A few of my favorite cameras
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
I'm sharing some thoughts on what cameras I like and why, so that if you're interested in cameras but don't know where to start, this (and my tips for buying cameras post) might give you a starting point.
I should state upfront that I'm pretty mercenary about gear - I have used a few different brands in the past, don't have any particular brand loyalty, sponsorships, or affiliations, and just like what I like because it works for me.
So any thoughts I have on gear are un-sponsored, I don't get any benefit out of it, and any links I have to gear are just the result of hitting up Google - they're not affiliate links and I earn nothing from you clicking them.
So without further ado, let's talk gear!
This is what happens when friends get together to go shooting
Favorite pocket cam: Ricoh GR series
I think Ricoh's GR series is excellent. Small enough to fit in your jeans pockets (I do this), so you always have them with you. A fantastically sharp APS-C sensor with great colors and image quality. The Ricoh GR II and III also have wifi so you can transfer photos directly onto your cellphone.
Look at that, it's tiny but packs an APS-C sensor and sharp lens.
On the GR and GRII, all the key functions are via buttons on the right, so it's perfect for single-handed operation. The GRIII buttons are also on the right but it has a touch screen, so it favors dual-handed use.
I think the price is reasonable for the quality. New they are around US$550 (S$750) for a Ricoh GR, up to US$900 (S$1230) for a Ricoh GR III. Remember that in this case, you're paying for the advantage of having a remarkably small camera that still produces excellent results.
Downsides: The GR series is known to have a "sticky shutter" issue. This means that sometimes when you switch the camera on, the shutter doesn't open. So that first shot will be all-black because the shutter is still closed. After that, the shutter opens and you can shoot normally. I own a Ricoh GR with a sticky shutter issue. I'll concede that it's kind of annoying, but the size, convenience, and image quality have all made it worthwhile in my opinion. I've taken this camera around the world, stuffed it in pockets and backpacks, and - while I don't abuse it, I don't baby it either. It's still taking great photos. For me, it's been worth far more than its price-tag, and I'd happily buy another without batting an eye if mine ever kicked the bucket.
Note: The GR series is confusingly named. The production timeline for this family of Ricoh cameras is:
GR Digital (2005)
GR Digital II (2007)
GR Digital III (2009)
GR Digital IV (2011)
GR II (2015)
GR III (2018)
I would go only for the GR cameras made from 2013 onwards, not the GR Digital cameras. The GR Digital cameras used smaller sensors. APS-C sensors were only used in the GR cameras from 2013 onwards.
Favorite compact digital camera: Fuji X100 series
I owned the original X100. It was slow to focus, but built like a brick and created amazing photos when it got the focus right. Literally, I'd put the camera in my backpack without any foam or padding - just straight into the backpack and off to the airport.
Since then, the X100 series has only gotten better and better. Autofocus, the original X100's Achilles heel, is no longer an issue. It has an APS-C sensor with great colors. It also has pretty cool vintage styling.
Oh X100, how I pine for thee.
The lens is sharp and the rendering is beautiful.
I think the price is reasonable for the quality: US$1400 for the new X100V (the fifth, and latest model that was just released in February 2020). The X100T (third-gen) and X100F (fourth-gen) are also good buys.
The original X100 was the only camera that I've ever regretted selling. I regretted it the second I sold it. Since then, buying another has always lingered in the back of my mind. The only reason I haven't is because my Ricoh GR is still taking good photos.
Favorite travel and all-round system: Fuji XF series
A good travel system, to me, needs to be reasonably priced and be fairly compact. My reasoning is that (i) if you're out sightseeing all day, a small and light system is more enjoyable and manageable than a big and heavy one; (ii) the more compact it is, the more lenses you can bring; and (iii) accidents happen, so a cheaper system is less painful to lose and easier to replace than an expensive one. Better yet if the system is a good all-purpose system that you can use anywhere for just about everything.
In this regard, the XF system punches far above its weight. The bodies (currently the X-T1, X-T2, and X-T3; the X-T4 will be released soon) are fairly small. The sensors are APS-C sensors with very nice colors and good skin tones. I think the price is low considering the quality of the system - the X-T3 currently goes for around US$1300 new, while the 35mm 1.4 is currently around US$600 new. The X-T1 and X-T2 are good performers, but if you're set on an X-T3 you can just wait until the X-T4 comes out and prices of the X-T3 may fall (especially on the secondhand market).
X-T2 in Adam's capable hands. Its compact size belies its performance.
Charging the X-T2 (with XF 35/1.4 attached) from a portable power bank on a road-trip
The XF lenses are really good. I have the 10-24mm, 23/1.4, 35/1.4, and 56/1.2, and they are all really good and quite compact. The 35/1.4 is actually really excellent. I usually bring the 10-24mm for landscapes and the 35/1.4 for everything else. I never feel like I'm missing anything or that I should've brought more or different gear on the trip.
The XF series also has weather-sealed lenses (marked WR - e.g. 35mm f2 WR) and these are even smaller.
I just need to comment on the 35/1.4. It was the first lens Fuji released for the XF series. Like the original X100, it had some focus issues. Unlike some other notable camera brands, Fuji has been very good about consistently upgrading its camera bodies and lenses with periodic firmware updates. The 35/1.4 with updated firmware is just as good as any other recently-released lens. Autofocus is fast and accurate.
Taken with the XF 35/1.4. Hands down one of my favorite lenses.
But more than that, this lens always makes me happy when I look through the viewfinder. You know how Marie Kondo talks about sparking joy? Every single time I put this lens on, I feel that spark. It's not unusual for me to break into a smile when I'm using this lens. Everything taken with this lens looks great. This is easily one of my favorite lenses to shoot. It's my go-to whenever I shoot on the XF system. I like it so much that I sometimes feel like it's worth owning or keeping an XF system just for this lens.
Favorite full-frame system for non-portraits: Sony Alpha series (A7 and A9 series)
I shot on the A7 series for a long time. Sony's autofocus is lighting fast and incredibly accurate, and there's nothing else on the market quite like it.
Sony and Zeiss both make excellent native lenses for the Alpha series. There are also a lot of adapters made for Sony's E-mount, so you can shoot with a variety of lenses from other manufacturers. I've shot Nikon, Canon, Leica, Sony, and Zeiss lenses on the Sony.
This beastly chimeral monstrosity is a Sony A7ii body with a Leica M to Sony E-mount adapter, a Zeiss 35mm ZM lens, and a Voigtländer lens hood.
Sony also has an excellent APS-C series (the a6000 and up) that uses the same lens mount, so if you want to start cheaper, you can get an a6000 series body, accumulate a few good lenses, and eventually replace the a6000 series body with an A7 series body to use with those same lenses.
Now, no system is perfect - and while I think Sony makes a case for getting pretty close, there are 2 issues with the system that are hard for me to ignore.
First, skin tones. Sony sensors in my experience seem to get everything right but the skin tones, which consistently turn out too yellow/orange, or muddy. I first noticed this because editing portraits was taking me forever, and it was always the skin tones that I had to spend the bulk of my time tweaking. If you don't take the time to grind through this tedious process, the skin tones can end up looking corpse-y, or very red or orange, like a bad tan job - and I've seen these types of skin tones in photos shot by professional photographers who shoot Sony systems.
So I decided to do a blind test on Instagram, and while it's far from scientifically rigorous, it's indicative that I'm not the only one finding that Sony sensors doesn't handle skin tones as well as some other brands. These comparison shots were taken under the same lighting conditions using approximately equivalent focal lengths, and are straight out of the camera without editing. All the voting took place before revealing which photos were from which manufacturer. I also mixed up which side each manufacturer was on, because I wanted to see if people would be consistent about their color preferences. The results below are self explanatory.
The Sony colors were making me angry, I was trying to contain my rage.
Anyway, once you see the jaundiced yellow tinge (it's not me, I promise), you can't un-see it. So if you're shooting anything else - wildlife, landscapes, product shots, black and white, anything where human skin colors aren't important, then I'd say you can't go wrong with Sony. But if portraits are your jam, consider looking elsewhere.
Secondly, while Sony's bodies are small, some of their better lenses are very large. So you need to factor that in if you're looking for a camera system to bring on your travels.
Small bodies, big lenses
Special mention: Canon EOS R system
I don't have a favorite full-frame system for portraits right now, as I shoot portraits primarily on the Fujifilm GFX system, which is medium format. But if I were to suggest a full-frame system for portraits, I would look into the Canon EOS R system. I've only taken a few snaps with the EOS R and RP, but I used to shoot Canon DSLRs and really like their lenses and colors. From what I've seen, the 50/1.2 RF and 85/1.2 RF are pretty jaw-dropping updates to two legendary lenses (the 50/1.2L and 85/1.2L for Canon's EF mount), so this would be where I'd look first if I was looking to replace the Fujifilm GFX system with a full-frame system.
Special mention: Leica M system
I like the Leica M system because the bodies and lenses are compact, and the manual focus rangefinder experience is different from the standard focusing experience. Leica sensors also seem to have a special je ne sais quoi that renders colors in quite a unique way. I also like how solid the bodies feel - there's nothing like holding a hunk of brass in your hand. Other cameras with their lightweight bodies and plastic paneling begin to feel like toys.
Whether it's worth the price point is debatable. As a tool, there are cheaper systems with autofocus and other features that make your life easier and help you do what you need to do faster and more accurately. But with Leica...well, if you like the look, you like the look - and you won't quite get it anywhere else. In some ways it's analogous to Apple vs Samsung smartphone cameras. Samsung may give you better, newer technology and neat features, but Apple generally gives you nicer, more natural colors.
So I'd suggest a Leica M system primarily for the small lenses, rangefinder experience, or if you are seriously picky about colors. You may also just buy it because it's a luxury brand - nothing wrong with that. But how important these factors are to you, and how prepared you are to pay a premium, will depend on your own personal preferences.
Please consider sharing your photos with the community by tagging #dharmaportraits on your Instagram photos - I'd love to see how you're using these tips to create beautiful photos.