The Upgrade Mentality

Along US-24 in Hartsel Colorado
Along US-24 in Hartsel Colorado

This post began as a comment to Cedric’s post on his own blog, but as I thought about the subject it turned into a full-fledged blog post of my own. I summarized my thoughts in a comment on his blog but thought I might as well pour out the whole bucket of goo in my own blog post.

Castlewood Canyon State Park near Franktown, Colorado
Castlewood Canyon State Park near Franktown, Colorado

In his post, Cedric ponders the need for constant upgrades, lamenting as many of us do that it’s not enough simply to buy a camera and have it serve our needs for years to come. It can be done, but it can be very difficult. There are many factors at play, but for the most part cameras are just one thing in our daily lives that seems to be caught in a perpetual cycle of upgrades.

A lesser but very important point that Cedric made in this and the subsequent post is related to how the pace of technological change has diminished our appreciation for the technology itself. I think that may be true to some extent, but I also think that for people who didn’t experience things in the “good old days” they can’t imagine how things could be different. I and others within a few years of my own age have seen the internet, computers and technology in general explode, much more so in the last 10 years than in the 100 before it. Without the context of time beyond about 20 or so years ago, today is the norm to younger people. Compared with how things were when our parents grew up the change is unimaginable.

Castlewood Canyon State Park near Franktown, Colorado
Castlewood Canyon State Park near Franktown, Colorado

Our pace of technological advance has quickened so much in recent years that things do greatly improve in ways that were unthinkable 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago. It used to be possible to buy a good camera body and a couple of lenses and spend ones entire career shooting with the same gear. Cameras were built to last and for the most part they did. The only thing that changed was the film, and that upgrade happened incrementally.

When we use the same camera and lenses for a long time we do tend to develop a bond with them. Much of that bond stems from familiarity, and a familiar tool in many ways becomes an extension of the user, and the more we use it the less we have to think about it. Cedric suggests the idea of a camera having a “soul.” That might be a little strong, but the point deserves consideration, because I believe we can be inspired by our experience with a camera as a tool. Maybe a better way to put it would be that a camera can have an influence on our own soul. That might be a subject for further explanation!

Wildflowers - I think Mountain Gumweed - At Farview Curve overlook in Rocky Mountains National Park
Wildflowers – I think Mountain Gumweed – At Farview Curve overlook in Rocky Mountains National Park

There is a certain “upgrade mentality” related to all sorts of objects and devices. Much of this mentality is marketing driven, but much of it is driven by real advances in technology. What we have to decide is whether and to what extent we choose to participate. Some things matter, many do not. I personally do not need to drive the newest and most expensive car, but to many people that seems to be a priority. A good camera is important to me, and that means a more sizeable investment than many people would consider reasonable. I have polarizers that cost more than many people would spend on a camera, but I know people who spend more on golf clubs than I would spend on a new lens. I would rather drive a 12 year-old car but have a newer camera. I spend money on vacations but other people own a boat or a motorcycle. It’s all a matter of priorities.

Aspen motion blur in Rocky Mountains National Park
Aspen motion blur in Rocky Mountains National Park

I just shipped off a load of used camera gear, and included in that load was my original Canon 5D. It’s the camera I traded in my medium format gear to buy. Talk about a bond! While the 20D was an excellent camera, the 5D replaced it and I have been using it for over 10 years. That camera has paid for itself many times over. I used it as my second camera on our recent trip to Colorado. It was my backup camera two years ago in Nova Scotia, and I thought so much of it that I had it fixed after the mirror fell off! Did I need to replace it? Not really, other than the fact that the sensor is a dust magnet (always was) it functions as well now as it did when it was new.

Manitou Springs, Colorado
Manitou Springs, Colorado

I didn’t buy the 5D Mark II when it came out, even though many folks regarded it as a worthwhile upgrade. The main thing it did was shoot video, and I never shoot video. In a few months I’ll probably sell off the 5D Mark III and the rest of my Canon lenses. All of the lenses are 10+ years old too, and it has gotten to the place where the next camera upgrade will probably force a change anyway. So as long as I’m changing I’ve decided that it’s the right time to change completely. I’ll be making the change primarily because I feel my needs have changed, not so much because I think I need something better. If I was willing to keep carrying around that heavy gear I wouldn’t hesitate to keep it, because it still does an excellent job of meeting my photographic needs, and probably would for a while to come.

Manitou Springs, Colorado
Manitou Springs, Colorado

The pace of technology these days pretty much demands upgrades in many areas, but we all need to decide what is important to us. There is a certain level of performance required to do basic things, and as our needs expand so does the requirement for our technology support. If we buy a new camera that makes larger files, we find that we need more memory. If we’re using a 7 year-old computer we might find that it won’t run the latest software that we need to handle those files. There’s an upgrade cycle, and like it or not that’s part of the cost to participate. Our choice is to play or not play, but once you’re in, I think you need to keep up. I’m not always thrilled about that, but that’s the way it is. It’s been easier for me to avoid the marketing-driven temptations since I gave up television and “nagazines,” but I still like the tech part of things. The key is to make a change when it matters, not just when a camera company decides it’s time.

Random photos in downtown Grand Lake, Colorado
Random photos in downtown Grand Lake, Colorado

My son Kevin at 29 is very tech-savvy but also shares a philosophy of life that is similar to mine when it comes to spending money on technology. We have had a number of discussions about this very subject, most recently with a discussion about phones. But the discussion holds true for many things, including cameras. Kathy and I had phones that were 4 years old. Kathy’s phone was working just fine, because all she uses hers for is texting, email and the occasional phone call. Mine was chewing through batteries like candy, because while I’m not a “power user” I do tend to download and use many of the latest apps. The older phone wasn’t designed to do all that and was starting to tell me so. My son’s guidance was that for certain things we need to accept the fact that if we were going to use our phones like I use mine, they were not going to last more than a couple of years. The improvement in performance and battery life is noticeable – to me but not so much for Kathy – at least not yet – so the upgrade was worthwhile.

Kevin doesn’t care much about cameras, but he is a heavy phone and computer user. It is much more important for him to have current devices. As far as computers go I am strictly a user, but my needs for handling camera files dictate that I have a computer that is up to the task.

Trail to The Pool, Rocky Mountains National Park
Trail to The Pool, Rocky Mountains National Park

Up to this point all I have done is unload some surplus gear. I still have a very useable and excellent camera to use when I need one. I’ve already accomplished one major goal, which was to have less stuff to carry around! With no big vacations in the immediate future, the camera I have will continue to meet my needs perfectly. Once I have some cash in hand I’ll be able to start looking at ways to spend it. There’s a slim chance that I’ll decide to spend the money on new lenses for the camera I have, and it’s even less likely that I’ll just hang on to the cash. But it’s far more likely that I’m going to use it as seed money toward a new system. Something smaller and lighter is my ultimate goal, and I feel is sufficient reason for an upgrade.

Approaching storm, Rocky Mountains National Park
Approaching storm, Rocky Mountains National Park

12 thoughts on “The Upgrade Mentality”

  1. We each have our own justification process we work through before making the decision of upgrading our camera gear or even other technical gear. I can personally identify with many of the factors you mentioned in this article, Tom, though each individual would no doubt weight the factors according to their own circumstances. It use to be a much simpler decision in that a camera upgrade would in most cases provide a discernible improvement in image quality but not so much anymore.

    One thing I’ve noticed to a degree is a mild social backlash against those who upgrade regularly enjoying the latest and greatest. In some of the blog communities I think this has increased the amount of “justification” the average joe feels they need to provide for a purchase and in cases has led to “closet upgrades” with nary a word mentioned. 🙂

    IMHO, it comes down to the only person you have to justify an upgrade of anything with is yourself and if you want to have the latest and greatest, for whatever the reasons, it’s okay…and I enjoy the upgrader sharing the new gear experience.

    Interestingly enough since beginning this new roving lifestyle my own “need” to upgrade, which use to be strong, has fallen very far down my priorities. Probably speaks to a dissatisfaction with my old lifestyle but that’s another long subject. 🙂

    1. My guess is that your current priorities reflect more of a change in attitude than a dissatisfaction with your former lifestyle, but that’s just my guess. We all make the best decision we can based on the information and our needs at a given time. Your needs have changed, which doesn’t make the old choices any less valid. That said, I have been pondering the need for more simplicity myself, and not just regarding camera equipment. Parsing down the amount of camera equipment is just one of the possible outcomes. As you say, another long subject for a future post! 🙂

  2. This is a good post Tom though I may have been misleading in my own post. My intent wasn’t to ponder the need for constant upgrades. Needs, by nature, are completely subjective and my needs where cameras are concerned don’t go beyond having a working camera of reasonable functionality (and lately I don’t even have that need). I haven’t bought a new lens in over 30 years and have only had three cameras in the last 15 and that’s only because the first stopped working and the second… well it broke when I accidently dropped it.. As such I am not a good judge of what justifies upgrades hence why I wrote that “no matter how I spin it in my own head, it seems, for the most part, rather senseless”. This was meant to be a reflection on me rather than anyone else. What I pondered in my post was the impact a fast rate of change might have on people’s ability to appreciate what they have and really get to know it. Again, from my own limited experience, it seemed that many marvels of technology are being seen as mere disposable items which are quite often under-utilised. However since my post, a number of people have assured me that this is not at all the case and I am happy to hear it. Times are changing and I’m the one not keeping up. My own slow pace at bonding with technology is obviously not the norm. From your post and what others have said, it’s apparent now that appreciation for something is not necessarily time dependent.

    By the way, your Aspen Blur shot is wonderful as are your two images of railings and shadows.

  3. Thanks, Cedric. I think we’re maybe coming to the same conclusion but from different directions. I love the idea of buying something that works and keeping it until it doesn’t, but there are no many factors at play that it’s difficult to pull that off, and gets even more so as we “progress.”

    The Aspen shot is one of my favorites from the trip and I must say it represents exactly what I had visualized. I may need to make a future post out of that story!

  4. Terrific essay thoughtfully illustrated Tom. And it prompted a couple of odd thoughts…

    1. Why is opening a freshly arrived virgin camera’s packaging such a mystical experience?
    2. Imagine that you could teleport Abraham Lincoln to your home as a houseguest for an afternoon. How much would he comprehend, not just of your surroundings, but even of your vocabulary. How much of our life’s idioms would be impenetrable? Has the inexorable tide of history’s upgrading (tech & cultural) cut away an understaning of our legacies? Hmmmmm….

  5. “Random photos in downtown Grand Lake, Colorado” – the wall, stairs, handrails and shadows – this image works perfectly well for me!

    And this is the utmost purpose of all aquired gear, or should be.

  6. The bonding of person with camera gear is like a love relationship…there must be that ‘chemistry’. It develops further with regular interaction and mishaps and successes. Often, letting go is extremely gut wrenching.

    All these pix are tremendous, especially the aspen blur and yellow wildflowers. Pin sharp…w.o.w.

    1. Ultimately I think the point for a lot of us is to get to the place where we don’t think about the gear and just take photographs. Of course having the confidence – the chemistry as you suggest – is an important part of that relationship. Thanks for reading and for commenting!

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