That’s “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” to the unconverted. You laugh? Well, I’m not laughing any more. This sub-species of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is no less serious for those in its grip than Social Media addiction or any other way in which the internet is used to lure us into obsessive behaviour – usually an obsession with stuff. ‘Stuff’ is our derogatory term for all those possessions we take such pleasure buying on the internet. It is what fills the endless streams of heavy goods vehicles jamming up the slow lanes on the motorways of Europe, and which I wrote about in “Wales to Iceland by Sea” (see archives.)
Today is a new month. I gave myself until the end of January to decide what lens I would take to Scotland in May. By a strange co-incidence events have conspired to pretty much force me to hit the target, but first let’s get back to ‘stuff’.
How can I possible describe as ‘stuff’ a thing of such exquisite technical perfection as one of Canon’s super-telephoto lenses? These are objects of beauty which create beauty and have as close to permanent value as any piece of engineering. The trill of capturing an elusive image in crystal clarity with a new fast lens is as good as a drug hit.
Yes, but that is exactly what Canon want us to feel. The big five Japanese camera makers – Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony and Olympus are huge global corporations. To get a measure of this, here’s a statistic: last year Canon announced a new record in the sales of their EOS series cameras. The acronym stands for “Electro-Optical System”, a term now obsolete. They had sold their eightieth million EOS camera! With prices up to £4000, that’s big sales in anyone’s estimation, and that doesn’t include lenses which can go up to £12000.
Let’s look at how an obsession with these objects is created and nurtured. The first thing to say is that every advance in technical wizardry is capable of making a noticeable improvement in the final image. The Mark II version gives a bigger adrenalin hit than the Mark I and the Marks III and IV bigger again. There is of course a steep price hike at each stage. The internet is rife with photo sites reviewing every new model, and comparison sites full of technical details that have to be mastered before you can understand just how much better Mark II is to Mark I. I love this learning process, even though it’s rife with jargon – a language of acronyms. This is what I said to my friend Will, who shares this obsession:
“I’ve got something to show you. It’s the 300 f2.8 IS.” Note the use of “the”. It’s not ‘a’ Canon 300mm lens, but “the 300.” He knew immediately what I was talking about. It’s the dialect photo freaks use, and I strongly suspect it is a male thing. It’s part of the urge to classify which has been identified (eg by Ali G’s cousin Simon Baron Cohen) as showing up strongly on the male side of the autism spectrum. (Put ‘male’ in inverted commas if you prefer.)
In the days when, if you were a pro or semi-pro photographer, you had to depend on your local camera shop to get your gear, it was difficult and time consuming to keep up with what the manufacturers are doing. Now, as soon as you start looking for things on the net, they pop up everywhere. When I open a news site to check what’s going on in the world, I am bombarded with advertisements for enticing new lenses. Big Data has gobbled up my preferences and is there to ‘help’ me buy exactly what I ‘want’.
So that’s the background to my GAS. On the whole I’ve got great pleasure from buying, selling and updating my gear, but this month has been bad. A nasty combination of seemingly endless rain and cold outside, with a lack of physical work which can be done indoors, has led to me spending far more time than is good for me in searching the net. I’m good at internet searches, and can usually find what I’m looking for in less than a minute – another male thing? Part of the thrill of buying a new lens is in doing comparison tests against other lenses, in this case comparing the 300 f2.8 IS USM with the 100-400 f4.5-5.6.IS USM II. Note how the jargon trips off the keyboard! ‘USM’ stands for ‘Ultra Silent Motor’, the motor being the one which drives the auto-focus. I’ve never been able to hear lens motors anyway so that doesn’t mean much to me, but it might to the creature I’m photographing. ‘IS’ means ‘Image Stabilisation’ and it’s important. The big off-white Canon telephoto lenses were made in a zero series without IS, then an IS series with two-stop stabilisation, and lastly a Mark II series with four stop stabilisation. This means that the Mark II series can take pictures at a much slower shutter speed without getting motion blur. Bear with me – this is all part of the obsession!
I need to remind myself of what I was trying to achieve: to get good pictures of eagles in Scotland without risking a hefty fine and disgrace by disturbing them at a nest site: a worthy ambition I still think. I enjoyed the process of testing the new lens, but reluctantly came to the conclusion that there was little improvement on what I could achieve with my existing lens. I decided to sell it and before putting it on Ebay where I would lose 10% in fees, I took it to Carmarthen Cameras, and spent an hour with their buyer, Mark, who taught me a whole lot more about lenses. It needed ‘calibrating’ and servicing, a process which should include replacing the mount with its worn rubber seal. I left it to him to send to Canon for a quote. Meanwhile my searching for the ideal lens went on, and began to home in on one – something really special which is only being made in small numbers and is horribly expensive: the 400 f4 DO IS II.
The DO stands for ‘diffractive optics’ a new way of making lenses which improves quality AND reduces the size and weight. With this lens and a x2 converter I could have an 800 focal length, four stop stabilisation and easy portability: it weighs little more than my current lens. Price? New in Britain £6700. Second hand? Very few available here and around £5000. In America and Japan they are cheaper, but subject to customs and changing exchange rates. The problem is I could just about scrape together enough accessible capital to buy one, but could that in any way be justified?
Yesterday I went to Carmarthen to pick up the 300 lens. It had been sent straight back with a standard covering letter saying they can no longer obtain parts for it. There was just a chance that, now that I had learnt how to calibrate lenses, I could get that bit of extra sharpness at a distance. Calibrating is a fine-tuning of the auto focus so that what is at maximum sharpness coincides exactly with what you are focusing on. Sure enough the lens was slightly out, and with heart in mouth I did some more careful comparison tests with the 100-400. No appreciable difference. The lens would have to go. It was back to the haloed 400 DO, and no end in sight to the OCD.
No! It’s a new month and a new resolution. How could I justify using up all my available capital? What about holidays/ emergencies? No, today my goal is to continue to improve my field craft skills. I have the gear I need already.