More Gear Talk I’m afraid. About my path to the perfect camera I possess now. And about how such a thing doesn’t exist and actually possesses me.
I think it’s only fair to warn anyone that should want to read this section of my blog. It was my intention to write a few words about how my interest for photography grew over the years into the passion that it is now. It became a rather long text. I can easily give you the short version: over the years I bought many cameras and lenses. And I’ll probably keep going down this road in the future. I’m afraid it’s a prime example of GAS. In Belgium GAS stands for some idiotic municipal sanctions. But that’s a whole different story. I’m talking about the Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the all-consuming desire to expand your collection of gear. Anyone who has ever suffered from it will know exactly what I mean. For me it’s the never-ending pursuit of acquiring the perfect camera. Nevertheless I claim to be a minimalist as I delusionally think that I’ve always kept this desire within reason and never bought something I don’t need. Obviously these kind of thoughts are just symptoms of the syndrome itself. But it really isn’t that bad, there are worse examples. In the photo below you can see all the equipment I own today. Right now I’m all into the Fuji X Series mirrorless cameras. The what and the why is explained in the text, so read on if you’re interested in details. If not, that’s fine, I’m not sure if I would continue reading myself. On the plus side I’ve added some photos to keep the story at least visually attractive.
It all began with this gorgeous camera. These days a hipster camera. Back in 2004 just one of those old film cameras no one was interested in anymore. The Canon AE-1 is one of the most popular cameras ever made. If you want to give film photography a try, this is the camera to get. In 1976 they were promoted as being affordable and well-built. That still applies today: I bought mine together with a 50mm f1.8 lens for €50 and it still shoots like new. In no way I wish to open Pandora’s Box and enter the futile analog versus digital photography debate. I don’t even want to get close to it. Just like with bicycle gear: it’s whatever works for you. But it’s a fact that this camera taught me to carefully consider the lighting situation and the composition before actually taking a photo. Mainly because as a student I didn’t have the money to waste ten or fifteen exposures on one subject.
Enters the digital camera. In 2005 my parents bought me a digital point-and-shoot for my birthday, a Nikon Coolpix 7900. Of course this was a silly attempt of my father to convert me to Nikonism. Little did he know that I had already sold my soul to Canon. But it was a powerful pocket sized camera that accompanied me on a day-to-day basis. And together with the AE-1 it went along on my first bicycle tours. I have to admit that when I look back now at the photos taken with this camera, it seems that I often forgot about those lighting and composition rules I claim the AE-1 taught me. Maybe the concept of a delete button hadn’t come down to me yet. A lot of memories are attached to those photos though. It’s difficult to explain and probably sounds weird. But that’s something I all too often forget these days: taking photos for the sake of memory.
When I became this thing called a Master in the E.U. Studies in 2008 I mysteriously won a money prize with my master thesis. Even more enigmatic this sum that fell out of heaven was just about what I needed to satisfy my long existing desire of buying a digital reflex camera. And so I became the proud owner of a Canon EOS 450D. Of course this meant a big jump forward for my photography in terms of image quality. But it wasn’t until I began following evening classes photography in 2012 (at cvo Kisp) that I started to use this camera to its full potential.
The classes refreshed and enriched my technical knowledge, taught me the ins and outs of my camera and made me break away form the more automatic settings of it. Partially this was a return to the way I was shooting with the AE-1. I started taking much more photos as the many assignments required this. These tasks also forced me to be more creative. One of them even transformed me into a shadow&reflection-maniac for a while. I had to go cold turkey on it but on very rare occasions you’ll still find me wandering the streets lost in reflection while.
In the meantime the World of Lenses was revealed to me. I got convinced of the benefits of fixed focus lenses (yes, careful, keep that Box closed please) and bought the Canon EF 24mm f/2.8. On the EOS 450D with its smaller sensor this became a 38mm lens, basically a nice focal length for all sorts of things. The quality was great, I didn’t miss zooming at all (just take a few steps closer) and I really loved how light and small my camera suddenly was. It quickly became my most used lens.
Probably as a final act of protest my 18-55mm lens that had originally come with my camera decided to die. A bit of Googling quickly revealed that I wasn’t alone with this problem. These kitlenses sure are affordable. But in contrast to their analog counterparts from the past they aren’t too well built. The Tamron 17-55mm f/2.8 that I bought as a replacement all-purpose lens was of much better quality. Somewhere along the way I also acquired the Plastic Fantastic Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II. A great classic Canon lens, but on my 450D it gave a focal distance of 80mm which is too close for me. This only strengthened my dream of making the next quality jump one day: a full frame camera body.
With all this research about prime lenses I somehow stumbled across the Fujifilm X100. To me it felt like this curious little camera was the synthesis to the whole story I’ve been telling in the paragraphs above. It hosts the same APS-C size sensor as my Canon reflex camera, but since it’s a mirrorless camera it’s amazingly small and lightweight. And it has a real viewfinder, not just an excuse for it. Add to that a fixed 23mm f/1.2 lens, a dedicated aperture ring and lots of other manual controls and you’ve sold me. And that’s without even mentioning the pure and simple design. After reading a raving review of the Fuji X100 by Zack Arias it became my new dream camera. The o so logical path to a full frame camera became clouded as my Canon identity started to crumble down. But because of the price of this nifty little camera it was bound to stay a dream. We’re not talking Leica prices here, but I just couldn’t justify it.
Untill that day in March 2013 when I found one second-hand. Even better, it was the all black limited edition with a leather case and some other accessories. I jumped on it. Little did I know that I had just sold my soul to Fujifilm. Still hesitant I took it as my sole camera on a short cycling trip to Paris. But it turned out to be such a good performer that when I set out on my TransAm bicycle tour in June, I decided to leave the bulky Canon equipment in Belgium. By the time I flew back home I had decided that my photographic future would be mirrorless. But the X100 has it limits: there are times that I want another focal distance than the fixed 23mm lens.
So when I saw a second-hand Fuji X-E1 with XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 lens for half the price it was mine the very next day. Three weeks later all my Canon equipment was sold. I’ll admit that it wasn’t easy to say goodbye. The X-E1 only has a digital viewfinder, unlike the X100 that has both a digital and a “real” optical one. But over time I had already converted to primarily using the great digital viewfinder on the X100 anyway. During my winter trip to the US my last doubts vanished permanently. I don’t need a mirror in my camera. I’m embracing the same quality in a much smaller package. All it took was a mental change. There are those who try to dismiss the Fuji X cameras as retro hipster cameras. It’s true that esthetics matter a lot to Fuji, but I think it’s just a fine example of form follows function. And there are alternatives for those who don’t like the Fuji looks. The Olympus OM-D EM-1 is for instance another highly appreciated mirrorless camera. And with the Sony A7 you can even go full frame at still quite a reasonable price compared to its Leica contender. The full frame thing doesn’t excite me too much anymore. If Fuji will make one I’ll probably hop on eventually. If not I’ll be fine. Fact is that the market for mirrorless cameras is growing and a growing number of professional photographers use mirrorless cameras on the job. I know this is turning a bit into a plead for mirrorless cameras. But there’s a reason for this. Towards a lot of people who are somehow into photography (e.g. at the school where I used to follow evening classes) I often have to explain my choice or somewhat defend myself. The high-end mirrorless cameras are definitely up to par with reflex cameras these days, if not better than a lot of them. If the future is mirrorless, doesn’t that make me a pioneer? ;)
The X-E1 is in contrast to the X100 an interchangeable lens camera. The XF 18-55mm performs very well for being “just” a kitlens and I wasn’t planning on buying extra lenses soon. But than the irresistible Fuji X deals came along while I was in Colorado and I purchased both the XF 35mm f/1.4 and the XF 27mm 2.8 for half the price they would have cost me in Belgium. A highly justifiable buy I’d say. As expected both prime lenses perform very well, the pancake 27mm even makes my X-E1 nearly as small as the X100. Now all I need to do is get some use out of those three lenses. Less buying, more shooting.
Well, I actually acquired another camera during my hibernation in Colorado. I found an Olympus XA in a thrift store in Estes Park for 5 dollar. I know it looks like any other piece of crap plastic film camera that you’ll typically find at a thrift store. But I had actually read about this one before. It’s a true 35mm film rangefinder camera, one of the smallest ever made and highly rated in the 80’s and 90’s amongst street photographers. Mine is in mint condition and I’m planning on using this mini-rangefinder instead of the disposable cameras I occasionally buy.
I’m afraid the Olympus XA wasn’t my first Olympus camera. While I was telling my digital story in the paragraphs above I forgot to mention my film revival moment shortly before I became the Fuji adept I am now. In a spirit of less is more I somehow came to think that the past was the future and one day I came home with an Olympus OM-4 Ti and no less than six lenses (28mm f2.8, 35mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.4, 135mm f/2.8, 75-150mm f/4, 200mm f/4). Foolish, I know, but no regrets. Just like the XA, the OM-4 Ti is one of the smallest ever made in its class, this time that of the 35mm film reflex cameras. This poor man’s Nikon had a lengthy lifespan, it stayed in production from ’84 untill 2002 (mine is from ’94). Since it’s a manual focus camera, the great quality OM Zuiko lenses that come with it are very small. Because of that they are quite popular amongst (Olympus) mirrorless shooters these days. With the right adapter these lenses will fit your modern mirrorless camera while maintaining the so appreciated smallness of it. I recently bought an OM to Fuji X adapter myself but haven’t played with it that much yet. In fact, with the whole Fuji thing happening I haven’t put as much use out of my Olympus collection as I should have. But the OM-4 Ti did accompany me on my National Parks road trip together with two lenses and it’s definitely a keeper. More photos shot with it can be found here.
As I said in the beginning: a prime example of the Gear Acquisition Syndrome. And I’m not done yet. Better cameras are already lurking around the corner. Fujifilm has launched the X100s, the X-E2 and the X-T1. That last camera definitely got me excited. “The best electronic viewfinder ever”. Say that again??! All I have to do is be patient. I’m sure someone who’s a tad more addicted than me will put his present but my future X-T1 up for sale when Fuji launches their newest better best camera. You see? I’m reasonable, I can wait. And so the GAS-story continues…