How To Choose A Camera System
How do you decide on a camera? Comparing new features? I doubt it. I’m guessing, like most camerapeople, you love to shoot and have a camera that basically gets the trick done. But also somewhere inside what you really wonder about is whether a new camera, or camera system, might allow you to shoot your kind of shot better — perhaps even take on more work, and in more professional settings. Could that rangefinder be a better pick than your SLR? Could that step up to the camera with better video capabilities be enough to add real video production to your shoots? Will the quality of image increase with a full frame sensor? How much? Would it help to have a second (or third) camera? Addressing this kind of decision-making is what this review is all about.
I believe most people make decisions on what camera to buy based entirely on personal usage and aspirations. To that end, as a professional photographer who uses three different cameras, I recently did a series of articles for Phlearn, outlining a whole number of shoots I did throughout 2018 using each of them. I did one on the Nikon D850, one on the Leica M-P (Typ 240) and another on the Fujifilm X-H1. If interested in the deeper dive, I encourage you to visit each article and see for yourself when and why I use each camera — you’ll see they each have carved out their own special place for me.
But for those looking for the net-net, here’s the recap:
My shoots vary from personal to professional and within the professional arena it can quickly alternate between editorial, lifestyle, portrait, sports and other movement-based captures. I also do fine art photography. That’s a lot of difference scenarios, each of which comes with different demands. A number of years ago, I would dwell over what to put in my camera bag before each shoot and often times just take everything I had. At the outset, this seemed like a way to give myself more options at a shoot, but really just created too many options and did more to confuse things when it was time to start clicking.
Over time, I learned which cameras of mine perform best for each of my scenarios and I’ve finally been able to pair up camera systems with types of shoots to a point where I can decide quickly and confidently.
To this end, I have developed three overarching categories of shooting scenarios that cover the vast majority of my shoots, and each of these uber categories seems to go best for me with a specific kind of camera. By kind I mean that the actual brand is less important here than the physicality of the hardware and how it addresses the way I work in those scenarios. For example, while I use Nikon for my SLR, it should go without saying that Canon systems work in largely the same way. Your vintage 35mm Pentax or Minolta will feel a lot like the Leica M and the Sony Alphas (a series) will offer a very similar experience to my Fujifilm X Series. The important thing is not the features of the cameras as much as how these different types of cameras provide a better overall experience for your type of shoot. Let’s get into it…
Big Shoot, Big Needs = SLR
Studio work and high-end editorial/lifestyle/sports work benefit from larger/newer sensors on full frame cameras, especially when paired with great lenses with fast autofocus. This is the territory of the SLR, which also comes with the features that help in many of those shoot situations. So, when I get the call from a big brand client with needs that probably go beyond social media, I pick up my Nikon D850. With its durable construction, extra fast XQD cards, 9FPS-enabling battery grip with all-day battery life, AF fine tuning features to dial in my focus, tethering, off-camera light control, high pixel count, backlit sensor, perfect color rendering — I trust this camera with my livelihood.
Artfulness = Full Frame Rangefinder
Fine art photography and the kind of work that might end up in a gallery or on someone’s wall involves a slower kind of shooting with a lot more purpose to the framing and interaction with subjects. Here, I prefer to go manual focus on a smaller camera with smaller lenses. This makes me, as a person/artist, more available and present within the shooting experience. For this kind of shoot, I use my Leica M-P. The Leica M series is a very small footprint but extraordinary glass and a full frame sensor, so I am not trading much quality in imagery for the decrease in size. The pared down shooting experience eliminates everything but the creativity of photography and it’s quite incredible what a difference that actually makes. I’ve relied on my Leica for many years to deliver artistic and signature looks for my work that I can’t get with any other set-up.
Run-And-Gun Fun = Compact Mirrorless
Travel, social media-based and personal photography necessitates everything being easy beyond anything else. I still want to be able to experiment around and use different lenses, but I don’t want to have to think about much else. Plus, I want to be able to pull images from my camera right to my phone to send or post. For this, I have always used my Fujifilm X-Series cameras. My current favorite is the X-H1, as it also has in-camera stabilization for video, which makes the camera very useful not just for stills, but also as a behind-the-scenes video camera. I’ve even shot music videos on it. The easy top-of-camera controls also means I can hand it off to anyone to use — which I can’t do with either of my other cameras. And, to top it off, the Fujifilm cameras and lenses are weather resistant, which also comes in handy when traveling about in various weather conditions. With incredible in-camera artistic film looks, this is the best “set it and forget it” camera in my posession.
Examples: Nikon D850
This editorial assignment, featuring actress Christine Adams, is a perfect example of when I would grab my Nikon D850. A dark environment like this would be a huge strain for my Leica and require too much information in the image for good retouching and for final printing to be appropriate for my Fujifilm. On top of that, I’m using a gelled off-camera light here that is best handled with an SLR designed for this kind of work. I have a lighting assistant here holding a Profoto — I need it to fire every time, no mistakes.
This is nearly always what I bring to a studio shoot, especially when working for bigger clients with big deliverables. Here’s a small behind-the-scenes video from a studio shoot, where I used the Nikon.
For more images taken throughout the year with my Nikon D850, click here.
Example: Leica M-P
In this shoot for choreographer Benjamin Millepied and his Los Angeles Dance Project dancers, I chose to go with my Leica. In a shoot like this, I’m actually more concerned with staying connected to the dancers, giving direction and also keeping my frame exact. I often use the electronic viewfinder in this scenario, so that I’m looking down into my camera and then back up to interact more personally — this to me is the absolute best way to frame a shot precisely while still being able to interact with talent. I’m giving up a bit in terms of frames-per-second speed here, but composition and framing is far more important to me in something as artistically conceived as this. Also, while manual focus feels less sophisticated than auto focus, being able to set it once and then concentrate on other things is essential to exact framing. You gain nothing by having AF on in a situation like this.
You can get a sense of how I shoot with this camera in this behind-the-scenes video created around this shoot:
For more examples of images taken with the Leica M, click here.
Example: Fujifilm X-H1
By way of an example of when the Fujifilm is at its best for me, here’s a shot of a special spot in Sedona that I’ve been to a few times. What I remember most about these visits to this incredible area is not framing up shots but the kind of peaceful and spiritual renewal that the land and sights offer. There were hikes and meditations and family and friends involved in this trip and for that it’s best to have a small camera that enables me to take pictures quickly and easily and get back to what I’m doing. A mobile camera could do the trick here, too, but I enjoy the quality of a great photo too much to leave it up to such a small sensor. The Fujifilm is also weather resistant and extremely durable. It takes excellent video and offers great in-camera looks for straight-out-of-the-camera shareable imagery. I like to put a book together after trips and these images are ready-to-print in ways that my phone would need a lot of help to emulate.
For more images and examples of how I use the Fujifilm X-H1, click here.
A final note for those looking for a camera system to buy into — remember, the old worries about whether your camera can grow with you no longer really exist. The quality of sensors and lenses has become democratized across nearly all brands. The best you can do (and perhaps the hardest thing to do) is to decide which type of photography you’re aiming to do most of and buy into a system that is tailored for it. The quality of image will generally be fine no matter what you shoot with — but your shots will be better if you’re using a camera that is geared toward your style of shooting.