At some point it is good to look at the past to take stock of the present. Let’s go back to when “serious” digital cameras replaced film. Why did that happen? Practicality was the main reason, not IQ. Always-on LiveView and the ability to chimp, the instant availability of results, variable ISOs are but some of the significant improvements in practicality that caught the attention of photographers.
IQ followed suit, though arguably some time later.
More practicality followed. Smaller, compact cameras. Better autofocus. Autofocus zooms. Autofocus superzooms. IBIS. Etc..
On the IQ front, the race for ever more became extreme. More and more megapixels (100Mp too much? Puleeeeeeze!). More ISOs (124.000 anyone?). More AF points (thousands, anyone?). More frames per second (20 fps is so yesterday). Larger sensors. IBIS. Leaf shutters…
And glass. If you don’t have a fast zoom trilogy (16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, all f:2.8, or equivalent for smaller sensors than FF), you’re so just not serious as a manufacturer. If you don’t have a full complement of fast primes, from 21mm to 135mm, plus a couple of long lenses for sports/BIF… If you don’t have at least a couple of macro lenses… if you don’t have a full line of good entry-level glass (no, not the kit zoom or “plastic-fantastic”, entry-level now means almost pixel-perfect even wide open, no flare, no coma, no ghosting, no onion-rings, for half the money of premium lenses… if you don’t have a couple of ultra-wides… if you don’t have a couple of ultra-fast (faster than f:1.0) lenses… And when I looked at the specs of Sigma’s brand-new-to-be-released-at-Photokina lenses, my eyes popped and my joints hurt. A 40mm ART f:1.4 @ 1.2kg. A 70-200 ART f:2.8 @ 1.8kg, a 60-600 sports zoom @2.7kg. Wow! And, to finish it off, lengthy post-processing; Plus, if you insist, mutli-shot combinations, for focus stacking, or panos, or HDR, or ND filter emulation. Whew!
Sure, that race got us/gets us remarkable results. And prices for cameras keep dropping relative to performance. But let’s look at the big picture.
It all started as a race to practicality. That race is over. It has been won, handsomely, by the oh-so-practical smartphone. Because you’d have a smartphone even if it weren’t your camera, it means that you have a camera at no extra encumbrance at all. How to do lighter and smaller than nothing? And ease of use is great too. And performance keeps improving. Game over.
So we have smartphones at the practical end of the spectrum, and hyper-mega systems at the other end. It is like having a choice for urban transport of rent-a-bikes or hypercars. So clever -not!
What happened to the great middle glass? You know, a camera that I can take with me without the help of a couple of Nepalese sherpa (Nepalese only, please!). A camera that is not so expensive that negotiating with my significant other makes Brexit feel childishly easy (May I buy it please, May I?). A camera that perhaps doesn’t do birds-in-flight-against-the-backdrop-of-the-Milky-Way so well, but lets me build an easy scrapbook of my kids growing up and my in-laws aging.
Because sensors get better at high ISOs and low noise, fast glass isn’t mandatory for those of us who don’t live in caves. Landscape shooters don’t all shoot wide open all the time, do they? There are easy ways to do panoramas, so an ultra-wide isn’t a mandatory part of a kit (sorry, Nepal!). With lottsa pixels, cropping let’s you get away without an ultra-tele (sorry, physiotherapists!). Sort of, if you don’t go whole hog for the practicality of smartphones, does that mean you automatically choose extreme impracticality in order to worship at the altar of ultimate IQ?
Once upon a time, there were very nice narrow-range zooms. The Contax-CY 35-70, the Leica 35-70 f:4.0 macro, the Contax G 35-70. And so on. Now this is not fashionable, because (a) these zooms were slow, and (b), IQ was just a fraction less good than primes. But why is it that we either give up the IQ entirely and surrender to the practicality of the smartphone, or strive for Himalyan levels of cost, weight and complexity? Pascal is a good example, who would LOVE to have two systems. His Samsung S9, AND a Hasselblad X1D. How about a bit of happy middle glass?
Fact is, if you want an easy-go-lucky do-it-all-in-relative-style, you will be told the only game in town is a Sony RX100 in whatever incarnation. Or its supposedly lesser clones from Canikon. Less choice in the middle of the market than at either extreme. Weird, huh?
I would LOVE to own a fixed-lens camera with a good APS/C-or-larger sensor and a 35-70 zoom with a modicum of close-focus ability. Even if I give up some speed (say f:3.4 to f:5.6) and some IQ at the end of the focal range and wide open. Why, I’d even buy one. Something like a Ricoh GR II with this narrow-range zoom. Or, even better, especially if they can work out the kinks, the same based on a Sigma Quattro (Hi, Leonard!), or whatever…
Something I could buy without breaking the bank, say under 2000€/$. Something I could carry without breaking my back. Say, less than 750g. Something I could use in either JPEG or RAW without crying about lost IQ. Something I could use in either AF or MF.
You get the idea. I am now officially old, with decidedly middle-glass aspirations. But my sense is that I am not alone and that lots of you people would be interested, either as a primary or a secondary system.
As it happens, it seems that Zeiss will release a camera next week, which sounds strange considering how vocal they have been for years that they wouldn’t get back into this segment of the business. But if they do, they must have something different up their sleeve. Could it be a Sony body cum Batis narrow-range AF zoom?
Please, please, pretty please?
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