Pragmatism In The World Of Photography


Oxford Dictionary defines the word pragmatic as.

“Dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.”

In today’s photography world, pragmatism seems to be in short supply, but from my view of the road it may be on the rise.

For example, let’s take the COVID-19 pandemic. My wife and I took a pragmatic approach to dealing with the reality of a rapidly spreading life threatening virus with the intent and goal of not contracting the virus, not spreading the virus and our family surviving the pandemic without it destroying our lives. We formulated what we believed to be the primary risks of contracting the virus and we adapted our behavior to minimize those risks. We stuck to our plans (for the most part) and two years into the pandemic, nobody in our house has contracted the virus. To us, our approach to dealing with it was pragmatic in nature, dealing with the reality on the ground. We didn’t listen to the medical advice of politicians, or neighbors, or talking heads on television. We got our information concerning the virus from the medical community, we analyzed that information and we enacted a pattern of behavior that we felt best kept us out of harms way. Our emotions, however, did play into the situation as we were affected by our need to maintain what we considered to be a normal lifestyle. But we never lost sight of the truth of the matter, no matter how much our emotions encouraged us to take risks and increase the chance of contracting the virus. In a pragmatic sense, we have been successful, but we did have to make some tough choices and temporarily give up doing some of the things we loved to do. You probably experienced the same general situation, but perhaps may have taken on a different mindset in dealing with the problem. Our personal emotions aren’t going to be the same as the emotions of other people. My results are mostly a consequence of the decisions I made, minus things out of my control.

What does this have to do with photography?

I’d say everything and nothing at the same time because I believe what we do is guided by our emotions.

I recently published an article concerning the economics of photographic equipment. Photography can be an expensive hobby or profession. Based on my analysis of my current DSLR based photography kit, it would cost me about $14,000 to switch to a comparable mirrorless system. When one can’t keep their emotions in check, the costs can be astronomical. The camera manufacturers are appealing to our emotions to encourage us to buy, buy, buy. The photographic press consists mostly of advocates for buying the newest photographic equipment. Yeah, there are some publications that discuss the artistic side of the subject, but take a closer look. Are they publishing stories that promote consumerism or are they actually discussing the art of photography? Are there advertising links on their web pages? That could be a clue. Lure you in with some type of general subject matter, usually something that has been repeated over and over again and then make you look at links to the online sales locations so you can buy, buy, buy?

Some of us bite. A lot of people bite actually. Maybe they don’t click the advertisers link, but they tuck their lustful thoughts away and then make a purchase later, because they read an article that confirmed what they thought they needed and pushed them a little bit closer to “pulling the trigger” on that purchase, or upgrade they felt they needed. The lure of newer is better. More features, more bling, more this or more that. But, at a base level, image quality hasn’t really improved much in the past 10 years.

I think a couple of questions every photographer, be it pro or amateur, should be asking themselves is “what are my problems?”, “what do I really need?” There are several reasons one should ask themselves this question.

Is dumping your existing equipment realistically going to solve a problem? It’s going to depend on what your problem is of course. Maybe you own a photography business and are expanding and need more gear to make that expansion. Is your gear still functional? It may be more pragmatic to simply make repairs to your gear than to replace it. I had a recent conversation with a fellow who was concerned his Canon 7D Mk II and his Canon 5D Mk III were close to reaching their maximum rated shutter counts. Well, DSLR’s don’t just stop working at a certain shutter count. The ratings are not guarantees, and an average shutter count means half may fail before and half may fail after that projected life. My experience with Canon DSLR’s is that my accumulated shutter counts have all exceeded the rated value, sometimes by a large number. There is no guarantee though. The shutters will go when they wear out. If replacing an entire kit runs me $14,000 and repairing a broken shutter costs me $300, I think the more pragmatic solution is to have the shutter repaired, assuming of course the manufacturer can still do that work. My mindset at the moment is to simply go to the used market and buy a replacement if having it repaired is not an option. I’ll save a lot of money and the gear I use now is perfectly capable of making high quality photographs.

Do you have a need to own the latest/greatest camera or lens? Well, if you have the money to throw at it, go for it. I have no qualms with someone who has the money indulging themselves. What you need is to be happy about what you own. I don’t know if this approach is going to solve a photographic problem, but I’d bet probably not. It solves an emotional problem though. The need to own the latest/greatest. I firmly believe that 98% of the quality of the end product of ones photographic efforts is related to individual skill rather than what gear they own. A new camera won’t make you a better photographer, no matter how hard you want to believe that it will. One should never concern themselves with some errant shame or humility of not owning the best or most current gear.

From a business standpoint, one should ask “what is the return on investment?” For example, brother Sam buys a new $8,000 camera for his photography business. Will that new camera generate enough income in 5 years to pay for the investment? He may very well increase his net income by $8,000 in the next five years, but will that increase be due to having purchased this new camera? Will it allow him to increase his bottom line by at least the cost of the purchase within a reasonable time period? If he becomes impatient or emotional about his need to own a new camera, he may very well sell it at a loss and buy another newer, mo-betta camera, before he’s recovered his original investment in the newer gear, thus compounding his loss by going deeper into a financial hole without actually calculating the financial benefit of owning the camera over a longer period of time. I’ve spent half of my life living in a corporate production environment and I can tell you that no educated, practical business manager is going to “replace” their production equipment every time something better is available. They would typically run that equipment until it was no longer getting the job done due to parts availability or or lack of ability to maintain production standards. Constant upgrading of equipment for the sake of upgrading is a sure way to go out of business.

I have heard it said, more than once, the general rationalization that goes something like “I have to compete with other photographers, so keeping up with them is a priority. That’s why I stay current with my technology and upgrade my gear.” A wonderful rationalization but it’s more or less delusional. I’ve never had a customer buy a photograph from me based on what camera or lens it was taken with.

Being retired and not actively pursuing photography clients, my primary sources of photographic income are from sales of stock photography, occasional prints and wheeling and dealing in the used photography gear market. Will an $8,000 camera improve my stock photo sales? Will and $8,000 camera improve my print sales? Will I be able to sell that camera down the road and make a profit? From my view of the road, the answer is NO. That’s a pragmatic analysis of the situation. If I take the emotional argument, my purchase of the new camera would be to make myself happy that I have the latest/greatest camera. My photographs aren’t going to look any different. My skill as a photographer isn’t going to magically improve by spending money on a new camera.

Now I’m quite aware that many enthusiast are into the gear aspect of photography. Their primary motivation revolves around owning something cool and the adventure of learning a new “thing” and experiencing the joy of knowing they have the best bang for their buck, or the latest greatest gear to show off to their friends and associates, or just simply add to their collection of things that have been shelved when the next latest/greatest thing comes along. GAS could be based on what writer Thom Hogan describes as “Fear Of Missing Out” or FOMO. That’s an expensive approach to being an enthusiast though. One I wouldn’t consider unless money was no object, or my personal financial discipline non-existent. My father taught me as kid, “a car is simply a means to get from point A to point B. Own a reliable car, maintain your car, but don’t feel compelled to let it consume your life with a need to have a new car every year or two. You’d be wasting your money.” My father was pragmatic about many things. He taught me to take a realistic look at things and solve the problems one step at a time and not to create problems out of my emotional neediness or lust for something new. I would say that I’ve learned his lessons with varying degrees of success, but the underlying pragmatism has stuck with me and I’m getting better all the time.

What has been said before, but I’m seeing more of among the internet writers is “new gear isn’t going to make you a better photographer.” If you are considering buying new gear without fully solving a real problem, one should wonder if they are solving a real problem or just trying to find happiness by spending money. It may make you happier for a while though. Until you have an emotional need to have more new gear, then the cycle repeats. If you are living a repeating cycle of upgrades to your photography equipment, you are probably not so much a photographer, you’re more likely emotionally insecure consumer and addicted to buying things. I think I drifted off into that mindset for quite a while and it didn’t end up making me happy.

For some time in my life, I was a photography gear addict. At one point not too long ago I owned at least 5 different DSLR’s and about 12 different lenses. Most of that gear saw little use. They were toys. Some of it was to wheel and deal with, trying to make a profit flipping a camera or lens. Some of it was my need to own it and nothing more.

I’ve learned to break the gear collecting cycle and I have learned how to break the GAS that kept me in constant motion buying and selling photography gear. I’ve lost my fear of missing out. All I think about now is how, when and where to make new photographs.

I have transformed my thinking to be more pragmatic and less consumer oriented. My photos are as good today as they were 10 years ago.

The benefit is that I now have more money to waste on other things. I’m quite content with it all actually.

Your mileage may vary.