The 2016 "Most Productive Camera for the Dollars Spent" in my office... No surprises here.

I'm as guilty as any other compulsive camera buyer. I wax on about how one camera feels "just right" in my hands or how another camera gives me "amazing" low noise, high resolution files. I spent enormous amounts of money buying lenses that more or less duplicate most aspects of those I already own but (supposedly) add some sort of quasi-emotional nuance to the final images that I sometimes delude myself into believing I can see on my monitor. When I bought my "serious" Sony work system I made what I thought were very smart purchases. I bought the A7rii, the A7ii (as back-up) the 24-70mm f4.0, the 70-200mm f4.0G and a few specialty lenses. Then I spent most of the year gilding those lilies by adding more and more silly lens purchases; all of which I can easily justify, if pressed by more strategic thinkers. Of course I needed the Rokinon 100mm macro for product work and the 135mm f2.0 for those times when I just had to see what long lenses with enormous apertures would do for my art....

And then there was the flurry of Contax/Zeiss/Yashica lenses that I couldn't live without because
, in moments of mental weakness, I still believe the public relations mischief of companies like Zeiss and Leica.  When I see a fast lens in the Sony FE mount I reflexively buy it even though those purchases are for things I rarely use in real life... They look so good in the stores, on the shelves. This includes the 85mm f1.4s and the 14mm f2.8s as well as other oddities that are more than adequately covered by the zoom lenses I originally bought.

Why do I do this? I suppose it's partly boredom and I know there is always the photographer's self-destructive (from an ego and financial point of view) search for the "magic bullet" or "holy grail" of the opto-electrical world --- the perfect lens through which all will become clear for the first time...

A quick cure would be to stop paying the monthly charges to my internet service provider and to limit my ability to travel north of 51st Street in Austin (North of that lies the path to local financial devolution at the hands of the retail wolves of Precision-Camera.com. The most alluring of "candy stores" for middle aged men still in possession of credit cards with (un)healthy credit lines..).

But if we burrow down into the pure logic of why a commercial photographer owns camera and lenses we find, surprisingly, that our accountants, spouses, families and friends assume the cameras exist as tools with which to make money. Sometimes they are even gullible enough to accept the flimsy reasons I put out there for why "I must have XXXX lens in order to do this really profitable type of work.." But they never think to follow through and ask me if I have any of that sort of work on the docket right now; or ever.  It's general futurely-hopeful pie-in-the-sky. My only saving grace; the thing that keeps me from the wretched claws of financial dissolution, is that I do tend to sell off the stuff I've grown bored with. And since my attention span is generally so short I tend to sell it soon enough so that most of the gear has some retained value left.

Don't get me wrong, it is occasionally nice to use a long fast lens on a full frame camera and to make the backgrounds dissolve into a fuzzy blur. And there are times I've done just that with bits and pieces of my "work" collection of toys. But it's a style I was also able to pull off with lesser cameras; including a Panasonic GH and the 42.5mm (cheap version) lens from that system...

The big Sony's are great for the big advertising jobs that come through and end up being printed on paper. But those jobs are a smaller percentage of the overall number of projects that tend to go straight to the web or to the TV screens. 

So, when the weather turned nasty and cold and the rain soaked any ambition I had to sally forth and shoot stuff outside I decided to take a thoroughly honest look to find out just which camera, or class of cameras, I pressed into service in 2016 in order to make enough money to pay my bills and stay a few steps ahead of my creditors. I analyzed all 93 projects I have completed this year and worked hard to remember just how I shot them ---- and more importantly, for this exercise --- which camera I ended up using. 

The contest was between the full frame Sony system (A7Rii + A7ii), the APS-C mirrorless system (a6300 + a6000) and the RX series of one inch sensor, bridge cameras (the RX10ii and the RX10iii). 

I started with the portrait work. Nearly all of that was done with the A7ii (not the A7Rii) but it did not constitute the biggest part of the overall income. Nearly every job outside the realm of portraiture was done either entirely or partly with the bridge cameras and, in that camp, the largest percentage was done with the new, RX10iii. 

I think we can all understand, given our tenure in photography and our proclivities for established styles, why the full frame systems accounted for most of the portraits. We like to make backgrounds out of focus. It's a stylistic thing hammered home during our formative years by example after example. This too may give way as we embrace the styles concocted and perfected by new generations using Go Pros, cellphone cameras and smaller format cameras. I recently wrote that I'd be pressing more of my portrait jobs towards the RX10iii if there was a "one button" app to emulate extremely shallow depth of field in post processing. But it has to be believable and simple. 

We understand the allure of the full frame or larger frame cameras for portraits but why did the RX10iii and its sibling outscore the other systems on everything else? I wanted to know so I started breaking down my use on a job to job basis. 

One of the biggest increases in the business this year came in video. The APS-C cameras were immediately disqualified since neither of them has a headphone jack, which makes business level audio impossible (or pushed one to use a dual sound system with external recorder...). The APS-C cameras also tend to shut off due to internal heat quickly and inconveniently. A constant source of frustration during an exterior shoot in the central Texas summers. The A7ii got disqualified from general video consideration because it doesn't allow for 4K recording and the image quality in 1080p, while not bad, just isn't competitive with the A7rii or the RX10ii & iii. Now we're down to two basic choices, the RX10iii and the A7Rii. One gives me more depth of field and the other can give me less. That's the basic choice between bodies. But only one has an incredibly useful super zoom. And only one has never, ever shut down during a shoot because of internally generated heat. That would be the RX10iii. 

Our video workflow for most stuff now is to shoot the RX10iii in 4K in order to get the most detail and then to import the files into Final Cut ProX and edit them on a 1080p timeline. This allows for big crops and when we spool out the finished project, downsizing the 4K files to 2K we still see more detail than we would have shooting 1080p originally and we are able to do so much more in terms of digital stabilization, etc. 

Almost every minute of video that Ben and I shot this year was done on locations and a good part of it was done in sloppy weather. Rain, mist, fog, high humidity, high ambient temperatures, etc. If I outfitted the A7Rii with the right lenses and sound gear I had a big investment of dollars in a system that is not, in the final product, appreciably better than my all-in-one solution via the RX10iii for $1,500. And you just cannot discount the advantage of using a camera system that will take you from the equivalent of 24mm to 600mm at the turn of a ring or the touch of a zoom control. 

I also have the gut feeling, after having worked with both cameras for hundreds of hours, that the internal electronics for video and sound are more or less identical between the two cameras. Finally, the image stabilization in the RX10 iii is great. Not Olympus EM5.2 great, but close. At least a couple of stops better than that of the the A7Rii.  In the video camp the RX10iii wins the income production category by about 95 to 5%. 

I moved on and started looking at the work we do for the theater and there too it was an interesting race. The APS-C cameras can work well, depending on your physical vantage point, but the lenses we have seem more at home and well sorted when used on the full frame cameras. And, for sheer quality, the big cameras absolutely win. If that was the only metric then the conversation would be over. But it's not. We can't always be in the most advantageous position in the theater when there is a full audience during dress rehearsal, and we can't really move to optimum positions during the performances. 

My longest lens for the big system is the 70-200mm f4.0G and if we have the run of the house that lens and the 24-70mm would be a perfect combination. But sitting in the center of the audience, locked into place, I often feel the need for 300, 400, 500, and 600mm's of effective reach to get the tight shots, of one and two actors, that I like. I was hesitant to bring along the RX10iii because the low light performance doesn't match the almost faultless performance of the A7Rii but I brought it along just to test on one of the dress rehearsals that we shoot throughout the year. I found myself using it more and more during a performance earlier in the year and have been using it more aggressively ever since.

Now I can't imagine not shooting at least half of the images in a dress rehearsal without it. The ability to sit back in mid-house and shoot close ups (see: cake, below) at 600mm, handheld is too addicting to let go of over a bit of noise that can be handled in post. I'm happy using the camera at ISO 800 and a bit nervous, but still willing, to shoot it at ISO 1600. 

Always, at the back of my mind, is the reality that 90% of the theater's use of the images these days is on their website and in social media; online. Given the usage the difference between "best of class" and "most flexible and productive of class" is a small margin and the tradeoffs are numerous in both directions. But since content is king the overall nod goes to the bridge camera because it can capture images that other cameras just can't --- at least not without a massive investment in enormous, heavy and expensive glass, and a team of assistants to constantly change lenses while we shoot. I could buy a fast 300mm f2.8 for the A7Rii but I'd lose the flexibility of the zoom with its infinity choice of focal lengths/angles of view. Nope, I'll stick with the RX10iii. In terms of income to the business I have to be fair and say the ratio between the big camera and the bridge camera is 50:50; in the realm of theater. 

That brings me to an investigation of product work. We had a number of projects this year to shoot small products and artifacts, both on black and on white backgrounds. After much work in all three formats I ended up doing the bulk of the work with the bridge camera because when you control the lighting you can always use a nice, low ISO like 100, or even 80 or 64, and get sharp files from just about any format. But shooting small objects requires as much depth of field as you can drum up and using the smaller sensor at the same angle of view as a large sensor system gave me some extra "breathing room." Working with the one inch sensor bridge camera was most convenient. With nearly unlimited focal lengths we could always find a focal length that was a perfect match for our subjects. 

The smaller file size, in raw, was a plus. My working methodology was to connect the camera to an external monitor and shoot everything manually. We always do product and still life work with constant, LED lighting so we always have a live image on the external monitor. Given the bulk of the camera and the smaller size of the shutter there is no worry about vibration, especially with electronic first curtain implemented. I set the camera for a two second delay, touched the shutter button and stepped back. Yes, you could use your phone to trigger the camera as well.... 

One of the best reasons to use the RX10 is the convenience. If you are running an external monitor all of the camera screens are turned off which means the battery lasts for hours and hours when shooting small products. You never have to stop and change lenses either. That's nice because sometimes I've spent a good amount of time anchoring the camera in just one hard to get to spot and it's inconvenient to access (maybe on a side arm, hanging over the top of a set with some priceless materials directly below) and changing lenses could be dangerous to the "hero" of the shoot. 

Once I hit my stride and found the sweet spots for shooting still life with the smaller sensor camera it became my first choice for nearly everything on a table top. The one exception might be food, but even there the style of focus for food photography is changing....I think there is a fatigue setting in caused by every image of food just examining a sliver while everything goes to soft, cloudy puffs in the backgrounds. Again, the cellphone aesthetic seems to be driving a newer style. 

I'll give the income/productivity ratio on this category: 65:35 in favor of the pixie sensor camera. 

The one place where I've seen business decline, year over year, is in events. I think we are seeing a move toward more and more video documentation an less still photography at galas, awards shows and showcases. The few I did this year were mostly larger format sensor projects, but only because I felt more comfortable with the APS-C and FF cameras' abilities (with the help of phase detect AF sensors on chip) to nail focus in darker, fast moving environments. I'll be anxious to see if the next generation of one inch cameras features PD-AF points on the sensor and increases the speed and sensitivity of focusing. All cameras though are equally flash proficient since I mostly depend on manual exposure and manual flash for event work... But, as I've said, this is a smaller category than in year's past.

To sum up: I've spent the least amount of money on my two "bridge" cameras than any other part of my system. By a long shot. There are no additional lenses to buy. No battery grips to add. No follow focus rigs that would work. You spend your $1500 one time and you are set. Well, sure, you will want to buy a bucket full of extra batteries but the generics are cheap and good. In a way, the ownership of an RX camera is a disincentive to keep spending money on photography precisely because opportunities to bling it out are few and far between. And that's an amazing thing given that the output performance in still photographs is about 90% of the best cameras out there (as long as the light is good and your technique is solid), and the video performance may actually be better than nearly every pricey DSLR out on the market right now. 

After looking at everything I shot for pay this year, a significant percentage was done with the RX10iii and ii. We still added the same overall value to each project with good, appropriate lighting, good audio techniques, good interview techniques, good post production, good styling, good casting, good timing, good composition and good story telling. These are the things that differentiate our business from the rest of the market we work in. We're not always better in every regard but more importantly we have a different point of view and that's generally what clients are signing on for. 

Few clients care, or are informed about, what camera formats you might be using. The value they derive from your work comes from its ultimate usability. I have three different flavors of camera. All have their place. Some are more efficient and effective for many of the day-to-day work we do for clients. Part of my job is to shake off preconceptions from the "old" days and chose the right tools for each job now. Smaller, faster and cheaper are sometimes the very best choices. 

The bottom line for me is that the RX10xx more than earned its keep. Could I have done the work with the bigger format cameras? Yes. But not as quickly and with the same portion of fun. And that's an important part of our business equation too!

The RX10 series cameras are quick and easy to use for video. 
I use a BeachTek mixer to bring XLR audio signals into the 
the camera with impedance matching. this set up is great for
on location quick "testimonial" style interview.

I like the a6300 for personal work. For client work I sometimes find it "in between" 
the sheer quality of the bigger cameras and the usability of the smaller sensor 
cameras. It's more a Leica M type camera than a day-to-day work cam. 

The A7 series cameras do a lot of stuff well. Their big strength is 
wide dynamic range with low noise and good color. 
They are a good choice for "traditionalist imaging." 
If you loved your Pentax K1000 you'll probably like one of these.

The RX10iii is a "run and gun" video camera that's just perfect 
for a rough, reportage style of video. I'm using it on a shoulder grip and 
with a stereo microphone as a bit of a snapshot video camera. 

The bridge cameras bring something fun to the game: focal lengths mania. 
This is handheld at 600mm from the Graffiti Wall, nearly a mile away. 

The RX10iii all dressed up with a variable neutral density filter. 
If you shoot 4K you'll be locked into 1/60th of second as your shutter speed.
Unless you want to spend you life shooting f11-16 (exteriors) you'll
 need some ND. Fun invention, for sure.

The RX10iii is over to the left side in an open case. The microphone is a Sennheiser
MKE-416. The system is set up and ready to go.

Shot with the RX10iii

Shot with the RX10iii


Butch said...

Ach, a nervy, cold feeling in the pit of the tummy. I have a small-sensor mirrorless camera and love what it can do, until, as Kirk noted, the lights go down low and the kids start dancing on the stage, or I'm following them around a classroom. Then the feeling goes away as I remember the recent shoot where an ISO 8000 photo of the kids singing on stage looks creamy smooth, unlike the peanut-butter texture of shots from my 10-mpx pixie-sensor cam (thanks for that term, Kirk!). So, different cams for different tricks. I'm looking forward very much to see what the forthcoming Nikon DL 24-500 can do - Nikon's focusing and tracking are miles better than anyone else's in darkness.

JohnW said...

I have a Nikon V3 that I use almost exclusively for Street. The sensor is not as good as the Sony 1" (why they used the sensor they did is a mystery} but with the right processing its adequate for the job. I also have a Fuji X-T1 but that comes out only when the bigger sensor is really necessary - like after dark in a night market. I took the Nikon as a backup for a trip to the Canadian Rockies and wound up using it to shoot landscapes when the Fuji was just too much weight and was blown away at the image quality. And the sensors are only going to get better. Now if Nikon would only get off the pot and commit to the V series cameras ....

Michael Matthews said...

I did love my Pentax K1000. If it weren't for the fact that I just bought an EM5 II I'd be happy to keep saving until I could afford a trip to Sonyland, but I think I'll stay put. The IBIS offered by the Olympus, as described in your definitive review of the EM5 II, means more to me than to most. And, when the 25mm f/1.8 arrives later this week I should be back in my Spotmatic youth -- but with EVF, stabilization, and free film and processing.

Daniel Walker said...

Extremely interesting analysis. It seems you have found a sweet spot. Based on what you see in the product currently in the market, do you see going back to the 4/3 format.

PhotED said...

Amazing, Kirk; one of the reasons I follow you is your pragmatism. I still have the original RX-10 Mk1; I've been tempted to sell it only once; every time I see the images from that lens/sensor combo, I am blown away. I am still somewhat disappointed with low light performance, though I really can't complain given I have such a good zoom range in a smallish package. Is the output from the MkIII vastly different, or does it still use the same sensor as the Mk 1? BTW, you've been very prolific on your Instagram account today.

Doug said...

Kirk: Based on your comments over the last year or so, I had been seriously considering the Sony Rx10iii. (I travel to Africa a lot and am weary of carting all my gear with me. I really want a bridge camera solution.) My local store finally (!) had one in stock so I stopped by and played with it for awhile. I loved it. Loved its lens, it's features, it's quality, etc. And, yet... My hand began to cramp up as I used it. I tried every hand position I could think of, but my hand cramped quickly every time. The ergonomics of the hand grip, for me, were simply unusable. I was so disappointed. Now I'm reading that the Panasonic FZ500's lens is inferior to the Sony's. What about the Fz1000? Is that lens any good compared to the Sony? I've read it's soft at the long end. Thoughts? Really wanted the Sony! LOL!

Anonymous said...

This is one of the best and most useful analyses of what is the "best camera" [for Kirk Tuck]. It's not based on DxO or specs or PR hype or pixel peeping. Nope, it's based on what gives the best shot for the customer. You know, the MONEY shot that pays the bills.


Ross said...

If you were solely shooting magazine work (which I do with the V1's) is there any point picking a Sony RX10ii over the Panny FZ1000. I'm not really worried about video or the extra reach of the Sony. It seems to me that the Panny is really good bang for the buck... Cheers :-)

David Ward said...

Shhh, Kirk, you will put the camera companies out of business with this common-sense, rational approach to photography and camera ownership. I could not agree more. I have now realised that most of my needs in photography can be met with some fairly basic hardware. This has liberated me to buy pretty much whatever second hand equipment I want, within reason. The incremental improvements over the past few years are barely worth having. Second hand cameras are also great value.

Plus I know that, if I sit back for a year or two, I will be able to pick up a used RX10 for not much money and it will deliver decent quality images.

The same analysis goes for lenses. If we analysed which lenses we shot with - by frequency and range of focal length - most of us could narrow down our collections to something more manageable (and less costly). I have sold lenses that I lusted after, because I used them too infrequently.

Kirk Tuck said...

David, it's so true. Most days I think I could do a great job for 90% of my clients with just the old A7ii, which I bought used, and the 70-200mm f4.0. Perfect for all kinds of portraits on location. Don't even get me started about flash...

Anonymous said...

As someone who has used all three versions of the RX10, do you find there are significant improvement in the stills capability as you go up the "Mark ladder"? IIIRC, you didn't think so for the Mk II (vs. Mk I).

I have the Mk I and find it excellent, just wondering if it got any better along the way.



Wolfgang Lonien said...

Someone over here in Germany seems to think like you Kirk - they've elected the Sony as their bridge camera of the year 2016: http://www.dkamera.de/news/die-bridgekamera-des-jahres-sony-cyber-shot-dsc-rx10-iii/

Merry Christmas, have some nice time off and holidays, and a happy new year 2017 to you and to yours.