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A weekly column by Mike Johnston

October 4, 2003

Got a Question? Ask SMP

I get questions every week, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. I thought it might be fun to answer some of them from time to time. Versions of these questions were asked recently on the Canon FD list at Have you got a question? If so, email it to me. I can't acknowledge everything, nor can I answer everything, but I'd be glad to give your question a shot if I can.

Piles of Files

Q: What is a good, cost-effective system for shooting a lot of pictures?

An interesting question.

It depends largely on your feelings about two basic issues: how you want to share the work, plus how much of it you intend to keep and for how long.

By far the most cost-effective way to shoot a lot of pictures is digital, digital, digital. Digital has made learning how to photograph far more efficient than it's ever been before. Once you have the camera, computer, media, and a set of rechargeable batteries, as well as the various bells and whistles you'll inevitably waste your money on as you get set up, you can shoot to your heart's content for basically zero cost. That's assuming that you don't mind looking at your pictures on your computer monitor. (On a calibrated monitor with a decent iimage-processing program, I think it's actually a rather nice way to look at pictures.)

Legend has it that Cartier-Bresson shot two rolls of film every day before breakfast. Bill Jay tells a story of the great Czech photographer Josef Koudelka visiting him at his cabin out West. Bill was amazed to see Koudelka wandering around one morning taking pictures of woodpiles and trees. Questioning Koudelka about it, Bill said he thought this was about as far from Koudelka's usual subject matter as it was possible to get. Koudelka answered that he had to practice to stay in shape, or words to that effect.

If you can shoot the equivalent of two rolls a day (72 pictures) with a digicam, you will improve as a photographer more rapidly than you can any other way. The immediate feedback and absence of processing chores will both contribute to allowing this to happen. All you really need in addition to discipline is awareness you have to think about what you're shooting and somehow evaluate the results.

The downside of this way of working is twofold. First, when you inevitably get that elusive fantastic picture the one you'll dearly wish you had on medium-format film all you'll have of it is a digital file. That may or may not be good enough for you, depending on what camera you could afford. Second, no photographer in the history of the medium has been thoroughly organized, and this goes double for most digital photographers, whose hard drives are littered with "piles of files" in various states of identification and editing. By encouraging more shooting, digital invites indiscipline in filing and categorizing.

Technically, digital files should last forever. Practically, they're not very archival storage media come and go, and keeping files updated in format is not very practical if you have tens of thousands of files and need to put everything into a different form every five or ten years. But then, most color film is not very archival either. Take a risk! Live a little!

The downsides seem a small price to pay. If you want to learn, shoot a lot; and if you want to shoot a lot, go digital.

The indefatigable Darius Kinsey, of Sedro Woolley, Washington.
View cameras may yield the best results, but if you want to take a lot of
pictures at low cost and learn photography in the most efficient way possible,
go with digital.

The Gray Market

Q: While looking at a supplier's website (B&H Photo), I see "USA" and "import" markings on many product descriptions. The import is significantly cheaper in most cases. What's the difference?

"Import" is B&H-speak for gray market. (As far as I'm aware, most cameras made in Japan do have to be "imported" here. )

Gray market means that the vendor has not gotten the items through approved channels. Most photo equipment comes in through the factory authorized distributor, who resells it to retailers. This increases the cost, but the official importer also provide important things like sales information, customer support, and warrantee fulfillment. If you buy a gray market camera and it breaks, for example, you're on the hook for repairs the authorized importer here isn't responsible for the warrantee.

Most big discount stores handle this by offering a "store warrantee" for gray market items. So what's a store warrantee? Well, when I bought a converted loft condo in Chicago, the contractor, who was big and bluff and a fast talker, went around telling all us new tenants we had a "five-year warrantee" on the building's roof. Good thing, because during the hard Spring rains that year, the roof leaked into the hallway. We notified the contractor. Rained again. Leaked again. Called contractor again. This went on for a few weeks until people started to get surly. Then one day the contractor came by, expansively assuring everybody that this was the day he was going to get the roof fixed.

I lived on the top floor, and little while later, I heard some footfalls up on the roof. Just out of curiosity, I went up there to take a look and there was the contractor himself, on all fours, in the rain, hurriedly slathering tar on the roof with a trowel.

That's a "store warrantee."

So how are retailers able to buy items overseas, ship it here themselves, and sell it for less cost? Because the manufacturers price their goods according to the market it's going to be sold in, and some markets won't pay as much as we will. Americans and Europeans have more money, hence Americans and Europeans pay more.

Some official importers are pretty militant about gray market. Mamiya, for instance, charges an arm and a leg for its cameras here compared to what you can get them for overseas. But it absolutely will not allow gray market importing. Not only does it forbid its U.S. retailers to parallel-import (which it does by threatening to yank the company's authorized-dealer status), but it's rumored that U.S. Customs are authorized to seize new cameras sent to the U.S. from abroad even when they appear to be going from one individual to another!

So if official importers feel so strongly about the gray market (and they do), how does B&H get away with offering so many "Import" items? Simple. When you sell such a huge percentage of all the photo-related equipment sold in the U.S. each year, you are a very big fish, and, for the most part, get to write your own rules. It would be catastrophic for most manufacturers to "penalize" B&H by pulling its authorized dealer status. In B&H's favor, it must be said that they were "forced" into offering "import" versions of popular items by smaller, less scrupulous discounters who were gray-market importing without being up-front about it and undercutting B&H's prices.

Incidentally, it's worth mentioning that in a few cases, overseas versions of certain cameras may in fact have different features. The reason is that these features, while fine for the rest of the world, violate stricter U.S. patent laws.

Will This Camera Last 30 Years?

Q: I have a Canon T-90. I know it can be difficult to find accessories for discontinued cameras, but I'm much more concerned about lack of support (and parts) for the camera itself. I can't live without a shutter.

Take this with a grain of salt if you like, but my experience in dealing with hobbyist photographers for 15 years is that this concern, though very common, is largely unwarranted. For the most part, independent repair people can fix most anything that goes wrong with a camera. When cameras get old enough that critical parts are failing and new parts just don't exist, they're also old enough so that "parts cameras" junkers are becoming more common, and parts can be harvested from those.

The above may be more true of mechanical cameras than electronic ones.

Another consideration is that 99.8% of photographers just aren't going to be using the same cameras for more than 30 years, so worrying about whether it will last longer than that is unnecessary. Fact is, most of us get our heads turned by something newer before we get anywhere close to 30 years on the old one. This may be somewhat less true of people who like older cameras, but the principle still holds.

Years ago I had a friend who had an early Honda Prelude. When he got it, he decided, just for fun, that he would do whatever was necessary to keep it in tip-top shape, so right from the time it was new he took it in for servicing three times a year whether it needed it or not. By the time I knew him the car was 14 years old and creeping up on 500,000 miles, his Honda mechanic had become a friend, and his thrice-yearly visits were costing an average of $500 each, or $1500 a year. He said that he occasionally considered getting a new car, which he could easily afford, but then, he told me, he'd think, "Why should I? This one runs perfectly, it's paid for, it's comfortable, and I couldn't get a new car this good for anything like $1500 a year. Insurance is low, and if I crash it or it's stolen I won't have lost much. I hadn't intended to keep it for this long, but now I think I'll just keep going and see what happens."

If we were really serious about keeping our cameras long-term, we'd do what most traditional pros used to do: strike up a relationship with a good repairman and send the camera in for servicing every year, whether it needs it or not.

Mike Johnston

Got a question? Ask SMP.

Visit Mike Johnston's web site at

Mike Johnston writes and publishes an old-fashioned, entertaining quarterly ink-on-paper newsletter called The 37th Frame ( He has a B.F.A. in Photography from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., where he was a student of the late Steve Szabo and of Joe Cameron.

He was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine from 1988 to 1994 and Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine from 1994-2000, where his editorial column "The 37th Frame" was a popular feature and where he presented, among other things, a set of three articles on "bokeh" by John Kennerdell, Oren Grad, and Harold Merklinger that were subsequently widely discussed among photographers.

His critical and technical writings have appeared in various publications and newsletters such as The Washington Review and D-Max. A number of his articles written under the pseudonym "L. T. Gray" (el Tigre) appeared in the English magazine Darkroom User.

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