You know the old saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none”? It’s a weary old adage that we’re probably all sick of hearing, but the annoying thing is that it’s actually true.
And never more so than when you’re talking about photography kit. The headline highlights cameras, but it applies to lenses, tripods, camera bags and practically everything else you can think of.
We live in an imperfect world with infinitely varied demands that change from one moment and one situation to the next and perhaps there never is just one camera (or lens, etc) that can cope with each situation perfectly.
Very often, the one theoretically ‘perfect’ product that does everything is significantly compromised in just about every practical situation you might use it in.
Very often, to get the pictures you want, in the way you want and with the look and quality you want, you need two or three of everything so that you can pick the right tool for each situation.
Can one camera do everything?
I’ll give you some examples. I have a 12MP Fujifilm X30 compact that’s several years old, has only a 2/3-inch sensor and has a 4x zoom. By any current standards it’s pretty rubbish, but it’s still the camera I take on holiday.
Why? Because none of my other cameras have a 4x f/2.0-2.8 zoom lens, fit in a small shoulder pouch or jacket pocket, weigh so little and focus so fast. Yes, the picture quality is limited by its small sensor, but it captures good raw files with lots of depth, I know it like the back of my hand, and I can grab decent pictures without spending all day over it.
If I’m shooting more considered ‘arty’ pictures for myself, or for publication, I’ll use a bigger, better camera, with bigger, better lenses – but the sort of camera that I’d never consider hauling around all day on holiday.
I am saving up (in my head) for a Fujifilm GFX 50R or a Hasselblad X1D, but these are cameras built solely for quality, with slower handling and a limited range of lenses. I would use these solely for high-quality ‘art’ photography, where I’ve got time to look at the subject, think about the angles and develop an idea. Here, they’d be better than any other camera. For the other 90% of the things I shoot they’d be slow, heavy and limited.
What about lenses?
Many photographers are tempted by ‘superzoom’ lenses with a 10x or greater zoom range, covering everything from wide-angle to super-telephoto focal lengths. I’ve used a few myself, and it’s a great concept – a single lens that can do the job of all your others.
It’s just that they do it quite badly. Superzoom lenses have more distortion, more colour fringing and lower resolution, mostly at the longer end of the focal range which is probably what you bought them for.
Worse than this, though, is their size and weight. These are big lenses that weigh a lot. But surely it’s worth it for the extra versatility, right? Not necessarily, because when you get one of these lenses you’re committing yourself to carrying around a big, heavy lens ALL THE TIME, regardless of whether you need that extra focal range or not.
On top of that, why would you want to shoot with (probably) your worst lens all the time?
I use quite a few lenses, many of which overlap in focal length. I use a lightweight kit zoom if I need something light and portable, or a heavier constant aperture zoom covering a similar range if quality is more important than weight. I use a small selection of prime lenses for compactness, wide maximum apertures and shallow depth of field. I also use ultra-wide zoom lenses a lot, and that’s a focal range superzoom lenses don’t even attempt.
In short, there is no magical single lens that will do. We probably all get that with lenses, so why not with cameras?
The same goes for bags… and tripods
I have a couple of large bags that can hold every bit of gear to do with a particular system, but which I rarely take anywhere because they are so heavy. They can be useful if I know I’m not going to be doing much walking and I don’t know exactly what I’m going to need, but otherwise they stay at home.
Instead, I pack a small, soft shoulder bag if I’m travelling light or a messenger bag if I’m commuting to an office or a press launch and I need both a laptop and a camera. Occasionally I’ll use a hard case or a backpack for travel, but not often.
The point is that each of these bags is brilliant in a particular context, but pretty poor in any other.
The same goes for tripods. I pack a small tabletop tripod in a bag when I’ve no intention of taking a full size tripod. It’s pretty poor but a thousand times better than nothing. I also have a light, four-section travel tripod for when I don’t want anything heavy and I don’t mind the extra setup time of the extra leg sections, but I also have a couple of heavy tripods – one with an angled boom for odd angles and macro photography, one with an extra-high working height and fast leg length adjustments for uneven ground.
Again, none of these is ideal outside its own particular area, but within that area, each one is better than the rest.
So my point is…
There is no perfect tool for all jobs. Superzoom lenses bring more compromises than solutions, there is no perfect bag for every single assignment and there is no single tripod that’s perfect for every situation.
So why are we fixated on the ‘perfect’ camera? They don’t exist, any more than there is a ‘perfect’ lens, bag or tripod. Different situations emphasise the qualities of different cameras (and different camera systems), so instead of fixating on which camera is best, maybe we should be thinking about which cameras (note the plural) are best for each situation we like to shoot in?
It might stop some of the partisan squabbling we get between the fans of different brands, and it might help photographers realises that their needs and preferences do not necessarily lead to a single camera, brand or allegiance.
Otherwise, the danger is that we change our photography to suit our camera equipment, and that isn’t the idea at all.