The icon above is the symbol of my business. It's not a household visual referent yet but, at the rate I spend on advertising and marketing, give me another two hundred or so years and I'm sure I'm make some sort of dent in my target markets..... But the whole idea of branding and trademarks and consumer acceptance of the power of brands is something I've been thinking about lately. What makes photographers buy the cameras and lights they buy and reject other brands? Why are we so adamant in the defense of our choices? And how much does one brand's supposed technology advantage over other brands inform our picture making?
I'm sorry. I don't remember what camera and lens I used to do this shot and I don't really care to search the "exif" to find out. The client and I agreed that the shot worked fine.
In the earlier days of cameras the choices available to us were more quixotic and more vertically nuanced. If you wanted a cheap camera you had a bunch of choices and if you wanted an 8x10 inch view camera you also had an embarrassingly rich array of choices. In the big (literally) leagues of view cameras you had Toyos, Linhofs (in several flavors), Sinar (in even more flavors), Deardorf, Wisner, Calumet and probably ten other brands of hand made folding 8x10 cameras I never heard of. All were good. All were eccentric and charming. No flame wars erupted between the users of, say, Linhof and Sinar. All that mattered was the film that came sliding out of the holders and into the soup. But that's because the magic didn't belong to the glorified boxes. It was the operator that made the difference.
Medium format aficianado plowed through the same kind of landscape. If you used either a Hasselblad or a Rolleiflex you couldn't stand on any higher ground than people who chose the other European brand because, after all, Schneider and Zeiss made the lenses for both of them. If you weren't enamored of the square you could always toss in your net and fish out a bunch of rectangular aspect, medium format cameras and you could choose between a number of good brands and a number of aspect ratios. Like it "stubby"? You might want a Mamiya or Pentax or Fuji 6x7. Like 'em longer? How about a Fuji or a Mamiya or a Linhof? Maybe even a Plaubel. And no paucity of panoramic machines. One shot panoramics, just like the photo gods ordained....
Even in 35mm it was a-okay to like Pentax, Olympus, Minolta, Nikon and Canon equally. They all had good glass and it was all the same three or four brands of film that squirted out of them. But then along came digital and the emotional landscape changed.
We've been trained by the manufacturers to believe that one company at a time has the holy grail of digital camera technology and we rush like drunk sailors in a storm, from one side to the other, based on what came out last month. The people who invent, nurture and control brands have done a great job inculcating fear of failure and shame of non-conformity. They've made any effort to step off the rat race of perpetual camera upgrades seem terrifying and career threatening.....even to people who don't even do this for a living.
Lighting up the night looking for the secret camera.
I've been researching and reading all the ads for "professional" digital cameras I can find (and believe me, I can find alot...) and I've been analyzing them to find out how the manufacturers sell them to us. They do it with the combined forces of fear and shame. The ads all infer that it's your clients who drive technology. They imply that if you aren't willing to step up to the plate again and again and embrace the latest tech toys the makers of "your" brand have to offer then there is a horde of talented people standing in line behind you waiting to "wow" your best clients with six (no, that's not it) eight, ten, twelve, eighteen, twenty four or thirty-six megapixels and they tease you (mercilessly) with the idea that the industry as whole proceeds in lock step and that falling behind in any one area will doom you to the quick decline from star to Willy Loman in a few short steps.
It's only been a few years ago but do you remember when we were shooting with one megapixel cameras and the mantra from Kodak was that when we hit six megapixels we would have equalled film? And then we did. And we stopped there for a few moments and people did amazing work with the six megapixels. Joe McNally dragged National Geographic (one of the print magazine "gold standards") into the 21st century with a story on air power done with an interpolated 5.3 megapixel Nikon D1X.
Canon ruled the wedding roost when Denis Reggie started showing off the incredible wedding photographs he was taking with a brace of four megapixel Canon 1D cameras. And at that time a bunch of us asked, "How many megapixels would be enough?" The answer I heard from top pros was, "Double it to 8 megapixels and we're there!!!!!" And the camera makers did just that and for a little while we stopped and savored cameras that so exceeded our expectations for noise and resolution and sharpness that it seemed like science fiction. But the ads kept coming. And the new product kept coming and what was once "remarkable," "better than medium format film!!!" and "the peak of technology." quickly became yesterday's fish. When Nikon unveiled their D2x it was almost as if their ads for the D1x never existed. Front and center were ready pros who told us stories that seemed disconnected from the photos in the ads. And the stories said, in breathless prose, that the amazing (generally not) images shown here were only made possible with the latest evolution in picture making. And now, for the first time ever (ever) you could join the ranks of the pros who'd been beta testing a new paradigm of performance that would change the face of photography forever.
We were gripped with fear. We didn't want to be left behind. We didn't want to be the guys who could "only" shoot at 8 megapixels. We didn't want to be the guys who couldn't shoot at 16000 ISO. We didn't want our clients to follow the guy with the magic talisman of visual power. So we bought the message in the ad and we bought, for the second time in two years, the new camera.
Nikon shooters had been waiting for what seemed like half a lifetime for their company to launch a twelve megapixel camera to match the performance of the Canon 1ds and they finally did. The D2x offered much better performance on a number of levels including: Noise performance at base ISO's, speed, sharpness, raw buffer and amazing compatibility. In fact, even when Canon issued their newer, 16 megapixel camera DPReview said, in a review that pitted the two competitors, that the Nikon was "convincing" and hairsplitting close to Canon's new flagship, and $3,000 cheaper to boot.
Did that assuage Nikon users? No, Canon came out with ads that showed off their lenses at sporting events and the shooters switched systems faster than some people switch underwear. Now Canon was the focus champ. It was the new fear inducer for Nikonians. What if their lenses and bodies didn't focus as fast as Canon? Would the clients dump them? Would they be relegated to shooting only Little League while the Canon shooters held court at the Olympics and Wimbledon?
Light, subject, intention; they all trump "camera."
Everyone in the sports world switched. And the company raced to the ad machine to toot their horn. Then Nikon came out with a camera that could do all that and do it at ISO XXXXXXXX. It was called the D3 and people embraced it even though it was "only" twelve megapixels.
You could make a shaky case for this kind of frenetic churning among professionals if it were even true that clients cared just a little bit about what you are using to create their small ads on the web but what about all the people who do this thing (photography) for the fun of it? People with no expectation that they will be paid by someone to bring "the right stuff?"
What's around the next corner? Does it matter?
People who study markets tell us that one of the biggest fears of consumers, after death and shame, is to be left out. To be marginalized. The desire to be part of the dominant group comes from millions of years of social evolution. To be "in the group" meant you got to share the kill. You grouped together for protection from other tribes or predators. And marketers have done a great job subliminally convincing their markets that there are tremendous benefits to being part of the pack. If you choose a camera brand that is in apparent decline, such as Olympus was perceived to be in the last two years, you become dissatisfied. The camera you bought hasn't changed. It can still do all the things for which you originally chose it. It still makes images that are as high a quality as you experienced during the selection process. But now it seems your choice is a one of declining market share and popularity. You have only to read the popular Olympus forums and blogs to see that the tribe of Olympus is upset. The lower the sales the smaller and less powerful the tribe. Which, of course, has nothing to do with the use of the cameras or the quality of the files. But there is the real fear that, if Olympus exits the camera market, the users will be cast adrift on a digital ice flow, adrift and alone in dangerous seas. At some junction they might have to bury their past and join a new camera tribe. Which one will it be? How long will it take to learn the new lore?
But we're really just talking about products, right? Box with a sensor and a lens on one end. I know the ads show famous photographers using and talking about Canon and Nikon's current digital wonder cameras but you understand, if you think about it, that these "famous" photographers largely made their reputations by using the cameras available five years ago or even ten years ago. Some garnered their name recognition in the days of film! But the ads are engineered to make us believe that the only way to achieve the fame and fortune (and the adoration and acceptance of a camera tribe) is to make the same choice that the spokespersons have. The spokespersons whose signature images may have nothing at all to do with the latest tech or the even the brand of camera they are currently shooting.
Am I immune? Am I sitting here laughing at all the people who've bought into a camera tribe for the comfort of sitting around the campfire and telling stories that glorify the past and future history of the tribe? No. Of course not. I am only human and I'm probably even worse. I find myself trying to hedge all my bets by keeping a foot in many camps.
I am part of the Olympus Pen tribe. I feel the call of my little sensor people because of my good memories of their older film cameras. I have some Hasselblads because, for many years, their tribe ensured in a way that I'd share in the feasts of photography. I keep them in case I find ways to use the power locked inside of them. And I've embraced the Canon tribe because it's so big. I can find my frat brothers and sisters almost everywhere.
But what does all this do to us? It keeps us afraid, on edge and waiting for the witch doctors of our tribes to bring out the next great tool to keep us warm and safe. And we are willing to throw down the tools that have fed us for several years in order to embrace tools that promise us just a little more.
But I secretly think that buying the first 1DX has nothing to do with need at all. If you are a sports photographer I believe that the current Canon sports camera (or any one of the last three generations) would do equally well. If you are a studio shooter you probably could soldier on with any of the 1DS offerings or a 5Dmk2. No. The real reason to buy the first 1DX is that the tribe elevates the early adapters to a higher level within the tribe. The power of your opinion rises. People pay attention to you and you are given more status. Which is a reward cycle that doubtless gives you huge pumps of dopamine which drives you to find the next reward. Which is doubtless the next body. And people who either can't afford the new camera or don't really need it but want it hold the buyer in higher regard because they also aspire to be thought of as a "master" of the tribe. One of the inner circle. Because when you are in the inner circle you are less likely to be pushed out or marginalized.
When you separate buying into a tribe and buying tribal status from the business equation of adequate equipment acquisition to do what you really need to do you free yourself from the tyranny of marketing and branding and make decisions that are rational and leave you more time and energy to use your camera for it's intended purpose....not to win popularity contests and tribal acceptance...... but actually taking photographs. If only I were wise enough to take my own advice.
So, which camera company is the Honda Accord (which logically I should want?) and which one is the Porsche Panamera (which I should avoid?). I hate it when I realize that I've been played.