Right at the moment, the Most Interesting Camera in the World is clearly the Sony RX-1. It’s started to hit the streets; for example, check out some early pix from Duncan Davidson. They’re good! The concept is brilliant, and I salute The Most [well, only] Interesting Part of Sony for it. But I probably wouldn’t get one even at a less-stupidly-high price.
Here’s what I think the ideal combo is: One modern interchangeable-lens camera whose sensor can deal with darkness, most of the time equipped with a difficult opinionated prime lens. Also, one high-quality pocket camera with a reasonably big reasonably fast zoom and a sensor that’s only moderately afraid of the dark.
Classes of Photographic Tool · There are two ways I think about lens/camera combination, and I think I’m fairly mainstream. Some combos have a strong personality and an opinion about what kind of pictures you should take. Others are useful multi-purpose tools that just get out of the way.
Obviously, a modern SLR or micro-four-thirds or Fujifilm system can swing either way on this scale. For example, my big camera is a Pentax K-5 (just the original, not the II or IIs). By any sane objective measure, the best lens I own is the Pentax F2.8 50-135; brutally sharp and amazingly quick autofocus, a useful range of focal lengths, and weatherproof.
On the other hand, it’s big and a really irritating hipthumper. When I’m going to shoot my kid’s sports playoffs or graduation ceremonies, this is the one. But it’s heavy and you have to zoom before you shoot, which slows you down. Also, it glories in its neutrality.
Difficult Primes · The nice thing about cameras that irritatingly don’t fit in your pocket is that they have big sensors that don’t need too many photons, and you can change lenses. In particular, you can put on difficult prime lenses that, while do magic, don’t do depth-of-field or don’t do close-ups or whatever. These tend to have opinions about the kind of photo you should take. And are also moderate in size; easier than any big zoom to strap over your shoulder and forget. They make for pictures that aren’t boring.
The Arsenal · Bearing all that in mind, I carry a good pocket camera with a good zoom (the Canon Powershot S series). I leave the big Pentax 50-135 at home most times, and go out with an opinionated prime lens on the K5, and the ultra-versatile Canon in my pocket.
The Canon can do this:
I leaned over the edge of a boardwalk, pushed the lens out pretty far, and let it take its best guess on aperture and shutter speed and all that stuff, and sure enough, it was mostly right.
The Pentax with a prime can do this:
My colleague Mike West (does that man have beautiful ears or what?) in a dimly-lit bar in Belgium, captured with the wonderful Sigma 30mm f1.4, which with a modern high-sensitivity camera lets you shoot more or less anywhere as long as you pay very careful attention to your focal plane.
I had an even better example and it breaks my heart that I can’t show you: three girls, average age 9, illuminated by the Hanukkah candles they’re lighting. They’re heart-clenchingly lovely even if not in 100%-perfect focus; but you just can’t go putting pictures of your friends’ little girls on the Net.
When I Need a Zoom · The ones built into good high-end pocket cams do at least 80% of what I want. So save your big camera for prime-lens fun, unless you’re shooting a wedding or the NFL or some other set-piece.
Sony · Yes, they’re building the world’s most interesting cameras. But the most interesting camera they’re building isn’t the RX-1 but the RX-100. It does almost exactly what my wonderful little Canons do, only with more pixels and better low-light performance, and includes a very decent zoom. I’m actually thinking my next purchase will be the RX-101 or whatever its follow-on is, because there are some problems that seem very fixable.
Another way of putting it is: If you really need a zoom lens, why not get one that has a pretty good camera built-in?
And having said all that, the RX-1 is by all accounts totally a work of art, and hey, why don’t lots of you go buy one to encourage Sony to go on Doing The Right Thing?