Date Series Part 9 of Gear Reviews Tags photo / gear

This is it, my final camera. Meaning that for the next foreseeable future I'm sticking to this camera, no matter what. This decision comes after a year where I have tried many different tools, perhaps driven by the lack of a true photographic project in my mind (and yes, the usual lust for new shiny things that affect all men).

a confused mixture of camera bodies and lenses

My Nikon DSLR and lenses were always there, a mixture of old and new that covered all my needs (85mm and 35mm f/1.8G, an old 50mm f/1.4 AF, an even older manual focus 28mm f/2.8 and a cheap and light 70-300 f/4.5-5.6G). Together with a first-edition full frame D600, this is a kit that have never failed me, but I was feeling the attraction for lighter, funkier equipment.

I first toyed around with the Fuji X-Pro1 because of its looks and the qualities of the sensor that many have described (and which I've tried to synthesize in my late review written last year). At the same time I did not want to let go of my smaller micro four-thirds camera (and its tiny prime lenses), so I bought a pro-body (a second-hand Olympus EM-1) just to see if there was something that I was missing in the body itself, but mostly because I wanted to satisfy a very basic and childish need for a rugged, professional body. A pro Nikon body was still an expensive proposition even on the second-hand market but this Olympus body was a few hundred euros.

I've written about the X-Pro1 already. I liked the experience and the results, the APS-C sensor coupled with the little 35mm f/2 lens giving back wonderful photographs way past its expiry date (I'm talking about 2011 technology working great in 2017). It was just a tiny bit slow especially for those family moments that make up the bulk of my photography these days; also I liked a lot the concept of the hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder but ultimately I was always using the EVF (and the X-Pro1 EVF is functional but not really nice; perhaps the only aspect of the camera which showed its age1).

The Olympus micro-four thirds gear was excellent; I cannot say enough good things of the great/little 25mm and 45mm f/1.8 Olympus lenses. Optically they are fantastic, the dimensions a true bonus (together with the even tinier Panasonic 14mm f/2.5 make a complete lens kit that cover all main focal lengths, from 28mm to 90mm). Just for fun, last summer I also bought (again on the second-hand market) another lens, the Olympus 40-150, a plastic zoom lens once again very practical due to its weight and dimensions and good "enough" for my purposes. Both Olympus bodies (mark 1 EM10 and EM1) are also well engineered, very customizable, and have excellent stabilization. What's not to like in this system? The little sensor is also very good, you can play with push/pull processing almost like the bigger brother found in the Nikon D600, with perhaps some limitations when it comes to using sensitivities above 1600 ISO (in terms of noise, poor color reproduction and handling), but not limiting creativity in any way. The thing I came to dislike in the m43 gear is something difficult to put in words and can be summarized in the "feeling" I had with it; I simply could not bear any longer the constant buzz from the internal stabilization, the unmarked dials, the plastic construction of the lenses (something I also dislike in the new Nikon lenses I was using, the "G" series), the hollow shutter sound. All these factors did not make me feel "connected" to the camera, in the way a proper, old-fashioned mechanical device does.

But again, from an objective standpoint the m43 gear was probably the best for me because of its dimensions, endless customization of the Olympus bodies and because I was mostly happy with the end-results (which I wasn't when I first began to use m43; the limitations of the first-generation 12 megapixel sensor were enough that I have never felt any remorse for abandoning my first m43 camera2).

So in all this fiddling with cameras I discovered that basically all modern gear was "good enough" for me. I could live with the AF limitations of the Fuji X-Pro1. I could see and appreciate the excellent results that coupling a full-frame sensor with modern lenses like Nikon's G primes but I was also happy with the output of the smaller m43 sensor. What I was missing was something else, something more elemental; the pleasure derived from using a tool that has just the right amount of "engineering" in it; that resembled (and, most importantly, "felt like") more a classic camera than a small computer; something that featured mechanical controls that disguised the hidden complexity. In other words, I was aiming for the fine line between tactility/mechanical pleasure and practicality/convenience (I'm not sure if this sentence makes sense so I'll probably edit it out next time I re-read this).

a motorbike analogy

I love Ducati's twin engine, and I still recall the vibrant and simple two-valve 900cc of my first 1997 Monster (not even fuel-injection back then but simple carburettors). I then had a refined version of the same engine in my 2003 Multistrada; capacity enlarged to 1000cc, lots of grunt, fuel-injection, I toured and raced the thing for many years. Then my last upgrade was a 2003 999s; a proper superbike replica, bought for very little money back in 2008. 4-valve, 140 bhps, Ohlins suspensions, it was a beast.

Now I'm planning on getting back on a motorbike after years of riding mountain bikes. And the new Ducatis are all loaded with electronics: ABS, traction control, anti-wheeling, etc. All very cool stuff but to me they take away a little of the simple pleasures of careful throttle usage, the ability to read the tarmac etc. I would probably get a Panigale (the twin, not the V4) if I wanted to get back on riding trackdays and Speedweeks. But for road usage, I believe that ABS is enough in terms of electronic thingies. ABS, and obviously a human engine like the latest derivation of the two-valve air cooled twin, not the 4-valve beasts with more than 150bhp (I'm looking at you, ugly Multistrada 1260).

Would I like to have the same 1997 Monster that I used to ride back then? No thanks, let me have a less powerful but smoother, reliable, more refined Scrambler Desert Sled please.

the final camera

With cameras, it's the same. Yes, that one time per year that I use my father-in-law Nikon FM2 I love it; I love loading a roll of Tri-X (or my new favourite, Fuji Acros 100), I love watching the incredulous faces of my nieces after I take a shot when they ask me to show the picture to them, I love the mechanical shutter sound -- but would I still love that thing if it was my only camera? No, I would vey likely not shoot that much and get bored quickly.

On the other side, I have tried for a long time the two extremes that are currently available; a solid old-style full-frame Nikon DSLR with good glass, and a much more tech-laden top-of-the-line micro 4/3 body by Olympus. One is fantastic and cannot get rid of it but honestly, a bit too large and heavy for carrying it around every day even if you're not in the proper mood. The other has excellent stabilization, wonderful little files, tiny fixed-focal lenses that deliver excellent results. But this Olympus started to get on my nerves; because m43 is good enough, but for sure the files are somehow inferior to the full-frame Nikon; the constant buzzing from the stabilization gizmos and the hollow shutter sound did not make me feel "connected" to the camera, in the way a proper, old-fashioned mechanical device does.

So I choose something that has roughly the dimensions and the shape of the old Nikon FM2. That has a set of complete and excellent prime lenses (and most importantly, I already have my two most used focal lenghts, i.e. 28 and 50mm). That has lots of knobs and dials and I don't need to see the screen to know what's the shutter speed and the aperture. That is faster than my old X-Pro1. That does not buzz like internally stabilized bodies that somehow "break the spell" (i.e., the illusion of using an entirely mechanical device). That has a large, bright viewfinder as comfortable as the one on my old SLR (and in many aspects so much better than it).

But first I got rid of everything else. All the Olympus gear; the X-Pro1 body; the newer Nikon lenses (I could not get rid of the old Nikon lenses I have, the manual 28mm and the 50mm AF and the 18mm manual because they are inherited from my father-in-law; so it made sense also to keep the D600 body which anyway has very little resale value thanks to the internet geniuses that complained of dust on the sensor). I sold all this gear and I had money to spare to get thanks to black friday offers a brand new Fuji XT2 body. After a while I also got a 55-200mm zoom lens from my pal Sandy (he went for the big 50-140 f/2.8) so now I have recreated my classic kit that I'm very comfortable with. A 28mm to give a sense of place; a 55-200 to to the Jay Meisel and do my street and landscape photography; the 50mm for everything else.

I have used it for a couple of months now, and soon I'll have a chance to test it more extensively during a trip with my family. I will probably have something more conclusive to say later in the year. But for the moment I am enjoying it a lot. It is everything that I wanted, and perhaps as a testament to a new approach that I have about 'gear' I am not overly excited by it; it just works, it does not feel slower than my big Nikon DSLR, and it has become a silent partner, always with me and ready to go. Battery consumption is higher than a DSLR but I already knew that from my experience with other mirrorless cameras. What's good is that third-party batteries are cheap and they are small too, so it's not a big deal to just pocket one or two when you're out shooting.

  1. The other negative aspect of the X-Pro1 is the slow AF of course, but my kind of photographs I can usually bypass the limitations of slow focus acquisition using manual focus and/or pre-focusing. 

  2. Panasonic GF1. Back then I even wrote an enthusiastic review of this camera, but of course you have to take into account the time when I wrote that.