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).