour bus and begin snapping away at the fall foliage and truly enjoying themselves. But the group with all the camera equipment gives each other knowing glances as they frame their pictures and mount their 35mm cameras on tripods and hoist up lenses that seem impossibly large for such a small body to hold. And then they measure the light falling on the scene and carefully select a filter from their assortment of such accessories and make notes in their small log to use when they return to their darkrooms.

Along comes the digital camera and these guys scoff at the grainy images that they produce in the early 80s. But little does any of them know that these cameras will become the “only game in town”. Eventually they will discover that a rare few folks will be available to sell their equipment to when the day comes that they move to digital image making.

Of course by that time many of them will be in the midst of raising a family who will eventually need to have money for college and weddings and their first cars and all the rest. And it will become painfully obvious that one’s hobby needs to be done with a bit more economy than was practiced in the past.

Then along comes the mirror less digital camera. You have had your eye on one of these puppies for a while and now that you aging upper mid-level 35mm digital camera is getting older and you have spent enough money on lenses to have bought another automobile and you realize that since that dream of being a full-time photographer or at least selling the heck out of all those “great images” you’ve made over the years is starting to fade you need to get realistic about your “hobby”.

So you buy your first mirror less camera and start using it. Now you could have purchased the least expensive of the DSLR cameras sold by that manufacturer and the full-sized sensor would have been just fine. But you really wanted to have a lot smaller kit to carry and you still want the kind of image quality for your “serious photos” that you have always come to expect. Besides you are not some yokel who travels on tour buses with other “leaf peepers” each fall, you are a “serious photographer” who has won several club awards and perhaps been featured in your local newspaper for that great image of the local waterfall that everyone thought was so wonderful. You are not to be trifled with when it comes to demanding the best of your equipment.

What draws you to this strange little camera is its size and not just how small the body is but also the lenses. And if truth be told it is pretty cheap when you consider the promise of the brochures and the advertisement you have viewed. And you chuckle to yourself on what a bargain you are getting.

But your fellow club members are wagging their tongues at you over having made this “sad mistake”. Your next door neighbor reminds you of all the grief you encountered when you bought that tiny single stage snowblower 30 years ago and you would not listen to his advice on getting a more manly two-stage blower. And you pause and remember. Perhaps you should reconsider your purchase. Take it back and either wait for the next better version of the same camera or perhaps check out the competition because you’ve heard from other club members just how much better those cameras are and they too are mirror less.

You spin and lie awake in bed torturing yourself over the purchase you have made. And your poor wife wakens and asks what the problem is. You don’t feel as if discussing such a weighty and technical problem as this with her is going to be possible. After all she is not a “serious photographer” and because she uses a tiny compact digital camera and does not care one whit about lugging around lenses and putting a perfectly good automatic camera into manual mode and fiddling with menus and histograms and buttons and other things that are “truly important” that she cannot appreciate how pivotal a decision this is.

Sure you are an amateur photographer who does not earn his living making images. But think of the disdain your fellow amateurs at the club or on the forum will show you if you cannot at least produce images with very little grain and hardly any distortion and blah, blah, blah. So you return to lying awake trying to figure out what to do.

Your young son however can be turned to because after all he too is a male and one day you would even like to pass this camera along to him. You lay it all out and ask his opinion. He turns to you and says “but Dad isn’t there a solution to this problem already in the product line?” He opens the catalogue you have dog-eared having read it so many times and shows you that DSLR camera you could buy for about the same or even less money and it has the full-sized sensor and the buttons and the histograms and the blah, blah, blah that you really “need to have to make serious photographs”. And besides you don’t have to buy any darned adapter which is kinda kludgy since it does not allow you use the nice metering you have grown accustomed to.

So you write it all down. You can buy a camera body which will use your old lenses and has all the stuff you would have to wait for this tiny camera to eventually acquire assuming that the manufacturer even plans to go in that direction and you get to use manual everything and fiddle to your hearts content and none of the guys in the club or down at the local coffee shop will ever have to wonder at why you settled for that smaller sensor size.

And you especially hate it when the local medical doctor who can afford a digital Hasselblad comes over to show you his prints and keeps asking why all you “serious photographers” don’t graduate to a really large sensor which can produce the kinds of images he waves around. So you ponder and ponder. Should you merely settle for this small tiny-sensored camera which all the “serious magazine and online forum guys” have pooh-poohed or should you find the cameras they like which though possessed of small bodies have lenses that are as large as the ones on your now aging upper middle of the pack DSLR? What’s a “serious photographer” to do?

Are you really supposed to choose a camera that actually suits your needs to a “T” but is not the latest and greatest thing and frankly is not going to get you to a smaller and lighter world of image-making or are you going to “settle” for this new-fangled thing that brings out the “knowing glances” from your fellow “serious photographers” who like you make no money on their passion and have only their personal satisfaction to use as a benchmark against which to justify the relatively huge expense of all the camera gear you have managed to acquire.

I suppose each person here will have to decide how this story should end…

Here are some things I have considered:

  • The latest camera from manufacturer “X” will be discarded at some point in the future to make way for its successor. Neither of these two cameras or any of the ones that ensue will ever get universal acclaim. There will be those who don’t like some niggling little issue like the number of pixels or the quality of the lenses or the user interface. There will be something that makes a reviewer give the camera a less than perfect rating. But we humans like to go with the “safe bets” so most of us will decide to purchase the most expensive camera we can afford to support our “serious photographer” hobbyist intentions because frankly it helps us sleep at night.
  • The quickest way to understand how important some things are about a camera is to honest judge your needs as a photographer. And the best way to do that is to clearly focus on the fact that if you don’t make your living at making pictures that you and only you are the one you really have to please. Your buddies at the coffee shop or in your camera club are not helping to pay for your “camera addiction”. You and your family have a limited income stream. If your camera is too pricey despite the fact that it does not have that perfect set of features you dearly want and supposedly “need” you will in the long run have ended up spending money unwisely and without much to show for it. Sure for images will be nicer than if you had used your wife’s compact digital camera but at what cost?
  • If you have enough camera that should be good enough for you. The trick of course is determining when enough is enough. I often write that there should be a DSM entry for the “photographically insane”. These are the folks who have never been completely satisfied with their latest camera purchase and eventually sell it at a loss only to buy something else that ends up not being as wonderful either. And in the case of mirror less cameras one has to wonder if small sensors are “so very bad”, why not buy the cheaper DSLR bodies and use your lenses and go have some fun? Why labor over whether a camera that is clearly and openly aimed at well-heeled leaf peepers should be redesigned to become what you can already buy off the shelf right now? Sure that inexpensive DSLR won’t be as small or as lightweight as your tiny mirror less camera but you won’t have to explain to anyone why you chose it. And you can still open all our introductions by explaining that “you own this or that upper level DSLR and that this is only your vacation camera”.
  • Finally the only real winners in all of this are the folks who sell the cameras. They are like the guys who sell stocks. They make money whether your stock rises or sinks in value. Meanwhile there is some “little old lady” who has opened several savings accounts over the years and one or two CDs and squirreled it all away who in the end will have earned enough interest to have actually outdone all the “wheeling and dealing” you thought you were doing at your online trading service.