The Sigma fp is like the New York Times
crossword puzzle of modern cameras. Lots of
clues. Lots of blanks to fill in. Rewarding for
those with skills.
There is something meditative about driving on empty roads for hours at a time. One's mind tends to roam over a wide range of topics but mine eventually comes back to photography. And cameras. And lenses. And how we use them in our day to day lives. I've had the benefit of a front seat at the evolution of camera gear since the 1970s. So much has changed but so much has stayed very much the same. With all the advances in technology the distillation of it all winds up pretty much the same; we choose a camera that seems appropriate to our tasks, put the strap over one shoulder and head out the door to document the world around us. That part has stayed reassuringly the same.
Camera makers have a couple of trajectories they've followed, one of which they've pursued since camera makers first introduced exposure automation, and that is to take complexity out of the actual making of photographs. They've tried to make the process more and more automatic. It's only accelerated with each successive generation of digital cameras. As a salve to traditionalists who grumble about automation the same camera makers have created deeper and deeper customization options with each camera, making them paradoxically more complex and functionally opaque than ever before. But before you mistake my assertion be clear that it's obvious one can put just about any new camera into a totally programmed, automatic mode and just fire away as you would with a point-and-shoot camera. Photographers who learned at a time before rampant automation, who crave more "control" over their cameras and are willing to dive into complex and extensive menus with the idea of "mastering" the process, usually to the technical detriment of the process, are thus assuaged. Comforted that some barriers to entry still exist even if they are ancillary to making good pictures.
I learned the craft of photography on 4x5 view cameras, 8x10 view cameras and all manner of smaller, film camera models, across a wide range of formats. I've souped and printed tens of thousands of images in chemical darkrooms and I find the desire to customize the parameters of modern cameras funny and a bit silly. I rarely need to nudge the image controls much to get what I need to and am, admittedly, baffled at the horrifying complexity of various AF modes in the most consumer oriented of the current cameras. It all reminds me of a movie called Wall-E in which privileged humans live on a luxurious city high above a ruined planet where they are waited on hand and foot by servile robots. The humans recline on floating chairs and when they want to move about they do so via their "floatie" chairs. They have lost their ability to run, walk or even get out of their floatie chairs having been catered to and coddled for so long.
The humans have become enormously obese and, in effect, handicapped by their choices. I wonder if we will become so dependent on the automation in our cameras as to lose our ability to actually control the process and be "guided" to a homogenous mediocrity in our imaging. So often the nature of a tool manipulates the user to change direction. The weapon determines the course of battle...
Which brings me back to a camera that keeps showing up on my radar over and over again, the Sigma fp.
It's a camera that is decidedly at odds with the current uniform nature of most of its "competitors." It's loaded with deal-killers and can be a bit ponderous to use as a photography tool; if your aim is to reduce all friction between the seeing of a subject and its subsequent acquisition. The Sigma fp requires my attention. And my intervention. If you use any of its filters or dynamic range expanding settings you must forgo fast frame to frame shooting and be prepared for the camera to stop and process images at its own speed. You'll never be able to use the fp in a fully continuous mode to get eye detection AF on fast moving sloths or greyhounds.
From the point of view of a Sony Alpha One camera user the entire concept of the fp makes it unusable. For someone who welcomes a simpler tool and a camera that provides frictional feedback the fp is a jewel. I even appreciate the underwhelming battery capacity. It all adds up to me being integrated firmly into the whole process of actually taking a photograph. Of shepherding an image to fruition.
On one hand consumers crave a camera that will do their thinking and operational tasks for them. On the other hand they want the appearance of intricate controllability even if it foils or belabors their actual intent. Are we far from "floatie" chair evolution in cameras? I'm not sure...
Another issue I ruminated over while watching tumbleweeds race across the highway, propelled by 50 to 60 miles per hour wind gusts, is the continuous rise in the price of new cameras. There seems to be downward pressure on medium format cameras and a surprisingly strong upward pressure on pricing for all manner of 35mm style and APS-C style cameras. The Leica SL2 had a price increase of $895 in the U.S.A. this year alone. It's currently $6895, retail. But not to be outdone the less amiable (but fully equipped with hood scoops, wings, pinstriping and dozens of cupholders) Sony Alpha One is priced at
an imputed retail of $6400 but since it's in thin supply the current listing on Amazon.com is for about $7500. I guess if you find yourself operating on the cutting edge of something you'd be able to rationalize such a camera but for day to day photography? Not likely.
Nor is the Leica SL2 any more logical. But at least it's better built...and much more interesting.
Where is this all headed? Who will buy the stratospherically priced cameras once all the boomers retire?
I think camera makers are trying to maximize profitability by going after the most affluent consumers in their customer bases. They are trying to generate as much buzz as they can during this period of shipping issues and materials shortages by turning as much margin as they can by offering the high end products at the expense of entry level and medium priced cameras and lenses. But I would suggest that it's an unsustainable strategy that will mostly just drive more and more potential customers away from unimproved entry level options (which create dedicated future customers) and more vigorously towards phone cameras. Which are getting better with every passing generation.
At some point the pandemic will recede, the recessions it has caused will cycle back into booms, the population outside the traditional "first world" will grow in income, personal wealth and opportunity and camera makers will have an opportunity to seize the entry level market once again. If they can wean themselves from the margins they are currently getting because of shortages and heavy targeting of the people still standing with extra cash.
If I were a betting person I'd lay my money on only three or four traditional camera companies surviving the next wave. The camera makers traditionally and historically have a hard, hard time turning "big boats" around quickly. They'll soon be replaced by companies that emerge from the ever rising manufacturing sectors in lower wage countries such as China and India and, perhaps Vietnam and parts of Eastern Europe. At that juncture we'll start to see more competition at the lower end of the product spectrum along with much improved adaptation rates. It might be the renaissance we've long imagined but just not in the way we imagine it on a granular level.
As I sat in the fast moving car scanning the horizon, looking for the next highway rest stop I did admit to myself that this could all be anecdotal bullshit with no wider relevance beyond my own personal experiences. But if that was the case how then to explain even the existence of the Sigma fp? The wider embrace of $6000+ consumer cameras? And the increasingly good photo products currently emerging from China?
There is always a market that is declining and being replaced by a different market ascending. Locking into one way of thinking or buying is a danger but nothing life threatening. At least not when it comes to something like personal photography.
When I look back at images made with digital cameras from three and four generations back
I marvel to find that the images from them have not been rendered obsolete...
We love to harken back to the "good old days" of film photography often forgetting
the hit and miss nature of its undertaking and minimizing through convenient
memory the arduous practice of making a good image and then scanning
it into a system successfully. But it did work just fine. Even without
AF, various modes, I.S., built-in histograms, ultra fast frame rates and
all the other mostly useless crap on offer.
It's a wonder we could actually make images back in the day.
It's a wonder we're still amused and entertained by the process today...