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Jewish World ReviewOct. 1, 1999 /21 Tishrei, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Photography and economics -- PHOTOGRAPHY TAUGHT ME my first lessons in economics, a decade before I studied under Milton Friedman. There is no free lunch in photography.

Films that require very little light do not produce as high quality pictures as films that require a lot of light. Small 35mm cameras that are easy to use cannot produce as impressive pictures as large and cumbersome view cameras. Lenses that let in a lot of light are not usually as sharp as lenses that don't.

Photography is one trade-off after another, not only in buying equipment, but also in taking the pictures themselves. Like economics, photography not only makes you aware of trade-offs, it also enables you to get more bang for the buck as a result.

If you know what kinds of pictures you want, you can get the photographic equipment you need at a fraction of what you might pay otherwise. A friend of mine recently bought a Speed Graphic for less than $400 -- and it can take pictures that will produce bigger and sharper enlargements than much costlier cameras.

Why? Because the last Speed Graphic was manufactured in 1973, so this is a used camera. It was once the overwhelming choice of press photographers across the country, until it was suddenly rendered obsolete by the appearance of smaller and handier cameras that could do the same job. This means there are lots of Speed Graphics around that are more than 25 years old, but which have not actually been used for 25 years. Many are in great condition.

While the smaller cameras now used by newspaper and magazine photographers produce good pictures at the relatively small sizes used in newspapers and magazines, they are still not as good as a Speed Graphic for making the kinds of big enlargements that photographic hobbyists like to hang on their living room walls.

One of my favorite lenses was inexpensive because it was already obsolete when I bought it and inadequate for the job it was designed to do -- which was taking pictures on a huge camera using sheets of film that are 8x10 inches each. Fortunately, my camera was only 4x5 and the lens covered that area fine, even though it would get fuzzy around the edges of an 8x10 film.

Like economics, photography also teaches the important lesson of diminishing returns. While you have to pay a substantial amount to get a high quality camera, spending ten times as much will not get you ten times better results. Sometimes it may not get you any better pictures at all in most cases, but simply allows you to take pictures in more difficult situations -- which may or may not be situations that matter for the kinds of pictures you want.

For example, one manufacturer of view cameras makes several models, the most expensive of which costs six times the price of the cheapest. If you took a picture of Yosemite Valley with their top camera and their cheapest, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the two pictures with a magnifying glass. On the other hand, if you were taking architectural pictures indoors in tight quarters, there would be pictures you could take with the top model that you couldn't take at all with the cheapest model.

View cameras are the kinds of cameras used by Matthew Brady to take pictures during the Civil War. They have big bellows and you put a black cloth over your head to look into the back of the camera to focus. However, a German manufacturer has produced a view camera that folds up small enough to fit into an attache case. It cost $5,000 or more. Convenience is very expensive.

If you have no need to carry a view camera in your attache case, you can get the same photographic results for a fraction of that price. For some kinds of pictures, you can get better results with a Speed Graphic.

Photography also illustrates what economists discovered somewhat late in history -- the enormous value of knowledge. Someone with big bucks can afford some very expensive photographic equipment that may not produce as good results as cheaper equipment bought by someone knowledgeable.

Economists call such valuable knowledge human capital. Many countries with rich natural resources (like Mexico) are poor because they lack human capital, while other countries with poor natural resources (like Japan) have some of the highest standards of living in the world because they have lots of human capital. Experienced photographers should not find that hard to understand, even if they never took a course in economics.

Incidentally, human capital is not always acquired in school, any more than a knowledge of photography is.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate