Monday, June 9, 2014

A friend asked, if I had 1000 - 1500 bucks, what camera should I buy. Here is my answer...

notes on cameras

1) Digital or film

for art, film. If you are trying to be a pro photographer or demand the most incredible results, shoot film. If you are just snapping, shoot digital. With some exceptions. ilford HP5, xp2, and Tri-x are standards for black and white. Even with 35mm the results rival digital cameras < 40 MP. With color, 35mm will not rival digitals best cameras, but will have better colors often. Color films to consider - Fuji Astia for portraits, Fuji Reala, Fuji Velvia asa 50 for nature.

Today, sometimes its best to bring both. Each has merits. Each produce something different.

2) Size of Film?

For serious work consider medium format. Especially shooting slide film or chromes. Because this can then be projected or seen on the light table. Typical sizes are 6x7, 6x9 and 6x12. For nature I recommend 6x9. There is also the Hasselbad XPAn which shoots 1/2 height 6x7. Medium format is called 120 or 220 film (220 is a strip of film twice as long as 120)

What about Large Format? Large format like 4x5, 5x7, 8x12 are a single piece of film that you put in the camera. It's for trying to get that really increadible single shot. These are big cameras on tripods. Film is so good, often 6x9 is fine for magazine size enlargements and even WALL sized enlargements. 6x7 a bit less. 35mm can be too small a format for say 40x60inch enlargements but will make a nice 11x17inch

3) A good lens matters. A lot.

Tiss better to have one good lens than hundreds of crappy ones. Photographers KNOW what is good glass.

4) Zooms tend to distort, take in less light, and are not used by the pros except for weddings. They can be very big and heavy especially for 2.8 aperture zooms. 2.8 is the f stop or light rating. Most zooms are 3.5 - 4.5. Many modern zoom lenses are pretty darn good especially if they cost > $1000. Mostly the difference is WEIGHT. I prefer a light camera so I bring just two or three PRIME lenses (those that don't zoom.

3) What are great 35MM film cameras?

There are two kinds. DSLR and rangefinder.

DSLR: NIkon f4

The f4 will shoot more kinds of lenses and do more with them (like matrix metering, a advanced computerized metering based on scene analysis) and is solid like a tank. It also is all manual controls with no LCD. It costs about $400 for a good one. It comes with 3 different sized battery packs, go for the mb-20 version whcih is the smallest as its a big heavy camera already. Yes the f6 does more, but all the electronics and lcds get in the way.

Nikon F3HP
A gorgeous viewfinder from the 80s and is one of the most loved highest rated dslrs of all time. Simply and easy to use compared to digital. And can be found for around 200 bucks. A good lens will add another 200-400 dollars.

Contax RX
Rock solid. Similar to a F4 but zeiss lenses (even better!) which cost about 500-1000 bucks each, substantially lower than the zeiss for nikon or zeiss for leica versions. Camera has motor, automation, and a great visual focusing aid for manual focusing in the viewfinder. It's a nicer camera than the Nikons build wise, but you lose out on the huge nikon Lens selection. 

35mm Rangefinder:
I hate to admit the truth. But rangefinders always produce sharper pictures than DSLRs. Why? Because they can design lenses that sit closer to the film which results in less moving apart of the light rays. Yes, you can nail focus on a dslr. Somehow, rangefinders just seem sharper. Maybe sharpness is the wrong word. Maybe it's IQ or inherent quality. Whatever it is, rangefinders tend to produce better pictures in lighter smaller packages.

 Leica MP, M7, M6
it costs thousands and thousands. Out of my price range for such stuff.

The Nikon 35ti is a autofocus rangefinder that does great pictures for about 400. Most people hate it because its autofocus not manual and is electronic. Not for me.

Contax T2: A beautiful rangefinder around 1000 dollars. also autofocus yuck. Prettier than the Nikon35

Ricoh GR1: another beautiful rangefinder released in 1996.autofucus yuk

Ricoh 500g: A teeny tiny rangefinder with a fixed 40mm lens that takes sharp sharp pictures! insist on like new quality. Real focus. Real aperture ring.  this is a camera I could love and would be great to carry around in the purse

Yashica Lynx 14: an older camera with a huge 1.4 lens. brilliant simple 35mm rangefinder camera. insist on like new quality

Medium Format: Why shoot medium format instead of 35mm? for the quality. The negatives rival the best digital cameras when done right. A top 6x9 chrome negative will blow away any camera on this list except for the Merrill SD1 which is close. As a photographer, to be able to take a slide and put it on a light table illuminated, or projected on a wall, is a much more satisfying experience than seeing a picture on a computer monitor.

I used to own a dslr medium format a pentax and it was just too heavy. rangefinders are the way to go for medium format

Mamiya 6 or 7: the six is amazing because it gets so small when retracted. about 1000 dollars to 1500 for a kit with all 3 lenses

Hasselblad XPAN: shoots wide panoramas. about 1000 dollars. can also take normal 35mm shots. a beautifully made camera that was thousands new. very small and light.

Fuji 6x9  shoots the very huge frame, great for wide landscapes. not lens changeable. giant camera. one of the best to make wall sized blow ups. Next time I go to venice, this is what i want.

Koni Omega: a older medium format rangefinder. A great way to get into 6x7 for about 400 bucks. love that crazy WWII viewfinder!

Bronica 645rf: Uses the 6x4.5 format, which is smaller than the typical 6x7. The advantage is you get many more shots on a roll. This is a truly amazing camera and costs around 1300 bucks. design wise, its ahead of the mamiya stuff in quality. This is the compromise camera, much bigger negative than 35mm, but still a light easy camera to carry around. system has 3 lenses. This is similar to the xpan but not as wide and a bit bigger negative (xpan is 6x3). pictures have great depth.

There are some very nice digital full frame cameras around 2-3,000 dollars. Like a Nikon 800e or 610. But after shooting nikon for a very long time, I have gone to odd digital cameras that look more like film.

Nikon d700.  A solid beautiful nikon digital that takes great pictures. Not as film realistic as a s5 pro but better resolution and beautiful viewfinder. full frame digital (same size as 35mm) not dx. About 1400 used without lens. oddly, the price never seems to drop people love this camera.

Sigma Merrill SD1: One of the best. A very different foveon sensor takes 15MP shots based on resolution but 40MP shots based on total information. Produces a solid film like experience. A Dslr. about 1500 bucks plus lenses.

Sigma Merrill SP3: (sd3?)  The mini version of the SD1 for about 600 bucks. No viewfinder. you shoot using the lcd on the back. I dont like them but for image quality its amazing. this also just came out.

Fuji S5 Pro: The camera I currently have. Only 8MP. One of the most film like of all cameras ever made, now an antique. Built into the great Nikon d200 solid metal body. Wedding and portrait photographers still use it.

Fuji TX-1: A beautiful electronic viewfinder, probably the first one I could ever stand to use vs. optical. It has the mini DX sensor at 16MP but does great colors and detailed resolution. Its the best new camera out this year and is around 1500. This is a full sized camera with interchangeable lenses.

Fuji x100s: a fixed 35mm lens camera. Takes great pictures and is very small.

Nikon D3200: grab a used one from and be sure it has the 18-55mm lens. You will be good to go for around 300 bucks. Its 24MP and a lower end consumer camera. It cant shoot older manual lenses, you use only the new ones with this which autofocus. Another model not as high in resolution you can try is a Nikon d40 but its only 6mp and a bit old, still will take great pics with the 18-55mm lens and only cost about 200 bucks

So what do I recommend for around $1000 bucks? I would try very hard to get a Merrill SD1. or the XPAN for film. If you wanted to jump in around 400 for a body and a few hundred on lenses, I'd get a fuji S5 pro for digital or the Koni Omega for medium format.

My personal loves right now are the Bronica 645rf and the merrill sd1 and the xpan. I can't wait to get one of them and if I had to choose it would probably be to get the xpan, then the bronica, then the sd1.

If you get a digital as your primary, I'd try to pick up a F3HP as a film camera backup for a few hundred.

How can you see what each one does? Go to and enter the camera into it.

Here is what the bronica will do:

Here is what the SD1 does:

Here is the fuji s5

and here is the xpan

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