An Honest Look at All the Cameras in My Arsenal and an Evaluation of My Own Confirmation Bias

An Honest Look at All the Cameras in My Arsenal and an Evaluation of My Own Confirmation Bias

Just back in town after three consecutive assignments, I decided to take advantage of a lazy weekend to test out a few theories about my cameras. 

Confirmation bias. It is defined as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that affirms one's prior beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning.”

In layman’s terms, we tend to hold certain beliefs, and rather than look for evidence of facts about a situation, we instead subconsciously just look for evidence to support our existing beliefs, factual or not. And once we find even the most tangential evidence, we take that as confirmation that we were right all along.

Say, for example, you believe that a certain group of people are a certain type of way because, growing up, everyone around you described them that way. You have no particular evidence to support this belief. In fact, you’ve met a number of people from the group that don’t behave in that particular way. But, one day, you meet one person from that group that does, and your brain automatically says: “Ha, see, I told you those people were all like that.” Your brain is looking for confirmation while tricking itself into thinking it’s looking for fact.

As the above carefully worded paragraph may indicate, confirmation bias can often be associated with social, political, or even racial issues.  But steering well clear of those issues for this essay, I am instead interested in considering how it may affect my own decisions as a photographer. More specifically, how does my perception of specific products based on past experience, vlogs, and the overconsumption of marketing materials affect what I choose to shoot with? And am I making the right decision based on the reality of my own business needs and shooting style? Or, am I purchasing gear subconsciously because everyone else says I should and my brain is reverse-engineering a justification?

I’ll stress up front that this internal debate was spurred purely by curiosity and not due to any dissatisfaction with my current gear lineup. I am blessed to get to work with some of the best tools in the business, and writing for this site, I even get the extra special benefit of getting to occasionally review other gear that may not even reside with me full-time.

Truthfully, that benefit can also be a curse. Having spent well over a decade as a professional photographer before writing material for this site, I lived in something of a state of blissful ignorance with regards to new camera gear. I used essentially the same camera body (with occasional upgrades to the newest version) and the same lighting kit for close to 15 years. Over that time span, a multitude of new camera features and advancements were rolled out, but I simply paid very little attention to them. What I was doing was working and constantly obsessing over new bells and whistles would only lead to me spending money I didn’t have.

It’s similar to the reason why I don’t spend any time at car lots. It’s not that I can’t appreciate a nice car. But I can’t afford one, so knowing how nice the new cars are does little for me other than make me yearn for something I can’t have, or worse, spend money I shouldn’t because my willpower gives out and I can no longer say no.

This attack on my willpower is all the more difficult to withstand when it comes to my photography. As this is my passion, it’s almost a certainty that I’m going to, on some level, want pretty much every new camera that hits the market. As this is my career, it is equally guaranteed that my brain can trick itself into seeing the business need for most new products as well if given more than 30 seconds to contemplate them.

But just because I want something and just because I can rationalize a use for something, does that really mean that I need it? That is the question that was far easier to answer in the days of blissful ignorance and can be increasingly difficult to ignore in a world where both the business and technology are changing with the rapidity of a high-speed shutter burst.

Whether it be my clients' increasing demand to include both motion and still photography in their projects, or a maturing mirrorless camera revolution that has led even established brands to shake up some of their tried-and-true camera lines, or maybe just some unspoken photographic wanderlust residing deep inside me, I have spent way more time and money than I would have liked over the last couple of years acquiring new gear.

I’ve gone from buying one camera every four or five years to having bought five in the last two years. True, one is a dedicated video camera. And true, one of the five was bought, then resold to buy the newer version. But still, three cameras is a lot in a two year span. Not to mention that, unlike in previous years, where I always bought the same camera body, my multiple cameras are now spread across multiple brands and lens mounts, so as the number of bodies has increased, so has the amount of accessories. Oh, how I miss the days of having just one camera and three lenses to do everything.

Now, this is by no means a plea for sympathy. Having more than you need and complaining about it is the very definition of a first-world problem. And I could turn back the clock tomorrow if I were to simply sell all my cameras except my favorite, simplify my arsenal, and swear off buying anything new. I won’t do that. There’s no way I have the willpower to do that. But I could. And the idea does appeal to me on a primal level.

But, of course, on a business level, that’s not always practical. There may have been a certain amount of reverse-engineering in the purchase of each camera. I wanted the camera, therefore I had to mentally manufacture a need for the camera. But, even when accepting this possibility, each of the cameras I now have do serve very specific purposes. 

11 Women by Christopher Malcolm. Shot using Fuji GFX 100.

My Fujifilm GFX 100 is the image quality maestro. It’s the one I reach for when image quality is of the absolute essence. If looked at in a vacuum, there’s no other camera (aside possibly from the 150 MP Phase One) that will deliver a better file with more flexibility for my advertising clients.

My Nikon D850 is the best general purpose high-resolution camera. It’s the quickest to operate and the tool I reach for when I need to get the job done but may not have 100% control of my situation. It’s a workhorse. It’s dependable. It’s fast. It’s not fancy, but it just works. And perhaps because I’ve been shooting with this basic body structure for over 15 years, it’s the easiest for me to use. As an advertising photographer for the activewear and fitness market, I shoot athletes in motion a lot, and I still haven’t found a better tool for keeping up with them while still delivering sufficient resolution for my clients. The GFX 100 file may be more effective, while shooting with the D850 is more efficient. You will likely take less shots with the GFX 100, but the keepers will be astounding, versus the D850, which will allow you to work faster. And while the file might not be as perfect at the one from the GFX 100, the easier workflow can perhaps make up for that in allowing for more freewheeling creativity.  It’s a conundrum I am not even close to having a definitive answer for yet.

World on a String by Christopher Malcolm. Shot with Nikon D850.

My Fujifilm X-T3 is my favorite camera. The least expensive, it’s also the one camera in my arsenal that could have been described as an impulse buy. I didn’t need it. I wanted it. Yet, it remains the camera I love to shoot with the most and the first camera I reach for when shooting for the love of the game. While the majority of my gear spends its life packed away carefully inside various hard-shelled Pelican cases, the X-T3 lives its life within arms reach, often spending its nights on the kitchen counter next to my keys and wallet, always ready to be snatched as I head out of the door. It doesn’t have the technical advantages of the other two, but it is the machine that reminds me of “why” I am a photographer.

Morgan at Lake Oswego by Christopher Malcolm. Shot with Fuji X-T3.

So, how does all of this tie into the idea of confirmation bias? Well, with each of these machines, I went in with a preconceived notion of why they were the absolute best camera for me at the time. I did my research and spent a good bit of time looking for information before making my purchase. I have little doubt that I favored the reviews and videos that confirmed my already held beliefs that these cameras were the best thing since sliced bread. And certainly, this tendency for positive reviews reinforced my inner sense that I really needed to purchase each as opposed to just wanting each.

I was reading something recently that mentioned that a large portion of people who watch gear reviews are already owners of the product being reviewed. Many of us make our decisions first, then look for reaffirmation, rather than approaching our purchasing decisions from the perspective of pure objectivity.

Of course, pure objectivity itself is a pipe dream. There’s a reason why confirmation bias is difficult to combat in the first place. It’s based on oft-repeated, deeply ingrained, and closely held beliefs that operate just below the conscious level. As much as we think that we really like learning new information, what most people really love is being told they are right. We all have this problem. It’s a blind spot. And it’s hard to combat something that is attacking from your blind spot.

But how do we reduce this vulnerability? This weekend, I did a little test to see if I could try to bring some objectivity back into my gear evaluation process. I took the three cameras mentioned earlier, a medium format 102 MP Fujifilm GFX 100, a full frame 45.7 MP Nikon D850, and an APS-C 26.1MP Fujifilm X-T3, and I shot them side by side. The objective wasn’t to create anything particularly beautiful. I never left the house and conducted the entire experiment without changing out of my sweatpants. I simply wanted to shoot the same subjects in the same light with all three cameras, then look at the images side-by-side.

The process was a bit less than scientific. I put a 35mm (or equivalent) prime lens on each. I did a few different test shots aimed at various textures, some handheld and some on a tripod. I used the same exposure settings other than aperture, which was adjusted to account for the different depth of field of each of the sensor sizes. I tried to get the depth of field relatively similar, so that I could judge image quality in a more apples-to-apples kind of way.  

Shot with GFX 100

Shot with D850

Shot with X-T3

I went in expecting the GFX 100 to have the best image quality. I wasn’t disappointed. I went in expecting my Nikon to have image quality fairly close to the GFX 100, but was somewhat surprised to find myself actually preferring the images from my X-T3 over the D850’s. That's purely subjective and likely dependent on subject matter. But I was so thrown by this result that I did a follow up experiment substituting a different lens in case that was the issue, but the results were still surprisingly comparable. Wasn’t expecting that to happen. Although, that advantage of the X-T3 really only held when viewing on a computer screen and when no cropping was involved. When I tried cropping in drastically (as clients often need to do), this is where the higher resolution came in handy. The GFX 100 could be cropped mercilessly while still retaining a clean printable image. The D850 could also be cropped in without losing a great deal of detail, whereas the 26MP X-T3 was best when shot with the final frame firmly in mind.

Extreme crop GFX 100

These are somewhat obvious results. They are very different resolutions, after all. But again, this test was not meant to be the definitive scientific benchmark for any of the cameras. Rather, it was a chance to remind myself that all three of these cameras are capable of doing virtually any job I have in mind. And while they each have areas where they excel, there’s very little they can’t do. In fact, when comparing them so closely, I found even new features within each of them that I didn’t even realize were there.  

I’ll include some basic findings below, but my main finding was also the most simple one. When it comes to what you “need” to create the images you have in your head, it’s highly likely that you already have the tool to do that in your bag. Will one camera make that job more convenient than another? Possibly. Does your current camera have certain limitations? Quite likely. But does that mean that you “need” the latest and greatest camera to achieve the best results? Absolutely not. No matter how many videos I watch trying to convince myself otherwise.

And below, as promised, here are a few quick observations from my side-by-side tests that you may or may not find interesting. These results are based on the side-by-side image comparisons as well as my past experiences shooting each in the field. 

Nikon D850

Pros

  • Best overall workhorse

  • Durability 

  • Battery life

  • Fastest operation

Cons

  • Focus points don’t extend to the edges of the frame

  • Best lens for it is also the heaviest and most awkward

  •  Least useful video features

Best Uses

  • Sports and action shots

  • When you need high resolution, but need to work fast

Fujifilm X-T3

Pros

  • Size and weight

  • Best designed 

  • Most enjoyable shooting experience

  • Best video options

  • Travels easily

  • Edge-to-edge autofocus 

  • Least expensive

  • Least expensive accessories 

  • Mirrorless. What you see is what you’re shooting.

Cons

  • Smallest sensor

  • Decent resolution if you don’t need to crop

  • Least “presence” on set (the importance of this may vary with the size of your client’s budget)

Best Uses

  • Everyday camera

  • Street and travel photography 

  • Hybrid shooting

  • Online or social media usage or editorial 

  • As a dedicated video camera 

Fujifilm GFX 100

Pros

  • Best image quality, bar none

  • Best dynamic range

  • Most resolution

  • Can crop at will while maintaining printability

  • “Deepest” feeling images (medium format just feels different to me)

  • Edge-to-edge autofocus 

  • Mirrorless. What you see in the viewfinder is what you’re shooting.

Cons

  • Longest viewfinder blackout makes rapid shooting a challenge. Not a problem for more stationary subjects. But, for running or jumping subjects, it can be a hindrance to catching the decisive moment.

  • Slowest focusing lenses

  • Slowest sync speed at 1/125th

  • Good video options in body, but most current lenses not designed for video. Focus by wire and focus breathing. So, even though the body has the same video features as the X-T3, the X-T3 is actually a bit more useful as a dedicated video camera.

  • Slowest workflow

Best Uses

  • Somewhat stationary subjects: still life, landscapes, fashion, portraits

  • Advertising jobs that need to be printed big and/or cropped in multiple ways for presentation 

  • When you have time with your subject and time to develop a shot

  • When technical image quality reigns supreme over shooting speed or volume

Okay, these are just a few of my own observations. As always, these are based on my own shooting practices, and your results may vary given your own shooting styles and subjects. These are three very different cameras and vary greatly in their skill sets and costs. But they can all get the job done.

All of which reminds me that it’s worthwhile to spend a bit of time getting to know the camera you own before looking for something better. Its greatness might just surprise you.

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6 Comments

Certainly seems reasonable to me.

Colin Corwin's picture

Thank you for writing this, it’s exactly what I needed to read today!

Matthew Teetshorn's picture

I shoot on the X-T3 and with the battery grip and some decent portrait glass, you can get back some of that 'presence' factor. Take it off and put on the 23/35 primes and you're in stealth mode. Love it!

Kirk Darling's picture

All of those cameras handle better than that old tank Mamiya C330.

Great ‘real world’ review.