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Are Today’s Cameras Really Better?

Posted By David Saxe On August 3, 2012 @ 12:11 am In Art of Photography | 16 Comments

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Do you earn your living or feed your hobby by spending your time looking through a modern DSLR? You must certainly have noticed that progress in photo technology seems to be increasing at an astonishing pace. Every day, manufacturers are adding new models with ever-increasing features, better sensors and growing automation. It seems to be endless. I have to ask though, is this a good thing?

For the amateurs who know nothing about the operation of a camera and just want to take pictures of their family vacations, it probably is. Automation can only help them, and their pictures are probably the better for it. But what about the rest of us?

Improvements in Lenses — Worth It?

Lenses are definitely better than they used to be, but not by much. Perhaps the edges are sharper wide open, and they cause a bit less flare and spherical aberrations, but is it really that important? Most of us stop down slightly, and at f2.8, and the difference is hardly noticeable. Yes, I am sure there are those who feel compelled to measure the differences with modern calibration equipment, but to the human eye, the differences are just not visible.

The tradeoff is that these lenses are now minus their depth-of-field scales, and aperture dials are considerably heavier and bulkier. If I wanted to know how much of my image would be in focus at ten feet at f4.5, all I had to do was look down on my lens and the scale would tell me what I needed to know. If I had to make a change, it was a simple adjustment to the adjacent aperture ring. It took no time at all. In fact, a sound knowledge of hyperfocal distances made it virtually unnecessary to focus a camera (for street or documentary photography). We never had to worry about focusing in low light, direct sunlight or any other situations that can render auto-focus almost useless.

Endless Features Add Bulk

Another issue is that camera designers incorporate far too many dials, switches, buttons, programs, etc. Auto, program, manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, program spot meter, center-weighted, average meter, single focus, continuous focus—it’s ridiculous. I have never wavered from aperture priority, average meter, because if I had to fiddle around with endless settings and dials before I took a picture, the moment would have long-passed by the time I snapped the shutter.

I used a DSLR for years and hated the weight of it around my neck. It weighed a ton, especially with a zoom lens. It was not very inconspicuous either. Some jerk would always be shouting out “Nice camera!” as I walked the streets attempting to look nonchalant. Street photographers do not want to be noticed. Have you ever noticed the difference in size between the Nikon F3 of 25 years ago and today’s Nikon D4, Canon F1 and Canon EOS1-D? They are at least 50% bigger and heavier today, and yet the quality of their images and their ease of use has hardly changed.

Want a lighter camera? The current crop of 4/3 or APS-C sensor cameras are much lighter, but they have their drawbacks. They suffer from the same bloated features list of the larger DSLRs and there is also a problem with their depth-of-field. Because of their small sensor size, they use wider lenses and therefore lack the depth-of-field of a DSLR. Viewing through a rear-LCD or an EVF is hardly exciting either.

Preferred Camera Is Still a “Lightweight”

Even though I occasionally use some of these cameras for various reasons, I cannot say that any of them are my favorite. I prefer a particular camera that has not changed much in size or weight over the past 50 years. The only major changes in cameras during this time have been the addition of an internal light meter about 20 years ago, and a digital sensor six years ago. That’s about it. Yes, it’s expensive, but it is not much more than a top-of-the line DSLR you can get today.

Lenses can be outrageously priced, but luckily thousands of perfectly good used lenses that date back 50 years can be found on eBay. With these vintage lenses, I can use hyperfocal scales and focus faster than with a modern camera. I can keep my background out of focus and nobody ever notices me on the street, even with it dangling around my neck. For the type of photographs that I love to take, this kind of lens is perfect.

You might think this article is a shameless promotion for my unnamed mystery camera, but I can assure you it’s not. At one time, this brand had three competitors who manufactured cameras all more or less equal in quality. One of them now concentrates on manufacturing lenses for my mystery camera, and the other two eventually decided to concentrate on SLRs and DSLRs. It is truly unfortunate.

In case you are about to dismiss me as an old fart who yearns for the “good old days,” consider this: The problem with automatic cameras and technology is the fact that they are automatic — a dirty word for professionals, in my opinion. Automatic stops the professional from thinking and prevents the photographer from actively creating the image. He or she merely raises the camera, and snaps the shutter. The rest is left up to software (perhaps a topic for another post).

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16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Are Today’s Cameras Really Better?"

#1 Comment By hh On August 3, 2012 @ 10:35 am

Great article - been thinking the same thing for a while. However, digital cameras with smaller senors have a greater depth of field than full frame sensors, which provides an advantage to those who are shooting documentary/street work.

#2 Comment By MerryPrankster On August 3, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

....David - You are so right! I teach photography and have found that modern DSLR's have made photography much harder for anyone wanting to be what I call a "considered" photographer.

In my class, I teach the practice of asking yourself, " why am I taking this picture and what do I want to achieve?" before you ever put the camera to your eye or push the shutter button. The answer to those questions, provides the answer to the questions that should follow: what ISO should I use, what shutter speed, what f-stop, where do I focus.

Modern DSLR's have taken a concept of the "point and shoot" designed for amateurs and forced it on professionals. With manual controls buried so deep, they're virtually impossible to accesses in any type of speedy or easy way. That's probably fine for "reactionist" photographers but for "considered" photographers..... not so much.

I've gone back to teaching the frist few months of my classes using Nikon FM's and FM'2s I buy off Ebay. We shoot film that I get developed and stay up late nights scanning on a negative/slide scanner.

Being an ex-photojournalist, who depended on Nikon's because of their legendary toughness, I keep hoping Nikon will deliver us from this madness. Are you listening Nikon? How about building a camera for professionals. A camera that has the aperture controls around the lens (where they belong), the sutter controls on top of the camera, full manual (and only manual) focus. Leaving off all the "auto" stuff will make for a smaller, lighter, tougher and much less expensive camera. Think Nikon FM with the best full frame sensor money can buy.

And Nikon, don't worry about your low mark up on such a camera. What you'll loose on selling a single premium priced camera you'll make up for in volume. Don't believe me? Why do you think the Fuji X100 and XPro-1 have been such a runaway success?

If you can get a good full frame sensor in an all manual camera for around $1,000, you can count on me to purchase four of them. Because I also prefere prime lenses...but that's another rant entirely.....

#3 Comment By Libby On August 3, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

@MerryPrankster I have been wishing for a full frame senor stripped down Nikon for years. I'll take the autofocus with manual option - give me 5 points - I don't need 51. And slap on a hotshoe. With some kind of metering, it's all I need. Leave off all the crap art filters, scene modes, horizon tilt indicators, face detection, 23 page menu system with "Help". Give me a simple Nikon D with no BS. Bring it in with an F mount with a price of $1700 or under and I'll be first in line.

#4 Comment By Ross On August 4, 2012 @ 4:23 am

Let me just guess here, you own a Leica and you use semmilux lenses or notilux, the thing about DSLR's is that they are cheaper to use than film cameras. Don't get me wrong, I love my canon TL and the 50mm on it is amazing but I just can't get over the image quality that I get on my Olympus pen ep-1 for such a small body, and just to clarify one thing about micro 4/3 and aps-c sensors, they are about the same size as most of the entry level DSLR'S.

#5 Comment By Geoff On August 5, 2012 @ 7:00 am

I never enjoyed taking photos more than I did with my Pentax S1a. Sure it's not a rangefinder but the manual process was just beautiful, right down to the sound of the shutter. I'd love to see a FF sensor conversion kit one day, so that highly tactile process can be enjoyed in the post-film era.

#6 Comment By Ranger 9 On August 5, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

Okay, Mystery Man, I'm glad you like your Leica M9. I agree it's a shame that Canon and Nikon went all SLRy and discontinued their excellent 7-series and S-series rangefinder cameras (a Canon 7s was the last film camera I owned) and that Zeiss (originators of the Contax) elected to concentrate on lenses, thus 86ing three of the "Big Four" RF camera makers from the camera business. I like knob-and-ring controls and still shoot with an Epson R-D 1 occasionally because for me its 1:1 optical viewfinder is the best way ever devised to view through a camera.

But is it realistic to expect the marketplace to respond to this, except for a few niche companies such as Leica (which survives as a camera maker only thanks to its other identity as a maker of luxury "photo jewelry" for ostentatious rich people)?

Not only does niche marketing keep products expensive, the low volumes involved keep them mired in the technological past -- for example, your Leica's high-ISO performance was mediocre even when it was introduced and by now qualifies as just plain lousy (although Leicabators will rationalize this away, just as they do with all the Leica's other faults.)

This is an instrument that once was renowned for low-light documentary photography, and now it's positively smoked by whatever the latest Canon Rebel model is. But there's nothing Leica can do about it, because the M's low volume locks them into a multi-year product life cycle. (And Leica doesn't need to care, because its core market of artsy rock stars and Middle Eastern potentates doesn't care either. Just bat out another Hermes special edition and they'll be happy.)

Note that I'm not picking on Leica -- I'm picking on the whole niche-market philosophy that's required for the kind of "professional" camera you want.

What you really want is a camera with a limited feature set, but there isn't a strong consensus among traditionalist photographers about WHAT those features should be (as can be seen in the variations in the above comments about "Just give me a Nikon FM only with ____________")

Besides, now be honest -- isn't this yearning for a non-automatic "professional" camera really at least partly a yearning for a return to an elitist past? A time when cameras were hard to understand, so only the truly dedicated could master them? When taking pictures under difficult conditions was so challenging that ANY sort of result was enough to boost your self-esteem, even if the pictures weren't actually very good?

Sorry, those days are gone and aren't coming back. Yeah, it bugs me too. When I go to a "photo occasion" with my fancy camera and lenses and see that the mom next to me is getting pictures just as good as mine -- maybe better, because she's seeing with fresh eyes -- then I feel a sneaking suspicion that I've wasted a big chunk of my life learning something that doesn't matter any more.

But there's nothing to do about that except suck it up and deal. Knobs and dials aren't going to fix it.

#7 Comment By Vladi On August 5, 2012 @ 9:24 pm

Ranger 9 - well said. Another current problem is that whatever you shoot with your camera these days won't look good if you don't spend countless hours in photOshop editing it. The days when the moment you took the picture defined the final print are long over. These days I can take and edit a photo on my iPhone 4 and post to Flickr/Facebook and it would look just as good as when taken with new canon/Nikon DSLR. Why? Cause the megapixel output from pro cameras is needed for big prints but for Internet use the potential of these cameras and lenses is a waste.

#8 Comment By David Saxe On August 5, 2012 @ 9:52 pm

Response to Ranger 9

First of all, I would like to congratulate you and answering all my mystery questions correctly. I do use a Leica M9 (about 80% of the time). Nikon, Canon and Contax did at one time make great rangefinders and Contax is still in the game producing great lenses (although they are now made in Japan under license). You have earned your 4 stars.

As for the rest of your response, although you make some good points, I am not sure I can completely agree with it all. For instance:

“ for example, your Leica’s high-ISO performance was mediocre even when it was introduced and by now qualifies as just plain lousy (although Leicabators will rationalize this away, just as they do with all the Leica’s other faults.)”

You are right. The high ISO of a Leica is not very good, but for my kind of shooting—who cares? I shot film for years at 800-1600 ISO and it was fine for me. These days it is still fine for me. I have never had a problem taking pictures at night with an ISO of 1600 (even Leica’s)—in fact for most cases, it is all I need. However I must admit that sometimes, when photographing at night, I do prefer using my Fuji X-100—not because it is better at high ISO (which it is) but but it is lighter, smaller, less conspicuous and fits in my wife’s purse—even though I rarely use it at an ISO of higher that 1600. In my book it all comes down to experience. Also, I really do not think I am yearning for an elitist past. A modern camera does not make a lousy photographer into a better photographer. Today’s amateurs may be taking pictures that are better exposed than the old days but they are still as boring to look at as those taken years ago. I

Finally, I really must disagree with you last statement about the mom next to you taking pictures as good as yours. If that is the case your pictures are not good enough or you are not trying hard enough.

#9 Comment By Paul On August 6, 2012 @ 5:33 am

mystery camera= leica

completely agree with everything in the article btw

#10 Comment By Qlakk On August 13, 2012 @ 6:52 pm

Interesting article. I like to say it is important to have convictions, and obviously David you have! I fully agree that the ergonomic of modern cameras mostly sucks and is often just a backward. I don't understand how they can sell bodies with no direct access to ISO, speed and aperture. Many of us don't need so much fair enough. But I disagree on the "old good days" and the "old good mystery camera". It is true camera manufacturers are losing their way by not understanding cameras should be fully customized depending on photographers requirements and objectives. I have been using an old Nikon FM2 for years, I don't miss it whereas I used to like it so much. Technology has improved, and I can now take different pictures thanks to it. I prefer to be a photographer than a geek and I dislike gadgets. But again, I believe their is room for improvements, the battle is not over and sooner or later a camera manufacturer will release not a product, with poor controls and useless features, but a real platform with customizable controls and full access to what matter to a photographer. Old days belong to the past, and bodies must just improve. That's the future, or at least the one I believe in.

#11 Comment By Carlos On August 24, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

I'm getting sick of these Leica users... Seriously.

#12 Comment By James On October 1, 2012 @ 11:46 am

Since the arrival of digital I have been struggling to find the style I had in the film days. A DSLR is a computer with a lens attached, it is not a camera. And I swear that when even using manual it is not true manual as I felt there was still something else that was still in between me and my subject. In fact I switched back to film and found my style again.

The tonal range seems all blocked up with DSLR's and a lack of depth and feeling.

I only returned to digital when I started using Leica M. The tones are not blocked up and the images have a real filmic quality and for the first time ever I have been able to continue with my style with a digital camera. I am now creating images that are on par with my exhibition printing days.

DSLR's create images with no feel, they have no soul.

#13 Comment By James On October 1, 2012 @ 11:47 am

Since the arrival of digital I have been struggling to find the style I had in the film days. A DSLR is a computer with a lens attached, it is not a camera. And I swear that when even using manual it is not true manual as I felt there was still something else that was still in between me and my subject. In fact I switched back to film and found my style again.

The tonal range seems all blocked up with DSLR's and a lack of depth and feeling.

I only returned to digital when I started using Leica M. The tones are not blocked up and the images have a real filmic quality and for the first time ever I have been able to continue with my style with a digital camera. I am now creating images that are on par with my exhibition printing days.

DSLR's create images with no feel, they have no soul.

#14 Comment By James On October 1, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

A Leica photographer is not in search of the perfect composition, nor a technically perfect image which has no soul. For he is more concerned with capturing the essence of the moment. You will know what I mean when you are ready Carlos my friend, believe me.

#15 Comment By bryan denver photographer On October 17, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

in my opinion the extended ISO of the newer cameras has dramatically improved the quality of low light images and has changed the way i shoot for the better and is totally worth it

#16 Comment By John On October 31, 2012 @ 8:00 pm

My first SLR was a Nikon Fe my last one was a Nikon F4, I sold all my film cameras and dark room over 10 years ago and never looked back. What do I have now? Digital cameras, digital darkroom.

I don't want to go into the details, but quality, expense and instant image viewing are three major reasons why digital is best. Bryan makes a good point about the ISO. What took hours or days to produce in the darkroom takes minutes to produce with my computer.

The point you bring in your last paragraph is well taken and somewhat agree. But that's not the rule that every digital photographer follows. For myself I still use a light meter and I use the manual setting more than 95% of the time.


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