6.19.2017

Why I prefer cheaper cameras now.

Studio shot with Panasonic fz2500, one inch sensor camera.

I've been watching with interest as one of my close friends, a working, professional photographer, goes through the process of searching for the holy grail of cameras to use for his work. He has a few Canon cameras; like the 5D3 and the 5DSr, he also owns the Leica SL with the honking big (and superbly pricey) zoom lens; but the cameras that fascinate and repulse me are the most expensive of his inventory. He's on his second Leica S2 medium format camera having been through a previous iteration and also a Hasselblad MF digital camera....system. 

To be clear, the MF digital cameras he's been buying are the price of a decent car. A new Honda Fit, or Toyota Corolla, at least. But there are two interesting consequences to dabbling in such rarified heights. One is that the lenses he must adapt to the cameras for his use; tilt and shift lenses, are frightfully expensive and kludgy on those cameras. Most are adapted from older systems. So every time he wants to shoot with a new focal length his minimum new investment seems to be in the $5K to $7K range. A bag of lenses along with one of the S2 camera bodies may have a combined value north of $30K. That's a lot of K. The cameras are slow to use and most of the lenses he's using are manual focusing. Even the AF models are nothing to write home about --- if you've used any decent 35mm style AF lens in the last ten years. 

The second issue is that his "hit rate" seems to be much higher when he's using the Canons or the smaller Leica camera. There's less missed focus and less missed opportunities and, when push comes to shove, the only place he sees a bit of imaging superiority in favor of the bigger camera(s) is when they are mounting on a stout tripod and used with great care. Even there I am of the opinion that the gains he is getting in terms of increased detail and dynamic range could be easily matched by using a much less expensive camera on the same stout tripod and then using new camera features to combine three quick exposures for more dynamic range and more resolution. A very viable consideration since most of his work is immobile architecture. 

So, does spending more money to buy the state of the art camera really translate into better images and better efficiencies with clients' work? Based on the variety of cameras I've bought and used in the past five or so years I'd have to say no. My friend's work has always been good, with or without the new MF cameras. I think having the ne ultra plus of cameras (or of any tools or even marathon shoes) does more by way of delivering a placebo effect to the owner. An emotional life jacket that assures one that they've covered all of their bases. That no one will come back to them and argue that they didn't make every effort to deliver the best. 

I've become a true believer in the idea that there is a big range and all of the quality metrics across all the good, current cameras are bunched up tight at one end of a long performance curve. By that I mean that most current cameras, when used for typical photo shoots and casual artistic use, generally are capable of hitting the 92 to 96% quality range. In fact, I'd say, based on years of observation, that the real appeal of the highest quality camera is nothing more than the machine providing a buffer against the sloppy techniques of the user. Most people would be better served working on their technique if ultimate quality was really their goal. 

The cool thing about cheaper cameras is that the features per dollar ratio is better and sometimes trading off the ability to do sharper, nicer 40 by 60 enlargements is righteously offset by cameras offering features unavailable on the priciest pro-targeted cameras. One feature I think is in many cases a better value is the inclusion of a long, sharp lens. I've had many opportunities to take images that I would never have had before the launch of cameras like the Sony RX10 series and the Panasonic fz1000 and fz2500 cameras. The long, fast lenses on those cameras are unique. Getting the same angle of view on a full frame camera like a Sony a9 or Nikon D5 would cost a fortune, weigh as much as my inkjet printer and be devilishly hard to handle and move around with. For one tenth the cost I get to shoot with a focal length the likes of which I would never have invested in before. And I can carry the whole rig easily over one shoulder.

Another set of features shared by the two one inch sensor cameras is profoundly good 4K (UHD) video. It's better than the video out of most high end, interchangeable lens cameras because Sony designs this as an important feature instead of a check list afterthought. It's much better 4K video from either of the small cheap cameras than video from my old Nikon D810, or the D750, or the Canon 5Dmk3 - 4, etc. etc. etc. With the Panasonic my low budget fz is a complete video solution: Just add a microphone and some lights. That makes the process of creating high value video dirt cheap and easy. 

I have an expensive and well specified Sony camera that's nearly the ultimate in image quality. When I bought it the price was $3200. But I hate taking it out when I'm shooting casual, daily art because it gets used too hard. I need to preserve its working condition so I can use it for bigger paying jobs. Sweat, heat, dust, water and all those other things aren't good for precision cameras. I'd hate to trash the A7rii just to get a couple of street images to share on the blog. I guess that's meek on my part but sometimes replacements are backordered and service is a great unknown. I'd rather preserve the integrity of that camera and trash a camera at a third or less of the price. That's why I have a Panasonic G85. For $900 I've got a camera that is weather sealed, comes with a weather sealed 24-120mm equivalent zoom lens and boasts killer image stabilization. It's also a very decent 4K video camera. Since the sensor is smaller the lens is also smaller and lighter. I can carry this camera everywhere and never stop to worry that some accident or misuse might cause its destruction. 

And you know what? The images taken out in the streets and around town are fabulous. It's a wonderful all around shooting camera; especially when I consider the performance for the money. If I drop it hard, in a mud puddle, and it gets trampled by horses I won't pretend it has a chance at survival but the loss won't be monumental or profound. It's also less complex and actually makes better use of its battery power. A win for everything except giant posters and double truck print ads ---- now, when is the last time we saw one of those?
Sony RX10iii. Long lens, close shot.

In the recent past the idea around spending big bucks for high end cameras swirled around the idea that you got a lot more rugged reliability mixed with higher overall performance, but when even budget cameras are capable of 8 -10 fps, focus quickly and well, and have wonderful color output the value equation shifts dramatically. Add in the fact that almost all digital cameras have become quite reliable and the only reasons you might choose a more expensive option (beyond the mysterious forces of ego...) would be better focus tracking and better continuous AF performance. And maybe a bigger buffer. 

It's all a matter of degree and use. I rarely have to track race horses or Usain Bolt. Swimmers are easy to track. I mostly set up my shots in the studio (where I have nearly complete control and can even use manual focus happily) So I am not the target market for super-hyper focus speed even though my income is derived from making photographs. I like the G85. If I wanted some more performance options I might migrate to a GH5 but that would still be just a third the price of a Nikon or Canon top of the line camera and less than half the price of Sony's new a9. For most people the differences (if any) between those cameras and a GH5 are probably more imagined than real; with the exception of the bigger sensor. 

At some point it pays to be honest about our camera use. Most of use know what we use our cameras for and I think most are aware that, for all intents and purposes, we are the limiting factor on the imaging chain. If I am honest with myself I'm happy with the actual performance of the G85, the RX10xxx and the fz 2500. I was happy with the imaging performance of my older Olympus EM-5.2 cameras (although I was swayed to change mostly by the bigger and more detailed EVFs on the cameras I migrated to). And I have been happy with other less prodigious cameras. 

I guess the real question is whether the final use is really worth the bigger drain on your own finances. I know that these purchases all add up. But they add up more slowly when the purchase price is lower. And there's little truth to the old German adage of "buying cheap means buying twice." since the sensor tech is the ultimate source of obsolescence and affects the proud and the modest cameras equally. 

Just some thoughts on why I keep enjoying my cheap cameras more than my pricier toys....

Sony RX10iii

The 2017 version of the Nikon FM. Or the Canonet.

video studio in a backpack.

want indestructible? Wrap a cage around your favorite camera.


A high ISO, long lens, handheld shot with the fz2500. Cheap and spectacular is a good combination.

13 comments:

Mosswings said...

This is one of the hardest realizations to actualize, particularly if you're not regularly shooting, even though as an irregular shooter you probably should have actualized long ago.

Case in point: I just got finished with my annual weekend of PRIDE celebration photography. It's an intense 2 days where I'm running about shooting anything and everything, and there's a LOT of everything. The parade itself is a place where I've yet to entrust my shotmaking to anything but my DSLR...it just feels right in this scenario. Shots of opportunity, existing only for a second, I can simply count on. Framing through the OVF feels like looking through a pair of glasses, which I've become quite used to in 20 years of prescription eyeglass wearing. And yes, I do have the camera on slow-burst mode; hold down the shutter for a second and I have my choice of shots that are almost always in focus, or acceptably so. As I get older and shakier I value that 2nd or 3rd shot, usually more stable than the first.
So...would I want to consign myself to a G85 for this mission? I have to be honest...in experimenting with it, probably not. But to really tell, I'd have to commit to a substantial purchase and work with it until it was 2nd nature. And still I'd not be totally confident. But that is perhaps using the wrong tool for the purpose. I'd be far more open to bringing along the G85 on a trip, where those "shots of opportunity" aren't as demanding. Just give me good AF and sub-second startup from OFF, and I'd probably be happy. But then, there's that price hump to get beyond.
There really is something to brand switching intertia, particularly for those of us who aren't making money at our pasttime.

Ken said...

Great post, Kirk! I've gone back and forth over the past few years between RX10 type cameras and mirrorless (m4/3 & Fuji since 2011). I went through the past 4 years of images in LR6 and analyzed the EXIF for which cameras had the most volume and then which ones actually had the highest percentage of "keepers". The Leica Typ 109 (LX100) and RX10 took the lead, with the X100/X100s close behind.

Based on my analysis of actual NEED, putting ego of "a great camera" aside etc., right now I'm down to the RX10 M2, RX100 M1 and the Typ 109. I'm about to pull the trigger on selling the 109 and the RX100 and going to a full Sony setup with the RX100 M3 (for the tilt LCD, EVF, BSI sensor and faster lens, but still significantly less than the M4/M5 cost). The RX100 M3 is on the way and I'll check it out.

Yes, the M3 is missing 4k, but that's the realm of the RX10 M2 for now. The RX100 M3 would be more for a pocket cam, grab and go stuff, family outings, etc. where I don't even want to take out the RX10 M2 all the time. Sure, the 4k would be nice in an M3, but for now, I'm good with excellent 1080p in a pocket cam.

I used to drag around a full Canon kit with L lenses. Then in the 2005-2011 it was pretty much Olympus E series with mid / high grade glass and laster Fuji X from 2011 on with some m4/3 sprinkled in. The RX10 and RX100 series are liberating! Are they perfect? Nope. Are they ultimate image quality? Nope. Are the good enough for 90%, yes....and much more affordable than a system.

For the RX10 M3 I bought used (Mint condition) for $930, it's a bargain compared to the last system camera I had that covered the same rage and all at f/2.8 with the Panasonic GX8, 12-35 f/2.8 and 35-100 f/2.8. The body alone was $999 and then the lenses another, hard to recall now, maybe $1400 total? So, $930 RX10 M2 vs. $2400 m4/3 set up - both with 4k....the RX10 its just more fun and the drop in IQ isn't much at all. I'd love the colors to be a better better for skin tones, etc., but I can't have it all???? Come on Fuji....make one for me!!! :-)

tnargs said...

The trouble for most home enthusiasts, is that they (we) are typically looking for one body to meet all needs. If we have a second body, it is likely to be RX100-like.

Having a second system is realistic for only a few. Most are only going to buy one system, and even if affordable, a second system won't come on holidays, where we amateurs get our best opportunity to extensively employ our investment on street, landscape, portraits of loved ones, architecture, night skies / landscapes, wildlife and birds, the whole shooting match. And none of the images are we taking as 'throwaways' for a blog, even if that is one use of them, we also want them to please and delight for more critical uses and for long term appreciation.

One body. Or perhaps a major and minor body from the same system.

Malcolm Myers said...

A few years ago I was watching a programme on golf (no idea why) but they noticed that the current winner of the Masters won with the same amount of shots as the guy who won forty years before. But forty years before 2nd and 3rd were way behind, but they were much closer currently. Why? Because clubs had got so much better and were much more forgiving of a bad shot.

Similarly Top Gear once asked what the best car was and basically said that any modern, small hatchback, because it came with electric windows, air con, cruise control and a host of other things that would have only been in luxury cars thirty years ago.

The democratisation of technology.

Carlo Santin said...

Kirk I've forgone the ovf and now even the evf. Most of my shooting these days is done with a Sony RX100ii. Yes, I'm using the rear lcd. Blasphemous I know. If I am shooting portraits or something where I need lots of subject isolation and bokeh, then I have a few cameras and lenses that can do that. All purchased used and dirt cheap. Otherwise, it's the little Sony for the rest of my photography. It does great video, for my purposes anyway, and image quality is quite remarkable. It's that camera and a handful of the small batteries now. I also have the original RX100. I bought both used, well under $500 for each. I'm happy. I may one day pick up the RX10ii but it's not a pressing need right now.

Mosswings said...

Tnargs: This is very true - the enthusiast will likely have only one system. And only 1.5 lenses. But Kirk is suggesting that the logic we enthusiasts might employ is backwards. We buy camera systems aspirationally, not realistically. We buy the 80-tool Swiss Army Knife instead of the 3 or 4 tool Knife we really use. We buy the camera that promises the best possible image quality but never find ourselves in those situations where that matters.

Whenever given the choice, I have consistently chosen to remain with my DSLRs, and really for only one reason: I don't have to work around the camera's shotmaking limitations, specifically, AF that almost always nails it, quickly, for any scenario, nearly any lighting level, and good ergonomics. That's kept me lugging about a DX kit long past the point where a Series 1 or fixed-zoom u4/3 would have been a far better fit to my needs. I've enjoyed the security of knowing that my camera is capable of taking far better pictures than I can, but now recognize that the cost of that insurance is increasing hesitation in taking the camera with me where in the not too distance past I wouldn't think twice about leaving it behind. What good is a tool if not used?

This is where companies like Panasonic and Fuji are on the right track - providing small-format camera bodies and enthusiast compacts that are satisfying and even fun to use, with full control, well thought out UI, and responsive AF. This is also where Canikon have consistently chosen the wrong track - intentionally dumbing down the UI of an otherwise groundbreakingly good system (Series 1), or marketing an annoyingly unresponsive system (Canon M). At least Canon now has corrected its mistake, but it still doesn't feel as nice to use as the G85.

Olympus was on to something with their Stylus 1. A rather expensive small-sensor compact, to be sure, but boy is it a fun camera to use, and it takes surprisingly good pictures. Something like the FZ1000 or LX100 would be all that most enthusiasts ever need, if they could disabuse themselves of the marketing fearmongering that drives them to the big iron.

neopavlik said...

Waiting longer and longer for a D810 replacement or a used D810 to fall into a certain price range makes me realize more and more how good my D600 is. I said I'd buy the D810 when it gets into the $1500 range but I don't know. I occasionally whimsy about the Fujifilm GFX but until they get a longer telephoto prime that's just random gear lust.

I scooped up an AF 300mm 2.8 and have been messing around with that a little bit and it is sweet. Family will visit in a few weeks and that will give me the chance to really work it and other gear purchases out some more.

Edward Richards said...

I want to echo what you said about stitching for architecture. I dabble in high rez architecture, mostly church interiors. In the old days, I have been known to stitch 4x5 negatives to capture wide views of interiors. Even with all the zone tricks, dynamic range was always a problem because of shadowy interiors with exterior light coming through stained glass windows. Now with a cheap Nikon D610 and an ancient Nikon 55mm micro lens and stitching for resolution and dynamic range, I can get huge images with deep dynamic range that exceed anything you can get with digital MF or even ultra large format. The software deals with all of the issues that once had to be handled with camera movements. Even handheld, on the fly stitching with a 1" sensor can deliver amazing images of static subjects.

Doug said...

You're not wrong. But I can't agree completely. I've been shooting a hasselblad system for 3+ years, and while the process is slower, and the AF is shit...every time I get home and look at the photos I'm still totally and completely blown away. It's a level of quality, sharpness and color acuity in the files that my Nikon system can't pretend to match. My editorial clients love it for the 60mp files and design options, and my corporate clients love it because when I'm tethering the skin tones look perfect sotc (which the Nikons' definitely do not). Plus leaf lenses etc.

Yes, I'm into the system for more than I'd like to be, but currently being a DINK, I can afford it and given that, why wouldn't I invest in making the highest quality images for my clients? I definitely still shoot the Nikons for probably 1/3 of my work, but for the rest, the Hassy is worth every penny.

Rufus said...

Kirk

You overlook a key issue.

You control the light. Or you are bathed in Texas good light. You rarely shoot at hi ISO. You generally don't crop aggressively.

Your shooting style does not seem to be in low levels of natural light.

So your cameras have a relatively easy challenge. Try shooting environmental portraits in an English winter with natural light only. You'd be back to wishing you had your D750.

:)

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Rufus, I will be the photo instructor on a tour in the London area next December for about a week. I guess I'll get a dose of low light then. I do shoot in many convention and show venues that have dodgy light and I've done it with D750's as well as cameras like the GH4 and the Olympus EM-5. There are advantages to the larger sensor cameras but they are not nearly as dramatic as people make them out to be and much can be done to equalize the equation. Many use f2.8 zooms for everything. Sub an f2 or f1.4 lens and you gain a stop. Also, remember that the deeper depth of field allows for using wider apertures with the smaller sensor cameras which adds another layer of equalization. Finally, it's always good to be acquainted with our old friend, the tripod.

I did manage to do okay in Toronto in the dead of Winter this year.....

Malcolm Myers said...

Kirk,

Where are the details of your London workshop please?

Malcolm

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Malcolm, Here they are: http://www.craftours.com/trips/?page=iceland_photography_1018 and http://www.craftours.com/trips/?page=england_photography_1218 I'll have a bunch more to say about them after I get all the details. At least they are over a year away so I have lots of time to plan.