I get this question often — up to several times per month — from fellow photo enthusiasts, both experienced and not… about what photo gear could I recommend to them?
And the number one top recommendation I make that no one pays attention to?
The smaller the gear you can bring yourself to tolerate, the better. Go with something small enough that you will enjoy carrying it on extended photowalks, or exhausting day hikes, or keeping in your hand, over your shoulder, or around your neck for 8-12 hours at a time without physical pain.
Before buying a camera (and lenses, filters, a bag, straps, strobe, batteries, film and/or memory chips, and all the other related paraphernalia), do yourself a favor and see what you can carry with you over the length of an entire day during the weekend. Start out by putting a 10-pound rock (or the same weight in gravel, flour, or books) in a small bag or sock, and hang it from around your neck or shoulder with some shoelaces or something similar, and see just how long you can stand it.
If you lasted all day (no cheating!) and were good for more, then congratulations — you can carry around a moderately sized camera kit. If not, then you need to pare down the weight to something you can manage for many hours at a time. Repeat this process with progressively smaller weights until you finally reach the level that you’re comfortable with carrying all day.
Think this exercise is stupid? Talk to any pro out there and ask them; I know that gear weight will be one of their top three complaints.
To put this in perspective, one of my photo buddies used to shoot large format 8×10 film sheets for the absolute best image quality that anyone can obtain. Being a former military man, he thought he was good for an entire day of humping that heavy gear around — until his knees began to give out. By the time he and I started doing photowalks together a couple of years later, he had migrated down to large format 4×6 film sheets — but his backpack still weighed over 80-POUNDS. I shot with large format 8×10 sheet film decades ago, but only in the professional studio environment; I never had to break my back under the load of that enormous deadweight for 8-12 hours at a time. And my buddy? I dunno what (or if) he’s shooting these days, but I know his knees are pretty much toast. And his blown knee story is very common among pro photographers… as are bad hips, ankles, blown backs, and shoulders. Heavy gear is the bane of the pros; don’t let it be yours as well.
The heaviest photo bag I’ve ever carried for any length of time tipped the scales at 32-pounds — and that was a 35mm film SLR, several zooms, a couple primes (including a macro lens), filters, a macro stage, a motor drive, a flash strobe, batteries, extra film, and a tripod. Try doing a seven-mile hike with all that on your back in Arches National Park, being baked in the desert heat and having only one small bottle of water on hand. Never again. I lasted less than 12-months with that rig, simply because it was too heavy for me to lug around. And as much as I was geared up for every photo opportunity that presented itself, ultimately I wasn’t ready for any of them because I left the gear at home rather than kill myself with all that weight.
What does my kit weigh today? It varies, depending on what my back is able to tolerate (I’ve got five partially herniated discs in my lumbar region, dating back to 1994 when I fell off a 20-foot ladder). The heaviest my bag weighs now is right around 7.5-pounds — and that’s absolutely everything I need , including a tiny tripod. If my back is acting up (like it is as I’m typing this), I can ditch everything and carry a 15-ounce digi-cam (complete with extra batteries), or go even lighter with a 6-ounce 35mm film point-and-shoot camera . The tiny digital point-and-shoot is more capable and offers far more flexibility, but the 35mm film point-and-shoot delivers superior image quality — so any choice I make is always a compromise. And I’ll also point out here that I’m a hybrid shooter; I shoot with both digital and 35mm film, so the contents in my bag varies with what I want to shoot for any specific day or occasion.
Why am I harping on this?
Well, invariably the people asking me what gear I can recommend to them have already made up their mind, because they usually buy some big honking monstrosity to hang around their neck, use it a lot during the honeymoon phase, then less and less often over time, until they finally stop altogether, and it ends up collecting dust on the shelf. Their biggest complaint? It’s too heavy. Or it’s too big. Or it’s not accessible enough. Or it’s too complex. But too heavy is usually the answer I hear the most often.
However, for those savvy souls that actually take heed –- they buy something that they can keep close (in a pocket, purse, waist pack, or small satchel), they use it all the time, and the weight is never something that pushes them away from taking photos.
I hear your next question forming before you even say it — what about image quality?
Image quality is often brought up as a reason to avoid small cameras, but I can tell you from extensive experience (over 50 years as of this writing) that it’s the wetware behind the lens that drives the image –- not the hardware. Granted, there will be times when hardware is the only logical solution to some photo opportunity you meet (like close-ups of distant wildlife or ultra-wide landscapes) but — by and large — a small camera will do the job for the majority of your imaging needs.
And before you dismiss my post as the ravings of an out-of-touch lunatic, I offer up a number of my own images in the small camera categories to back up my point, beginning with the smallest of the small and working up so you can see (or not) the difference in quality. Oh, and feel free to click on any of the photos to embiggen them for closer scrutiny!
Starting with the smallest digital sensor (1/3″ according to Wikipedia), here are some of my recent images from an iPhone 5S and iPhone 6 Plus; please note that these have been heavily post-processed in Adobe Lightroom prior to sharing them with you here.
As I comment to anyone who asks, the iPhone is capable of shooting some very fine images — provided that care is taken with regard to exposure and lighting. And to anyone that dismisses iPhones as not being “good enough”, two of my iPhone shots have actually been commercially published — this one and this one.
Full disclosure: I never use the images directly out of the iPhone; they are always imported to my laptop first, post-processed within Lightroom, then exported for use from there.
Still, the image quality that can be achieved from cell phones today can be absolutely jaw-droppingly stunning. For this reason, I have to say that a current model cell phone with a good quality camera is about the best thing out there for keeping on-hand all the time and being ready when the photo opportunity presents itself. A cell phone camera is small and light, almost always readily available, reasonably quick to start-up, and capable of taking great photos.
For anyone just starting out with photography, pull your camera phone out of your pocket and start taking real photographs with it! Once you’ve mastered taking photos with a cell phone, you can begin to look further afield to other cameras that offer more capabilities and/or quality.
Next up we have some recent images from the 1″ sensor of a digital point-and-shoot, the Sony RX100 IV. If you thought the photos from the iPhone could look good, then you better sit down — because image quality dramatically improves from here. Again, these images have been heavily post-processed with Adobe Lightroom.
When I first switched to digital, my digi-cam of choice was the original Canon PowerShot G3 (not to be confused with the brand new PowerShot G3 X), which was pretty hot stuff for those days. And is the old G3 still a force to be reckoned with today? Nah, not so much. The current crop of digi-cams blow the doors off those of yesteryear — with fast glass, high-dynamic-range imagery, fully supported RAW files, and just about everything that you can think of being included with many of them now.
If you’re ready to graduate up from a cell phone camera — or if you’re ready to step down from a heavier camera of any type (film or digital) — this is your sweet spot. The smallest of these cameras can be about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and not much heavier. However — as you can see from the photos directly above — they pack a huge wallop, at least as far as image quality is concerned. And because they have integrated non-removable lenses, getting dust on the sensor isn’t something that you normally have to worry about or deal with.
What in terms of image quality is still missing from these tiny cameras? The two that come to mind are the quality of the out-of-focus areas (called bokeh), and the signal noise from the small image sensors that they use. However, with each new generation of digi-cams that come out, these shortcomings continue to be improved upon. Will they ever equal the image quality of full-frame cameras? Dunno. But they have made incredible strides in image quality, even from just a year or two ago.
Now we begin to enter high-end image quality, where some of the very best digital sensors (both APS-C and full-frame) are being produced today, where bokeh and image quality can approach, match, or even exceed that of the top-of-the-line full-frame sensors from Canon and Nikon, yet the gear can be a lot smaller and up to fifty percent lighter than traditional full-frame DSLR equipment. To show what they are capable of, here are a few of my recent mirrorless APS-C sensor images:
I can hear your thoughts now… Wow! I want THAT, where do I sign up?
If that’s what you want, then get thee to a Sony or Fuji dealership — and don’t look back. Why not Canon or Nikon? Both of the industry leaders have been asleep at the wheel in the mirrorless market for the past several years, and the early offerings they have made available for purchase have been roundly ignored by customers. Sony and Fuji, however, have made huge leaps in mirrorless sensor development and have produced products that have been hailed by photo customers as being the greatest thing since sliced bread. Sony, in particular, has designed their mirrorless cameras to be able to mount — with the proper adapter — just about any lens ever made by any manufacturer on the planet, so if you’re concerned about your investment in lenses from someone else, you should be able to find a solution for making them work with Sony mirrorless bodies.
However, these cameras are significantly heavier, bulkier, and pricier than the digital point-and-shoot cameras (digi-cams) that we covered in the previous section. What’s not to like about them? Well, in addition to being heavier, bulkier, and pricier — here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
- Dust can get into the sensor area when changing lenses. With some camera models, dust on the sensor is not much of an issue, just use a quality dust blower and you’re good to go; however, with other camera models it can be a nightmare, and one that requires the camera body to be shipped back to the vendor for factory servicing on a regular basis.
- Mirrorless cameras have small bodies, but the electronics draw about the same level of electricity (or more) that the big full-frame DSLRs draw. Smaller bodies mean smaller batteries, which means you need to bring spares. Sometimes lots of spares. And if you’re traveling, getting all these batteries recharged can be a serious challenge.
If you’re willing to work with these potential shortcomings, then — by all means — have fun!
35mm Film Point-and-Shoot Cameras
I know what you’re thinking… What the heck is this doing here? It should have been up before the cell phone section!
Ummmm, no. You see — 35mm film is the original full-frame sensor, albeit with some limitations when compared to the latest-and-greatest digi-cams, mirrorless cameras, and DSLRs. And just what are those limitations? 35mm film has been eclipsed by digital in terms of resolution, dynamic range, and ease of use. So why use film at all? Isn’t it dead? Nope, film’s not dead, though it is a challenge getting it processed compared to just a few years ago. Even buying fresh film is a bit of a hassle compared to a few years ago. And it’s a fact that the cheapest film is more expensive — over time — than the reusable memory chips that are swapped in and out of digital cameras.
So — with all those drawbacks (and some of them are fairly serious) — what’s the draw and why is it here?
Two words. Image quality.
Unlike digital, 35mm film is a mature technology and it can be packaged into a camera form-factor that’s just as small as some of the smallest 1″ digital point-and-shoot cameras — only it’s full-frame, instead of being a tiny fraction of that. So where the tiny digi-cams might struggle with creating beautiful bokeh and suffer from signal noise, film continues to reign supreme.
Don’t believe me? Here are a number of my recent 35mm film point-and-shoot images (from various cameras, all of which are tiny):
So… What do you think? Is seeing believing — or are you unconvinced? Did you click on any of the images to embiggen them for closer scrutiny?
At present — though maybe for not much longer — 35mm film still offers better image quality than all of digital, at least up through the APS-C sensor sizes (though digital completely fails when compared to any large format films, like 4×6 or 8×10). But 35mm film does offer something digital still can’t touch — an organic look than is impossible for digital to duplicate. Look at the very top image on this page for an example of what I’m describing, the photo of the chair and desk next to the window.
So if you’re wanting to go big and crave the amazing image quality of full-frame digital — but simply can’t afford it — look to 35mm film. The required camera gear sells for a fraction of the cost of digital (you can get it on eBay for cheap), yet you can get spectacular results. How cheap is a 35mm film point-and–shoot camera? How about less than $10.00? Seriously, eBay has crazy prices for basic point-and-shoot 35mm cameras, to see them just click here. A little gun-shy? I don’t blame you, but there’s a way to deal with that as well; go for the gear that has already gone through a CLA (Cleaning, Lube & Adjustment) recently, which you can also find on eBay for a bit more cost here.
Sold on 35mm film, but repelled by the lowly point-and-shoot? And still want something like a small mirrorless digital body? How about the original mirrorless camera — the 35mm rangefinder! They take interchangeable lenses — from 12mm to 135mm — and are significantly smaller than an SLR or a DSLR. And the image quality — just like the little film point-and-shoots — is to die for.
Check it out — here are some of my recent 35mm film shots from various 35mm rangefinder bodies:
If you want to get into 35mm rangefinder gear — again — eBay has crazy prices, starting as low as $10.00 or less, which you can see here. Still a little gun-shy about buying used film gear? I don’t blame you, but — just like above — there’s a way to deal with that as well; go for the gear that has already gone through a CLA (Cleaning, Lube & Adjustment) recently, which you can also find on eBay for a bit more cost here.
I hope this has given you some ideas about moving forward with your photography, and perhaps a lighter and smaller way of doing so. Keep your eyes open for more posts in the future for detailed info about rangefinders, film processing, the venerable Leica M3, and more.