Safe Choices

It’s that time of year when students are graduating, and this triggers a fair amount of camera buying, both as gifts as well as for oneself. (It's also Father's Day coming up, and that adds to the early summer buying.)

Buying decisions are a little different for someone starting out with a completely new system versus someone who’s had a system (or systems!) for awhile and looking to update

So before getting to my advice for those leaving school and just starting their photographic career, let me first repeat my advice for those who already have an interchangeable lens camera system: don’t switch brands. Seriously. 

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve found who chase the greener grass only to find it was probably on the side of the fence they started on. Basically, you have to ignore—at least for a reasonable amount of time—any new technology or feature or lens or whatever that Brand X just announced. If that’s truly something useful, the Brand you currently own will get around to it. Maybe next month, maybe next year, maybe several years from now, but they will. 

Yes, Canon and Nikon waited a bit too long in transitioning to mirrorless. But that’s now full swing, so be a little more patient if the specific thing you want isn’t in a C or N skin yet. It will be.

The reason you don’t switch brands at every chance is simple: having to relearn and adjust to virtually everything. Photos are spontaneous moments in time, and if you’re fiddling with settings, menus, or trying to figure out what button to push you’re going to miss that moment. Within brands, we now have a high degree of consistency (though Sony is still changing menus and names of things). Nikon, for instance, is still recognizably using the control system pioneered in the N8008 in 1988. If, like me, you’ve been using that system since then, changing to anything else slows you down and makes you miss moments. If you stick with a new system long enough, obviously you get used to that, but I’ve watched people switch systems every two years and never learn one system well enough to fully master it. Don’t be that person.

So, again, if you’ve been using a Canon, Nikon, Olympus, or Sony system for a long time, you probably should just stick with what you’ve got.

However, today we’re talking about new customers (graduating students), who don’t have any muscle memory from dedicated cameras. Any new camera you hand them will be as foreign as the next. 

So what do I recommend to those folk?

Basically, there are probably three safe bets for the long-term future: full frame mirrorless from Canon, Nikon, or Sony. I don’t see the RF, Z, or FE systems going away any time soon, and they'll be the pillars of mirrorless that last the longest. No one knows what comes after mirrorless, nor does anyone have any idea when that might come. (I’d bet 10 years and fully computational, but neither of those things are fully predictable at the moment).

Thus, if you’re dipping into a system for the first time, you’re going to choose between RF, Z, or FE. 

With a caveat. And it’s an important caveat to consider. Full frame is not exactly a low-price entry into cameras (though the excellent Nikon Z5 body sits currently at US$1000). Maybe you only have US$1000-1500 to get you started on a “full” system (body, some lenses, a few accessories). If so, you just got trapped in the Cropped Sensor Zone. 

This highway leads to the shadowy tip of reality: you're on a through route to the land of the different, the bizarre, the unexplainable...Go as far as you like on this road. Its limits are only those of mind itself. Ladies and Gentlemen, you're entering the wondrous dimension of imagination. Next stop....The Cropped Sensor Zone."

The Cropped Sensor Zone (CSZ) is indeed different, is indeed sometimes bizarre, and contains plenty of unexplainable decisions by camera companies. Aspect ratio differences, sensor size differences (even at so-called APS-C), color filtration differences, incompatible lens mounts, lack of full lens sets, and much more plague the CSZ. Decisions you make entering the CSZ may turn out to be dead ends (I’m looking at you Canon M). 

While a lot of graduating students may end up entering the CSZ, I would suggest that they do so with care. I’m going to say there are really only three reasonably safe CSZ choices here in 2021:

  1. Fujifilm XF — The good news is that there is a full line of cameras, looks like there will be a full line of cameras for the foreseeable future, and there’s a reasonably large choice of lenses available. The bad news is that this is culdesac. If you’re happy with what you can eventually do in the culdesac, great. But you may have to leave the neighborhood to do something else down the road. Fujifilm’s “upgrade” is from XF to GFX, and there’s no lens compatibility when you make that upgrade. So, if you buy in with an X-S10 with the goal of eventually getting to an X-T4 level camera, great, no real problems. If you buy an X-E4 thinking maybe some day you'll get a GFX, not so great.
  2. m4/3 — The good news is that you have multiple providers of bodies and lenses, so a large choice of options from low end to high. Again, this is a culdesac, though, because moving out of m4/3 to something else later is a big switch. But if m4/3 satisfies you, you have a huge range of choices to grow into. I do think that m4/3 needs to show some image sensor change—we seem stuck on older Exmor type 20mp sensors—but if you’re good with what we have now, there’s hope that things will improve downstream. 
  3. Sony E — Sony’s APS-C system is the only mature one that has a natural path out of the CSZ: full frame with the same lens mount. Of course, Sony's CSZ camera choices are limited and a bit too one-dimensional, but there’s nothing wrong with the A6### cameras and lens choices for someone starting out.

So, if you’re thinking of gifting someone into the CSZ (or making that decision yourself), I’d suggest that you look at Sony E first. It’s the safest bet, and allows people to grow further without relearning everything from scratch. 

Which brings us back to full frame mirrorless. If the needs are 100% immediate and they have some specific needs in terms of lenses, Sony FE is probably the place to go. Only problem is, Sony doesn’t have a true entry camera at near the US$1000 price point in full frame. Sony will point you to previous generation cameras at deep discount or the CSZ, but don’t take that bait. Sony has been maturing their system (performance, controls, menus, you name it) fairly rapidly, so even one generation back results in buying a camera with “issues.” 

If you can’t afford to buy into Sony FE at the A7C or A7 Mark III level, I’d say you need to go to the number two choice, which is Nikon Z, and in particular, the Z5 (though the older generation Z6 makes a reasonable choice, too).

Nikon has a lot left to do in the Z line, but that’s mostly lenses, accessories, and a few gap-filling models they need to create. Nikon has mature performance and technology already, and the current cameras are just fine for someone starting out. Just understand that you’ll grow with a growing system, not enter into a mature system. 

Wait, what about Canon?

Canon’s my third choice for someone entering into full frame mirrorless from scratch. It’s not anything particularly problematic with the Canon RF mount, it’s a lot of small things that add up as a bit of a mess still. The R and RP, which are the two lowest cost models, don’t reflect where Canon already has matured RF to, so unless you can afford an R6, you’re going to have some re-learning and adjustment ahead, methinks. And the R and RP are using older DSLR-recycled image sensors, to boot (disclaimer: so is the Nikon Z5). Moreover, while Canon has some nice RF lenses already, I’m not getting the same sense of clear approach to sub-lines of lenses, but more a scattershot of lots of different options. Those may or may not fulfill your need, today or in the future. 

That said, I’m not going to fault anyone being gifted or gifting themselves a Canon RF, Nikon Z, or Sony FE system to get their photographic (and probably video) journey started. Good choices, all, just that I have a clear priority to my suggestions there: (1) Sony, (2) Nikon, (3) Canon, in that order. 

I wouldn’t fault someone picking Sony E (APS-C) as the entry point, either. I”d have a few questions for someone picking Fujifilm XF or m4/3, but assuming you can answer those questions successfully, you’re golden, too.

So what’s that leave as “don’t buy this” for someone starting out? Actually not much:

  • Canon DSLRs
  • Canon M mount mirrorless
  • Nikon DSLRs
  • Pentax DSLRs

Even with the Canon and Nikon DSLRs one could make an argument that buying a top-end model and just feeding off the existing lens sets in both the new and used markets, could keep you mostly happy for a decade. 

Still, it should be clear to long-term users that something shifted in terms of “safe choice.” The safe choice used to be Canon DSLR with Nikon DSLR a close second. Now it’s Sony mirrorless, with Nikon Z probably second, while Canon has slipped to third due to having things still left to do in rationalizing the RF line.

Update: corrected date for N8008 introduction

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