📷 My Year in Photography —What I Learned in 2018

A (Hopefully) Brief History

My family business, among other things, owns and operates a chain of department stores which, when I was growing up, had a photography department — they no longer do, as the brands we worked with, Yashica and Contax, were among the casualties of the film to digital transition.

Being around cameras got me interested in photography and I got my first “proper” camera, the Yashica FX-3, a basic 35mm SLR, when I was around 14 (having played around with a point and shoot prior to that).

That summer, I took a photography class, which covered the technical basics, light, composition and darkroom techniques. I won’t say that I was hooked, but, I went on to regularly take pictures, until I decided to go to film school for undergrad, where my output increased for a time.

While I wasn’t studying with the aim of becoming a cinematographer, foundational courses like The Language of Cinema gave heightened my awareness around the photographic choices filmmakers make, and watching 500+ films a year gave me plenty of material to cast my eyes across and assess the choices being made and techniques used to achieve them.

Later, when I made a film, the Yashica served as a prop and photography, the lies it tells and the truths that those lies reveal, was key narrative and thematic element.

Somewhere along the way, during a liquidation sale at my family department store, I upgraded my Yashica to a Contax S2 (60th Anniversary edition in Silver and Black), also a manual 35mm SLR (but with a much better better lightmeter), built like a tank out of titanium, it remains my favorite camera that I’ve ever owned. I also bought a fairly comprehensive set of beautiful Zeiss lenses to compelement it: 35mm, 50mm, 60mm Macro and telephoto (90mm?).

The shift to digital was already underway at this time and my photographic output remained fairly modest, increasing a bit when I bought a high-end digital point and shoot, the Panasonic LX-1 and, later, a first-gen Micro Four Thirds Olympus PEN E-P1. It was the first interchageable lens digital camera I’d owned — I certainly wasn’t shooting enough to justify a dSLR.

It wasn’t until phone-based photography took off with the iPhone 3G that I really got excited — the idea of having a decent, always-on, connected camera and the promise it offered was too much to pass up and, for the first time since the Yashica, my photographic output started to increase meaningfully (there’d been little, unsustained upticks that coincided with various camera purchases, and for a time at film school).

I bought books like The Art of iPhoneography and convinced myself that I’d never buy another standalone camera again, as phones would keep getting better.

And, they did, significantly and, while I took advantage of these advances, my output plateaued and eventually started to taper off, largely around a lack of intentionality I find with phone-based photography. Again, there were blips, notably when Sony released their first lens-cameras, I bought (and still own, for academic purposes) the QX100, which is a self-contained Zeiss lens and a 1" sensor that connects wirelessly to a phone (which becomes the control and viewfinder) — it was capable of producing solid pictures, but was rather slow.

I eventually bought the excellent Fujifilm X-T1, but, found it a chore to carry around and didn’t use it enough to justify owning it and ultimately sold it to a colleague.

A Year Ago

While I wasn’t really taking many pictures, my interest in photography hadn’t diminished and during the 2017 holidays, I decided I would try to commit myself to it seriously in 2018.

I picked a specific genre that I wanted to pursue initially— street photography — and also wanted to be conscious of what had held me back in the past, notably camera size and having reached the limit of the enjoyment of shooting with my phone. So, this meant getting a camera again, it would have to be something compact but, meaningfully better than a phone.

I considered two compact cameras with large sensors and fixed, high-quality lenses — the Micro Four Thirds Panasonic LX-100 and the APS-C Ricoh GR II — and a small ILC, the Fuji XE-3 (which had just come out st the time). Briefly, the Sony A5100 and A6000 were on the list, but the lenses were rather pricey.

I got the Fuji, along with a 23mm f/2 lens, but was quickly struck with a serious case of buyer's remorse. It was too big to realistically carry around and, despite being a big fan of the dedicated manual controls (which I also appreciated on the X-T1), as I have a preference for shooting manual exposure, I struggled to produce the images I wanted — in particular I found nailing critical focus, whether auto or manual, to be a challenge. The camera wasn’t cheap and, if wasn’t going to use it daily, then there was no point in owning it.

I returned it and bought a used Ricoh GR II in great condition for 1/2 the price.

This was a camera I could take with me anywhere, which (as has been written about…everywhere) was ideally suited for street photography and, while it might not have the styling of the Fuji when it comes to manual controls, they are readily available, with dedicated dials.

And, so I started shooting. A lot. Nearly everyday. It was also the first time that I was meaningfully taking a lot of pictures in RAW and so I started using Lightroom CC on an iPad Pro to edit (having previously edited JPGs on Snapseed). My daily routine became that I would transfer the day’s pictures (sometimes only a handful) from camera to iPad when I got home and then take whatever time needed to edit (or do this later at night, if I had social engagements).

I started pushing the camera harder; continuous rather than single shot, manual focus when needed, lowlight situations — I reached a level of comfort with it where it felt more like an extension of my eye, to the point where I can shoot with the screen off; this is helped significantly by the wide 18mm (28mm equivalent), very sharp lens.

Eventually, I wanted to start explore different subjects, to vary styles, to have something that handled different situations (and, ideally, lowlight) better. As I had something compact, I didn’t mind getting something bigger and found a great deal on a new Panasonic FZ1000, an older fixed lens camera with a 1" sensor, a 400mm zoom with image stabilization.

A camera with such a large zoom can be a lot of fun and, as I wrote about previously in Photography in 2018: Two Cameras and a Phone this was my setup for a while. There were a lot of things I liked about the FZ-1000, but it wasn’t hugely better in lowlight than the GR II and it was a bit of a monster to carry around — I’ve since given it to a friend whose needs it better suits.

As detailed in that post, attended Photokina in late September, partially with the intention of exploring a new ILC system that would cover a range of needs: large sensor, decent lowlight, good optics and, crucially, still remain compact.

I became smitten with the Leica TL2, which I found at an unusually reasonable price online from a dealer in the UK and bought it along with a 23mm (35mm equivalent) f/2 Summicron lens, Visoflex viewfinder and half-body leather case — in other words, I was all-in.

There’s a learning curve with any new camera, but, as is likely already evident, I have had exposure to a reasonable variety of them. I just couldn’t warm up the TL2. One hears a lot about Leica, people who have them are obsessed with them and, yes, that they have their idiosyncrasies. But, I was unable to create the pictures I wanted to. Time and time again, between visualizing the picture in my head, composing on screen or with the viewfinder and firing the shutter, what I eventually produced bore less relation to what I expected than I found acceptable.

When output did align with expectation, I was able to produce some images I was very happy with. Alas, this happened too infrequently, usually due to some combination of missed focus and exposure that was all over the place — left to it’s own devices it often over-exposed and, when using manual exposure, metering wasn’t great. It struggled in lowlight at high ISO, which would be fine as I’m perfectly happy to shoot at lower ISOs, underexpose and then pull detail back in post, but, its sensor had rather poor invariance.

Another case of buyer’s remorse turned to disappointment and I went back to the Ricoh, but still wanted to have an ILC system for situations the Ricoh wasn’t suited to.

Having learned my lesson, namely that reading reviews isn’t enough, I decided to rent a series of different cameras, each well reviewed, to truly understand what my options were.

I’d never really used a dSLR, so, I went with the highly regarded Nikon D750 (viewed by many as the best lowlight camera ever made) and the Sony A7 III (some would say the “best” camera presently available). In each case, I rented the camera for a week, with a full complement of lenses and used them everyday during that period. I also rented the Panasonic LX-100, which, you’ll recall, had been on my list at the time I bought the Ricoh, to see if I’d missed out on something.

Today

The rental experiment taught me several things:

  1. dSLRs really are too big to be an every day carry.
  2. Image stabilization is not an option, it is a necessity.
  3. Ditto for weather-sealing.
  4. Nothing beats having a comprehensive range of quality prime lenses that cover the focal range.

But, equally, if photography isn’t one’s profession, there is a limit one should spend on these things and I resolved that I would limit an subsequent purchases to whatever I got for selling the TL2.

Leica’s vice of being obscenely expensive is somewhat offset by the virtue that they retain their value exceptionally well, especially the lenses.

With the proceeds of the Leica I was able to buy the following (all used):

  • Pentax K-70 APS-C dSLR body
  • Pentax 35mm (50mm equivalent) f/2.4 lens
  • Pentax 50mm (75mm equivalent) f/1.4 lens
  • Pentax 55–300mm (82.5–450mm equivalent) f/4–5.8 lens (yes, it’s a zoom, not a prime, but the telephoto primes were cost-prohibitive)
  • Panasonic GX8 Micro Four Thirds body
  • Panasonic Leica 15mm (30mm equivalent) f/1.7 lens
  • Panasonic 25mm (5omm equivalent) f/1.7 lens
  • Panasonic 42.5 (85mm equivalent) f/1.7 lens

Yes, that’s two bodies and 6 lenses. I didn’t buy them all at once. I started with the K-70 and the 35mm lens and added the other two Pentax lenses and then very recently got the Panasonic setup.

Why two bodies?

By now, it’s clear that I:

  1. Have a problem.
  2. Value portability.

I know that I’m not going to carry a dSLR everyday but, nothing (outside of Sony’s A7 range, which is mirrorless, but full-frame) beats a dSLR for lowlight performance. And, for the price, the K-70 does an amazing job here — it’s got exceptional in-body stabilization and a highly ISO invariant sensor.

I also know that I value the flexibility of a compact ILC and the Panasonic fits perfectly between the Ricoh and the Pentax — it isn’t svelte, but it is very light.

What Have I Learned?

The above journey wasn’t without it’s (entirely self-imposed) angst, but, it did achieve the aim of increasing both the volume and quality of my photography, by significant amount. There are days when I take hundreds of pictures and edit dozens.

And, it has taught me a bunch of things that will be obvious to some of you and divisive to others — I’ve mentioned some above, but they bear repeating:

  • You’re hiring your equipment to do a job for you, and the choices you make about the genre and style of images you create and the situations you shoot in should inform the gear you buy. Not the brand (and what it may stand for, or what it says about you) and certainly not the notion that a specific camera will unlock something that you haven’t already been doing — start doing what you intend to do with the camera you’ve already got (even if that’s your phone).
  • Always consider used equipment and/or older models. Updates are usually iterative and evolutionary. First-gen models often have bugs, or limited lenses/accessories. There’s a lot to be said for buying into a mature ecosystem.
  • Fast autofocus that works well in poor lighting is a must have, even if you often shoot manual focus. This was one of the things I most appreciated on the Panasonic FZ1000 and played a significant role informing my purchase of the GX8.
  • As noted previously, image stabilization is a must. A lack of it, among other things, is what hindered the Leica TL2. It’s one of the things I miss when I use the Ricoh, as both the Pentax K-70 and the Panasonic GX8 have great stabilization. Good thing that Ricoh is adding it to the GR III.
  • Again, the same thing goes for weather sealing — unless you live somewhere where it never rains, and you don’t intend to go somewhere were it does, your gear will get wet. Small (obvious) caveat, fixed, prime lens cameras that aren’t weather sealed tend to fare better than ILCs that aren’t.
  • Always carry a back-up. This is part of what makes the Ricoh GR II such a great camera. It may have a fixed focal length, but it’s small enough to slip into most pockets and produces great shots as long as there’s reasonable light.
  • Similarly, always have at least two batteries for a body.
  • On sensor size: full frame vs APS-C vs MFT vs 1" (I haven’t used any medium format cameras yet, so, am excluding them). This goes back to the jobs to be done. A Sony RX-100 series camera, which has a 1" sensor but tons of manual controls, advanced features and the later models (IV+) a sensor that performs very well in lowlight, might suit most or all of your needs, in which case getting anything else is excessive. Equally, if the majority of the situations you shoot in are lowlight, an ISO invariant sensor and/or high ISO capabilities are invaluable. If you intend to shoot landscapes, architecture or the stars and you’ll be doing most of your work from a tripod and not handheld, then there are specific features that make more sense than others. Sensor size, therefore, may or may not play a factor, the job to be done comes first.
  • On paying top dollar for lenses: another thing that owning the TL2 — the Summicron lens cost more than the already expensive camera body — is the fallacy of the commonly held belief that one needs to pay for high-end glass. We’re at a point technology-wise where sensors are so good, particularly if they’re stablized, and editing software so powerful that, as long as one can produce a clean image, one can work very effectively with well priced lenses.
  • Prime lenses > Zoom lenses: That being said, while zoom lenses inherently offer more flexibility, they come with the trade-off of size and durability, as well as usually being slower. Investing in a set of primes that cover the the range of focal lengths, even if they’re not top-of-the-line, is preferable.

And…in 2019?

I’m very happy with my current setup, it meets all of my current jobs to be done.

I expect that I will replace my GR II with the GR III and, if its lowlight performance is significantly better, as it is expected to be thanks to a new (and stabilized) sensor, I’ll evaluate the rest of my gear accordingly.

I would like have less things and, to that end, if the Sony A7R II continues to drop in price to the point where it becomes more accessible, it might represent the opportunity to replace both the GX8 and the K-70 and be the large, specific use-case counter part to the GR III.

Alternatively, I was pretty excited about the Zeiss ZX1, a fixed 35mm prime lens, full frame camera running Android with Lightroom CC and connectivity built-in, when it was announced at Photokina. However, in this first-look video, it looks pretty large and unergonomic, so, will certainly want to handle it and know pricing.

Ultimately, it comes down to the direction my photography takes me in. I’ve never done studio work and, as I’ve had success with certain types of setups that feel lie they’d benefit from greater control, it’s something that I increasingly think I may want to explore.

I think that I can safely say that, contrary to my iPhoneography days, I haven’t bought my last camera.