The Goldilocks Problem

Once upon a time there were three photographers, who lived together in a studio of their own. One was a little, small, wee photographer; one was a mid-sized photographer; while the last was a great, huge photographer… [spoiler alert: no one lived happily ever after]

What size should a camera body be?

Okay, quiet down. Don’t all talk at once. 

It seems that with every new rumor, with every new camera announcement, we get an ongoing debate about whether the body is too small or too big. For what it’s worth, that’s been true since, well, forever. 

Three factors tend to come into play: age, hand size, and lens size. 

The older you get, the smaller and lighter you seem to want the camera body. Overall, the average age of interchangeable lens camera (ILC) users has risen, so the trend has been to see more and more people ask for smaller and lighter camera bodies.

Your hand size doesn’t really change once you’re an adult. If you had large hands in your twenties, you still have large hands in your sixties. The large hand crowd is vocal about many recent camera bodies getting too small for them.

Lens size has gone both ways. The last two Z-mount lenses I received were an almost not there 26mm f/2.8 pancake and the large and over five pound 800mm f/6.3 PF VR S. The former disappears on pretty much all my camera bodies—it doesn’t even stick out past the hand grip—while the latter looks ridiculous and is difficult to handle with a Z30 mounted to it.

In order to have a Goldilocks solution, it seems, you need to know if Goldilocks is a world class weight lifter or petite cheerleader. 

What doesn’t help is that the camera makers tend to make their less expensive, crop-sensor cameras small and light, but their top pro bodies into three-pound bricks. What happens is that if you want small and light you tend to have to buy at a lower level, and if you want a larger camera for some reason, you have to buy at the top level.

A partial exception to this is Sony, who’s been avoiding building large bricks and concentrating on the smaller and lighter side. But even the Sony bodies have been growing some in size as the grip deepens in response to the many “too small” comments that they’ve encountered, while the articulating LCDs are adding a bit of depth, as well. Still, from A7 to A1 (with an A9 thrown in), the Sony full frame body sizes are relatively constrained to a narrow size/weight range. 

I’ve long been critical of Olympus—now OM Digital Solutions—for making bodies far larger than their small sensors need. The E-M1X, one of those traditional big brick bodies, didn’t make a lot of sense to me, as it abandoned one of the m4/3 mount’s clear benefits. But even the current OM-1 is bigger than it probably should be, given the smaller lens sizes of m4/3.

One of the reasons why my late mentor Galen Rowell loved his F4 so much and the F5 not at all was that the F4 was configurable. To a large degree it pioneered the “vertical grip add-on” capability that so many ask for these days for the smaller bodies. Galen could go stripped down with the basic F4 (4 fps, 4 AA batteries), or bulked up (5.7 fps, 6 AA batteries). In my observation, most of the time he went stripped down, but he was also mostly just using a small 20mm f/4 prime on it while run/climbing the sides of mountains. 

That lens thing is the tricky part of the equation. For sports and wildlife photography where I’m using big heavy lenses, the larger Z9 body with its excellent hand grip and control positions is absolutely the right camera. When I want to “go Galen” and roam the backcountry pursuing landscape opportunities while panting up the sides of hills, not so much. The smaller and lighter Z7 II becomes the body I use. 

You’ll note the issue that brings up, though: I have to buy two different bodies to cover my needs with the best possible solutions. 

Which brings us back to the vertical grip add-ons. In my experience, those introduce an eventual point of failure that’s made more visible by the all-electronic nature of our cameras. In most cases, we’re mounting plastic on plastic these days, with all the attendant problems of that, particularly as most use small plastic tabs to align and position the grip in place. That plastic wears over time, and using the tripod thread to be the locking mechanism isn’t optimal since the tripod mount itself is often not part of the frame. (That last bit is one of the reasons why I prefer an Arca-style bottom plate attached to my camera to mount to a tripod, by the way; a well-designed plate doesn’t put varying pressure on the tripod socket itself.)

Even a “perfect” vertical grip add-on wouldn’t be perfect, though. Take a close look at the vertical grip control positions on a Z9: some of them are on what would have been the main body (or at the seam between body and removable grip). Most of the vertical grips move the control positions and thus change your muscle memory of where controls should be. Some grips just leave off some of those controls.

One solution, of course, would be to build identical cameras except for grip. To a large degree, that’s what Olympus tried to do with the E-M1 and E-M1X. The problem with that approach is that customers don’t exactly resonate with it. The big brick body has to be more money than the small svelte one, and the brick can’t slim down while the smaller body can bulk up (vertical grip addition). Then there’s the temptation of adding things to the brick version to justify its higher cost. And of course, there’s the addition of another SKU in a time when all the camera companies are trying to cut down on how many options they offer.

No Goldilocks solution truly exists. Mostly because Goldi isn’t a singular type of customer in the first place. At the risk of stepping into a sexist discussion, I have noticed that women tend to like the smaller, lighter cameras, while men have more of an affinity for big. If the industry is to attract more women into the buying equation, they’re going to have to emphasize smaller and lighter. Indeed, let’s add ageism to the discussion: the youngest and the oldest both want smaller and lighter, while (the men) in the middle gravitate towards bigger. 

If the previous paragraph is even close to true, that presents a real problem for the camera companies. With ILC unit sales staying under 6m annually, they can’t afford to lose any potential customer, young, middle-aged, old, female or male. 

Still, the bottom line is that no Goldilocks solution truly exists, so the heated debate on what size any given camera should actually be will continue unabated. Okay, you can all talk at once again...

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