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What Makes a Great Camera?
© 2007 KenRockwell.com

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This article is also in German, Russian and Romanian.

INTRODUCTION

A camera's job is to get out of your way. A great cameras lets you make great pictures without worrying about it.

A great camera doesn't get between you and your results.

The rest of this page goes into details of what works for me.

WHAT MAKES A GREAT CAMERA

If I go through such efforts to explain why Your Camera Doesn't Matter, then why do I spend so much time talking about good vs. bad cameras?

Simple: better cameras make it easier to get good results faster. I'm lazy and impatient. Any camera can make outstanding pictures. Better cameras make it easier, faster, more pleasant and work over a wider range of odd conditions.

Good cameras get out of your way. Good cameras are an extension of your imagination.

Bad cameras stand in your way. They get between you and your photo. Bad cameras make you have to stop and fiddle and distract your attention from the creative process.

The creative process is seeing your image in your minds eye. Stopping to twiddle with camera settings not only gets in the way, it can break your train of creative thought. Photography is taking an image from your imagination and fixing it in a tangible form.

Usability

Good cameras have all the controls you need, and make those controls fast and easy to operate.

Better, great cameras let you program the camera do all the grunt work, like setting exposure and ISO and focus, exactly the way you would. If you can program the camera to duplicate the mundane aspects of photography the same way, but faster, than you would, you now have that time to devote to the creative aspects of seeing.

Bad cameras lack needed adjustments, or hide them under menus. Worse, they lack modern tools like Auto ISO or auto exposure (like Leica and some Canon) and require you waste some percentage of your creative juices babysitting what modern cameras have done for you for years.

Good cameras are designed by people who understand photography. They know what adjustments are important. They know how and when those features and adjustments are used. They make these features easy to access, and add new features to help solve common problems.

Great cameras have a button dedicated to each important control. Bad cameras require multiple button pushes, shared buttons or use a dial to choose which to adjust. Awful cameras hide these adjustments in menus. Useless cameras lack some adjustments.

This is all art. Use what works for you. I love my Nikon D40, which appears to have no ISO or WB buttons, because my D40 is so well designed by people who know photography that these adjustments are as fast and easy as other cameras with buttons. Actually, the D40 is so well designed that I have been able to program it to bring the controls I need out to buttons! See my Nikon D40 User's Guide. Also, the D40's Auto ISO works so well it works much better and faster after I've programmed it than any dedicated manual ISO button.

Bad cameras are designed by committees, electronics companies and people unfamiliar with serious photography. They may read books or copy other cameras to learn what features to include, but don't understand them well enough to prioritize them properly. They may forget critical things, like a shade white balance setting. If they don't understand what's important, they may do something stupid like hide white balance back in a menu along with file numbering or language options.

File numbering and language preferences are set once. They belong in a menu.

Pros adjust things like exposure, ISO and white balance every time the light or scene changes. This can be for every shot! I set quality high for shots I plan to use, and set it low for record shots of things like the signs marking a location.

Neither nature nor other subjects have the time to wait around for a photographer to fumble through poorly designed controls. I could miss perfect light which can last less than 60 seconds after weeks of waiting. Missing the shot is catastrophic. That's bad image quality. Lab-measured noise or resolution has nothing to do with getting the shot, and thus nothing to do with real-world image quality.

A good camera gets out of my way. I don't have to take my eye off the finder to make adjustments. Cameras were manual in the 1970s. The good ones added metering, aperture and shutter speed readouts to the finder so we wouldn't have to take our eyes away from the finder to make adjustments. Today's best cameras include ISO and exposure compensation readouts in the finders for the same reason. Even on my Nikon D40 I can set exposure and flash compensation without removing my eye from the finder.

On my D200 I can count clicks and set white balance without taking my eye from the finder. I hope my next camera has this indication built into the finder.

A photographer should be able to make adjustments by feel. Photojournalists did this all the time with their manual exposure cameras. If they pointed from sun to shadow they clicked in two stops more exposure by feel. A photographer must not have to look at a menu or non-viewfinder readout to make adjustments.

The Look

Every digital camera, like every film, has its own look. The camera's adjustments let you choose from many other looks.

Some cameras have a broad enough range of adjustments to get what you want, some don't. I usually run to the extreme side of saturation adjustments.

Good cameras make it easy to get your look while bad ones make it almost impossible.

I'm amazed at how no one seems to notice. Any moron can photograph a test pattern and read resolution. Many do.

Few people go shoot and look at the results. It's interesting that no one else has noticed how much warmer the D200 is versus earlier Nikons like the D70.

I needed 81A warming filters and -3 trims on my D70 WB to get the same warm look I get with my D200 left at normal with no filter. This is extremely important and everyone should be paying attention.

Camera reports can't measure the look because each of us wants something different.

Everyone needs to shoot with a camera or film and see if it looks the way you want it.

I prefer Fuji Velvia 50 film and I prefer my D200 set at + saturation and color mode IIIa. You will probably prefer something different.

Some cameras can get your look, some can't. Only your eyes can tell.

The System

Most photographers need more than just one body or lens. I know I do.

Only when I was first starting in 1973 did I buy a camera and lens together, since I started with nothing.

Today my system has parts from every vintage. It all works together.

I went to Nikon in 1980, and all the lenses I bought back then still work perfectly on my D200. I still use them, like my 25-year old 55mm Micro I used for these noise and resolution tests. In fact, these lenses work better on my D200 than they did on the F2AS of their era!

A lesser system, like the Minolta with which I started, would have gone out of business by now (they did) and leave me having to rebuy everything. Lesser systems have holes - lenses which just don't exist in those systems.

Canon and Nikon have huge systems. Everything works with everything else of almost every vintage. As you get more serious you add parts. You never have to rebuy the system, at least with Nikon. Canon made everyone start from scratch in 1985 for autofocus, but Nikon's cameras and lenses are all compatible back to 1959, with few limitations. Same for Hasselblad - most of their system has been compatible for 50 years.

That's why serious pros shoot these systems. It's for long-term economics.

If you think one day you'll want exotic lenses or special accessories, then you need a camera today that will let you grow tomorrow.

I see no reason to gamble that the brand you choose today will grow into a bigger system, since Canon and Nikon already have great systems.

Maybe other brands will grow for the future, or maybe they'll ditch cameras if they become an unprofitable market segment. Contax and Minolta already quit. Who knows what's in store for Sony, Samsung, Panasonic and the rest. Even Nikon ditched most of their film cameras in 2006, but of course that's because they're already enough used Nikon film gear out to last a lifetime. If not, Nikon still makes the F6 and sells the FM10.

I do have to hand it to Olympus. They did as they promised and created many lenses for their E1 system.

An Anecdote from Hollywood

I helped at a shoot-out for $250,000 HDTV cameras at one of the studios. All the big makers, Sony, Philips, Thompson, etc. brought in their latest studio HDTV cameras. The engineers tweaked them and set up all sorts of nutty test scenes, like miniature train sets and resolution targets. I brought the test equipment used by the guy making the decision.

He confided in me the humor we both got from this measurbation circus. He could care less how the cameras resolved or rendered motion on spinning targets. We both knew they would test as close as we could measure, since each camera was at the cutting edge of its technology.

His primary concern was to determine if each of these cameras had all of the adjustments his operators needed, and how fast and easy it was to set them up.

This is because his camera operators all knew the look they wanted, and it is important that the camera let the operator get to the adjustments to get that look. There needs to be the right adjustments, and they need to be easy to adjust and provide enough range and precision.

You'd be amazed at how some $250,000 cameras miss the mark by hiding or lacking important adjustments. Now you understand why the same companies can miss the mark with $2,500 cameras.

Speed

A good camera works instantly.

A bad camera makes you wait. This misses shots and annoys your subjects. It gets in the way.

Thankfully all DSLRs work well, and most fixed-lens cameras are getting there.

When working in menus you should get instant response. It's bad to have to wait for the menus to catch up. I work fast! Casio point-and-shoots work great, while I usually can work faster than Canon point-and-shoot menus respond.

Data Transfer

Modern cameras need at least a USB 2.0 Hi-Speed 480 Mb/s interface. These let you suck 500MB of shots into your Mac in 90 seconds. Slower USB 1.1 interfaces, also called Hi-Speed, make you wait around even for a few photos to transfer.

As of 2006 there are still many cameras sold with slow data transfer, like the Casio EX-Z1000 and Canon 20D.

Size and Weight

The smaller and lighter, the better.

My giant 400mm f/2.8 lens almost never gets used. It weights 14 pounds! It's too big to want to use when my zooms weigh far less.

My Casio pocket camera is always with me.

CRITICAL ADJUSTMENTS

I wish all cameras worked well. Here's a guide for your shopping, and which I hope non-traditional camera makers now trying to break into the SLR market will heed.

Ideally each adjustment has a dedicated knob with the information echoed in the finder.

Almost as good is a dedicated button with a control dial.

Unacceptable is a knob which needs to be spun to select which function will be set.

Menus are unacceptable if they are the only way to access these.

Film and Digital Cameras

Exposure Mode (P, S, A, M)

Shutter Speed

Aperture

Zoom. The focal length setting must be direct and mechanical, not controlled by motors following a switch.

Autofocus mode (continuous or single) and on/off (auto / manual).

Autofocus sensor selector and mode (all, one, dynamic, etc.)

Advance mode (single shot, continuous, etc.)

Additions for Digital Cameras:

ISO

White Balance

   Must include instant access to presets for direct sunlight, cloudy, shade, tungsten, and manual white card.

   Must include instant access to fine tuning (+/-). These trims are critical to getting exactly the right look. You can get away without trims if you have instant access to WB in degrees Kelvin.

File format (JPG, Raw, TIFF, etc.)

Image Size (Large, Small, etc.)

Playback

   Must also include instant access to zoom, scroll and viewing next or previous shot.

   Camera must revert to the shooting mode automatically when the shutter is tapped.

Delete Image

Format Memory Card

IMPORTANT ADJUSTMENTS

A good digital camera should also have instant access to these:

White balance settings in degrees Kelvin. This is a more direct and universal way to set an image's warmth (amber) or coolness (blue).

White balance settings for various kinds of fluorescents. Fluorescents vary, so most often one has to shoot at long speeds and use white-card white balance for decent results. That's why this preset isn't critical.

ADJUSTMENTS I DON'T USE, BUT OTHERS DO

Metering Mode (spot, center weighted, etc. I always use matrix metering.)

Bracketing (I don't use bracketing.)

I use Auto Exposure lock and / or exposure compensation instead to arrive at the correct exposure.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Few cameras meet all these requirements. I wish more did.

PLUG

If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me write more with a donation.

Thanks for reading!

Ken

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