Two very different views about photographic gear 🙂
In post #518, over 6 years ago, I proposed that camera manufacturers wisen up to the fact that most of us walk around with supercomputers donning superb screens, in our pockects. And lamented that, instead of fulfilling its promise of simplifying life, digital had made photography unduly complicated.
In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Clay Shirky had a thing or two to say about our favourite industry, hellbent as it has been to provide technological solutions to problems it created ex nihilo, for no reason. And, in doing so, it singlehandedly managed to scare away 80% of its buyers, who fled to phones and film, for fun and finplifity.
My other gripe was that an obsessive focus on stretching the shooting envelope came at the expense of the qualitative progress that is evident in close branches of the phylogenetic tree, such as cinema. The first casualty was the demise of the CCD camera, which was vastly superior to CMOS until very recently. And who knows how good/efficient CDD could be today with an extra decade of development under its belt. We’ll never know, will we?
I couldn’t help feel that the strategic goals of a few companies had damaged the playing field for all those who think differently. And driven the industry into a self-destructive spiral of quantitative talk, dominated by the particularly dangerous tendency to reduce a complex field to a minimum set of metrics, ideally one (hint hint, resolution, CO2 emissions, 2-party democracies …)
None of this has changed, but it’s impossible to deny that the increase in shooting envelope has empowered photographers to try new ideas, far beyond what a mere improvement in CCD quality would have made possible.
And it’s also impossible to deny the fact that cameras who serve the needs of multiple types of photographers make more economic sense than the ultra-niche product that would make this grumpy old sod happy. So this post is not about defining a camera that suits me, to the exclusion of others, and built around a 4×5 inch CCD sensor 😉 It’s about proposing solutions that make sense both for the industry and the user, albeit from a personal point of view. Two of us will share their opinion, Philippe joining in after the continuation of my proposal.
In 2023, I maintain that sidekick phones have been greatly underused, at best as afterthoughts to tick a marketing checkbox. And even more so today, with the variety of apps available to us. Here’s what coupling a phone to a camera could do for us:
This last point, to me, could be groundbreaking. Both for the efficiency of the photographic process (you could memorise whole complex configutations in the app and call one up in a press of abutton) and for the fun of the experience.
It’s hard for me to convey how important that last aspect would be. Try to picture a real-life situation. You’re in the tube, heading to your shoot. You doodle on your app to set up the camera (ISO range, WB, AF type, exposure type and compensation, colour profile tweaks, IBIS settings, flash settings … you name it). You arrive on location, proceed with the shoot. Then head to a cafe to review / PP your shots with your pals and beers, not on a camera’s flimsy, peeling, rear screen, but on a glorious display, with auto rotate and other fancy features such as swiping a photo from one phone to another to share with one another, on the spot, annotating, rating, editing …
And it’s not like it would cost more. We already have the phone with us. It would actually cost less.
This set-shoot-review process, which is both fun and provides the rapid feedback so essential to efficient learning, is one of the things that draw me to Pixii (even though my eyesight makes a rangefinder an absolute no-no).
Having established that a camera with no rear screen but great phone tethering would be my way ahead, what would I leave on the camera?
A proper ETTR system would be top of mind. The Hassy X2D, for all its lovelyness, doesn’t provide a live histogram, for example. Why?? Not that it matters, because the live histograms in most (all??) cameras are off by a solid stop and not that useful. Let me point the deluded photo industry to its professional cousin in the cine world. RED cameras (among others) implement a beautifully simple system of warning lights that tell you when you are clipping (R,G or B) in the highlights or shadows. 1%, 2% 5% of pixels. Of the RAW file. That’s all you need to decide how to expose, no fancy modes, no nothing. It’s fast, efficient and 100% reliable.
Internal memory. Here again, I will tip my hat to Pixii (with its 3500 RAW image capacity) and to Hassy (4000+) and Zeiss (can’t remember the capacity). The reliability of (good) SSD drives or industrial grade flash memory compared to that of external cards is like that of a modern Airbus compared to a 1970s British made car. Simple, reliable, brilliant.
A proper grip. That one baffles me. If any anthropologists read DS, please correct me if I’m wrong. But my understanding of the human hand is that it hasn’t changed in the last 1000 years. Why, why, why, why …. how can you possibly justify building a camera with a shitty grip today ???? It honestly baffles me, and smacks of pure arrogance towards the customer.
ISO invariance. My venerable X1D has it. Basically put, you can use ISO 3200 the same you would use ISO200 (I get into more detail in the coming course on exposure). So, you are essentially freeing up a variable in the exposure triangle. Meaning you can chose aperture purely for aesthetics reasons (DoF), speed purely for aesthetic reasons (motion blur), and let ISO adjust itself to get the proper exposure (within reason).
Obviously, excellent phone tethering. That means trouble-free connection to the phone via cable or WiFi (at least for two of the major operating systems), open specs for app developers (no damaging walled-garden mindset here), and solid mounting options for brackets fitting a wide variety of phones.
IBIS. A camera with a good grip, solid weight and very little vibrating, such as the X1D, forms a very stable platform to work with. With deliberate attention to technique 4/f speeds are easy to handhold (ie 1/8s with a 30mm lens). Compare that to the usual 1/2f recommendation, and you are ahead by 3 stops, just because the camera doesn’t begin by ruining stability, as many do. But adding a another 3 or 4 stops of real-life goodness would be wonderful. 3 stops turns ISO 25600 into ISO 3200!
Upgradability. At the risk of sounding like a Pixii fan-boy (I am, and was also a paid ambassador, but I’m actually giving you the reasons why I am, not pushing those features because I am), this is big. It’s cost-efficient, since upgrades cost a tiny fraction of a camera change, it’s fun and forward thinking, and it’s better for the environment. Japan, Sweden, how about it?
Reliable focusing. 30fps is brilliant for bird photographers. Me, I’m happy with something that never misses, even if slow. Which is what the X1D gives me. Most of the time 😉 (see above) With manual third-party lenses, most cameras do a great job of magnifying the image in the EVF or
Pixel binning / HDR pixel-shift. Maybe it would be easier to describe the goal rather than the how 😉 A smooth highlight shoulder is the goal. Not brutal clipping in the highlights, but a smooth fade to white. You know, like film 50 years ago, and cine cameras today. Since most cameras today offer too much resolutions for our real needs, maybe a 2×2 binning could provide greater well-dept, more DR and greater bit depth? If not, since pixel-shift is becoming de rigueur on IBIS-ready cameras, why not give us a version that doesn’t alter resolution but (1) does away with Bayer (a la Sony) and (2) combines slightly different exposure for a mild-HDR effect in the top end of the tone curve?
Decent weather sealing. Put differently, I’d like the camera to be as well weather sealed as myself. Gale conditions will find me indoors, and the camera with me. But when slight rain switches the camera off, as it has on several of mine in the past, that is no good.
OK, enough from me.
I see the modern camera as a nice-to-handle and well-connected middle layer in a tasty phone – camera – lens sandwitch. Not necessarily without a rear screen, but with one dedicated to shooting information rather than image visualisation (a la Fuji X-Pro3). And, more important that a feature list, the camera’s function should be thought out to favour the “think before, think after, not during photography” principle enunciated by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Now, here’s Philippe’s take on the same question of defining the perfect camera.
Pascal’s post is a hard act indeed to follow. He writes of the glory of screens with 2000 nits, whereas, to me, a nit is only the preamble to a form of intellect I thrive on, and both together add up to a not-entirely-worthy form of human life.
So, when it comes to my perfect camera, I can only designate very few priorities indeed, and will accept whatever else comes with it with the blissful indifference of the ignoramus. And what I look for first and foremost is what lenses can be used on this camera, because I feel that the lens defines the look of an image to a much greater degree than the camera.
To wit (no, not to nit :-), I experienced an epiphany when I saw images made with a Fuji GFX with a Contax MF lens of yore. Gone were all the reasons the GFX never resonated with me, as the images were full of agreeable character and charm, no trace of which I had ever felt with the GFX cum standard Fuji lenses.
Now that I have my preferred lens(es) mounted on a suitable camera body, my next priority is to be able to get as many shots from it as I can, in my own way. And this way begins with shooting mostly from the hip, or the waist, or the chest. But, in all these cases, previewing my shot from the LCD rather than the viewfinder. So, no articulated EVF = no deal. Even if that takes numerous otherwise highly desirable cameras out of contention. Conversely, a screen that articulates in every which possible way, rather than only vertically, like that of the new Sony A7R V, makes me drool. In the same vein, a great EVF and a great LCD are also required to help me focus manually.
There is a form of logic to this madness of mine about my ideal camera. Choosing the one that will enable my favorite lenses affects 100% of my shots. Selecting a body with a tiltable EVF enables roughly 80% of them. Why worry about criteria that might affect one of two only before these matters are addressed ? The next one is more than likely to land me in deep trouble with DS-Master Pascal. Because I would, at this time in my photo path, gladly trade 100 very fine images for one true masterpiece. One for the ages. So it needs to be absolutely as good as possible. Which means lots of resolution. DR, noise, colours, can all be tweaked somewhat in post, but resolution cannot. Hence, only bodies with high-resolution sensors need apply.
And the lure of hand-held pixel-shift, dangled in front of me by the Sony A7R V, appeals if confirmed (a big “if”, considering their previous effort at pixel shift, even on a stable tripod, yielded only paltry results). OM Systems, the new name for Olympus make the same claim BTW, but with a Micro 4/3 sensor, so it “only” delivers 50Mp images as opposed to Sony’s 200Mp. Sorry for the interruption, I had to wipe the drool from the keyboard.
Number four priority, once all the above have been satisfied, lovely colours (Hassy, Leica, Pixii) would be appreciated. As well, high DR and low noise. But how many shots would be impacted by lower noise? Some, but not many. Same with DR? Nicer colours would help make a shot better, but certainly not turn a dud into a Wow! image. Hence the rating as number four priority.
Then we come to priority number five. Where is it? Wait… Ah, yes, I remember now. There is no priority number five. Having too many so-called priorities is tantamount to having none, and leads to paralysis by analysis. What is the point of pining for a camera so outstanding, so perfect that it just doesn’t exist ? So, just to be clear, here are some of the factors that I won’t let have any impact on my choice: form factor, grip, menus, battery life, custom buttons, buffer size and speed, video, AF, weather sealing, overheating, gestalt, and a few hundred other meaningful features.
Okay, so the two of us have opened up to reveal our photographic dreams. A phone-tethering Zen machine on the one side and an ultra-high-resolution monster with superb lenses on the other. What about you? Go wild. Nobody is going to listen to us anyway, so this is just to start a discussion and see what the monst interesting, funniest, quirkiest … ideas are. Give it a go. What’s your dream camera or dream feature? We really want to know.
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