I've been thinking a lot lately about the relentless way in which most of my friends and colleagues, even those insufferable boors who pretend they care nothing about gear and posture that they are not moved by avarice or gear lust, rely on their idea of the intrinsic value of their chosen cameras to bolster their enthusiasm for the process of making photographs. I buy into it as well even though on so many levels I know that none of the goodly-gook we spout is true. A metal shelled mini-camera won't get you to Moonrise over Hernandez New Mexico any better than plastic... Knowing my psychology at least half of my decision making is about choosing the anti-hero camera. The dark horse. The outsider choice. Which is hilarious since most photographey is a total insider experience. And I can't imagine any one more in the mainstream circle than myself...
I'm beginning to think that we buy our cameras as fashion statements and not logically as we would with a selection of righteous tools. A cross cut saw for on application, a framing hammer for another. In hand tools we would look for solid construction and the right fit in the hand. Carbon fiber handles? Ridiculous. But I think the last four year wave of camera buying has everything to do with American Appareling and Tommy Hillfigering of hobbyist photography and not the performance we say we are chasing...
Since I seem to be as big a slave to the fashion of photography as anyone else what is the reason for this particular column? Why am I revealing to myself and anyone who reads this that we are, in our chosen field, as fickle and as bendable by the fashion of the moment as the women who wore bad, pink sweatpants with "Juicy" emblazoned across the rear end a few years ago. Most of us are manipulated by camera fashion even as we rail against the concept that we are embrace cameras not for what they can do for our picture taking but what we want them to do for our status and image.
My abrupt epiphany came a few days ago when I played with a non-photographer friend's Canon Rebel T3i camera and two kit lenses. I hadn't played around with one of these cameras in years and years and I expected it to feel like cheap trash in my hands. I expected every frame to be marred by the cheap lenses' mediocre performances and I expected every image file to be rendered banal by the camera's many imagined compromises. But it didn't really happen that way and when I shot a few frames I kind of sat up a bit and started paying attention.
My friend didn't have any kid's soccer games on her calendar for the next few days so she lent me the camera to play around with. It's like every Canon APS-C camera in that it uses the traditional mirror mania and it comes complete with the Canon standard 18 megapixel CMOS sensor. And interestingly enough the sensor is pretty good. Oh, I am sure the D800 will blow it away once we get around to printing stuff really large but I've gone five years now without having more than one or two requests for any prints bigger than 12 by 18 inches and I think just about all the cameras I've played with in the last ten years can handle that pretty well.
The camera feels consumer-y (another snob designation) but my friend tosses it around her Suburban and drops it on the soccer field a lot and even lets her six year old boy use it for long periods of time and it's held up remarkably well. I can see where little, inconsequential stuff, has been broken off but like a Timex watch the body seems to "take a licking and keep on ticking." Could it be that the consumer-y polycarbonate is at least as bullet proof as the precious, milled metal dials and multi-position touch pads that keep falling off my other friend's more expensive and chic cameras?
The bottom line, at least as we keep defining it in our relentless need to justify new purchases, is the ultimate imaging performance and certainly there's no way a $500 camera (and that's with two lenses....) can rival, say, my new GH4 system, right?
Hmmm. Well, if you are doing video for clients I'm going to say that the Panasonic is generations better. The video is sharper and available at higher resolutions. There are also ports for microphones and headphones as well as manual level controls. But...if you are shooting the kiddo trying to keep up with a soccer ball and you are playing back the Canon 1080i 720p video on your Samsung or Vimeo 540i quasi-HD television set I'm going to say there isn't really a big difference. The end display being the ubiquitous weak point in all of this.
And guess what? If you go head to head on sensor performance for noise and resolution, again, not much difference, if any. But surely the lens performance between my Panasonic X glass and the woeful kit lenses of the Rebel is outrageously huge, right? Well sure. If you always shoot wide open you'll get a faster and (as far as I can tell) sharper lens but here's the deal, if you go all real world and you are shooting that swim meet under the blistering, Texas sun or that soccer match under some other state's more tepid sun you'll be spending most of your time around f5.6 or f8 and I'm going to bet that at f8 there's not a lot to cry about with either lens. Keep thinking $500 versus $4400.... Put a 50mm 1.8 on the Canon for an extra hundred bucks and all of a sudden you've got a low light shooter that gets close to the performance of any m4:3 system. Really. Especially when you factor in the money.
In the studio it's the same story. That nasty, consumer-y 70-300mm zoom becomes very well behaved portrait lens when you clamp it onto a tripod, stop it down a little bit and stop all unwanted motion with a diffused blast of studio electronic flash. You'd be hard pressed to tell the difference under those conditions (at f5.6 or f8), at a decent enlargement, between the masterful D800 and the mighty Rebel.
I think this calculus of price and performance is the dirty secret that keeps the faux rangefinder GX-7s and Fujis X's, as well as the retro Olympus OMD's and mini-DSLR styled Panasonics at bay in the war to gain total market share. The fact that for a fraction of the cost (and a hit to your style consciousness...) the entry level, traditional cameras do a remarkably good job at keeping up with what matters----ultimate image quality. They are not the best overall but they may be the best compromise. For most actual users. All bets are off if you just buy the gear to wear it.
The D800 is the best IQ producer in the 35mm style, mass production cameras at the moment. Let's peg it's performance, on sensor, at 100. And let's be generous and give the 24 megapixeled Nikon cameras (APS-C variants) a solid 90-92% for on sensor goodness. And maybe all of our other wonderful mini-framers come in between 85 and 90%, but that doesn't mean that the recent Rebels make a failing grade of 59. Far from it. If we X out handling and frame rate, X out the so-so viewfinder, and shoot all the cameras in Raw I think we'll find the Rebel is also in the wonderful 85-90 % range which signifies a solid B+.
We overlook it because it is not pretty as understood by today's design ethos. It's more like the Juicy sweatsuit knock-offs of yesteryear. We would also like more dials. But at the heart the T3i is one of the top selling cameras in the entire world because Canon gets something that the photo cognoscenti don't really seem to understand: To the world market the Rebel is a tool that delivers everything most people need (for taking photographs) except the high fashion aspect of it's physical style. No faux rangefinder. No small enough to fit into the pocket of your dinner jacket. And the exterior styling is as exciting as a 2002 Toyota Corolla body. But, like the Corolla, it's a reliable, and for the most part comfortable appliance and it gets you where you are going.
Does this mean that I plan on abandoning all the gear I've accrued to date in order to pursue a rational course with Rebel gear that's good enough ? Not very likely but from now on I'll work a bit harder to separate actual performance that matters from stylistic touches that have very little real value.
I still remember my lust to get my hands on the Fuji Pro 1X when it first came out. I was at the door of the camera store waiting for them to open. I loved the feel of the body because it reminded me so much of my old Leica. And then I brought it to my eye and the finder was out of focus. I looked in vain for the diopter adjustment, a feature that's been standard on even the meanest, little viewfindered compact camera for well over a decade. The Fuji Pro 1X did not have one. I left the shop without one. I watched my friends, confirmed raw shooters, agonize over the new, non-Bayer sensor's special needs. I read about the focusing issues, etc. Yes, it was a fashionable camera but I'm pretty sure I could have outshot it in a heartbeat with a Rebel. For one third the price.
Pride of ownership? Not with a Rebel. Rational behavior? Not with a Pro 1X.
I'm picking on the Pro 1X but we could just as easily pick apart the new Sony A7 or the oil and dust spattering Nikon D600. Or the devil-spawned menus of the OMD EM-1 (as well as the product name...). The bottom line, whether we like to concede it on not, is that most of our camera purchases these days have little to do with technical proficiency of the tools and a lot to do with our fashion sense. It's good to be honest about it. Doesn't mean we have to change.
Anymore than those lovely young women wearing seven inch heels are thinking about the logic of wearing a nice, comfortable (safe) pair of running shoes.....
This line of thought coincided with a good article on The.me.com here: http://www.the.me/a-hobby-for-the-very-wealthy/
I think we tend to skew our priorities because, in one sense (financial) we can really have just about any camera we want and so we look beyond workable to aspirational or "the best" just because we can. It's an interesting confluence today. At least I think so.