After a string of gear-related articles extolling the benefits and/or drawbacks of buying a particular camera system, and before launching into another such series in the weeks to come, I wanted to step back for a moment and re-evaluate a question larger than whether or not any particular camera is worthy of its place in your camera bag.
Now, since a certain segment of the population will undoubtedly read the headline of this article and skip ahead to lighting up the comment section before having read the essay, allow me to make clear up front that I am not saying that there is no objective difference between different cameras. 50 megapixels is objectively a larger resolution than 25 megapixels. Certain cameras have objectively faster autofocus than others. And for your personal type of work and shooting style, there is any number of quantifiable camera statistics that could legitimately be considered a requirement to do your job effectively.
So, I’m not saying that a camera's specifications don’t have an effect on outcomes. But, with that said, I would still argue that prior to spending a single moment diving into the stated capabilities of one system or another, there is a far more important conversation you should be having. Simply put, what is your use case?
Whenever I give my opinion on technology, I am always quick to explain the basis of my reaction. In usually one long-winded way or another, I will talk about my business, my shooting style, and my clients. Some may see this as me trying to brag or center myself in the story. But, in actuality, what I am trying to do is establish the basis for my evaluation.
I remember when I was a kid. I walked into a clothing store at the heels of my mother and looked up and saw a sign atop one of the racks. “One size fits all,” it exclaimed. They were baseball hats. And I remember being incredibly confused at how one hat could fit both my own rather bulbous noggin as well as my much smaller friend’s pinhead. In the case of that particular hat, the answer was that it would fit me by basically cutting the circulation off in my forehead and then draping so far down over my friend’s face as to block the edges of his spectacles and make running into a nearby wall a distinct possibility. But, I guess, technically, the claim was true, and no one else seemed to be as perplexed by this notion as I was. So, I moved on.
Now, several decades later, I often read gear reviews or watch videos that flatly declare one camera to be the greatest camera on the planet and the others pure rubbish in comparison. But one thing I’ve learned over the years, mostly by listening to too many of these reviews and making bad purchasing decisions, is that when it comes to technology, there is no such thing as one size fits all.
We all like to debate the merits of 8K or how many frames per second our cameras are capable of rattling off. But as I moved from a photo hobbyist to someone whose living depends on running a successful business, it became painfully clear that prior to asking what kind of camera you want, you should first ask what kind of camera you need.
Just so we have a point of comparison, let’s have a look at the four current flagship cameras for Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Fuji.
Sony recently released the Sony s1. 50 megapixels. Stacked sensor. 30fps still shooting. 8K up to 30p and 4K up to 120p.10-bit 4:2:2. On paper, at least, I mean, wow. That camera comes in at almost $6,500 as of this writing.
Of course, that camera only came after the release of Canon’s EOS R5. One of the first mirrorless cameras to make a splash in the 8K world, that camera has a 45-megapixel sensor. 12 fps mechanical shutter or 20 fps electronic. A whole host of video options and autofocus that is reportedly out of this world. That camera sells for $3,900.
Nikon’s current flagship mirrorless camera, the Z 7II also sports 45 megapixels. But it is the first on our list not to have 8K. Also, in comparison to the first two, it only boasts a burst speed of 10 fps. Then again, it also only sports a price tag of just shy of $3,000, making it $900 less than the Canon and actually less than half the price of the Sony.
The Fuji GFX 100S doubles the Nikon’s price tag, landing it at $6,000. But, in exchange, it’s the only camera in this list that trades in the full frame sensor in favor of a larger medium format one. Oh, and there’s the simple matter of having 102 MP in a DSLR-sized body.
I realize that this entire article is about how stats are less important than we presume, but I wanted to throw a handful of them out there so we would have a baseline. There are obviously all kinds of other manufacturers on the market, so we are just selecting these four as an example. And, this discussion is not meant to resolve the issue of which of those cameras is objectively better than the others. I’ll let you battle that out in the comments.
Truth be told, all four of those cameras are amazing feats of technology. And all four of those cameras are the perfect camera for someone. So, rather than starting your camera search with the rather expensive question of which camera has the best stats on the market and can you afford it, why not instead start with a free, even if more boring question. What do you personally need from your camera?
Let’s say John is a landscape photographer. He travels the world to take pictures of the most scenic locations on the planet and runs a successful fine art business selling large prints. He shoots video, but he’s not a filmmaker per se. He cares about image quality and takes his time to get it. John is a professional with a successful business and money is not a driving factor. Which camera should he invest in?
In my own opinion, I would probably point him in the direction of the Fuji GFX 100S. He’s going to get both the most megapixels and the largest sensor to be able to reproduce the biggest and most detailed prints for his customers. Landscapes don’t move like Olympic sprinters, so the GFX 100S having the slowest shooting speed of the above-mentioned foursome shouldn’t really be a problem. And while $6,000 is a lot to spend on any camera, it’s not so much when compared to other medium format systems on the market.
On the other hand, the GFX 100S would be a terrible choice for Jeanne. She is an adventure photographer and spends the bulk of her time bouncing around between frigid locations shooting skiers and other winter lifestyle imagery. Her work is fast-paced and spontaneous. Video is of growing importance to her as she also often makes short films and commercials for her clients that need to be of the highest quality. Because she does her shoots in hard to reach places, weight is also a factor for her as she’ll most likely have to schlep her own gear up the side of the mountain without the aid of assistants. Which camera is best for her?
I would say probably either Sony or Canon would fit the bill. The faster frame rates would do a good job of catching the perfect moment of the skiers flying through the air during their jumps. I can imagine what an epic 8K image of a skier flying down the mountain in an endless mountain range might look like. And, even if she’s unlikely to export in 8K, the unpredictability of her subjects might benefit from being able to crop the 8K footage when things move too fast for her to get it exactly perfect at the moment.
Then, let’s take Jessica. She has a passion for fashion. She loves nothing more than to photograph the bright colors and edgy new looks of her models in the studio and on location. She likes to work quickly, but generally has the opportunity to ask for a second take. A lot of her work is in the editorial world and in the lookbook market. Mostly, the images end up on e-commerce sites with a handful of them making it into print. She also produces fashion films to show on her client’s websites and social media channels. She likes 4K, but the majority of her clients ask for final delivery in 1080p. Her work is glamorous, but the fees can vary, so money is a bit of an issue. Which camera would you recommend?
In my opinion, Jessica would be perfectly suited for the Nikon Z 7II. She doesn’t need the faster frame rate of the Sony or Canon. The 100 megapixels of the Fuji GFX 100S is a treat for anyone, but her work is rarely printed, making the effect of the added resolution somewhat less beneficial. She also has second thoughts about how much time she really wants to spend in Photoshop retouching a 102-megapixel beauty shot that will show every single pore of her model’s skin. Then, there’s the money issue. Something like the Sony might have the best specs of the full frame bunch. But, is it really worth twice the price of the Z 7II, especially considering that she doesn’t need 8K and the Z 7II autofocus is plenty to keep her models tack sharp? For the price of just the a1 body, she could buy a Z 7II and two high-quality Z lenses to complete her kit. The camera might not have all the quantifiable specs, but the value proposition, in Jessica’s case, would be immense.
In my experience, starting your camera search with a plan to buy the best specs you can afford may very well get you the camera with the best objective numbers, but might not get you the most value for your money. To get the most value, you have to decide what exactly it is that is of real value to you personally.
How often do you actually print your work versus how much of it is only ever going to live online and on social media? This will help you decide how much you should be willing to pay for megapixels. How fast do your subjects move? In Jeanne’s case, it makes sense to pay more for a camera with better autofocus and a faster frame rate. She’s shooting downhill skiers soaring by her at amazing speeds. In John’s case, 30 fps versus 5 fps makes no difference to him at all, so paying more for a higher frame rate wouldn’t lead to any actual benefit. Are you going to shoot a lot of videos? Do you really need 8K? There are legitimate applications for 8K shooting. But since the vast majority of television broadcasts are still released in 1080 and the vast majority of commercial clients are asking for 1080 as a deliverable, do you really need to pay more for 8K? Perhaps you do. I’m not saying there isn’t a use case. But before getting excited about a camera because it can produce a specific spec, you would do yourself and your wallet a favor by doing a quick survey of your recent client requests and seeing if the added features will actually add value to the product you are offering the end-user.
Next week, I’ll be back with another series of articles digging in deep into a specific camera and the pros and cons of its operation. But among all the fun discussion of bits and bytes, it’s important to remember that whatever camera you decide to buy, it is but a means to an end. It’s a tool that allows you to realize the vision in your head. Images aren’t good because of the stats of the camera used to shoot them. They are good because of your ability to apply your creativity to their making. Pick the right tool for your process and you’ll be far happier than chasing the elusive goal of finding the perfect camera that is one size fits all.