Yesterday, on the MF Forum at DPR, a poster made the argument that cameras are so good that the way you ought to choose among them was by how they feel in your hands. He said that when he had worked in a camera store that was his advice to customers, and it was still good advice.
He was serious, and got a bit pushed out of shape when I had the temerity to debate the point.
In thinking about it, I guess whether he’s right or not comes down to what you want a camera for. If you’re looking for a toy or amusement, or if you know nothing about photography and don’t want to learn, it’s probably as good a way as any. Flipping a coin would do, too.
But if you’re serious about making images and have a vision about the kind of images you want to make, I think that is terrible advice. I have used all manner of cameras that felt terrible in my hands, cameras that had lousy ergonomics, cameras with confounding user interfaces, and cameras with flaws that defied explanation. I’ve made acceptable photographs with all of them. With one exception, I’ve never found a camera that got in the way of my making the images I wanted to make with it. The exception was a Sinar F.
Just considering medium format cameras, I’ve used a Brownie Hawkeye, a Rolleiflex, a Rolleicord, a Minolta Autocord, a Mamiya C330, a Hasselblad 501c and 503c with film and digital backs, Mamiya and Bronica MF SLRs, a Plaubel Makina, 6×7, 6×8 (!), and 6×9 backs on an Arca Swiss 6×9 folding monorail camera, 6×12 backs on a Linhof Master Technika, a Hasselblad H1, H2D, and H2D-39, and now several GFX cameras. Most of those I’ve owned; a few were handed to me to use for an assignment. The Makina and the GFX’s were the only ones with what I would call a decent human interface, and both of those had flaws. Yet I made images that met my needs with all of them. In the 1980s and 90s, I used Hasselblads a lot. They had excellent lenses, were reasonably compact, fairly rugged, and made great images. But you had to adjust yourself to the camera rather than the other way around. I finally got comfortable with the way you had to hold it, but my guess is that there’s no one for whom that hand grip, focusing and winding the film with your right and triggering the shutter with your left hand felt natural at first.
I have to make decisions about what camera to use every time I start a series. I have a7x, a9x, Z7, and GFX cameras, and I pick the camera that I’m going to use depending on the subject matter, the image I’m trying to make, size, weight, and speed, camera features (like focus bracketing), lens selection, and many other things. How the camera fits in my hand is not a criterion for me. I have switched cameras in the middle of a series if the one I started with wasn’t doing the job I needed doing. Camera feel was never something that was lacking.
Jim, what was so appealing in the Makina?
It had a nice balance. It folded up into a compact package. It was a very basic camera with regard to controls? It looked like a cartoon camera. Except for rangefinder parallax, which goes with the territory, I found it a joy to use.
I find the Hasselblad 500c/m user interface to be surprisingly ergonomic. Like you say, it’s not intuitive how to hold it just from observing the device, but it never forced me to contort myself, unlike (for example) my experience with the original Sony A7.
Personally, I’m in the “all cameras have good enough image quality” boat, and I actually enjoy the process of stretching the limits of what my old cameras can do sensor-wise, because they force me into using optimal technique all the time.
I do not enjoy the process of stretching the limits of my hands to reach the shutter button on certain cameras…
I haven’t used a 6×6 Hasselblad for more than 15 years, but I remember the way you had to hold the camera as not feeling bad after you got used to it when using the standard finder and the magnifier, but being uncomfortable with the reflex finder, which put the camera higher.
I also remember the focusing arms with the balls on the end made the ergonomics better.
I always hated the way the lenses tied the f-stop and shutter speed dials together so that the EV didn’t change when you twisted the combined set.
And then there’s the way the lens shutter and the body could get out of synch and you couldn’t mount the lens until you used a special tool, not supplied by Hasselblad, to cock the shutter in the lens.
Only the earliest lenses (C designation) tied the f-stop and shutter speed together by default.
Later lenses (CF and on) reversed that—they’re unlocked by default, but you can hold a button to tie them together temporarily.
I can definitely see the interface being less comfortable to use with a prism finder, though.
Erik Kaffehr says
I have seen the same question on an MFD thread, but that thread filled up, so I respond you directly:
I have bought my cameras unseen the last 25 years or so. The last time I looked at a camera at an exhibition was when the GFX 50S was released.
Quite a few years ago, I decided that a camera is just an imaging device, and that had served me well.
But, user interface matters. I prefer functional buttons and configurable camera presets.
On of the great features of my A7rIV is that I can assign a button to toggle peaking and another to toggle intensity.
But, haptics can matter. My Zeiss Loxia doesn’t have an area to grab when mounting/unmounting and the sunshade mostly comes loose when unmounting the lens. It is also the first lens ever I hade where I cannot find the aperture ring by feel. Such things matter.
Brian K says
After reading this post I then read your post on the Sinar F2. The first few decades of my professional life was as a still life photographer. I used Sinar P2 and F2 cameras daily. When I started to shoot landscape I took the F2 into the field. The only way to do this efficiently was to not break down the camera but use a view camera case that allows you to keep the camera on the full length rail.
I kept the Sinar rail clamp attached to the tripod head and in that way it acted like a quick release mount. Eventually I had my F2 modified so that it could be broken down into a smaller camera without having to use the view camera case or break the camera down. I also mounted all the lenses onto Linhof Technika boards as they were much smaller than sinar boards and linhof to sinar board adapters were readily available. I think that Sinar’s intention with the F2 as a “field camera” was not so much for landscape shooters but for industrial or architectural photographers where it’s wide range of camera movements would be a huge asset and where the process was even more deliberate. (You’re not following rapidly changing light but working in a more controlled environment)
Ultimately I did as you did, I bought a Linhof Technika, an MT3000. And while it is vastly more convenient to use in the field sometimes I do miss the added versatility of the F2.
Eric Brody says
When viewing a photograph, the only people who ask “with what camera was that image made?” are other photographers. Even at a high level, art critics and gallery owners usually do not care. What that means to me is that the quality of the image, usually mostly the content, and also to a lesser extent, the technical aspects, mean the most. Nobody cares if you had to hang from a bridge upside down gargling peanut butter to make a photo. It’s a good one, or it’s not. I too have used cameras from Minox to 4×5 and everything in between. I LOVED my Arca Swiss view camera but it, like all view cameras, was slow and cumbersome compared to my A7RIV. Today, my images with my current gear are far superior even to the 4×5. Why? Perhaps even though my approach hasn’t changed (I still almost always use a tripod and go slowly), the freedom of digital makes a difference.
Steve Hendrix says
Jim I think you make a good point, you’ve used many cameras for specific reasons, made great images with all. But you do list a pretty wide array of cameras with vast differences. I do feel that cameras today are more homogenous, and I can see the point of the important part of buying a camera indeed being how it feels in your hand, or to take it further, how enjoyable is it to operate, how much does it not require your head to be focusing on the control of the camera itself vs the subject matter you’re photographing. For certain types of photography and for certain types of subject matter, the type of camera and the features it offers or not can be absolutely critical. But for a lot of my photography, there are several cameras that have the features and image quality that provide what I’m after (albeit there are differences, I might have some preferences there). But in general they may all “work” to a lesser or greater degree. What separates them most often is how enjoyable the camera is for me to use. And I definitely have a preference there, which will remain my little secret. And to be sure, there are some elements that I like and dislike amongst all cameras, none are perfect. I think there’s two sides or extremes to this argument. I definitely use the Phase One IQ4 150 for certain types of photography and my Canon 6D for others. I would have to say that I enjoy shooting a Hasselblad X1D over a Fuji GFX, and find the output similar enough, but to your point what also matters is how I may use it – if I am going to shoot handheld in low light for example, that tips the balance to the Fuji (IBIS). But for pretty generic instances, I probably prefer the Hasselblad GUI.
I dunno. In the last decade I’ve purchased and used several cell phones, a Betterlight Super 6K on an Ebony and a Linhof Technika, a D5 with fast long teles, an IR modded a7RII with the CO 60/4, an IR-modded GFX 50R on a Cambo Actus with a Rodenstock 180/5.6 HR Digaron, a couple of a9x cameras, a GFX 100 in the studio on a Foba stand, and now I’m converting a Cambo Ultima II for use with the GFX 100S. Pretty different array of cameras.
Steve Hendrix says
Yes, you can make many examples of the variety of cameras today (and yesterday). But I think the comment that your article was predicated upon was more in the realm of some of the popular array of cameras like Sonys/Canons/Nikons/Fujis, etc. Many of these cameras use the same sensor or the same base sensor. Most have similar technology, though there are greater or lesser degrees of implementation. I don’t think the core of this was what you could build around these systems, but I would say that is where more diversity lies.
If you restrict the camera world to Sony/Nikon/Canon/Fuji, I agree with you. But the most popular cameras are not from any of those companies. They’re from Apple and Samsung and the like. It used to be that the photographic sensor size ranged from half-frame to 8×10, with Minox and banquet cameras as outliers. Now the range is from 645-sized sensors to cellphone sensors.
Don’t forget that the advice that sparked this blog post was given on the DPR Medium Format Forum, not on some forum catering to photographic neophytes.
Thanks for your insights, Steve.
Steve Hendrix says
“not on some forum catering to photographic neophytes.”
I don’t know any of those, Jim! 🙂
Why not just use the GFX 100s on the linhof with the Fuji made GFX to Graflex adapter? I have it and it works great for stitching. Only problem is that because of the added depth of the adapter I currently cannot use a lens shorter than 120mm on this rig. For a 90mm I’d need to use a recessed lens board.
One, as you pointed out, only long lenses. Two, imprecise adjustments compared to Arca and Cambo.
That’s not so true for me. I do have my limits, though. Sean Cranor once put a P1 XF 150 with the 80 mm lens in my hands and offered to let me use it for a week or two. I hefted it and handed it back to him, saying that I wouldn’t use a camera that weighed that much except in the studio.
Then there’s this:
Pieter Kers says
I also bought my first serious camera partly on the ‘feel.
It was a Nikon FE.
The Nikon had few knobs and the Canon ( A1 i believe) had many knobs…
it really felt better although the Canon had S-mode ; that i still hardly use.
Mind you i checked the stripdown report in popular photography… It seemed the camera still worked at minus 10 Celcius ( unlike the contax)
Michael Klein says
Completly agree when it comes to a specific task: You chose the tool that gets the ob done. However, when I walk out to take pictures not even knowing what will be out there, a camera and lens that “feel good”, that make me take it with me, are more likely to be taken along. Like the Fuji x100v or an a6400 with a small Voigtländer.