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Interview with Thom Hogan


Thom Hogan is the writer and photographer behind bythom.com, a website that provides extensive information about Nikon gear. He has written over 30 books on computers and photography.

PetaPixel: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Thom Hogan: I’ve always had a weird half-and-half personality: half science/technology, half art. To some degree, that may have been what led me into an undergraduate degree in telecommunications (filmmaking and television production). It let me play with technology and art simultaneously ;~). But I’ve always taken a circuitous route to where I’m going. I went from architecture to music to filmmaking to television to statistics to management to Silicon Valley, with stops at many magazines along the way. The only thing that was constant was that I wrote about what I was doing and what I knew, I taught it to others, and I often photographed alongside that writing. When I dumped my high tech career in the 90’s to run Backpacker magazine, it was the start of emphasizing just those two constants: writing and photography. When I decided to leave Backpacker and Rodale, it happened to coincide with the mass migration from film to digital in photography, and my long tech career, which included designing some early digital cameras, suddenly came back into play.

PP: How did you first get into photography?

TH: My first camera was one of the Kodak Brownies, though I often snuck my mom’s Nikkomat FTN out of the house when she wasn’t looking. I probably got into photography because my mom was in one of her tinkering stages, and photography and filming (8mm) were what she was tinkering with then (she’s now a painter, sculptor, and jewelry maker, though she still has the Nikkomat). Being the curious kid I was, I basically devoured anything she brought home, whether it be a chemistry text book or an 8mm film camera.

PP: What equipment do you use the most these days?

TH: I’m not a mainstream photographer. By that, I mean that I don’t make my primary living off of my images (though they play a part in it). I don’t have to sell a photo tomorrow to buy breakfast (at least not yet, but you never know with this economy). Though if I did sell one, I could afford an extra cinnamon roll. Thus, the equipment I use these days tends to reflect whichever project I’m interested in or working on at the time. For the Africa project I’m working on, that’s been D200 and now D300 bodies with the usual safari glass. For some of the local groups I work with, it’s usually the D3s due to inclement lighting conditions. For the photography I’m most known for,–wild and remote landscapes–it’s either the D3x or the E-P2 depending upon how far I have to go and how many mountains I’ll be climbing along the way.

PP: Why Nikon?

TH: Despite what people think, I’m not “loyal” to Nikon. I happened to start on a Nikon SLR, accumulated some lenses, and now have a collection of them. When I started writing about photography and photography equipment in the 90’s, my publisher at the time took me aside and showed me the numbers. Nikon users bought books, Canon users didn’t. Even if a Canon model outsold an equivalent Nikon model by a large margin, a book on the Nikon model would sell more copies. I’m not stupid. If I’m going to spend X hours learning, documenting, and teasing out everything there is to know about a product, I’m going to pick the one that has the most potential return. So my “support” of Nikon via my Web site has basically grown from that. Nikon users want to know more about their equipment, it seems. I’ve been happy to provide that.

PP: How much email do you receive from your readers?

TH: A lot, and it varies. If I write something controversial or that contradicts things that people may have heard elsewhere, I’ll get hundreds of emails in my In Box within hours. The VR article is a good example of that. When I open up (complex) surveys on my site to ask readers questions, I’ll get nearly 10,000 answers within the work week. I get a lot of feedback, constantly.

PP: What’s the most common question you receive, and what’s the answer to that question?

TH: The most common question is always a variation on the “what should I buy” question. When phrased vaguely (“should I buy a Canon or Nikon?”) you’ll get short answers from me that basically say “the one you like.” If the question is well considered, has plenty of supporting material, and I can tell what kind of photographer that person is, then I’ll probably tackle a more considered answer.

But this plays into something I’ve been writing a lot about lately: we’re in this “auto everything” mode these days. People want auto exposure, auto ISO, auto focus, auto white balance, auto everything. They don’t want to make decisions, partly because they’re now confronted with too many of them. This carries over into their buying. They want “auto buying” too. I actually had someone argue with me and say “just tell me what to buy, dammit.” It’s hard not to answer that with “a small wooden building in the middle of North Dakota with no physical connection to the rest of the world, then move there.”

I understand that people are confused about many things in digital photography, there’s a lot to learn. Well considered questions get answered. But the closer you get to “just tell me what to do” the more likely it is that I can’t answer your question, because you don’t know what you want to do.

PP: Do you communicate or work with Nikon at all?

TH: Yes, with some regularity. But it’s an odd relationship. As one Nikon employee wrote me recently only partly in jest: “I’ve heard your name used in vain once or twice, I may have said it myself!”

A lot of people think I’m a Nikon fan boy. I’m not. If you read what I write, you’ll find that I’m often (and sometimes scathingly) critical of Nikon and some of their product or policy decisions. Yes, I’m a perfectionist at heart. And Nikon is a long way from perfect. For instance, despite asking for over eight years now, no one at Nikon will put me on their press release list (I’m on Canon’s and Olympus’s, for example). Some other people think that I have an official relationship with Nikon. Other than being a member of NPS like most other pros who shoot Nikon equipment, I have no formal relationship with them. I’ve never received loaner or review equipment from them. They’ve used a quote or two from me or my Web site, with my permission, but given the way they used those quotes I couldn’t have stopped them, it would have been well within the Fair Use clauses of the Copyright Act.

However, I know a number of people at NikonUSA and at Nikon Japan, and I communicate with them on something between a sporadic and regular basis. There are a couple of issues I’ve been communicating with them on recently, for instance.

Finally, at my own expense and at my own initiation, in March of this year I made a presentation in Japan to key members of Nikon’s marketing and R&D staff. I shared with them a much more detailed version of my Camera Redefined idea.

PP: How would you describe your photography to someone who has never seen it?

TH: Almost no one has ever seen it! ;~) Most of my best images have not been circulated in any way. There are reasons for that. Images have half lives and styles get copied, so an image is worth the most when it first appears. If you want to maximize the value of the image, you need to maximize your marketing and sales of it the day it first appears in public. Since I do not rely on my photography to live off of, and I’ve created demand for me as a writer and a teacher, I spend most of my time doing those things, not marketing my images. Some day I may change that. And people will be surprised. My style tends to be fairly extreme, both in composition and in post processing. Photos are not reality. My photos don’t look like reality. They look like what I experienced.

PP: How long does it take you to review a camera or lens?

TH: Too long. Since I’ve been doing this a long time now, I can form quick impressions of things within hours, sometimes within minutes. But I never write about something until I’m comfortable that I’ve really put it through the paces and fully understand what it does, how it does it, and how that differs from other things. That requires carrying the equipment into the field and shooting with it, sometimes for long periods of time. My 200-400mm review took me five years.

PP: How often and how much do shoot?

TH: Most of the time, I’m actively shooting about half the year. Sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more. Shooting goes in batches though. I might shoot for six weeks straight, then not for another month, then shoot for several weeks, then not for a month, and so on.

PP: Is there anything on your wish list?

TH: Yes: programmable, modular, communicating cameras.

PP: If you could start your website over again, is there anything you would do differently?

TH: Not really. But my Web site started back in the 90’s, so nobody was thinking of running sites from databases, or doing fancy things, let alone AJAX, etc. Heck, when I started, no one wanted images on sites because it took too long to load. Unlike a lot of media, the Web has grown and changed over time, so you grow and change with it. I’ve been behind the curve on that, but I still see the curve.

PP: Do you communicate with the people behind other Nikon or Canon review websites at all?

TH: Yes. We talk a lot amongst ourselves.

PP: What is the biggest mistake you see people making these days when it comes to buying cameras or lenses?

TH: Thinking that the camera or lens solves their problem. When I was finishing up high school I used to shoot for a paper, and the head of photography used to repeatedly teach me the same lesson: he’d send me out on assignments with the wrong equipment on purpose. So he’d send me out to cover a track meet with a TLR (when you look down into the viewfinder of a TLR, items that are moving left to right in front of you appear to move right to left in the viewfinder; try following action with that). Basically he taught me to shoot with what’s in the bag. Or as Chase Jarvis likes to say these days: the best camera is the one you have with you. A Ferrari doesn’t make you a faster, better driver. You’re more likely to crash and burn if you’re not ready for a Ferrari when you first step into one. The Ferrari doesn’t solve your driving issues. It will absolutely and positively reveal them for all to see.

PP: What are some of your favorite photography-related websites?

TH: I read feeds off so many it would be difficult to say. And Web sites by people like me (e.g. No big staff and budget) tend to go through strong and weak phases.

PP: Who is one person you would recommend for a PetaPixel interview?

TH: Chas Glazer.

PP: Anything else you would like to say to PetaPixel readers?

TH: Too many people spend too much time wondering what the camera is doing for you (or the next camera will do for you) and not enough time pondering what their image is doing on the wall. Ultimately, it’s all about the image, not the equipment.