Choices, choices, choices. From the ultimate image quality shootout.
We have a rather strange hardware problem: on casual observation, simultaneously too much choice, but at the same time, when all things are taken into account, a lack of it. It isn’t the problem of the perfect camera not existing, but rather that we have to jump through a lot of hoops for a complete solution. There are digital systems with sensor sizes ranging from 2/3” (Pentax Q) to 645 (Phase One, Hasselblad) – and to make things more confusing, surprising amounts of interchangeability*. So what is a serious photographer to do?
*Practically, this is nothing more than an illusion and a bunch of empty promises: even if you can do it, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea.
Before making a choice – either an additional investment or a switch – I think it’s most important for you to know both your own immediate objectives, and have some honest idea of your level of seriousness. I measure this by intellectual and physical commitment, not finances: you may be extremely wealthy, but I wouldn’t recommend a large format scanning back or a Hasselbald Multishot for your family vacation snaps. On the other hand, for somebody who is extremely dedicated in photographing monochrome still lifes and only outputs as large optical prints, perhaps a studio monorail and 8×10” sheet film is still the way to go. If you don’t have the patience to run it properly, you’re simply not going to make any photographs. The objective of a system should be to enhance the photographic experience; compliment your current skill level whilst allowing you space to grow, and certainly not limiting you.
For all consumers, and the vast majority of amateurs, it isn’t the ultimate image quality that matters: it’s the ease of getting there and the size of the shooting envelope. The easier it is to achieve decent to good image quality, the more suitable a system is; it demands little but delivers beyond expectations. Since few bother to print or even share images in any way other than digitally in low resolution via social media, you probably won’t be surprised to hear me recommend no camera at all for consumers: just use your phone. It requires no commitment and almost no effort, yet with a little bit of care yields results that are far beyond what was possible not so many years ago. If there are more specific needs, then something with a 1” or M4/3 sensor and a decent fast lens with a reasonably wide range is probably the order of the day: something like a Sony RX10. Very likely that will have a more accessible shooting envelope than a low end DSLR with a kit lens; the biggest difference will lie in the optics, not the sensor.
Moving up a little, to somebody who’s willing to spend a bit more time on photography as a hobby, may well make it the main purpose of their vacation, and be willing to carry a bit more weight, interchange lenses and invest the time in learning some technical and artistic skills – I believe the optimum sweet spot lies in the region of M4/3 or APSC, but mirrorless. The resolution and shooting envelope is more than sufficient for even reasonably large prints; the range of lenses is diverse, relatively modern (i.e. designed for digital and capable of matching the resolution of the sensor) and for the most part, relatively affordable because the physical size of the glass is much smaller. And the sensors are large enough to satisfy any amateur obsessions with shallow depth of field.
You may be surprised I’m excluding DSLRs from the running, but it’s because technicalities start to come into play: specifically, focusing and exposure. With an EVF or live view, focusing is always accurate because you’re focusing at the sensor plane; exposure can be previewed and taken in conjunction, both of these things lower the miss rate considerably and allow the photographer to focus on composition and timing.
Mainly on image quality and increased control over depth of field grounds, the serious amateur or working studio pro has to really look at full frame – and that means a DSLR of some description, because frankly, the compression and shutter vibration issues of the A7R make it pretty much unusable – that is, if the extremely limited lens selection doesn’t already rule it out. That said, if your job is documentary and about fast turnaround, moving quickly and overall responsiveness, I’d still be looking at Micro Four Thirds: that hits the sweet spot on all fronts for that kind of work, in my mind. And you’ve got a large choice of excellent lenses that mean it’s a viable option to go either the zoom or fast prime route, or a mix of both.
Which system, exactly, you land up selecting depends both on your format choice and your specific needs; personally, I find the lens lineups available for M4/3 much more complete and well thought out in terms of focal length spacing than APSC for the major brands; the APSC cameras are stuck using the full frame primes, which gives them a dearth of fast wide options. Consumer zooms are far too many (pick your flavor of 18-whatever, from 55 to 300mm) the only thing really missing is tilt shifts, but those are rather specialized and not for the majority of users anyway – and if you need those, you’re almost certainly going to be looking at a full frame system or a technical camera solution.
Theoretically, for the missing lenses on all mirrorless systems, you could adapt anything with a longer flange distance; it should work. Ergonomic considerations notwithstanding, It won’t always work well – in fact, it will rarely work well – because of three considerations. Firstly, the optical design of the larger format lenses usually has less resolving power than the smaller mirrorless formats require (they may also not be telecentric); secondly, the adaptors tend not to be precise enough and introduce a whole range of additional planarity issues into the mix – both tilt and decentering, which further ruins resolving power, and finally, the filter packs tend to be of very different thicknesses, sometimes including offset microlenses, and sometimes not: the net upshot is that a lot of lenses simply do not work very well. The Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus, for instance, is a reference lens on any DSLR, but it performs poorly on M4/3 because of the thickness of the filter pack and interference with the optical formula. Never mind trying to hold that combination, either. Remember: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
On the full frame front, you have four choices. (I’m going into a bit more detail here because I think this is probably where the majority of audience interest lies.) Sony again is a non-starter because of lens selection, and I’ve already said my piece above about adapted lenses. Leica is the next candidate I’m dismissing: partially because at that price, I can get far better image quality potential in the body, and because unless you’re going to turn it into a frankencamera with EVF, you’re limited to 28-75mm if you care about accurate focusing. It is a single scalpel rather than a full surgical suite – there are some things it may work well for, but for most of us – it isn’t flexible enough. And let’s not even talk about tilt shifts or telephotos.
We’re left with Nikon and Canon. Nikon’s weakness is twofold: firstly, very few of the native AF lenses work well with the D800E/D810 unless stopped down; even then, you still don’t get the same degree of bite and clarity (microcontrast, aberration correction and resolution of fine detail structures) as the Zeiss options. This again means limited focal lengths and worse still, manual focus only – the viewfinder is not at all up to the task, and frankly, almost never even arrives properly calibrated. Good thing we have live view, then. They’re also lacking an ultrawide tilt shift. Fortunately, the flash system is its redeeming factor: it’s excellent; very flexible and very consistent in metering. Canon appears a bit more balanced, because as they still lack a high resolution body, this tends to hide the flaws of the lenses somewhat more; you simply can’t fault what you can’t see. There are some excellent lenses in the lineup, but there are also a lot of surprisingly poor performers, like the 24-70/2.8.
You may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned medium format options. I honeslty think the reasons for using medium format have gotten fewer and fewer, the lower end (30-40MP) especially. Unless you need the leaf shutter and very fast flash sync, or extremely high resolution for large prints, I can’t really think of any reason to bother all. Part of this is pricing: the D800E started the death of that market; part of this is system width. Even for a very established system like Hasselblad or Phase One, there are still far fewer lens options than for Nikon or Canon; there’s no equivalent to the Canon 17 TSE, or Nikon 800/5.6 for instance, or either of the Zeiss Otuses. Medium format lenses may be uniformly reasonably good, but with the exception of the Leica S lenses, they don’t perform at anywhere near the same level as the Otuses unless stopped down considerably: and then your depth of field control and flash power advantages disappear completely. Pentax 645 might seem like a very economical way to get in, with a cheap legacy lens selection, but beware: almost none of them can really match the resolution of the sensor. Only the newer SDM lenses do it justice, and those are not cheap at all.
There are also of course the very specialized matched lens-sensor solutions, like the Sigma Merrills/ Quattros and one-offs like the Ricoh GR; their output results seem to suggest that this is really the way to go in future. However, being matched of course means non-interchangeability; a system this is not. The closest we get is probably a full set of Sigmas, though that’s just 28/45/75mm. I think it’s pretty clear that once you pass what I like to think of as the ‘consumer threshold’, there’s really no such thing as one system: even if you have moderately diverse interests, you’re probably going to have to consider one and a bit. Or worse, if you’re chasing ultimate image quality, probably have one lens and one camera for each focal length – turning the logistics into a bit of a hodgepodge and a ‘did-I-remember-to-bring-the-right-chargers’ nightmare.
I personally have been travelling with the following of late: for street work and fast response, a Ricoh GR; for wide angle work, including some architecture and landscape, a Nikon D810 with 24/3.5 PCE; that same body also mounts the Zeiss 1.4/85 Otus for short tele and cinematic work; the midrange is covered by the Pentax 645Z and 55/2.8 SDM. I leapfrog again with an older manual focus 150/3.5 Pentax lens to provide a ~120mm option. The Zeiss 2/135 APO is definitely a superior lens, but it’s also got superior weight: at this point, with this level of weight, and the relative infrequency which I need something that long, it’s difficult to justify – and even harder to get past airline carry on. As to why I use the 55/2.8 on the 645 instead of the 55 Otus on the D810, it’s mainly because of the rendering style: the former is a wide-normal, the latter is a long-normal/short tele, and I prefer the former. Let’s just say that whilst it produces the results I want, and makes for spectacular prints, it’s not ideal: I’d love to have lenses of Otus quality for the 645, or the resolution and high ISO performance of the 645 on the D810, but neither one exists. Instead, I’m left with about 6kg as my lightest option – and that doesn’t count the tripod I’m also carrying most of the time.
In fact, the advice I’m going to close with is one of considering compromise: be honest with yourself, look back through the back catalog of work, and decide what should be your focus; what types of images do you want to knock out of the park? The rest…well, if you’re not masochistically pushing the envelope, you may want to reconsider. MT
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