Always a Tradeoff...

I think this needs to said explicitly, because much of the discussion about gear revolves around it: no perfect piece of gear exists that meets every criteria you might come up with in your buying research. There will be a tradeoff. Something you’ll have to tolerate to get all the other things that matter to you. 

Lenses have always had tradeoffs. If you want a fast lens, it will be larger and heavier. If you want an absolutely critically sharp lens from corner to corner, it will have onion rings in the bokeh and it might have more chromatic aberration. The optical parameters that the lens designers juggle are many, and when you do get most of them optimized together, well, then price becomes the issue. 

Cameras have tradeoffs, too. Some of them I keep hearing are:

  • The Nikon Z9 would be perfect if it wasn’t so big (vertical grip).
  • The Sony A1 would be perfect if it had a bigger, stronger body.
  • The Canon R5 would be a great 8K video camera if it didn’t quickly overheat.
  • The Panasonic S5 would be a stronger competitor if it had phase detect autofocus. 

I tend to be amused by the first two bullets, above. The A1 and Z9 (A to Z, 1 to 9, get it?) are indeed top of the heap cameras and the two I’d tend to say most pros should be using these days, but design decisions led Nikon and Sony different ways in terms of size and body build. I’d say that both companies actually need the same internal contents in the opposite body style (e.g. a D850-style Z9, a D6-style A1). Let the market decide what the sales mix ends up to be. I know for me, I'd own both styles ;~).

While Sony engineers will argue that having an optional vertical grip solves the problem, it doesn’t. It complicates the problem, as add-on grips have a long history of failing at the wrong time. Nikon engineers will argue that the Z9 is already a far smaller body than the D6, but that’s missing the point, as it could be even smaller without the vertical grip.

In Canon’s case, I’d argue that the marketing department got their way and then were undercut by the engineers. Marketing needed “8K” as a bragging right (marketing check box), so engineering gave it to them but then didn’t do anything to make it really work effectively (e.g. poor heat dissipation). 

To me, Canon’s tradeoff is a worse one than Nikon’s and Sony’s. The body size was optimized by Nikon and Sony R&D to what they felt was correct, with no performance penalties (although some might argue the Sony body isn’t as rugged as it could be, and can itself overheat if pushed too hard). Canon’s tradeoff was a clear performance penalty on a key marketing element, and one they have now put bandaids on to appease buyers. What’s really needed is a better heat sink and some way of getting that hot air out of the body. So you could argue that Canon either didn’t complete the work they should have done, or they put their cost cutting exactly in 8K’s way.

Panasonic’s tradeoff is one of those hubris acts that can bring down a product (or company) if pushed too far. DFD is their patented autofocus technology, and damned if they’re not going to ride it into the sunset, even though it imposes a clear performance penalty on every one of their products compared to their competition’s faster phase detect autofocus. 

Better autofocus is one of the reasons people are buying cameras right now (smaller, lighter, more pixels, better video, and a few other things also move the market). Sony proved it, the Nikon Z9 proved it, and plenty of other recent cameras are proving that autofocus is a key element in buying decisions. Yes, Panasonic can say their current DFD is better than their previous DFD, but it still hasn’t hit older phase detect performance levels for moving subjects, particularly fast or erratic movement, let alone live up to what the top end cameras are doing today. So insisting on using DFD is sheer vanity. 

I should point out that quite a few camera companies have vanity issues of their own. My top three are:

  • Fujifilm — X-Trans sensors.
  • Panasonic — DFD.
  • Sigma — Foveon sensors.

I’m sure you can come up with a longer list, but realistically, we’re now at the stage where these “must do” things at those companies don’t actually make the product better (or more correctly: competitive). (Yes, I know the Fujifilm fans will flame me with “but X-Trans is better than Bayer” in some fashion. Sure, but it’s also worse than Bayer in others. Fujifilm accidentally proved this themselves with the X-T100/200 and the GFX models. X-Trans is just another of form of Fujifilm’s long-held belief that there must be something better than Bayer, that they’re “sensor designers”, and that whatever they do they can use as a marketing point to say they're different than the competitors.)

Much of the email discussions I get involved with from site visitors correctly see tradeoffs as a key decision element. I get a lot of “the X does Y but not B, while the A does B but not Y, so which is better?” kinds of questions.

Which brings us to deciding between different tradeoffs. 

Most often that happens with lenses. Focal length, aperture, size, weight, and price all conspire against one another in lens choice. Is it better to have a small superzoom (24-200mm) and it’s restricted apertures, or just a super zoom (e.g. 24-70mm f/2.8) and it’s restricted focal range? Size, weight, and price then raise their hands while you’re trying to make that decision and say “what about me?” 

Without naming names—I don’t want their in boxes to suddenly fill because of something I wrote—you’d be surprised at how many well-known professionals use lenses other than the ones you think are best. One extremely well know pro was essentially doing all their work with a lens set that consisted of three modest aperture zooms (16-35mm f/4, 24-105mm f/4, and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6).  So do you really need the so-called Lens Trinity (14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8)?  Well, according to Unnamed Pro, you don’t need the Lens Trinity to make large prints, create best-selling books, or show images on a big screen during presentations. 

If you’re buying new gear, you want to spend time answering the following questions:

  • What are the tradeoffs in the options I'm considering? It’s better when the tradeoffs align, as in aperture versus size/price, but more often than not the tradeoffs don’t exactly align, or you might be looking at the wrong tradeoff, or you might encounter a range of tradeoffs. One that comes up a lot recently in questions to me is the 400mm decision on the Z series. The 400mm f/4.5 versus 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 is one of the choices, and that involves a bunch of tradeoffs (price, size, weight, close focus, zoom/prime, aperture, TC friendliness, and more). But there are other ways to get to 400mm, so you're dealing with a range of tradeoffs to make your final choice. The more tradeoffs you have to consider, the more difficult it gets to make a final decision.
  • Is my decision about the tradeoff, or is the tradeoff just a secondary consideration? In a simpler approach to the 400mm decision, for instance, prime versus zoom is the primary thing considered, and can lead to a quicker answer. Are you always at 400mm? Get the prime. Do you need to cover a range of things? Get the more flexible zoom. So can you restrict your tradeoff options down a single comparison so as to provide some clarity?
  • Do I have an enforced tradeoff? The enforced tradeoff that comes up all the time is price. You have a fixed budget and are trying to find the best option within that. I’ve also seen size/weight be an enforced tradeoff for someone that’s traveling a lot via air or boat, as well. That same tradeoff also comes up with backpackers, who don't want to carry unnecessary weight. The problem with enforced tradeoffs is that they’ll certainly impact something else, and you might not be totally happy with that. And the more strict the tradeoff, the more it might influence your decision. If you can only afford US$500 for a new lens, that narrows what you can consider considerably compared to US$1000. However, pay close attention to enforced tradeoffs. I see far too many people impose a specific (price, size, weight, etc.) and then spend time trying to undermine that. If you have a budget, you have a budget and get the best thing within the budget. Or wait until you have a larger budget. 
  • Are there externally imposed tradeoffs? The supply chain and logistics issues that are still ongoing keep causing a hidden-in-plain-sight tradeoff: you can’t even consider getting a Nikon 800mm f/6.3 lens at the moment, as they aren’t taking any new orders. So if you need 800mm on a Z System camera, you have to find some other option if your need is imminent. 
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