Once in a while I abandon all sense and do a gear post. This is one of them. I hope it’s helpful to you and that you find the question of why I use the gear I do more interesting than which gear, specifically, I use. It’s the one question that seems to get left out of these discussions; everyone talking about which gear is best without first defining their needs. As so many of you are making similar switches in the way you approach your work, I thought I’d walk you through mine.
Last month Fuji announced 2 pieces of gear that pushed me over the edge. As many of you know I’ve been using Fuji cameras more and more, but still hanging on to Pelican cases full of Nikon gear. I’ve held out on switching completely (almost completely, but I’ll explain that) because the Fuji system lacked any optical options at the long end – specifically something more than a 300mm equivalent- and I need those more and more for the work I’m doing.
With the 100-400 lens that has now changed, giving me (a) a zoom lens instead of fixed primes that force me to fumble with teleconverters and (b) at the long end a 600/5.6 equivalent. That lens is fantastic. And it weighs less than my Nikon 70-200/2.8. And it’s got 5-stop Image Stabilization that means I can make tack sharp images, handheld, at very reasonable shutter speeds – down to 1/15. And it’s weather-sealed. So that’s the first piece. I can now carry 2 cameras, and lenses from 16mm to 600mm (35mm equivalent) in a carry on, with batteries and related things, that weighs less than 18lbs. As a traveling photographer who is less able to carry all that weight, this is great. And as carry-on allowances shrink, and small planes, like the ones I use on safari or coastal BC, have the usual tight weight restrictions, it means less worry about checking a bag, or not being able to bring it at all. The lighter kit means I can walk all day on my arthritic ankles and still have the energy to create and walk down one last alley or peer around one more corner. On top of this, the full range of Fuji lenses is optically excellent.
A 1:1 preview of one of my images shot with the Fujinon 100-400. All the sharpness I could ever ask for. After a week on safari, using this 100-400 lens daily I’m ready to unreservedly switch.
The second piece of gear Fuji announced is the X-Pro2, a 24 megapixel mirrorless camera that will, I am sure herald the coming of the 24mpx version of my much-loved X-T1. You know I’m not bent out of shape about how many pixels I have – for years my favourite camera was my Nikon D3s, a gorgeous, heavy, fast, workhorse that never failed me, but only gave me 12-pointsomething megapixels. And no one ever asked me, aren’t you worried your images will be too small? But I crop to 16:9 and 1:1 often enough that re-gaining some of that resolution is a gift. And so I sold off my Leica M, kept some of my favourite lenses from that system, and can get the best of both worlds – 24mpx body, but full autofocus, and the option to still use, for example, Leica’s beautiful 21mm lens that I adore. The X-Pro2 also has, finally, dual card slots. And for the now the 16 point something megapixel XT-1 will continue to serve me well. I don’t need to print billboards. Most of you don’t either.
Fuji cameras are quirky. But getting less so. And nowhere near as quirky as the Leica M. They are fast. I don’t photograph sports and when I photograph wildlife it’s not usually the action stuff I’m trying to capture, but for me they are ample fast. Even with my Nikon gear it wasn’t my gear that slowed me down, it was my own reaction time. The Fuji X-T1 is weather-sealed. It has an articulating LCD so I can shoot from weird angles and interesting POVs without having to lie down in puddles. And the image quality is amazing. And with wifi image sharing I can fire a JPG to my iPhone to share work with clients or on my Instagram feed.
I get asked if I miss the full-frame advantage, but to be honest it’s not a consideration for me now. It once was. When my 24mm lens acted more like a 35mm lens and I wanted something wider to accommodate for the crop, it mattered. But to me the two advantages full-frame would give me are (a) the access to a full range of focal lengths and (b) the softer depth of field at wider apertures. The lenses are now available to cover me just fine, and increasingly I have no desire for the really wide, dreamy soft background. Even with an f/1.2 lens I’d likely only shoot it fully open if light were an issue. It rarely is. It used to be. A couple years ago I’d almost never use anything higher than ISO 800, so the /1.2 lens was great and I’d shoot at /1.2. But it wasn’t easy. And it was heavy. Now I can shoot with lighter, smaller lenses and push the ISO a little, and keep a little more in focus (and, to be fair, the Fuji 56/1.2 is plenty dreamy when used wide open).
What matters to me now is that my cameras get out of the way as quickly as possible. For me that’s the Fujis, as opposed to the Olympus or the Sony systems, because only Fuji has the old-school ergonomics that are so second nature to me – aperture on the lens, shutter speed on a dial at the top of the camera. And I think the quality of the images from the Fuji Trans-X sensor is exceptional in the ISO range I need, generally never over 1600. 3200 gives me the jitters. Some people need that. I don’t. When it’s that dark I go to bed. Add to all these benefits the fact that much of the gear I now used, compared to the gear I was using, is much less expensive. The Nikon 300/2.8 costs USD$5500 new. The Fujinon 100-400 costs USD$2000. It’s not a perfect comparison, but in terms of the options I am working with right now, I can sell my Nikon gear in USD, which is killing the Canadian dollar at the moment, and use that money to completely replace my gear – with gear that works better for what I need right now – and still have enough left over to go diving with sharks in June or photograph grizzlies in May. I’d rather do those things than own a bunch of high-end gear and not be able to afford the experiences. For me the experience always trumps the gear, because the only reason I buy the gear is to photograph the experience. Lighter, cheaper gear that gets out of the way quickly wins every time.
If you need to, read that last paragraph again. I’m not suggesting Fuji cameras are better than the Nikon DSLRs that I love. I’m not saying the latest and greatest from Canon are not spectacular. They all make photographs in slightly different ways, and the technical nature of those photographs will all differ, in size, dynamic range, and really any other criteria you can list. The question isn’t “which one is better,” it’s which one best fits your needs. This is important. These incredible cameras, of any brand, will not compensate for a lack of vision or for a lack of craft. They will only make my photographs better in the sense that they let me do what I do with the fewest possible barriers. That is how you choose a camera.
So now, with the exception of 2 Nikon D800 bodies and a Sigma 15mm fisheye and a Nikon macro lens (105mm, if I recall), which I use with my Nauticam housing for scuba work, my Nikon system is getting slowly sold off. The 300/2.8 and extender will be the last to go, and I’ll be selling them when I get home (they’re already spoken for).
Remember this: there’s no perfect system, and there is no system that does it all. There are always compromises. You ask yourself which compromises you can live with, even use to your advantage, and which ones you can’t. And you separate your needs from your wants. I want a bad-ass pro-sized body that looks cool. But I need a camera that I can carry all day. I wanted to keep using the Leica M I sold, but I needed a camera that will focus quickly and in low light, which my Leica – in my hands – didn’t always do. The best camera is the one you have with you, but it’s also the one that does what you need it to. And your needs might be very different from the needs of others, so figure that out first.
As for what’s in my kit now, in terms of cameras and lenses) here’s what’s in bag these days, though I’ve also included the X-Pro2 which is still on its way. The items with an asterisk are the ones in my bag right now on this trip which includes a 10-day safari in Kenya, diving in Zanzibar (without my full dive rig), a week in Rajasthan, and a week in Istanbul
For this trip I’ve also got a Canon G7x for podcasting, should the mood hit, and a Sony RX100II which I’ll use with a small Nauticam housing to dive. Add twenty 64GB SD cards, 8 batteries, and an extra 1TB external hard drive for my 13” MacBook Air, and that’s my full kit. Almost all of it goes into my Think Tank Photo Airport Essentials bag to travel and I work out of a couple different satchels, none of them actual camera bags – just simple, light, satchels into which I can throw lenses wrapped in something, along with a couple batteries, a sweater or a light rain jacket.
Questions? I’m happy to do my best to answer them if you leave them in the comments. I’m not sponsored by Fuji and I hope by now you now that my love for one camera or another is measured only by how much I love the photographs it lets me make.
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