Nikon versus Olympus versus how the camera will be used and who will be using it.

I get asked ( a lot ) about what camera a person should buy. If the person seems to be looking for an easy camera with which to document their family life, their kids and their vacations I generally always recommend whatever the cheapest Canon Rebel package currently available at Costco or someplace like that. I could tell most people until I'm blue in the face about mirror less or ultra high resolution or fancy rangefinder design but if they are looking for just a step up from their phone they are pretty much destined to buy the Rebel no matter what I tell them. 

For most people a Rebel outfit with two kit zooms is just the right kit with just the right price. It's a big step up from a cellphone and a 55-200mm is a surprisingly good focal length range, coupled with an APS-C sensor, to cover most of the buyer's outdoor, kid sports needs. The big benefit is that it's a brand they've heard of and when they head out to the soccer field about 80% of the other parents also have Rebels and they can happily group source their panicky technical questions. And, optimistically, they can learn together. Those are easy camera questions to answer. 

But in the last few weeks I've consulted with three other kinds of users and I've offered three different sets of advice. I got a call from a college student I know. Friend of the family. Against all advice he'd like to make a career as a photographer and video "artist." He's been through a bunch of classes, banged his way around with the family Canon Rebel and is now ready to get into the biz. He anticipates shooting stuff like products, portraits, landscapes and architecture and he wants to do it right. He's got some financial backing from his parents as well. I suggested that he get a Nikon D750 along with the 24-120mm VR lens and also a 14-24mm lens. This will get him started and the full frame camera with good video controls is pretty much a universal tool of the industry. I might be comfortable shooting with smaller formats but I can pretty much guarantee that he's going to need the psychological boost of bringing an "A" game camera system to all his early assignments. It's the old "talisman of power" thing where the "magic" of the camera conveys competence to its owner. I could have recommended the Canon 5D mk3 instead but the Nikon is more of a running start right now. Give Canon time to get the new sensors in play and then it would probably be a coin toss. 

This person took my advice and I've heard back from him. He is happy as were his first three, real clients. But this would have been the wrong advice for another person who came to me to see what I would recommend for a good travel system. Now, I have travelled with big, medium format cameras on several personal, international shooting trips and I wouldn't trade the big negatives I got from those trips for anything but times have changed. Airplane seats are smaller, there are no longer porters everywhere and we're all moving a lot faster. Add to that the fact that no one wants to pay for film and processing anymore.

The person asking for advice is an accomplished amateur photographer whose last camera purchase was a Nikon D2Xs. She just didn't feel like she could handle the big body, the two enormous f2.8 zooms she'd been carrying any longer and she was ready to ditch the tripod too and get something that could be reasonably handheld. We talked about mirror-free cameras and she liked the idea. Then we narrowed it down to Fuji versus Olympus and we made a trip over to the camera store to handle them both. She loved the EM-5 and the EM-10 and she ended up with an EM-10 and a single 12-40mm f2.8 zoom lens. I counseled her to load up on some after market Wasabi Power batteries and now she's set. Early feedback is that after helping her make her first plunge into the (onerous) menu she's thrilled with what she is getting from the camera system and it fits in her purse. She was pretty amazed at how far the high ISO performance has come in cameras since the days of the D2X. She never went above ISO 400 with that camera and I wouldn't have advised it either. Now she's got the auto ISO set to cap at 1600 and she feels like she's rediscovering the joy of shooting. Also, after years of only taking the "boat anchor" out when she anticipated shooting seriously, the new camera and lens follow her everywhere. Like a puppy. 

Finally I had a long, long telephone call with a fellow photographer and long time friend who shoots in NYC. He's doing portraits kind of the way I do them. He's been shooting there since the 1990's and he was complaining because the town has almost as many people constantly trying to break into the business in the city as NYC has rats. Everywhere he turns all his competitors are using one of the same two cameras: The Nikon D800 ( or some version thereof ) or a Canon 5Dmk3. They use the same 70-200mm zoom lenses and everyone seems to own or rent Profoto Strobes. He wanted my take on how he should differentiate. I told him about a mutual friend here who shoots only architecture. Very high end architecture. When his market got flooded with the same cameras and a whole raft of beginners who were shooting without lights and saving their images with desperate HDR he realized that he needed to rise above the pack and market himself as the top (and most expensive) of the photo artists in his field. Part of his branding was to cast off the ubiquitous camera choices (Nikon or Canon with 24mm TS lens) and take it all up an notch. 

He dropped serious money into the Hasselblad system and then discovered the Leica medium format system and transitioned into that. Now he's shooting his platinum level, $20 million dollar residential projects and his high rise commercial projects with a couple of the Leica S2 bodies and a case full of very, very costly but incredibly good glass. Clients really can see the difference, especially when the photographer starts whipping out detailed 20 by 30 inch prints. I figured my portrait photographer friend in NYC could undertake the same basic strategy. 

We talked about the Pentax 645Z and he jumped in. He only needs two lens, a normal for full length stuff and a 140 or 150mm for headshot style portraits. He's raised his rates and is busier than he's ever been. The camera was not much more money than the Canon 1DS Mk3 he bought nearly five years ago and he's been able to source some used lenses to soften the blow but to the clients the important message is that he's shooting bigger files on a bigger sensor than 90% of the competition and he can deliver images with less depth of field and more snap. 

gratuitous image from Fall in Saratoga Springs to sparkle up the middle of the article.

In the end I gave out three totally different suggestions for three totally different kinds of artists. Too often I think the magazines and websites that shill for the camera makers assume that everyone needs the same stuff. That everyone is chasing the highest degree of weather proofing in their cameras bodies, that everyone craves being able to shoot at ISO 100,000, that everyone needs 12 frames per second frame rates and tracking focus that locks on like a demented badger and won't let go even if the hummingbird you are trying to track in continuous AF buzzes chaotically through an obstacle course. But really? Everyone does photography in a different way and they each are looking for a different solutions that aligns best with where they are in their imaging journey. 

It would be sad if everyone shot with the same camera because in this art endeavor the tools really do nudge us in certain directions. When everyone uses the same kinds of tools everyone gets nudged in the same direction. When you make a truly universal camera I think you make a camera that really no one loves. Viva choice.

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Anonymous said...

Appropriate tool for the mission. That is actually a wonderful aspect of today's camera market...there are superb performers in almost every niche. The problem is, for those invested in one ILC system or another, that not all niches are covered by their system manufacturer. This is the problem of the legacy DSLR companies. I fully agree that a u4/3 system is probably just what the doctor ordered for the quality- and versatility-conscious travel photographer. Sony's E-mount bests the Olympus system in ultimate IQ, and tracking AF, but fails in convenience...a u4/3 system can get dang small. Although that f/2.8 12-40 is very much the same size as an f/4 17-55 in DX. Physics precludes the type of system size shrinkage that we'd all like.
Weighed against the benefits of that u4/3 system are certain things that would seem to benefit only the sports shooter, like fast tracking AF. But Nikon realized early on that trouble-free AF is a valuable asset for the casual shooter as well. Try following your dog or flitting son or daughter with anything other than a DSLR or an A6000...or Series 1 body. A surprising amount of travel photography is of non-static subjects, grab shots, and low-light opportunities. We've yet to truly address all the needs of the travel photog. But we're close, and another generation of development and we'll be there.
Then we can argue about whether u4/3 captures enough photons at enough resolution to truly replace DX and distance itself enough from 1" to survive.
And while we're arguing, all of those travelers with RX100s and LX100s will be happy as a pig in slop, well save for some telephoto range that can't quite be shoved in to a cigarette box form factor.

Dave said...

If I knew you'd go to the camera store with me....

Seriously though. I've thought about camera platforms and needs a lot over the years. Like many my earliest purchases were driven by online forums resulting in the mistaken thought I needed what "pros" shoot with. When mirrorless emerged my heart overruled my head (and a logical move to "full" frame. Did several iterations of EP1, EP2, GH1, GH2, XE1, etc. All wonderful girl friends but no matrimony.

In the end my most productive system was a D7000 work horse. My favorite fling and the one that has me pondering is the little RX10. Great gateway drug to video and absolutely awesome for the spontaneous grab. Turns out I don't really care about 30 inch prints nor need 6 kajillion ISO. It hurts to admit I suppose since none of that earns you forum street cred.

Dino Aranda said...

This post couldn't be more timely. Great recommendations and it's refreshing to hear you ask what their needs are first. Keep up the great work.

Frank Grygier said...

I always feel the siren song of full frame. I started with Four Thirds and still use it to this day. I can honestly say that the EM1 or GH4 is still more camera than than I will probably ever need. Practicing proper technique and more importantly learning to see light and pay more attention to composition is what I will be spending my time doing to improve my photography.I am weary of the pixel race. The best advice from Kirk for me of late was to get back to using a tripod.

Jason Hindle said...

Good advice in all three cases. I'm seriously considering that 12-40. At the moment, pretty much all my photos are taken with the 17mm f2.8 pancake, 25mm f1.8 or the 45mm f1,8 (with the kit tele-zoom in reserve, for when I need longer). Faced with the decision on replacing the 17mm pancake, with the newer 17mm f1.8, I noticed some reasonable deals on the 12-40. More expensive, but I reckon less changes of lens (and the 12-40 looks like it will balance nicely on my E-P5). Decisions, decisions!

Charles "Rain" Black said...

Kirk, this post should be printed and displayed in every place cameras are sold, and featured as a pop up on every photo related website.

Too much?

OK, seriously though, you continue to be a voice of sensibility in the G.A.S. afflicted world of photography.

One aspect of choosing gear you bring up in discussing the MF scenario is the "look" of someone's photos. I think this is an area that isn't adequately considered by people choosing gear inasmuch as so many people want their photos to look like everyone else's. Some of the most artistically, and financially, successful photographers are those who buck the trend as to what makes for "good" photos. Under certain situations and goals, the look of a m4/3 camera and lenses may be much preferred by the photographer to that of FF.

That preference may buck conventional wisdom, but as you have often said, success for a pro photographer can depend a great deal on developing a unique and appealing style.