Spot the odd one out of this bunch. (Hint, it’s not the M9-P because the image isn’t low-key, or because it’s the only Leica in a bunch of Nikons.) It’s also not the F2 Titan because it requires no electrons to operate. Let’s try another set:
It’s not the Nikon because it’s autofocus; well, in a way, it partially is. What most of the lenses and cameras in the two sets have in common is a rather nebulous concept generally known as ‘feel’; it’s the impression you get through your hands when you handle and use an object. The odd men out are the D600 and 28/1.8 G respectively – for the simple reason that if you’ve handled any of the others in the group, you’ll feel like there’s something missing: in short, they’ll be the pieces of equipment you’re least likely to want to pick up and use if given free rein. I’ve got three Carl Zeiss lenses for my Hasselblad 501C: the 4/120 Makro-Planar is my least favorite because the focusing ring is a bit stiff and not as pleasant to use as the other two; it’s exacerbated by the long throw making it more of a chore. This is a shame, because optically, it’s the best of the three by some margin – and that’s saying something seeing as all of the lenses are excellent.
The D600, too, falls into this category: it simply feels like a cheap, plasticky consumer appliance when you pick it up. It might have been engineered to take a certain specified amount of punishment before giving up or breaking, but there is something in the way it’s put together, the choice of materials, the feel in the hand…that simply makes you know deep down that you’ll be replacing it in a year or two. This is of course a shame, because there’s nothing wrong with the camera at all: it has an excellent sensor, a comprehensive feature set, solid and accurate autofocus, and a low-vibration shutter that makes for easy handholding at lower speeds. Yet…given the choice of the D600, D700 and D800E in my camera cabinet, I always pick up the D700 or D800E – even if the former might not have sufficient resolution for some tasks, and the latter might be overkill and require extra stable support.
It does seem that in the digital age, manufacturers have largely forgotten how to make cameras that inspired confidence and simply felt right in the hands, making you want to pick them up, feel them, and use them. Even the flagship cameras somehow just don’t feel the same; there’s a solidity to the F2 Titan that’s somewhat diminished in the F6, and completely gone in the D800/D4. I don’t think it’s a weight thing; F2 Titan, F6 and D800 are all in the same ballpark. Heavier doesn’t always feel better; I don’t like the Pentax 6×7 at all, for instance. Maybe it’s down to the thickness of the metal used, or the amount of give, or the choice of leatherette/ rubber. Who knows.
What I do know for certain is that you are far more likely to pick up and want to use a camera that feels good; this in turn means you’ll actually want to go out and take pictures with it, which indirectly could possibly improve the quality of your images through practice*. (This is of course not to say that you can’t make a great image with a lens that feels horrible and plasticky – any of the cheap 50/1.8s are a testament to that.) Interestingly, the lack of choice seems to boil down to cost cutting, as usual. Leica M cameras – both film and digital – have a solidity and heft about them that inspires confidence, even if the film ones are tricky to load, and the digital ones have a habit of eating SD cards. They’re not particularly heavy, either, but they clearly aren’t built to a cost – just look at retail prices these days.
*Oh dear, I seem to have made an (admittedly somewhat circuitous) argument that your camera actually does matter…to be continued in part two!
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