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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. I think the SLR is prob­a­bly doomed; mir­ror­less cam­eras have too many ad­van­tages.

Pic­ture break! The theme is spring.

Spring blossoms

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. 1/2.3" (7.7mm di­ag­o­nal, more or less); this is what good mod­ern phone-cams have.

  2. Mi­cro Four Thirds (~21.5mm di­ag­o­nal); what the mir­ror­less cam­eras from Olym­pus and Pana­son­ic have.

  3. APS-C (~28m­m); what most “ordinary” DSLRs, and the Fu­ji­film/Sony mir­ror­less­es, have.

  4. Full Frame (~43m­m); what’s in the Canon, Nikon, and Sony flag­ship­s.

  5. 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.

  1. Mo­bile phone; it fits in your pock­et and you shoot by tap­ping on the screen.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

Sprint moss

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.

Al­so, on the wall of my liv­ing room I have a four-foot-tall print of a pho­to shot with an old-school pock­et cam (no longer rel­e­vant in the mobile-cam er­a) from an air­plane.

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?

Pic­ture break!

Left over from last fall

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.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Hank Barta (Apr 16 2017, at 14:59)

I wonder if the high pixel count found on modern smart phones count for anything considering the tiny optics. The difference in quality between images produced on my Nikon D50 and Nexus 5X is pretty obvious. (And favors the D50, of course.)


From: Josh Bloch (Apr 16 2017, at 18:12)

Just out of curiosity, why don't you mention micro 4/3 beyond including it on your list of formats? My son has one (an Olympus OM-D), and I find it quite impressive from an ergonomic perspective, as well a lens-availability perspective (some magnificent prime lenses, and a really impressive tele-zoom, all at reasonable prices).


From: Bryan (Apr 17 2017, at 00:20)

> 15" Reti­na MacBook Pro on­ly has 1200 pix­els of ver­ti­cal res­o­lu­tion

Typo? Think it's 1800.


From: Thomas Enebo (Apr 17 2017, at 07:05)

I will just add m43 has been a compelling format because the glass you put on it is smaller but still capable of taking great pictures. I can walk with 200-400mm equivalent telephoto and hand shoot birds a long ways away (thanks also to image stabilization). I cannot imagine doing that with larger format cameras.


From: Elliotte Rusty Harold (Apr 22 2017, at 10:48)

People have been singing the praises of mirrorless cameras for years, but they still have a poor selection of lenses that cover only a few focal lengths and use cases. They're not close to adequate for nature photography.


From: Ric Hayman (Apr 22 2017, at 11:57)

Re: nature photography with mirrorless cameras - check out Chuq von Rospach's experience with Fuji XT1 and XT2 over the last couple of years (start with his bird photography here:, then search the rest of the site for gear teardown). He's pulling good photos with (IIRC) 55-200mm and 2x converter for 400mm max.


From: Trecento (May 23 2017, at 06:33)

Hi Tim,

I think I would add that an important benefit that large sensor cameras bring is the ability to bring up or pull down exposure when working from a raw file. But that's a hard point to work with without a set of examples.

I disagree a little bit about megapixels, though. 4k and soon 8k displays are capable of displaying 8 and 33 megapixels directly. Those kinds of displays are going to be a great way to look at pictures for regular folks, and it would be nice if we had some pictures of our families that took advantage of them.


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