As 2019 arrives, I look back at my camera-purchasing decisions over the last 12 months and learn a lesson or two about the meaning of the word “value.”
I purchased a lot of cameras in 2018. Like, a lot. Like, too many. In fact, I think, unless you are the proud owner of a camera shop or a rental house, it’s probably safe to say that buying more than one camera in a calendar year could often be a clear indicator of your money burning holes in your pockets.
To be fair, each purchase was motivated by a very specific business need. In hindsight, I could have planned better, but the logic in each individual moment still holds firm. Although I write for Fstoppers, I unfortunately don't have a crystal ball when it comes to knowing what products may be in the pipeline. And 2018 was a particularly impressive year of new releases.
And to be clear, each of the purchases continues to serve a very specific purpose. But just as in college, where I used to have a single pair of sneakers that had to work with every outfit and now have a closet full of shoes with often little else to delineate them but the color of the shoelaces, I now find myself with six camera bodies (two of those cameras are aging but able backup cameras) that hold a place in my starting lineup, whereas I previously made do with just one.
So, how did I get here? Well, it started early in the year with a desire to upgrade my well worn but still fantastic Nikon D800. Aside from a pocketable Fuji X100S I used primarily as a BTS camera, the D800 was really all the tool I’d needed for the better part of the last six years. Even in 2019, the enormous sensor is still more than enough to provide the high resolution my clients demand. The camera wasn’t slowing down either. But, being a long time Nikonian, and having skipped the D810 generation altogether, it was getting to be time to consider an updated system. Primarily, that conversation was driven by the desire to have 4K video. Having rediscovered my long dormant cinematic chops in 2017, I wanted to push those skills a bit further in 2018. Based on the requests for bids from clients that were increasingly including motion as a deliverable, that itch was well timed to be scratched. And with the Nikon D850 being the latest in the line with significant improvements in motion capabilities, its purchase seemed inevitable.
Of course, the waiting for it to actually arrive was excruciating. Thankfully, I moonlight for a site that allows you to write camera reviews, so I was able to get my hands on the Sony a7R III in the interim to try it out. Great images. But the ergonomics of the system never really clicked with me personally, so I was thrilled to finally receive my D850 in the mail along with my Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.
It didn’t take more than a couple shoots to recognize two clear things. One, holy cow are the files beautiful. Time and time again, I would return to Capture One, look at the images I shot, and simply marvel at the detail captured by the new system. That’s not to say that I was perfect personally, just that the camera was doing one heck of a job. And those times when I did make a mistake, the files were so dense that making minor or not-so minor adjustments in post seemed to always be an option.
But I also noticed that quality came at a cost. Specifically, the price was my back. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. The camera and lens combination isn’t quite heavy enough to sever a vertebrae. But it is heavy. Very heavy. And while I was more than enjoying the product, I wasn’t really enjoying the process of shooting with the new camera. I loved and continue to love the results. I just wasn’t having as much fun.
Now, most of this just comes with the territory. Bigger clients mean bigger files. Bigger files mean bigger cameras. It’s not a big deal. You just get used to it. And demanding both quality and fun out of our purchases is clearly a first world problem. But a chance encounter at the Fuji booth during Cinegear Expo unknowingly set my camera purchasing path into hyperdrive.
I have always loved Fuji cameras. Originally, renting the X-Pro1 lead me to purchasing the X100S as a walk-around camera. The focusing limitations on the early X100S hampered its use, but the thing that was always immediately apparent when picking up either of those early cameras is just how much I loved to use them. Yes, they only have APS-C sized sensors as opposed to full frame. Yes, they can be confused with toys if one weren’t to look too closely. But, boy howdy, picking one up just instantly reminds me of the joy I used to feel when I was first learning photography. Working with simple knobs and dials and living a life without the need for menus.
Another feeling that Fuji cameras seem to elicit in me is an uncontrollable desire to tell people how much I love shooting with Fujis. You may be experiencing that now. But I reckon there’s no greater indication of your true feeling about a product than when you instinctively come out of your introverted shell to tell complete strangers how much you love your camera.
So, as I made my way through the aisles of Arri Skypanels and Red Monstros at Cinegear, only to notice a small Fuji booth tucked in the middle of the exhibition floor, I made a quick beeline to the booth and struck up a conversation. Like most purchases, it started as a curiosity. I simply wanted to know more about the latest X100F. Had the focus controls improved? Yes. Did it have 4K? No. Then, the woman at the stand was kind enough (probably because it was her job) to talk over the entire line of Fuji X camera and break down the differences between the models. After pretty much monopolizing her time for what felt like a solid hour, I moved on to ogle the pretty gear at the other booths without much more thought about thought about Fuji.
Except, that is, to remember to return to the Fuji booth to pick up my old X100S which I’d left with them for a complimentary cleaning and firmware update. Between things like that and the constant firmware updates that, for all intents and purposes, give you a better camera every few months, the Fuji dedication to customer service has always been another endearing factor.
Predictably, like inception, I found myself thinking more and more about my visit to the booth as the following weeks wore on. I was seriously considering upgrading to the X100F, but for the minimal price difference, why not get the X-T2 with the option for interchangeable lenses? I may not have had any extra lenses, but it was nice to know the option is there. I fought as long as I could, but eventually succumbed to desire and ordered the X-T2.
Immediately, upon opening the box, that rush for photography returned. I found myself wanting to shoot more. That shutterbug gene that we all begin with quickly awoken from its slumber. It may not have a full frame sensor, but the images were beautiful. And more importantly, the experience of shooting those images was pure and exhilarating.
I quickly found myself looking for ways to work it into my professional workflow. The quality of the Nikon D850 images were just too much pass up. But these Fuji images were competitive. Maybe not as visually dense as the 45.7MP full frame Nikon, but also not as far off as one might assume. Maybe I wouldn’t use it to shoot a billboard for an advertising client, but for any images that would live online, in a magazine, or on a print up to maybe A2, the difference is there, but doesn't jump out at you if you're not looking for it. This holds especially true when you are able to control the light or just know how to take advantage of existing light (the one exception would be in extremely low light, where having a full frame sensor with more dynamic range and the ability to push further in post without noise is a major advantage).
The Fuji took over as my walk-around camera, and I soon began doing smaller editorial shoots with it as my primary tool. Of course, on more than one occasion, models have looked on with confusion when seeing the X-T2 emerge from my bag, this reaction undoubtedly heightened by the fact that I mostly use it with a 27mm pancake lens (41mm equivalent on full frame), making the whole thing look about the size of a disposable toy camera from the supermarket. A model on a recent shoot even asked as we were walking to the location “where is your camera,” having assumed I’d forgotten it in the car. When I reached into my oversized coat pocket to pull out the Fuji, her eyebrows raised. But when she saw the images that were coming out of this little “toy,” she quickly fell in love with it too.
There’s a famous Nike commercial where a very young Michael Jordan is paired with a very young Spike Lee in his Mars Blackmon persona to introduce the early Air Jordan sneakers. Mars is inquiring what it is about Michael Jordan that makes him so good.
After going through a number a bad guesses, the final response became a catchphrase that rang in the ears of viewers for many years to come. “It’s the shoes? It’s gotta be the shoes!” The implication being clearly that Michael Jordan could jump out of the gym not due to hard work and natural talent, but because he was wearing Nike sneakers. It still stands as one of the greatest and most successful ad campaigns in history.
As photographers, we often fall into a similar trap. We assume that buying a new camera will make us a better photographer. Despite the fact that the basic exposure triangle required to make a photograph hasn’t changed since the beginning of time, we think that we won’t be able to effectively create an image unless we have every piece of equipment in the catalog.
What the X-T2 did for me was remind me in actual practice that no matter how far you go as a photographer, it will always come back to basics. The tactile knobs and dials on a Fuji are loved by the brand’s admirers while often being written off as a gimmick by its detractors. But aside from just making the camera look pretty, those dials serve a purpose beyond just fluid operation. Whereas I have been known to live in aperture mode in many situations, because everything on the Fuji is so tactile and easy to use, I find myself shooting in full manual mode almost all the time with my Fuji.
The design of the X-T2 almost demands that you manually set your exposure. Of course, you can shoot in full auto mode, but it’s so easy not to, and the result is you have more control of your final image. This level of control along with the mirrorless preview encourages you to experiment. Maybe you let your shadows fall a bit darker. Maybe try something interesting with your highlights in-camera so that you have less to do when the files make it to a computer.
Using the 27mm f/2.8 pancake lens may make an already tiny camera seem even less serious, but along with the reduced weight, it also removes yet another variable that stands between me and the subject. For me, that somewhat odd focal length equates pretty closely to the field of view of my own eyes. So, when I spot the subject doing something I want to shoot, when I bring the camera up to my eye, I am seeing the scene just as my naked eye saw the scene seconds earlier. No guessing about composition or zooming in or out. I see it, I shoot it. The 41mm equivalent field of view also allows me to get wide enough to include environments or move in the shoot a closeup without significantly distorting facial features.
The other added benefit of the smaller profile of the camera is that it allows me to move easily unnoticed when doing a shoot on city streets. In Los Angeles, professional photographers need to have a shooting permit for pretty much any situation. You can get away with snapping shots of buildings and beaches as a tourist, but add a model, and things get tricky. The permitting fees they charge are mostly based on motion picture shooting budgets. So, in many cases, you have to pay an arm and a leg to get a permit to simply walk down a public street and take photographs of a model even in natural light. Of course, this can make even doing a simple shoot unaffordable, so many a photographer will simply shoot without permits and hope not to be fined by the authorities for looking too “professional.” Carrying around a big DSLR with battery grip and a massive zoom lens can make it very difficult to convince a police officer that you are not a professional. Walking around with what looks like a toy on the other hand, you will quickly find yourself able to access places and locations that may otherwise be impractical (public locations, not encouraging trespassing on private property). So, while you may lose a miniscule amount in terms of resolution, you can take the final image itself up a notch by having access to an increased number of locations.
When it comes down to it, I think it is the sheer simplicity of the camera that makes it such a joy to use. Fuji seems to understand what’s important functionally to a photographer and puts those functions in easy reach. And it all comes in a lightweight body that you won’t mind lugging around all day. It may not have everything you desire in terms of sensor size, but it gives you everything you need as an end result.
Yes, as a pixel peeper, if you bring an APS-C-sized image into Lightroom alongside a full fram-sized image and zoom in 100 percent to observe the sharpness of every detail in the background, you will likely find a small improvement on the full frame side. But you know who zooms in to focus on things like that? Photographers. You know who doesn’t zoom in to examine images with a microscope? Clients. Unless, of course, you are hired to shoot a product shot that will go up in Times Square, and they want sharpness across the frame or you’re working in another genre where extreme detail is mandatory, but your average customer looking to use the final images online or in household-sized prints, not so much. Above all else, most clients just want a great image. They don't care if it comes from a medium format camera, a full frame camera, a crop sensor camera, or even your phone, if it will tell their story and help them reach customers/impress their friends.
That’s not to say that gear doesn’t matter at all. You should use the right tool for a specific job. But, just like you don’t need to bring a bazooka to a boxing match, it is wise to consider what your ultimate objective is before investing in a camera system rather than buying on specs alone. The specs don’t matter as much as the end result. And, you should use the tool that allows you to get the best result.
You’re more likely to get that great result if you’re enjoying the process. And, while that might sound like an afterthought, the truth is that the more you enjoy using a tool, the more you will use it. The more you use it, the freer you will be using it. The freer you are using a tool, the fewer obstacles that will stand in between the image in your head and the image on the page. And, at that point, the only limitations you have are your own creativity.
Now, you may remember that I began the article by pointing out that I had bought four cameras in 2018, yet I’ve only mentioned two. I actually started this article with every intention to include all four in a single essay, but as I stated earlier, once I get going talking about the X-T2, it can be hard to stop me. And since I’ve already written a mini novella, my new plan is to follow up this article with reveals of what those cameras are as well as what purpose they serve in the lineup.
Also, I should say that even as I wax poetic about Fuji, the D850 remains the queen for my high-end advertising clients who need to print big for billboards or in-store displays. The X-T2 has locked down its claim as the ideal personal camera as well as a more than viable option for editorial work or when needing to shoot incognito. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that if my niche were anything other than advertising work, I think the Fuji X system would probably be the only tool in my kit. Weddings, events, headshots, seniors. All of these to me seem like areas where the cost/value proposition skews heavily in favor of smaller sensors and smaller price tags (I should probably mention that when considering total costs, my Fuji system is about one fourth the price of my Nikon system). And if I were a hobbyist who didn’t make my living through photography, the choice to stay with a crop sensor would be all the more sensible. Unless, of course, money's no object. In which case, order one of each.
But, as I began, my upgrade to the Nikon D850 wasn’t driven by resolution or sensor size, but video capabilities. Yet, while I used it to produce a great deal of motion content over the year, it did not end 2018 as my go-to system for video. So what did I ultimately do to address that issue? To learn the answer as well as see an example what happens when I combine all four cameras on one shoot, stay tuned.