The other Monday (April 16th) I bought a new camera. Like a couple of other cameras on my shelf, this was actually a used camera but in very good condition. It is new to me and with its purchase I can already see my way of thinking about photographing changing.
The timing was on par with two previous purchases. In June of 1987, I bought my first SLR – a Minolta Maxxum 7000. Thirteen years later, in April of 2000, I bought my first SLR upgrade – a Minolta alpha 807si. And now in spring again 12 years later, a Sony alpha 350 DSLR. My camera purchases over the years have also included a used Pentax 6×7 (back in 1993) and a used Bronica 645 (2003). The great treasure of them all is likely my Tachihara 4×5 field camera – a wonderfully terrible thing to use in the field and producing more failures (usually due to focusing) than any other camera I have ever used. Yet when a 4×5 transparency is successfully exposed and technically accurate, it looks truly supreme. There have also been two compact digital cameras in the lot since 2007 and of course, phone cameras as well.
Why the Sony 350? The answer is in two simple reasons. First, as all my 35mm equipment is Minolta it made sense to by the Sony. Though Sony bought Minolta, the old Minolta AF lenses can still be used with new Sony cameras. Even my 50mm 1.7 auto-focus lens from 1987 works with this camera. Second, the price was right. A few weeks back, I spied it in a photo shop I occasionally visit for just 22,980 yen. I didn’t have the money yet but soon after I heard that a photograph of mine was to appear on the cover of a FujiFilm World, and the money paid to me would cover the cost of the camera and the media card. After reading some reviews about the camera, I knew is was the best I could do to get my own foot into the DSLR lifestyle door.
Why a DSLR? More likely is the question, “Why did I wait so long?” Well, years back I was watching digital SLRs improve yearly and hearing stories of friends and professionals who were constantly upgrading cameras, computers and software. I didn’t want to be caught in what I considered to be a pointless race to stay ahead of obsolescence. I was getting the same quality images from my aging film cameras because even as the cameras aged the film quality remained high. I also found that at exhibitions I could quickly spot the digitally captured images because the colours just didn’t look as real as the prints from film and in the worst cases I could spot the coloured pixels. When digital cameras finally reached the level where in my mind they were equal to if not better than 35mm film (in some ways anyhow), I was no longer in a financial position to procure one. And still the notion that any camera purchased would be rendered obsolete within a couple of years stayed my interest. I could still shoot excellent publishable results with my film cameras with nothing more than the cost of the film and developing. With my photography time diminishing as my family required more and more of me, film costs were far lower per annum than what a new DSLR and its accoutrements would cost. Lastly, how could I justify spending a month’s salary on myself when I have two small children to think about?
It was perhaps two years ago when I first really felt that I might be ready to change my thinking. Squeezing out a bit of time for a day hike was possible but even a modest use of film added to the cost. With a DSLR, I surmised that I could shoot more, experiment more, and be certain of bringing back usable images. Though I had over 20 years of experience shooting film, there was always a margin of error, and experimentation would inevitably produce wasted film, even if the desired result was achieved along the way. Since I couldn’t really devote a serious space of time – say two or three days – to hiking, climbing and photographing, I would perhaps be better off changing my approach to nature and landscape photography to something lighter, less serious, and more fun. Just go back to shooting for the pleasure of it all without the pressure of having to produce excellent work to impress editors. I came up with a plan to just visit local natural areas in parks and near the river and shoot one roll of film each month. That would keep me in practice without costing much at all and still I would be producing fresh material.
Then last summer I gave a friend a lesson in how to use her new DSLR and I found I really enjoyed the feel of it. I checked out what was in stores from the top-of-the-line Canon 5D series to the next level down and the level after that. I inquired with my stock agency in Tokyo: what was essential in digital photography as far as stock was concerned? The answer was simple: file size. Most clients required images that could be reproduced in a magazine, book or calendar at A4 size, and some clients required images for large format wall calendars. It seemed that getting 18 megapixels was overkill and that 12 to 14 megapixels was sufficient.