One Size Fits All

I’ve found that I’ve used the term Goldilocks solution a few times in the past couple of weeks. In thinking about it some more, we all seem to be caught in a bit of Fool’s Choice. 

Fool’s Choice is where you think you’ve narrowed everything down to just two options. In terms of camera gear, that might be: (1) a camera that does everything; or (2) multiple cameras that do the specialty things you need done. 

I’ve written about “best all-around cameras” (#1) numerous times. However, I’d not put many cameras into that category that I’d recommend to someone. Here’s my full list of current cameras you should consider if you’re looking for #1: Canon R5, Nikon D850, Nikon Z9, Sony A7 Mark IV, Sony A1. That’s about it. 

A true all-around camera probably has to be full frame, because two of the things you might want to some day perform are low light work and high subject isolation. The smaller sensor cameras start to be a little less capable of those things. Meanwhile, to be truly all-around, you also need high focus performance and high frame rates. That rules out medium format given the current offerings. 

You can’t really call a 24mp camera “all-around,” as it starts to have cropping limitations, plus you’re ruling out really large output (e.g. 48” prints).  

One reason I don’t do wedding and a number of other types of photography is that I have a preference for #2: specialized cameras that do what I need done. Since most of the critical work I still do revolves around sports and wildlife, I want a camera that helps me with those two things first and foremost. Anything else the camera might be able to do is a side benefit. 

Right now, my number one camera—the one I use the most—is the Nikon Z9, which is both a great #1 and #2 choice. I have no qualms about it for sports and wildlife work as most of the time I’m thinking about focus, frame rate, timing, all things the Z9 does as well as any other current camera, if not better. Why do I still use a D6, too? Because it also excels at those things I’m concentrating on, and it is somewhat better in really low light with unusual or limited spectrum. 

I also do landscape work, and there we start to see how all-around can fail you a bit. Oh, the Z9 has the pixels I need. After using the 61mp Sony A7R Mark IV for a bit, I went back to 45mp cameras for landscape work: the 19mm PC-E on the Nikon 45mp sensors stitched does better than the 61mp Sony with the 20mm, even considering the sensor shift capabilities of the A1, which are not only a nuisance to deal with, but don’t seem to provide as much benefit as I would expect. 

But the Z9 is a heavy, vertical grip camera. For landscape work I prefer Going Galen (small and light) so as to get my camera to places you don’t normally see photographs from. Thus, I tend to use the Z7 II instead of the Z9 for that type of photography. Ditto for travel photography. So no Goldilocks for me with the Z9. 

The real reasons why people want an all-around Goldilocks solution are these:

  • Expense. As it turns out, one expensive camera that can do everything reasonably well is less expensive than multiple cameras that can do a smaller number of things well. Indeed, the speciality cameras don’t tend to be inexpensive, either. You could, for instance, buy a Sony A7R Mark IV (pixels) and a Sony A9 Mark II (speed). That’s US$7500 for two bodies. Or you could get a Sony A1 (pixels and speed) and an additional lens for the same price. 
  • Carrying. If you’re headed off on a trip where more than one photographic opportunity comes up, then the all-around camera has you covered. By contrast, carrying multiple bodies for different things starts to become a packing/carry issue. Yes, that provides you a back-up camera, but it’s not necessarily optimized to what you need it to do if your other camera succumbs.
  • Accessibility. You’re photographing scenics when the lion suddenly walks out of the bushes. You’re now wanting to move from landscape to wildlife photography. With an all-around camera I’d just flip my banks to action and keep photographing. With speciality cameras, I might be now shuffling around in pack to get out my action camera.

Of course, what applies to cameras, also applies to lenses. Here we see different problems pop up.

For many, the best all-around lens turns out to be a superzoom (e.g. 28-200mm or larger range). Unfortunately, that’s only all-around in the focal length sense. Aperture isn’t very all-around, particularly as you zoom in, and optically the more a lens has to transition from wide angle to telephoto, the more other optical compromises get built in. 

I’m going to argue that the best all-around lenses these days are the 24-105mm or 24-120mm f/4 lenses. Largish focal range, but by stopping before we get to long telephoto and using a constant aperture design, we get a lens that can handle lower light better than the superzooms, plus these lenses are turning out to be optically quite good as they don’t have to make as many optical compromises as the superzooms. The Sony 24-105mm f/4G and the Nikon 24-120mm f/4 S are my current all-around choices, and reasonably priced, too. 

It used to be that I carried suited-to-purpose lenses for everything I might tackle on a trip. It used to be that carrying a 45 pound pack around didn’t bother me, nor did stopping and rummaging through said pack for the “right” lens for the situation I had hiked to (though that lion that just poked out of the bushes isn’t going to wait for me to change lenses ;~). 

So, Goldilocks solutions are rarely perfect. “Just right” tends to actually end up as “nearly right.” So the question you have to ask yourself is how close to right is close enough? 


Bonus: related to the above is the “I’ll wait for the next camera/lens because it will have XYZ.” Those folk are waiting for a Goldilocks solution. Look backwards in camera history: it’s never happened. Yes, cameras get better each round of iteration, but every time a new camera comes out you’ll find plenty of complaints about something that isn’t right, and people who are waiting say that they’ll wait some more. 

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