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.



Contributions

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.)

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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).

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

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

Typo? Think it's 1800.

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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.

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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.

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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: https://chuqui.com/category/bird-photography/, 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.

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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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