Buying a camera, no matter if it’s the first ever or an upgrade, is always a big decision and one that gets ever more difficult with the vast number of products available today. When I started in photography some decades ago things were much easier and for the most part it was a choice between Canon and Nikon…
With the introduction of digital photography this all changed and today’s market is flooded with makes and models, many with mind bending product names like GFX 50R II or OM-D EM-1X...
Here I’ll try to give a bit of an overview on what is available and what kind of system is most suitable for which kind of photography.
This was made with my first "proper" DSLR: The 12MP Canon 5D DSLR.
Currently there are two main groups of cameras, traditional DSLR cameras (digital single lens reflex which feature an optical viewfinder) and the so-called mirrorless systems or MILCS (mirrorless interchangeable lens camera system which have a digital viewfinder). Because a digital viewfinder doesn’t require mirrors and a pentaprism, mirrorless systems are in general smaller and lighter than the good old DSLR and also offer features that would not be possible with an optical viewfinder, e.g. overexposure warnings, focus assist, digital level-finder and many more. MILCS also have the advantage that pretty much any lens ever made can be adapted and used (more or less) successfully via an adapter.
Which of the two is “better” is pretty much a matter of taste but over the past few years mirrorless systems have become more and more popular and the DSLR seems to be on the way to become a niche product. A tell-tale sign for this is that even the two dinosaurs in the camera market, Canon and Nikon, are now concentrating on mirrorless systems.
A typical landscape photography set-up: The 61MP Sony 7R IV MILCS on a chunky tripod.
I jumped ship a few years ago and while it took a while getting used to looking at a computer screen (the digital viewfinder) instead of the real world (the optical viewfinder), the advantages of a digital viewfinder that shows you over and underexposed areas, simulates the colours as they would appear in the finished photograph in real time plus a number of other helpful gimmicks, soon convinced me.
Other differences between camera systems evolved around the sensor and its size. Because 35mm film cameras were the standard for a very long time, this particular size (24x35mm), now widely known as full frame, became the new standard the various other sensor sizes are being compared to.
The smallest sensor used in MILCS is used in the Micro 4/3 system which was born out of a co-operation between Olympus (since January 2021 called OM Digital) and Panasonic. This sensor is half the size of that of full frame and the system has gained a good reputation for street and wildlife photography. The latter I can confirm - the Olympus system is a joy to use in the field.
The next size up is what is commonly known as crop-format sensor which comes in a number of incarnations like Foveon, APS-H and APS-C that all differ very slightly in size. The most common today is APS-C (24x16mm) and is used by companies like Sony, Fujifilm and Nikon.
The Sony 7C with the Sigma 45mm/2.8: One of the smallest full frame set-ups currently available.
The next size up is full frame which for many is the perfect compromise between image quality, portability and speed. Sensors larger than that are being grouped together under the “medium format” banner. These large sensor cameras produce outstanding image quality but are large, heavy, expensive and relatively slow which makes them best suited for landscape work and studio photography. Two sensor specialties are the Foveon X3 sensor that is being used exclusively by Sigma and Fujifilm’s X-Trans sensor, both crop-format sensors. The Foveon X3 features a stacked design very different from all other sensors on the market which has some advantages but also a number of problems. I started my digital journey with the first incarnations of this sensor (in the Sigma SD9 & SD10) and a few of the images made back then are still in my regularly used catalogue. In the end the problems (mainly colour reproduction under certain conditions) outweighed the benefits (the detail and vibrancy of the image files) and I switched to Canon.
The X-Trans sensor uses Fujifilm’s own colour array which differs from the common Bayer array which the majority of all sensor are using. It claims to produce more accurate colours and enhanced detail but it is known to cause problems with some RAW converters.
The size of the sensor has a number of inflictions. First there is the obvious one. A smaller sensor should result in smaller (and lighter) cameras and lenses. While this is generally not true for the cameras – most cameras no matter if Micro 4/3, crop-format sensor or full frame are very similar in size and weight – it is very true for the lenses. Because lenses for smaller sensors have to cover a smaller image circle they are considerably smaller, lighter and (often) less expensive than lenses for full frame and bigger sensors.
Using a long lens and keeping the sensor parallel to the main subject achieves good subject separation even on a small Micro 4/3 sensor.
Sensor size – in conjunction with the number and size of the individual pixels – also has an impact on the image itself. Smaller sensors are generally more prone to image noise and subsequently suffer a loss of fine detail on higher ISO settings. In practise this means that you will start to see image noise and loss of detail on a Micro 4/3 sensor with 20MP at around ISO 800, a 20MP full frame sensor will only start to show image noise at much higher ISO settings. Having said that technology is constantly improving and new sensor designs have made things possible that could only be dreamed of 10 years ago, e.g. putting 61MP into a full frame sensor and still have astoundingly clean images at ISO 1600...
More important than image noise (for me at least) is how sensor size affects depth of field and the actual focal length of the lens attached to the camera. Smaller sensors provide a greater depth of field which is welcome for landscapes where you want everything from the foreground to the horizon in focus. It makes it however more tricky to isolate a subject from the background – important in wildlife and portrait photography – but with the right lens and technique it usually isn’t a big problem. Also important to remember is that lenses change their effective focal length depending on the camera they are attached to by the crop-factor of the sensor. For example if you use a 24mm lens built for full frame on a Micro 4/3 camera it will become a 48mm lens (crop-factor 2x). On an APS-C it would be about 34mm (crop-factor 1.4x). This makes smaller sensors desirable for wildlife photography, especially bird photography, where you need a long focal length to get a frame filling image of your subject.
A stonechat photographed with the Olympus OM-D EM-1 II and 300mm/4 lens which is an effective 600mm focal length. Compared to its full frame equivalent this 300mm/4 lens is light, portable and can be used hand-held for a long time.
The questions what kind of camera is the best for you is in the end down to personal taste and what you want to photograph. For landscapes it would probably be a high resolution camera with a large sensor to capture and preserve as much fine detail as possible. However keeping in mind that most images today are shared online or appear in books and magazines these high resolution sensors are often overkill but come in handy if you plan to crop your images in post-production. For wildlife a crop-format or Micro 4/3 sensor has certain advantages because the small sensor increases the reach of your lens, for example a 300mm lens for full frame becomes a 600mm lens on Micro 4/3. For macro you might prefer a camera with a fully articulating LCD screen and for action photography a camera with a high frame rate and good AF capabilities could be your choice. Most important however is for you to feel comfortable with the camera. Being happy and content when using a certain model brings more advantages than having the latest tech and it is more likely to produce great images this way than relying on the newest gimmicks. In the end an image is just a combination of framing, f-stop, exposure time… and imagination.
Set-up for macro photography with the Sony 7C and Laowa 25mm/2.8 Ultra Macro lens.
Since I abandoned Canon some years ago I have been using a number of cameras. The unfortunate conclusion after trying out Olympus’s Micro 4/3 system, Fujifilm’s APS-C sized X-Trans sensor and GFX medium format is that there is no perfect camera system. Currently I am using Sony mirrorless full frame cameras (7R IV & 7C) with a variety of lenses and while I could list some things I don’t like, this system is as close to perfect for my kind of photography as it gets. The 7C has a fully articulating screen and performs wonderful at high ISO settings – both important to me for macro work – and the 7R IV records plenty of detail when photographing landscapes and lets me crop considerably which is very helpful when capturing wildlife. In addition Sony has a wide variety of good (and affordable) lenses and other accessories to choose from…
So I obviously would recommend the Sony system for a bit of everything from landscapes to wildlife and macro photography. However Canon and Nikon are very similar in terms of features, lens and accessories selection as well as price, at least when it comes to DSLR cameras. When it comes to mirrorless both companies are just starting to build up their new systems but you can use all existing lenses via an adapter. Sony has been concentrating on mirrorless cameras for some years now and pretty much abandoned their DSLR system.
If you are only shooting landscapes the Fujifilm GFX system is worth looking into. It is currently the only somewhat affordable medium format system on the market and if I would be photographing only landscapes this would be the system I'd use.
If you are a wildlife photographer the Micro 4/3 system is worth considering. The size and weight of the system brings a huge advantage especially when going after birds or stalking other animals in the countryside. On top of that the quality of especially the Olympus OM-D cameras and lenses is widely recognised.
Photographers never had as much choice as they have today... it's both a blessing and a curse.
Carsten Krieger, March 2021