What a title. This won’t be a post that will try to declare which camera brand or model is the best, of course. There is not such a thing to begin with. The post will be about what in my opinion defines the best camera. I don’t especially think this definition is needed but it is a good excuse for venturing into what makes a camera enjoyable, at least for me.
I’ve to say I am a bit tired of reading “the best camera is the one with you”: I find this concept very trivial, one that is not even needed or useful to express. Of course a camera is better than no camera, do we need a saying for that? Do we need that saying to be so popular and repeated like a mantra? I would like to go deeper into the matter, if possible.
For me, the best camera is the one I like to shoot with. The one that makes me want to pick it up and bring it with me. Usually it is the Ricoh GR or the Olympus PEN-F, like in this early morning photowalk with Manjola. Other times it’ll be my beloved little Pentax Q or Q-S1. It could even be the iPhone, why not: in the end it is a 28mm equivalent, which I love, plus manual controls if needed.
Best camera means a combination of ergonomics, build quality and user interface. A camera that is a pleasure to use, where controls are well thought, the tactile experience is pleasant and I can feel designers spent time trying to create a tool for photography, not a tech showcase. Cameras share a lot in common with every other electronic device, but I refuse to treat them like a computer, a gaming console, a tablet, a washing machine.
A little note: I am talking of a best camera for personal preference, not strictly for professional needs: in that case, the best camera is defined mostly by how its technical data satisfy what the job requires.
Wouldn’t it be nice if more camera brands show real interest in our photography? I think only few brands do that. Most of them are too busy trying to sell us the next thing we are supposed to have. And yet, what we need is not a slightly better sensor or some computational magic. We need tools that let us experiment, tools we feel fit our vision. Cameras built for photographers, not for people passionate about the latest tech. I am tired of the next big technology, as you may have guessed. There will always be a new better technology in a couple of months. Ergonomics, feeling, build quality: such details are far more important.
I am rarely excited when they announce a new camera: it is usually the same stuff over and over again. The popular brands are going all in the same direction, trying to outclass each other in the same feature sets: new autofocus AI modes, better sensors, better EVF, and what else?
That’s why I find it so fascinating when a camera like the Ricoh GR III is announced: it stays faithful to its roots and its philosophy, it uses tech to solve a problem (vibration of the sensor for removing dust, because sealing the camera would have made it bigger and more expensive than what they want), it improves the sensor and the lens design together, again, for fitting their own vision.
But as I said, instead of new cameras with a vision we are mostly being sold the same tech showcase. Dynamic range is a cool thing, but if you need to recover 5 steps of shadows or highlights you have done a bad job in first place and you should blame yourself. If you rely on amazing dynamic range because you don’t want to learn using flashes, you should also consider what you are doing.
We are taught cameras are magic tools that can take care of everything. I think they are not, nor they should be, because photography is problem solving, made by a human mind, applied to the surrounding. That’s my personal definition of photography at the moment!
Don’t take that as a negative attitude toward Auto modes though: I think even Auto modes have their place. Moriyama made a career out of Auto mode. What I am against is a camera that is using a combination of hardware and software for correcting our mistakes, so that a photographer doesn’t have to think anymore. I am against cameras that let us focus after taking the shot. Cameras that turn night into day. Cameras that are constantly on HDR mode and flatten exposures. I’ve to say it better though: I am not against these features per se, I am against them becoming accepted as the norm and taking away the chance to learn what photography is.
They ask me why I shoot with Olympus Micro Four Thirds and Ricoh GR for my personal projects, while I own an expensive Nikon full frame system which I use for most of my job. The answer is that I need to be happy and to enjoy photography! Some tools are needed for specific job tasks, and that’s fine. But then again, when I am free to choose… some cameras talk to me, others don’t. I can’t enjoy shooting with a camera I don’t feel belongs to me.
So, in the end I am always looking for myself in photography, I guess. I believe we all are — when we try to freeze time, we are talking to ourselves, satisfying our needs — and I’m also trying to have fun in meantime if possible. Cameras are tools for this research. Some camera brands get this (like Ricoh, Pentax and partly Olympus), some others don’t get it or just ignore it.
Perfection is relative. No camera is perfect in general terms. We can just assume a camera design has a goal, and we can judge how close it comes to that goal.
Let’s take the Ricoh GR: its goal is to be a compact tool for photography, with the most efficient interface possible, and it comes very close to this goal. It’s a camera that is quite close to its relative perfection. But what can we say about a Sony A7, a Nikon Z6, a Panasonic S1? What is their goal? To include every best tech on the market, to copy each other features, to have big numbers in the marketing blurb. I am not saying they are bad cameras of course, I just say I don’t find them exciting.
Let’s keep near the cameras that make us feel good when we shoot. They are the best cameras. Even if their sensor becomes obsolete, even if they have lots of noise at 800 ISO. Let’s keep them and let’s keep exploring the world with them. I will never get rid of my GR II or my Pentax QS1, I don’t care if the Sony A7Mark10 will offer 20 stops of DR and no noise at 25600. I care much more about the smile appearing on my face when I capture a photo with a camera I feel happy with. That is the best camera for me.