The Reckless Camera Purchase. The Sirens of Tech Just Past.

I like the new stuff just fine but there's some quirky part of my brain that's always looking out for cool cameras from the recent past. I always liked the idea of big, hunky, bullet proof Sony full frame cameras but the timing was all wrong. When they were launched I was deep into my Olympus and Canon journey. I noted them, thought the build quality and high resolution was neato and then filed the information away in some cobwebby part of my brain. Along with the formula for mixing up homemade Dektol and the directions to my favorite old restaurant (now a new high rise condominum).

As you probably know, somewhere in 2012 I took a left turn and bet it all on Sony. For the most part I'm happy with my decision. The cold, hard reality is that whether you shoot with a new Sony, Canon or Nikon the images are all very good. All the cameras are competitive and any one of the offerings from the big three are at least competitive with whatever else is in their class. But, as I've joined a "tribe" of camera-hood I feel duty bound to at least give my Sony's a nod of approval from time to time.

Logically, my love for the marque comes from the certain reality that, of all the current cameras in the world the absolute best from any company is, without any doubt, the Sony Nex 7. With the right lens in front of its sensor the camera is unbeatable by any other current camera; including any Leica or medium format digital camera. For handling and cuteness it makes the flagship offerings from Canon and Nikon look oafish and clumsy. Runs resolution and sharpness rings around all the other mirrorless swill and kicks dirt in the face of the new rabble of faux rangefinder cameras. Can you imagine preferring a Fuji X100s? Giggle. You can't even change the lens on that little toy.... So, rush out and buy Nex 7's while you can.  (humor alert: Kirk does not think the Nex7 is the only good camera on the market. Save your scathing rebukes for politicians or bankers....ed.)

With a bag full of Sony's premier platinum product at my side why would I want to go digging through the compost pile of cameras past? Hmmm. Interesting question.

Being a fossil in the photography world I actually am programmed to enjoy all kinds of stuff that really doesn't matter in real life. I'm programmed to want full frame cameras because that's mostly all we had in my formative years. Due to the effectiveness of marketing and it's slave, advertising, I've been demographically trained (male, over 40) to believe that anything made out of Magnesium Alloy or Titanium (aka: Boy Metal) is inherently more valuable than anything else. Even though I know better, logically, I've been battered into looking back at optical viewfinders to see if I was mistaken about the incredible value (to working photographers) of electronic viewfinders (I was not mistaken). And mostly I wanted to buy the Sony a850 because David Hobby, Zach Arias and Steve Huff all wrote about the beauty, charm and necessity of full frame cameras (or in the cases of Hobby and Arias, MF cameras) before they came under the spell of the newest Fuji fixed lens point and shoot tool, aka: the Fuji x100s.

There are many things to recommend the Sony a850 and the Sony a900's but developing raw files in Lightroom is not one of them. That bugaboo and the widely accepted view that their Jpeg engines aren't as good as the "big two" leads one on a epic journey to discover the ultimate raw converter solution for Sony's ex-flagship cameras. There are a few upsides. I like the built-in image stabilization. I like the idea of a simple menu, made simple because the cameras have so few "modern" features. I like the full-frame-i-ness, and looking through the uninformative optical viewfinder makes me feel just like a real, pro photographer.....from the 1970's.

Two things drove me to buy the a850. One is the fact that it's a black metal camera and no real man can resist black metal cameras. The second was the low, low used price which was barely above the price of a nice lunch for two at the Tour d'Argent (get the pressed duck). My rationalization was that it would be nice to have a back-up, full frame camera to pair with the Sony a99. That way two lenses could cover an assignment handily without having to make compensations and accommodations for cropped sensor camera backups.

Ah, the steps backward.  The howitzer-like shutter and mirror slap. The mute and uninformative viewfinder. The simple menu structure. The dedicated buttons sitting right outside for everything I normally use. The incredible dynamic range and color of the sensor when used at ISO 200-400. The wonderful color speckles and glittering white dots when used at higher sensitivity settings. Double the battery life of the DSLTs. And twice the weight.

Just a brief dalliance. But doomed for failure and regret as I'm currently using the camera all wrong. I have the Rokinon 85mm lens on the front of the camera even though there's no method of pre-judging actual sharp focus by zooming in on the image. I'm working in Jpeg even though DP Review was dismissive of the "jpeg engine." (Really? It's an engine? Seems more like just a software application to me...). And I even have the Jpeg thing all wrong. I'm using it in black and white mode and goosing the sharpness and contrast. Surely, I'll be plagued with halos around my highlights. I had no idea my highlights were so angelic...

Seriously though, aren't there digital cameras that you never tried but always had a hankering for? If you could pick one up now for pennies on the dollar don't you think it would be fun to try it out? I never owned a Nikon D1x but I was always curious. Same with the Panasonic L1. I always thought that was a sexy camera. I was very happy to have tried out a Canon 1DS mk2 for a while. It looked different, in its images, that later Canons. Not better or worse, just different.

So, today I'm tooling around with the a850. An absolutely reckless and unnecessary purchase. But maybe a lot safer than leaving my money is a European bank.  Have you ever succumbed to marketing from a previous age? Do you have a Leica M3? In your quest for new and powerful have you considered old and eccentric? Might be the ultimate hipster statement: vintage digital.


  1. And look! I didn't even have to change systems or brands!!!!

    1. I just had to have a canon 1V, and it works perfect with all my glass.
      Also suffered agonizing dilemmas until i bought me a SQAi (+150mm) and ETRSi (+75mm).

  2. Not digital, and even though film knowledge is minimal at best, I daily fight the incessant urge to click "buy now" for a Bronica sq. set up with a 150mm lens. and 120 back. Possibly an age related condition. (71)

  3. I have an A900, bought when it was relatively new. Great camera, and it can produce superb results, but I do find it too heavy and bulky (though excellent otherwise), so it is my 'studio camera' now, and OM-D EP5 is what I use most of the time! Like you (and unlike MR on Lula), I really love EVFs.

  4. So sad that Bronica are not around now - I had an SQ B, and still have an ETRSi, but not used it for over 10 years. I still have it due to an age-related condition (I'm 67)! I still have a lot of other (unused) film kit. Digital is just so much easier, at least for me, to have full control over the whole process (I was hopeless in the darkroom). Computer programmer since 1967, photographer since 1952, just wish that the time related in some (not negative) way to my images.

    Micro 4/3 is my choice now, lots of superb lenses, and light and compact to make it easier for an oldie like myself to carry it. Most of my images end up on the web, on my Mac/PC in slideshow form, or printed at A4+ or smaller, so resolution of the E-P5 or GH3 is more than adequate for me. Lower res images I produced in the past were blown up to 6 foot size, and although not fine art, they looked acceptable AT THE DISTANCE SUCH AN IMAGE WILL BE VIEWED normally.


  5. I knew you'd come around eventually, Kirk! While my primary camera these days is an NEX-6 (as well as having an E-M5 for variety), I have not yet been able to part with my old a850 and the lovely 25-year-old Minolta lenses I have for it.

  6. Hi Kirk, can perfectly feel that... but not on digital.

    I am 18, grew up on the digital age.

    I turned into film for learning photography for the lower cost, being a thrifty teen. Couldn't resist the classic OM-1... so I got one, good 'ole stuff. Got to love the construction and the huge viewfinder.
    And in '09 Kodachrome was going, you bet that being in this situation.... I snagged a bit and shot them, lovely.

    But now the OM-1 is sitting near an EPL2 that has snagged it's function. I love to shoot the OM but somehow don't use it.
    And your fellow commenter has fallen into the siren call of medium format, texas leica 6x9, but still resists to fall in just because it might be a too effective money burner and fearing that it might just become the OM's companion.

  7. I made a reckless (truly) a850 purchase a little over a year ago. Great price on the FF DSLR I though was the best (aside from the a900).

    I love it. But like so many I'm not keen to take it along often. It's mostly reserved for "serious" outings.

    The urge to purchase a Nikon F3HP and a 50 1.8 is strong. I keep thinking it's only about $350 so who cares? But really, do I want to be shooting 35mm film again?

  8. The curiosity is part of what drives my purchases of film equipment. I didn't come into the world of photography until after digital had taken over so I like being able to sample the "legendary" stuff of yesteryear. Sure, I didn't need an Olympus OM-1, but I'd heard so many great things about it that when I saw one in a thrift store for $8 I had to buy it just to see what the fuss was about. And I have no need for a Hasselblad, but I'd sure love to try one. And Howard, its not necessarily age related. I'm 26 and a coworker mentioned to me last week that he had an ETRSI w/ a couple of backs and lenses somewhere that he might give me. Its taking everything I have not to pester him about it everyday :D

    If there's any past digital camera I'd really like to try it would be a D2X or a D700. Mostly because the D2X was the pro Nikon at the time I started taking an interest in photography and the D700 was the first camera I really lusted for.


  9. One day I will own a D700. I'm also craving a Konica Hexar AF, not the rangefinder. I love single focal length cameras.

    At the moment I'm obsessed with my Nikon F100, just purchased last week. Absolutely beautiful camera with a wonderful viewfinder. That camera feels like it was made just for me and me alone. After a brief dalliance with a Nikon D5100, I'm back to my trusty old D50, 6mp of wonderful tech circa 2005. Vintage digital indeed.

  10. Your shot of the 850 looks vaguely like a Contax RTS of yesteryear. No THAT'S a camera I lusted after...but the price (for me) was astronomical at the time, as were the lens prices.

  11. I've done that several times. It's fun to work with limitations and it gives you a whole new appreciation for the more modern cameras you already have. My two favorite time machine purchases were the Olympus E-1 and the Leica Digilux 2. To this day the ergonomics of those two are still my favorite.

  12. My husband and I just came back from a fabulous 3 day week-end in Venice, Italy. I took along the cute Fuji X10 and my formidable NEX 7 with SEL35/1.8 mounted. While the X10 is extremely versatile with its bright 28-112mm equivalent zoom lens, once transferred on the computer the Sony files kick the Fuji ones all over the clock, and back. The only thing I know now is that bringing a along two bodies, one with a zoom and one with a prime, is the perfect solution. Next time around I'm taking 2 NEX bodies, that's for sure. I've tried a lot of stuff this past year, includind the Fuji X stuff, and came running back to the NEX 7. The Sony E mount lens selection totally sucks right now, but that won't last for ever, and with the possibility to adapt anything, plus the native 35/1.8, I'm right at home with the 7.

  13. Nothing fits my big hands like the Nikon F5 that I always wanted and finally bought. I love it- no regrets. I'd probably like a Nikon D3 for the same reason...

  14. I purchased the 900 after Michael at Lulu kitted up. It stays at the ready (on the shelf) for the occasional days I need to use heavy artillery. I used it this past weekend at a Civil War re-enactment, and was thankful for the great dynamic range. After using an EVF, I found myself hoping that I was moving the e-comp far enough as the sun was a killer. With the 70-200 G, it's probably prohibited in carry-on by the TSA. ;)

  15. You, and my NEX-7, and my full frame DSLR are starting to convince me of the value of EVF over OVF. Both have their strengths, and I will probably buy another full frame OVF camera this week. But the tiny NEX is currently one of the most powerful tools in the toolbox for me. Pretty impressive to me, as a film guy, that between large format film cameras, full frame DSLR, and the little camera that looks like a toy, often as not the NEX brings home the image of the three.

  16. I had the A900 for a bit more than 6 months, and replaced it with a nex-7. The A900 has quite a different highlight answer than modern sony sensors. I found it had a very pleasing rendering for natural light, light textures, skin tones.

    Also, I don't remember where, but I have read that some sony users found it had a much shorter shutter lag when using sony flash system. you might want to try it.

  17. Mark

    I bought a Bronica sqa a couple of months back and am hugely enjoying using it alongside my EPL1. I'll upgrade the Olympus when it dies, but currently I'm really enjoying using 2 cameras which perfectly meet my needs.

  18. Funny, I just bought a Canon 5d for $500, and I plan on getting a 5D Mark II when they hit $1,000. Used digital RULES.

  19. Kirk,

    I'm still using a Sony a850 as my primary camera. I didn't buy back into it; it hasn't left yet. I'm a landscape photographer, and I think Sony hit a home run with the colors on the a850 and a900. I have heard that they put a denser Color Filter Array (CFA) in front of the sensor (which then creates the Bayer pattern; without the CFA you'd have a monochrome sensor) which helps color separation but at the penalty of high-ISO results.

    On a tripod, at low ISO's, the a850 and a900 are almost still state-of-the-art. I honestly believe that only Nikon's d800 and medium format are better. Particularly when paired with the old Minolta glass -- again, they have a color sensitivity that really impresses me. By that, I mean that the different hues of blue, or different greens, have a wonderfully delicate response. By contrast, my older Canon cameras gave me big chucks of saturated colors, but not the ability to distinguish this red from that red.

    I just wish Sony would build and market a a950 SLR with the 36mp chip stuffed into a a900 body, with live view. I'd be a happy camper, because I like the lenses I have for the alpha system.

  20. I have tried and tested many cameras, writing for a magazine, including Canon 1 -series, Canon 5DII, Nikon D3/D3s, D700, lot of APS-C, Nexes, m43s etc.
    One of the cameras that made an unexpected impression on me was the Sony A850. It had the vibe of an solid 70s SLR, with the no nonsense approach, solid build and beautiful FF optical viewfinder. Paired with the 135 1.8 Zeiss lens it gave a viewfinder experience no EVF can match (sorry). It could not keep up at high ISOs with the Canons or Nikons, but at low and medium ISOs the image quality was outstanding. So congratulations on buying a camera that still feels like a tool, not an electronic gizmo.

  21. About six months ago, I walked into my favorite local camera shop and saw an old FD 55m f1.2 lens on the shelf. The storeowner let me look at it and asked me if I wanted to buy it. I did not bother to ask for a price, I just told him I did not want to spend that much and that I had read that an aperture that large would not work well on my micro four-thirds camera anyway. Over the next six months, I was in the store several times and on each visit, the storeowner would let me play with the lens and ask if I was ready to buy it. Nope, too much money, and it won’t work well on my camera, (but I almost always bought something.) I stopped in a few weeks ago and didn’t see anything I had to have. I only had a few bucks in my wallet so it would be safe to ask for a price on the 55mm f1.2. He looked them up on ebay to see what they were going for, thought for a second, and gave me a price that was $100 less than what they were selling for. And I knew before he looked it up what they were going for. Oh crap, out came the credit card. It would have been an insult to not buy it at that price.

    I certainly do not need a lens like that, and many will argue that it weighs a ton, and it is useless at f1.2. But I am having a whole lot of fun with it and as a hobbyist, that is all that matters.

  22. Wondering about a Panasonic L1? I got one a couple months ago. It's black metal, all right, shaped like a brick, and takes lots of old lenses. Kind of reminds me of my Nikon F2. It has a viewfinder that's just almost useless indoors, but I'm having a great time with a Nikon lens on it. The colors are lovely on the camera screen and sharp when I download them. For now, at my novice level, it is a gas.


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