Friday, November 13, 2015


I recently took Mr. Thein to task for something he said about sharp tools. Obviously my motivation was that I am an asshole. However, there is a rationalization here. This is bad pedagogy, and promotes a myth that is prevalent in photographic circles. Mr. Thein claims to be all about education, so taking him to task is reasonable, here.

If you want to learn to play the piano, I can tell you immediately what piano to buy. You should purchase an older American made grand piano, rebuilt to the highest standard, with ivory keytops. Steinway is always a solid choice, but Chickering, Knabe, and a few others are also excellent if you select the year of manufacture with a little care. The rebuild is because that's the only way to get ivory. An acceptable alternative is a new concert grand.

Go for the 9 footer if possible. This is the best instrument you can obtain, and it's going to cost you about 100 grand. But it's the right tool for the rank beginner, because it will fight you the least. Of course, budget may be an issue. Do not get an upright or a digital, the actions can be truly excellent, but they're simply not grand piano actions, and grand piano actions are better. Do not get anything under 6 feet long, the tone in the bass is going to be muddy, it's physics, and that's going to interfere with your ability to hear clearly what you're playing.

The same applies to cameras. I used to own a Bender 4x5, and while a perfectly serviceable camera, the Sinar F1 I have now is simply better. It fights me less.

For decades the canonical starter camera was in fact a superb instrument. Simple, robust, well made. The K-1000, the FE2, and so on. These cameras fought the user almost not at all, they did a simple job well, and more or less transparently. They were perfect for the beginner. And just fine for the expert.

It is only now that we decree the beginner should start with a Nikon D3300 or the Canon Rebel Whatever. These are infernally complex machines, and I think in fact wildly inappropriate for the beginning. They're a weird and confusing mixture of unsophisticated "scene modes" and powerful advanced autofocus and exposure modes that even experts have trouble fully grasping.

But we have to start out cheap, and then only when we're "ready" can we move up to the sharp tool that is the D810, or 5DMkIV or whatever?

This is madness. The proper tool for the beginning is neither end of the scale, but an imaginary and much simpler machine. Given the reality of what is available, I suspect that the more Professional models, with fewer helper modes, would be better. I was a beginner back in the Good Olde Dayes, and am not any more, so I cannot be sure.

All, up, the beginner is going to have trouble with any of these instruments without a helpful mentor to tell them to stick it in Av (or M) with a center weighted meter, and leave it there for a year. Since that's the proper path anyways, it probably doesn't matter which you get.

No matter how you slice it, the myth that you have to be ready before getting a good camera is a myth, a very modern myth, and it deserves to be savagely kicked in the face every time it pops up.

But I'm still kind of a jerk.


  1. An Olympus E-M10. Incredibly complex, yes - if you let it be that way. But incredibly simple as well - mine is on A mode since the beginning, and also in center-weighted average. I only switch it to M mode when working with flash, this automatically switches it to 1/160th of a second. And I have a stored custom white balance for flash. But the best about it is that it's just the size of my OM-2. 600$ or €, perfect. Especially with some good prime lenses.

  2. Works for me tto Wolfgang. Even if I started with a camera similar to what Andrew says above (he talks about Nikon FE2s and Pentax K1000; my first camera was a Yashica FX3 with a 50mm; I wonder where it is now...). My ideal has always been something like one of these cameras but with a sensor instead of film. But yeah, no manufacturer is gonna make me one of these puppies.

    Anwyay, I've been using Nikons forever now, I have a D600 since it first came out and recently I've also bought this OMD E-M10 (last summer they had special offers since the new one was coming out). Like you said, married to simple fixed lenses (14mm f2.5, 25mm and 45mm), it's really good fun and always in the backpack.

    PS I hope I'm not marked as the guy who talks Gear now.

  3. A year or two ago, Ming Thien posted some good blogs about using a point & shoot to take good photos. He seems to have focused on more upscale cameras since then, but he can't be generally accused of insisting on concert grands to the exclusion of spinets.

  4. There is no sarcasm in the current piece. The beginning pianist would be best served by the described instrument. Period.

    Beginners in general should begin with the best equipment, the sharpest tools. It is the expert that can muddle through with the dull axe, the unregulated spinet.

    Beginners generally do not, to their detriment.

  5. Many-many long moons ago I followed your line of thinking by taking out a co-signed loan to purchase a16mm Arri camera and 12 to 120mm French lens to sit atop an Australian fluid head tripod. This trio at that time were the top of the 16mm game for the budding filmmaker and that was my aspiration. As I got better and better my tools were there waiting for me and you had to strive to be as good as they were after all and it didn't hurt to show up on location with a big gun serious about work. I don't actually what some client might think these days but it still has an effect on me methinks. There's a pleasure in feeling like you're feeding your idea into an instrument that has that most special sweet tone... then it's all about the labor, the love and the idea... in a perfect world. Hmmm, haven't seen one of those yet however. My humble 2 cents worth if you please

  6. I've recently bought a Leica CL to see if I like the rangefinder Leica (tried an R5 and liked the CL better.) Next up is a Leica MP or M3. Reason: it's a simple camera and the best mechanical rangefinder for *me*. I can drive stick, and owning one of the best cameras removes any temptation to blame the equipment for my faults. I like digital, but I like my Leica better. I admit it: I'm a Luddite....

  7. I read that the Otus 85mm will "punish" poor technique. I wonder how the punishment is delivered. Do you have to pay for the lens all over again? I would assume that the greatest lens in the world wouldn't look any worse than a mediocre lens if used "incorrectly" but maybe they hit an inflection point and magically become even worse than a mediocre lens. Sounds like voodoo to me.

    1. If you use it wrong, perhaps you'll drop it in your foot. Luckily I have purchased some Zeiss/Leica cobranded steel toed boots.

  8. I was too quick to post my comment earlier and I got stuck in talking about my cameras, so I wasn't able to express the main point I was trying to make, which is this: I agree these entry level cameras are way too complicated.

    I mentioned those old k1000, fx3, they were simple cameras clearly aimed at beginners, but how did they work? Manual exposure, manual focus, no aid except for a light meter. But you know, it wasn't such a big deal like beginners think these days; even simpletons could figure out, given a day or two, what's the story with setting separately aperture and shutter speed... Compare this to program mode, intelligent autofocus, it seems to me way more complicated that just knowing what aperture does, what shutter speed changes, how to put the two together and you know, the little thing of focusing on what *you* think should be the main thing in your frame. I have only once been able to use effectively the so-called intelligent AF of my Nikon, which was when I was shooting at night while cycling and following other cyclists.. all the other times I've tried I have always ended up frustrated by the machine focusing on stuff that I didn't want!

    But now it seems like manual mode is for experienced photographers... and experienced photographers never use any of the program mode because they are too complicated! That's really absurd.

    1. Totally agree. I stuck with the Yashica FX 3 series and a 50 mm Zeiss lens for decades.
      I think the problem now is that 'best' and complicated too often go hand in hand.
      After I accidentally destroyed my Cannon G10 I got a Sony rx100. Great camera but way too complicated for me.