What is the most important camera feature for you? Dynamic range? Burst rate? Autofocus performance? There are a lot of key camera specs that have objective impacts on our image-making, but spec sheets fail to capture one of the most important aspects of a camera.
What is your favorite camera you have used? Think about your experience shooting with it. Why was it your favorite? I am willing to bet that for most of us, at least part of it was simply how it made you feel — how the sum of its individual functions, its menu system, its ergonomics, its controls, and its overall design added up to your total experience behind the viewfinder. It was a combination of perhaps some objectively identifiable things and a certain je ne sais quoi.
Dating My Camera
My favorite camera (photo by Don DeBold used under Creative Commons).
Working with a camera is somewhat like relationships. You can take two people who have all sorts of compatible qualities on paper, who are looking for what the other has, and put them together, and there is no spark. Ok, so maybe my camera doesn't care what kind of music I like, but you get my point.
We are lucky in the sense that modern camera technology is incredibly mature, meaning you can pick just about any brand and build a very competent and capable system for yourself. And that means you can afford to be picky. And that is why you should also consider intangibles.
I included a picture of my favorite camera above, the Rollei 35. It isn't even a digital camera. My model, the 35 SE, was released in 1979. It has no autofocus; in fact, it is neither an SLR or a rangefinder — merely zone-focusing on this device! The hot shoe is upside-down. Changing film is a tedious chore that requires removing the entire back of the camera. All the exposure settings are on strange dials on the front of the camera that you can't see when your eye is behind it in the normal position. Oh, and its fixed lens is a bizarre 40mm.
This adorable stray dog was just wandering Paris and enjoying the beautiful weather.
So, why is this weird little camera my favorite? It is just so much fun to shoot with. It is absolutely tiny — one of the smallest 35mm cameras ever produced, and so, it's very unobtrusive; in fact, it basically lives on my wrist. I basically keep it focused at 10 feet at all times and follow the standard "f/8 and be there" rule. Why do I like it so much? I'm sure it's both a dose of nostalgia and the fact that it feels like such a pure form of photography to me: it has a very neutral focal length, there's no autofocus or even an efficient means of manually focusing, no burst mode, etc. For me, this camera is about as close as a device can come to simply replicating what my eye saw. Yes, that's extremely subjective, but that's the point.
It Is Not Just the Specs
Sure, I am not carrying my little Rollei 35mm film camera along with me for serious work. That call generally gets assigned to my 1D X Mark II. However, the same principles carry over here. For years, working pros have heaped praise on Canon for the ergonomics of the 1 Series, which got its start in the film days. In case you doubt just how good they are, check out how unchanged the ergonomics are from the original 1D from 2001 to the 1D X Mark III of 2020:
Original Canon 1D photo by Flickr user pointnshoot, used under Creative Commons.
When I say intangibles, I am referring to how a camera makes you feel. Do you genuinely enjoy shooting with it?
I may sound like I'm spouting a bunch of fluff, but this is actually something that really matters. Your frame of mind when you bring the viewfinder to your eye can make a big difference in your shooting experience, especially when it comes to creativity. Liking your camera and feeling inspired by it can put you in a more positive state of mind, and that can not only help you take a better image, but it can also motivate you to simply pick up the camera in the first place.
It seems like a lot of the cameras with the most devoted fans are the type that fit nicely in the hand and have controls and menus that get out of the way. In other words, there is a certain purity to the experience of using the camera. That is one of the top reasons Fuji X Series users give for their enjoyment of the cameras: large analog dials that help you keep your eye to the viewfinder and make it easy and intuitive to change settings without breaking your train of thought. A camera that is intuitive feels less like working a computer that takes images and more like a conduit through which creative ideas can come to fruition.
Different Priorities and Conclusion
No doubt, these qualities might not matter to you that much. For you, the camera may be a tool and nothing more, to be chosen based on objective, measurable quantities that clearly define it as the best for your line of work. And certainly, there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, that is how a lot of photographers approach equipment.
On the other hand, for a lot of us, the way a camera feels in our hands makes a substantial difference both in how we shoot and how motivated we are to do so, often more than we might realize. And with cameras as advanced as they are nowadays, unless you are working in situations that require the bleeding edge of camera tech, you can afford to consider other attributes, such as how a camera feels. Can you build an intuitive relationship with it in which the camera is less an obstacle to be overcome to create an image and more an extension of your creativity? It is something worth considering the next time you are looking at a camera.