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April 30, 2012


Replies: 141

The Best Camera

The "Best" Camera...

Generally speaking, there is no such thing. Without even getting into specific models, different kinds of cameras are better for different types of photography.

SLRs are good for all-around-general photography. That is to say that while they CAN do most kinds of photography, there are some of those kinds that they do rather poorly and others that they are very good at. Rangefinders are better for other kinds of photography and can outperform an SLR by a quantum leap at those. The same can be said of TLRs, view cameras, and even the much disparaged point-and-shoot camera.

I collect, restore, repair, and use. I have 125 cameras at present, and I have (or have had) one or more of each of the types mentioned in this journal entry. I have had occasion to use all of them and some of them are definitely better than others AT SPECIFIC TASKS. However, NONE of them are good at all types of photography.

In general, small format SLRs are good for nature photography, action photography, any situation where you need to shoot quickly, they generally have more of a lens selection, and they are great for macro photography. They are not very good for architectural photography, they are only fair at landscapes, and there are better choices when shooting people. Most of them are very difficult to focus accurately when doing night photography. Below a certain light threshold, many autofocus systems won't work.

SLRs fall into two categories: manual and automatic. In general, manual cameras are FAR more accurate and give the user far more artistic control of his images (also, the batteries last longer). Modern autofocus systems are a lot better than they used to be, but they still have a way to go. In numerous tests even the best autofocus systems were not found to be particularly accurate (and they are easily confused), when you are shooting rapidly moving objects autofocus is almost a necessity.

Again, speaking in general, rangefinders are better choices for posed studio photos and most people photography. They are quieter (and thus less obtrusive) and a coincident rangefinder is very easy to focus in low light, making them ideal for night photography. Some of the cons are that few of the older models have through the lens metering (there are exceptions to this, like some of the Yashica G-series) and there are only a handfull that have interchangable lens capability. They do not work well for macro photography because, while there are auxilliary lenses available for a few models, these don't usually work very well at all. The stuff that does work generally isn't worth the effort to use (complicated). There is a myth that the main reason they don't work as well for macro photography is because of parallax error. While this was a problem in very early rangefinders, nearly all of the later models have built in parallax compensation.

Point and shoot cameras have their place too. They are good for vacation photos, travel photography, backbacking, and any time when you don't want to deal with a lot of gear. They are also unobtrusive and are good for candids. The cons mainly involve loss of artistic control and the way autofocus and autoexposure can get confused in many situations.

Now speaking of point and shoot cameras, there is a fairly recent introduction to the world of photography called the APS camera. These are 24mm instead of 35mm and pretty much everyone these days who sells them has discontinued them like they did the disc cameras. It was an interesting idea, with shutter speed, aperture and such recorded for each shot and exposure correction being automatic during processing for each frame, but these seem to have gone the way of the dodo bird. Some APS cameras were SLRs instead of point and shoot, but the smaller film size pretty much ensured that the photos would be grainer and generally of lower quality than you could get with a properly set up 35mm.

In medium format, you have the TLRs, SLRs, toy cameras and rangefinders. There are even a few digital medium format cameras out there. There are also a lot of old folding cameras out there. The big advantage of medium format is that the larger negative gives you a much sharper image, particulary in enlargements, and grain is reduced substantially. When comparing the SLRs and rangefinders, you have pretty much the same pros and cons that you will find in their 35mm counterparts. However, although medium format cameras all use 120 film, there are a number of different negative frame sizes that you can choose from. There is the 645, the 6x6, the 6x7 and the 6x9. The larger frames give you sharper photos, but you get fewer photos per roll. With some of the SLRs you also have the option of changing backs. This means you can shoot polaroid film, switch from color film to B&W in mid-roll, or switch from film to digital at any time. They are very versatile cameras.

In medium format, that leaves the TLRs, toys and the old folding cameras to discuss.

All TLRs are 6x6 square medium format (there are two exceptions to this rule - a Yashica TLR that will convert to use 35mm film and a few older models that use 127 film that is not generally available except by special order). TLRs will give you very sharp images, but bear in mind that if you want to make prints in standard sizes you are going to have to crop them (nearly all papers, negative holders and easels come in rectangular formats). They are very good for studio and landscape photography but they are very slow in use and are thus poorly suited for shooting objects in motion. Also, there are no interchangable lenses for these cameras and this rules out telephoto and macro photography.

There are also several makes of toy cameras in medium format that have developed a cult following. These are generally very low quality cameras with plastic lenses and light leaks and some people appreciate the element of chance that they introduce into their photography. Some of the more popular types of toy camera are the Holga, the LOMO or Lubitel, and the Diana and the numerous clones it has spawned.

There are exceptions, but the old folding cameras are not usually very good regarding focusing. This is because most have really tiny prism or mirror viewfinders with no focusing aids whatsoever. If you are shooting using zone focusing (guessing at the range and using depth of field to compensate for error), this may not be a problem, but when focus is critical they are poor choices. The exceptions are those cameras with rangefinders. With folding cameras these rangefinders are not usually coupled to the lens and they are slow to shoot, since you have to transfer the data from the rangefinder to the lens manually. While this won't be a problem if you are shooting portraits, you may find yourself in difficulty if you are trying to photograph a motocross race.

Large format view cameras. These are the ultimate in image sharpness and lack of perspective distortion. They are GREAT at landscapes, architecture, statuary and anything else that is big and doesn't move much. The large film size also makes them good for posed studio portraits when you want hyper-sharp photos with lots of detail. However, they are big, cumbersome, can't be used without a tripod, and they require a lot more training to use. They have two additional controls, tilt and shift, that are not found on other cameras. By adjusting the tilt and shift, you can eliminate the exaggerated perspective that you get with other cameras. This is what makes them ideal for architectural photos. Some of the 4x5s have the option of using medium format rollfilm backs. With the exception of those capable of using the aforementioned rollfilm backs, large format cameras use film that comes in sheets instead of rolls, and they have to be manually reloaded after every shot. If you want to make lifesized enlargements that will allow you to see the hairs in Cindy Crawford's mole, with no visible grain, or if you are shooting photos of a cathedral, this is what you should get. Large format cameras generally fall into two main types: Monorail and field cameras. A monorail camera is a bit more cumbersome and its lens board slides along a tubular rail for focusing. These are more suitable for studio work (Cindy Crawford's mole). Monorails are really too bulky for field work. The field cameras fold up in a fashion somewhat similar to the old medium format folding cameras and the lens board slides along a sort of dual track for focusing. These are more suitable for field work, as the name implies. focusing is done by looking at an upside down and reversed image on a sheet of ground glass, which can make focusing somewhat tricky except in bright light.

Now for the biggest waste of time ever: the Nikon vs Canon debate. It's the lenses, people, not the cameras. Both Nikon and Canon make good cameras. So do Pentax, Minolta, and several other companies. The differences between the top grades of Nikon and Canon lenses are so marginal that they can't be seen without a jeweller's loupe or in extreme enlargements that are beyond the acceptable limits of 35mm. Both are consumer level cameras. If you are that critical, get some Zeiss glass, otherwise, you'll never notice the difference. That said, if you are getting an older used camera then Nikon would get the edge simply because they didn't change their lens mounting system for a very long time and there are more lenses available that will fit. When deciding what camera to get between Nikon and Canon, look at the lenses you will need, find out where you can get them cheapest, and then pick a camera to fit them. That said, the sole exception to the "no such thing as a best camera rule" is that Canon and Sony, as of the time I write this, make the best compact cameras. Canon makes good compacts for general use and Sony makes good compacts for daylight use. Pretty much everyone makes at least one good DSLR though.

Finally let's discuss another waste of time: the digital vs film debate. These are entirely different tools and they are designed for different tasks. As much as some people would like to believe it, and in spite of the advertising hype, they are not interchangable. Digital photography is a great tool for photojournalism, where it has almost entirely supplanted film photography. If you are going to show your photos on a video monitor, it can't be beat. In amateur art shows, where enlargements usually only average 8x10, it will be marginally adequate; it might or might not work for you, depending on the camera and the subject. If you are shooting competitively, for pro-level art exhibits, where enlargements can run to 5 feet by 7 feet, a digital camera that is anything short of a Hasselblad with an 88mp back is not going to be your best choice (and the Hasselblad is marginal -- using ultra-high resolution film in a 6x7 fim camera, you can reach the analog equivalient of 512mp). If you do a lot of night photography, you are going to be limited as to how long an exposure you can make. After a length of time, which can be as short as 4 seconds (on some of the less expensive compact cameras), the sensors will overheat and start to generate "noise" (the digital equivalent of dirt on a film negative -- it looks like "static snow" on a TV screen).

Devious Comments (Add yours)

jmarmck Jan 6, 2014  Hobbyist Photographer
Yes I know. But my main issue is with the color shifts in the other objects in the frame. Long ago with film I would get a magenta hue with long exposures. It was a film selection issue I am sure. I am willing to go back to film for next years season. I have a mamiya 645 I would like to use but it needs some work on the mat black material in the body. I am checking out the Calumet 400.

As for the Mamiya, get either some "stove paint" at the hardware store, or Krylon Ultraflat black spray paint. If you get the Krylon, spray some into a can and brush it on where the flocking is missing, Stove paint is the kind of paint that they used to use to paint old-fashioned pot-bellied wood stoves with. Both are extremely flat, stick really tight, and work very well for flocking a camera.


As for the magenta tint: You were getting that with Kodachrome? I'm having trouble imaging that, since it was one of the most reliably accurate films ever made. I'd be more apt to attribute that to a poor coating on your lens than to the film. You didn't get one of those crappy lenses with the red lens coating back then did you?

jmarmck Jan 7, 2014  Hobbyist Photographer
The mirror box has a metal sheeting with a velvet like material. The metal plating has pealed back to the point of being hit by the mirror.
In most camas, that "velvet-like" material is flocked paper. You can do it yourself with glue and flocking powder:  you can buy pre-flocked  or you can try to find some very thin black velvet fabric and stick that in. I would have to see the metal plating and get my hands on it before I would know what to do about that. 
I'm fairly new to photography.  This was a great explanation.  Though I wish I had enough experience to make more sense of it.  Like, do the "digital vs film" points you made apply across all types of cameras, or just DSLR vs. SLR?  And WHY do those have different specialties?  Isn't that just another part of digital vs film?  Do rangefinders, for example have the same difference in specialty when it comes to digital vs film?
Each camera has it's specialty, sure, but do you have a camera to recommend if you have no idea what you'll be shooting next?  I'm trying to at least try out everything.  As is probably typical for beginners, I'm using an entry-level DSLR.  It might be all I ever need or want.  But if I ever do dive deeper into something in the future, I'll keep this information in mind.  Thanks.
The digital versus film points apply across all types of cameras. One of the biggest problems with digital cameras is that the longer the shutter remains open, the more errors it makes. Most of these came in the form of noise. Film cameras don't have this problem and in fact there is at least one guy out there who is making three year exposures. Digital photographers can take several photos and combine them in Photoshop to make, in effect, a long exposure, but this only works if you don't mind breaks in the continuity of the exposure. Anyway, film is a far better choice for low light photography.

With a film camera, you can choose films too. For example, there are ultra-high resolution films, like Efke and Gigabite, that can give you the equivalent of about 51mp on 35mm film. They can actually resolve more than this, buy no lens will.

Rangefinders are still different if they are digital or film. All you are changing is the recording media. However, one of a rangefinder's strengths is that they are great in low light; well, digital sensors are not, so you'd be sacrificing that.

If you're going to be shooting everything, an SLR/DSLR is probably going to be your best choice, because (as I said in the article) they are like swiss army knives, they CAN do pretty much everything, even though they do some things a lot better than others.
FlatWolfFoto Oct 17, 2013  Professional Photographer
The "BEST" camera is the one that you have, know how to use and most importantly WILL use.
The best camera is the one you left at home.
jmarmck Jan 5, 2014  Hobbyist Photographer
I use to carry three or four lens. Had the old camera bag over the shoulder. After a while it gets heavy. I got to thinking about Ansel Adams and his 8c10 camera. Thought about all the wonderful images he acquired. Did he carry all those pieces of glass.  The camera itself would be a back breaker. Anyway, I read somewhere that you should carry only one lens. Make the shot with the lens you have. It will make you a better photographer.
When you are a better photographer, you use the tools that are most appropriate, and so you have a selection of lenses. I have carried a 4x5 steel studio camera to the top of Roanoke Mountain here, with 4 lenses, a set of dark slide film holders, a heavy tripod and two boxes of 4x5 film. All told, it weighs around 80 pounds. Sorry, but I think that people who complain about the weight of medium and small format cameras are incredible sissies.
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