»Amateurs worry about equipment, professionals worry about money, masters worry about light… I just make pictures.«
When I first started getting into photography, I shot a Canon Rebel. I eagerly waited for the golden hour at the end of each day, spending my time exploring the Irish countryside shooting little details in nature that were drenched in yellow directional light. I couldn’t get over how pretty and exciting everything seemed to me during that time of the day. I didn’t worry about any of the above and was completely content with my photography. For the last time.
After a few months, shooting during the golden hour alone didn’t satisfy me anymore. I started spending hours on post-processing my images to give them a certain handwriting that, together with my shooting style, would help me achieve a more cohesive look. A little further down the road I changed systems and bought a Nikon full frame camera due to technical problems with my Canon. When I switched I didn’t think about anything but addressing the auto focus issues I had.
I thought a good picture is about the photographer and their creative eye, nothing else. I was convinced that gear didn’t matter at all. In fact for me it didn’t – unless I was shooting a prime lens with a large aperture that would reliably lock on my subject when I shot into the light. I was never a pixel peeper and I don’t approach photography very technical. But most importantly, I simply hadn’t found my perfect match yet and wasn’t aware of that. It took me a long time to see that I was wrong.
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm 1.4 G (Lightroom 4)
Over time my preferences changed again and I realized for myself that extensive color work isn’t a substitute for anything that’s lacking in my images. I took my post-processing back to achieve a more natural result.
If I look at my pictures from before that time I’m surprised by how far I took it with altering the original colors, it’s almost like people wearing too much make-up without realizing it. The more authentic looking I liked my pictures, the more frustrated I got with the Nikon color palette. I basically felt like I had to spend hours in post work just to fix something that should be right straight out of camera (their 2DX color profiles help a little in case you have the same problems). Being frustrated with both Nikon and Canon for different reasons, I was ready to leave both behind, move on and buy a Leica M9.
I always loved the color palette of Fuji Pro 400H and after experimenting with emulating the look of film digitally to match my results with film, I read about the Fuji X-Pro1 and was intrigued. I compared the image quality, colors and dynamic range to the Leica M9 and decided against a digital Leica. I purchased a Fuji X-Pro1 together with the Fujinon 35mm lens. This little camera completely changed my workflow. I was impressed by how close I could get the results to my actual film scans with relatively little effort. I decided I was done with ever buying a digital camera again (I might change my mind about that if Fuji ever releases a full frame version of the X-Pro1).
Fuji X-Pro1 + Fujinon XF-35mm F1.4R (SOOC vs. Lightroom 4)
But no matter how much you tweak a digital picture, even the ones from the X-Pro1, you simply cannot get the tonal response of film. That means digital images look somewhat flatter and artificial. Film gives an image more depth, texture and the results look more pleasing and natural to the eye. These are subtle differences but they are noticeable, especially if you compare the same scene side by side. Not to speak of the obvious differences in color.
I ended up selling all of my digital Nikon gear and buying a Hasselblad 503CW and a Leica MP to compliment the X-Pro1. For me personally, the images a Hasselblad produces in combination with the Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2.8/80 are the most beautiful you can achieve with a medium format camera. I just love how the lens renders, with such beautiful tones, so much clarity and the most wonderful bokeh I have ever seen.
Hasselblad 503CW + Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2.8/80 (Kodak Portra 400)
The Leica MP is a classic and so is the Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 1.5/50 that I shoot on it. The lens is the modern technological reincarnation of the classical Sonnar 1.5/50 from 1930, the fastest standard lens of its time. It’s an amazing lens that does unbelievable things with light when you shoot it wide open.
My Leica is exactly in the middle between the X-Pro1 and the Hasselblad. It’s a film camera, it’s very portable, discreet and the Zeiss Sonnar draws so beautifully that there really is no substitute for me in a 35mm camera. I like that the MP has no red dot, just an engraving on the top plate. It draws a lot less attention than my M6 because of that, people simply don’t recognize it.
I think having a simple tool that reliably works was one of the great ideas behind Leica cameras before they were transformed into a boutique brand whose products are often stored under glass and not used. I don’t believe in that. I think Leica has a wonderful heritage and their cameras need to be shot, not looked at. The Leica is my camera for life and it will probably carry many marks when I can hopefully pass it on to one of my children one day.
Leica MP + Zeiss C Sonnar T* 1.5/50 ZM (Kodak Portra 400)
I don’t seem to be the only person who thinks of photography being a lifelong journey of development and growth. I receive many emails from fellow photographers that I really appreciate and very few don’t bring up gear. It’s difficult for me to give advice on what camera to choose or whether to shoot film or digital. That’s a very personal decision and one that matters a lot. What’s good for me isn’t necessarily the right choice for someone else. The best is to try different things until something feels exactly perfect for you.
I think finding the right gear is tremendously important and shooting the right gear is an essential part of the creative process. It took me years to figure that out for myself and there is no science behind that really, only feeling. It’s not about shooting expensive gear, the price tag doesn’t matter. But finding the right camera/lens combination that resonates with you is one of the most crucial parts in making a good image.
Contax 645 + Carl Zeiss Planar T* 2/80 (Fujifilm Pro 400H)
I think technical aspects like megapixels or ISO performance are vastly overrated. It’s much more important to identify for yourself what you would like to see in your images. Then you can decide what camera you would like to shoot, or even more importantly – which lens. In an ideal world you start with the lens and work backwards (and hope you don’t end up liking a Leica Noctilux). For me, personally, it’s the Zeiss Planar 80mm on my Hasselblad.
Shooting the Hasselblad means so much more work than any other camera I’ve used before. And that’s the beauty of the manual process, it feels like craftsmanship. To me it feels exactly right. I obviously love shooting my Leica too, but it’s not the same with the MP. Even though there is a lot less labor involved, I have to work much harder for a good shot. It’s almost like playing an instrument or meeting the right person. If you find the one that’s made for you, everything just falls into place.
Fuji X-Pro1, Leica MP, Hasselblad 503CW, Sekonic L-398A, Kodak Portra 400 and Tri-X 400
Part of finding the right gear is being able to reduce your tools until there is nothing more to take away. Another part is being able to identify your own style.
I know a lot of photographers whose work I really love. But what they do is often very different from my own photography and I wouldn’t necessarily shoot like them or use the same equipment. I also wouldn’t be good at what they’re doing. I believe that if you can embrace that, you will be able identify our own strengths better and develop your own signature disconnected from other people’s art. At the same time you will be able to look at their work without missing anything in your own. If you are not content with your photography, stop following other people’s work for a while. Clear your head, focus on your own vision.
I believe this is a lifelong process for every photographer. No artist can ever “arrive” and be 100% content. Where would the urge to create and improve come from otherwise?