The new Nikon mirrorless system has everyone buzzing. Even my pizza guy was talking about it with me the other day while I was waiting on my pies, a conversation prompted by the Sony a5000 around my neck.
So what do I think?
I think you should be thinking about lenses. For most photographers, the latest camera isn’t going to do near as much for your photographs as better lenses will. That’s because, if you are like most photographers, you are probably using lenses that don’t make the fullest use of your sensor (and that’s true even of your expensive zoom.)
The reality is that the sensors in all the major camera brands have gotten pretty good. If you are using a pro body instead of a consumer body that is of recent vintage, the improvements are going to be incremental. Even the top of the line Nikon d810 only offered incremental improvements over the d800, and while I might be able to see that extra little bit when working the file in Photoshop, once you get to the print, there are no tell tale signs to tell me which was from the D800 vs D810.
In fact, the differences between even different brands of sensors with a pro-ish body isn’t something you can readily identify by looking at typical prints. ~24 MegapixelNikon/Canon/Sony/Fuji all produce really good results.
You probably have more to gain by buying a better lens than a new camera. Because while the camera brand you used might not be noticeable in print, the lenses you use will be.
Prints don’t lie. If your corners are fuzzy, with low resolution even at a higher f stop, then it’s very telling of the quality of your lens and how you used it.
For years the standard with film SLRs, and now DSLRs, has been to accept lenses that were sharp in the middle and gradually lost resolving power towards the corners.
But while this was the standard in 35mm size SLR bodies, it was not the standard with medium and large format film cameras used by many professionals. On my 4x5 film camera that resolves upwards of 200 megapixels, I expect the image to be sharp from corner to corner as well as in the middle. After all, what’s the point of using such high resolution film if you aren’t getting all the incredible sharpness and resolution it can achieve?
So I come to DLSRs with a different expectation. It is possible to achieve this corner to corner, high resolution sharpness with a DSLR…if you pick the right lenses.
Zeiss is the first lens brand that comes to mind, as well as many of the Sigma Art lenses. Select lenses from Nikon and Canon lenses are also very good, but most lenses from Nikon/Canon/Sony/Fuji are are just average…which is really true of all the manufacturers. Nikon/Canon/Sony/Fuji et. al. make lenses at a wide variety of price points with a wide variety of quality. This is especially true of zoom lenses. It requires careful research to separate the multitude of average lenses from the few really great lenses.
Picking these lenses is a topic for a different article, but a good starting point is looking at the MTF curves for a lens. Another great resource is Lloyd Chambers site diglloyd.com. Instead of made up testing metrics, Lloyd lets you see full size images from most of the high end lenses and camera systems made in real world situations (although you do have to pay for access.) I find that looking at actual images tells me more about a lens than the average opinion, and Lloyd lets me do that without having to buy or rent a plethora of lenses. Or you can put things to the ultimate test and use them them side by side, which is always very enlightening.
Lenses are the long term investment in a system, not camera bodies. The rules of physics don’t change, and a great lenses today will be a great lens for a long long time. You are likely to keep your lenses for over a decade or more, and use them on a series of different camera bodies. So before rushing out to buy the latest greatest body, take a look at your lenses, and see if you should be adding one or two really sharp primes to your bag instead.
Honestly I’d rather use a 24 megapixel camera with a couple of really sharp primes than an 36+MP camera with just average glass. The difference is that striking. Getting a better lens is the lowest hanging fruit you can pick, and will improve every photograph you make with it much more than a incremental body upgrade will.
Rich Seiling is a pioneer of Fine Art Printmaking, having worked on thousands of prints for leading photographers.