12.10.2019

Kirk Picks His All Around Best Camera Value of the Year (2019).



In all of 2019 there was (and still is) no greater bargain; no greater offering of superior imaging potential, bulletproof build quality and video wonderful-ness than the Fuji X-H1. For some insane reason Fuji took a $2,000 camera (and worth every cent even at that price!) combined it with the wonderful battery grip, threw in two extra batteries and priced the whole assemblage for about $1,200. My jaw still drops. 

If I were the kind of photographer who buys cameras as long term tools, middle term "investments" and items that one uses until they fall apart in one's hands, the Fuji X-H1 Pro would be my first and only choice... if putting together a system from scratch.

Starting with specs: It's a 24 megapixel APS-C camera that inherit's Fuji's stellar reputation for wonderful/pleasing/virtuous color science. At 24 megapixels it's about as much resolution as even hardened professionals need for their daily work. It's 4K video is superb and made even better with a clean HDMI output. And one of the biggest pluses of the Fuji X-H1 is its access to tons of very good and well planned lens choices. The 56mm f1.1.2 is (both varieties) awesome. The 90mm f2.0 is stellar. The 16-55mm f2.8 might be all the lens most people need, and if they need more then there is the flawless 50-140mm f2.8 lens available at a reasonable price. Add to all of this the camera's beautifully tuned (audio) shutter and fully competent image stabilization and you have a package you could make money with and enjoy at the same time. 

Sure, the full frame cameras look better on paper but when it comes down to actually using the camera and making good work the X-H1 is fully competitive. 

Once I started using the X-H1 I began to mostly ignore the X-T3 and then I bought two more X-H1s just because the price was right and we had three projects that could use three video camera to good effect. It was almost as cost effective to buy the two extra cameras than it would have been to rent something comparable. 

In 2019 no better bargain existed than the sale price of the X-H1+battery grip+ two extra batteries. 

Why did I sell mine? I'd been waiting for the Lumix S1 series to drop into the market. It's something I wanted since the announcement and since my time with the Panasonic G9. In effect, the Fujis were placeholders. The nice thing is that they held their value well. 

That's my "bargain" camera of 2019. The Fuji X-H1. 














Which Lumix S camera is the better one? The S1 or the S1R? And does it even matter? ( A VSL reader requested an answer.... )

This image of Belinda is not from one of the Lumix cameras.
It's from a Sony Nex 7 and I included it as a small, non-confrontational rebuttal of 
Michael Johnston's contention that black and white imaging
is more difficult with digital than with film tech. Note
the ample middle tonalities...

I'm vacillating lately. Do we really need any camera more substantial than an iPhone 11 Pro for most of the photographic work being done in 2019-2020? Does computational photography level the playing field between small and large sensor cameras? Do we just like the idea of "ultimatism" and have enough extra cash to be able to play in both realms? Is traditional photography dead? And, if it's not really dead (just sleeping?) then which Lumix S1 camera is the right one to choose?

I recently had a meeting with a non-profit organization I consult with. At the end of the meeting I was asked to recommend a small, cheap video kit that they could use to make 15 and 30 second videos for social media marketing. An example might be a person speaking into camera, a quick clip of a panel discussion and some other stuff. They have absolutely no expertise about audio engineering and only a vague grasp on shooting video; although a few people on staff are very good at post production and editing. Their budget was very limited....

My first and only suggestion was to get the person who would be doing the actual video capture one of the new iPhone 11 Pros, an app called "Filmic Pro" and a dedicated phone gimbal (instead of a tripod). My logic was that the phone would always be with the "artist" and could be instantly brought into service by the operator, that the new phone has very, very good 4K video, that it's easy to use and the video is easy to share instantly, and finally, everyone is comfortable with using phones to capture photos and video. They took my advice and a week or two later called to let me know that they had increased their use of video dramatically and that it all looked great. 

In the past I might have recommended a micro four thirds camera or a dedicated, inexpensive video camera but the technology and computational enhancement of the latest iPhones, and their ability to make video capture easier and better makes it tough to recommend much else unless the final operator envisions a progression toward more involved style/immersion in movie making. As a separate note the client has also discovered that the phone is a great camera for most of the stuff they need to generate as photographs for the web: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Win-win for them. 

In the right hands, and with the right support stuff (lights, microphones, audio input devices, gimbals) the latest iPhone is a formidable competitor in the (total spend) category of under $2,500 solutions for creating video and photography content. I'd use mine for projects more often but I need to get over my baked in prejudice against iPhone-ography. 

To answer my first question: If you are using a camera for sheer pleasure of having photos and videos of life as it unfolds, unhampered by the bulk and complexity of big cameras, lenses, batteries and chargers, a phone is now pretty much a near perfect solution. If I did not do photography as a commercial business and decided to take a long trip with my spouse for non-serious-imaging I'd run out right now and get an iPhone 11 Pro with a huge amount of storage and leave all the other stuff at home. 
It would make just about any travel experience that much better. And as far as stealth and street photography go I can't imagine any imaging tool that would be more culturally invisible than a phone.

Are they good enough now? No. They are almost too good for most social media use. They'll more than fill the bill for Instagram (and really? Twitter? Facebook? What are you? A politician or an artist?). Drawbacks? So you won't be doing extreme telephoto stuff, fellow duffers won't be impressed, it's hard to shoot and talk on the phone at the same time, phone form factors can be a bit awkward to handle if you are not used to phone-tography; but be fair, you've been practicing using conventional cameras for years or decades. Of course they feel more comfortable. I'm sure the phone will become second nature to you after you've put in your ten thousand hours of practice.....

Does computational-ism in photography even out the results between conventional cameras, like the full frame S1 cameras, or is there still a reason (other than wanting the "ultimate" tool) for using anything other than a phone? 

Oh hell yes. If you like to see images with the best possible image quality you'll still have a demonstrable advantage in most situations with an inventory of great lenses and a big sensor camera with lots of resolution (by lots I mean 24 megapixel or so....). The latest generation of single use cameras have wonderful sensors which, if paired with the kind of computational power found in an iPhone, would blow the doors off anything we imagine today. Even without the magic pizzaz of instantaneously stacked imaging, on-the-fly (tasteful) HDR, more current "real" cameras are capable of expressing more looks, from extreme telephoto to extreme resolution and stylistic nuance than ever before. Of course all these advantages are only conveyed when the photographer practices really good technique. Otherwise both Ferraris and Kia Souls, driven at 30 mph in sloggy traffic, have equivalent performance and results. A poorly used ├╝ber camera and lens versus a self stabilizing and easy to use phone camera both approach a median threshold of acceptability at which point there are no real advantages to the bigger and more complex camera. 

As long as there is a "sellable" difference between a well done image, made with a razor sharp lens on a high resolution and large sensor, I'll keep buying and using the real cameras. Would I recommend a Lumix S1R and a few Sigma Art lenses for my little sister to take along on her vacation to Europe, or Asia? Not on your life. I'd recommend the phone. And if I tagged along I'd choose the phone as well. Sorry. That's just the sensible thing. 

Now, if I head to the west Texas desert to photograph large, sun drenched landscapes, with the intention of coming home to make wall-sized prints, the camera I would choose would be (at least) a Lumix S1R along with the finest lenses I could cobble together. I'd be working on a tripod, trying to nail perfect exposures, maybe using some graduated NDs, sometimes a polarizing filter and I'd want a camera the would allow me to really dig into the scene; to be able to look at a high res EVF view of the scene instead of depending on a rear screen in a high light environment... Yes, that would be the argument for a high end system. Everything in between is degrees of "gray area." 

In reality my photographic habits are somewhere in the middle. There are days when even my techiest clients are only looking for immediately usable, web-sized images that can be streamed to the web during a conference. We set our big-ass cameras to medium or even small Jpeg settings and fire away knowing we can offload the files quickly and upload them in bulk to waiting online galleries for immediate sharing. Clients can pull them off the galleries, caption the images and have them on various social media feeds in minutes. 

At other times client will come in with projects that will either be printed on oversized, glossy stock to make large brochures. Some clients will show up with purchase orders for images that will be used on large, life-sized posters at trade shows or conventions. When images start to go larger than 30 by 40 inches and viewing distances are uncontrollably close then I start to gravitate toward cameras at the posh end of the spectrum; with lenses to match. Clients want what clients want and giving it to them the way they want it keeps us in business. There are some photography projects for which I just don't want to try convincing a client to give me a chance with an iPhone...

For those instances (and many, many other uses) I have a couple of different camera options. The first is the Lumix S1R which is a full frame, very high resolution camera which offers very sharp, near 50 megapixel files. With the $1300 "kit" lens I can make very good images; especially if I stop the lens down a bit. With the $2,300 50mm f1.4 S Pro lens I can make incredibly detailed prints even wide open at f1.4. With the idea of making the S1R cameras my "go to" cameras for all projects requiring very high production values I've been piecing together a collection of lenses known to be good enough to give a 50 megapixel sensor a enough to work with. These include the aforementioned 50mm as well as three Sigma L-mount Art lenses, the also aforementioned zoom and the (incredibly good) Panasonic Lumix 70-200mm f4.0. 

I've been using the S1R as my personal, walking around camera as well. I like the potential of the big files even if I rarely use the whole resolution in my own personal work.

But I'll confess that if my budget were limited to one Lumix model or the other I would immediately choose the lower resolution S1. With the V-Log upgrade the camera is a dynamite choice for 4K video production. The folks DP Review awarded the S1 their prize for hybrid, video/stills camera of the year. But looking beyond video, the 24 megapixel sensor makes gorgeous files, the camera has very low high ISO noise (lower than the S1R) and the files are big enough for just about every normal use while being compact enough to help with an efficient workflow and more cost effective storage. 

I have a set of two S1 cameras and they get the most use. At events I'll use the 24-105mm on one body and the 70-200mm on the second body to cover just about anything that needs covered. I use a couple different Godox flashes for low light event work and, if it's a situation that calls for discreet, (no flash) shooting I can get great use out of my growing collection of f1.4 Sigma Art lenses. The S1 is a just right camera for day-to-day work and, if I wasn't also looking (from time to time) for a bit of perfection on demand I would have stayed put with just the S1s and never looked at the S1R. 

So, which one is better? If you shoot a lot of everything, including video, events, theater documentation, lifestyle on location, and even street photography, the S1 at $1,000 less than its more resolve-y sibling is the sweet spot. It's the one I'll most often recommend. 

If you want the best full frame imaging out there it's going to be a three way toss up (excluding medium format) between the Lumix S1R, the Nikon Z7 and the Sony A7RIV. I don't think you can go wrong with any of the options. I could shoot happily with any of the three. The nerd in me considers the S1R the most advanced and the most design-familiar for someone who has been working in photography for the last 32 years straight. All three of the camera makers are producing great lenses and all three make great cameras. Sony might be slightly better for people who always use AF-C but Nikon and Lumix have their advantages for considered photographers who aren't wedded exclusively to fast moving action sports. And when it comes to menus the Nikon and Lumix camera walk all over the Sony. No contest. 

If I were an artist/photographer who just wanted a great camera to shoot photographic art and portraits with, and I had the cash, I'd end up with the Lumix S1R as my primary camera. That, and one special L-mount Leica lens.... Oh, what am I saying? Am I too close to the black hole of German camera consumer magnetism? 

On a different note. If there really is a Santa Clause and if I've really been good this year, what would I want him/her/gender-neutral Santa to bring me?  Face a bit red, already feeling a bit guilty.... but....a Leica SL2 with a 50mm Apo Summicron on the front of it. Sadly, the lens is back-ordered. And, no. Even with my incredible powers of persuasion that's a purchase outlay that's not going to pass the test with my CFO.

Curious what my fellow VSL family want this year, if anything.....

Downtown Boston. 50mm f1.8 and Nex 7.