Shopping for the perfect camera
I have a complex relationship to photography. I’ve owned several high-end cameras in my life and worked in darkrooms, but after getting an MFA in Photography & Related Media, and working professionally in New York, I decided to eschew all the hassles of it. Tech specs, work flow and file management make my head swim, and I wanted to simplify. I decided that what really mattered to me were mere aesthetics, storytelling and being in the moment. It’s not actually about the gear in the end, is it? And yet, to materialize my imagination with just the right tool, it sort of is. It’s time to own a camera again, and for it to fit my life.
The iPhone has been my camera for the past few years. Portability and convenience are my priorities — the minimalist ‘everyday carry’ in my pocket. The iPhone is good enough in many cases (and better every year, though I still use the 7). But as I travel to once-in-a-lifetime places, a smartphone on its own makes less sense — I document my life with snapshots, but some images should look as good as they possibly can. I want to freeze seabirds in sharp silhouette as they fly over oceans, to capture Parisian boulevards as the sun sets beyond them. My pictures yearn for wider angles, less noise, more sharpness, to clearly articulate my vision. I am a photographer, after all, let’s face it.
So, camera shopping. I demand something compact. I simply won’t use something if it’s bulky. There’s some exact ratio between how cumbersome a thing is and how often I’ll leave the house with it. It should also feel easy to use — nothing frustrating or complicated. The camera should be handsome and stylish — a joy to carry around as an object, a thing that wants me to use it.
Technically, a good sensor for fine detail would allow for shooting during blue hour — I want less noise in low light; none is ideal. I want something with a zoom range to crop in on the horizon. Oh, video is also important. With a filmmaking background, I’d like to get back into it with confidence — something with 4K capability and image stabilization.
Let’s start basic. On YouTube I watch Casey Neistat gush about a feature-packed little point-and-shoot called the Sony RX100VI. I watch other vloggers praise the Canon G7X II. A look at the Wirecutter recommendation for the best compact camera recommends the Panasonic LX-10 if you’re looking to take the best pictures possible with a camera small enough to slip into your pocket. Compact, tilting screen, good zoom, 4k video… $600. It seems good indeed. The Sony RX100 has a viewfinder, and I wonder if that’s important to me. A viewfinder does have that real camera feeling.
Sony leads the way technologically. Super slow motion, for instance. But people say their menus are maddening, and they usually lack a touchscreen — bad usability. Canon is a great brand; the 5D mark II was my last camera, the first to really push video capability, but they lag behind in video now, at this price point at least. Panasonic features excellent menu operation, integrated 4K video and additional perks like 4K photo mode (30 jpgs per second), focus stacking, and pre-captures of action before the shutter is released.
I go to a store and hold these in my hands. I play with the flip screens and buttons, appreciate their varying features.They’re very small indeed. Shiny, slippery, difficult to hold like I’m used to… They’re really not very substantial, are they? The Panasonic ZS100 with an F2.8 25–250mm lens (312g, 111x65x44mm) is my favorite in this category, but is still a bit lacking.
Sure, I’d love to pocket a camera in my jeans, but my iPhone already does that, and it’s not like that’s disappearing. The point is to have a great dedicated camera for committed shooting, not a redundant small one that’s always with me. Furthermore, these are all 1” sensors — not terrible, but hardly a serious upgrade. I remember why I don’t have one already. This isn’t my class of camera, I’m realizing. So which camera type speaks to me?
Leica is a German brand renowned for gorgeous feats of engineering. I identify with this minimalist luxury. I look up all the models and see if any make sense in my price bracket. At $999, the Leica D-Lux is it. Compact without being tiny, this is a compromise I can live with. Decent sensor size, image stabilization, nice manual dials for exposure and shutter speed, focus and aperture rings, viewfinder, fast F1.7 lens, a zoom range of 24–75mm. I’ve found a camera I want. Deluxe. This is it! Right? Am I done searching?
The Leica D-Lux is based exactly off a Panasonic camera just like it: the LX100. (The two companies are partners.) The Leica version is way nicer in the details, but the Panasonic is only $599. I wonder, what is the value of artistry? Now there’s a new version, for the same price as the Leica: the Panasonic LX100 II, released literally as I’m shopping. Everyone is raving about it. It’s added a touch screen for menu control and tap-focusing, USB in-body charging, and Bluetooth wireless connectivity for smartphone geotagging. I want these modern conveniences. Why can’t the Leica have these things?
My neighborhood store has the LX100 original version — in my hands, I’m a bit disappointed. I’m bothered it lacks a tilting screen. I frame so many shots pointing upward; I want viewing flexibility. Also no pop-up flash. I don’t use flash, but all the more reason to have it built in, just in case. Most nit-picky: the strap loops on the side of the body affect my grip a bit. I’d probably get used to that. Regardless: I love the size and simplicity, point-and-shoot philosophy with manual controls. One of these models is at the top of my list, but I must keep looking.
The LX100 II has a sensor much larger than the 1" of its compact fixed-lens classmates. It’s micro-four-thirds, or MFT, about a quarter of a 35mm full frame. This system has revolutionized the camera industry, along with mirrorless technology generally: it packs a ton of functionality into a way smaller package. I look at others in this genre, most of which feature lens mounts for interchangeability. I don’t exactly want to fuss about with lens shopping and collecting. Just give me a perfect lens, you know? But for sensor size, body and price, this is the category I belong to: mid- to high-end enthusiast.
I discover Panasonic’s Lumix GX series. These are rangefinder-style lens-interchangeable mirrorless bodies — very close to the LX100 in size and shape, but more serious. The larger, heavier, pricier Panasonic G and GH cameras win all the accolades, but suit me far less. I’m a rangefinder fan, a former Contax G2 and Yashica T4 kind of photog. I like the streamlined minimalist sensibilities. No viewfinder bump or bulbous curves — just a flat-top rectangle body with a viewfinder on the side for perfect right-eye framing.
The Panasonic GX1 from 2012 was a simple, pocketable rangefinder with micro-four-thirds sensor, similar to the GM and GF lines, but more robust. A year later, the naming department skipped numbers 2–6 and released the GX7, a camera widely beloved. The 2015 GX8 is the line’s flagship, as it features body sealing against inclement weather, a mic port, large OLED viewfinder, fully articulating swivel screen and a 20mp 17.3x13mm sensor. It costs $1100 for the body, which is a bit larger, no longer quite a compact.
In 2016 Panasonic confused things. The GX85 (USA name) is a follow-up to the GX7 — it’s called the GX7 mark II in Japan. It loses all the aforementioned high-end GX8 features; it’s the mid-range version. The entry level is the GX850, the extra digit demarcating its lower status among the “8”s. This is a typical naming scheme: one digit for the most premium, an extra digit for steps down. Panasonic ended its more basic GF and GH lines, consolidating all rangefinder body types into GX variants. Of course, it remains complicated.
The Panasonic GX9 is the third model in two distinct lineages: 7–8–9, and 7 I — 7 II — 7 III. A final synthesis of engineering vision, a culmination of everything Panasonic has been aiming for, almost. It has the 7 series ideal size and tilting touchscreen (better than swiveling for street photography), and improves on those predecessors with tech advancements. Like the 7 and 8 lineage, it has a tilting viewfinder. It has the 8’s large 20mp sensor, and improves on the 8 in sharpness by losing an anti-alias filter, as well as a new shutter to combat shutter shock. But it doesn’t have a mic port, and most glaringly, it isn’t weather-sealed. This last point really eats at me, and is the one detail that really messes it up as an otherwise flagship rangefinder. I’d buy it right now ($750) if it had this important travel/street feature, and it should, with its single-digit name. To be fair, it’s the GX7 mark III in Japan. It’s my current favorite in any case.
Professional photographers obviously prefer bodies with detachable lenses, but to me it promises a trap of constant shopping and updating (gear acquisition syndrome — or GAS — in the business). It dooms one to indecision of which lens to use in whichever moment. The GX9 has most of the things I want, similar in size but more advanced than the LX100 and its fixed zoom lens. Before I commit to the lens market, are there other brands with good fixed-lens options?
The Sony RX1R is best in class, I think. A beautiful full-frame street photographer’s dream. It has a prime 35mm stuck to it. Zero zoom range. $3,298. The Leica Q is pure luxury. Its wider fixed angle of 28mm is more appealing for architecture and landscapes. No tilting lens, no extra gimmicks. $4,300. As infatuated as I am with Leica products, they just don’t make sense. Not in my current life, at least. I lust for them as things, but as tools, less.
Then there’s Fujifilm, a brand that’s fiercely committed to being classic. Fuji uses APS-C sensors, smaller than full-frame but bigger than MFT: a distinct improvement. The X100F is a really cool camera, $1,100. Like the LX100 and D-Lux, the dials and buttons harken back to film days , and are analogue-amazing. The lens is very flat, the whole body perfectly compact. It’s another great street photography camera with a fixed focal distance. It’s also essentially the same category as the iPhone (28mm lens), but even the XS has an optical zoom built in. I need to get closer to the sky, and a fixed wide lens isn’t going to do it. Granted, I could crop in on an image from a large-sensor camera; the 24mp APS-C sensor might allow for heavy digital zooming. But that doesn’t feel quite right to me. Plus, for video, this camera isn’t amazing.
Ok, only the D-Lux/LX100 zoom in this category. So let’s leave fixed lenses and look at interchangeable lens cameras against the GX9. A high-end mid-range in a different brand’s system. Let’s explore the APS-C sensor, and the acclaimed Fujifilm offerings.
The X-T100 is nice, and offers a cool screen that tilts up, down and also outward to face the subject. No other camera does that. It’s cool, but this camera, especially with its limited 15fps 4K video, is too limited. On the other end of things is Fujifilm’s premiere the X-T3. It does everything: great video, perfect high-resolution images, lovely body and function. But it’s too much for me, size-wise and financially ($1,499 without a lens). I don’t want this much camera, and likely don’t need its specs.
So, referring back to our naming conventions, If the X-T100 is not enough, and the X-T3 is too much, the X-T20 is probably just right. This enthusiast model does everything a camera should do, on par with the GX9. It’s more retro and refined. The dials and buttons are superior, laid out like a traditional manual film body. But the traditional SLR styling doesn’t woo me. I actually prefer the look and feel of the X-E3, the similar, rangefinder-styled enthusiast machine.
Both are great cameras, but each has its negatives. The X-E3 screen doesn’t tilt, which really bothers me. The X-T20 lacks Bluetooth connectivity, among other minor nitpicks. The real problem with both is the X-mount lens system from Fuji. Especially compared to the MFT system, they’re all simply too big (in order to expose the larger sensor). I still want compact lightness in a camera system, and adding bulky lenses is not the answer. These mid-range camera bodies are smaller than their high-end counterparts, but take the same lenses.
The other APS-C brand, also highly regarded, is Sony. The Sony a6500 is the apex video recorder in this mirrorless rangefinder category. It focuses and shoots super-fast (for sports, wildlife) and, like its entry-level point-and-shoot little brother, leads the field in technology. It’s weatherproofed — a feature only shared with Fujifilm’s flagships — and feels quite sexy. The a6500 adds a touchscreen and image stabilization to the a6300, along with minor operational fixes, $1100 vs $850. The menu system is notoriously complicated, and the screen isn’t bright enough to use in the sun.
Despite some hesitations, standing in a big box electronics store, it’s the Sony a6500 I decide to buy. I want to try out the APS-C sensor, prioritize image quality, and none of the Fujifilm cameras feel perfect in my hand. I ignore the kit lenses and choose the E-mount 10–18mm, and for a moment I feel satisfied, imagining pictures of the twilit sky without digital noise, and perfectly sharp birds in flight.
Shooting with the Sony is a real pain. The dials and buttons aren’t intuitive. The video record button is recessed within the handle in an awkward position. Switching between modes and menus is frustrating, and setting up custom settings confuses me. The new in-body stabilization is furthermore overridden by the lens stabilization. Walking around, it’s just not as fun to use. This is an action camera, which constitutes about 5% of what I shoot. This lens — the only one in Sony’s line-up that interests me, isn’t even weather-sealed, belying my desire to trust my camera in harsh travel elements. I return the Sony a6500. I need a simpler, more compact camera system.
Olympus is the final manufacturer to look at. It shares the MFT system with Panasonic, each with a vast array of small, interesting lenses that can be used from either brand. The E-M5 mark II (between the E-M1 and E-M10) is nice, but it’s the PEN-F that speaks to me. It might be the prettiest camera in this entire review, objectively speaking. Super classic and inspiring, it’s lauded for its looks, perhaps mocked for superficiality. Unfortunately, it has some real drawbacks: focus problems, weak video, too many silly filters. It does tick a lot of boxes.
None of the big box stores carry this camera, from 2016. I find it at a specialty camera shop and hold it. It doesn’t feel quite right, not the way internet forums promised. The knob in front, dedicated to JPG filters, feels especially strange in my grip. The body even feels a bit light, like plastic. The screen swivels all the way out, which, aside from slowness and cumbersome use, I find no value in. I compare it to the GX9 from Panasonic. It’s more minimalist, understated, while still a nod to classic design. The tilting screen feels great, as does the tilting EVF — a novelty I can actually see some value in. Of all brands, I’m going with Panasonic.
The GX9 comes with the 12–32mm pancake zoom. I love its size, but its functionality annoys me. You have to twist to ‘turn it on’ every time. And at 12mm it has too much barrel distortion. It doesn’t even have manual focus. The 14–42mm pancake zoom is better. It’s more handsome when zoomed out on the camera, and turns on in an instant. This is what I want, I think: the GX9 body with the older kit zoom, along with some other lenses, inevitably…
The thought of lens shopping, comparable in research to this camera quest, intimidates me. I’d rather get the Panasonic LX100 II, be fine with the fast, built-in zoom lens. But it doesn’t have a tilt screen, or tilting EVF. If I’m making such sacrifices, why not forgo the touchscreen as well, and Bluetooth connectivity, and just get the Leica D-Lux? That’s the camera I really covet, isn’t it?
Oh, but I must prioritize the functionality of the camera. A responsible photographer values his tool more than his materialist ownership. The GX8 might be more pragmatic; weather-protection for tundras and beaches, more robust in processing. But I don’t like its articulating screen, and I don’t really care about a mic port or big, OLED EVF.
The Panasonic Lumix GX9 is the right camera for me. It has the fewest compromises. It’s not too expensive, not cheap. I find it in Europe for €700, and it comes with the 20mm pancake prime lens. This lens is considered a classic. At F1.7, I can surely take pics in dark situations. Then I can get the 14–42mm pancake zoom online for cheap, used.
When I need farther reach, about 82mm in full-frame equivalence, I can shop through the myriad of micro four-thirds lenses from Panasonic, Olympus and many third party companies. Shopping for an ultra-wide, again I have some interesting choices. The interchangeable lens system is a bit more complicated than I’d prefer, but not so bad — it gives me great flexibility for any work I will make. It’s the right thing for me to do.
In sum, I will describe my perfect camera that doesn’t exist:
Let’s start with a Leica body. The D-Lux would work, or a blend with the Q — more size for more features. Let’s tilt the viewfinder like the GX9, but with the GX8's magnification and OLED display. Keep it small, though. Let’s make the screen OLED as well, and of course touch-sensitive, with 90 degree up-and-down tilting. It might as well tilt out too, for selfie shooting a la the Fujifilm X-T100. And of course, let’s add weather sealing.
The lens can be fixed into the camera, thereby sidestepping endless switching, as well as potential dust and gear issues that come with interchangeability. The lens shall be pancake style, and zoom out automatically. It’s wide — 10mm, 8 even, and zoom 5x, to 60mm. That would suit me. I can forgo telephotography, though maybe we can find a tele attachment to screw into the lens ring. The aperture would open to F1.4, let’s say, if we’re just dreaming. It would have a focus ring and aperture ring that each snap into automatic. A shutter dial and inner ISO dial on the body also have A settings, a la the Fujifilm X series. I also want switches for AF/AE and drive mode.
Let’s give this dream camera Panasonic’s 6K photo and video features (focus stack, pre-shooting, post focus), found on the G9, along with Sony’s super-slow motion: 120fps, 180? Tack-sharp, super fast focus, high ISO sensitivity. Parfocal tracking, five-axis image stabilization. 420 focus points, pixel-shift high resolution like Olympus is doing, for buildings, along with in-camera keystone correction on RAW images. A large sensor, of course — micro four thirds or APS-C. Oh, the hell with it — full frame!
The small details: Bluetooth low-energy connectivity, geotagging, iPhone remote tethering. A Leica-style app, minimalist. The SD card slot is on the side, along with in-body USB charging and operation. The tripod mount doesn’t impede the large battery door. Let’s add a lightning port and/or USB-C as well, so I can use my phone cable. Might as well have a mic input and hot shoe, along with a built-in tilting flash for party pics. No reason to leave off these basics.
This all seems possible, honestly. All this technology exists. Aren’t there people out there that are paid to design this? I don’t even think this would be too expensive. In any case, I’d pay the price, if it were perfect.
I watched hundreds of videos to research this piece. I made a playlist of the most relevant. Hats off to these YouTubers: David Thorpe, The Hybrid Shooter, The Camera Store TV, Gordon Laing, Mirror Lessons, Maarten Heilbron. Also thanks to DP Review, Camera Decision and Optical Limits for their handy analysis websites.