📷 📷📱Photography in 2018 — Two Cameras and a Phone
I attended Photokina, among the largest photography equipment fairs in the world, earlier this week in Cologne. Here are some thoughts about why we might still buy and use cameras when phones are where the future lies.
It’s late 2018 and if you’re going to spend money on a camera other than the highly capable one in the phone you’re already carrying around, then you’d better have a good reason for it.
Rewind to 2016 and I had just sold my last camera, a Fujifilm X-T1, to a colleague. It was everything I’d ever wanted in a digital camera. Specifically, it was the closest I could get to my beloved Contax S2, the film camera I had taught myself photography on — it had all of the common controls handy manually, without the need to dig through nested digital menus: dials for ISO and shutter speed with aperture and focus rings on the excellent 50mm lens.
But, in a common story, as much as I loved the camera, I just wasn’t using it much. Like everyone else, I was using my phone to take pictures — if I was even taking them at all. While it might be true that the best camera is the one you have with you, I’ve found there to be a lack of intentionality when using a phone as your only camera.
I took some time off at the end of 2017, with one of my intentions being to revisit photography. The type of photography I wanted to pursue, candid street shots, informed the type of camera I considered: compact, discreet, fast — all of these, however, as characteristics of the best phone cameras, what other features would this camera need to have to set it apart?
- Large sensor: as good as phone cameras have gotten, they remain constrained by their dimensions, which means small sensors. Google, Apple, Huawei and others have gotten around these limitations by deploying multiple lenses (and sensors), dedicated image processing chips, pre-caching shots and processing algorithms which can be lumped under the broad umbrella of computational photography. It’s capable of producing impressive results, but ultimately the images produced can only be pushed so far, especially when it comes to cropping.
- Wide-angle lens: the primary cameras on both the Google Pixel 2 and the Apple iPhone X’s are in the 26mm focal length equivalency range (Apple widened this slightly from the X to the Xs) — which is pretty wide and when combined with automatic software enhancements, sharp and distortion free. But, like the sensor, the lenses are tiny and there’s a limit to what can be accomplished with such a small amount of glass.
- Focusing Controls: manual focusing has always been a chore, which is why so much investment by camera and phone makers has gone into auto-focus, with Sony leading the way in the former and all high-end phone makers pushing the envelope. Manual focusing on phones is particularly painful, as it is on any camera that doesn’t have a ring around the lens for it. Consequently, most camera makers offer a range of focus modes and controls that combine autofocus with a degree of manual direction. Phones do this with tap to focus, which usually also sets exposure, unless you use an app that decouples this, such as Camera+ on iOS or Camera FV-5 on Android.
This led me to short list the following cameras:
- Ricoh GR II (it’s successor, the GR III was among the exciting announcements at Photokina this week)
- Fuji X70 (recently iterated on with the Fuji XF10)
- Panasonic LX100 (Mark II of which dropped recently)
(The Sony RX-100 line was out due to the smaller sensor and relatively high price, the Sony RX-1 range and Leica Q were out because of their high prices and larger sizes).
Perhaps inevitably, given the cult that exists around it (and of which I’m now a member), I went with the Ricoh and couldn’t be happier. It delivered on the 3 points noted above, most notably when it came to focusing, with a Snap Focus function. This is similar to zome focusing that interchangeable lens cameras are all capable of, but Ricoh incorporated it into a camera the size of a point and shoot. It enables you to preset the focusing distance at 1m, 1.5m, 2m, 2.5m, 5m or infinity and when you press the shutter release all the way in a single motion (rather than half-pressing, which engages whichever autofocus mode you’ve selected) it takes the shot (or shots if you’re in continuous mode) fixed at that focusing distance. The narrower the aperture you have set, the greater the zone of focus (distance in front of and beyond the distance you’ve selected). This feature alone makes the camera a worthwhile investment, while also setting it far apart from phone cameras.
Two areas where it falls short, and which phones emphasize are:
- Lowlight: phones, especially Google’s Pixels, the iPhone X/Xs and Samsung’s Galaxy S8/S9 have raised the bar in this area.
- Dynamic Range: given their emphasis on combining hardware and software to deliver results, it’s not surprising that HDR (high dynamic range) modes have pushed the envelope in terms of mitigating exposure related issues (blown out highlights, too dark shadows) that continue to bedevil some cameras.
It also has no zoom whatsoever, though the latitude afforded it by the crisp lens and large sensor mean that a lot can be accomplished by cropping while editing. This is a limitation shared by phones, though Apple, Samsung, Huawei and others have added a 2nd telephoto lens (and sensor, in some cases) to complement the primary wide angle one and provide an optical 2x zoom, which doesn’t degrade image quality in the same way that digital zooms, which all phones feature, do.
This led me to consider a camera with a zoom lens. While I don’t disagree with aphorisms like, “…zoom with your feet…” which might hold true for lenses up to about 70mm-90mm range (barrel distortion in portraits notwithstanding). Above that, it’s a fundamentally different style of photography that present phone camera technology precludes (though companies like Light are working on this).
There are really only two meaningful players in the space:
- Panasonic: with their FZ line. As part of their ongoing arrangement, the Leica V-Lux is based on the FZ1000.
- Sony: under the RX umbrella, which feature the aforementioned highly regarded, pocketable RX-100 and the full-frame, fixed-lens RX-1 also offer the RX-10 bridge/superzooms.
The feature set between the newer Panasonic FZ2000 and its predecessor, the FZ1000 was negligible, which was also the case between Sony and Panasonic, with a hefty price difference in Panasonic’s favor, which led me to get the FZ1000.
I’ve been mostly pleased with it — the lens is pretty fast, even when zoomed in to the far end of the lens’ range, though nowhere near as crisp as what I’m used to from Ricoh. It has indeed opened up a new style of photography, as evidenced by the fact that I mostly keep it set in Shutter Priority, a mode I never use on any other camera, but a must when shooting handheld with a lens this long (to mitigate blurriness from camera movements, which are pronounced when zoomed in past 100mm).
I’m still getting comfortable handling a camera the size of the FZ1000, comparable to the average DSLR, but the chunky grip goes a long way. The 1” sensor (see image sensor comparison below) which keeps the camera size as compact as possible (see below for a companion with a DSLR fitted with a 300mm lens, which is physically much larger, but affords significantly less zoom range), does have its limitations, again, particularly in lowlight situations — it’s not bad, but grain creeps in even at ISO 1,600 and, coupled with a lens that’s really only sharp-ish in the center, yields (a not unpleasant) softness to the images it produces.
The fact that the iPhone Xs’s photographic capabilities are meaningfully superior to the X’s indicate that there’s not going to be a let up in innovation in the phone camera space anytime soon. Feature-by-feature we can expect to see areas in which traditional cameras still have the lead by be chipped away.
An example of this is the capability Apple added to the iPhone to enable adjustment of the depth of field (aka bokeh) after taking a photo. This builds on Portrait mode, which Apple introduced last year and is an example of software being used to co-opt creative control that used to (and still does on cameras) take a series of intentional choices by the photographer around the degree of separation to have between the foreground (usually the photo’s subject) and the background (which can increase or reduce the amount of context). Via a simple slider control, experienced photographers and amateurs alike can make this decision after taking the photo.
Convergence comes in the other direction, too — from camera makers. After a series of intriguing, though ultimately abandoned, moves by Samsung (see Galaxy Camera and Galaxy NX) and Panasonic (see LUMIX CM1) to replace the custom software that drives the vast majority of digital camera operating systems with Android there have been more conservative, but still innovative approaches by Sony with their Alpha series and Leica with the T range.
Sony has relied heavily on touchscreen based menus for settings and controls (many of which can be assigned to external, hardware buttons) to keep even their full-frame cameras as compact as possible, while also putting a lot of work into advanced autofocus — people rave about their EyeAF, which uses technology to emulate (and go beyond) the longstanding technique of getting pinsharp focus by using a subject’s eyes as a reference — and lowlight performance.
In an effort to reinvent cameras for today’s world, on the T, Leica moved all but four external — one of which is the shutter release, the other three (two dials and a button) are user assignable — to a large touchscreen, while also radically simplifying the interface, but still offering a significant degree of customization and manual control. With the TL2, they also included 32GB of onboard storage, upgraded to a 24 (from 16) megapixel sensor with improved lowlight capability to 50,000 and removed the pop-up flash, while maintaining the same very compact dimensions.
Both have made the welcome move to USB-C for both charging and photo export.
Zeiss blew all of this up with the surprise announcement of the full-frame, fixed-lens ZX1 at Photokina. The external design borrows from both Leica and Fuji, the minimalism of the former’s T range and the manual controls for aperture, focus, shutter speed and ISO from the latter’s X-series. Zeiss goes much further and combines these with an Android based OS which has Abode’s Lightroom app built-in, for both on-device RAW editing and back-up to Adobe’s Creative Cloud and Dropbox (perhaps other services) and direct sharing. It also forgoes any kind of external storage media (such as the standard SD card) in favor of an onboard 512GB SSD.
Mostly, I’ve got my phone, presently the Google Pixel 2 XL on me, and very often the Ricoh GR II as well. When going for photo walks, I take the Panasonic FZ-1000 along, too (on this nifty Black Rapid Hybrid dual camera strap).
I could see myself trading up to a camera setup based around a single body, either the Sony a7R III or the Leica TL2 with a fast, wide prime lens to replace the Ricoh and a not too crazy zoom lens to replace the Panasonic, but it’s a significant investment to do so and still requires lugging around at least a large second lens (as opposed to two cameras).
Equally, I could see myself sticking with my current setup and upgrading to the Ricoh GR III.
I’m very intrigued to see to see what the Zeiss ZX1 brings to market when it’s released, ditto for what Light is doing with their technology, especially when it finds its way into phones — to say nothing of what Google, Apple and Huawei continue to do.