I've been thinking about Lee's post "Photography gear that hasn't changed my life" for about six months. It, and the blog post from Thom Hogan and Mike Johnston that he references in it, have had me looking back at my own history and trying to pick out the important parts. This has been part of an overall shift in how I think about the equipment used in photography.
Learning is a process, so it is hard to call anything "a mistake". But really, what's the point of hindsight if I can't skip some steps? And, in the spirit of Mike Johnston's Camera Profligacy message – wait longer – I've had to think about what I should have been waiting for.
The biggest purchase that didn't improve my photography would be my Panasonic GH1 system. It's not so much that the GH1 was/is a bad camera, but it wasn’t worth the time and money that it took away from my bigger D700. Looking back I would say that I was still conceptually invested in the idea of the 4/3 sensor from my Olympus 4/3 days, and wasn't willing to give up on all of the energy and identity that I'd invested in being a camera-forum underdog. Plus the idea of a new system is exciting, and can still be hard to resist.
What the GH1 did do was prove that I like a smaller camera, both for day-to-day use and when travelling. But despite taking the Panasonic on several adventures, I have few personally significant photos from it. Then as now, when I plan on 'serious' photography, I'm willing to carry the bigger SLR system; a smaller do-everything camera is relegated to snapshots and impromptu or incidental occasions.
The list of things that haven't improved my photography should also include my film cameras. I enjoy them, and am glad I have them, but I don't use them enough for them to be important as individual machines. The experience of shooting film has made me a better photographer – I didn't take photos before digital cameras came along – but that experience is independent of any specific camera. My first film camera was a Yashica GSN, bought for $40, and everything that followed was the pursuit of More/Better.
The Nikon F5, Zeiss Ikon rangefinder, and Fuji GX680iii technical rollfilm camera are all ways of knowing that I own some of the very best film cameras ever made. They help moderate me when I feel like I need whatever digital machine is the latest and greatest. I go back to them from time to time, but less so now that I have my current generation of digital cameras; we’ll see if their allure returns now that my D800 is about to be discontinued.
I'm not going to list my three-lens Nikon 1 V1 system as a mistake, although it does stagger me to think that I spent as much money to buy it as I sold my two-lens Hasselblad 500 system for. I actually count it as the camera I should have waited for instead of getting caught up in the early Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Format excitement with the GH1. It's not that the V1's images are any better than the GH1, but it's a smaller camera and it plays well with my real Nikon system.
The V1 isn't good enough to by anything more than a third-tier backstop do-everything camera, but that turns out to be how I use mirrorless cameras anyway. I'm not looking for something like the current generation of high-end MILFs that can be used as a primary system – I own a D800, which remains unmatched. And my personal preference for small size and excellent quality is best answered by large-sensored compact cameras, which is what I'm waiting for next.
I already own two excellent compact cameras with 1.5x sensors and prime lenses, and both are mature designs. They have improved my photography almost to the point of being transformative, and have taught me to not settle for poor camera design. It's just a matter of time before their zoom-lensed cousins with 1" sensors become established and refined enough to replace mirrorless systems as my do-everything-else machines. It's just a matter of time, so that's what I'm waiting for next.