Looking Back at Three Decades of Digital

For a variety of reasons I’ve been looking through images I’ve taken over the last 30+ years of digital photography (yes, that number is correct). It’s an interesting task, because it reveals a lot about gear. In particular, the gear that stood the test of time.

As you’re probably all aware, I’ve been highly promiscuous with cameras for the last 20 years. I used Canon, Fujifilm, Leica, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, and a few more brands of cameras, and most of the models, at least briefly. For many cameras I also take the time to use for a substantive period so as to form the basis of a full review. We’ve now created over 100 of those. 

One thing that my image archives show are the cameras that “stuck.” The ones that I continued using well after the initial encounter or even review. I’m sure those of you who’ve been using digital cameras for any length of time can see the same thing in your work: only a few, maybe even only one or two, cameras are where you invested your use time.

So let me walk you into the Wayback Machine and tell you what I decided. When we’re done with each category, we might be able to form some conclusions ;~).

Casual Cameras

I’ve almost always had a pocket, or casual camera. Back in the film era, that was an Olympus XA. Fit in a (large) shirt pocket, highly competent at what it did, and had that clamshell closure that kept it mostly protected from the elements in all the exotic places I dragged it through. I tried other higher-end, fixed lens compacts—ones from Minolta and Nikon had the longest stay in my pocket—but ultimately found them problematic in some fashion. The XA was dirt simple, yet capable of SLR-level images. And it protected itself when not in use.

In the digital era, originally we didn’t have any pocket cameras, so I carried larger things, such as the seminal Nikon Coolpix 990 (I still have it, and it still takes amazingly decent images). But the camera makers had their own thoughts on what a small, simple camera should be, and those definitely didn’t align with what I wanted. They were too automatic, were missing a key need, were sized wrong, took poor images, or something else that quickly had me putting them back in the box and shipping that on to some other unsuspected person. 

A couple of Coolpix P models and the A model tempted me along the way, but if you think my list of things that need changing, improving, or fixing on a Z9 is long (100’s of items), those cameras had longer and much more significant flaw lists. Of those models, the A stuck around the longest, but it’s primary flaw—no viewfinder—kept me frustrated. It’s as if the camera makers have never tried to take a photo in bright light using the rear LCD to compose. Of maybe they don’t care about composition. 

Two casual cameras are worth noting in my files. Both the Panasonic LX100 and Sony RX100 (both had multiple models) were the two I gravitated towards, time and again. The Sony eventually won out on the Panasonic for two reasons: size, and quality control. I saw multiple LX100’s with alignment or lens issues. The RX100, on the other hand, had two different flaws that I could tolerate: incredibly short battery life (I just carry more of those incredibly small batteries, usually four), and a non-prosumer UX that you had to fight through (I’m a fighter ;~). But in terms of image quality: a solid pocketable 12mp.

Wait, what? 12mp? The RX100 is a 20mp camera! As I wrote in my review, considering it 20mp is a stretch. The camera performed really well if you considered it a 12mp camera, e.g. you’re going to output no more than 4000x3000 at 300 dpi to a printer, or downsize to a 4K screen. If you really tried to use it as a 20mp camera to print bigger or to crop heavily, you were going to be doomed to some ugly final pixels, particularly as you moved from the center of the composition.

Disclosure: no, I haven’t owned a Fujifilm X100 model. I suppose I should fix that, but one thing that stops me is size. I abandoned the LX100 models eventually partly because of that. 

Looking back at all the digital compact cameras I’ve used over the years—which has to number in the many hundreds at this point—the only two still on my gear shelf are the Coolpix 990 and RX100 (both lens variants). The only one I regret selling is a Ricoh.

However, do I carry the RX100 much any more? No. Since the iPhone 10, it’s more likely I use my phone for casual imagery. But I hate doing so. Not because of the quality of the images, but because it’s a real nuisance to use. Phones aren’t really being designed to be used as cameras, which means that things I want to do and control get buried in a touch interface that, frankly, violates Apple’s own UI guidelines. Minimal effort has gone into the phone UIs for cameras, which has introduced a whole wave of third-party “camera” apps, but even they don’t tend to give me what I’m really looking for. Holding a thin, flat slab of glass doesn’t lend itself to holding it for composition.

So let me call it out: the camera makers are wimps. They’ve run scared with their tail between their legs because big companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung have stuck an image sensor or two into their phones. Yes, that’s convenient and effective for the masses and absolute consumer casual use, but it doesn’t necessarily serve the purposes of people who truly care about images: photographers. A digital Olympus XA or a “fixed” RX100 would sell well. Really well. It would pay back R&D and make a profit. The funny thing is that most of us would pay non-compact prices for the right product, so why hasn’t it happened? Wimps in Tokyo, basically.

Size, control, quality. Those are the three attributes necessary for a true casual camera to catch fire with photographers. No one has really mastered all three, though we’ve gotten a few with near-misses. So, if any camera makers out there want to show they have a spine, I’ll offer to write them a MRD (marketing requirements document) outlining the perfect compact. (Hint: they won’t ask, as they don’t think someone else knows an answer they don’t.)


Up front I'll admit that I’m a little light on Pentax experience, but then again, Pentax is a little light on product ;~). For the two companies that dominated DSLRs, Canon and Nikon, I have a ton of experience, and with virtually every model. 

So what stuck in my DSLR use?

Early on, none of the Canon’s until the 1Ds. Mostly I used the Nikon D1x and D100. (Ironically, for someone who now calls themselves a sports photographer, I didn’t lean towards the 1D or the D1h at the time; but I was mostly doing landscape, nature, and some wildlife photography back in the early days of DSLRs.)

That eventually evolved to the Canon 5D plus the Nikon D3 and D300. 

Which in turn evolved to the Canon 5D Mark IV and 1Dx, plus Nikon D5/D6, D850, and D500. Hey, we’re talking about 20 years; there’s going to be a few model switches as the DSLRs grew up.

If you look at my DSLR files, those are the cameras you’ll find most of my images from. You’ll also find some short-lived stretches where the Canon 7D Mark II and Nikon D7200 or D7500 were being used actively. 

Even though I’ve just mentioned 15 cameras in 20 years of use, quite a few cameras that many consider good are missing from that list. For example, one reason why there was a Canon 5D showing up so often in my images in the first place was my dissatisfaction with the Nikon D2x. During that same period I didn’t really like the Canon 1D Mark II or the Nikon D2h, for different reasons.

Neither the Olympus 4/3 DSLRs nor the Sony Alpha DSLRs struck a chord with me (or the marketplace, for that matter). The Fujifilm DSLRs were an experiment gone bad (disclosure: one of my books was offered by Fujifilm for registering the camera with them). Fujifilm DSLRs is where we started talking about Frankenkameras. 

I’m going to whittle the 15 down further here. How am I going to base that decision? By imagining that you’re going to confine me to a single DSLR camera from my use history. Which ones would I accept? The shorter list of my preferred choices would be D100, 5D, D3, D300, 1Dx, D6, D850, D500. Those are all seminal DSLRs, in my opinion, and the majority of those came eight or more years after the D1 started the DSLR revolution. Okay, the D6 maybe isn’t in your list of seminal DSLRs, but the D6 is probably the most underrated DSLR ever made, and yes, it’s a clear step up from a D5, though perhaps not in terms of image quality. It’s seminal, and it isn’t an accident that the Nikon Z9 mirrorless flagship transfers virtually all of the goodness of a D6 to mirrorless, and then adds some.


When we started getting cameras that had the mirror removed back in 2009, it started a whole new category of camera, and the category that most photographers have now gravitated towards (or will soon). 

If the early history of DSLRs had a lot of messiness and differing strategies driving products, mirrorless was worse. But let’s consider what my files are filled with.

Early on, that would be an Olympus EP-1, which seems to have survived a number of challenges from others for quite a few years. In some ways that camera was serving as a bridge between the truly casual camera I wanted that didn’t exist and my DSLRs. The Nikon 1 tried to push the EP away, but ultimately failed, though a Nikon 1 with the F-mount adapter and an exotic lens was like having the gun of a battleship on a small dingy. 

It wasn’t until the Sony A7R Mark II that I see anything else start filling my files from the mirrorless side. The “Mark I” Sony models, like those of most first mirrorless efforts from anyone, just had so many things about them that would eventually trip you up, so much so that you’d rather put it on the shelf and look at it than use it.

As with DSLRs, I note a change about eight years in (+/- a year): that’s where I start finding the cameras that are truly filling my files. Indeed, that’s about the point where my DSLR usage starts dropping and mirrorless goes for the gold.

The OMD E-M1 Mark II is seven years in. The Sony A9 and A7R Mark III are eight years into mirrorless. The Canon R, Nikon Z6 and Z7, and Sony A7 Mark III are nine years in. All of those cameras started piling up images in my files (the R the least). I also started finding that I could travel lighter and smaller and still get the same imagery I wanted. Thus, I started noting the benefits of mirrorless. 

It should be pointed out that the Nikon D850 also came eight years into mirrorless. That DSLR set a truly high bar for mirrorless to get over, and stalled my DSLR-to-mirrorless transition. Nevertheless, six of those seven mirrorless cameras I just mentioned were clearly getting regular use, as evidenced by my database of images. 

In the ensuing years, we’ve had a bunch more interesting mirrorless cameras, but really only two very recent ones have caught on for me: the Nikon Z9 and the Sony A1. I’ve now whittled most of the rest (DSLR and mirrorless) out of my gear closet. 

Final Words

Since about 2005 I’ve been writing “if you can’t get good looking 13x17” prints out of any of the current [DSLR/mirrorless] cameras, it’s not the camera that’s the problem.” That’s certainly true today, and I could probably up my size requirement by several ratchets. 

That said, in looking back, clearly only a handful of cameras really got my attention, so you have to ask why that might be if they could all take good looking images. 

I’ve already written it: size, control, and quality. It’s the intersection of those three things that make a camera I want to pick up and use. Fail at one of them, and it’s not for me. 

While I referenced small size in casual, compact cameras, for a high megapixel camera with a long lens on it I prefer a somewhat larger size (mass). I like the Nikon Z9 with the 400mm f/2.8 better than the Sony A1 with its version, for example. On the other hand, if we’re talking about using the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, I might reverse that. Size does matter. Getting the right size for the right use is critical. You’ll notice that virtually every review for cameras these days talks about grip and hand fit. Unfortunately, what fits me might not fit you. I doubt we can convince Canon, Nikon, and Sony to make each model in Small, Medium, and Large sizes (sorry, no Petite or Extra Large ;~). 

Skipping forward to quality, note the first paragraph in this section: every camera is good enough. Quality for DSLR or mirrorless today has evolved to nitpicking. Personally, I’m a nitpicker ;~). Yes, I’m constantly looking for better than what I already have in terms of capture ability. I don’t want the same old, same old in a new camera when I know from my long history in technology that better is not only always possible, but inevitable. However, this is the category that I’m most likely to give some leniency to.

Which brings us to what I feel is the most important of the three attributes I need: control. I can’t believe that after 30+ years of Internet-based criticism I’m dealing with some of the same problems still. And here is where the Japanese camera companies tend to fail most often: they simply don’t talk to enough photographers, watch what they’re doing, and ask the right questions about that. Indeed, most of the Japanese companies have a formal policy not to listen to ideas from outside the company without that person/company being vetted or signing an NDA. How do you make something for all customers when you only talk to a few of them, and then only on your terms? You don’t.

Apple has a clear advantage. Apple R&D, engineers, programmers, marketers all use a Mac, iPads, and iPhones. Apple’s employees are a huge customer base that absolutely knows what is and isn’t wrong with their product. But they also listen to others (though not as well as they could). 

Japanese camera companies, not so much. I’ve asked a number of engineers and marketing folk at various Japanese companies a simple question: which camera do you use? The majority of them immediately look like I’ve just asked them to disclose how many times they have sex a week. Very few answer will answer the question, and surprisingly, even fewer name the product they worked on ;~). So how would they know if the controls work or not?

Size, control, and quality. That’s what defines a great camera. In the coming decade, I predict that the Japanese camera companies will have no real problems with the quality side. They’ll have a few issues with size, particularly if they test grips on the home market too much. Where we as users will likely continue to complain is almost certainly going to center on control (or lack of it). 

Those of you with really long memories may recall that my first Internet review of a Nikon camera was for the N90s film SLR. Did I have a problem with the size? No. Did I have a problem with the quality? No. Most of my critical comments had to do with…yes, you guessed it…control. 

In that respect nothing is new in the camera world, and not likely to change.

Every once in awhile I think maybe I should get back into the technology business (e.g. return to Silicon Valley whence I came). It’s always driven by the thought that user problems can be better handled, user controls could be better. Of course, then I realize that folk like Elan Musk want you to take a nap while the car drives itself. 

 Looking for gear-specific information? Check out our other Web sites:
DSLRS: dslrbodies.com | mirrorless: sansmirror.com | Z System: zsystemuser.com | film SLR: filmbodies.com

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