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.

I had a nice website yesterday, made a few changes this morning, crash fest and a largely dead site now. NOW FIXED.

Too Serious.

Anything that requires many minutes of uploading into some mysterious folder at one's ISP is fraught with peril and frustration. I read the comments left by my thoughtful readers yesterday re: my re-do of the website and, fresh from a relaxing father's day, I hit the studio this morning to make some tweaks. Most involved just removing duplicate files, changing the automatic slide show timing for the galleries and making the thumbnails in the galleries one size bigger. 

Then, unexpectedly, all hell broke loose. I tried to publish to my site from the design program only to have the program crash again and again. I tried to save the files to disk but would get 90% of the way there before the program crashed again. I tried uploading what I thought was a completed save to the ISP only to see that major parts and pieces are missing and now the site is a catastrophe. A meteor crater of programming.

It will, no doubt, be during this time period that the senior art director for Apple will decide to take a peek at my site as a prelude to offering me an exten$ive project.... And then J.J. Abrams will drop by to see more about that great novelist he's heard so much about (all fantasy). 

I may have fixed the issue. I'm trying another upload now but, as with all things modern, I am very doubtful, pessimistic. 

Well, at least I'll have the memory of having once had a mostly completed site up for a while....

edit: Hmmmm. It's wrong to always presume that we've done something wrong when it comes to computers, ISPs, web sites, web hosts, et al. Today I re-loaded application software, changed security protocols for uploads, cleared caches, cleared folders on the web server and all kinds of other stupid voodoo only to finally talk to a human at our hosting company and finding out that they did a huge server upgrade over the weekend that played havoc on their firewall settings. It got resolved around noon and I found out about it just a few minutes ago at 3:42 CST. 

We are now in the last throes of yet another upload to the kirktuck.com server and everything that I've been spot-checking looks pretty good. On days like this I re-decide that my hatred for technology is not misguided. Happy only for air conditioning, and cures for polio, tuberculosis and other assorted diseases; as well as refrigeration and Fed Ex delivery from Amazon.com. Every other advance largely proves to be more trouble that it is worth and comes with unexpected consequences. But, for the moment, it looks like I'll have my new website back. Pretty happy since I dropped days into construction. Whew.