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.
After all, my little Canon S-series PowerShots take pictures good enough to be on the covers of theological treatises and be printed four feet tall.
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?
Comment feed for ongoing:
From: David Magda (Dec 12 2012, at 04:20)
A friend of mine just picked up a Fujifilm X-E1: it "only" has an APS-C (1.5x) crop sensor (like many dSLRs), but it does have interchangeable lenses. He currently has an f/1.4 35mm (~50mm) on it. There are both wider and longer primes available, as well as zooms.
Sony also has the NEX line: not full-frame, but still APS-C isn't bad, and with interchangeable lenses.
If one doesn't want to go with m4/3 (or P&S), then I think either the Fuji X-mount or Sony NEX-series would be a better place to go: both relatively compact and flexible.
From: Mike Kozlowski (Dec 12 2012, at 07:23)
I'm somewhat surprised to see that this entry ignores the biggest, most important sea change to come to cameras since the digital revolution -- connectivity.
If I want to use a legacy camera (such as, oh, basically every SLR out there and almost all of the P&S ones, too), then in order to get the picture to people, I need to:
0. Wait until I get back to a place suitable for using large electronics
1. Open the camera up, and pull the memory out of its guts.
2. Dig out my laptop and turn it on
3. Launch a program like Lightroom
4. Plug the extracted memory into a slot on the computer
5. Import the files from the memory into the computer itself
6. Process the files
7. Export them out to a sharing service like G+ or Flickr
Conversely, if I am using a modern Android-based camera (like the ones built into your phone, or presumably that Samsung Galaxy Camera), my steps are:
1. Process the files
2. Export them to a sharing service like G+ or Flickr
And yes, right now, most of the cameras that work this way are mediocre ones baked into phones. But it seems pretty obvious to me that even hobbyists are going to want to avoid the Rube Goldbergian contortions needed to process and share an image from a dumb camera, and that pretty much all cameras, even SLRs, will eventually come with Android and wireless networking built-in.
So my vote for Most Important Camera goes to that Galaxy Camera, which may not be a device anyone particularly wants right now, but which points the way to the future.
From: Blaine Cook (Dec 12 2012, at 08:49)
I love my new acquisition, the Olympus OM-D. There's some really nice MFT glass available these days, and the sensor on the OM-D cooperates for great colour and low-light photography:
From: David Orchard (Dec 12 2012, at 08:50)
Tim, I'm pretty happy with the rx-100. It does have a couple problems that aren't mentioned though. The low-light pictures are really yellowed. It still isn't quite good enough in low-light action shots, like birthday party with kids falling down bouncy castle.
From: Boris Mann (Dec 12 2012, at 12:24)
Sorry, I can't support Sony's completely proprietary format (from Memory Stick to lens connector formats).
And yes, Nikon and Canon aren't MUCH better.
That's why I love m4/3. I'd rather support a standard that lets more people play and have an ecosystem grow.
And yes, that extends to the operating system on cameras.
The m4/3 has proved to be a pretty awesome size & quality.
For pocketable, I'll stick with a smartphone (yeah, nowhere close to pocket cams, but the connectivity trumps quality in that case).
Olympus PEN Mini EPM-1, in the market for a prime lens for it.
From: Willie Abrams (Dec 12 2012, at 14:02)
The RX100 is a fantastic camera because its small, works great in full auto, manual or program modes, has very fast autofocus (by any measure except mid to high end DSLRs) and it has a far better movie mode than you'd expect from a camera its size. The lens is a great match. Some people may not realize it can use SDXC cards as well as the crap MemoryStick format.
I love mine.
From: Roland Tanglao (Dec 12 2012, at 16:55)
my ideal combination will be:
i) olympus om-d + 12-50mm zoom because both this body and lens are weather sealed so you can take it anywhere anytime!
(oh and don't forget an eye-fi card so yu can upload anywhere anytime automatically to Google+, flickr, facebook etc via wifi from your android or iOS phone or any phone with a mobile hotspot)
ii) nokia 808 cameraphone
By "will" I mean a year from now when i) will be $800 or less (current list $1300 but you can get it for $1000)
From: Roland Tanglao (Dec 12 2012, at 17:51)
@Boris: Panasonic 20mm F1.7 prime
Olympus 45mm prime!
I plan to have both soon and you will be able to test which one you like better!
From: ebenezer (Dec 13 2012, at 19:31)
@ Mr. Bray:
Sorry to again be mentioning categorization in a comment — this would be another good one to not publish. I think that this entry was probably meant to be filed under Cameras (Arts/Photos/Cameras) whereas it is now merely under Photos (Arts/Photos).
In any case, many thanks for writing this one; I have been waiting to hear from you on cameras again for some time. :)
From: ebenezer (Dec 13 2012, at 19:46)
I think you are at least partially right, in that connectivity is an important thing and we will be seeing it on more cameras in the future than we do now. Nevertheless I think that your assumption that the cameras of the future will be necessarily based on essentially well-equipped (photographically) smartphones is a little bit off.
I now think that as Mr. Bray says above, the most interesting and most worthy of attention out of all of the new cameras that have been coming up is the Sony RX100. What we are seeing here is a nearly pocketable camera using a full-frame sensor and in many other areas getting important things right. We are seeing what Mr. Bray wrote of a full five years ago — “a Nikon D3, only half the size” — slowly and by minuscule degrees being put together. It’s been five years, but a decade is not over: Given the kind of work that went into the RX100, and if we can have more people than Sony — and a continuing effort by the good people there that came up with it — going into this, it is still possible that we will see his 2007 prediction come true — that “you’ll be able to get something with the specs of the mighty D3 and it’ll fit in your pocket.”
What we now have in our smartphone cameras are (as others have mentioned) pale approximations of what a good pocket-size camera of today can do, but we have also what has been noted as “more computing power than all of NASA in 1969,” and we can have it in our pockets. Assuming continuing effort in this space we can reasonably expect to see, in the future, the enormous-by-comparison photographic machines of years ago reproduced in the highly-advantageous sizes that we are currently making use of with our phones.
From: Mark ST (Dec 17 2012, at 11:02)
From "I Am Not a Corporation" by James Hague:
In 2009, when I exclusively used a fancy Nikon DSLR, my photographic work flow was this: take pictures during the day, transfer them to a PC in the evening, fiddle with the raw version of each shot in an image editor, save out a full-res copy, make a smaller version and upload it to Flickr.
Once I started using an iPhone and the Hipstamatic app, my work flow was this: take a picture, immediately upload it to Flickr.
Pick any criteria for comparing the absolute quality of the Nikon vs the iPhone, and the Nikon wins every time: sharpness, resolution, low-light ability, you name it. It's not even close. And yet I'm willing to trade that for the simplicity and fun of using the iPhone.
That's because I'm not a professional photographer who gets paid to put up with the inconveniences that come with the higher-end equipment. If I can avoid daily image transfers, that's a win for me. If I don't have to tweak around with contrast settings and color curves, that's huge.
"Which Cameras?" will sound like "Which Rolex Watches?" in a few years.
From: Mark Nottingham (Jan 07 2013, at 04:04)
Those are indeed very, very interesting cameras, and you triggered a happily wasted hour of research and comparison on my part (thanks ;).
At the end, however, I was left just wanting a NOKTON 17.5mm f0.95 for my GF1 (or maybe a new GX1...).