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The cost of capturing the light

Camera is an expensive hobby,” said my father to me. I remember it was in 1996, and a film-roll was worth ten meals in Indonesia. Of course, that excludes the additional cost to develop the film. The moment when I got the film, I know that there are only 36 shots before another set of meal-tickets needs to be sacrificed for taking the next photo. I wondered if the words of my father will be a long-lasting.

Here I am now, the age of digital. A wide selection is on the table, range from the expensive full-frame DSLR, APS-C/H, micro four-third, prosumer, point-and-shoot, to the cheapy ‘camera’ attached inside the hole of a mobile phone which I hardly consider as a real camera. For certain, I don’t need to exchange my meal-ticket with a film-roll anymore. Stay away from the DSLR and everything related to the camera looked so cheap. I thought the words of my old man are no longer valid in this era.

I once had a 5MP point-and-shoot camera, and it was superb. It helped me to capture a lot of precious moments that I spent with my wife. But no matter how great the moment was, the results were just a plain and typical image. Before you start to argue using the magical phrase, “The most important is the man behind the gun,” try to think why don’t professional photo-journalists and wedding photographers use pocket-camera or mobile-phone cameras for their work?

Aside from the obviously small sensor-size and poor lens, the most important thing that is missing from a pocket camera is the degree of freedom, in trade for its simplicity. But freedom most likely, if not always, comes with more complexity and photography is not an exception. Freedom here means you can put your hands on various variables, such as lens, focal length, aperture, flash power, shutter speed, etc., and combine them to unleash your creativity. Sounds complex? Yes, it is. I never said photography is simple. But let’s say you have an interest in an operating system (OS), for example, you won’t be happy to stay with its standard load, right? You may want to hack the Windows to lift its limitation or trade the simplicity of Windows with freedom in Linux. If you have a deep interest in the iPhone, you may want to jailbreak it so that you can do as free as your imagination can go. Things will surely become complex, but you know that you are happy with the freedom that you get. I feel the same way for photography. More freedom is needed to feed our creative side, and the complexity is a mere challenge. Like always, once you tame the complexity, invaluable pieces of knowledge will be your reward.

Like most people, I use my camera mostly for capturing a moment. Many moments happen only once in a lifetime, and that makes them extremely precious. When my daughters came to this world, I knew that there would be a lot of wonderful time to share with them. As they grow up, I won’t be able to repeat the moments with their younger faces anymore. Photography is a unique field. Even though you can get a great composition with your mobile phone camera, you won’t get a sharp, wide-gamut, and noise-free image. It is the same as if you watch the new Transformer movie with a black-and-white TV produced in the 1950s. The actual image is great, but all you get is just a noisy and dull image because the TV cannot do more. Actually, low-end cameras can also produce a decent image, but at a specific condition. Given such low probability, entrusting our moment to be captured with such a camera is no different from gambling. I’m not good at gambling, so what I want to do is to capture every moment as perfect as possible, and that has to be done with the best equipment which I can handle and afford at that time.

The downside is, it turns out that the words of my father are still valid after all.

f4.0 1/80s ISO100 (EF 24-105mm f4L IS USM)
f5.6 1/1000s ISO100
(EF 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM)

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