The worst pictures are the ones you end up not taking because the camera was too bulky/complex to use. On the other end of the spectrum, you don’t want to be relying on your camera phone for much beyond casual snaps, so what’s a budding photographer to do?
I have an absurd amount of grad student stipend invested in (politely, classic; popularly, obsolete) Nikon glass, so I ended up with the cheapest SLR capable of handling AI lenses with some grace and resolution — Kodak DCS 660C, which is a modified Nikon F5 with a 6MP Kodak imager stuck inside. In the nicest possible sense, this is a beast of a camera; the regular F5 is heavy enough, but when Kodak is done with it, it feels more like something you’d weigh corpses with, assuming you never want to see them again. The ‘developing’ process is straightforward but clunky — open files in DCS Photo Desk, tweak, save into 18MB TIFFs, then convert into JPEGs for sharing.
For a couple of years before, when I’d initially converted to digital, I was using a Sony DSC-D770, which had an optical TTL finder, mechanically-linked zoom, and decent (assuming you left it in manual focus) responsiveness. Ideal, then, except for the resolution — 1.5MP is enough for desktop backgrounds and e-mail, but not much else. Enough squinting through its keyhole of a finder and I was ready to chuck it; it was cheap enough that I didn’t mind bringing it in places I’d rather not lug an SLR rig, but boy did it attract attention, despite being nice and silent.
So, for now, the 660C fits my abilities as a high-end rig; given that the lens that lives most on it right now is a 50f/1.8 AI-S, I can’t be happier with the results I’m getting from it. All the errors are clearly my own, not the camera’s. But back when I was serious with film, I also carried around a Olympus 35RC, for those times when I didn’t want to be conspicuous and pull out a motorized Nikon F2 to blast and flap and scare any potential subjects (there’s a few folks who respond to the sound of a motor drive, but they’re fairly few). Maybe I should have loaded it with high-ISO film for that gritty street look, but I supplemented with a Vivitar 285 for when I needed more light — the camera can be small, but lots of light is going to call for a fairly good-sized flash (my other flash is a Metz potato-masher, ’nuff said).
So, I have my high-enough-end digital squared away. What’s the equivalent of the 35RC, then? What are the requirements?
- Reasonably wide, bright lens (35RC = 42mm, f/2.8)
- Compact — the 35RC is less than a pound
- Flash shoe
- Manual exposure capability
- Dedicated controls — I don’t want to dip into a menu
Suffice it to say that there’s not too many new cameras that fit my bill, and honestly, not too much interest in providing photographers with manual controls in a compact body (the manufacturers are much more interested in selling you a cheap dSLR, which then may or may not entice you into higher-profit glass). So, just like grabbing a rangefinder from the 70′s made sense, it might be worth the effort to get a used ‘prosumer’ digital.
First off, forget cameras in the SLR/ZLR mold — Olympus E-10/20, Canon Pro1, Nikon x700, Sony F-series. Forget the superzooms; not compact enough. Think something more like a Canon G-series (or the slightly dimmer-lensed S-x0), or a Coolpix x400. Me, I’m going for a Sony DSC-V1 for one reason alone — it’s not as wide as some of the others, and it doesn’t save in a RAW format (but when you’re talking about a walkabout rig, wouldn’t you really rather have something useful straight out of the camera?), but it’s much faster/more responsive than its peers (Canon G5, Nikon 5400) — in a world of the decisive moment, response is key.
It’s an unassuming little brick of a machine, and it’s hit the MP-obsolescence curve gracefully (e.g. cheap enough to be a bit of an impulse buy, enough resolution to make good prints). As they’re all mostly leaf-shutter cameras now, noise shouldn’t be a critical issue, either, and should thus allow for less intrusive photography; I’ve always prefered the fly-on-the-wall approach to paparazzi-stalker long-lens tactics.
So, that’s my vote. Why no Powershot-G? Check the response times; it’s clear that electronic wizardry trumps silver halide in the veins, at least at that time. Plus the G’s have held their value absurdly well (as has the Coolpix 5000, which is usefully wider, as well as better-accessorized), compared with the V1.