First off I come in peace. I carry no intentions of inflicting undue stress upon delicate light-gathering persons of fragile constitution. No offense meant towards any particular brand or category of camera. Just a bit of cognitive calisthenics to distract and pass the time. Ok, now that I have gotten that out of the way back to the matter at hand.
It is mostly about the lens, isn’t it?
In the past, I had half-joked that a camera was “merely” a light-proof box meant to hold a lens the proper distance from the image capturing plane with controls of varying complexity and automation in support of actuating a shutter for the time necessary to scorch emulsion or impact pixels.
I say half-joked because while I have written comparisons (This one for KEH) pitting legends against significantly more pedestrian offerings…
I have owned some of these very same pixie dust cameras. So which is it? Camera or lens?
Subjective categories like feel, aesthetics, vintage, legacy, and user experience do matter. They simply do. But while they might make one inclined to go out and shoot or inspire one to take that special shot one could (and I intend to) argue that the camera is not the largest contributor to the resulting image technically speaking.
What am I on about? Welp. A few recent blog posts put up a strong argument that a lens can do wonders regardless of the camera behind it.
- SIGMA calls it the “bokeh master” and I cannot argue with them. A digital era lens darling.
Camera: SIGMA SA-7N
- A very capable but also very plastic camera that will not likely ever earn a Facebook page in its honor. A shame. The three of us who have one would have really appreciated it.
Film: Ilford HP5
- While on paper these two belong nowhere near each other, I have not used a more capable film portrait solution ever.
Lens: SIGMA 30mm f/1.4 DC ART
- A fantastic crop lens that does a decent job covering a full-frame image circle.
Camera: SIGMA SA-7N
- Again, A very capable but also very plastic camera that will not likely ever earn a Facebook page in its honor. A shame. The three of us who have one would have really appreciated it.
Film: Lomography 400
- In all seriousness why does this even work, let alone work so well. This camera and lens have no business near each other, but here we are.
- Named the best Pentax lens ever by Pentax Forums. An impressive designation with all of the excellent Pentax glass out there.
Camera: Pentax SF10
- A camera with looks only a Pentax nut could love. Very capable though.
Film: Agfa APX 400
- An odd pairing capable of great results.
While we are at it this does not just apply to film cameras. Years ago I gave a test drive of a high-end Nikon lens on my humble little D3300 (I owe this camera a write up. It definitely hastened my descent into the gear acquisition rabbit hole.) as I joked that I was surprised that the lens, which cost many times the price of the camera, was not set up to spit the camera off of the back. But it worked just fine. This also applies to lens-biased digital pairings.
Lens: Samsung NX 85mm f1.4
- Hands down one of the best portrait lenses I have ever used. Deserved so much more than what Samsung did with it. A large reason why I held on to the brand longer than I should have.
Camera: Samsung NX30
- Capable, humble camera that was far below the spec of their best offering, both utterly abandoned by their maker.
- I wish Samsung would have stuck it out, or at least would not have utterly abandoned the mount without so much as a press release.
Lens: Olympus Zuiko 75mm f/1.8
- A lens able to make the most with the least.
Camera: Olympus OMD E-M1
- Grandaddy OMD MFT camera with plenty of life still in it courtesy great Olympus glass.
- As is likely a surprise to no one a great pairing.
I could go on, since great glass on a bootleg or old camera is kind of a thing with me, but I will stop myself here.
Am I saying that the camera used is not important? No. The camera is crucial.
- Whether due to aesthetics or ergonomics a camera may be the reason one wants to go out and shoot or may inspire a photographer to take on new projects.
- Stellar AF performance is key in capturing what may be a fleeting, non-repeatable moment.
- MP count above more pedestrian offerings may be needed depending on the use case.
- Etc, so on and so forth…
But none of that directly impacts light as it makes its way to the image capturing plane. That is all lens. The cool part about that is that lenses can often be used across many mediums and remain relevant far longer than camera bodies do. With new camera releases seeming to be nearly weekly this is a good thing.
That camera you buy today will likely be rendered old news as soon as the next iteration is rumored.
But lenses remain relevant… pretty much forever it seems.
So by that logic investing in glass would seem to make more sense than chasing camera specs.
This happens to be where I find myself presently.
Most of the cameras I currently use are years old. Even the newest has technology from earlier iterations with a bell or whistle thrown in. Most of the lenses I use have been around far longer.
Am I saying buying a newer camera is pointless? No.
But depending on your use case that newly released camera may not be as necessary as the interwebs tells you it is.
If stills photography is your primary aim it could be argued that recent cameras have little to offer above older offerings depending on your use case.
Some do need 20-30fps with blazing fast AF and little or no blackout. But I do not.
Most of the focus now is on video. But even there 4K has been the standard for a while. Some do actually need 6K or 8K anyways. But I do not.
And some have a legitimate need for 50MP or more. But as is likely the case with many I do not.
Sidebar: Don’t let the interwebs talk you into something that you have no need for. That is all.
More than once after navigating a wave of hype over a new camera body I have landed on,
“What lens could I acquire that would wring the most image quality out of the cameras I already have instead of coughing up as much or more for a new camera body?… To use with the same lenses I already have… Or a new mount requiring me to invest in even more glass.”
And it has worked out in my favor every time. One time due to a sale I was determined to jump the fence into GFX medium format… but then in a rare wave of logic, I chose to use the funds that would have been required to cover the balance of a trade on a lens instead. That led me to pick up a lens I had called the precious and I was thoroughly pleased. It allowed me to have the two bodies (that I was going to trade towards the GFX) for a wedding shoot. That same lens also provided some of my favorite shots from the day.
Would the casual observer be able to distinguish between a photo taken with one camera or another? Not likely. Here are shots taken with two generations of the same camera used for the one and only wedding I have done in the before times.
How many people there appreciated that the A7III had a touch screen and the A7II did not? None.
How many people were wowed by the superior battery life of the A7III over the PEZ batteries in the A7II necessitating a battery grip? None.
Did anyone notice that newly added Favorites menu where I could drop my most used settings on the A7III? No.
Without EXIF data I could not tell the images apart afterward.
Even while using the two side by side in the rush of the day more than once I had to look at the labeling on the back of the camera to tell them apart.
And while we are at it when looking at both camera bodies, did anyone say, “Nice, but I really wish you had used a higher resolution camera.”. No.
In fact, two of my favorite shots from the day were heavy crops from these 24MP sensors.
Now, if crops were a common thing for me or if I regularly made large prints then I might step up to a higher MP body and Sony has fantastic options. But I do not often make large prints and if possible I try to use the right lens for the scene so I do not crop often.
What mattered most that day is that the glass performed.
I will admit that the same would not be true of an older, original A7. The far less than stellar AF and lack of IBIS would not have gone down well. It would still make a good budget camera body back up and would do just fine as a full-frame inexpensive solution for manual focus glass.
But some time ago since that camera was released we have hit some manner of tipping point where newer mirrorless cameras are an option, not a necessity, in my opinion. If you are willing to entertain the idea of a <gasp> DSLR one can go even further back in time and do just fine.
And again, glass is very portable. You can manually adapt near any DSLR or rangefinder glass to mirrorless bodies.
AF adapting is often on the table even for lenses that were never intended for AF.
And the great part about this is that great glass is available across many years and lens mounts at nearly any price point. Especially if you do not mind focusing for yourself. That being the case any digital camera you have, with a dirt-cheap adapter if needed, opens you up to the great legacy glass available on the used market.
While it may seem harsh to call a camera “merely” a light proof box there is some truth to it depending on your use case. Us mere mortals unable to aspire to the latest camera bodies costing as much as a used minivan may be better served focusing on the lenses instead. The good news is that if you ever find yourself able to swing the latest and greatest bodies down the road you are good to go.
As for right now I am perfectly happy with last year’s camera offerings and beyond until that day in the future when the time for a camera upgrade arrives.