What Would [Fill_in_Name_Here] Do?

One persistent request I get because I spent so much time at Galen Rowell's side in the 90's is "what would Galen be using today?" 

I think that's the wrong question. Moreover, asking one person to get completely and accurately into the mindset of another is fraught with problems to start with, and becomes impossible to when trying to guess what might have changed in nearly 20 years after his death. 

There's a better question to be asking, and it's coming up over and over again with the pros that are being targeted with the Nikon Z9 and Sony A1. 

The question is "what does [fill_in_product_here] provide me that I can use effectively?

So let's start with those considering the Z9 and A1. Much of the group that's grappling with the idea of moving to those cameras are currently using 20mp cameras. Cameras they believe have been specifically tuned to high ISO work. Many of them are already facing a persistent and on-going problem: they need to deliver images near instantly to their clients and agencies. As in "within minutes." More pixels seems out of alignment with that need, so they're balking. Moreover, the persistent notion that per-pixel noise is the most important thing to control in low light makes them resist more pixels in the first place. 

Nikon did something with the D6 that was somewhat brilliant for these folk: JPEG Slot 1+JPEG Slot 2. Save JPEG fine Large to the first slot, JPEG basic Small to the second slot. Push the second slot in real time to your client or agency. You still retain a high quality image that can be pushed later on demand, while providing Web-worthy images quickly. Sony did something equally brilliant for these folk with the A1: scroll through marked images (whether with protect or specific star ratings). You can chimp your images between plays, mark the ones to send, and go immediately back to shooting. Later, say between quarters, quickly step through your selected ones and push just those to your client or agency. My friend and Sony Ambassador Patrick Racey-Murphy is saying that he's already sent images to his clients before the other photographers around him even get to the press room to download from their cards at halftime. 

You'll note that neither thing I just mentioned is about dynamic range, frame rate, autofocus speed, or the number of pixels the camera has. The real monster that's being tamed in both the Nikon and the Sony case is workflow. Can I use those workflow things effectively? You bet. Indeed, I want both companies to copy the best workflow ideas of each other!

Now Galen was an adventure photographer, which is to say that he climbed mountains, went hiking deep into the backcountry, toured out-of-the-way places that were Nat Geo worthy, and more. Having been on many trips with him, it was not at all unusual to put in 15-20 miles of hiking plus several thousand feet of vertical every day. Which is why he kept working towards lightening his kit. That's not to say that he didn't constantly try new gear to see if it provided him with something he wasn't already getting—he always sought to be a "best" photographic practitioner—but often heavier and bulkier gear simply didn't meet the bar he set for mobility. So often times he opted for older product rather than new product. A stripped down F4 was smaller and lighter than the unstripable F5, so he re-opted for the F4 after testing the F5 thoroughly. 

It's impossible to predict what Galen would be using today if he were still alive and active, partly because so many options now exist that are under his original bar. But I could predict that he would be evaluating whether each item he considered would be more effective for his needs than his existing gear.

One thing that keeps getting forgotten in all the tech hoopla is that professional photographers have at their core a need to make money at what they're doing. Which means that new gear needs to have something hugely compelling that makes it worth buying. And amateur photographers want to imitate or echo the pros. But not only does the camera gear itself have to allow you to do something beyond what you're doing today, you also have to spend time marketing what you can now do to potential clients (even if that's just your spouse ;~). We went through a period in digital where "number of pixels" was something that you could easily market against your not-quite-with-the-times competitors. Today, not so much, despite the bump from 20/24mp to 45/50mp.

So first and foremost in figuring out the answer to the question I posed in bold above is this: what is it you're doing?

A landscape photographer, for instance, has far different needs than a sports photographer. Since I used sports in my earlier discussion, let me next lay out some things that would make me much more effective with landscape photography:

  • Stacked focus, HDR, and pixel stitching simultaneously. Yowza. I need from X feet to Y feet with acuity (focus), from dark to bright captured with accurate data, and it would be nice to pull out the photon noise and gain additional acuity with a four-step pixel stitch to erase the Bayer pattern and temper the randomness of photons. And no, I don't want to have to do lots of calculations in the field to get all the variables set right. Start focus here, end it there, start exposure here and end it there. Done; press the shutter release.
  • Location recorded and keyworded. Yes, use the GPS to get the exact coordinate data, but let me speak into the microphone and dictate an IPTC location field entry (e.g. "Just off the path of the John Muir Trail looking at Devil's Postpile"). Also, let me pre-create keyword lists (e.g. John Muir Trail, hiking, etc.) and have sets (or individual keywords) applied to an image.
  • Capture the missing info. If I'm using my 19mm PC-E lens, wouldn't it be nice if the tilt and shift settings were saved in EXIF? Did I use an ND, graduated ND, or circular polarizer? Yep, stuff it into the EXIF data. (And if you tell me that these are "just filters" without an electronics, then you're telling me you have no imagination about how accessories can convey information to the camera. If Nikon wonders why they don't sell many filters anymore and thinks it's because of all the third-party knockoff competition, then they only have themselves to blame.) 

Would I rather have a 45mp camera with those things or a 60mp camera without? (Do I really need to answer that question? ;~)

The problem I see is that the camera companies, in their naive engineering and marketing efforts, have conditioned us to ask the wrong questions (e.g. "do I need 24mp or 45mp?"). Yes, those are simple to describe and market because higher numbers are always better, right?  But most of the time simple constructs like that don't really speak to a clear benefit that's going to make me a more effective, productive, and successful photographer. 

So, again, the question to ask is "what does [fill_in_product_here] provide me that I can use effectively?" When I ask that question these days, If find myself coming up with a blank for many of the products that are being introduced. That doesn't make them bad products, but do I need them? No. 

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