Jen. Triathlete. ©kirk tuck.
Every so often I'll be working with my cameras and I'll find an annoyance that makes me question if there may be some other system out in the wild that would handle my photo needs better than what I've got in my hand. While I was swimming this morning I passed the time on a long set by conjecturing which camera systems I would consider, right now, today, if I had no cameras at all. For the sake of the exercise I would imagine that the studio was hit by a tornado that swept away every camera body, lens, flash, battery grip, decal, camera strap and battery. The insurance company writes me a big check and now it's up to me to find the "perfect" system. Shouldn't be that hard given that I've already shot with most of the systems on the market, at one time or another.
I think this time around I would try to limit myself to one great system instead of picking and choosing. No more rationalizations about "personal" shooting cameras or "special use" cameras. Just one solid system for work and for play.
After taking a good, hard look at the things I photograph and video tape for money I'd narrow down the field into the systems that meet those parameters. There are a few considerations that I already have in mind that would disqualify various camera systems. For instance, after nearly six years of constant improvements in EVFs I know I would never want to go back to a camera system that relies on an optical viewfinder for shooting. That immediately filters out Canon, Nikon and Pentax from the running. My desire for the cameras to also have state of the art in video tech would have disqualified Olympus and Fuji in years past but both have introduced cameras this year that would allow me to consider them. Leica is out. No because I can't afford the prices for the cameras and lenses but because I don't want to waste the money for any imagined, marginal gains.
While the Sigma Foveon-based cameras appeal to my eccentric side the operational realities of even their latest tech make me run for the door.
Let's see whose left. That would be Panasonic, Sony, Olympus and Fuji. Each has their strengths a weaknesses. I've used Olympus, Panasonic and Sony extensively but haven't really touched the Fuji products. I was initially turned off by the early performance issues with the Fuji X-pro-1 and actually miffed at Fuji for not including something as vital as an eyepiece diopter on their flagship model... Since remedied on the latest camera bodies.
With the four companies represented here the choices get interesting. In order to make this fair I'll choose my system for the way I like to work. That would include two identical bodies, a 24-70mm equivalent and a 70-200mm equivalent lens set, augmented by a macro and a fast 50mm equivalent.
I'll look at Sony first. The obvious way to outfit the system is with two A7rii bodies, a 24-70mm f4.0 Zeiss/Sony zoom, the 70-200mm f4.0 G lens, the 50mm f1.4 and the 90mm Macro. Add in a couple of controllable flashes and you are pretty much done. The wide angle guys would bitch but that's too bad as these are the choices that would best suit me.
What are the advantages? State of the art sensor technology with class leading resolution and dynamic range. Arguably the best "super-35" video performance you can get in a still camera. Great lenses. Good handling from the camera. But what are the cons? First would be cost since the bodies alone are $3200 per. The lenses are relatively pricey too. Finally, the flash performance is nothing to write home about... Oh, and whiners will bitch about the battery life but as long as I can buy two Wasabi brand batteries for $20 I'll stay away from that argument.
Next up in my book would be the Panasonic system. I owned the GH4 camera and it was great so I'd get two of those to start with and, since my experiences with their lenses were also good I'd dive right into getting the 12-35mm f2.8 and the 35-100mm f2.8. Toss in a Leica branded macro lens along with a 42.5mm f1.2 and I'd say I'll be set. The "pros" of the system? Low price for the cameras. Currently about $1200 each. (you always need two. At least I do...). Absolutely great 1080p video and good 4K video albeit with a big crop. The cameras handle well and the files are great. Of all the systems represented here I have to say that the focusing capabilities of the GH4, with dfd, makes these bodies the best point-to-point focusers in the mirrorless kingdom. The "cons"? The fly in the ointment for me is the same one I'll pull out for the Olympus system. The sensor is small. It's not an absolute deal-killer but for some stuff the bigger, more amply endowed full frame sensor can be hard to beat - especially when it comes to depth of field control with a wide range of lenses. Still, from a strictly pragmatic point of view this may be the best of the choices for the most number of different tasks. The GH4 is a video legend and every other aspect of the system is spotless. Somewhat boring, but spotless. It's just that sensor size that nags at me...
The system I keep falling in love with is Olympus. If you just want shoot really wonderful images and you don't need to blow them up to amazing sizes, or drop everything in every background out of focus you could use this system and be set until someone reinvents photography gear again. The OMD EM-1 mk2 is pretty wonderful, at least on paper. If it's as good as the EM-1 (original) but with better video capability it is already good enough to make most photographers smile big. The wonderful thing about the newest rev is, without a doubt, the enhanced video performance. It's finally able to run with the big Sony cameras and easily better than what's stuffed into the latest Nikon and Canon offerings.
My friend, James, and I used a passel of OMD EM5.2 cameras last year to shoot a video for our friends at Cantine Grill and even with a more primitive codec the video was wonderful to work with because of the camera's superior image stabilization capabilities. These have been improved in the latest camera. For the still shooter the extra resolution of the 20 megapixel sensor makes a difference. The camera is full competitive with the typical APS-C, 24 megapixel cameras in a good operator's hands. Add to this that fact that the better Olympus lenses are really good and not too pricey and you have a winner of a system.
My play would be two of the OMD EM1 mk.2 bodies with battery grips. Pricey but, remember, we're playing off that husky insurance check fantasy, right? The 12-40mm Pro f2.8 and the 40-150mm Pro f2.8 lenses are the "no-brainer" accompaniments for the two cameras; along with newly announced 25mm f1.2 and the 60mm macro lens. I think the only time you would be disappointed is, um, never?
(Note to self: shoot some video with the new Olympus and reconsider the whole system choice thing I have going on right now....)
The "pros"? The Olympus system is elegant and well thought out as well as technically advanced for still photographers and right in the comfort zone for videographers (who use hybrid systems). The image quality is nice and people love the color palette. The "cons"? Again, the sensor size is the only thing I can really come up with. If Olympus keeps introducing faster and faster lenses the differences will largely be moot ---- as long as those fast lenses are pristine in image quality even when shot wide open... It's really a marvelous system and once you get over the psychological hump of "sensor size phobia" there are very few reasons to overlook it or to choose anything else.
The final system I'd consider would be Fuji. I put it last not because the list is ordered by preference but because it's the system I have the least hands-on experience with. But that's never stopped online reviewers before so let's take the Fuji system for a spin. Right up front I'll say that I love the look and feel of the Fuji X-pro-2. If I limited myself to shooting only still photography I'd own two of those beautiful Leica M replacement cameras in a heartbeat. They are gorgeous and everything I strongly disliked about the predecessor has been fixed or banished. Wonderfully implemented bout of camera design and something for other companies to aim for. But, sadly, the video is shit. Not necessarily the I.Q. entirely, but the run time, the codec and the way it's engineered into the camera. This puts my favorite model (from an aesthetic point of view) out of the running. But fear not! there is always the newer XT-2 which uses pretty much the same sensor but makes up for the X-pro-2's video shortcomings --- for the most part.
From my brief exposures with the XT-2 and from what I've read from trusted sources, the imaging performance is outstanding for an APS-C sensor with 24 megapixels. Everyone seems to love the Fuji colors and if you love to make things go quickly out of focus in the backgrounds you'll find a nice range of very fast primes to assist you. The emotionally logical way to buy this system is to do with with primes but since we're replacing work tools with our big insurance check I'll stick to what I know works and grab two of the XT-2 bodies, 18-55mm f2.8-f4.0 along with the 50-140mm f2.8 lens. One drawback of the current system is the absence of a 16-55 or 16-50mm constant aperture f2.8 lens. While the reputation of the 18-55mm is pretty solid it gives up some important range on the wide end and gives up some depth of field control at the longer end. I'd probably want to supplement with the 10-24mm to get back that 24mm equivalent.
(Edit: It's been brought to my attention that I have overlooked a sterling lens from Fuji that indeed covers the range I wanted. It is the 16-55mm f2.8 for around $1300. The one thing it lacks is image stabilization. So close..... But in its defense it is reviewed as being pretty spectacular in the sharpness and general "look" categories).
The video started out pretty well and could be made better with some firmware updates to get longer run times. The reality though is that the run time might be limited by heat dissipation issues, so --- who knows. For our exercise we can only consider what's available in the camera that ships right now. Well have to accept that, in terms of usability the Fuji video trails the other three systems by a bit.
The "pros" for Fuji are: A good, solid sensor, nice colors, good overall handing and class leading image quality. I'll applaud what they are doing with fast primes and with the longer system zoom and then, below, ding them for the lack of a "universal" 24-70mm f2.8 equivalent. (see above added edit about the lens). I mean, after all, thats' what we've been trained to expect and use in each system.
The "cons"? Right off the bat I ding them for the lack of the fast, standard zoom. Then I churlishly rant about how much better the whole deal would be if I could get the same video performance in the body style I like much better --- the X-pro-2. I hear from a wide number of trusted sources that low light AF performance and continuous tracking focus could be improved. But the lure, for a generation raised on real cameras, is the profusion of solid buttons and knobs and the Fuji focus on making great primes for the system. The zoom versus prime thing is shaping up to be more about nostalgia than real performance; at least for some working pros. The effect of the generous apertures is cool but in real life you've got to make sure at least some generous part of the product or person you are photographing is in sharp focus and, if you need f2.8 or f4.0 for that then you've effectively obviated the need to carry lots of heavy, individual focal length lenses in your bag.
So, here at the end I'm working through my hypothetical exercise and distilling down to my favorite. But it's not so easy. I have to look at everything through two different filters. The first is sheer pragmatism. Which system provides the kind of performance and results that are best suited to a wide range of professional (and sometimes boring) results? On the other hand, the "fun" hand, which system is the most enjoyable to use? Which one makes it a pleasure to be out and around taking photographs or video?
In the end I am torn in three ways. If I was a slave to pure logic I'd drudge on down to the store and buy the Sony parts and pieces (which surprisingly is what I seem to have done in real life). I'd be equipped to do the boring but demanding stuff that hobbyists never have to worry about --- like shooting lab gear for trade show panels that will be enlarged to life-size. Or shooting 4K video out to an Atomos video recorder and transcoding it on the fly to ProRes 1080p. The big Sonys work well and have remarkably good image quality. But they aren't nearly as much fun to shoot as the Olympus cameras or even the Fujis.
If the unmitigated joy of taking pictures was the only metric but I grudgingly accepted that I would also want to shoot great video it would be pretty much of a straightforward choice for the Olympus system. Of all the cameras I've shot with in the last decade the EM5.2 was the most fun and the best bang for the size and price. While the EM-1 mk2 has moved the price point into a more rarified strata it still promises to have the hand feel, the solid Rolls Royce door shut of a shutter and the color that makes everyone so happy.
Why not the Fuji and why not the Panasonic? Well, as great as the GH4 is the camera is just not particularly exciting or even all that friendly. It's that "soul" thing I wrote about years ago. It's the emotional way in which we interface with our gear. The Olympus is designed to woo us into the fold from the minute we pick up the camera. The Panasonic forgoes the idea of infatuations in favor of pure, engineering performance. While the Panasonic checks all the right boxes the Olympus is designed to make you like it. It's an emotional buy from Olympus, over-layed with all the performance most of us would ever need, and since I am as nostalgic and emotional as the next guy that's why the Olympus would get the nod over most everything else.
But that leads me to Fuji. I call "bad marketing" on Fuji where I am concerned. If you decide to have a "flagship" camera it should have the same basics as your second tier camera and it should cost more. I would have added the video capabilities of the XT-2 into the X-pro-2 body, raised the prices of the much more alluring X-pro-2 body over that of the XT-2 and happily sold it, at a premium, as a lux piece of gear. But in the current system I would be forced to choose between the form factor that makes me drool and the performance features that make the cameras work tools. It's a bad choice because which ever way you choose you'll always be looking at the other model and thinking you made an acquisition error.
Some one is bound to suggest that I just get one of each but that totally misses the point of having identical back-up gear for business. If I were clipping trust fund coupons and spending the results of my ancestors' hard work it would be fine but if I had real money I would never worry about back up cameras or jobs anyway and I could mis-spend part of my fortune on useless stuff like the new Hasselblad mirrorless camera.
No, in the end it comes down to a battle between the Sony and the Olympus systems and I'll end by putting it like this: As long as my income depends on photography and video I'll keep working with the full frame, mirrorless cameras, and supplementing with those zany one inch bridge cameras (they would come along regardless of which other system I might choose...). But the moment that The Lisbon Portfolio is optioned for movie rights by J.J. Abrams I'll be moving down in sensor size and up in imagined joy to the Olympus stuff. At least that's the conclusion I came to while swimming outside in the cold this morning. Your kilometerage may vary. (YKMV).
A silly kind of exercise to do during swim practice but one that seems fun for photo gear nerds like me.