THE QUALITY PLATEAU


Up to a certain level, a better camera will give you better pictures. This level is the quality plateau.  Above the quality plateau, more depends on you than on the camera. 


Shop, Arles. When you see a pose like this, you often have to shoot fast. Although he might have stood like this for another minute or more, he might equally well have moved a fraction of a second later. Many cameras could have been used to take this picture, but the important thing is familiarity with the camera you are using. You don't want to have to wait for it to wake up; or to wave it conspicuously about at arm's length as you try to compose on a screen on the back; or to have to fiddle with it before you can take the picture.


The quality plateau is not a constant. It varies from photographer to photographer, and with what the photographer wants to do. Pretty much any good camera made in the last 60 years or so can take better pictures than many of the photographers who have ever used it or who will ever use it, because for them, it will be above the quality plateau. To test this theory, take the same middling-to-good camera; put it in the hands of two photographers, one good, one bad; and the better photographer will get better pictures.

Konica SIII, introduced 1963. You have to know how to focus and determine exposure and set shutter speeds and apertures, but generations of photographers mastered these very basic skills. Those who have mastered them could use this camera to take pictures that would normally be indistinguishable from those taken with the best 35mm or digital cameras ever made, using lenses of similar focal length. It's worth next to nothing. I gave it away in return for the promise of a donation to charity.

 

Sure, you can argue about the meaning of "better photographer" or "better photographs", but it doesn't really matter. Use whatever definition you like. Think of how some of your own pictures are better than others. Think too of the common stunt of giving a good photographer a low-end camera and marvelling at the pictures they can make with it. Then ask yourself why they will then go back to a better camera for the majority of their shots.

You can argue about the meaning of "better camera" too. Some people actually like Holgas and other cheap plastic cameras. That's fine. If that's how they get better pictures, defined as pictures they like more, then the Holga is a better camera for them. But if you want to shoot wildlife, you'll most likely want telephoto lenses, and if you want to shoot underwater, your camera had better be not just splash-proof but submersible.


Miami Beach, Florida. I've never seen the point of Holgas and the like but I do have a weakness for weird, "low-fi" lenses on reliable cameras. This is an early (and inexpensive) Lensbaby on a Nikon D70. Sure, the D70 is (was) a cheap, crop-format, 6 megapixel DSLR; but you're going to be hard put to see the difference between 6 megapixels and 36 megapixels if you're shooting through a Lensbaby.


Technical quality and versatility are not the only components of the quality plateau, though. Two more questions are ease of use, and how much you like the camera. 

Purely technically, many kinds of photography are no better now than they were decades ago or even a century and more ago. Look at Roger Fenton's magnificent still lifes from around 1860; or Lewis Hine's pictures of child labour from 1908-1912; or Margaret Bourke-White's industrial and reportage photography from the 1920s onwards; or David Bailey's portraits and fashion shots from the 1960s. 

Over the decades it has got steadily easier to get technically good pictures. No longer do photographers have to sensitize their own materials or for that matter necessarily master the intricacies of exposure or even focus, though it helps if you know when to argue with automation, and when to let it have its way. But "easier" and "better" are not the same thing.


Girona, Catalunya. When was this picture taken? How? It has the formal look of the late 19th century. In fact it was taken in 2012 with a digital camera and then converted to sepia. Often, far more depends on preconceptions and composition than on technique.


Steps and trees. It will not take you long to guess that this is from the same series as the picture above, and yet, it is subtly different. The impression is of an era rather earlier than the one above, when a bare record often took precedence over composition: perhaps the 1850s or even 1840s, when the possibility of taking photographs at all was still new and astonishing.


Although cameras have for the most part become smaller, lighter and easier to use, while still delivering good quality, this cannot always be taken for granted. The 1960s to 1980s saw numerous top-quality film SLRs that were very much smaller and lighter than today's digital behemoths. Interestingly, the bloating set in during the 1990s when film still ruled the roost. In that decade I was all but physically thrown off a Canon stand at photokina for saying that I preferred smaller, lighter cameras, so I'd use medium format instead of their new Eos system.



Deckrullo doppel-klapp camera, c. 1920s. The two pictures of Girona above could as well have been taken with this camera as with the Leica M9 I actually used. "As well", but not "as easily". I'd have had to load a plate holder or roll-film holder; scale-focus the camera, or use the ground glass; insert the plate or film holder; guess the exposure; bring the plate or film home; and then process it and print it in the darkroom.Not until then would I know that the picture had come out. With the M9, a quick glance at the histogram on the back of the camera would confirm that I'd got the exposure right.


Then again, "ease of use" is not necessarily easy to define. A great deal depends on what you are used to, and how your mind works. I started to take photography seriously in the 1960s, and I don't like computers and menus. When I needed a new DSLR (my old one had died) I therefore chose a Nikon Df  over the similarly-priced D800. It's smaller and lighter, and I prefer the control layout. My favourite lens on it is an old 55/2.8 manual focus Micro Nikkor. For me, manual focus and manual exposure settings are easier than automation. Beware, though, of anyone who tries to tell you that your preferences should be the same as theirs. 


Bastille Day. At first sight, this picture is mediaeval and even slightly frightening: it looks as if they are off to a witch-burning or something similar. In fact, it's just the preparations for a torchlight parade. I took it some years ago with a Leica M9 and either a 35/1.4 Summilux or a 50/1.5 Zeiss C-Sonnar. With the far better high-ISO performance of my Df  I could get away with my 55/2.8 Micro-Nikkor today, but even then, the results wouldn't look the same. Cameras and lenses have "personalities" that go beyond technical specifications. 


This brings us back to the question of how much you like the camera. Some people seem positively offended that anyone should depart from bland standardization: they are perfectly happy with their generic DSLRs and can't quite understand why anyone would want something different. This is seen at its worst with those who have a taking against Leicas. All they see is the price, which is admittedly very high. But then, so is the price of a motorcycle or even a new kitchen. If you take pleasure in using it, and you can afford it, it's worth more to you than something you don't like as much.


Wild spa, Pyrenees. One of the many things I like about Leicas is that compared with DSLRs they are small and light and easy to carry, but still deliver quality comparable with the best SLRs. This spa is half an hour's walk from the nearest road, along sometimes demanding paths. As I was writing this, I read a comment by someone on a photo forum who said that he didn't always want to carry what he called his "neck breaker", a big, heavy, expensive SLR with a large zoom. He therefore bought a compact camera as well: harder to use, less versatile and, unless you spend a lot of money, delivering lower quality. A good DSLR and a good compact together are probably comparable in price with a Leica.


The question of affordability is not necessarily simple either. Some say you should never borrow a penny for anything. Sure, it's nice just to pay cash for whatever you want, whenever you want it, but there's also the question of buying enjoyment, and it's hard to put a price on that. As long as debt is not unsustainable, which is to say, as long as it's not snowballing (even if it's a very slow snowball), debt is not necessarily a disaster. I put my Df  on a credit card, and paid it off over a year or more; but it earned me more than half what I paid for it in a few months, and for the price of the interest on the card, I had the pleasure of using it. Given the cash flow of a freelance, a hundred or so a month is a lot easier to find than £1000 in a lump sum.


Mobile shop, Fontpedrosa, Catalunya. This well illustrates why I prefer manual focus and manual exposure. Autofocus would have focused on the balance behind the shopkeeper's head and I'm not sure what auto-exposure would have done. As it was I could pre-set the exposure, so it wouldn't be affected by the movements of the shopkeeper and the brightness of the clothes of his customers, and tweak the focus the instant before taking the picture. 


Different cameras and lenses encourage different photographic styles, too. You won't get the same sort of pictures with a large format camera on a tripod as you will with a small, light, hand-holdable camera. Some people like "deep field" pictures: others prefer very shallow depth of field. Larger formats and faster lenses are all but essential for the latter. Then there's bokeh, the quality of the out of focus image. Increasingly, I am inclined to try to learn how to get the most out of what I have, but you have to strike a balance between that and trying genuinely different equipment: not just a minor variation on what you already know (different DSLR, different zoom range) but something that encourages you to think differently (ultra-fast lenses, different formats, pinhole cameras).


Bottle opener, Motel, Florida. In one sense, any camera is better than no camera, and sometimes, too, a certain artlessness is called for. This is from my 1000 Motels series, which I keep meaning to get back to. Then again, this is from about 2006 when I was just beginning to experiment with what digital cameras could do: this was a high-end compact (for the era) which I was given for review by a manufacturer. The question is, why would I carry a compact as well as a better camera? What's the point of owning the better camera if you don't use it?


The question I always ask myself when I consider buying a new camera or lens is this: what will it enable me to do that I cannot do with my present equipment. Will it give me better pictures? What do I mean by "better"? With the Df  in 2014 it was a very simple question: not so much "will I get better pictures" as "will I get pictures at all", because I didn't have another working DSLR for close-ups and studio photography. For the M9 in 2010 (I had it on loan before I paid for it), it was a matter of getting my wide-angle lenses back, so that the 35mm was a 35mm and not the 47mm equivalent it became on the M8; the 18 went back to being an 18mm and not a 24mm equivalent; and so forth. Also, my 90mm lenses were inconveniently long on the M8, as 120mm equivalents. 


White on white. This requires precise control of exposure and colour balance, neither of which is necessarily feasible with a basic camera. Also, in the studio, I prefer the ease of composition of a DSLR to that of my Leicas: this was shot with the Nikon D70 before it died. The quality is more than adequate for the web, or for a small magazine illustration, but at 6 megapixels I'd be pushing my luck even for a whole-page illustration. Also, this was shot with a Vivitar Series 1 90-180/4.5 Flat Field lens: the 18-70mm kit lens that came with the Nikon is flat, flary and distortion-prone. The 90-180 was however inconveniently long on the Nikon's 16x24mm format, a 135-270mm equivalent. That's why I went for a full-frame when the time came to replace it.


The M9 and Df  are the only new cameras I have bought in a decade. Both are well above any technical criteria for the quality plateau, but also, and equally importantly, they are well above the quality plateau when it comes to cameras I want to use. If the M9 died tomorrow, it would have cost me a few hundred a year. The Df  currently stands at about £1000 a year, and (like the M9) this is falling further every year: in a year's time, it will be around £700 a year. These strike me as fair prices for the pleasure and utility I get from them. 


Boot maker, Arles. No camera is ideal for everything, but within a given category of cameras, most cameras of similar quality will deliver similar results. Once they are above the quality plateau, far more will depend on the photographer than on the camera.Mostly as a result of historical accident, I use Nikon SLRs and now DSLRs: Nikon was the professional standard when I started work in an advertising studio in the 1970s. The trouble with full-frame digital rangefinder cameras is that it's a very small category...


To sum up, life is not and should not be bleakly utilitarian. The quality plateau is a useful way of thinking about life's profits and losses, and not just in financial terms. 


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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016