Is it okay if I switch seats?

Posted by Greg Hammond on

Equipment does not make images. But it is important. And if one enjoys using some equipment more than others, one is more likely to reach for it, travel with it, and come to know it well. Those repeated interactions help improve the photographer’s skills, and correspondingly make the equipment more effective. It’s as true of carpentry as it is photography. We use lots of different photo equipment. And over the course of several decades of making images, I’ve used even more. All can make decent images. Some are simply more rewarding to use. 

Folks who grew up with Brownies and Instamatics (including me), and wanted to take better photographs, but still wanted something  travel- and family-friendly, found the burgeoning 35mm market in the 1970s very interesting. Returning service personnel from Vietnam helped to popularize the Nikon, Minolta, Pentax, and Ricoh offerings. As the market expanded, feature wars erupted and became the nature of the industry. This was great for users, as technological marvels like auto-exposure, auto-focus, and eventually digital imagery became commonplace. Unfortunately, the explosion of features was not matched by a corresponding improvement in user interface (“UI”). That’s no surprise. If great UI were easy, Steve Jobs might not have died a multi-billionaire. For most users, this meant they picked their first serious FF camera based on a certain magazine review, or a friend’s recommendation, or a specific feature that happened to be market-leading at the time. I bought my Minolta SR-T 101 based on a sale price and its purportedly easier-to-read match needle metering. I would stick with Minolta for years and, once you bought into glass, you were unlikely to be swayed to another system. 

Eventually, FF cameras became festooned with buttons and dials like fleas on a dog. They were confusing, often inconsistent on the same model, etc. Simplicity seemed a lost art. And so the ability to engage delightfully with the machine became increasingly difficult. The last FF camera I liked was the Canon EOS-1n. It was well designed, had good ergonomics, made sense, and was exceptionally reliable. I liked it a lot, but it did not make me smile every time I picked it up.

That all changed when I first moved to MF in the form of the Mamiya 645. That was a fun camera, vaguely reminiscent of the Canon’s lines, but better. Eventually, image quality from the Mamiya made me want more. The first, and for a long time the last, camera to give me the “wow” was the Rollei 6003 medium format I shot with in the 90s. It was, still is, an exquisite machine that lived up to every German engineering superlative ever uttered. Many Hasselblad 6x6 shooters feel the same way about their box, but with all due respect, side by side there is no comparison.  It’s like Bimmer vs. Volvo, but more so. Still, Hasselblad won the market competition; in many ways, Rollei was its own worst enemy. Either way, that Rollei still holds a place in my heart, and it’s why both an SL66 and a 6008i are in my equipment cabinet today.

I think the closest thing to a “wow” machine in the FF market is Leica, especially in film and rangefinder cameras, where Leica made jewel-like cameras with a sense of spiritual purpose in front of your eye and molecular density in your hands. They've still got a bit of that today [especially some of their superb lenses], but for me, Leicas now seem special, but not sublime [no offense is intended here against devoted Leica owners]. When I came back to serious cameras in 2007, I couldn't afford Leica, and probably wasn't that interested anyway. I chose a Canon crop camera, because it was what I could afford, and I was convinced that digital was changing things so fast, that spending serious money would be foolish [that was correct, BTW]. When I wanted to get more serious, I switched to Nikon. I had not invested in any Canon glass yet, so the switch was easy. At the time, to me anyway, Nikon seemed more "serious." I like the Nikon line very much. Nikon seems first and foremost an imagery company. They once owned the high end FF market. Their film cameras were renowned for war correspondence. But, as we’ve seen in many industries, past success is no guarantee of future performance. Still, I invested in Nikon glass, including expensive third party lenses by Zeiss and Hartblei.

But Nikon or any other FF camera doesn’t quite have that dimly lit, smoky, hot, humid, seductive beckon that one finds in the best of things, and what I remember about the Rollei. So, when I want to shoot deliberately, thoughtfully, timefully, I shoot MF, with Phase, Cambo, and Hasselblad gear. These are psychically rewarding machines, made by companies that clearly appreciate how you interact with the machine they made for you, from the elegance of the machinery to the engagement of the UI. Inversely, these camera systems have caused me to regard my choices for photography for which MF is not well-suited through a more utilitarian lens. What photography is not suited to MF? In a nutshell, it's wildlife photography [or sports or action], about which I cared little—except for backyard hummingbird imagery—until going on safari in 2018 in Namibia. And for that use case, there are certain very core requirements: excellent autofocus, high speed shutter, moderate size, with handhold-able long telephoto reach, excellent IQ, and transportable. 

This combination of factors almost completely rules out MF; you could try to shoot sports and wildlife with MF, and some really good photographers do, but the nature of the beast is that you are going to miss shots. Think about it: if you have a camera that can fire a shutter at 1/1000 of a second and gather enough light for a decent exposure, and that camera can fire off a burst of images at a rate of even 50 fps [fantastically high for most any decent camera], then you still have missed 950/1000 or 95% of the moment. That's a lot of moment missing! If your shutter is firing at 1/2000 or even 1/4000 of a second, you are missing even more. With MF cameras, you can be fortunate to get off 1-3 fps. That means missing even more reality. And when one is shooting leaping, yawning, snarling, chasing, or eating, missed reality is everything.

So, what one needs for wildlife photography is some sort of FF kit with some high-speed shutter capability. In the Nikon world, the fastest high-resolution camera is the D850, a DSLR. I've already decided I don't want to use a DSLR any more. I gave away or sold my Nikon DSLRs in favor of moving to the Nikon Z7 mirrorless. Mirrorless looks like the future and present to me, and I actually like using an EVF with live histogram. Nikon's Z7 was its first serious mirrorless effort, and I was quite impressed and happy with it. I managed to make some gratifying wildlife images with it. But the Z7 is not [yet] optimized for this use case. It can suffice, but it's not really excellent at it.

So, why did I choose to make the switch and take a modest economic hit? Because in my FF use case, there are certain technical features or capabilities that trump the joy of the instrument. Not by much, mind you, but by enough. And those shortcomings are now apparent to me. The Z7 is just not fast enough. As well thought out as its ergonomics and design are, its autofocus cannot compete with Sony's. As excellent as the lenses I already own are, they can't compete with Sony & Zeiss lenses that work with Eye Focus [human and animal, the latter of which Nikon doesn't have yet]. Sony is farther ahead in battery life. Nikon's LCD panel is much better, but Sony's EVF is even better than Nikon's already excellent EVF, though with poorer eye relief. [Dan Wells over at Luminous Landscape reports on PhotoPlus, and, in the process, reminds us all that Nikon is actually ahead of Sony's pace when it first brought out its mirrorless cameras and rather pathetic lens lineup. That's true, but it's a false equivalence comparison. Sony's effort to create a new camera category was ground-breaking, and its only competition was poo-pooing the whole concept. Now, that competition has to play catchup. Playing catchup faster than the market leader played groundbreaker doesn't count for anything. I like and root for Nikon just as much as Dan does. But today, right now, the other team has better beer.]

Sony's menu system absolutely sux, and the less said about Aperture Drive, the better. They've improved their body and control ergonomics, but Nikon's are still better. But not better enough to change image outcome, and menus can be learned. And Sony's ergonomics in the A7r iv and A9 ii are finally "good enough." Nikon's huge Z lens mount is a better, more modern design, but its potential is not yet realized in lenses that should be dramatically better. They are in some cases better than their Sony counterparts, and much better than Sony's first releases, but not $-in-customer-sales better. In fact, in part because Nikon refuses to release lens/electronic specs to third parties like Zeiss and Sigma, there is a much larger ecosystem of very good lenses in the Sony lineup than there are native Z lenses in the Nikon [yes, with an FTZ, which is an excellent bridge device, one can use almost any Nikon lens, and I do, but then one is not getting the technical benefit of that huge new lens mount, either in optical excellence and/or size/weight efficiency.] There are glimmers of promise on Nikon's lens roadmap, but not yet something to buy from B+H and pack on safari. Nikon appears to have something on the horizon also that may compete with the Sony A7r iv and possibly with the A9 ii, but they aren't even announced yet. So, when I go out next to shoot wildlife, or other fast-moving action, I'll be shooting with cameras that are designed to be used that way. Today. Sony cameras.

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