Updated: Jan 18, 2021
I’ll probably directly contradict what I wrote earlier about my experience in photography. Who cares. No one’s reading these posts anyway.
Four things that are important to me about photography now that I’m 50:
1) I tend to see the world through a 23mm* frame, but I think in 50mm, which is exactly the reverse of most people. Most people see the world in its individual parts but make sense of it in its wider context. I see the world in its wider context but make sense of it in its individual parts.
Why is this significant? It means that, for me as a photographer, what lies outside the frame is as important as what lies in it. In other words, I compose a shot deductively rather than inductively. “So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water…” (William Carlos Williams).
Now, since composition is the combination of what you see and how you think, it makes sense that my ideal camera lens is 35mm, almost the exact mid-point focal length between 23 and 50. Anything greater than 50mm limits my vision too much (it doesn’t say enough), while anything wider than 23mm says too much.
2) I like heft… but not too much heft. Maybe because I was raised on film cameras, I tend to associate size with capability. The most serious photographers have the largest equipment. But the most serious are not necessarily the best. I admire the work of some street shooters, for example, who operate with a smaller is better vibe, and I envy their work-flow, but I don’t consider myself a street shooter because I don’t see the world the way they do (street shooters think inductively — see point 4 below).
There’s such a thing as too large, then, but there’s also such a thing as too small. I feel most comfortable with the equivalent of a standard 35mm film camera with a stock 50mm lens. My unconscious frame of reference is a Minolta XD-11 (XD-7 in other parts of the world) with a Rokkor 50/1.7, which I shot with for years and used while traveling the world when I was in college. Its dimensions:
XD11+ 50/1.7: 91 x 86 x 136 mm, 748 g.
That feels right to me. Here are a couple of digi-cams that come closest in size:
Sony RX10: 102 x 88 x 129 mm, 813 g.
Fuji XT1 + 35/2: 101 x 89.8 x 129 mm, 537 g.
The RX10 is slightly bigger (by 7mm in total dimension) and a feather or two heavier (65 grams). The X-T1 is exactly the same size in total dimensions as the RX10 (320mm) but almost 200 grams lighter than the XD11. I have both the X-T1 and RX10.
If a camera is too large, I feel like I’m imposing myself into the scene too much; if the largeness comes from some massive zoom lens, then I’m not in the scene enough. If the camera is too small, I don’t feel like I’ve got enough skin in the game. I like enough heft that I’m reminded I’m shooting a scene, but not too much that I become merely an extension of my camera (I prefer it the other way around). Gravity helps me compose. Also, I want to feel the weight of the camera, as it mimics the weight of the scene. I am, after all, trying to capture a moment in time, and if I’m fortunate, it’ll be the decisive moment (ala Cartier-Bresson). That’s a pretty big deal.
3) I don’t care so much about DxOMark numbers. Yes, they do mean something, and I suppose there is a benefit to out-resolving your competition, but it’s a bit like a car that does 0-60mph in less than 4 seconds. Aside from bragging rights, what’s really the point? It’s not like I’m racing people off the line at every stop light, and I sure as hell don’t want to get a ticket just to satisfy some teenage impulse to kick ass. Do I want a good enough amount of torque to get me out of trouble when I need it? Sure. Just like I want the freedom to print out a photo from time to time, maybe to 11×14, and a 10mp camera can handle that just fine. But more to the point, how often do I really do print out a photo to 11×14? And is there a noticeable difference in a 4×6 print between a 40mp photo and a 14mp one? Nope. And can you tell the difference between a photo online that came from a camera/lens that scores 82 on DxOMark and one that scores 69? Nope, because even your computer screen doesn’t resolve that well. My 13” Macbook Air has 1440 by 900 native resolution, and you need at least 1920 x 1200 to match the resolution of an 18mp camera. So do the math. Pixel-peeping is for camera dweebs who have nothing better to do with their lives.
4) I like to think about my shots, to deliberate, but I’m not a large-formate sort of guy either. I don’t want to spend more than, say, 30 seconds to a minute before I take a shot. I suppose I’m more of a documentary shooter. I want to take in the scene, let it speak to me, before I try to capture its essence. I take fewer shots, but spend more time taking each one. So I don’t care how quickly the camera powers up nor do I care how many shots it can take per second. I want a camera that I enjoy working with, just like I want a car I enjoy driving. And given my fairly defined set of parameters I’m working with, there end up being really only a few cameras I really want to work with. And I’ve already got them.
So I’m happy with my RX10 and my Fuji X-T1 + 35/2 lens. Sold off all my Pentax gear (K5 and its WR lenses), my Fuji X100s and X70, and my medium format film Fuji GX690iii, and some of my remaining Leicas (both film and digital). No, I’m not a part of the Leica cult. They’re great cameras, but not worth their price (though they re-sell beautifully). Kept my Ricoh GR, of course, but then, who wouldn’t?
So at my tender age, I’m relaxed accepting that my camera is a tool and needs to match my parameters as its user. I’m comfortable letting the camera be an extension of me rather my being an extension of the camera, which too many self-styled authorities on photography appear to be. And so I resolve (pun) to spend a lot less time dreaming about the next iteration of some camera and more time figuring out how to capture shots and be a better photographer. And you don’t need the latest gear to do that, you just need the right gear. And a trained eye helps. Cuz in the end, cameras don’t shoot scenes, people do.
Well, okay, not exactly. But you know what I mean…
(*All focal lengths are in digital format; multiply by 1.5 to get the approx. film factor.)