Thinking about camera equipment

I started taking photography more seriously about ten years ago.  I put down my cheap point and shoot film camera and bought an SLR body, a few lenses and some slide film.  The great thing about shooting film (slide or print) is that you aren’t constrained by the quality of your camera.  My first SLR was a used Olympus OM-1n, circa  1975.  The OM-1n was fully manual – no auto-focus, no auto-exposure.  If you didn’t want to use the exposure meter then you didn’t even need a battery.  It was a beautiful piece of equipment, but it was also about as basic as you could get outside of a pinhole camera.  It was a dark box that held and advanced film with a mount to hold a lens open for a set period of time.  That’s it.

At the time I bought the camera, the basic advice was to buy a camera body with the minimum features that you needed and use the savings to buy better lenses.  It was the glass in front of the camera and the type of film in it that had the greatest affect on picture quality.  Two photographers using the same lens, one having a fully manual and one having a fully automated camera could each take similar quality images.  That’s not to say that auto-exposure doesn’t make it easier to get the right aperture settings or that auto-focus isn’t useful when your subject is moving.  Both of those things are true.  But at the end of the day, they just improved the odds of getting a good shot.  Your only real constraints were glass and film.

These days, I’m using a Nikon D80 digital camera body.  It’s also nice.  Definitely a lot more electronics – auto focus, auto exposure, various program modes etc.  You can still set it in a manual meter mode, but it’ll never be a manual camera.  If you take out the batteries, it’s just an inert hunk of silicon and rubber.

I was reminded of all of this when talking to Hunter a few days ago.  He’s interested in getting a new camera body.  I almost choked when I saw how much the body alone costs.  My first thought was the old advice I heard when I bought my first SLR: buy a cheap body and good glass, your photography will be better for it.  Then I realized that’s no longer always true.

One of the things that digital cameras have done is to turn the camera body into the equivalent of the camera body and the film.  It is as if I had bought my Olympus OM-1n and had to always use Fuji Provia 400.  Wait – what if I want a better film, say Velvia 50?  Too bad – you should buy a better camera.  Well, digital cameras are just like that.  Different camera bodies have different sensors of varying quality.  It’s not just a matter of megapixels, but also ISO equivalents and noise reduction.  We’ve just entered a world where the quality of your pictures is constrained by both the lenses you have and the camera body you own.  What’s worse is that the camera body itself will become obsolete.  Unlike my OM-1n, there will never be a market for 25 year old camera bodies.  Lenses, yes.  Camera bodies, no.

This isn’t all terrible I suppose.  The commoditization of the camera body is making better photographic equipment more affordable.  Right now, affordable digital camera gear can produce better pictures than can be had on print film.  High end cameras are better than slide film and in a few years, affordable cameras will also be better than slide film.  I just find it a shame that digital photography has locked us into a world where the amount of money you have will determine the quality of your pictures.

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