Death Row

It is a sad and telling fact that the technological world around us is a throw-away world. Consumer products like televisions and microwave ovens are built to be used for a relatively short time, then replaced by another one. This is possible because of a couple of factors: the efficiency of mass production of everything from plastics to microprocessors, and the notion of commerce based on planned obsolescence. One very visible example of this in the last ten years is the evolution of mobile devices, which were just telephones ten years ago, and are now very complex communications devices. No one really needs these devices; in fact, I would go as far as to say that no one really needs a mobile phone. But the energy of commerce urges us to want them, nearly exclusively as toys and ego boosters.

The inmates of death row, the D70S, the D1, the D100, and the DCS760. All served long and well.
The inmates of death row, the D70S, the D1, the D100, and the DCS760. All served long and well.

Cameras are part of that. In my opinion, 95% of the digital camera sales in the world today are based on ego and self-image, not need. It’s easy to see this when you look at the state of photography 20 years ago, when the only people, and I mean the only people, who spent more than $500 on a camera were professionals. In my classes in the year 2010, the average price for each camera is easily $1000 or more, plus lenses. What could all these people possibly be photographing that wasn’t there to photograph 20 years ago?

Likewise, what could all these people say to each other on the phone that they weren’t saying 20 years ago? The whole flurry of electronics, and its marriage to commerce, is shallow and distasteful.

But as you know, I am a professional photographer, and I do need top gear. Even then, the equipment I’ve bought in the last 10 years was vastly more expensive than its film camera equivalent, and much of that equipment is now on a shelf in my office at my newspaper, in a display I call “death row.” The cameras on death row were great image makers, and aren’t there because I felt the need to have faster, cooler, shinier cameras, but because, very simply, they died. Here are those cameras and their original retail price:

  • Nikon D70S, $1300
  • Nikon D1, $5000
  • Nikon D100, $1800
  • Nikon/Kodak DCS760, $8000

Before you accuse me of having all the riches of Persia, I have to say that I didn’t pay anywhere near the original retail prices for these cameras. The D70S and the D1 were both gotten in trade for some old manual focus lenses, the the D100 and 760 came from Ebay.

The bottom line is that photography is never about cameras, any more that painting is about canvas. When you read this, I hope you delete that new $1500 camera from your wish list and take your old digital camera out of the top of the closet and go make some amazing pictures with it.

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3 Comments

  1. You are correct,sir, when you say that “photography is never about cameras…”. In the wrong hands, a $10,000 camera will still render images that are dull, uninspiring, poorly composed… the list of what makes a bad image is virtually endless. But it is RARELY the fault of the camera.

    It used to gripe me no small amount when someone would look at my images and say “Well, yeah… if I had a camera like yours then I could take pictures like that.” Maybe. Maybe not.

    When my Nikon D100 finally dropped dead of exhaustion, I took a break from photography for nearly 3 years. Wasn’t sure if I would ever pursue it again. Then this past summer I was in Cancun and was pressed into service with a camera that was made available to me. It was a Kodak Easy Share.

    Suddenly, the things that I loved about photography became real again, and while I will admit that there were limitations to the camera, and I very much missed some of the controls that I enjoyed on the D100, I found that the pedestrian Easy Share allowed me to capture nearly 2000 images of very enjoyable quality. I liked the little camera so much, I bought one of my own. Granted, it was a little “higher up the food chain” as regards Kodak offerings.

    I am presently looking at a Nikon D7000 as my next camera. Not cheap, but not “OMG you paid how much?” expensive, either.

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  2. ‘It used to gripe me no small amount when someone would look at my images and say “Well, yeah… if I had a camera like yours then I could take pictures like that.” ‘

    Ugh. I’ve heard that too. (But I probably said it a few times, before I knew what I was talking about…)

    ‘…the state of photography 20 years ago…’

    Correcting for inflation, my camera (Canon 400D) cost a little less than what my Dad paid for his manual Minolta in the early 1970s. The lenses are less too, on average. As is the “film.”

    Note: I’m not talking about “top gear”; neither my Dad nor I purchases top gear. Both of us got the best SLR we could afford at the time. Personally, I think I got the better deal. 🙂

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