Herewith some reportage on the most interesting cameras in the world, with opinions to provoke er entertain people who are up on this stuff, and a basic survey of the landscape for people who like pictures and wonder about cameras.
[Update]: The same day I wrote this, DPReview ran a nice piece on shooting Seattle cherry blossoms with a bunch of different cameras, including a few of the types, and individual cameras, discussed here. Check it out.
I’m an enthusiast photog (not remotely pro) and I’ve noticed, over the years, when I write generally about what’s up with cameras, I get notes from people saying “thanks, that was interesting”. I think I may have sold a few cameras over the years, even.
Conclusions first · Let’s see if we can start some arguments.
The most interesting cameras in the world right now are the new digital “medium formats”: Fujifilm GFX 50S, Pentax 645Z, and Hasselblad X1D. Here’s a comparo. But they’re expensive and you almost certainly don’t need one unless you’re a pro.
The next most interesting cameras in the world are the ones in mobile phones. They’re excellent for most things, but don’t obsolete “real” cameras just yet.
All modern cameras take great pictures. The most important differences between them are ergonomic: How quickly and easily you can get the shot, especially when conditions are bad.
There are reasons to think that the “APS-C” and “full-frame” sensors are the big winners going forward; the price of being smaller, and the cost of being larger, are both too high.
I think the SLR is probably doomed; mirrorless cameras have too many advantages.
Picture break! The theme is spring.
Camera taxonomy · You can sort cameras into two baskets; by how big their sensor is, and by their physical configuration. For sensors, bigger is better; sizes that are relevant today, small to large, are:
1/2.3" (7.7mm diagonal, more or less); this is what good modern phone-cams have.
Micro Four Thirds (~21.5mm diagonal); what the mirrorless cameras from Olympus and Panasonic have.
APS-C (~28mm); what most “ordinary” DSLRs, and the Fujifilm/Sony mirrorlesses, have.
Full Frame (~43mm); what’s in the Canon, Nikon, and Sony flagships.
Medium Format (~55mm); also called 645, A.K.A. really freaking big. This is what the “most interesting cameras” at #1 in the first list above use; interesting because they have these sensors in bodies, and at price points, that are not totally out of reach.
There’s a pretty good write-up on all these size trade-offs at Camera sensor size: Why does it matter and exactly how big are they? But it’s from 2013 and doesn’t include Medium Format.
As for configurations, three are interesting these days.
Mobile phone; it fits in your pocket and you shoot by tapping on the screen.
SLR; the most “traditional” shape, with a lump on the top, and you look out through the front lens with the help of prisms and mirrors.
Mirrorless; you look at an electronic reproduction of what the camera sensor is seeing, either through a viewfinder or a screen on the back of the camera. Those “most interesting” medium format cameras are interesting partly because two of them are mirrorless; the Pentax is the only SLR.
Time for another picture break!
How big a sensor do you need? · The little ones in your phone can take great pictures; why would you want more? Two big reasons: A bigger sensor makes it easier to get that nice effect where your subject is sharp and the background is fuzzy (see the sharp fuzzball below). Second, if you have more pixels you can blow your picture up bigger, for example to print and hang on a wall.
The first argument is good, but the second is weak. Because most of us, these days, share and enjoy pictures on screens, and only on screens. That blossoms-and-sky pic at the top came out of my Google Pixel and, after cropping, is 2764×3375. My 15" Retina MacBook Pro only has 1200 pixels of vertical resolution. So I already can’t display all the pixels from my Pixel.
So, it’s surprising how big you can go. But still… last time I was in Vegas I went wandering and ended up at Rodney Lough’s gallery, full of room-size blow-ups; I found many of them overwrought and overproduced, but wow, the impact is not to be denied. He’s still using 4×5" and 8×10" film cameras, but I bet those medium-format puppies at #1 above could do the trick.
Realistically though, are you going to want to work with pictures wider than you are tall?
So what really matters? · For most practical purposes, your phonecam will meet your photographic needs. Which is to say, the quality of your pictures will depend mostly on your ability to see the opportunities.
Things your phone still can’t do: Take pictures of things that are a long way away; capture the classic portrait look (but Apple’s working on that); shoot in the dark (but late last year I managed to capture actual moonbeams with my Pixel); have fun with different kind of lenses; take pictures in a rainstorm. Or (most important) let you take control of your photographs.
So given that any modern camera can do all the things that your phone can’t, and produce beautiful pictures, what are the difference that matter?
It turns out that the camera companies have (differing) opinions about how pictures should be taken, and ship opinionated cameras. Which is wonderful. Personally, I’m a Fujifilm fanboy, for exactly one reason: I like where the knobs and dials are, and how they work, and how things look through the viewfinder. I suppose I could get used to another maker’s opinion, but at the moment I’m pretty convinced that for me, the Fujifilm setup lets me shoot faster and focus sharper and light-compensate better.
There are lots of people who are going to find themselves in better tune with the opinions of Nikon or Canon or Sony, and that’s just fine; although I have to confess that the few times I’ve tried out a recent Sony it felt like I was fighting against the controls, not working with them.
So, I’m gonna say, if you’re thinking about a camera, don’t waste time worrying about pixels or sensors or ISOs or, really, any specs at all. Borrow or rent a few different ones and take some damn pictures already; then you’ll know.
Focus on fun · I don’t get paid for taking picture (well, rarely) and you probably don’t either, so we should bear in mind that this is a recreational activity.
It’s a path I haven’t been down, but I suspect the cameras that win on the pure-fun metric are the fixed-lens mirrorless offerings, notably the Fuji XF-100 or Leica Q. These things are kind of expensive, but they have great lenses and great viewfinders and look cool and if you point them at pretty well anything and shoot, you’ll probably be happy. Photography should make you happy.