Contentment is not an emotion I’m prone to experience.
I’m always on the road from where I’ve been to where I plan to go, but am rarely where I am.
The one exception has been my camera strategy — which has remained remarkably consistent for over a decade. It would probably surprise the average photo pundit to know this, but I am fundamentally happy with my photographic style, and with the equipment I use to achieve it.
The only downside to all this complacency has been its affect on this site’s web stats. Since I feel little need to discuss modern digital cameras, I tend to write about other stuff, like Googling my own name, or driving with a dog on one’s lap. It’s an inclination squarely at odds with the old “better camera gear = better photographer” myth that populates the internet.
My digital strategy consists of three prongs: 1) a Leica M (for the majority of my considered photos); 2) a pocketable Ricoh GR (for the majority of my unconsidered photos); and 3) an Olympus OMD-EM1 (for “swiss army knife” purposes).
Each prong, though fundamentally stable, has evolved somewhat through the years. The M8 begat the M9, which begat the realization that I was converting 100% of the M photos to B&W, which therefore begat the M246 Monochrom, which begat the M10M Monochrom. Naturally, I don’t consider the M10M to be perfect — I’d like a bit of in-body image stabilization; a smidgeon more weather sealing; a sleeker and modern-spec’d electronic viewfinder accessory; and a few less megapixels. But I am invested in the line for as long as Leica wishes to support it. It’s the single most essential piece of photographic hardware I own.
The pocketable Ricoh entered my orbit as the not-quite pocketable GXR back around 2010, which begat the fully pocketable GR in 2013, before the inevitable begetting of the GRIII in 2019. It too, is not as perfect a system as I would like — mostly because I’d still prefer Ricoh make a digital version of the GR21. But for as long as clothing manufacturers make pockets and Ricoh makes GR-series cameras to slip into them, I’ll be there.
I began to dabble in Micro Four Thirds back in 2009, when I purchased the very first model — the Panasonic G1. This begat a lot of dabbling with each new generation of Panasonic body, until 2013 — when I switched to the Olympus OMD-EM1, and the dabbling begat devotion. The EM1 lineup miraculously manages to include every possible blade, spork, corkscrew, gadget and toothpick I could ever want in a single, weather sealed, lightweight and affordable Swiss Army Camera. After its arrival, all my other ‘general use’ cameras found their way onto Craigslist, and I knew I’d be sticking with the Olympus system for as long as Olympus stuck with me.
Olympus’ sudden departure from the camera & lens business means that, for the first time in a decade, my camera complacency boat is getting rocked.
Fortunately, there are numerous alternatives in the world of Swiss Army Cameras, with each system designed to appeal to as many photographic needs as possible. My own needs are rather pedestrian, and distill to a list of ten basic requirements:
- Robust weather sealing
- Acceptable quality when used with M-mount lenses
- Superb, native format auto-focus lenses
- Small and lightweight
- Excellent in-body image stabilization (IBIS)
- Pleasing image quality
- Fiscally sensible
- Well-established and supported lens mount
- Highly customizable buttons & dials
- Decent video (’cause, maybe, one day…)
The Olympus checks every one of these boxes, earning only a single demerit for the 2x crop factor it applies to M-mount lenses (though it means I have a sudden wealth of beautiful telephotos). Fortunately, the wide end is still served by some stellar native lenses, and the OMD rarely leaves the condo without an Olympus 17mm f/1.2 Pro lens acting as the body cap. Inside the condo, the camera is frequently fronted with the 60mm macro lens — a combination that has served as my primary film ‘scanner’ for the past 7 years. My miserly manner appreciates the plethora of used system lenses; my delicate colour sensibilities — though rarely exercised — respond positively to Olympus’ colour science; and while higher ISOs tend to be a bit noisy, I actually like the character of that noise — so it’s never been an issue for me. Video capabilities on the OMD far exceed mine; I never experience any fatigue from carrying it for hours at a time; its 5-axis IBIS lets me hand-hold ridiculously slow shutter speeds; and Olympus’ weather sealing is heads and pompadours above the competition.
The only SNAFU is that Olympus is about to join Minolta, Contax, and other wonderful camera companies in the dustbin of history. So while Olympus may once have been “well-established and supported,” their abrupt departure implies it will not see the light of future innovation.
My first and most prevalent thought is to simply keep using the system for as long as it satisfies my needs. I shoot film, and I don’t worry one bit about the fact that most of those camera systems don’t exist anymore. So, really — as long as I can still find batteries — there’s no reason to move on from a perfectly adequate system. I’m even considering doubling down, and have started to keep an eye out for any panic selling of Olympus Pro prime lenses.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t use Olympus’ exit as an opportunity to see what the alternatives might be. Given my quasi-association with Leica, and the curious fact that I actually own an SL2 battery (though not the actual camera), the new Leica SL2 seemed like an ideal starting point. So after a quick email exchange with the local Leica rep, I found myself in temporary possession of an SL2, a 16-35 L-mount lens, and a Leica M-mount adapter.
The Leica SUPER-VARIO-ELMAR-SL 16–35 f/3.5–4.5 ASPH is an absolute bazooka of a lens, weighing as much as a small mountain lion, and handling just as unwieldily. I suspect the primary reason for its size is that Leica needed to ensure there would be enough room to write the product name. Truth be told, I know next to nothing about native L-mount lenses, so I naturally assumed any zoom this slow, and with a variable aperture, must be a cheap “kit” lens. Because of this assumption, I decided my best choice was to carry this ‘cheap’ lens around town while I familiarized myself with the SL2’s many features and menus. It was only after getting home that I checked the lens’ price — $8,400 Canadian Loonies. I awoke from my dead faint some two days later, and promptly swapped the bazookalion for the M-mount adapter.
From that point forward, it was all M-glass all the time, and I experimented with a wide swath of new and old Leica and Voigtlander lenses — most of which performed admirably on the SL2. Keeping in mind that an M-body’s specially designed sensor is required to achieve maximum M-glass performance, some corner degradation was to be expected — and the SL2 did, indeed, degrade. However, the slight quality trade-off one gets from mounting M-glass on the SL2 might be worth the many other advantages offered by a Swiss Army Camera — particularly since my real M-cameras are either of the film or digital Monochrom variety. I had originally planned to do some detailed, pixel-peeping body/lens comparisons, but once I observed the lenses in actual use, I deemed such comparison unnecessary. Would I use M-lenses on an SL2? Gladly. Do they perform as well as on an M body? No.
Speaking of bodies, the SL2 is quite large and heavy (at least from the viewpoint of a guy who shoots M, GR and OMD bodies). But in spite of the bulk, the SL2 was surprisingly easy to carry for hours on end (with M-lenses, of course). The camera’s ergonomics are much improved over the original SL, though the first version’s Bauhaus-inspired minimalism looks much nicer sitting on a shelf — which is exactly where my Swiss Army camera usually resides.
Image quality can be outstanding — readily revealing both the price of your chosen lens, and the amount of technical effort that went into the care and feeding of those 47 million pixels. This presents a tremendous upside for anyone engaged in a formal, technical photographic discipline. However, if you own a stable of ‘vintage’ lenses and engage in informal, non-technical photography, you will readily see the downside of so many megapixels. I’m not shooting automobiles in the studio, homes for Architectural Digest, nor landscapes to hang over the sofa. I’m shooting metaphors. And it doesn’t take 47 megapixels to shoot a metaphor.
So for my casual needs, a Swiss Army Camera with 47 mpix is probably two times too many. Unless I had a lot of light, used a very fast shutter speed, or locked that sucker to a tripod, I didn’t see any demonstrable benefit to shooting files that clog up my hard drive and slow down my editing process. Obviously, what’s a ‘negative’ to me might well be a ‘positive’ to someone else — but I’m not planning to become Mr. Tripod any time soon. It would be nice to see Leica offer it with a choice of sensor — not everyone needs or wants 47 megapixels. 24 is probably the sweet spot, but I’d be really happy to see some of that modern sensor tech applied to, say, a 16 mpix sensor. Now that would likely yield some truly stellar, low noise, high dynamic range files. I can only imagine the clarity of the metaphors!
All said and done, I’m a bit conflicted on the SL2. It would give me many of the things I want in a Swiss Army Camera — particularly in regards to M-mount compatibility, but the price vs need factor makes the “fiscally sensible” requirement totally out of whack for me. Particularly since I wouldn’t be able to afford a single L-mount lens, thus negating nearly every benefit of owning a “jack of all trades” camera. Sure, I still need to sell my M246 Monochrom, which would help defray the cost — but I honestly think that’s a windfall better spent on food, utilities, and synthesizers.
So for now, I’m going to remain in an awkward state of limbo, and see what transpires with Olympus (specifically), and with the Micro Four Thirds format (in general). I must admit however, that in spite of its video focus, Sony’s new a7s III might just go well with a nice wedge of Emmentaler. Unfortunately, I have no Sony contacts, and thus no way of borrowing one to test. Which is probably fine — I don’t even own a spare battery for it.
©2020 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THE PHOTOS: The photos accompanying this article should be all the proof one needs that the current trend in high-res, super-fidelity monster cameras doesn’t really speak to me. “The Middle of Between” (shot with a Leica M10M and an old v4 35mm f/2 Summicron lens) was taken when I decided to take a ‘night off’ from shooting the SL2. It represents exactly the sort of photo I tend to gravitate toward. “Fluxion” (shot with the Olympus and a first-generation ‘Leicasonic’ 25mm f/1.4 ASPH DG Summilux) was taken on an evening soon after returning the SL2, and it represents the ‘status quo’ of my current ‘swiss army’ strategy. “Toyota” illustrates why it’s always nice to have a weather-sealed camera, and it was shot beneath a steady rain, using the Leica SL2 and a Voigtlander 50mm f/1.5 Nokton M-mount lens. It also illustrates why most camera manufacturers aren’t overly interested in having me review their cameras. Sure, I took hundreds of ‘pretty’ shots while I was testing the SL2, but they’re pedantic, boring, pointless, and not at all representative of how I wish to ultimately use a camera. After realizing I’d never be able to afford a native L-mount lens, I shot “Obscura” with the SL2 and no lens at all. Those wishing to duplicate my frugality, but not my infatuation with flare, should avoid pointing their tiny metal pinholes directly at the sun.
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