Chasing Unicorns

As photographers who care about the quality of our work, it is easy to start chasing unicorns when it comes to our choice of camera gear. We can create some Utopian vision in our minds about how the perfect camera is supposed to perform, then compare the realities of today against that idealistic phantom.

The result is that we can sometimes find ourselves in a never ending cycle of dissatisfaction… and waste a considerable amount of money chasing unicorns as we buy in to, and sell out of, various camera systems.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/400, ISO-400, Kenko 10 mm and 16 mm extension tubes used

An even bigger risk is that we stop growing in our photographic craft. Becoming fixated on the shortcomings of the camera gear we happen to own at any given time (and all camera gear has shortcomings) is a dangerous proposition. We can give ourselves a convenient rationalization for the deficiencies in our own photographic skill set.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro with 16 mm Kenko extension tube, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-6400, Hand-held Hi Res Mode, subject distance 190 mm

Choosing to be blind to our own shortcomings is not a “Get Out of Jail FREE” card. It actually keeps us incarcerated in a prison of reduced creativity and stagnating skills of our own design.

Blaming the shortcomings of our camera equipment for our photographic output means we don’t have to critically assess our own skills and creativity. For some of us, chasing unicorns in our search for the perfect camera equipment… is little more than running away from our responsibility for personal skills growth.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 545 mm, efov 1090 mm, f/9, 1/2000, ISO-640, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 1801 pixels on the width

When Olympus first launched Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking I had a reasonable amount of initial success with birds-in-flight. There were things I really liked about the technology, as well as some initial reservations. I had discovered that it wasn’t ‘perfect’ with my initial attempts using it. I had been chasing unicorns with my view of this technology. Any reservations I had were based on my assumptions.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 483 mm, efov 966 mm, f/9, 1/2000, ISO-640, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3335 pixels on the width

The first assumption was that this new technology was somehow going to be a magic solution for my bird photography. It would have been incredible if all I had to do was point my E-M1X camera at a bird and it would magically produce a perfect image.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 235 mm, efov 470 mm, f/8.8, 1/1600, ISO-800, Bird Detection AI, full frame capture, subject distance 18.4 metres

The second assumption was that the learning curve with this new technology would be nothing more than a gentle slope. Both of the assumptions that I made were ridiculous. The easiest thing would have been for me to give myself a ‘Get Out of Jail FREE’ card and revert back to my previous way of photographing birds. Rather than to keep experimenting with Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-200, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 3966 pixels on the width, distance to subject 14.9 metres

After using Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking regularly for many months now, and capturing over 35,000 images with this technology, I am finally starting to feel that I understand how to use it effectively. My comfort level and confidence has increased to the point where this is my preferred setting for bird photography.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 f/4 IS @ 24 mm, efov 48 mm, f/5.6, 4 sec handheld, ISO-200

Regardless of the camera format and brand of equipment we choose to use, it takes time and effort to develop the understanding and skill set required to use it to good effect. Chasing unicorns is an ill-fated illusion… just like the thought that there can be progress without a price to pay in terms of time and effort.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.7 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-2000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 24.8 metres

There is one inalienable photographic truth. A poorly composed and conceived photograph, will always be poorly composed and conceived.

We may yearn for larger sensor cameras, or some other ‘latest and greatest’ piece of gear thinking they are the solution. More dynamic range. More colour depth. More megapixels. Less noise. Shallower depth-of-field. None of these bread crumbs along the path of chasing unicorns will magically turn a mundane photograph into a great one. Regardless of the camera we used to create it. Over the years I’ve managed to be equally adept at creating bad photographs with a range of camera formats.

Olympus OMD-E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5, 1/50, ISO-2500, subject distance 505 mm, handheld focus stacking used, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

Cameras are just image creating tools. Nothing more. Nothing less. Some equipment is better aligned to our specific photographic needs than is other gear. Each of us should buy and use whatever format and brand that best meets our needs.

To stop chasing unicorns and wasting money doing so, we need to shift our thinking away from ‘bigger is better’,… or that the ‘latest is always the greatest’.  We need a mindset that focuses on understanding meaningful differences for the work we actually do. And, to critically assess benefits and shortcomings so we can select equipment that best meets our needs… regardless of camera format or brand.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 54 mm, efov 145.8 mm, f/5.6, 1/50, ISO-3200

The most important factors in photographic success are our creativity… and our understanding of our craft. Whenever I’ve looked in the mirror I’ve never seen a unicorn looking back at me. Just my old, grizzled face. That serves as a constant reminder that there will always be work that still needs to be done along the road of self-improvement. No amount of chasing unicorns is ever going to change that.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

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