Thoughts on camera choices from a hobby photographer
One very common topic in forums on the web (regardless of what the forum is about) is request for advice on buying new gear. Some people seem very secure in stating what the best equipment for others is but I usually find it difficult to give fast and easy answers to these questions. Unless some product has received universal acclaim in its category (which don’t happen too often) the value of a piece of gear is very much depending on the needs of the person buying it and what he/she prioritizes (and is willing to sacrifice).
But one person I do know the needs of is myself. I have spent the last couple of years buying a lot of camera gear (and selling some of it) and a summary of what I use my cameras for and how I reason around the current content of my camera bag maybe can be of use for others.
My main interests in photography are action photography (mostly off-piste skiing and mountain biking), travel photography, landscapes, street photography and to some degree portraits (environmental, not studio). I will try to summarize the most important things I have learned last couple of years which I think I would have benefited from knowing when I bought my first digital SLR back in 2006. A summary of what I appreciate with the Canon EOS and the micro 4/3 (m43) systems work for for my photography.
1. Heavy and bulky camera gear is a pain to lug around. For longer travel it means you can’t take anything else in your hand luggage because you want to avoid putting expensive camera bodies and lenses in the checked in luggage which gets abused by the airport personnel. When walking around town you fill up bags with camera gear and can’t bring anything else. Some argue that there isn’t much size difference between an Olympus OM-D and a small canon DSLR, but IMHO when you look at the total setup the difference can’t be ignored. For longer walks around town I’m so much happier with the m43 gear than the Canon gear in the camera bag. Also, a smaller camera makes you look like a tourist which I’m starting to feel is a good thing because people tend to not care about what you photograph. If I started over again I would go for a smaller camera alternative unless there is a good reason not to (see below for a couple).
2. View finder and general handling are important parts of a camera. It’s difficult to use the rear LCD in bright sunlight and sometimes it’s much easier to frame the photo in a view finder. And even if smaller cameras are great from a logistics point of view a traditional DSLR with a large optical view finder just feels more right to me. You just have to prioritize what’s more important for specific applications and maybe just have to accept that one camera will not be perfect for everything.
3. I don’t need zoom lenses for the majority of the shooting I do. In most cases I can stick a 35mm or a 50mm prime lens on my camera and be happy. If I want to to have some variation I just switch to a different focal length and sometimes I bring a second (small) camera body with another prime. The exception is action photography (again). In general prime lenses have bigger apertures and are sharper (which is nice). The m43 system with a large aperture prime lens (like the Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4) is a very good standard setup for me.
4. Large aperture lenses are nice to have. It is always nice to have the ability to create more background blur and sometimes they really help in low light shooting. I didn’t really appreciate the value of large aperture for night shots until I got unwanted start trails at 30 second exposures with my EF-S 15-85. Fast primes on a m43 camera keeps up with what can be achieved with fast zooms on a full frame DLSR (like the Canon 6D).
5. 35-50 mm (35 mm equivalent) is a great focal length for general street photography. For me, shorter focal lengths are too wide for general shots of people and longer focal lengths are difficult to use in tight spaces or if you want to bring more of the surroundings into the frame. For full body people shots I would do fine with just a 35 mm prime lens.
6. Many Canon/Tamron/Sigma EF/EF-S lenses are not great when used wide open. m43 lenses on the other hand often are which means that even after calculating 35 mm equivalents of aperture and focal length (if you are into that kind of thing) it could be that the the m43 system generates a better photo, at least in some aspects like corner to corner sharpness if you are forced to shoot wide open.
7. Phase detection auto focus is king for action photography. Using continuous (AI Servo) auto focus together with back-button focusing makes it so much easier to get sharp shots of moving subjects and the contrast detection in the mirrorless cameras I have tried just isn’t good enough. You can always pre-focus on something and depending on how much practice you have had you can get great results that way, but in general phase detection is a must if action photo is a priority. This is one major reason I still keep my Canon system.
8. Good camera lenses keep there value, camera bodies don’t. Also, you pay a hefty price premium for buying gear just after it is released. This I know better today but I’m not sure it has changed my buying patterns anyway. I would like to buy more gear second hand, but I’m usually not patient enough to wait for a good deal to come around. When I have decided I want a new camera or a new lens I want to have it the next day and that usually means buying used isn’t an option.
9. A good telephoto zoom makes a nice portrait lens (especially for head and shoulder portraits). And is great for shots of skiing or other activities where the subject moves around a lot. The biggest problem is that they are quite bulky (mostly a problem for travel photography/skiing shots for me).
10. It’s good to have a plan for future investments when buying into a system. If the lens range and accessories are not suitable for the kind of photography you are interested in you will always find out in the end and it will more expensive to jump ships the further down the line you go.
And a final note; try to not spending too much time obsessing over gear, make do with what you have and take photos instead. This should probably have been the first bullet but then there wouldn’t be any point in reading the rest, would there?