Photography-related purchasing decisions are imbued with tradeoffs; it’s almost always a balancing act. For every positive there seems to be a corresponding negative.
For instance, going with an advanced point-and-shoot over an interchangeable lens camera system typically saves money and is endowed with flexibility and convenience. That sounds great, but you’re giving up image quality, low light shooting and the ability to have the equipment necessary for just about any shooting situation. This is just one example, of course. Here’s another: if you own an interchangeable lens system, each lens purchase decision involves tradeoffs involving expense, image quality, weight and versatility (prime or zoom? If the latter, what range?).
Regardless of the decision, you’re virtually always giving up one thing to get another.
I think the prevalence of these tradeoffs was really driven home to me for the first time 11 or 12 years ago when I was trying to decide whether to change camera formats. I was shooting with a 35mm film SLR at the time, but was investigating large and medium format camera systems. Compared to the small format I was using, large format (4×5 and up) had the tantalizing advantage of far superior large print quality as well as camera movements. If you’ve ever seen a big print produced from a good drum scan of a large format transparency or negative, you need no further explanation of the image quality side of the equation. (And this is still true today; I’ve seen people claim that an image produced from a high resolution DSLR is equal in terms of detail rendering to what can be obtained from a large format film image; that’s absurd.) The movements capable with a view camera (though limited in even larger formats) allow for extending depth of field range and perspective correction. Some of this can be done with tilt-shift lenses with smaller formats, but not to the extent that it’s possible with a view camera.
But the disadvantages inherent in large format are substantial. It takes a long time to master the technique needed to properly operate a large format camera. There’s no such thing as a large format zoom lens. Images on the ground glass appear backwards and upside down. Even for experienced users, merely setting the camera up is a time-consuming process. Shots will be missed. Film for this format is extremely expensive (ditto developing…and getting those great drum scans…and large prints, whether you invest in the equipment necessary to do it yourself or send them out). It’s possible to shoot with a digital back on a large format camera, but that’s even more costly. The equipment is bulky and extremely inconvenient to haul around.
I ultimately decided that—for me—the advantages of large format were greatly outweighed by the disadvantages. I felt that the almost overwhelming technical aspects of the format and the inherent rigidity would take a lot of the fun of photography out of the process. I hasten to add that I know a number of people for whom this isn’t true; these folks shoot with large format cameras and enjoy the process immensely. All of this, I think, illustrates the tradeoff principle pretty well.
The first step toward making any photo-related decision is acknowledging that these tradeoffs do in fact exist. Always. There are no perfect solutions—just better (or best) options.
The second point worth noting is that the “best option” for one person isn’t necessarily the optimal choice for someone else. In a way, this is merely an extension of the first point. For example, if I like to take pictures of wildlife, I’m almost certainly going to have a different list of priorities than someone who likes to shoot landscapes and we’re both going to be inclined to value things different than someone who’s into street or travel photography. It’s not that there can’t be any overlap between us, but the differences are going to be at least as stark as any potential similarities.
Third, there will probably be aspects of any decision that transcend the first two categories. For instance, I may find a piece of equipment that I think will work extremely well for you, but it may be out of your price range. Or it might be too heavy for you to handle comfortably. Or it may inhibit your natural workflow in the field.
The decision-making process can be made easier by taking all of this into account and by prioritizing your own wants, needs and limitations. Make a list; what things are absolutely critical to you? How important, for instance, is the ability to shoot many images quickly? If you’re into wildlife or sports photography, these are key points and your purchase decisions—of cameras, lenses and peripherals (memory cards, for instance)—will be dictated by them. If you’re a landscape shooter like me, those things aren’t going to be very important, but other priorities (image quality, for instance, to allow for the creation of large prints; versatility (a system that allows me to cover a broad range of focal lengths); weather-sealing, etc.) will take their place and dictate other choices.
Most importantly, don’t let perfection be the enemy of “good enough.” Perfection does not exist in the world of photography, but “good enough” probably does. When you find something that meets—but doesn’t’ necessarily exceed—your greatest needs, avoid paralysis by analysis and accept that solution. Then you can turn your full attention to the aspect of photography that presumably got you interested in the endeavor in the first place: making images.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.