If you want to change your photographs, you need to change cameras. Changing cameras means that your photographs will change. A really good camera has something I suppose you might describe as its own distinctive aura.
-- Nobuyoshi Araki
I’m usually quite critical of people who obsess about equipment and just shoot images of brick walls in their back yard, being of the belief that a good photographer can take a good image with any camera. I still think that is largely true, but after having read the quote above from famous Japanese photographer Araki, (off the Tokyo camera website) I have come to realize that the personality of the camera you use really can affect the kind of images that you take. Or that you don’t take, because you feel constrained, by either the ergonomics, the overall feel or the camera’s technical performance.
I'm pretty much of a Nikon person, having used the brand since getting my first Nikon, a Nikon EM sometime in the late seventies, when I was still a student. Today, I'm pretty happy with the DSLR's that I shoot, the Nikon D3s and the D700. I feel no compelling urge to upgrade or jump to another brand.
Compact cameras are another story. Having a smallish, quality camera that one can slip into a carry bag and have with you all the time has been a quest of mine since owning the first small Coolpix that I had, the Nikon CP5000, about 10 years ago. It's been a fairly fruitless quest as the megapixel wars have intensified into double-digit figures and in fact image quality on some of the newer compacts is smudgier and noisier than some much older models.
Having a smallish camera that really works well is very important to me, for a number of reasons. As a documentary photographer, one really should have a camera accessible all the time. Lugging a DSLR and lenses around, unless one is on a specific assignment, is cumbersome, and can even be somewhat dangerous in more dodgy areas. Finally, it needs to work well and deliver a publication-worthy image just in case you get that ‘shot in a million.’ One is more likely to get that great shot if you have a camera with you, but the shot could be rendered pretty useless if it's technically poor.
Enter the V1, Nikon's upper end compact camera in the new 1 system that was somewhat controversially received on introduction. It has numerous critics, and many fans. I've been using one for a few months now, and in many ways it's a pretty good system. Advantages of the camera include its stealthy design and, with the electronic shutter - silent operation, very fast focusing, and very pleasing image quality at lower ISO's. At those lower ISO's, the V1 produces some great files, with outstanding colour - at nearly about the level of an entry-level camera such as the D40 or D3100. The colours are rich and the tone levels have been developed with consumers in mind, so images look pretty good straight out of the camera. At higher ISO's things do start falling apart no matter how many reduced JPEGS you see on the forums, showing higher noise fidelity than would the full-sized file. If you are going to have a camera system with a smaller sensor, you need fast lenses to accompany it, which the 1 series doesn’t have yet. I need up to ISO 1600, and I need to use ISO 3200 on occasions in publication-worthy format. That means I need clean files which have not been overly noise reduced. But I’m not greedy or silly – I don’t expect a compact camera to give me Nikon D3s noise performance.
No matter how much I want to give the V1 an absolute recommendation, I still think that the most accurate description is that the image quality is surprisingly good given the size of the sensor. That's a bit like saying that great special effects make a movie great, no matter what the rest of the plot or production is like. If the Nikon had a bigger sensor, I think they would have an instant winner in the V1, because it's a fun camera to use and it's snappy attitude can bring the fun back into image taking in the same way that my iPhone has. But it does what it does well given the limitations…but why have the limitations?
In addition, it’s a fairly expensive camera with some irritating quirks, not least of which are the control dial and the somewhat flimsy control wheel at the back of the camera, and the lack of a customizable button or two. Put some decent functionality on that dial, like P,S,A and M and give all those buttons a quality feel by making them a bit bigger and less cheap shiny plastic Coolpix-like, and at the same quality level as the rest of the body, and that will add a lot more value to the V1. I’m just not that wild about some aspects of the build quality of the V1 – my one lens has an intermittent sticky release button, which often means having to tug a bit at the front part of the lens to unstick it, and there are quite a few other small production issues that give one the feeling that Nikon have not yet quite gotten the Chinese factory up to the quality of their products made in Japan or Thailand.
The other day I got to use the new Canon G1-X, which is a bit like an ordinary G-series camera on steroids. Although many have criticized the way it looks, I think it is just splendid. It looks robust, functional and like it means business. It has a nice heft about it, which makes it easy to hold still, and the made in Japan body is really well put together. Most of it is metal, except for the top cover, which is plastic – a bit silly on an otherwise tank-like camera.
Sure, the Canon is not without the issues that many reviewers have pointed to – close focus can be a bit of a bother without switching to macro, and it’s not for shooting sports or birds in flight. Yes, the viewfinder is a tunnel with no information, and you can see the lens barrel. I can live with that. Even thought the Nikon V1 has a very good electronic viewfinder, I really prefer seeing things optically if I am going to use a viewfinder – that’s just my personal user experience. I find it hard to see the fine nuances of human emotion – a slightly raised eyebrow, a glint in the eye, through an electronic viewfinder.
But for the kind of photography I do, I haven’t found the Canon to be too slow at all. I also really like the layout of the controls and the functional top deck dials. I find it a very satisfying camera to work with. It’s a great street camera.
But the most satisfying thing about the Canon is the kind of confidence one gets from the camera in terms of the quality of the files it outputs. They are simply superb, (but beware the highlights) and as good as a modern entry to medium level DSLR. I think they are the best files I have had from any non-DSLR camera, by far. Wonderful image quality! In second spot, in terms of noise control, I’d have to say my Sony NEX 5 was great, however there is something about the Sony files that look digital – they just don’t have the same film-like qualities that Canon and Nikon do – but then Sony made video cameras long before they made still-cameras, and to me, that still shows in their current product offerings.
Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention that you can get some depth of field out of the Canon without too much difficulty, the lack of which is something of an annoyance with the V1, especially when one wants to isolate some aspect in a crowded street environment.
For the first time since 1992, I have felt the confidence in a small non-DSLR camera that were the one in a million shot to appear, the Canon G1-X would give me a file that I could use. That kind of confidence actually makes one take better images, because you feel more able to push the envelope than using a camera that delivers lesser quality files.
Of course, one is ever hopeful that a hybrid will arrive – the speed and joy of using the simple Nikon V1, with the optical hybrid viewfinder of the otherwise really slow Fuji X100, with the image quality of the Canon G1-X. I live in hope, and I’m sure I will go through a good few more compact cameras before that day arrives, but for the moment I feel a sense of satisfaction that there are some good choices out there for a photographer on the move. I really like the Nikon V1, but the Canon G1-X has, for me, a definite edge in terms of image quality. I like the confidence it gives me.
ALL the images here were taken in Cape Town, South Africa one afternoon using the Canon G1-X. There are other posts in my blog with the Nikon V1. I've toned down the colour images to reflect the mood I wanted to convey.