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Compact matters

Man playing a cello in front of an old building's front entrance.
Street musician in Riga. 18mm f/2

My relationship to photography is changing constantly. During the decade I’ve been doing it, I have gone through many different phases. In a way, I’ve finally gone full circle and downgraded my system. Well, it all depends on how you look at it really.

My path in photography started as real curiosity towards making visually pleasing images. Like, how is it done? Is it hard? Could I too do it with one of these big fancy cameras? You can probably guess already that it was initially about the cameras, toys I hadn’t played with before. I mean I had shot some photos before with dinky compacts and bridge cameras, but once I tried a so called “real camera”, I was hooked to the potential. But I was also nerding out on all the lenses, bodies, accessories and gizmos I would one day purchase. I was a typical gearhead.

It then slowly started being more about the photography itself, as it should be, still figuring out tools on the side. Because I believed - and still believe - that even though the common mantra is to not think about equipment, you have to understand implementation. But in a creative sense, I also believe that you absolutely should work with what you have today.

With the tools that I had, I was moving up. I started doing paid gigs, shot some corporate report type of stuff, a couple weddings, apartments, and such. I really enjoyed doing most of it and kept investing in lenses that I thought I needed or just would open up new doors creatively. However, I was doing too many different things and some elements of my photography universe I really disliked and didn’t think to get rid of. This noise lead to the inevitable which people warn others about, but I never believed would happen to me - I got tired of photography as a pastime.

The thing about photography is that if you don’t get much out of it, you won’t enjoy it professionally either. That is a big problem for me. Doing the wrong things and making it too complicated forced me to take a break from it. Only, I didn’t realize I was taking a break until after I saw how few solid images I had taken that particular year.

So while I didn’t sell all my gear one day or anything like that, and I did take pictures for fun from time to time, in general taking my big DSLR with me seemed like a massive burden. And to top it off, I had become cynical: I started overthinking my personal photography, and tended to think every picture had been taken before, and there’s no reason for me to take this specific picture. While it’s all sort of true, it’s also a slippery slope to “I’m no good” and other counter-productive thoughts.

When I’m getting paid, I’m absolutely enjoying doing it for someone else. That’s the deal. But when I’m doing it for me, I’m only doing it for me. To maintain that interest.

Also, what I’ve realized in ten years after learning a lot about how cameras and optics work, and how I use them, is that there are more variables at play than what commonly surface during discussions on the internet. Things you have to read between the lines.

I originally built a nice Nikon system going through enthusiast bodies like the D70 and D90, to the professional full frame D700. I really enjoyed the look this camera had. Not image quality per se, but how it rendered what I saw through its big viewfinder. I still highly value how things just clicked with this camera and would love to have a D700 again with some of the older Nikkor primes on hand. It’s a robust camera, like a hammer. The mechanics make a big old racket which isn’t necessarily a good thing, but goes well with the brick outhouse design.

Anyway, at some point I really got into DSLR cinematography. I got one of the cheaper Canon bodies to get into the quality. Nikon didn’t really have good quality video. Or D700 didn’t even capture video to be more exact. So when its successor D800 was released, I had to get one.

Looking back at it though, it seems like I never truly had fun with this latest setup. Turns out, D800 was the best and worst camera I ever owned.

D800 annoyance

The windshield of an old car with streaks of water on it, backlit by another car passing by.
Backlit wet windscreen. 35mm f/2

Now, I’m in no way saying that the D800 is a bad camera. Not at all. It’s a fantastic professional full frame DSLR if that’s your thing and/or you need one. But it, or any other camera for that matter, can’t be declared the perfect camera. They can be designed as all-around cameras that serve many needs well, and I’ve heard the new D850 truly is an excellent all-around camera. Where as maybe D800 was more of a specialty camera with its high resolution requiring compromises.

Nevertheless, the point I want to make here is that while you can take good pictures with any camera, wrong tools may affect your tendencies and restrict your subjects.

The first trouble with the D800 were the RAW files. Nikon’s JPEGs looked pretty boring and digital to me so I never used them for anything, and I was a “RAW or go home” type of guy anyway so RAW I had to shoot. The thing is though, 36 megapixel RAW files are huge, even by today’s standards. No way around it. 250 images take about 10GB. You shoot that many frames pretty quickly.

This lead to surprisingly high storage maintenance. Files that big require fast cards, and fast cards were pretty expensive back in 2012 when the D800 launched. I also filled my hard drives fast. Compared to what the D800 and the lenses cost, storage wasn’t really an issue money-wise, but it still drove me nuts for some reason. I didn’t need all that extra sensor data to begin with. So while it’s ridiculous to complain about storage, it’s still unnecessary noise.

I also remember the D700 somehow being a simpler camera. It certainly felt snappy in use and great in the hand. Its vertical grip didn’t set you back that much. And its shutter mechanism made a fantastic sound, which while superficial when it comes to art, is still that sort of mechanical feedback people love.

But the single biggest problem with the D800 was something it obviously also shared with the D700 and other high-end DSLRs. Even the new D850 wouldn’t fix this issue: the damn size. Even in its smallest configuration with a 50mm f/1.4 attached, the D800 took a lot of bag space and weighed over a kilogram. I know this doesn’t sound like much, but it just slowly started to feel like dragging a boat anchor around. And it didn’t really fit any reasonably sized general use shoulder bag. It took me a while to realize just how often I left the D800 at home.

I know these big cameras are great. I know they’re fantastic to shoot with all day long. I know there’s no way around the laws of physics when it comes to their size. SLRs will always be that much bigger, because they need all that otherwise useless space for the mirror to flap about in. The reality is that modern full frame SLRs and lenses are big for understandable reasons, and they do produce results needed in some specific cases. I just don’t need them.

Fortunately, an alternative was around the corner.

Fujifilm X-perience

The end of a frosty guard rail in thick mist.
Guard rail. 56mm f/1.2

A few years back, a friend showed me his X-Pro1. He had bought one for a fraction of what it cost new. I had actually wanted its sibling X100 for ages, but never got one. I was familiar with the X-Pro, but didn’t really understand its value. Unlike the fixed lens X100, I thought it was yet another system, and I didn’t want that. But the more I read about it, the more excited I got about the concept of a compact interchangeable lens “rangefinder”1.

X-Pro1 is Fujifilm’s first X-mount interchangeable lens camera. It launched what I think is a revolutionary mirrorless system2 with exquisite image quality, unique look, and state of the art optics. And it had a pretty rocky start. From what I’ve read, it was pretty lackluster: a slow focusing first generation product. Fortunately, Fujifilm separates itself from other camera companies with its Kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement and it got better along the first few years. As of writing this in 2017, running its latest firmware version 3.7, it’s an acceptably quick camera for walkaround use, and it feels like Fuji made it as good as they reasonably could.

Fujifilm also separates itself by mostly focusing on compact APS-C image circle cameras and lenses. The latter is important, because while Sony also offers small bodies, they don’t really have that many truly small lenses to boot3.

Olympus and other Micro Four Thirds (MFT) -manufacturers have been around longer doing a similar mirrorless concept, but the tiny sensor would be too big of a sacrifice for little gain in compactness. And you’re ultimately designing for the human hand. This is where peoples’ mileage may vary when it comes to ergonomics, but Fujifilm nails it for me. Full frame can’t hit the same compromise.

Now mirrorless in itself doesn’t mean a thing. It doesn’t make the cameras any better or worse. But it does change the design restrictions, rather crucially when it comes to the X-system. And while mirrorless doesn’t make a good or bad camera, it’s important to note that we’ve only recently been able to make mirrorless cameras comparable to SLRs in two major ways: speed and through the lens viewfinders. Speed as in mimimized lag, not necessarily frames per second which has always been one of mirrorless’s advantages. Viewfinder as in how much the electronic viewfinder distracts you being a magnified display.

So I ended up buying an X-Pro1 and 18mm lens myself for amateur kit money. It isn’t as versatile as new amateur cameras, but Jiminy Christ if it isn’t a nicer camera. There’s no point in me describing it in detail. Just read this great article about X-Pro design by Aage Granaas if you’re interested.

The switch

Alley in Turku
Alley in Turku. 23mm f/2

I didn’t know it then, but while I thought I had bought a fun travel/walkaround camera, I was actually turning my understanding of photography upside-down. I hardly used the D800 anymore, and always had my X-Pro with me wherever I went. It had basically become my main camera.

As you often hear on the internet, I found Fujifilm’s JPEGs to look great out of the camera so I didn’t always have to go straight to the RAW files. And being “only” a 16 megapixel camera, I didn’t have to pay for unnecessary storage. It was great!

The speed could’ve been an issue. All mirrorless cameras have been slower than professional DSLRs for years4. I knew it going into the X-Pro1 so this didn’t bother me, and I wasn’t at all surprised by its performance. Actually, the snail-like performance was weirdly pleasant. I just used it like it was meant to be used, with a compact prime lens and always on you. And being a rangefinder type camera like the X100, I really loved its form and feel. Photography was fun again with the help of a completely different kind of camera.

In my mind I was still invested into the Nikon system so I didn’t buy any other lenses for the X-Pro. Until I did. I had to get the 35mm f/2. I mean, why not? It’s a fantastic lens. It ended up staying on the X-Pro1 most of the time being a newer, faster lens, and a 50mm equivalent - which I rather prefer over the 18mm’s 27mm equivalent focal length which I’ve always found a bit odd.

A stuffed fox standing on an old white fridge in a colorful Cuban bar.
Stuffed fox in Cuba Cafe, Riga. 18mm f/2

The thought of moving to Fujifilm had crossed my mind a few times. But to be honest, moving back to APS-C from full frame seemed like a downgrade. It’s a sentiment that was pretty hard to shake off.

The way I thought of it is that full frame cameras are generally better at low light photography, and have more dynamic range. But I found the X-Pro1 could also expose beautifully in demanding high contrast situations and exposed well enough in dark.

One of the undisputably nicer things full frame gives you over APS-C is that big viewfinder. But that only holds true in SLR-world. Mirrorless viewfinder sizes don’t depend on anything, but the tiny screen and optics inside. I never realized this until I tried a Fujifilm X-T1 which has a fantastic big one that could easily replace any full frame SLR.

So even though I loved the X-Pro1’s slow-paced thinking, I wanted the same interface design in a “serious camera”. So I bought an X-T1.

X-T1/2 is Fujifilm’s SLR-like professional camera. It mostly works more or less the same way other professional DSLRs work. Compared to the X-Pro1, it’s also way snappier. One thing that’s different from Nikon is the use of analogue dials for the exposure triangle, which I find really nice compared to the usual abstract command dials. The same interface as the X-Pro1 has, but enhanced. Some people call it retro, but I think it’s just a good ageless design that still works really well today. That this design was used before we got complicated electronics doesn’t mean that it’s outdated and worse.5

Buying the X-T1, I decided that would be the event horizon. I put all my Nikon gear up for sale and never looked back. I’m much happier with a camera system that’s always on me which allows me to get candid, and Fujifilm definitely knows how to make a compact camera.

A lumberjack candle burning on some bedrock next to a community building.
Lumberjack candle. 35mm f/2

Changing systems is an interesting experience, especially with Fujifilm. We’re seeing some second generation type lenses already with Fujifilm having figured out build quality details since designing the initial lineup. But for the most part it’s really easy to decide between X-mount glass. There are only about 20 lenses and most people would never need even half of them.

One of the things I’ve managed to realize since moving systems is that f-stops and background separation aren’t everything. I don’t obsess over f/1.4 or 1.2 glass, because I know they are somewhat special use lenses with cons like weight, size and slower AF. I also noticed how extreme background separation had become a value in itself for a lot of photographers (including me). I’ll take it if I can get it, but I won’t make it my first priority. The rendering on the so called Fujicron f/2 lenses (23mm, 35mm, 50mm) is so exquisite, so punchy that I now value it higher than the bokeh I could achieve with a larger aperture. I don’t know if you’d call it 3D pop or micro-contrast, but Fujifilm makes everything look life-like and interesting.

There really needs to be another post for my thoughts about Fujifilm lenses I’ve used, but for now I’ll just state that I’m very impressed by Fuji’s way of thinking. The quality of rendering and sense of depth makes the full frame vs. APS-C difference hazy to say the least.

Final thoughts

A person carrying some product's big-ish cardboard box in heavy snowfall in front of the Helsinki railway station
Finnish spring. 35mm f/0.95

All of this just goes to show that there’s a big difference in what camera you invest in, and the ultimate answer isn’t necessarily full frame. That’s why all of the images on this post were taken in situations where I think having a camera always on me made a big difference. And I’m not sure if it’s me or the camera, but I feel less obsessed about pure, engineer-y technical specifications. I’m interested, but not obsessed.

Photography with the Fujifilm system is easier, and I’m happy to report that it’s very much fun again. Compact matters.

  1. It can be argued that the X-Pro isn’t a true rangefinder. Even so, it does feel very different from using a through the lens viewfinder. It also shares most of the same pros and cons with true rangefinders such as the Leica M. 

  2. It’s pretty easy to see how much smaller Fujifilm and other mirrorless manufacturers are able to make their cameras. And although they can get as big as anything else, they are smaller with specific great glass mounted. 

  3. Looking at the Sony lens lineup, it hardly has any compact ones whereas Fujifilm makes mostly compact lenses with some exceptions. Sometimes you need what those big lenses on a full frame camera can offer you, that’s fine, but this difference is pretty clear and important to note. 

  4. This seems to be changing. Each generation mirrorless cameras catch up and it seems the new Olympus EM1 Mk2 is on a different level. 

  5. People have asked me many times if the X-Pro1 is a film camera, but a few have thought the same about the X-T1 as well. Maybe the dials give that impression or it simply has an ageless look.