I have a book by the late Galen Rowell called, “Galen Rowell’s Vision – the Art of Adventure Photography.” It’s a compendium of all the articles he wrote for Outdoor Photographer magazine over his years as a regular contributor. In one article entitled, “Around-the-World F4 Shakedown” he writes about his experiences testing the Nikon F4 against his F3 when the F4 was first released. His article concludes with the lines, “Who knows what the 21st century will bring? I do know that I can’t afford not to be using the emerging technology.”
His words ring home the message that most serious professional photographers understand – that in order to stay on top of business the pro must keep up with the latest technological developments in photography. In the days when film cameras were all there was, keeping up with technology meant testing out new films, buying new cameras when a better model was released, and buying new lenses, filters, strobes and whatever else was necessary to capture better photographs more practically, economically, and conveniently. For someone like Rowell who traveled to remote corners of the world and often climbed up mountains in extreme environments or visited harsh climates, keeping up with cameras and photo accessories was so important that he even designed some of his own gear that was marketed with his name.
The biggest cost in film photography, as digital photographers enjoy pointing out, is the cost of film and processing. “Why don’t you buy a digital camera? You’ll save so much money on film.” For the serious amateur, yes, I agree. Buy a digital camera – a good one – and you won’t need to worry about all the money spent on film and developing. Plus you can reduce storage space at home and lighten the weight in your pack. But for the pro who is serious about keeping up the big time professional field as Rowell was, digital photography is actually not any cheaper. From my standpoint it’s actually a lot more expensive.
In the Winter 2010 issue of Outdoor Photography Canada, photographer Michael Grandmaison writes that he has changed his digital camera three times in two years. When I met him in 2005 shortly after the release of his book of Canadian landscape photographs, he had been using a film camera to capture all his images. That means he is at least on his fourth camera since I met him. In the same period of time, I bought a Tachihara 4×5 field camera to add to my equipment that consists of a now 10-year old Minolta, a Bronica 645 which I bought used in 2003, and a Pentax 6×7 that I bought used back in 1993. Though the medium formats have gone in for adjustment and repairs, they are still as good as they were when I first took them home. The wooden Tachihara should still be operating just as well as ever in 50 years if I take good care of it (though I might not be around to use it then). The message in Grandmaison’s words is that the top professional needs to spend money faster than ever in order to keep up with the latest developments in the rapidly evolving technology of digital photography.
It doesn’t end with buying a new camera every other year though. In the same issue of OP Canada, Mark Degner reviews the LensAlign Pro, a device to help digital users be sure that their lenses are giving them maximum sharpness. “You owe it to yourself to check out a LensAlign Pro if you want to get maximum sharpness out of your cameras and lenses.” The Pro Plus goes for $249 US and the regular LensAlign Pro for $179 US. On the next page is the Spyder3Elite, a monitor calibrator, which is a device that is critical to use “if you want to have consistency in your prints… or you want to share or sell your images… Colour management and monitor calibration are necessary evils of digital photography.” The price for the Spyder3Elite is listed as $349.99.
Those devices aside, one must also consider having a computer. Though it’s been said that one doesn’t need a computer to shoot photographs digitally, it is essential to have one for photo editing, sending photo files to clients via email, managing any bulk work, and preparing your images for home printing. Computers are not as expensive as they used to be but consider that they generally last for about 4 to 5 years under heavy use and you’ll be looking at shelling out for a new model by the time you’re on your third digital camera. I can’t imagine a serious pro making a healthy go of his or her business using a 7-year old computer that is “slow” and running with obsolete software.
Software is another issue where everyone is taking about PhotoShop or LightRoom and how useful these programs are. I remember reading a review of the latest PhotoShop edition back in 2001 or 02. The reviewer praised the new edition for correcting so many of the problems and inconveniences of the older version. Had I laid out the hundreds of dollars for the software back then I would now be working in the Stone Age if I did not upgrade with each new edition.
Storage devices are also a “necessary evil”. Thankfully the prices have really come down on memory and external hard drives and flash cards now can hold much more information than before. That’s a blessing since cameras now can shoot at 12 mega pixels or more. Also, everyone is advised to save their files on external devices because all computers can be expected to crash at the end of their operating lives. It’s not a question of if but when. Not only that but backing up files on another device and storing it in another location is advised too so as to insure one’s files against total loss by fire or flooding. So you’ll need two hard drives for every time you want to save files outside of your computer’s hard drive.
If you have a closet full of slide binders then you’ll also need a reliable scanner which you will have to keep upgrading every few years and most likely you’ll need a printer too.
Add up the cost of all these things along with the regular gadgetry and gear that photography requires and it quickly becomes a hefty investment. Of course, these days there are very few photographers making a living from using film exclusively. Most are using their digital cameras while keeping a trusty film camera at the ready on a shelf in their homes and offices, just in case. But for me who is still using film almost exclusively (save for a compact digital for snapshots), the cost of film is much more manageable than keeping up with the digital and computer development race. I have my camera and accessories, my light table, and a loupe. I need to buy extra binders or slide sheets once a year or so and film use is regulated as I can afford to pay for it. Compared to pros like Michael Grandmaison, I am spending considerably less on photography-related goods each year. On the other hand, compared to pros like Michael Grandmaison, I am earning considerably less from photography each year. We are not even in the same ballpark! Or rather, he is on the field and I’m a little-leaguer watching from the stands.
Sadly, however, it seems that unless you are a fine art photographer making good money off your film photography, working in digital has become a “necessary evil” for any commercial photographer – be it wedding, outdoor, or studio photography – and keeping up with the latest gear is a virtual necessity. You have to spend money to make money, and now you have to spend even more.
The next time someone says to me that digital photography is cheaper I’ll reply with, “Unless you’re a full-time amateur, it really isn’t.”