What is the best camera I have ever used?
Given the effectiveness of affiliate links and the gear reviews that they inspire, there is an impression that photographers tend to stick to one brand of camera their entire lives. This may not be true. A dig through some dusty boxes in my mother's barn revealed some of my old cameras. Through more than forty years of photography, it appears that there was no fixed favourite brand or manufacturer. Needs - and budget - dictated the equipment; Minolta, Praktica, Olympus, Rollei & Rolleiflex, Hasselblad, Leicaflex, Canon, and Fujifilm. Each chosen for a reason that was important at that time.
As each camera brought back vivid memories, they set me thinking about the path they had joined me on through life. Some were good, some were excellent, and one highly rated camera was darn-right abysmal.
My First Camera
Fun. That's the first thing that came to mind when I grasped my first camera and it was what I remembered when recently I found it again. The "Minolta Weathermatic A" popularised underwater photography at a time when the only waterproof camera was the all mechanical, specialised and expensive Nikonos III. Ignore what anyone might say about 110 size film; it's too small, too grainy, too amateur. It's all true but it is the huge popularity of 110 format film at that time that's important. With a cheap plastic cassette and film developers in every high street, 110 brought photography to quite literally the man in the street. What's the No. 1 Rule of Photography? "The best camera is the one you have with you." Which is precisely what the innovative 110 format managed to do.
Did I mention the Minolta Weathermatic was a hugely fun camera? And with it, I took photos everywhere. What more could a spoiled western kid growing up in the early 1980's ask for, except perhaps Kelly LeBrock? I took the Weathermatic to the French Alps in the winter, and to the beach during the long summer holidays. Best of all, it worked underwater. What's not to like? Bright yellow, holiday memories, and photos of fish, feet, and girls? Fabulous. Now I loved photography. Thank you, that clever man at Minolta who dreamed of a waterproof camera for all.
Learning the Basics
By the time I was fifteen I really loved taking photos. So I asked for a camera for Christmas. I was very lucky. My parents gave me a Praktica BCX with 50mm f1.8 lens. It worked reliably. It was easy to use. It had aperture priority and a manual mode. It even came with a forty second maximum exposure time. I learned everything I could about photography with that camera.
Since I worked during the school holidays it didn't take long before I bought some lenses from a friend. A Tamron 70-210mm zoom lens with an Adaptall-2 mount and a Tamron x2 converter. I made as much use of it as I could. The school magazine needed sports photos so at once I obliged. And I spent summer evenings wandering the countryside looking for the perfect sunset.
The x2 converter came into its own for a photograph of the sun which went into an exhibition. I learned to develop Ilford's reknown FP4 (.pdf) and HP5 film in a Paterson tank. My scarce funds stretched further after I got a bulk film loader and 30m of FP4 via Ilford's discount for schools. Dank afternoons photographing the rugby matches demanded a fast shutter, possible at 1600 ASA (now ISO) with HP5 push processed with Microphen. Evenings and weekends were spent making prints in the school darkrooms with my friend Robert Simpson who went on to be photographic assistant to Patrick Lichfield at Lichfield Studios. Within a couple of years the school magazine was filled with our photos. It was an encouraging sign. I put together my first exhibition. I won the Wallace Heaton Prize for Meritorious Photography.
The Olympus OM1 and Olympus OM2n were the cult cameras of the time. National Geographic featured advertisements for Yoshihisa Maitani's genius design. Someone had taken an OM1 up Everest (check out the North Col. Opens in new window.). Lord Lichfield was using them professionally. Did I buy one an OM when I was still at school or after I had left to work? I can't remember. But I must have traded the BCX like a boy changing girlfriend. It was painful but the OM2n was stronger. I think the OM1 came later as a "backup camera." My memories are mostly of the OM2n which I used around London for a few years. With some Cokin filters and lens hoods, the Tamron zoom, and a tiny Olympus 50mm all of my camera kit fitted inside an WW2 gas-mask bag.
At about the same time I was doing a lot of cycling and rock climbing. Another waterproof camera was called for, and I remember distantly an Olympus 35AF. The old thing is, I have little memory of using it and there are no negatives in my archive from that camera. My guess is they were of climbing trips in the Lake District, Scotland, and France. Over the long term, photographs and negatives, like digital files, are hard to keep safe.
Yet for cycle touring I had a smaller camera that fit in a tiny bag tied underneath my saddle. There was only one to choose, the impressively engineered Rollei B 35.
I can remember wanting the sharper Rollei 35 S with f2.8 Sonnar lens. My budget didn't run that far. Given the knocks and bruises along the way, a less expensive B 35 was probably the right choice. Why wreck an expensive camera? And the quality of the B 35's lens was absolutely sufficient. In bright Alpine sunlight, and stopped down somewhere between f8 and f16, the photographs the tiny Rollei took were more than sufficient for holiday snaps. Most of which I still have, piles of prints of cycling the length of the French Alps and the Pyrenees, and of one arduous ride to Madrid, Spain, sleeping outside all the way.
The World's Best Camera
If you asked me, "What is the best camera you have ever used?" the answer comes readily to mind, the Rolleiflex TLR 2.8E.
There's a reason the Rolleiflex was the most popular press camera in the immediate post-war period. Light in weight, mechanically reliable, and armed with a sharp and fast Zeiss 2.8 lens the Rolleiflex is easy to carry, simple to use, and it produces fantastic results. It uses medium format 120 size film.
While I had grown up with 35mm film, I had grown dissatisfied with its relatively relatively low resolution and graininess compared to the smooth tones I could see in photographs I admired taken on medium and large format film. What I wanted was a medium format camera.
I can't remember where I got the Rolleiflex 2.8E Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) from in those days before eBay and online shopping. What I do remember is sending it for a Clean, Lubricate, and Adjust (CLA) with one of London's few remaining TLR specialists. The camera served me faithfully from then on.
At last I had a camera that could get the best out of my favourite film, Fuji Acros. In the 1980's its combination of broad exposure latitude and smooth chromogenic grain was ground-breaking. Printed on "hard" paper, the results were sensational.
I would, nonetheless, highly recommend one update to the classic Rolleiflex. One doesn't need the built-in light meter. But in my opinion, ease of use is of paramount importance. Fit a handmade focusing screen made by Bill Maxwell and your Rolleiflex will feel like a modern camera. It transforms the image. If I remember correctly, measured with a Sekonic spot-meter the Maxwell screen was at least two stops brighter than the standard Rolleiflex ground glass, and four stops brighter in the corners! A brilliant image is so much easier to focus. I fell in love with the Rolleiflex's simplicity, light weight, and that gorgeous focusing screen.
There was more to be done with such a great camera. I joined The Camera Club, founded in London in 1885, where I learned to use studio lights. Evening classes with a model soon got me up to speed. Followed by hiring the studio to play with side-light, top light, balanced light, fill-in light, barn-doors, softboxes, light modifiers, et al..
The Rolleiflex was perfect, though with a long sync cord to control the strobes that soon got too hot to touch. That phrase, "painting with light" began to make sense. My photography started to progress. I hired some models and took some photos I am still proud of today (scans to follow when I can find them!).
What a fool I was! Despite the obvious brilliance of the Rolleiflex, the siren noise of marketing drew me in. I bought a Hasselblad 503 CXi. It was the worst camera I have ever used.
Please note, the following is my personal recollection. Plenty of others will disagree.
In my opinion the classic 500 series Hasselblad fails in totality when it comes to ergonomics. It is a square box. Build around 120 format film, it lacks all the ergonomic convenience I want from a camera. It is unnatural to hold. And it doesn't fit into anything. Particularly once a huge lens is attached to the front. Remember Rule No.1? One must have a camera to take a picture. The Hasselblad was the last camera I would want to carry anywhere. Perhaps it is for the car-born photographer? Of course, it is designed for studio use where on a tripod or, if you must, handheld. But it is SO uncomfortable.
Furthermore, the design of the film magazine carries, in my opinion, all of the panache of a Medieval torture rack.
If you have ever trekked for miles in sub-zero conditions, as I have, and set up a camera and tripod upon a perfect hoare frost, you will know how valuable every frame can be. Imagine, if you will, pressing the shutter on an ideal image and then winding on the film. At which point you find, if you are lucky, that the tortuous film path and low temperature has caused celloid film to snap. If you are unlucky, you don't find out until you get home before unloading the film magazine.
The Hasselblad 500 is not the school of excellent industrial design. It is a design of the designer's convenience. Square format film; why not make a square box? Film on a roll; why not run it around rollers? Wrong, and wrong. A camera needs to be held, and film needs to lead a gentle life guided along an unstressed film path to be set absolutely flat on the film plate.
Coming from the Rolleiflex the advantages of the 'Blad, inter-changeable lenses and a through the lens view, were outweighed by its disadvantages of low portability, poor ergonomics, and unreliable film path in cold weather. For my style of photography, the Rolleiflex 2.8 will always be faster, lighter, better. I sold the Hasslebad (sic).
The long wait for digital
It is easy to forget the in-between years when digital cameras didn't quite offer the resolution to make an A4 print, and yet the death-knell of progress was sounding for film. I remember a job photographing Chinese art for an exhibition. It must have been in the very early 2000's. I can remember thinking, and costing, the difference between doing the job on film and shooting it digitally. The client chose film. It was the last commercial work I did using a medium format film camera.
During the same period for casual photography I used a 3.8 megapixel Canon Powershot S45 in 2003, upgraded later to the 7.1m megapixel Canon Powershot S70. These cameras were a little chubby, not quite small enough to slip into a pocket. They had the reassurance of metal bodies, manual over-ride, and the ability to record RAW files. They were the cameras one used in situations where these days a cellphone would do. The S45 wasn't good enough for an A4 print but the S70 was just about there. Both were good cameras for travel though not waterproof, which I would have preferred.
It must have been 2004 when I bought the Canon Rebel EOS 300D. I remember I wanted to photograph the Tour de France in the summer and the Canon was the obvious choice. Just 6.3 million megapixels but the first digital camera under $1000. Looking at the camera's box in the photo here, I must have bought the kit though I don't remember using that lens. I did get an underwhelming Canon EL 20mm lens and a glamorous white Canon L series 70-210mm zoom. That's when I discovered that I don't get on well with zoom lenses. I mean, what's the point? Just walk a bit further to compose the photograph.
Sadly many of the backups I made of those cycling photographs have been lost to corrupted media, broken hard drives, and obsolete hardware. There's a lesson there. That said, I don't remember using the 300D for any professional jobs. Instead, as my life changed and I moved to Asia, I used it for travel photography in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, and Thailand. But it never satisfied me. Perhaps it was because the file sizes were just a bit too small to make the prints I wanted. By this time, A3 and larger prints were my preference which one could only make from medium format film. Proudly I took my Rolleiflex loaded with Fujifilm Acros to China too.
It was quite a few years later that found a digital camera I really liked. Enter the 2005 Canon 5D which was launched at a price of $3299. This was the first digital SLR that used a sensor approximately the same size as a 35mm negative, and which cost less than $6000. Nikon didn't launch their own full-frame SLR, the D700, until 2008.
By this time, my photography had graduated to portraiture and the Canon offered beautiful skin tones. With twelve million megapixels it had sufficient resolution to make large prints, each of those pixels was spaced in a way that allowed for excellent low noise image quality. I love the Canon 5D.
But I was still making mistakes. While in Bangkok I bought the camera and later a fancy Canon EF 16-35mm zoom. It was expensive, bulky, fashionable. A huge mistake, at least for my style of photography. And I had forgotten Rule 1 ~ The best camera is the one you have with you. Big and bulky doesn't cut it. To compound the error I still had the Canon EF 70-200mm zoom and an EF 100mm Macro, and I did quite like a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens until it broke. The build quality of these plastic lenses isn't impressive.
Conclusion? I just don't get on with zooms. Or large, heavy lenses. Why not walk forward or backward a few paces? I sold them all.
Instead, there was an alternative. Encouraged by the enthusiasts on the (Warning! The following link can have a terrible effect on a curious mind!) Fredmiranda forum, I built up a set of Carl Zeiss C/Y mount prime lenses. This was back in the days when lens mounts to put a Contax/Yashica lens on a Canon body polarized opinion, either a niche interest or the bastard spawn of the devil himself. I had a Zeiss 28mm, a 35mm, and a perfect 80mm. Come to think of it, the 80mm was hard to focus manually. But nail the focus and it was stellar.
Focus is a good thing. Not just for brain surgeons but for photographers who want the client to pay. That's where modern technology counts. Modern autofocus system will provide perfect eye focus in a fraction of a second, and then track the subject. It is an extraordinarily effective technology. But with a wide-angle lens the depth of focus is huge. One can zone focus with ease.
To the Zeiss collection I added a jewel-like Olympus 24mm f2.8 that made up for the deficiencies of my Canon EF 20mm. Did I mention the Olympus was tiny? The Olympus lens is no larger than a Leica M mount lens. Which made for a very portable package.
Which lens did I use the most? The Carl Zeiss Distagon f2.8 28mm. With a lens hood. Why does no one show lens hoods anymore?
The Rangefinder Format
In order of importance I have always considered the camera to be much lower than the lens. But with digital there was the colour science to consider. There was no question the skin tones the Canon 5D produced straight from camera were excellent. The way the one inch sensor and the software rendered colour was very pleasing.
Yet a job came up that foiled the Canon's design. Shooting textiles for a client the sensor & software had a tendancy to moiré at the precise frequently of warp and weft that I needed to photograph. There was no getting around it. I tried different approaches. The moire kept intruding. To photograph textiles successfully would require a different digital sensor.
My first attempt was the Fuji X-E1. I wanted to try the X-Trans sensor which I reasoned wouldn't create moiré at the same frequency as the Canon. It wasn't a good camera. Slow, unresponsive, I couldn't gel with it. Yet, the mirrorless rangefinder style held such promise. The overall package was much smaller and lighter than my Canon 5D. Travelling frequently by air a camera that would not only manage textile photography but would fit in a small shoulder bag would be ideal. Before long, Fuji launched the X-E2 which was okay, but when the version 4 firmware came out, the upgrade transformed the camera. It is superb.
It astonishes me to think I have used the Fujifilm X-E2 for so many professional tasks; textile, fashion, general commercial, portrait and even ballet photography. It never let me down. The only weakness was that it isn't weather-proof. In Asia, one must take care during the wet season. When it rains wet means really wet with air laden with spray hurled by a strong wind. Another weakeness was that doing long photography sessions in studio, after three hours the lack of a large grip starts to hurt one's hand. A grip frame, or a larger camera with a bigger grip would be better in that situation.
Yet with a pair of the original X series Fuji lenses, the compact Fujinon XF 18mm f2, who's flaws can mostly be corrected in software, and the versatile, excellent Fujinon XF 60mm f2.4 R Macro, the camera has managed every project. Both lenses desperately need a service now.
There is something great about the rangefinder camera design. They are small, unobtrusive, and one can use both eyes to track the subject. With practise, one can instinctively track an object as it comes into view, ready to press the shutter at precisely the right moment. This is very hard to do when restricted to a viewfinder only SLR. And, for the right-eye dominant, there is space for a high nose bridge which makes the camera more comfortable to use. Even better, the Fuji solves the traditional Leica problem of parallax error though the use of a digital viewfinder. One sees what the camera sees. The result is a camera that is very portable, with great ergonomics. A perfect picture taking machine.
Present & Future
As the 2014 X-E2 wears out, the obvious choice would be to get a Fujifilm X-Pro2, a professional quality rangefinder style camera. My first impression wasn't great. Travelling a great deal, its larger size and weight compared to the X-E2 and lack of built in flash - I use fill-in flash frequently - gave the nod to the X-E2. Now that camera is ageing, an X-Pro2 appeals a great deal. The weather-sealing, solid durability, and unique optical-electronic viewfinder design (EVF, OVF, and ERF) would be very useful.
Why not a Fujifilm X-Pro3? I tried one a couple of times. Shooting with it was instinctive. It seems I rarely "chimp" - look at the rear screen to check the last image - since I hardly noticed what to others is an insurmountable barrier, the inaccessible rear screen. In that regard, the X-Pro3 was ideal and to my mind an example of Fujifilm's excellence in camera design. The company genuinely appears to be driven by camera enthusiasts who really understand ergonomics, and risk-taking. More evidence? The X-Pro3 comes in two different shades of black, one painted, and one surface hardened titanium, as well as a "natural" bright titanium finish. How many companies would take such a risk?
Nonetheless, from my perspective not so ideal is the price, that titanium finish, and the less sophisticated viewfinder compared to the previous model. A used X-Pro2 is about half the price of a new X-Pro3. There's a tiny, almost imperceptible difference in image quality. The X-Pro3's titanium finish appears to be of superficial benefit only. And in that regard it fails, too. It attracts fingerprints, and saves little weight (3g, I heard.) Lastly, the X-Pro2 enjoys a viewfinder that adapts to the lens fitted in a similar way to the Leica M3 rangefinder.
With the HMVF, you can use OVF in the rangefinder style to see the optical image. You can also set it to EVF like a modern mirrorless cameras to see the 100% coverage of field of view. On top of it, you can also simulataneously view the two modes and change the magnification of the optical image depending on the focal length in OVF.
What does it the Hybrid viewfinder look like? A photo speaks one thousand words, as they say...
Paired with an XF 18mm, an X-Pro2 makes an ideal package. Crucially the later model X-Pro3's viewfinder doesn't adapt - one can't change the magnification of the optical image -- so a wide-angle lens just make everything look further away. Perhaps it was a cost-saving measure but for a premium camera I feel that was one cut too many. I note the irony of complaining about the price and at the same time arguing that the camera should have a more expensive feature. But it is a "flag ship" product and as such Fujifilm would be justified including their best engineering. If that makes a future Fujifilm X-Pro series camera expensive compared to others, that's okay.
What do I use today?
I left my faithful X-E2 in Java. I didn't want to take it sailing across an ocean at the end of 2020, and I haven't been back to Indonesia. In any case, several of its control buttons are beginning to wear out. Once I get to Thailand there will be time to pick up a mint, used Fujifilm camera at a very good price. Unfortunately, there are very few X-Pro2's on the used market.
In the meantime, sitting in one of those dusty boxes at my mother's house, I found a 1975 Leicaflex SL2 I bought years ago. It doesn't have a lens. Yet with a Leica Elmarit-R Macro 60mm and loaded with Fujifilm Acros, for portraiture I know there's very little to touch it. It really needs to have an outing.
Update: October 2021. After arriving in Bangkok I got hold of a Fujifilm X-T2. With my Fujinon XF 60mm Macro, it is ideal for portraiture. The camera came with the well respected Fujinon 18-55mm compact zoom, and I have added a Samyang 12mm wide-angle lens for interiors. Big knurled knobs on the top plate make changing ISO, shutter speed, and exposure compensation easy. As my close-up eyesight diminishes with age, the clear markings on the dials help enormously.
As an aside to camera designers, a useful design test might be to operate a camera in darkness so that the knobs and dials have to be set by feel alone. The inclusion of tactile "bumps" and "stops" makes a huge difference to sub-conscious ease of operation.
Why don't I use Nikon? I tried. Over time I have owned a Nikon FE2, Nikon FM2, Nikon FE2, Nikon FM2 (again!). For reasons I am unsure of, I didn't like any of them. Bought and traded. Technically they are very sound cameras. Reliable. Well designed. Versatile. I just didn't bond with them.
What else have I used? The Fujifilm GW690II which used a 9cm x 6cm stretch of film for each shot. I hired one and lugged it around the North Yorkshire moors. Did I get some exceptional photos? Yes and no. I need to scan the results. Looking at the transparencies now, more than a decade later, some are okay. Did I like it? Yes. Despite being huge, cumbersome, heavy, it is still a wonderful landscape camera. I am just need more practise with it. The Fujifilm camera could be very rewarding in the right hands.
Anything else? I did briefly try the Leica M10 and the Leica Q1. Heavy. Not bad. Not ideal, either. So many of the modern Leicas are derivatives of other cameras such as the Panasonic S1R. Of course, the Leica glass is most definitely something special. Leica lenses offer some of the best flare control, micro-contrast, and optical perfection of any lens. While a set of Zeiss lenses is a much more affordable option, I have seen results with Leica glass which are superlative compared side by side. Administered by the law of diminishing returns, Leica lenses sit on the far end of the curve that is cost vs value. Which brings up an intriguing question - glass or camera?
The Present Day
The accepted view on the importance of the camera body versus the lens is that the lens is all important. This makes sense. The lens forms the image. In the days of light tight boxes filled with film once shutter speeds were consistent, the challenge was to design better lenses.
And "lens priority" makes sense too when considering digital cameras where the bodies are often technically redundant within a few years of their release.
After handling the 100 megapixel Fujifilm GFX digital medium format camera in early 2020 I wrote that I didn't want one but, "the technical quality is impressive." It's successor, the GFX100S presses me to consider an exception to the "lens priority" rule. Where a camera body is a step-change better than any that has gone before, where it enables new possibilities or higher technical quality, then it becomes important. Which, one could argue, is the case with Fujifilm's GFX 100S.
The GFX 100S differs from the preceeding GFX100 in one all important way; it is easy to carry. Thirty percent smaller by volume and 500g lighter in weight and $4000 less in price (It's $6,000).
What would the 100 megapixels delivered by the Fuji give you that a 45MP Nikon or 60MP Sony camera wouldn't? Prints beyond forty inches, resolution to back up close inspection of large prints by customers who don't want to hear about viewing distance, great flexibility to crop a shot and still get a large, printable image, and wide dynamic range that suits landscape photography in brightly lit scenes.
A Note to Fuji: The GFX100S is misnamed. Is "S" for Small? Who knows. But it's quite clearly the wrong way to label a camera that is significantly different to the previous model. In the English language small, iterative differences are signalled by correspondingly small iterations of nomenclature. For example, a "100" followed by a "100S." On the other hand, if there's a metamorphasis, to wit the difference between the erstwhile 100 and 100S, in British or American English one would expect the name to be entirely different. For example, a "Fujifilm GFX 500." That sounds a bit racier, doesn't it?
I skipped over the announcement of the Fujifilm GFX 100S because, while I saw the headlines, I assumed it was an iterative update on the GFX 100. That was a mistake! It wasn't under December 2021 that I got my hands onone. This isn't a camera review but my brief conclusion was it is small enough to take with me on trips, and that the lens build quality was sufficiently robust to survive. I understand a Tilt & Shift lens will be coming out in 2022. In which case it might be the perfect camera for my professional fine art photography.
With the annoucement by Canon that they are not planning any more EOS single lens reflex camera bodies after the EOS-1D X Mark III, mirrorless designs are the way forward. For myself, weight and size are still important so for general photography I am happy with the X-T2 paired with Fujinon's sharp and lightweight lenses. One day perhaps I will replace the X-E2 with a X-Pro series camera. There's something about the rangefinder type design which makes it ideal for street photography.
All of which is a long way from the bright yellow, waterproof Minolta Weathermatic A. Yet that is the camera which started this remarkable life journey. If you've read this far, thank you.
What one camera would I like to use again? I think it's probably obvious by now.
I would love to use the Rolleiflex TLR 2.8 again.