The Feel Factor

| September 10, 2012

Autumn is in the air again. Hints of gold are already visible in the high aspens, and mornings are noticeably cooler. Summer had been busy, but fall promises to be even busier. For a working professional, this is a very good thing. Workshop season starts in just a couple of weeks and I look forward to days on the trails and open roads, surrounded by the majestic western landscape; meeting new people and enjoying lively conversations over greasy food in small town restaurants. That is to say, I may not post much in the next couple of months. This is the time to accumulate stories and images to share in the quiet days of winter.

On a recent conversation with a photo blogger, he mentioned that if I were smart(!) I’d post more gear reviews, which he estimated to draw the highest amount of reader attention. By his logic, being smart and being popular are closely correlated. I resisted offering numerous examples to the contrary. Still, I confess that dedicating any significant amount of time to reviewing camera gear is only somewhat less exciting to me than spending my days writing about lutefisk recipes. But, this post actually is about gear.

I’m not one to lust after the latest gadgets and am not easily impressed by specifications. I generally hold on to my gear and don’t replace anything that still works as it should, regardless of new development and what marketers try to pass as “must have” features. Indeed, every camera I owned since the Nikon F3 I purchased more than 25 years ago, can still meet all my actual “must have” needs. I did, however, want to mention a new camera I began using a couple of weeks ago – the Olympus OM-D – and why I find it such a joy. The reasons have little to do with its technical prowess, impressive as it is. In fact, my first reaction to reading a review of it was: wow, so many features I don’t need. It also didn’t help that, rather than rely on the mystique of its classic OM series,  Olympus decided to market the camera as a prop from an Arnold Schwarzenneger movie. But, it fit a need I’ve had for some time now, and I knew I liked it not because of any reviews I read but because of how it felt to hold and use. In fact, it felt a lot like that old Nikon F3.

At the time I bought the F3, there were already models on the market featuring the familiar plastic-coated ergonomic frame with the large hand grip, automatic focus, and a host of other features. I was almost set to purchase one of the new-fangled marvels of technology when I noticed the gangly-looking F3 on a shelf at the camera store and asked to take a closer look. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable to hold as newer bodies, but its solid heft and brilliant viewfinder made the choice an obvious one for me. This was a camera I wanted to hold and use, a camera with classy character – reserved and serious and meticulously constructed to perfection.

In my teachings I emphasize the importance of visualization – the ability to imagine what is possible when faced with a compelling concept – seeing in the mind’s eye the finished piece that tells the story of an experience, without ever looking through the camera’s finder. You might think that such skill will make obsolete the choice of camera being used to realize the visualized image, and you will be correct, for the most part. But, while visualization can be practiced independent of any camera, the cameras you are familiar with may also inform and expand your visualized repertoire.

This became clear to me when I first switched from 35mm to a Medium Format system, and later to a Large Format view camera. With each transition I found that I was making different images. More than that, I was making images I could not make or visualize until I became familiar with the unique qualities of the new system. The same happened when I finally gave up the view camera in favor of a DSLR. After re-familiarizing myself with zoom lenses, a different aspect ratio, and narrower angles of view that were not available to me in 4×5, I began visualizing very different images. Items, like a 70-200mm zoom opened possibilities for me that were simply not possible with my Large Format kit.

But wait, there’s more. It is not just familiarity with the capabilities of a given camera that informs what we visualize, but also the process of working in different formats. Working under a dark cloth with a view camera is not the same as working with a 6×6 camera equipped with a waist-level finder, and neither will lead to the same images as a hand-held compact digital camera. With each format come new possibilities, options, and freedoms, adding to your visual arsenal and allowing the visualization of different kinds of images. In other words: familiarity with multiple formats, processes and tools, makes you a more versatile photographer despite the common mantra that gear doesn’t matter.

What really doesn’t matter are the features that look good on paper but do little to expand your creative horizons. Replacing one DSLR with another may give you more pixels, faster focus or any number of other “improvements” but is not likely to result in discovering a different kind of images. On the other hand, augmenting your DSLR with a different kind of camera, very well may.

Returning to my recent acquisition, in recent years I found myself working more and more with a pocketable compact camera (the Canon S95, if it matters). And, as before, this new mode of work resulted in images I would not have thought to make with my DSLR or 4×5 or any other system. Still, I wanted the flexibility of interchangeable lenses in a small’ish hand-holdable package that I can use on the go. With the advent of mirrorless cameras, some very interesting options presented themselves. After some self-education, it came down to a choice between Sony’s NEX-7 and the Olympus OM-D. History taught me to never pick a camera based on specs, though. The NEX is a technological wonder but, in the hand, felt more like a small DSLR than something “different”. And, the size of its lenses made it somewhat less desirable. The OM-D made an altogether different impression – same as the Nikon F3 did more than two decades ago. Ergonomically it is just as awkward as the F3, but it has the same solid hefty feel that makes me want to just hold it in my hands. And, something else made it different and preferred in my mind – something that no review or comparison I had seen saw fit to mention – its aspect ratio. I often will crop the 3:2 images from my 35mm captures to 4:3 as I find it more conducive to some compositions.

In the last couple of weeks, the little Olympus accompanied me on several trips. After agonizing over its configuration options, I finally got to a point where I have little reason to go into the menu system other than to format the memory card. I turned off all the little beeps, locked it in RAW mode, reduced the frame rate to a reasonable level that doesn’t result in 5 unwanted exposures each time I so much as look at the release button, and it finally feels like a creative tool to me. More than that – it’s a camera that makes me want to go out and play and capture new images. Best of all, I just made my first 24×30 print from an image I captured with it, and I’m happy with the quality.

My point in writing this is not to suggest that the OM-D is the ideal camera for everyone, just that it’s worth considering things other than numbers and reviews when it comes to choosing your tools. If all a new camera does for you is give you more pixels in the same form factor that already works well, it may be time to think in a different direction. A camera that feels different from the one you already have, may well reward you with images that are different than the ones you are already making.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. –Albert Einstein


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Category: All Posts, Featured, Reviews

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (7)

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  1. Joe Becker says:

    Thanks for the review Guy. It looks a lot like my old Olympus OM4-T, which was my film camera before switching to digital. Same size and shape, and probably the same feel. I do miss how that camera felt in my hands.

  2. Your posts are always worth reading, precisely because you don’t write about gear! I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments, but I guess that experience and a lot of money spent on kit teach you that. Incidentally, I am also delighted with my OM-D.

  3. It’s odd to see you writing about gear, Guy, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that this was a paid-for endorsement. I thought your belief was that the tools do not matter, so I’m curious about your statement “it’s a camera that makes me want to go out and play and capture new images.” I always want to go out and play and capture new images, and it’s always been irrespective of the camera I use.

    I don’t see any reason to buy a new camera unless it offers significantly higher resolution than what I’m already using. I wondering if you’re smitten more by gear lust than the creative possibilities this new tool offers. The OM-D seems to have some snazzy new features (perfect for gear lust :), but is a resolution step backwards from the 5DMKII…

  4. Guy Tal says:

    Definitely not a paid-for endorsement, Michael. As I recall, you purchased a couple of cameras since your old Ebony that did not offer higher resolution. I assume your reasons, like mine, were that some tools are better suited for some purposes.
    At the sizes I print, more resolution would have made no practical difference to me, nor would it have enabled me to do anything I can’t already do with my current system. Having a small and portable system allows me to do things I wasn’t able (or motivated) to do before. Whether it’s the OM-D or something else makes little difference to me. I will not be using most of its features, anyway.

  5. Great post, Guy. I am very glad you are keeping your quadrant of the internet universe real by advising against “gear lust.” Gear lust is just like any other kind of lust or greed: it is wasteful and eventually leaves the lustful one with a hollow feeling. If we keep using and consuming we will end up with very little natural beauty to look at or photograph anyway.