By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
Despite its seemingly technological and rational nature, photo gear cycles through fashions and fads just as surely and often as other consumer products.
Those marketing cycles place a premium on careful, informed purchasing. In many instances, as we’ll discuss below, buying upper-tier cameras near the end of their product cycle or as refurbished/used gear makes the most sense.
Only a handful of new cameras were introduced at the 2014 Photokina trade show, normally the most prominent forum to highlight new photo gear every two years. Most 2014-vintage introductions are modest evolutions of already-mature, capable products.
Typically, earlier models would delete some major feature, such as eyelevel viewfinders, while following models would reintroduce those same previously deleted features. In both instances, marketing would tout the initial deletion and then the reversion to earlier styles as new and exciting changes.
Panasonic’s LX100, for example, is about the same size as other Micro Four-Thirds compact-system cameras but uses a fixed lenses, unlike the interchangeable lenses found on all other M 4/3 cameras. Panasonic’s newest M 4/3 camera undoubtedly includes a fine lens, but it’s a fixed lens and thus not as versatile. That’s not an exciting new “feature,” despite the marketing hype.
Similarly, Panasonic touts its M 4/3 sensor as “multi-aspect,” but all that means is you irrevocably crop the picture when you make the image, using only some portion of the sensor. That same sensor when used in other M 4/3 cameras yields about 33 percent more pixels and usable picture area.
The LX100 has classic “retro” styling, an eyelevel viewfinder and manually set lens aperture and shutter speed dials. We had these same “features” 60 years ago. While I happen to prefer an eyelevel viewfinder and manual dials, they’re not new and exciting features to anyone with a modicum of experience and historical perspective.
Ten or 12 years ago, early digital cameras substituted smoothly rounded plastic bodies for classically angular metal camera bodies. Marketers declared that the modern photo era had arrived. Within a decade, classically styled metal camera bodies are again preferred for upper-tier cameras. “Retro” styling is attractive, particularly to older, more affluent buyers who fondly remember their Olympus OM-1, Nikon and Pentax film cameras, but reviving older visual styles is hardly revolutionary.
My point is not to pick on Panasonic or its rather nice, $900 LX100 camera, but to caution that marketing campaigns need to be taken with a grain, or a pound, of salt. The LX100 is, by all accounts, a competent camera, but hardly revolutionary.
Nikon and Leica are perhaps more egregious offenders. When designing and marketing its current Df full-frame camera, Nikon stripped out most modern camera functions, such as video, and then promoted the Nikon Df as a camera of the highest classic photographic purity. Yet the less-expensive Nikon D800 is a better prograde camera.
Similarly, Leica saved manufacturing costs on a recently introduced model by deleting the rear LCD screen, and then charged a lot more for the resulting crippled camera, claiming that the deletion raised the M-P model to a higher level of classical design purity. That’s nonsense. Normally, Leica buyers pay a several-thousand-dollar premium for Leica’s prestige, exemplified by its prominent red dot. Yet, not long ago, Leica introduced a model whose sole difference was the deletion of Leica’s trademark red dot from the front of the camera body. Leica then proclaimed that slightly less-recognizable camera to be a stealthy model and charged a cool $1,000 more for the dotless camera, apparently finding clueless buyers, as well.
You get the idea — not all changes are positive, or even new. Now that most upper-tier digital cameras made within the past two years are more than good enough for professional use, let alone casual users, how do we optimize our purchases?
Consider what you really need and actually use. If you do a lot of video, then high-grade video functions are important, in which case some upper-tier Panasonic and Sony cameras make the most sense. If you’re strongly oriented toward still photos, then video capability, no matter how good, is of little consequence. If you’re a bright-sunshine landscape photographer who tends to use a tripod, then high ISO sensitivity and image stabilization are of little practical use, though these same capabilities are likely critical to a wildlife photographer.
Recently, I mentally reviewed the digital cameras I’ve owned. Some, such as my old Sony R-1, Kodak P880 and Canon G9, continue producing exhibition-quality images despite lacking many supposedly critical modern features, like good high-ISO performance, interchangeable lenses or image stabilization.
I’ve noticed a few traits in common among these cameras. They all have excellent lenses, include optional RAW file formats and are relatively compact and easily portable. Several in the “I’ll always keep and use them” group are six to 10 years old but still useful in the right circumstances.
Many fine recent-model cameras will be discontinued soon or are available as refurbished equipment directly from the manufacturer or reputable web vendors. Some of these cameras, which I’ll list below, are best buys, combining excellent quality and low prices.
I prefer to buy any used equipment from Lensrentals.com, a highly reputable and fastidious national photographic rental company that periodically sells surplus gear through its http://www.lensauthority.com site. When Lensrentals grades one of its surplus cameras or lenses as “like new,” or a nine out of 10, it really is.
Factory-refurbished Nikon and Canon equipment is available through the used-refurbished department of nationally reputable http://www.bhphotovideo.com, while Olympus’ own website, http://www.getolympus.com, usually has a good selection of refurbished Olympus items. Factory-refurbished equipment often includes a manufacturer’s warranty.
In many instances, the older models use the same sensors as newly introduced cameras. Hence, potential image quality is virtually identical, assuming comparable lenses.
Among digital SLR cameras, Nikon’s D5100 and D7000, as well as Pentax’s K-5 and K-50 models, all use Sony’s excellent, 16-megapixel APS-C sensor, probably one of the finest sensors ever made. Any of these dSLR cameras will provide fine results at a low cost when paired with good optics.
Among compact-system cameras, Sony’s NEX-6 and Olympus’ OM-D E-M5 and E-P5 and E-PL5 Pen cameras are excellent buys, with image quality suitable for professional use. These older models are near their end of life as front-shelf products but have image quality that’s essentially identical to their replacements at a fraction of the cost. As an example, when a used but flawless Olympus E-M5 body is available from Lensrentals for $467, including a one-year repair warranty, it’s hard to justify buying that same camera new for twice the price, or its prograde sibling, the Olympus OM-D E-M1, for three times the price. You’ll save enough to buy a few excellent Sigma DN lenses to complete your lightweight prograde kit.
Photokina 2014 reminds us that digital imaging has become a mature, more slowly evolving technology. It’s a useful reminder that, as with computer equipment, there’s little incentive to spend top dollar for whatever is currently fashionable.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.