News/Views

Did Lens Makers Miss a Turn?

As I contemplate my new iPhone, my fourth of Apple’s 13 iterations, it dawned on me that Apple is marching to a different drummer: 13mm, 26mm, and 77mm (all equivalent focal lengths). In essence you have a 13-77mm f/1.5-2.8 zoom. 

bythom apple iphone13

It took a long time for the camera industry to drop from 28mm at the wide end of their all-purpose zooms to 24mm, and that was after they dropped from 35mm to 24mm at the wide end. Some still have options that essentially start at 28mm—Nikon made a  half dozen DX variations on this—and we’re going to get a few more of those in the future, as well. 

Focal length has a mostly un-talked about influence on perspective (or vice versa, should you care). If you’re trying to frame a half body portrait at 26mm, you’ll be closer to the subject than you would be at 28mm, and thus perspective changes. What’s happening with the phones including wider options is that, even if by accident, those using those phones are tending to be in closer than traditional camera users (selfie, anyone? ;~). Perhaps not too far off in distance, but enough so that perspective is clearly different, and you need to rethink your focal lengths.

If you’re trying to attract the young, who grew up on smartphones as cameras, 28mm as the wide end these days isn’t very selfie-ish. Indeed, if that user wasn’t taught about perspective they’d wonder why a traditional camera image doesn’t look like their phone camera images. I’d assume they’d want to buy a dedicated camera that mimics what they’ve been doing with their phone camera.

One thing that’s not been discussed much even before phones arrived on the camera scene is that American “standard distance” is quite different than European “standard distance” which is also different than Asian “standard distance.” If you look at how close each culture gets to one another while talking and interacting, you see clear differences in distance (perspective change!). If this carries over to camera use—and I believe it does—that means that Americans might be okay with a 28mm focal length (they’re further away) while other cultures might prefer 24mm (they’re closer). 

When Nikon cancelled the 18-50mm DL camera (f/1.8-2.8), many of us groaned (loudly). I’d argue that this was exactly the compact camera that a lot of folk should be carrying, as it would better align with what people were/are doing with phones. It should have been an easy up sell to the young. Meanwhile, most older and traditional photographers looked at that DL as being a wide-angle zoom with half of a mid-range zoom, which also resonated. 

Nikon’s executives at the time were very antsy about that wide-angle model, thinking the 24-85mm f/1.8-2.8 model would be what defined the DL line and would dominate sales. But that’s thinking in the past, not looking at the present and future. Marketing has to market the future, but curiously, Nikon spent much more of their energy on the more traditional DL models than on that wide-to-mid model. 

Nikon themselves should have known the answer, but didn’t seem to believe it. They still don’t seem to believe it. What was the most demanded Z-mount lens after the initial five were dropped? Wide angle zoom. The eventual 14-30mm f/4 has turned out to be a best seller for Nikon. What’s the most demanded lens for the Z DX models? Wide angle zoom. The missing 10-20mm lens is holding back Z50 and Zfc sales, I’ll bet. Nikon touts the Zfc as a vlogging/influencer camera, yet they haven’t actually produced the lens that would allow that the best. There’s a reason why Apple has 13mm equivalent as their ultra wide choice, and it’s being used more and more by the young folk that the camera makers aren’t catering to.

There’s so much inertia in the camera industry that they’ve driven right by the exit. 

I’m contemplating adjusting the “needed set of lenses” I’ve written about in the past. We went from 35mm, 50mm, 85mm primes to these days, 24/28mm, 50mm, 85mm primes as a solid three lens set. Given how cameras are being used now, I think the actual basic three-lens prime set probably ought to be 20mm, 40mm, 70/85mm. 

Meanwhile, zooms seem to have got locked up with either the 70mm or 100/105mm flex point, so we end up with 24-70mm and 70-200mm, or 24-105mm and 100-300/400mm as the basic two lens set. Maybe we need to rethink that, too. 20-50mm and 50-200mm, for example. 

Which runs us into a problem. The average age of the dedicated interchangeable lens camera user keeps drifting up. These folk are still locked into the notion that 35/50/85 is the prime set and 24-70/70-200 is the zoom set around everything else eventually gets built. I get emails with a lot of different lens requests, but I can almost judge the age of the emailer by what they request. The older users just want better (or lighter, or less expensive) versions of the sets they're used to, the younger users are looking at how they want to photograph and coming up with some more interesting choices. 

I don't get a sense that the camera and lens makers have caught onto the fact that tomorrow's lens sets might be dramatically different than today's. 

The Ecosystem is Too Small

Thesis: if you want to perform “photography” you need more than a camera. 

As a former technology evangelist (yes, my job title was Senior Evangelist), I think about things differently than the narrow focus of “product.” What’s the bigger picture that’s being served (pardon the pun)? 

While we obsess and talk about camera bodies and lenses, in the end what we’re doing is not consuming metal, plastic, and glass, but practicing a craft or art, photography. 

If you’re old enough to remember the old Time-Life Library of Photography series (1970’s), you’ll remember that The Camera was just one of 17 books in the series (curiously, as far as I know neither Ansel Adams nor Time-Life ever produced a book called The Lens in their series; Adams did write a book called Camera and Lens). 

In those days the ecosystem was a (mostly) cooperative set of companies and products that ranged from chemicals and paper to complex mechanical devices. Today we have a mostly competitive set of big companies with products that range from, well, mostly camera to lens, sometimes a flash or other accessory. 

To accomplish anything photographically these days, I have to think about what it is I want to accomplish, when I might accomplish it, go to where I can get the input for that with a camera/lens/tripod/etc. I choose, take images, come home and process those images through a raw converter, resize and output them. The bubble that contains all the things I need and all the products I need is big, and forms what I call the complete ecosystem.

Camera makers aren’t thinking in terms of ecosystem, let alone doing much to encourage same. We all cheer when a camera company deigns to spend a few engineering hours in consultation with someone like Adobe, we’re happy when lens companies reverse engineer mounts and provide some additional options, we supplement for things the camera companies 100% ignore (Arca-Swiss plates, for instance), we argue about which software we need post camera, we complain because the thing we really wanted to do—show our images to someone else—is given only lip service by the camera companies (anyone plugging their camera’s HDMI port into their TV to show their images via the built-in Slide Show function? How many images are on your Nikon Image Space cloud? Oh, what, you didn’t know you had a free account in Nikon’s cloud? ;~). 

Despite the fact that more people are taking photos than ever before, the camera makers are selling fewer cameras than ever before. How is it that they can’t figure out why that is? (Hint: they’re not really helping us do what we want to do.)

Yes, smartphones are being used to take most of those photos these days, and smartphones have gotten better at image quality every year. But the reason why people are using them to take photos—i.e., use them as cameras even though that’s not their primary function—is partly because the photography ecosystem is recognized and broadly supported by Apple and Google. Apple has a cloud system, supplies a competent librarian and editor that can be extended with plug-ins, for example, and they allow direct transmission of images to other devices and services. Apple encourages and embraces standards that move the state-of-the-art forward, such as HEIC (Canon and Sony now support HEIC on some of their cameras, but this seems to be mostly an “oh, others are doing this now” move). 

The camera companies think far too narrowly in terms of photography ecosystem. Even though Nikon has a (free) cloud-based photo storage service (Nikon Image Space), is that supported directly by their cameras? Nope. Heck, it’s not even clearly marketed or encouraged by the company in meaningful ways. 

Over a decade ago I outlined my thoughts on how electronics technology interacted with us. Short form: we have a home “hub”, we have mobile “hubs”, we have office “hubs.” We want those all interconnected, we don’t want to lose functionality when moving between them, we want data to be available where we need it and to go where we need it to go. Even Apple doesn’t get this right. They’re excellent at the mobile side of things, but when it comes to “home” they have a terrible, confused, and disorganized approach where they keep making mistakes that make things worse (e.g. Airport Routers are gone, but technically, the router itself is the physical hub through which everything has to move at home, so Apple’s Home Kit, Apple TV, and home computers/tablets/phones are not all managed by Apple in the data pipes, causing all sorts of issues). 

The camera makers don’t help us find and understand the photographic opportunities, they don’t help us share the results. It’s as if their responsibility begins and ends with the shutter release. The more this continues, the more camera sales will continue to drop. Because this narrow focus doesn’t serve the customer’s photographic needs. 

You might not have understood my first thought in the previous paragraph, so let me give you an example: can my camera tell me when sunset is? Nope. Can it tell me where I am? Well, if it has a GPS it can tell me the coordinates, but that’s not what I want to know. So the camera isn’t helping me find and understand the photographic opportunities. The list of missing abilities goes on and on and on, so I won’t bore you with the complete one. 

You do understand the second thought in that earlier paragraph about sharing results: if you’ve tried to use SnapBridge or any of the other camera-to-mobile-device Wi-Fi functions, you know how frustrating that can be: too unreliable, too slow, doesn’t do everything you want it to.

So let me ask you this: what is photography? Where does it start (e.g. planning) and where does it end (e.g. display)? Do Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, OM Digital Systems, Panasonic, or Sony actually address that full range? Heck, Canon makes printers, which is part of the display end, but does Canon actually help you move from camera to computer to print, or do you have to figure out a bunch of that on your own? (Canon was maligned for having a “print” button on some of their cameras, but it was the right thought, just not particularly useful in its implementation.)

So let me return to my headline and complete my thesis: the camera makers are making their ecosystems too small. If they continue to do that, they’ll ultimately fail. 

Making the Right Decisions

"Too often, when a company stumbles, it’s not because it made a fundamentally bad decision. It’s because it made a decision that benefited itself rather than its customers and lacked the perspective to understand that customers don’t applaud when you lower your costs or the quality of your product."

Nope, not my words (though obviously I concur 100%). Those are the words of someone I worked with in the tech industry, Apple documenter and reviewer Jason Snell (he was also former editor of Macworld magazine, where I was a columnist). 

Business is all about tough balancing decisions, always. Obviously, you want to keep the business going, thus you look closely at what benefits the business. But what really keeps a business going long term is the customers buying the products and services that are supplied, and every time you start to forget that you'll be penalized for it. 

I've been dealing with a plethora of emails that all pertain in some way to whether a company or product is "in balance" or not. 

Take ON1's recent decision to produce plug-in versions of the parts of its suite (which can already operate as a plug-in of sorts). As I write this you can buy the full ON1 Photo RAW suite for US$100, or, say, the Portrait AI plug-in that's part of it for US$70 (ditto the other plug-ins). At first glance that looks like "oh, ON1 is giving you a choice." At second glance, it looks like a fool's bet to buy the plug-ins individually. 

Now personally, I'm not going to use ON1's full suite. I'm settled in as a Creative Cloud user (which I'll get to in a minute), but am curious as to whether the NoNoise AI plug-in might be better in some cases than the tools I'm currently using. But I'm put off by a couple of things: first there's the strange costing—ON1 seems to want me to pay a lot extra for the work they did to make it an independent plug-in—but the thing that disturbs me more is that ON1 has been all over the place when it comes to the suite/plug-in models. I'm not sure that I trust them not to drop the plug-in again, as they've done in the past (and as Skylum has done with products I like such as Intensify [at least Skylum kept the plug-in still available for those of us who bought it, and it still works with Photoshop 22.5, which I can't say for a lot of other plug-ins I've bought in the past]). 

Before getting back to the "converter wars" and "plug-in maneuvers," let me talk about Creative Cloud for a moment. The move from perpetual product to subscription model was indeed jarring. But note what Jason writes in his article about software subscriptions and what they do for the company. I agree with him that it's mostly a stabilizing force, and I think that Adobe should at this point be given credit for their success, both for themselves and for their customers. 

I went back and looked at what I was paying to regularly update Photoshop (or versions of the Creative Suite, or Lightroom, depending upon the time frame—I've been using Photoshop since version 1.0). Beginning with the formation of the Creative Suite I was paying about US$190/year on average to keep my software updated (of which I used three programs in the Suite). And having to jump through hoops to do that, as their installers were notorious for wanting to see every previous version's CD and activation number when you tried to update. 

Today, I'm far better off. I'm paying an average of US$100/year to keep Photoshop/Lightroom updated (I'm aggressive about looking for annual discounts), and don't have to jump through hoops each time an update appears. While in some years I get more features added and better performance enhancements, I've also been getting a regular feed of bug fixes and minor updates, as well as OS support updates. I much prefer the current situation than the previous one with Creative Suite. I'm sure Adobe prefers it, too, as they get a regular, known stream of income from me and others on which to base their ongoing product development.

Just to be clear, the problem I have with the current Adobe system is what happens on subscription termination: I believe Adobe could have done a better job of providing on-going capability for long-term subscribers that wanted to get off the wagon. Much of the problem appears to be that Adobe signed licensing agreements for modules or technologies and doesn't want anything to do with them if someone stopped paying.

Because of the subscription income, I'm pretty confident that Photoshop and Lightroom will continue to progress as products. They'll keep up with OS and hardware changes, they'll fix bugs, they'll add features. 

I'm less confident about a number of other software companies, because they all show the signs of "scramble for on-going revenue." Spin-outs, spin-ins, template sales, book sales, pre-selling updates, and much more. And in so doing, that makes it more likely that the company looks out for itself first, and then stumbles because they forgot to look out for the customer. 

Skylum’s recent announcement of Luminar Neo sure looks like one of these scrambles. Why didn’t Luminar just get updated? Why did we get Luminar AI and now Luminar Neo? My guess is that it’s a revenue need driving these “all new” products that keep replacing each other. (Or do they replace each other? I can’t tell from Luminar’s totally messed up marketing messages, and I don’t have the time to order, test, and form an opinion about whether they do replace each other or not.)

Similar problems happen in hardware, too. I've been vocal about how Nikon shot themselves in the foot with DX. Starting when the D3 appeared in 2007, DX lenses got short-shrift in the lineup. Other than the 16-80mm f/2.8-4E, 35mm f/1.8G, and 85mm f/3.5G macro, the rest of the DX lens lineup was kit lenses (and updates), superzooms (and updates), and low-end wide angle zooms. The D300, and then the D500, were starved for appropriate lenses, so why is it that Nikon can't understand why sales of the D#00 line went down?

Likewise, earlier I noted that the primary complaint from full frame Nikon mirrorless owners was also lenses, in particular the lack of telephoto beyond 200mm compared to competitor's systems. Customers are not applauding the fact that the 14-200mm lenses are mostly in stock. They're asking why nothing beyond the 200mm barrier exists. 

I'm also on record as saying that the most recent Nikon camera, the Zfc, doesn't solve a user problem (it introduces new user problems when the dials don't work because of some other setting you chose). But it solves a business problem for Nikon, apparently, as it has at least temporarily improved Nikon’s Japanese mirrorless sales volume.

The pandemic is putting an interesting side pressure on the camera companies. While demand has increased for product this year over last, producing product to meet that demand is tough to accomplish given all the parts shortages, shipping woes, and travel restrictions (many key suppliers and plants require quarantines to visit). The natural inclination in this situation is to protect the business first, but I worry that this is going to ultimately come back to haunt a few companies. 

Image Sensors Don’t Determine Color

In a recent discussion thread on the Fuji Rumors site, I noted a comment that sounds right at first but actually needs to be challenged. Indeed, a lot of people believe some variation of that thought, so perhaps it’s time to address it generally. Here’s the point I’m referring to (somewhat edited by me for clarity): 

"Using the same sensor in a series of different bodies gives you the same image quality outcome and thus you can use the same workflow independent of body. Let's say you shoot in the studio with your Fujifilm X-T4 and on the streets with the Fujifilm X100V: the image quality will be consistent in quality, color and overall look. Your workflow and outcome will be consistently the same. You want consistency.”

I agree and disagree with this comment. The problem here is conflation. I see that a lot when people try to make a point these days.

Let’s start with my agreement: using one maker’s products rather than mixing makers should give you a consistent workflow and outcome. Every now and then the maker will drop a technology that changes that until you standardize on products only with the new technology (e.g. what happened when Nikon debuted Picture Controls and EXPEED with the D3/D300 and dropped Color Modes).  

But what’s the source of this consistency?

No, it’s not the image sensor. It’s the image signal processor. DIGIC, X-Processor, EXPEED, BIONZ, PRIME, etc. These processors take raw data (red filtered, blue filtered, and green filtered digital numbers) and turn it into finished RGB pixel data (typically JPEGs, but sometimes TIFF, or these days HEIC). 

As most Nikon users can tell you, the only NEF (raw) converter that produces JPEGs that are consistent with the in-camera JPEG production is Nikon NX Studio (also earlier versions, such as Nikon Capture NX-D). That’s because the “EXPEED engine” is built into NX Studio, just as it is in the cameras.

The minute you bring another company into the mix—Adobe comes to mind—all bets are off. You might get a raw conversion that’s similar to what the camera will produce for JPEGs, but it is absolutely not the same. Adobe has spent some time recently trying to improve their profiles and settings recognition so that they better match the manufacturers’ results, and even did so in consultation with some of those camera makers. But no, “similar" is not the same as “the same” (pardon the recursion ;~). 

Some raw converter providers do something different: they take all raw files, regardless of camera that produced them, and process them to provide the same final color and image attributes. CaptureOne does this. They have their own color model that they convert images to (by default), and spend time profiling cameras so that CaptureOne can provide consistent color across cameras.

Which, of course, has brought me to one of the biggest photography myths on the Internet: “Camera X produces the best color.” 

Not a single camera on the market, nor any raw converter you can buy, produces exactly accurate color. I’m pretty sure I can test and find something that “isn’t accurate” to reality for anything you throw at me. 

What every camera maker and raw converter does is try to create pleasing color. Canon and Fujifilm both tend to use double hue shifts. Fujifilm and Olympus tend to use higher saturation. Olympus tends to use higher contrast (hides the noise in the shadows). Nikon tends to de-emphasize contrast gains due to sharpening. And that’s just the beginning. There’s a lot going on in all those image processors. 

So, no, Fujifilm isn’t getting its image consistency from the physical image sensor, it’s getting it from the X-Processor and what it does to the digital numbers the sensor produces. Indeed, anyone that went from the lower megapixel count Fujifilm’s to the higher ones could probably tell you that, as the JPEG images stayed perceptually the same despite a change in image sensor. 

It’s important for all of us who are truly interested in nuanced results to understand where any differences and changes actually come from. If we mix that up with other attributes—megapixel count, for example—we start getting wrong thoughts and eventually wrong answers. We’ve seen that in discussions of noise, color, and much more. 

GoPro Hits 10 (Will it Go to 11?)

It's a little off-topic for my sites, but I know a lot of you also do some video work and have a need for small, reliable point-action clips, so it's worth mentioning that GoPro last week updated their product to the Hero 10.

bythom gopro 10


While not much changes cosmetically (blue logo), inside you find a lot of changes. The camera now uses a 23mp image sensor and new processor that can capture 5.6K video (up to 30 fps). 2.7K video increases to 240 fps, whole 4K can be recorded at 120 fps. These "bumps" are mostly due to the new GP2 image processor engine. GoPro isn't making specific claims about changes to the image sensor itself, but it appears that there may be some bandwidth changes, at the least.

Image stabilization is now up to Hyper Smooth 4.0 (previously 3.0), which GoPro is claiming to have gimbal-like stability. The view on the front selfie screen has now been improved to 30 fps.

As before, the GoPro streams at 1080P.

Some users are complaining about the removal of the microphone slot (a new US$80 accessory mount allows an external mic if you need it).

Overall, this seems more like a performance update than a functional update, but the performance improvements are all welcome. 

Price is US$499.

Why Choose Brand A over Brand B?

So here's a question no one asks (but should): if a Canon, Nikon, and Sony camera at a particular level were all basically equivalent in performance, which one would you buy? And why?

More and more I see people arguing over nuance in performance. A third of a stop dynamic range. Some anecdotal perception of slightly faster autofocus. The CIPA ratings for something (e.g. battery or stabilization). 

Couple that with people arguing over things they don't actually encounter or use (e.g. 30 minute video recording time versus infinite, or just 4K versus 8K or 60P versus 120P). 

So much of the gear discussion these days has moved away from useful information to a disorganized pile of too much un-useful information, that it's impossible to see forest for the trees. 

I've recently mocked Nikon's Zfc for being designed more for casual and fun photography, but Nikon does have a point: people used to enjoy taking photos rather than obsessing over gear nuance. This is one reason why I felt that the Zfc would be successful, though perhaps not the long-term hit that Nikon was hoping for. The Zfc is an approachable camera in design and function, though perhaps not quite as good in use due to lack of follow through on a few things, particularly things associated with those dials.

But let's get back to my lede: when things become functionally the same, how do you choose which to buy?

You already face a relative of this problem in deciding which auto to buy. Functionally, all new cars today do the basic job you need, which is to get you from point A to point B reliably and safely. While you might have chosen an auto that can go from zero to sixty in under five seconds and hit 130 mph (210 kph), are you really using those abilities or are those just bragging rights you sought ("mine goes to 11"). 

We pretty much reached the "basically equivalent" point in film SLRs in the 90's, with DSLRs in the late aughts, and here we are with full frame mirrorless pretty much at that level now (or very, very soon if you need a top pro camera). I've re-iterated my point lately: if you aren't getting good photos with any current interchangeable lens camera at up to the size an inkjet printer can produce, it isn't the camera that's the problem. That really is a relevant statement you need to consider. 

Now, it may be that some feature of some model might help you get past your problem (;~). Many who've picked up Sony mirrorless cameras and set them to all-automatic focus are getting better results than they got with the autofocus system they didn't bother to learn on their DSLR, so they proclaim Sony as a clear winner. This isn't performance, per se, but a feature controlling performance. With a little study, I get perfectly fine focus results with every full frame camera these days, DSLR or mirrorless. Indeed, in most cases—even on the Sony models—my controlled focus produces better results than Sony's all automatic modes. I'm comfortable with taking the time to produce a better result, some of you aren't. But at the same time I'm not sure that today Sony's all automatic is particularly better than Canon's or Nikon's: you have to get into nuance to distinguish them is my contention.

So why are you picking Brand A over Brand B? 

To me, this gets back to something that all the camera companies tend to be poor at: marketing. And something deeper than just advertising or product brochures: customer engagement. 

I'll return to the Zfc as a case in point: let's say that I buy into the Zfc as a fun and casual product I'll enjoy. Nikon's marketing just wants to get me to buy the box, and then they think they've done their job. Are they truly helping me in having fun using the product? Nope. They've moved onto finding another person to convince, because they have your money. At this point, Nikon marketing should have already sent registered Zfc purchasers a video entitled "Sharing your Zfc fun with others." Yeah, using Snapbridge and Nikon Image Space quickly and casually. Other "fun" handholding campaigns should continue with other topics. That's how you engage a customer. 

Of course, one problem Nikon is going to have with the Zfc is that it needs a set of lenses all of its own, and Nikon has fallen behind delivering the lenses it's already promised for other Z System users. Nikon's marketing will likely send all us Zfc registered users an email about the 40mm f/2.8 compact lens indicating that it's "just right for the Zfc." But I suspect they won't be able to tell me how to have casual fun with it ;~). 

This is not Nikon's first consumer rodeo. They've been in a lot of them, dating back to the early film SLR days (my mom had a Nikkomat). The problem is that once they've sold that customer a consumer product, they don't really know what to do next with/for that customer, and their house of cards collapses when they run out of new folk to target. Oh sure, they'll suggest that the customer move to one of their higher-end products, but what if the consumer customer just wants to continue having casual fun? What does Nikon have for that? [crickets]

Sony was on the right track with Alpha Universe and Kando, though the Universe has gotten to be a bit disjointed and seems to be plagued by entropy as it expands, and Kando was made into Kandidn't by the pandemic. Still, I feel more engaged with Sony than I do with Nikon, even though I primarily use Nikon gear ;~). 

I'm not going to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this article for you, because you're the one that has to answer it. I find that many deflect from dealing with that basic question by cluttering their decision with lots of minutia that, in the end, won't lead them to a convincing answer. 

That's exactly why a lot of the Leakers and Samplers I noted in articles over the past decade have either Returned or are Still Sampling. Getting lost in the details, particularly details that weren't absolutely of importance to them, made them spend money on a product that ultimately didn't satisfy their needs (or wants). 


In Case You Missed the Email

Nikon has had a flash four-day refurbished sale going over the weekend, and it’s still active until Midnight today (Monday, September 20):

  • Z5 body US$900
  • Z6 body US$1200
  • Z6 + 24-70mm f/4 kit US$1600
  • Z6 II + 24-70mm f/4 kit US$2000
  • D750 body US$1100
  • D850 body US$2400
  • 14-24mm f/2.8G US$1100

Assuming you buy into the refurbished notion, those are all very good prices for excellent products. It’s tempting to buy an extra body for IR conversion at these prices (since those conversions will break the longer warranty in the first place).

Where Should You Focus Your Attention?

Camera makers, Web sites/influencers, and customers all face the same problem these days: where exactly should you be focusing your attention: past, present, or future? Do you even know where you're focusing your attention?

Don't dismiss those questions, as many of the discussions people are having about photography and gear today are rooted in those different periods:

  • Past — You learned nomenclature, control systems, and workflow. "Learned" is in the past. You accumulated lenses, accessories, and other tools. "Accumulated" is in the past. It took time and money to do both things, and generally you don't like throwing away time and money, as both are finite. 
  • Present — If you are out photographing today, what is it you're using, and is that good enough for what you need? Virtually all of you reading this site have a full set of gear and do regular photography, so the relevant thing here is has to do whether that is working for you. 
  • Future — FODE (Fear of Dead End) is gripping many of you. You want to know where you're headed with your gear and skills, and if you need to make changes to stay current, relevant, and competitive. But more often you just want "more better." 

You can't change the past, you can change the future, but you live in the present. How's that work?

Meanwhile, the camera companies are dealing with the same three periods in a much different way. For example, multiple companies built up huge resources and assets predicated on a bigger market, so now they're trying to figure out how to jettison that "past" with as little disruption to the company as possible. Plants close, suppliers are let go, employees are transitioned to new jobs or out of the company. For the past decade, dealing with "past" things has been a big problem for top management in Japan, and has consumed much of their time.

Of course, today (present) the camera companies would like to sell you something, because keeping the cash engine working is what sustains the company. This, too, has turned into a time-consuming management issue by the pandemic, as supply chain and shipping issues keep popping up that keeps the "present" from working the way they want it to. Market analysts are all over the place right now—as are camera company internal analysts—in just how many units will end up sold in 2021. Is it fewer than 6m or more than 7m ILC that will be sold in 2021? The range of estimates is dramatically large, and the differences between the low end estimate and the high end one are big enough to completely distort sales plans.

The future is something that all the camera companies spend a lot of time on. There's a relentless progression in R&D to continue to move products forward and make them more desirable so that future sales exceed present sales. Here, however, some differences show up. Sony, for instance, worries about Canon taking away future mirrorless market share. If Canon does that well enough and the market doesn't grow enough, Sony's sales go down. So Sony needs to focus on "newness" and "better." Nikon, on the other hand, is more worried about playing catch-up: they have clear camera and lens gaps that will hold back future growth if they don't fill them. So Nikon needs to focus on "completeness." 

I've been reasonably consistent with the following statement since about 2005: "If a current ILC camera doesn't produce good images up to about the maximum size a desktop inkjet printer can product (13x19" or so), then the problem isn't the camera." I've phrased that in slightly different ways over the years, but it was true with DSLRs in 2005, and it's true of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras in 2021: the gear we already have is quite good. Good enough for most work (and yes, it's still better than smartphones for a lot, if not most, work, though if all you're ever doing is publishing at Instagram sizes, you probably wouldn't see that). 

Because I'm past retirement age, I sometimes wonder: "should I just shut down the product pipeline I currently consume (and produce), take a carefully chosen set of what I've already got in the gear closet and just travel while enjoying it?" Half of me would love to do that ;~). The other half, unfortunately, is a geeky, tech-oriented nerd that's driven by curiosity and loves seeing new things and learning what they can do. I actually see more difference between what I could do in 1975 versus today with video than I do with still photography, but I can point to lots of little things that all start to add up on the photography side; my long history of quickly adopting future products has produced better and better results. I'm a collector, I want to add more ;~).

Rumor sites tend to denigrate the present (and past), while embracing and embellishing the future. Many of the bigger photography sites tend to try to live in the present, probably because advertising and affiliate programs need present sales in order to work. Other sites, including mine, tend to wander around, mainly because we're wanderers to start with (it's so nice not having a boss telling me what I have to do).  

But I bring all this up because it's becoming more important to keep track of when you start thinking about photography and gear. I get a ton of "what should I do?" questions, but many of them are crossing multiple time boundaries in ways that the questioner isn't aware of. In particular, the past gets included into present and future questions because of the perception of "investment." Financial investment, typically. 

I have this quandary myself with the 400mm f/2.8 lens. Those lenses are expensive. Very expensive. I've got a very nice DSLR sample that's never let me down: beautiful images and rock solid build. However, having to contemplate using it on the FTZ adapter in the future is problematic. When bouncing around the veldt in a Land Cruiser, you have to keep your gear stable and not being stressed. Adding another mount to the equation complicates that. Moreover, the upcoming Nikkor 400mm f/2.8 S includes a built-in 1.4x TC, eliminating yet another mount I sometimes am using. One mount is much more secure than three mounts in the work I do and the places I go. Or, I could switch to the Sony 400mm f/2.8 on an A1 (I have the A1, after all). That would save me 61 ounces (1729g). Yowza. 

The thing keeping me from getting either benefit—mount or weight reduction—in the future is that I have an exceptionally good piece of gear to use in the present, and I spent a lot of money in the past to obtain it. So I have to balance benefits against consequences. Those of us with photographic businesses do have the ability to depreciate gear, which changes the money issue, but the mental aspect of replacing expensive gear can't be denied even if you can justify it dollar-wise. 

If you made it this far and didn't TL;DR on me, you're probably looking for some advice. Okay, here goes:

  • Most of you are overvaluing the past. You get too locked into how much you paid for something versus what it's worth today (and you don't account for inflation or useful gain while using it, either). If you didn't get intangible value from your older gear that equalled or exceeded what you paid for it, you either got the wrong gear in the first place, or you didn't commit to using it. Either way, you have to get past that.
  • Most of you are undervaluing the present. You have a camera or lens (or cameras and lenses). They take remarkably good photos (see my 15+-year-old comment, above). It's unlikely that you're being held back from doing interesting and excellent things photographically. When you are, you probably know exactly what the feature/performance/product is that would fix that. You get mad when the company you've been supporting won't provide that ;~).
  • Most of you are overvaluing the future. Some product about to come out "is going to change my world photographically" is the common thinking. While that does happen from time to time, it's a rare occurrence in reality. For instance, viewfinder blackout is something I've coped with for years. I was looking forward to the day when that would go away (as far back as 1978, when I was using ENG cameras for video productions and realized that I'd be using something similar for still photography some day). But you know what? While I definitely like and appreciate the blackout free viewfinders of the Sony A1 and A9 models, using them also made me realize just how far along Nikon had gotten with the D5 and D6 mirror slappers. The blackout on those DSLRs is minimal enough that I don't lose composition on moving subjects, which was mostly what I was looking forward to.

This site has a relatively deep section on Technique, including one called Improving the Photographer. I'd argue that improving your photography starts with improving yourself. There are things you (and I) don't know about photography. Learn them. There are things you're not doing in your current photography. Start doing them. There are things you'd like to try in photography (e.g. multiple exposure or astrophotography or panoramas and so on). Start trying them.

I see a lot of people going down rabbit holes they don't need to be going down. The one that comes up most often is dynamic range and noise. I see photographers trying to correct noise that wouldn't be seen at 300 dpi at any common output size they'd use. They drop into the hole thinking that "camera noise ruined my image" when that wasn't the case. If the image was truly problematic, it was for some other reason. They missed exposure, they didn't light the subject, they are trying to print too big for the gear they've got, or they're just deflecting ;~). 

The pandemic gives us time to think about these things and get ready to do something about them for when life returns more to normal and we're out doing unencumbered photography again. I'm not off in the stadia and wilds taking pictures at the moment, so I have time to think about what it is I need to get better at, spend time learning how I might do that, and even set up some practice sessions now and then to test how I'm doing. It's rarely "new gear" that comes up as I consider this. I need to better myself first. That's probably true for you, too. 

This is not to say you shouldn't consider any new gear. Sometimes the solution is in a product you need to acquire. If you want to master panoramas, for instance, how are you going to rotate around the nodal point? If you don't have the accessories to help you do that, you'll do less well than if you did. Maybe you do want to print really big but only have a 24mp camera. So, sure, a 45mp or higher camera or maybe just stitching might be the answer. 

But those "gear answers" come because you take the time to study your "photography practice." 

So, final words of advice: take the time to study your current photography practices. Are they the best they can be? Are you quick at executing them (because photos are moments in time that don't tend to repeat, so you need to be fast to catch them)? What are you really struggling with? Often times I find it's not gear but inspiration I struggle with, and you need inspiration to drive composition. 

Homework:

  1. Define your photographic past. What have you actually studied? What have you practiced? What gear did you accumulate, and why?
  2. Describe your photographic present. What prompts you to go out and photograph and what keeps you from doing so? What can you do photographically, and what can't you do? Where do you photograph, and why? How quick are you to respond to photographic opportunities, and can you improve that? 
  3. Envision your photographic future: What's next? What do you want to accomplish that you haven't? How do you measure success versus failure? Is it gear or technique that will give you the next boost in accomplishment?              

Modern Minimal Versus Traditional Travel Lens Kits

I was looking at another site recently where a photographer was documenting his two-lens travel kit. That led me to thinking about how things have changed over time, both individually and collectively. It's time to update some of my recommendations.

One of my mentors was Galen Rowell. His working two-lens travel kit—granted, his form of travel was generally adventure travel, and extreme adventure at that—was an old 20mm f/4 manual focus lens coupled with a 70-210mm kit-type autofocus telephoto. He was at f/11 so much of the time that he didn’t need fast lenses or special lenses. 

bythom modernminimal


If we go back far enough in time, the two-lens solution was typically just a 35mm and 50mm prime. Maybe a 28mm or 85mm got in there, too, each possibly substituting for one or the other lens. By the 90’s and naughts, traditional photojournalism had devolved mostly to what became a trio of multi-purpose zooms: 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, and 70-200mm f/2.8. If there was something you needed to photograph that you couldn’t do with those lenses (plus a Canon CU filter to stick on the 24-70/70-200mms for macros), your need was decidedly specialty.

But realistically, how much of the time do you need more than a two-lens kit? Minimizing lens sets not only keeps your carry weight down, but also means that you're not constantly switching lenses to get "just the right focal length." Thus, today I'm going to write about minimal lens sets, not complete ones.

I can think of lots of ways to approach minimal lens kits. 

  • Superzoom. The most minimalist of all, of course, is to just put a superzoom on the front of your camera and call it a day. 28-300mm, 24-200mm, anything that goes from wide angle to telephoto, and as much into those extremes as possible. Most of you know that I haven't been a big fan of that approach, as the compromises all started to add up quickly and get in your way photographically (slow aperture, focal length breathing, big aberrations/distortion, overall lower MTFs, and so on). Today, however, we have a handful of superzoom lenses that are tolerable in their tradeoffs and can get you to a single lens generic solution. The big drawback you'll still encounter, though, is slower apertures, which impacts the ISO you're using and also tends to lead to meh bokeh.
  • Two Extreme Lenses. When I need a wide range of focal length, I tend to go with a very different (two-lens) approach than superzoom, which interestingly, the photographer in question who prompted this article also uses: (1) wide angle zoom, (2) telephoto zoom. So in the Sony full frame world: 16-35mm f/2.8 or f/4, and a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 or 100-400mm f/4-5.6. In the Nikon world: 14-24mm f/2.8 and 80-400mm f/4-5.6 (or maybe the 70-200mm f/2.8 and a TC1.4x). Yep, there’s a big gap in the middle, but that’s what I tend to call the Perspective Blah Zone. So many photos have been taken in the 35-70mm range over history that the perspective for virtually every subject has gotten stale, which means that the subject/action/moment/lighting has to work harder for the photo to stand out. Personally, I like the two extreme lens approach because it makes me think about perspective (where I am in relationship to the subject, and why). 
  • Two Purposeful Lenses. On safari you see an example of this all the time: two camera bodies, each with a different lens to cover the variety of situations you generally encounter: 70-200mm for large animals, close approach, herds, etc., and a 500mm (or other long focal length of your choice) for small animals, far approach, detail isolation, etc. A similar thing happens on the sidelines of sports games, though the focal lengths needed vary with the sport. Minimal PJ kits tend this way, too, often with just a 14-24mm and 24-105mm. 
  • The Trio. I already mentioned it, but the 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm f/2.8 trio that every camera maker has some version of is a solid three-lens choice. It also tends to be an expensive three-lens choice. If you’re buying this trio of lenses, you’re committing to a mount due to the cost involved. The f/2.8 aperture tends to make this three lens choice into a  biggish set of lenses, too. Still, I've got a very small pack with my two Z bodies and the Z trio that has plenty of room to carry other things. Mirrorless did make the lens trio tend smaller. Also, note that if you own the trio, you can go out with just two of the three, depending upon what you think you'll encounter (e.g., either 14-70mm, or 24-200mm).
  • The Alternate Trio. I think it was Art Wolfe who I first noticed with a slightly different trio of lenses: 16-35mm, 24-105mm, and 100-400mm, of something like that. Moreover, he was giving up the f/2.8 apertures for f/4 or variable aperture lenses. Alternatively you could go f/2.8 for the wide zoom, f/4 for the mid-range zoom, and variable aperture for the telephoto zoom (or vice versa). You have a lot of choice here these days for an alternate three-lens set. And again, you can strip down to a two lens approach at any time; in Wolfe's case, 16-105mm, or 24-400mm. 

You can’t think about lens kits without also thinking about ease of access. Sure, you can carry a dozen lenses with you, but you’d better be doing very deliberate photography with subjects that are cooperative. That’s because if the right lens isn’t on your camera and stuffed away in a bag with others, you’re going to miss moments in time while you make a lens change. And the more lenses you juggle, typically the longer that change will take (I can do a quick change with a two-lens kit and some sort of sling carry system, but three or more lenses and it tends to need a big backpack that I have to take off and tend to put on the ground while I’m changing).

All that in mind, I’m going to tell you my favorite and suggested two-lens travel kits for various systems/cameras

Why travel? Because that's the primary thing most of you are doing when taking photos. You have day jobs that don't involve photography, so travel is when you get out the camera.

Why two lens? Because that’s more than enough to juggle while you’re traveling. I assert you should give up ultimate flexibility and performance for travel efficiency. These kits are going to vary some by camera and system, too, as I’m trying to find the best two-lens combo for what each camera is capable of. (And yes, I’ve used all these combos for at least one long travel trip or more.) [all links to this site's exclusive advertiser, B&H; prices are retail and may not include any active discount]

  • Olympus E-M10 II-IV — Weren’t expecting that camera, were you? 9-18mm f/4-5.6 and 40-150mm f/4-5.6. Small. Real small. Almost ignorably small, yet still really competent. Not great for low light indoors, so bring a table pod. US$1497 total kit.
  • Olympus E-M1 II or III12-40mm f/2.8 and 40-150mm f/2.8. I’ve never been disappointed when carrying those three items (camera, two lenses). The big compromise is not being able to go below 24mm (effective). However, you have almost no compromise in the 24-300mm (effective) range. US$4297 total kit.
  • Nikon Z50 — Easy, the two-lens set Nikon sells (16-50mm f/3.5-6,3 and 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3). Wickedly competent for size and price. Be a little wary of the VR on the 50-250mm side, though. At 250mm with any vibration (e.g. shooting out a plane window) you need to make sure you aren't transferring any of that to the camera/lens. Nikon makes it easy: US$1300 total kit ordered as one.
  • Nikon Z5, Z6, Z7, Z6 II, Z7 II — I’m going to surprise you here: 14-30mm f/4 S and 24-200mm f/4-6.3. Note that the wide angle zoom is on the camera most of the time for me, and the superzoom comes into play only when I need telephoto, at which it is quite competent, if a bit on the slow aperture side. Minimum US$3797 total kit (Z5 body).
  • Nikon D780, D850 — I seem to be in surprise mode today: 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G and 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P. These bodies are starting to get on the bigger and heavier end, and thus function a bit less usefully as travel cameras because of that, so I start to compensate with smaller and lighter lenses. I can also suggest the 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G in place of the 24-85mm if you want the focal length extremes and not the mid-range. Bonus: for a D500 user the best two-lens combo is the 16-80mm f/2.8-4E and 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P or 300mm f/4E PF. Minimum US$3397 total kit (D780 body).
  • Sony A6### — My pick is the Sony 10-18mm f/4 and 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3, particularly if you don’t have an A6500 or A6600 (because of OSS in these lenses). However, that leaves a bigger gap between wide and telephoto than most people can tolerate, basically the range between 28 and 105mm (effective) isn’t covered. So I wouldn’t fault you if you picked the 16-55mm f/2.8G in place of the wide angle zoom. But remember, that lens doesn’t have stabilization, so A6000, A6100, A6300, or A6400 owners beware if that’s important to you. I haven't tested the Tamron 11-20mm f/2.8 and 17-70mm f/2.8 lenses. They might be the better two-lens choice for some. Minimum US$2378 total kit (A6000 body).
  • Sony A7 models, A7CSony 12-24mm f/4, 24-105mm f/4. Yeah, another surprise to many of you. I really like this combination as it takes me way wide up through a reasonable telephoto capability in two excellent lenses optically that don’t weigh me down too much. Minimum US$5173 total kit {A7 Mark III body), but on sale at the moment (US$600 discounts)
  • Canon R6 — Yet another surprise: 24-105mm f/4-7.1 and 70-200mm f/4. The 20mp count of the R6 is what tends to dictate me here: I’m not going for big, wide landscape work when I have this camera in my hands. I tend to be focused more narrowly to make full use of the pixels. Yes, it works really well. Minimum US$4497 total kit.

No, I don't have a Fujifilm combo for you at the moment. I'm still trying to rationalize lenses and Fujifilm X cameras. I don't particularly like the 10-24mm f/4 and 16-80mm f/4 combo, the 16-55mm f/2.8 and 50-140mm f/2.8 are a bit heavy for the Fujifilm bodies I'd use for travel, and I haven't yet tried the 70-300mm f/4-5.6. 

Ditto Panasonic: I don't have enough experience with the S bodies and the L-mount lenses to be able to give you advice there yet. 

Again, the above are kits that I've traveled with and can directly recommend based upon my experiences.

Bonus: One thing that came to mind in writing this article is that I'm not sure there's a perfect way of carrying a two-lens kit that meets all my requirements (security, accessibility, protection, compatibility). 

With the E-M10 and Z50, for instance, I tend to just put the lens not being used in my jacket pocket, as they're definitely small enough for that. If I'm wearing a backpack, these cameras mount to my front shoulder strap via a Peak Design Capture Camera Clip [advertiser link], as they're light and small enough for that to work well. 

Sling bags come in a lot of forms, but I've yet to find one that I think works exactly the way I'd want. I'd say avoid the bags that get carried behind you (and you flip around to access) as they're theft targets. You want your expensive gear in front of you because that's where your attention is. The problem with "front" bags is that they not only tend to get in the way of carrying the accessible camera (on a neck strap?), but that if they're too big they get problematic for seeing your footing. Climbing stairs or avoiding obstacles on trails becomes an issue. The best I've found to date is the CADeN sling (available on Amazon), but it puts a lot of bulk in front of you.

What we really need is a bespoke design specifically for the combo you decide on (as they range in size). It also really needs to be carrying both your camera and extra lens (and perhaps a bit more—phone, papers, etc.) but make those both instantly accessible. Galen's old solution was a neck strap (camera) integrated with a chest pouch he designed (and was made in the 90's by a company no longer in existence). 

Some of the chest vest/harness systems might work, so I'm looking into them again, but then I have the issue that they're not Arca-Swiss compatible, so when I do pull out my tripod, I have to make a change.

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