2013 - some big beasts!
2016 - note how the GX7 is now second largest...
In 2013 I thought it would be interesting to write up a list of the cameras I have owned and how my photographic capabilities (but not necessarily my skills) have evolved with them. That was an interesting but largely historic review, however since then my "fleet" has turned over at quite a rate, as evidenced in the pictures above, and I've tried to keep the list up to date, with an account of what has changed, and why.
The first camera I could call my own, a manual-everything 35mm with a fixed 50mm lens. When I say "manual everything" I mean everything - you even had to remember to cock the shutter as a separate action from winding on the film, and there was no protection against a blank frame if you didn't. The lens took about 20s to move from closest focus to infinity, and rewinding the film was a five minute job which left you with very sore fingers!
(* earlier dates and physical details are approximate - my memory and record keeping are not that good!)
A university friend persuaded me to purchase his old Zenit, propelling me into the realm of interchangeable lenses. This was a Russian camera made from the same steel (and one could almost imagine in the same factory) as Soviet tanks. Bloody heavy, but so solid I once dropped it 30ft down a cliff in the Pyrenees, and found scarcely a scratch on it. The lenses used an old Pentax screw fit standard, slow in use but with a plentiful second hand supply, and at least I now had composition, focusing and metering through the lens. I'm not the only person who remembers these cameras with some fondness - the 2012 season of Whitechapel featured one being used by a crime scene officer (presumably sourced from the same suppliers as their ancient and ineffective ceiling lights)!
A present to myself for my 24th birthday, I traded in the Zenit for a fashionable but already ageing second-hand Canon AE1. With an odd cluster of lenses, mainly old 3rd party primes, this did good service for almost ten years. This one "just worked", and founded my long-running loyalty to Canon which was only really eroded in about 2013, when smaller mirrorless cameras started to get really good.
Another long runner. I bought this after my late friend Steve used one side by side with my AE1 to photograph our wedding, and I was very impressed with the auto-focus, accurate exposure control and sharpness of his pictures. Of course all things are relative - looking back at even the best work I did with it the shots are now rather under-inspiring, but that's down to technique as well as equipment. I survived 13 years with two kit zooms and a third party wide angle zoom: those were the days!
My first digital camera. Built like a brick, but ironically the only camera I have ever broken, after it went skidding across the floor in a theatre. The lens was pretty good, and I took some fine shots with what was essentially a high-end point and shoot, although unfortunately I only discovered the benefits of RAW right at the end of its tenure. Teamed up with the underwater housing it also produced some impressive underwater results. On the downside, its maximum ISO was 400, and on the standard rule which still applies today - don't use the top two speeds - that meant it could only produce decent output at 100 ISO, and interior shots were often disappointing to say the least.
Towards the end of my time with the EOS 1000 FN I was becoming suspicious of some exposure errors, and at the same time enamoured of the capabilities of my first digital camera. What I wanted was an SLR, but digital, something like a "digital SLR" (tm). :) However at that time most such devices seemed very expensive. Finally the Canon 350D managed to cross the threshold of affordability.
This was a revelation. Suddenly I had a camera which could take really great digital shots with my choice of lenses. I also had a new hobby, the acquisition coinciding with a change of work pattern which would prevent me following my stage activities, and a decision to stop spending quite so much money on cars...
Despite the Wyoming theatre incident, the S40 was repaired and lived to fight another day. However by mid 2007 I was tiring of its limitations, and decided to try something both new and much smaller, to supplement my new DSLR. What I didn't realise was the gulf in capabilities between something like the Canon Powershot S series and the next layer down the point and shoot hierarchy. The Ixus was noisy and inflexible, and I got rid of it after just one trip.
Unfortunately this was the point at which Canon, completely inexplicably, robbed their top fixed lens models (the S80 and G8) of a number of features essential to enthusiast use, particularly RAW support. So to properly replace my S40 I had to get the previous year's model, the S70. This was physically very similar to its predecessor, just with higher resolution and ISO performance. It's not a particularly memorable camera, but it worked solidly for a couple of years, including underwater.
A couple of years intensively studying digital photography, reading lots of magazines, had persuaded me that I needed (or maybe just wanted) to move up to an "enthusiast" model, and in 2008 I took the plunge and invested in the new Canon 40D. This was a brilliant camera, with which I did some of my best work, serving me well through a number of trips and events. The handling was perfect, image quality very good, and it never put a foot wrong.
The PowerShot S70 was only really a stop-gap in my search for the perfect small camera, and after only a year or so I traded up to the nearest new equivalent, the Canon G10, now with restored RAW capabilities and a number of other enthusiast-oriented features. Although this was a good camera it fell between two stools: the sensor was too small and performance too slow for it to be a "main" camera, and yet it was rather too big to just pocket and "carry anywhere". As such, I didn't use it much for general photography, reflected in the very low exposure rate. However, combined with the usual excellent Canon waterproof housing it served as my underwater camera until the arrival of the S120, providing reliable results even if occasionally compromised by slow reactions.
While the 40D and 350D were both excellent cameras for their time, the period 2006-10 saw a dramatic improvement in DSLR performance, resolution and low light capabilities. Then a couple of my photography tutors suggested that I might want to try selling stock images, but my cameras were at the bottom of acceptable image size, with no room for manoeuvre. Coupled with an apparent "sweet spot" for second hand sale at 3-4 years old, it was evidently time in 2010 for some upgrades. First I replaced the 350D with the 550D, gaining the excellent Canon 18 megapixel sensor and the ability to deliver good results up to ISO 3200. Until the recent arrival of the micro four thirds cameras this was my high quality, lightweight option. It proved particularly adept for concerts, cabarets and other "evening" shoots.
The 550D was finally replaced in "the great camera change of 2014", when I decided to retire all my Canon kit and focus on the Micro Four Thirds stuff. Hopefully this excellent little camera went to a good home.
The upgrade of 350D to 550D was pretty automatic, but I agonised rather longer over the 40D. Should I go "full frame"? Should I wait for a 60D? In the end I rationalised an upgrade to the 7D, arguing that I would not use the 40D once my smaller camera had greater capabilities, and that the 7D would preserve my lens ranges, the 40D's multiple custom shooting modes (an important feature for me), and the ability for the 550D to work as an effective spare body. While I didn't like the increased weight over the 40D, or some aspects of the ergonomics and low-ISO image quality, otherwise this just picked up and extended the role of the 40D. Several major trips and events and a vast amount of general shooting under the belt it was still going strong in 2014. The only problem was that Canon had not yet developed a replacement...
I finally bit the bullet in July 2014 when my friend David offered to buy my 7D, to replace one he'd dropped in the floods of Winter 2013-14. I had somewhat mixed feelings about whether it was finally time to get out of the Canon system, but I was so happy with the lightweight Panasonics that the choice eventually made itself. History has suggested that it was the right one.
Just as Canon came back strongly from the deficient G8 with the very good G9 and successors, they finally replaced the poor PowerShot S80 with the excellent S90. This effectively wrapped up the sensor and electronics of the G series with a smaller lens in a truly pocketable package half the size, yet still providing full manual control, decent ergonomics and full RAW support. This successful design has been progressively refined, and widely copied. My S95 became my "go anywhere" camera, usually in my pocket or a bag if I was not carrying a more powerful tool. Its small sensor and lens had a few limitations, and auto focus could be slow, but the portability made up for it. One particular strength is capturing memory shots of concerts and social events, which worked well as long as you metered carefully to avoid blown highlights.
While I found the Canon 7D (and the 40D before it) very effective tools, I had been complaining about their weight almost as long as I had them. For a while I explained to myself that what I wanted was a lighter camera, not a smaller one, as I did like the way cameras that size fit in my hand. However the realisation gradually dawned that to get a genuine improvement I would have to go down a size on sensor and therefore lenses. In 2012 the micro four thirds format was getting a real boost from both the introduction of the Olympus OM-D E5, and a strong advertising campaign by Panasonic. I tried the OM-D but couldn't get it to work in my hand, but liked the Panasonics and eventually purchased a GH2. I liked this camera immediately, and it rapidly became the choice for around town. The fact that this could more or less match the 7D for most work, at roughly 1/3 the weight for a body and three zooms, was astonishing. The only reason it didn't do even more work is because an even more capable successor was on the way.
The GH2 got replaced by its natural successor, a GH4, in "the great camera clear out of 2014".
Tired of the Canon G10's slow performance and the bulk of its underwater housing I agonised about whether it could be upgraded. I decided to try Olympus's allegedly "tough" camera with a waterproof body, the TG2. Big mistake. Apart from point and shoot limitations reminiscent of the Canon Ixus, it failed dramatically in its primary purpose and sprang a fatal leak on its first real use. (Read more here.) Rubbish.
When I bought the Panasonic GH2 it was already quite an old design, which shows in its high ISO limitations and auto-focus performance. Before long it was replaced, but by the heavier GH3. This didn't offer me much, but there were growing rumours of a smaller, lighter, "rangefinder"-style Panasonic with the same or even better electronics. By Summer 2013 I was also suffering severe gadget lust, frustrated by the Olympus TG2 debacle, and Canon's seeming inability to produce anything interesting. I ordered the Panasonic GX7 the day it was announced! It took seven long weeks to arrive, but as soon as I had it in my hands I realised it was a great solution for me. It performed well, produced great stills and video straight out of the camera, and the ergonomics were a better fit to my eyesight and working style than the GH2 (see here). For "walking around doing serious photography" it was a great package and in the first eight weeks of ownership I put over 2500 shots under the belt, by using it as the primary camera on my Morocco trip.
The GX7 continued as my main camera for two years, but even after the GX8's arrival still got the odd outing for social events. It had a minor renaissance in 2017, although not in my hands, when it stepped in as backup for another photographer on the Myanmar trip, which is why I'm not quite sure about the total shot count. When I purchased the Panasonic G9 I traded in the GX7 for such a good allowance it effectively had a 5 year lifecycle cost of £250!
I upgraded the Canon S95 to its natural successor, the S120. This was functionally very similar, but with improved performance at many levels. I also purchased the waterproof housing and retired the Canon G10, so hopefully killing two birds with one stone.
When, precipitated by precipitation, I finally got rid of my Canon 7D I needed a second Micro Four Thirds camera which could fill the gaps it left - I needed something a bit tougher than the GX7, and with better "action" capabilities. Fortunately Panasonic had recently introduced almost exactly the right machine - the GH4. This was functionally very similar to the GH2, if very slightly larger and heavier, but with the same "see in the dark" sensor as the GX7, could almost match the Canon 7D for action shooting, and was "splashproof and dustproof" when paired with the absolutely excellent 12-35mm and 35-100mm zoom lenses.
When I purchased it I said that time would tell whether this or the GX7 got the most usage. I loved the ergonomics of the GX7 and it's ability as a great "casual" camera which looks unthreatening, especially partnered with the tiny 14-42mm power zoom lens. On the other hand the GH4 is a supremely capable machine very well matched to the larger zooms.
In the end Panasonic made the choice easier, by releasing the GX8: similar form factor and ergonomics to the GX7, similar protection and autofocus to the GH4, and an improved sensor relative to both. The GH4 departed, and the GX8 arrived. The GH4 proved relatively costly in terms of cost net of resale relative to the number of images I made with it, but it fulfilled a useful purpose bridging the gap to a camera combination which meets my requirements very well.
I became interested in the idea of Infrared photography, particularly as a route to dramatic images in lighting conditions where visible light doesn't work so well. I tried the quick and dirty experiment of just putting a low-pass filter in front of the GH4, but that camera's built-in IR filter is so effective that the combination of both stops all light of any description! However browsing on eBay I sourced a professionally converted Panasonic GF3 from the US and that works brilliantly. It shares the same batteries as the GX7, and of course uses the same lenses and cables as my other cameras, so it's no problem to carry "body only" for when the right conditions present themselves.
I've found the best way to use this camera is as a high-contrast black and white specialist unit. Point it at vegetation with interesting shapes, moving water or a cloud-filled sky and the results are indeed dramatic. I don't take many shots with it, but the proportion of keepers is very high.
Although the Canon S120 is a decent little camera, it hasn't worked as well as I hoped as an underwater camera. The main issue is that it's rather too slow to focus. I have always shied away from the cost of a full housing for one of my larger cameras (as well as the risk of exposing expensive kit to the water), but realised early in 2015 that I could source a third party housing, a second-hand Panasonic GF6 and a spare 14-42mm power zoom lens for less than the cost of a direct replacement for the Canon G10. Again I'd benefit from sharing batteries, cables etc. with the other cameras, so the incremental weight for a trip should be minimal. The combo got its first outing in Barbados in 2015, and initial results were promising, for video as well as stills.
However, after a couple of trips I realised that I was struggling to see any real improvement over the S210, and in fact the smaller camera was more responsive to quick opportunities when snorkeling, so I sold the GF6 and housing, and continue on with the S120.
Earlier than expected, Panasonic updated the GX7 with a new version featuring a slightly larger body (but almost identical to the GX7 with the half-leather case, which is how I always used it), similar ergonomics to its predecessor but an even nicer EVF, better weather-proofing, similar autofocus to the GH4, and a shiny new 20MP sensor. Sold!
A drawback of the Canon S120 is that with its very small sensor, it struggles to deliver high-quality images in poorer lighting conditions. I conducted a short-lived experiment with a Panasonic GM5, in the hope that it would deliver GX7 quality in a small package, but that camera turned out to be simultaneously too large to be truly a "carry at all time" solution, but too small in terms of its controls and viewfinder, and the camera went back to Amazon.
I wasn't finished with the concept, and started looking at alternative compacts. Everyone was raving about the Sony RX100 mkIV, which delivers very high image quality and speed from a 1" sensor and compact body no larger than the S120, albeit not cheaply. However a night of sleep deprivation in Doha airport drove me to some "retail therapy", and a purchase of the RX100 resulted. So far I'm very pleased with the results, although I need to find opportunities to really get to know it, and I'll have to keep it for a while to get true value.
I'm always keen to take a wide view, and you can't get wider than 360 degrees, so I made a fun addition to my fleet of a Ricoh Theta 360 camera. This is an interesting object, since it encourages "found photography" - you hold it above your head, click, and you are not quite sure what you are going to get until later. Also, you have considerable latitude for how you convert the captured data into a final image, in terms of choosing focal points and perspective. It's no substitute for a careful panorama, but creates great images in the right situation.
The infrared GF3 is a great device, but in 2016 I realised that with the gradual change in my eyesight I was struggling to compose shots using its rear display with my glasses on, and I really wanted a similar camera but with an electronic viewfinder. The Panasonic GX7 looked like an obvious choice, so I tracked down the chap in the USA who converted the GF3 and commissioned a GX7 conversion using the same filters. This works brilliantly, although you do have to be patient with the autofocus, and it came perilously near an untimely end in pouring rain on an IR course in Northumberland.
I was hoping that the GX8's successor would fix its ergonomic quirks and add improved performance and features for sports and other more challenging stills shooting scenarios. The true successor turned out to be the DSLR-style G9, which apart from the styling and increased weight, was almost exactly what I had been asking for. I waited until I could strike a good deal for the upgrade, and my G9 arrived in June 2018. It's already done some good work although it's still not perfect - read my review here.
I currently own 6 digital cameras, which is arguably too many, and there are a couple of unresolved questions. At the moment I see no reason to upgrade my big Canons, but the 7D is still the best tool for fast action and some physical conditions. Could I manage entirely with the Micro Four Thirds cameras? That's a question for another blog, but I can see me trying in an increasing number of situations. There's still room for functional improvement - see my mid-term report on DSLR capabilities. I also still want to upgrade my underwater capability, and for various reasons it may make sense to upgrade the Canon S95 with the new S120, which might be capable of "dual duty".
Canon S120 replaces S95 and G10. Initial experiments look promising. Watch this space...
All change! In comes the Panasonic GH4, and out goes the Canon 7D, the Canon 550D, and the Panasonic GH2. I'm back to two main cameras and one main camera system. Is this the right move?
The infrared GF3 arrived before our trip to the USA in September 2014, and the waterproof GF6 combo arrived after Christmas. At that point I was back up to 5 cameras (from a low point of 3), but as they now largely share the same accessories the totality is much more manageable than before.
On the downside, the first proper test of the Panasonic GH4 for sports was a little disappointing. I think I need to put some effort into learning how to best use it, but realistically this generation of mirrorless cameras can't quite match the best DSLRs for action.
Beyond that it's all positive news, with a set of cameras all capable of very high quality video and stills in a wide range of environments. I can see a "tiny" Panasonic such as the GM5 joining the stable when funds allow, but otherwise no major changes in the pipeline.
I tried and rejected a Panasonic GM5, which turned out to be simultaneously too large and too small. However that didn't stop a busy summer of camera acquisition and disposal. The Panasonic GX8 replaced the GH4 in a fairly predictable cycle. The arrival of the Sony RX100mkIV was perhaps a bit more of a surprise impulse purchase occasioned by the poor sleeping arrangements at Doha airport, but seems to be earning its keep.
Like many others, I was disappointed by Panasonic's decision to send the GX8's natural successor, the GX9, down the range, and really replace it with the DSLR-style, heavier G9. However, I did get one and that's proving to be a good camera too.
Otherwise the main news is the departure of the GF6, and the GX7 which was not only a great camera, but a cheap one in lifecycle cost. There's still a GX7 in the fleet, but an infrared conversion.
One annoyance is that my Panasonic cameras now use three different batteries, and they can't all use the same chargers which was the case until the G9's arrival. Oh well, you pay your money and take your choice...
If you'd like to comment on this article, with ideas, examples, or just to praise it to the skies then I'd love to hear from you.