Thursday, 31 May 2012

Spoilt for choice

This is a long post, with lots of ‘back story’.


I like photography. I have a flickr account, with over five thousand photos on it but to which I haven’t uploaded anything in nearly a month. On the other hand, I’m finding myself using Instagram almost every day lately, and really enjoying its simplicity: shoot, caption, upload. Done.

I have an iPhone 4S, and the image quality from its tiny camera is surprisingly good; certainly, for Instagram’s small square photos, displayed on the phone’s screen, the camera is plenty good enough.

And yet… and yet it’s not enough. The pictures are nice, yes, but the process of taking them is not. The iPhone is horrible as a picture-taking machine: the shutter button is in an awkward place, the lens is right in the corner where you want to put your fingers, there’s very limited control over exposure and white balance, and it’s just awkward to hold when you’re taking a picture. I always feel like I’m about to drop it.

So the pictures are nice, but I don’t enjoy actually taking them.


I also have two ‘real’ cameras: a Pentax K10D, and a Ricoh GR-D III. The Pentax is capable of recording some nice images, the controls are great, and I have some nice lenses to put on it; it can handle a wide variety of photographic tasks. But, it’s basically broken, because it can no longer focus properly; somewhere in its five-and-a-half year lifespan, something’s gone out of alignment, and the cost of fixing it is more than the worth of the camera.

The Ricoh, like the Pentax, has nice controls, and is very good at the thing I bought it for: street photography. It’s small and lightweight, and with the screen off (using an external optical viewfinder) and the focus set to 2m, it’s really fast. Having the screen off also means I can leave it switched on and not worry about draining the battery in an hour. For all its strengths, though, the kind of image quality the Ricoh records is just not ideal for much beyond street photography – it’s too rough, and the colour is weak out in a way that’s hard to fix in Aperture. It’s not very versatile.

Thus to the point: I wish to buy a new camera, and I’ve narrowed my choices down to two: the Pentax K-5, and the Fuji X100. On the face of it, this would seem to be a non-issue: the K-5 is clearly better at more things, and I already have lenses to go on it, so what’s the issue? Here’s where I run into difficulty explaining myself. Bear with me.


My first camera was a Fuji 4800z, a funky little two megapixel thing with an unusual upright design. It’s what ignited my love for photography, and I took it everywhere, and shot everything with it. At the same time, I read and read and read all about the technical side of photography, learning about apertures and shutters and focal lengths and so on. I came to feel limited by the amount of control the 4800z allowed, despite coming up with ways to trick it into doing what I wanted. When it got stolen from under my nose by a thief in London, I resolved to replace it with a more advanced camera, one that would let me control aperture and shutter speed and so forth. That camera ended up being a Canon S50, which… well, I didn’t like it, because it was really annoying to use.

Eventually, I got my first SLR: a Nikon D70. Now this was more like it! Fast, comfortable to hold, good controls, and a really sharp sensor. The D70 was a classic, I think: the first really good enthusiast-level digital SLR, and I did some of my favourite work with it.

The D70 is pretty big. Not big like a D4, and certainly not as heavy, but it eventually the novelty of owning an SLR wore off and carrying it around became rather burdensome. I wanted something smaller, and my attention was drawn to a little Pentax SLR, the *ist DS, further prompted by Mike Johnston of The Online Photographer. The DS isn’t particularly fast, but it has a nice viewfinder, it’s comfortable to hold, and above all it’s small. With the 21mm pancake lens, it can fit in a coat pocket.

So after a couple of years it broke (possibly because I dropped it onto concrete after tripping over a flash cable), and to replace it I got the aforementioned K10D. Yes, I bought a big camera to replace the little camera I got to replace a camera I felt was too big. Hence my dilemma.


The K-5 is smaller than the K10D, but it’s still quite big and heavy. This is where the X100 comes in. It’s small, smaller than the DS, and lighter. It has a great sensor, good viewfinder(s), and a very good lens. That lens, though, is fixed focal length, a 23mm f/2. Fortunately, that’s a focal length I find most natural and versatile: not too wide that you have to get right up close to everything, and not too narrow that you can’t get any context in. Just so.

A fixed focal length lens, even a usefully-specced one like on the X100, is of couse not as versatile as several interchangeable lenses, and therein lies the heart of the issue: will the X100 be sufficiently versatile?

When I come up with reasons to justify buying the K-5, the list effectively boils down to having the capability to do photoshoots, and to not let my existing lenses go to waste. The latter point is tied into the former, in that my two best lenses are ones I only really used for photoshoots anyway (and sometimes gigs). Given that the last time I did a photoshoot was February 2009, over three years ago, it seems weak justification.

Variables: that’s what an SLR introduces. When I think about my favourite photographs, almost all of them were taken at short-to-medium focal lengths. They’re also usually ‘documentary’ or ‘life’ pictures, far from the artifice of the studio. This is the appeal of the X100: it’s a simpler camera, with fewer choices to make. It’s also much, much nicer to take pictures with than an iPhone.

Training Dummy

One thing my Instagramming has made clear is the value of simplicity. When I’m using my phone I don’t have to worry about choosing a lens or focal length (or even white balance or ISO). It’s about as close to literal ‘point and shoot’ as you can get, and I rather like it. I feel like I’m past the point of wanting to fiddle with camera settings just because I can. They’re mere technical details, that in my ten years of photography I feel I’ve internalised completely. Moreover, a lot of the time they’re not even that important compared to the admittedly nebulous concept of ‘artistic vision’, something that can’t really be taught or memorised, since it’s a fundamental part of who someone is.

With a small, fixed-lens camera, I feel somewhat paradoxically liberated, free to focus on what’s important, which I guess means I ought to buy the X100, and not worry about my inability to do things I’m probably not going to do anyway.