One of my earliest lessons on Cameras and Gear
Many (too many) years ago, at the beginning of my career in television production, I did a government-sponsored course of film and video production. It was how I got started, and I loved every minute of it. I wouldn’t be where I was today without that course, and I’ll talk about that more at some point in the future, but there was one really important lesson I learned in the first week, which has stuck with me to this day and applies across all fields.
We were being introduced to the world of professional video cameras. What we were being shown was a BetaCam ENG camcorder from Sony, which at the time cost around €70,000. This was pretty much the standard for news and television production here in Ireland, and in a lot of the world at the time, although the industry was in the process of transitioning to the newer DigiBeta cameras. (I’m showing my age now.) The camera had no automatic controls, and everything was manual, from focus to exposure. I still remember sitting in the back of the class when the teacher was introducing the camera to us and fielding questions from the students. Some people were dismayed by the lack of automatic controls. “Even my cheap camcorder has autofocus and auto exposure” was the refrain. Some people just couldn’t understand how anyone could use a camera like that when cheap ones had more “specs.”
The teacher tried to explain to the class, that these features were only really present in domestic camcorders, and why they would never be used in a professional field. It was because, they simply weren’t good enough, and in the majority of cases, when you’re a professional you have to get it right, and so you have to control everything yourself. But more than that, it was because the other features of the camera, the rugged, built like a tank, take it anywhere nature of these cameras made them designed for all sorts of environments and to just keep going. But people couldn’t understand why a camera could cost so much if it didn’t have x-feature or y-feature, even before they ever laid hands on it and used it for themselves.
The funny thing is, after months of working with these cameras, by the end of the course, no one questioned the value of them. Everyone appreciated what made these cameras high end professional machines, and why people used them. No one ever wanted to use their cheap camcorders with dodgy autofocus again.
While a lot has changed in the industry, and autofocus is now reliable enough to be used in professional video in some circumstances, the underlying lesson here hasn’t changed much. Not everything is about the specs. There are things you just can’t put down on paper, and yet the internet still seems obsessed with feature lists and charts. These things just don’t matter in the real world. The reaction to the Nikon Z series launch was one example of this. Another (which prompted me to write this) was a comment I read on some coverage of Blackmagic’s new pocket cinema camera 4k.
Someone in the comments was complaining that the camera didn’t have autofocus and a bunch of other consumer-level features. The $60,000 plus Arri Alexa that is used in the majority of Hollywood films have none of these features, but no one complains about that, because professionals working in the TV and Cinema industry just get on with it using the tools for the job.
When I was reading this I was transported back to that classroom, and the other students who were complaining and confused as to why someone would spend thousands on a camera that didn’t have some feature that a cheaper camera did. When you work in a field, you find the right tool for the job, based on its use, and how it can help you get your work done. Something can have the greatest list of specifications in the world and still be rubbish. Something else can sound awful on paper and yet be the perfect tool for the job.
The other point is that not every camera (or anything else for that matter) has to suit every user. Some can be aimed at certain markets and not others, and it’s not the end of the world. I thought that this was a given, but it seems to be a surprisingly difficult topic for some people to grasp, at least on online forums and comments (not the best place to expect this, I realise). If a camera doesn’t have the features for you, then it’s not for you, but that doesn’t mean it's a failure.
Despite that other popular trope, tools are important. Any good craftsman cares about the tools they use. They choose them carefully and they look after them. It’s important to use the right tool for the right job, and equally not every tool is suited to every job. That doesn’t make it a bad tool. The entire range of online debate around gear often misses this point entirely. It either descends into stupid spec fights or some snobby comeback about how “real” photographers or videographers don’t care about gear (while brandishing their top of the line cameras). The gear should matter, but only to you. You should shoot with what fills your needs, and in the case of a professional, the needs of your clients, or the job you’re shooting.
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