12.27.2014

I bought some interesting cameras this year. Some are better than others. But let me tell you which one was the most FUN.


Men, guys, males seem to love measuring the horsepower, noise, teraflops per second, megapixels and degrees of weatherproofiosity more than they love actually using their cameras to make artsy stuff. Or even stuff that looks like art. When colleagues call to ask me about a camera or a lens the things they want to know all center around the overall impressions of sharpness, lines per millimeter, delta of color accuracy and other very objective measures. They rarely ask me things like: "How loud is the shutter? Does it have a nice sound or a clacky chintzy sound? Is the camera nice to hold in your hand? Does the camera feel good when you use it? Does the lens have character? Does the lens make people's faces look nice?"

For this reason most of the professional shooters I know tend to make a bee line for the cameras that check the most boxes in the categories of things that can be measured and quantified.  They tend to gravitate toward high megapixel counts and sensors that make less noise at high ISO settings. They even love battery statistics. For these shooters the number panel and lists of comparisons on DXO Mark is a godsend. They can research cameras by the numbers and buy confidently without ever having to touch a camera first. This is the primo target market for gear like the Nikon D810. Or medium format cameras with the new Sony MF chip. Yes, if they buy based on those quantified reviews or spec sheets they will indeed have a camera than can do most of the stuff they expect but I feel like buying cameras is more like dating.

You could have a checklist when dating that goes along the same lines as a spec sheet. If you are looking for a person to date you could find out how fast they run a mile, what their imputed I.Q. is, how tall they are, where they got a degree and in what, and other similar metrics but until you actually sit across the table from a prospective romantic partner you'll never really know if you click. You'll never know if spending time with them is more of a burden than a joy, an obligation rather than a treat. I contend that the same relationship exists with cameras otherwise everyone in the amateur and general professional ranks would be shooting with whichever camera clicked all the boxes with the most ("if some is good more must be better!").

But when I watch my female friends or my acutely artistic friends chose cameras the whole process is more or less turned upside down. They may ask the consummate linear thinking guy to share the results of his hundreds of hours of painstaking camera research when they go to buy a camera but all the pages of charts and graphs and numbers go right down the drain when they actually go into a store and start playing with all the stuff that's available (and they will).

The artists and most of the women photographers I know go into the selection process with a whole different mindset. They are looking for an extension of their hands and eyes. They are looking for something that will integrate into the way they move through their artistic lives and they seem unwilling, almost incapable, of being happy only with the measured "best," A camera has to be more than the sum of its numbers to make this demographic pull out the credit card and get the transaction into gear.

To this group the way the camera feels in their hands is the number one consideration. If it isn't immediately comfortable and in some way tactilely familiar they are not motivated to "give it time" and "get used to it." So, they are looking for a solution that matches what their hearts and minds tells them is the right choice. To this group design is also a major factor; in some cases the quality of the overall design might even be the most important consideration because these folks are truly visual people and they will only buy products and devices that they can enjoy looking at and handling for long periods of time. Much the way that artists and design oriented people will gladly spend hundreds more dollars to buy a beautifully design Apple iMac computer rather than a workable and efficient PC. They know that they will have to look at the product they buy for years to come, in some cases for hours every day and they have a much lower tolerance for mediocre designs. Their brains don't balance out the cost/performance/design equation the same way in which spreadsheet jockeys do.

For them there is a visceral aversion to poorly designed tools or interfaces that drives them away from using the product so that any cost savings is savaged by their aesthetic filters. And they have a point; why introduce yet another piece of visual pollution instead of producing something that adds value? Bringing anything into their domain means that the product must contribute to the overall ecosystem rather than just sitting around churning and whirring.

I am drawn to cameras that have certain characteristics. I want them to have a visual personality. I want to be comfortable looking through the finder. I am not looking for the most exact finder but the finder that is most inviting and engaging. I want shutters that thump like the closing door of a Bentley automobile rather than clacking around like unmuffled industrial machines. I want to feel an affinity for the haptics of a camera. Holding it should make me want to hold it more. So, I am often at cross purposes with what most people assume is the role of the camera in a professional business. The belief is that a pro buys the camera with the highest resolution, the highest degree of sharpness and the lowest possible electrical noise at all settings.  By general "guy" consensus I'd have a box of D810s unless I could afford the finest medium format digital cameras.

And, being a guy, I do bounce back and forth, caught between prevailing convention and personal taste. I just bought a Nikon D610 to assuage my insecurities after being pounded, day after day, by the assumption that any professional portrait photographer would absolutely want a full frame, high resolution sensor so they could create noise free, smooth skin tones images that also have the potential to create portraits with very, very narrow depth of field. One eye in focus and the other one out. Go fast, long lenses!!!

I buckled and I'm not proud of it because I absolutely know I can get the images I really want and need from APS-C cameras and even the best M4:3 cameras. But I have the money and I can buy the "safety blanket" type of cameras for those every once in a while engagements when clients presume to know about the business of making portraits and will demand gear that is au courant. In most regards it goes back to our previous blog discussions about the safety of staying in the median levels of the herd.

You might not always win but you probably won't lose.

This is all a lead up to my basic assertion that prodigiously spec'd cameras are rarely the most fun cameras to carry around and use. Especially if you carry a camera with you everywhere (and I do mean everywhere except in the swimming pool) and use it often. In fact, every full frame, high specification camera I've ever owned has been relegated to the trade-in zone within six months or so of initial acquisition. Many of the Canons and Nikons were disposed of because of their boring jelly bean designs. Some were dumped because they did everything very, very well but they felt wrong or were too bland. Some didn't put up enough fight to be challenging and provoking. But most are just too large and ponderous and obvious.

And before you call me a format snob I'll put the GH4 into the same camp as the bigger format jelly bean cameras. It does everything it should do perfectly. Its menus are clear and concise but, in the end, the GH4 is a boring camera. Why do I keep it? I keep it for the projects I do for the clients who need video and I keep it because it does all those work things perfectly. But the handling and the mind/hand/camera integration isn't exciting or captivating or inspiring. It's just good, like so many other cameras out there.

When I look back over this year of Samsung, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony and other cameras the ones that  I've consistently enjoyed working with, playing with and shooting have without a doubt been the Olympus OMD EM-5 cameras. I've paid the least money for them and I've bought the least esoteric lenses for them but they flat out get down on their hands and knees and beg me to take them out shooting. To take them out walking and out to eat. In fact, there are a number of jobs I've done for clients this year that could have been done much more efficiently and with less post processing, hands on correction than the EM-5s but the EM-5's innate appeal caused me to push the more capable cameras out of the way and chose the more interesting and engaging EM-5s in their places.

I'll go further and confess that even though the EM-1 has a much superior finder, and I love looking through it, the overall design and understated profile of the EM-5 trumps the EM-1, in my mind, every single time.  It's the camera I compare every other new camera to. It's the reason I've divested other cameras. There's something about the combination of good results (NOT the best results), good handling and sublime design that keep me coming back.

So, yes, I have a Nikon D610 on the way (Where the hell is the USPS???? I got their text that the item is "out for delivery" at 8:05 am this morning---who are all these people in front of me?) and I have GH4s and Nikon D7100s and 7000s languishing all over the office but when I get a call from a friend with an invitation to go out for coffee it's one of the EM-5s that swings over my shoulder, on a very specific strap, and comes along for the ride. If I see some scene of great beauty the camera is almost transparent to me and to the subject. It helps me remove a cognition barrier between my eye and the subject and that's the highest quality feature of any camera I can think of.

When I shoot with a big camera of the highest possible technical potential I find myself avoiding shots where the technique at hand would be detrimental to the overall performance of the camera. I would not try to handhold a D810 with a fast lens (which might have performance issues in the corners) at slow shutter speeds because I feel like it's an affront to the potential of the camera. I have no qualms about trying shots that don't always have the highest possibilities for success with the EM-5s because the camera encourages me and seems to goad me to take chances. And why not? They are agile and stealthy enough (even when used directly) to make the attempts painless. Not so with an uber-camera which subtly infects your sub-conscious with the idea that you should have brought a tripod, you should stop down to the sharpest aperture to take advantage of the amazing resolution, that you should have also brought some lighting to make sure......blah, blah, blah. Just another case of trading joy for measurement.

When we go through this exercise and talk about cameras being fun someone always writes to let me know that I am wrong about which camera I should like. Someone will recommend I try a Pentax K5sii or a Leica M240 (as through it never dawned on me to test one). They misunderstand the most important part of the whole argument that the non-technical-metric-centric camera buyer already knows: It doesn't matter which camera you like. My brain, my hands and my eyes are different from yours. We all have to find the cameras we like on our own. It's the basic reason why all technical camera reviews are mostly mindless numbers crap. All current cameras are, for the most part, more advanced and capable  than their owners. It's more important to find the fun, addictive camera than the "best" camera. The people who leave the hobby or give up the profession are generally the ones who have collected all of the best technical gear only to find that it didn't really make a difference in their visual experiences and, for the most part, just got in the way. The people in it for the long haul learn, over time, that there is a balance and that the fulcrum of that balance sits much further over to the side of handling and visual design parameters than it ever did on the technical side.  

And all this is pretty much why I am declaring the Olympus EM-5 the absolute most FUN camera I have the pleasure of using all year long.




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12 comments:

Alex said...

Kirk, I still have the Pentax K01 I bought a year ago after reading your blog posts. Recently, after buying technically superior Samsung NX30, I thought about selling the K01 but just couldn't part with it. It isn't a great camera, but makes lovely pictures and is so good in low light. I'm keeping it :) I thought about trying a Pentax K5sII too (same sensor but without an AA filter). If only it was mirrorless!

Kirk, thank you for your wonderful blog! Enjoy your new toys... I mean tools :) Happy New Year!

Yoram Nevo said...

From the Little Prince:

"... it is on account of the grown-ups and their ways. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, "What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?" Instead, they demand: "How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?" Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.

If you were to say to the grown-ups: "I saw a beautiful house made of rosy brick, with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof," they would not be able to get any idea of that house at all. You would have to say to them: "I saw a house that cost $20,000." Then they would exclaim: "Oh, what a pretty house that is!"

Anonymous said...

No doubt the EM-5 hit a sweet spot.

The EM-1? Deserve a lot of respect, but noticeably bigger, heavier. Full of itself. A little arrogant.

There is talk of a follow-on to the EM-5. Hard right now to imagine how it could really be improved upon, minor feature "advances" aside.

Anonymous said...

"Men, guys, males seem to love measuring [...] more than they love actually using their cameras to make artsy stuff."

Nerds, geeks do. Not all males. It's a rather blunt generalisation to claim that all guys behave like that. There are still plenty of men who do buy cameras for making photographs and motion pictures.

Keep in mind that not all cameras are being bought by photographers these days. Not even close. These days, probably over half of all cameras sold to male buyers are being bought by gadget geeks and enginerds. There is a difference.
Hence the abundance of pixel peeping, narrow viewpoints, measurebating and pedantic bickering about specs all over the internet.

The same kind of geekery is abundantly visible within many other technical areas for sure, but most of the noise is being created by the same kind of enginerdy audience.
It's by far the noisiest bunch of camera and other gadget buyers out there today, but not the only one. Don't let the noisy bunch define all of us.

Dave Jenkins said...

A fun read about a fun camera.

Kirk, your blog is a better, more informative and more entertaining read than any of the current photo magazines, and most of the past ones.

thequietphotographer said...

Great post Kirk, thanks. You explained very well what I mean when I say that I'm not so much interested in the technical performances of a camera but much more in how I can feel connected to the camera, hold it in my hands, desiring to keep it everywhere.
And this is one of the reason for which I do not like the modern DSLRs and I still shoot very oft film.
Now, that Olympus is tempting and by the way a "female" friend of mine just bought one and looks charming (the camera I mean...)
robert

cfw said...

Whenever the USPS is part of the delivery chain, my packages always come late, the next day or two, or in one case not at all (requiring a refund from the seller). They have some real problems "delivering the goods."

(PS - I'll keep my EM5 until they pry it from my cold dead hands).

cfw

neopavlik said...

My new D600 shutter sounds like a golf shot, like they put a microphone down by the tee when somebody was teeing off.

Taking a little time to get used to the controls from being used to a D40/D70S/D3200.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, Great, thought-provoking commentary, as usual.
I purchased my GX7 as a back-up/second body to my GH3. The GH3 is a wonderful camera that I use for both photos and video. As a tool it is wonderful in its design with terrific ergonomics, direct control over all major functions, near-perfect dial/knob/button lay-out and bullet-proof construction. It's darn-near perfect! My GX7 is similar in ease of use and direct control of important settings, but as a tool is probably not as intuitive as the GH3. In fact when shooting weddings and other paid/"must capture the moment" events I'll typically grab the GH3, knowing the ease-of-use, direct control and intuitive lay-out make getting the shot a more certain outcome. That said, when it comes to being fun to handle and shoot with, the GX7 wins nearly every time. It's just a fun camera to shoot with. It's not as ergonomically correct as the GH3, but it's entirely comfortable and nimble in the hand. It's not as large as the GH3, so the dials and buttons are closer together and more difficult to access with my large hands, but all the critical controls are directly accessible and easy to use with familiarity. But what I notice more than any of these qualities is the lack of weight, small-form, nimble handling, ease of carrying, comfortable grip, intuitive controls and simply how the camera 'makes sense' in day-to-day use. It's an entirely capable if not perfect tool (although I'd say it is near-perfect), but when shooting for the simple joy of capturing photos it's my go-to camera. Interesting how the non-tangibles sometimes rule the day. A good 'problem' to have, I say.
~ Ron

Anonymous said...

Dear Kirk: I really enjoyed this post. Not only do I feel the same way about cameras, but your words also made me remember the process I went through many years ago when I was in the market for a new double bass. Chosing a musical instrument is also a very intimate and personal process which can be difficult and frustrating until you find the right match. I travelled to NY and LA and cities in between over the course of one summer trying to find the 'one'. It was so worth the effort as I spend several hours a day with my bass. I'm happy to report that after over ten years we still have a great working relationship!

Curtis

coro said...

Perfect conclusion that I agree.
Now I am fully satisfied with EM-5 + 25 f1.8 and EM-5 + 75 f 1.8
For this reason I will buy the third body EM-5 to dedicate to new Voigtlander Nokton 10.5mm f/0.95 micro 4/3
I will continue to read your reviews.
Happy New Year
Romeo
www.romeocolombo.com

Anonymous said...

Nice article, just talking about preferences:

I had a Panasonic GF1 and am very satisfied with the MFT system for my needs. So for an upgrade I red a zillion reviews and comments about the fantastic Olympus cameras with their beautiful colors, high ISO performance and fantastic image stabilization...

So I bought Olypmus E-P5 which is almost the same camera as the E-M5 only with a few differences and no viewfinder. The fact is I hated it so much that I was happier than ever when I got rid of it. All the little things such as poor video quality, no focus peaking in video, no purple fringing corrections, poor usability and features of Olympus Viewer 3 (which must be used if you want the "Olympus colors"), less reliable autofocus than what I am used-to with old Panasonic GF1, poor grip, minor interface quirks, no shutter anti-shock fix when using burst shooting mode, etc.

After scratching out all Olympus cameras from my consideration, I ended up buying Panasonic GM1, which has a lot of limitations compared to "enthusiast" cameras, but for my needs fits better than any Olympus could possibly deliver. Now with just 15/1.7 and 45/1.8 lenses I am extremly happy with my new gear, and do not feel any need for a more "serious" camera (unless I suddenly find a few thousand Euros which I can only spend on camera gear + get to keep my GM1 for everyday use).

So people, if you just read n+1st article prasing how fantastic Olympus camera bodies are, think again, they are not even close to flawless and not necesserily the best choice within MFT system either.