2013 Cameras - The Year In Retrospect

None of the following opinion is new. It's more a consolidation of various thoughts and rants I've shared here and there in the context of other posts. More of a wrap up of my 2013 experiences after sitting down and thinking about them as a whole with respect to gear. Specifically cameras or even more specifically camera systems.

I'm not going to inventory all of the stuff I don't shoot or am not even considering. Instead I will stick to what I do use, what I may use, and a general state of the union. I hate how much time, effort, energy, and mindshare of my own as well as everyone else's gets wasted on gear. The internet needs more gear talk like a second… ummm… you know what. So why would I add to the noise pollution? The fact that I spend so damn much time and energy thinking about it, evaluating, shifting, balancing, and considering this crap is a good indicator of something wrong. Why do I do this? Have I somehow got sucked into this bullshit? - does any of it matter? Unfortunately it sort of matters. This never happened to me pre-digital. Never - was it that I didn't know any better? Did pandora's box get opened that now can't be closed? Yes and No. I'm going to focus on the no part today. That part that solely has to do with the fact that we are all using stuff that is ultimately immature as opposed to products that are very stable, fixed, and no matter what the marketing diatribe suggests made no difference in making photographs.

Level Set

We have been living in a post IQ world for quite a while now. I've heard declarations about that particular sacred cow ever since we were all at in six,eight, and 12 megapixel land. I'm talking about the Olympus E-1, Nikon D2x era. Plainly that was un-true. I didn't feel that way then. I do feel that way now and have for a while. I am sure there are people that will continue to search with all the fervor they can muster for that little bit more but for most serious work we are at a point where any huge improvement to what we can all have is fairly moot. Here's some evidence of why I'm fairly confident about that IQ thing.

  • In the way back time of film you could be fairly confident that your lenses would out resolve the film you were using for most purposes in 35mm, medium format, and of course any size of sheet film as the larger the sensor the less good the lenses have to be at any reasonable reproduction ratio. Yes there were the Techpan knuckleheads but how many of them made photographs of things other than test charts…
  • When we hit that 16,20,24 and beyond megapixel mark or there about especially sans AA filter now everyone is worried about lenses that are not good enough for the sensors. Many lenses are not.
  • Most current cameras can take images in situations where you can't see all that well. Hand held. We need more? Maybe you do - but most people don't. Who cares.

What does all that mean? Well we have started to hit some limitations of the physics of the situation. Don't worry about the physics of the situation - it's idiotic unless you plan on treating a good portion of the subjects you photograph as some scientific experiment. Translation - your technique and other physical issues will be barriers to more IQ far before the physics of the situation, the sensor in your camera, and reasonably decent glass. Case in point… My D600 vs a D800. I have extensively tested both cameras with the same glass as well as similar glass and I will assure you there is no practical difference. Could there be? Sure but not at the aperture's I shoot at in 99.9% of the circumstances I shoot in or how I use the cameras. How about those situations where it might make some decreeable difference? I've tested that as well. It's a nit - a non-event. Nobody will ever care in terms of the end result. That's examining the pixels - forget about seeing the difference in a print of any size.

Let's pretend for a moment that the rarified subjects you shoot need better IQ than the rest of us morons. You are willing to do everything in your power to make sure absolute ultimate IQ. Damn everything else - it's all in the quality of those pixels. Where does that leave you? Grab yourself a medium format camera - oh shit too big and holy sticker shock - that price tag and oh my good it has fairly shitty high ISO… Hmmm okay back to the land of the small cameras but even there just take a look at the size of the glass for the ultimate results. Have you seen the size of top of the line glass? Especially for full-frame cameras. Do you think the Sony full-frame cameras are somehow going to give you smaller lenses? Guess again. Look at those Zeiss Otus Things. Heaven help us - the size - the price - and that's without a focus motor. Congratulations you have won the small camera lottery with the A7r. Good luck with the size of your glass… Grab an Otus or two. You think somehow a bunch of class leading, small, super high resolution, fast, autofocus glass is going to magically appear? Yeah - keep dreaming. Have you seen how idiotic that camera looks with a lens adaptor and any of the new-ish fast primes from anyone? Ridiculous. How about a fast zoom as good as Nikon, Canon, etc. - more a comedic performance than useful. Let's call this the NEX effect.

The Meat of the Issue

So for everyone that's not a Techpan kind of photographer we are pretty much in a position where IQ is not the overriding factor in our decisions on gear. There will always be somewhere it is for perfectly reasonable requirements and others just because that's what interests them. Great. Hopefully any serious gear reviews and editorials and discussions will just assume that part. I know I am certainly more than happy with IQ from just about any current generation system that could possibly qualify as serious. I have been. Micro 4/3, APS-C, Full-frame - all of um. Why oh why then did so much of my time in 2012 and 2013 get sucked up thinking about this stupid gear shit?

At this point it's become more of a fine tuning issue. All based on personal preference of image aesthetics (not some arbitrary measure of quality), lens preferences, camera use, size, balance, camera handling, subject matter, application, etc, etc, etc. This is where it lands now when deciding on cameras or more accurately camera systems. I think it will probably stay that way for a while. Those of us that do a few different things and have a few different needs may end up with two different systems. Maybe there isn't a one system for all occasions. There might me for any given photographer - for others maybe not. For some it may be the big system and the phone. Probably not for me. At the end of it all there's a good chance if you are serious about making photographs this will be a highly personal set of decisions based on actual experience where a lot of internet noise will be nothing more than a distraction. Discussions of arbitrary IQ might be better ignored. Context of use and some idea of how it relates to you personally is likely to be far more important going forward.

My Thoughts On 2013 and Beyond

I landed on a Nikon D600 a small set of primes and a Fuji X100S as my tools of choice. I'm pretty good where I'm at right now but I have had lots and lots of thoughts. I tried my best to go all Fuji X System and got almost there. Ultimately I went Nikon Full Frame with a few primes vs X-Pro with a similar lens kit. I won't rehash all of the reasons why but instead will summarize some of my findings and my biases with some degree of opinion on the X System vs APS-C of other systems vs Nikon Full Frame. You can take just about everything I say about Nikon Full frame and substitute Canon if you wish - same church different pew. I just happen to prefer Nikon handling and controls and other operational characteristics over Canon. Secondarily I like Nikon glass in the range I prefer just a tad better.

With my particular biases and lens desires a full frame DSLR that was reasonably compact like a D600 and 35mm-ish to 100mm-ish set of primes was for all practical purposes about the same size as my X-Pro kit with similar glass. I used the exact same camera bag for both. I could have crammed another lens or two or even a backup body in that bag with the Fuji system where I may not have been able to with the Nikon. So what - I didn't do that. I was satisfied with my X100S as backup. Under different circumstances I may have chosen two X-Pro cameras and an additional lens in that same bag space rather than one D600 and an X100S. See what I mean - personal requirements. My particular reason? It's all in the speed - no not frame rate or ultimate AF tracking speed or AF acquisition speed in the dark or anything like that. For me operational speed and transparency is a big deal.

Let's talk about that word transparency in terms of operation. That's a pretty big deal for me personally. Even the newest X mirrorless guts don't hold a candle to your garden variety Nikon D600, D7000, D7100 and most likely lesser cameras. All of those cameras feel like they run on rails. There is zero lag between any of the controls and the results. Booooom. By comparison all of the Fuji cameras are laggy and clunky. Hell the aperture numbers don't even change as fast as you spin the ring. The buttons are sort of small and fiddly. The machinations of image playback and return to shooting seem glacial in comparison. Does this matter in a race? Will it impact you and your use? I have no idea. It throws me off in use. It affects me negatively if only my psychology which is an important part of the picture making equation. That direct connected feeling of everything in the Nikon gives me transparency in a way the Fuji system just does not. It gets out of my way. I don't even think about it. Not so much with the Fuji's.

So then, why the X100S. Finally, finally, finally, finally a small camera with a big sensor with decent enough controls that's about the same size as carry around cameras I used to have when I shot film with results that are without compromise in reality as well as psychologically. Yep the X100 is as small or smaller than my M6 and an f/2 prime, about the same size as an OM-1 with a similar prime, a hair bigger than say a 70's fixed lens rangefinder but all in all about that perfect size. Wait - there's more. All of the important controls are actually useful. Shutter - check, aperture check, focus check, ummm what else do we need. Not much. As an added bonus a real viewfinder. A fantastically innovative viewfinder. The best of all possible worlds at the moment. Easily as good as most rangefinders and arguably about the same - maybe better in some ways than the Leica 0.58x. EVF's are all fine and dandy for evaluating the image in 2D and seeing what the highlights look like. At the moment they do however suck compared to reality. When I cannot tell the difference - I will not complain any more. A real camera with decent controls in a compact size with no-compromise results = big win. Love it.

Well this leads to the ridiculous assumption that you might want an XE-2 and that uber-wonder XF 23 1.4 as a substitute. Nope not even in the same ballpark. No OVF and not even remotely the same size package. Completely different. The XF 23 1.4 lens is about 400x as big as the 23 f/2. Sorry. That does not mean I think it's not a good camera, good lens, and more importantly a good system. On the contrary it's a great system but maybe not for the reasons that are usually praised. The Fuji X-Series and lenses are a great system for what I care about in ways similar systems just do not cut the mustard. If the D600 just went away or was way more expensive than it is or even if I just changed my feelings a hair. Or the Fuji cameras eeeked out a hair more of that directly connected feeling the Nikons give I could easily and happily live with an X series kit. The X series does thing right where other systems bother me in a big way.

Let's compare the fuji APS-C system to what is a far more capable camera and system on paper - my personal favorite the Nikon D7000 or D7100. Make no mistake The D7000/D7100 are far more capable, durable, mature, picture making machines for less money. Specifically the $500-$600 D7000 prices for barely used cameras has to be the deal of the century. With one caveat - the glass. This is where the Fuji system shines like no other in almost any way you want to look at it. The XF lens system for APS-C is just about all you could ask for and getting better. Nikon screwed us all - the Nikon DX lens system blows - it's an after thought. They pretty much stopped giving a hoot when they knew they were going to deliver the D3 - a long long time ago. Far before that product was released, announced, or rumored.

All that diatribe is solely based on my personal lens desires. If you are a telephoto guy you have it made in the shade. The D7000/D7100 are fantastic cameras that will run circles around the fuji including the glass. In fact based on your needs that may be true for just about any case. Telephoto guy or not. Are you okay with a 75mm equiv 1.4? How about a cheap and far more than adequate 50mm equiv f/1.8? How about a 90mm equiv macro to die for at super cheap prices? You win. What about a great small capable zoom? How about a large aperture small 35mm equiv? How about wider? You loose and you loose big time. Don't care about a great normal zoom - good with 50mm equiv and longer fast glass? You are good to go - sign up now. Forget fuji… except for that delicious X100S.

The fuji lens system for APS-C blows the shit out of the Nikon DX system for what I care about and it does it with smaller, better, cheaper lenses. The normal zoom Nikon equals big – heavy – expensive – may as well be a full frame f/2.8 zoom. The Fuji normal zoom is almost as fast, in fact exactly as fast at the wide end. It's smaller, cheaper, at least as good - maybe better and it has IS. Even if the IS only gives you one stop you are still better off. You could live happily with this one lens at a price that's less than half the price of the Nikon 17-55. Let's not even get started about a 28mm or 35mm equiv fast prime. Nikon has nada, well you could get the ghastly, shockingly expensive, and Bismarck sized 24mm 1.4G. Yea right, what the hell happened to my small reasonably affordable APS-C system.

Again - this is all based on my actual use and personal desire - not performance. It's all context related. What about micro 4/3. Finally getting pretty good. Better glass selection. Ooooops image aesthetics too too far off in the 35mm and 50mm equiv department for me - tele no problem. Shoot at medium apertures or like your depth of field - maybe that's just perfect and even better for you. How about those Sony cameras. Well now we are back to the NEX effect most of them are horrid devices to use with crazy small hair trigger controls. You end up activating 43 things you didn't mean to as your human size fingers attempt to deal with the horrible miniature controls while simultaneously attempting to avoiding the touch screen antics. Surprisingly the A7 and A7r look and reportedly are a whole lot better than the NEX cameras but once you attach some decent glass you get huge again. Not only huge glass but you look like an idiot with some dinky camera with a huge lens on it. The good thing is at worst the A7 and A7r will certainly cause Nikon/Canon and Fuji to take notice - especially in the pricing department. That's good. All of that aside - Sony has a serious glass issue at the moment - seems that has been getting solved any day now for quite some time.

Let's wrap this up now that I'm 3000 words into a subject I hate spending time on - go figure. Note that I didn't even hint at any stupid retro-for-retro's sake shit here. The Fuji goodness has nothing to do with "retro" bullshit. The only thing that retro has anything to do with in my book is the size, form factor, viewfinder, and controls that work. End of story. Do I like good looking, good feeling cameras? Sure, who doesn't. We spend a lot of time holding them, using them, and looking at them. Honestly, the Fuji cameras don't hold a candle to any of the 60's or 70's cameras. They feel like shit and look like shit by comparison. Not the point but certainly a consideration. That brings me to the absolute most horrid, stupid, ill-conceived product of 2013. This special designation goes to the Nikon Df. What a hunk-o-purpose-less-ness. I called this the day prior to release but gave Nikon the benefit of the doubt they might do something special. They didn't. So let's look at what your hard won $3000 get's you in Nikon's drug induced flashback to the FE?

  • D600 guts. Yes I hate when people say "D4 guts". It has a D4 sensor and that's probably because that sensor part costs less at this point. It's older. Is it "bad"? No, but the rest of the camera is pure D600 which is not bad it just makes no sense at $3000. D600 finder, AF sensor, etc, etc, etc, etc. D4 sensor.
  • The worst mish-mash of confusion in controls I've ever seen. A slathering of fake shutter speed and ISO dials carelessly shoveled on top of the normal Nikon DSLR par for the course stuff with no thought about anything different. Contrast that to say the X100. A mode dial? Surely you jest? Ummm - yea right. You couldn't make it elegant? Like maybe just set ONE shutter dial to A and the subcommand (Aperture dial) to A? You know to make the controls simple and intuitive. For $3000 you give us these hacks?
  • Let's make all those fake duplicate stupid controls that are already slower and worse than the normal Nikon even worse by having interlocks on every single thing before they can be changed. Honestly I am seriously thinking about breaking the one interlock on my D600 on the mode dial with the wonderful U1/U2. I like the D7000 better with no interlock that gets in your way. If I find the people that were complaining about "accidentally" knocking it to where it shouldn't be they are in for a beating. Who does that? I dare you to accidentally move that mode dial on the D7000 - that would be a trick.
  • Oh boy oh boy here's a win for the fake-retro for no purpose crowd… I guess Nikon heard some noise about four years ago with people complaining about cameras making "movies" so they gave the firmware a lobotomy and hooo-f'ing-ray the Df doesn't do movies? This has to fall under the "consumers are idiots" and committee's are bigger idiots category of epic fail. As any kind of innovator or leader in an industry you cannot listen to frigging consumers without putting on the idiot filter and figuring out what they meant rather than what they said. What they probably meant is they don't want more expensive cameras because they do movies. They also might have meant they don't want more complicated cameras because they do movies. They even might have meant they don't want any of the still shit compromised in order to make movies. Possibly they could have meant that the controls for the stuff that matters are not as elegant as they used to be because you keep adding crap and crowding out the stuff we use for every picture with more and more and more stuff without figuring out elegant human interfaces that work well and feel good and are intuitive. Nikon - arguably the best controls and handling in the business couldn't figure out what this "no movie stuff" spouted by idiot consumers meant so they hacked at the firmware to disable it - wow how innovative. Hey I am all for it if it put the price of the camera at $1000. Did the firmware disabling thing do ANYTHING to make the camera better or less costly - nope. Not a damn thing. It's just "no movies". Not cheaper, not simpler, not more elegant, no special attention to the way the controls work in the real world. Nada. We have live view…. Ummm guess what - that's pretty much the movie controls only no movies. D600 parts, a 4 year old sensor, no thought about any of the way the controls play together, not even close to the size of an FE, nothing absolutely nothing unique, innovative, or better at $3000. I would cheer this thing as a break-thru if all that nothing-ness led us to a $1000 camera and I would hope you gave us cool stuff like an innovative viewfinder that somehow turned on some ground glass overlay for REAL manual focusing or even some sort of HUD focus peak down the road for a stills only camera and refined the controls in version 4 or whatever. A $3000 piece of Nikon jewelry for non-photographers does not impress. As an added bonus I think this thing is butt-ugly. Compare it to an FE, an F3 even. Fail even on the "beauty contest" goal.

Okay - enough. Hope that's enough rant to kick off your new year. It certainly is enough to refocus me on going and making some pictures.

Have a healthy and prosperous New Year.

RB

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