Situations I Care About Most

(commentary)

The headline is a snip from an email I was recently sent in relationship to camera choice: “…situations I care about most.”

This perhaps is a better way of expressing “good enough,” because it puts the emphasis back on the user and their intended use, where it should be.

One of the overall design tendencies in cameras dating all the way back into the 60’s is that the camera companies have been essentially trying to expand the number of situations in which the camera “does the right thing.” When you go back that far, you can start to discuss things in an interesting way:

  • User cares about getting acceptable results in situations other than direct sunlight. Add exposure meter to camera so that they can adjust the amount of light that hits the film. Next add automated metering systems. Eventually add complex, multi-decision metering systems.
  • User cares about getting acceptable results with non-static subjects. Add autofocus to the camera. Next add more focus sensors. Eventually add complex, multi-decision focus systems.
  • User cares about getting immediate results. Switch to digital.


One could argue that, at least with DSLRs, most of the situations that most users would encounter where they want to take a photograph are dealt with: exposure, focus, immediacy, and so on. 

So what “situations” still exist where users not getting what they want? 

  • Low light? I’d argue that the 24mp DX sensors are perfectly fine 90% of the time. What would make them fine more of the time? Not better sensors as you might think I’d argue. Nope. Better lenses. The kit lens situation is f/3.5 best case, f/5.6 worst case, and probably f/4.5 average case. What will give you an immediate full stop+ advantage over average case? You guessed it, constant f/2.8 aperture DX lenses. Does Nikon make any? One: the old, heavy, non-VR, and expensive 17-55mm. How about primes? We could easily produce f/2 primes and gain yet another stop. Does Nikon make any? One: the excellent 35mm f/1.8. You might argue that the FX 50mm f/1.8 and FX 85mm f/1.8 suffice for telephoto primes. Okay, but that still leaves you without any real wide angle options, and where are you most often in low light? Indoors, where you can’t keep backing up to frame your subject. 
  • Sports? The soccer mom or football dad sitting in the bleachers wants to get good images of their children during games. Nikon makes plenty of great telephoto lenses, right? Sure. But 70-200mm is not enough for these situations. The 70-300mm and 80-400mm are f/5.6 out beyond 200mm, so you’re losing two stops of light you might need. What would make these folks fine more of the time? Not better sensors as you might argue. Nope, how about the 300mm f/4 AF-S VR? Or a 400mm f/4 AF-S VR? Something that’s not outlandishly expensive but is designed for optimal results (not a zoom) and isn’t slow as molasses. Does Nikon make any? Well, they have a 300mm f/4 AF-S that doesn’t have VR that’s needed updating for a long time. 


I could go on with a long list of “situations people care about,” but thing is, for virtually every situation I can think of I keep coming back to mostly the same solution: lenses. Not more pixels, more dynamic range, not more accurate or faster autofocus, not any of the things that are usually asked for. Not that I wouldn’t welcome those changes, but the gains we can make in almost all of those technologies simply don’t move the bar very far very fast. More often than not what does is having the right lens on the camera. 

Nikon has basically two pushes with lenses these days: more consumer kit-lens types and expensive redesigns of existing FX lenses. 

Put another way, the first Nikon lens push is mostly just about offering more choices for the DX telephoto end (18-55, 18-70, 18-105, 18-135, 18-140, 18-200, 18-300, or 55-200 and 55-300). It’s the “crop less by buying a more expensive variation” solution. Despite the fact that we’ve got more pixels than most people know what to do with. We could just put a crop dial on the camera that you could set a minimum for (e.g. 6mp, 8mp, 12mp, 16mp) and do it in the camera without a lens. Of course, you might want to make the viewfinder show that, which adds a little complexity, but still, why do we need a 28-140mm, 28-200mm, and 28-300mm lens for 24mp cameras? Is the situation that matters most really “I need 24mp at 300mm?” Or is that “I want my kid making the play in enough resolution I can post it online?” 

Meanwhile, put another way the FX Nikon lens push is basically “we did all the lenses that ever really needed to be done, so we’re just updating some of them now.” Really? You guys sure about that? Or are you just repeating yourself because it’s easy? And not all lenses are candidates for updating?

As I was originally writing this piece, one of the other questions that was coming into my InBox was from students getting ready to go to an African safari workshop. Do they ask which camera to bring? Nope. They ask which lens should they bring? And yes, the answers can be different for different safaris. In the South African game preserves I don’t think I’d bother with anything over 400mm. You can usually zoom with the vehicle if need be. Indeed, I often find myself backing up the vehicle ;~). In the Serengeti, I’d want 600mm, maybe even 800mm if I could afford/carry it. Why? because you can’t drive off road without getting arrested and fined. It is fairly common that you see great stuff, but also it tends to be more distant from your vehicle than you’d like and you can’t maneuver your vehicle enough to fix that. 

So it’s great that Nikon makes great 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, 600mm, and 800mm telephoto lenses. I can pick the one I need for the situation I care about at the moment. Of course, Canon recently one-upped Nikon on that. The situation I most care about in Africa is variable. The only high-end zoom I have available is the Nikon 200-400mm (yes, I’m aware that there are other third-party options, but this is about whether a camera maker is addressing the situations you care about most). You don’t want to change lenses in most African safari conditions (which includes unmounting a lens and adding a converter). Canon’s solution? A 200-400mm with a built-in 1.4x converter you can flip a switch to get in place. Suddenly I have a 200-560mm f/4-5.6 lens. And given my recent experience shooting with it for two days, it’s a damned fine lens, even with the converter in place. 

It seems really weird for me to be writing this. Nikon, after all, was a strong and well regarded optical company through most of their history. Yet what’s letting down their ability to address many, if not most situations customers care about most? I’d argue that it is lenses. If you’re a DX user, I don’t think I need to argue that at all, you already know that’s your real problem.

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