A new toy brings more joy into my photo workflow.
I bought something a few weeks ago. I’ll say that quietly, as I’ve been doing a very good job of curtailing my gear acquisition syndrome so far this year, and this was definitely an unplanned fall off the wagon. To be fair, it was an item on my scheduled purchases for the year. So, buying it didn’t come completely out of the blue. It’s just that there were far more practical items on the list ahead of it that, objectively speaking, should have been purchased first.
In fact, if we are speaking objectively, this particular purchase falls firmly into the want category instead of the need category. From a professional standpoint, I have all the camera gear I’m going to need for the foreseeable future. And, as someone fortunate enough to own the new Nikon Z9, I feel fully comfortable that my clients are well covered regardless of the brief.
So why, if I already own the camera at the top of the Nikon Z line, did I decide to buy one much closer to the bottom of it? Well, for fun, of course.
I was lucky enough to review the Nikon Z fc when it was first announced last year. Its retro styling brought about waves of nostalgia for Nikon users and took aim at some of the style-conscious camera market dominated by Fuji’s X series in recent years. In terms of the sensor, the image quality was on par with the existing Nikon Z 50, which had been released a year prior, and is still on par with the sensor of the recently released Z 30 entry level social media camera. None of the three are aimed at the high-megapixel, high-pressure, commercial productions which provide my living. Instead, they are alternative versions of entry level cameras which appeal to different Nikon users and take advantage of the brand's burgeoning line of Z mount lenses.
Upon my initial review, I pointed out how hard a time I was having giving back the loaner camera. Although it served no real business purpose to my particular use case, the sheer enjoyment that I gleaned from using the device was enough to give me pangs of remorse when having to return the loaner through UPS. I am a big proponent of thinking of camera purchases as investments rather than as gilded toys. But, I also am a big believer that if you want to develop your eye professionally, one of the best ways to do so is to practice “seeing.” This can take many forms, but, for me, this often takes the shape of my daily afternoon walks or the occasional weekend photo safari. These are not days when I’m looking to come back with fresh material for my portfolio. Rather, these are just times when I go out to really study light, color, and composition. The images are likely never going to make it off my hard drive. But the act of creating them teaches me something and develops my skill set.
Now, it is not at all uncommon for me to go gallivanting through the streets of Los Angeles carrying thousands of dollars and several pounds worth of photo gear just to take street shots. But, when trying to go nonchalant, small is greatly appreciated. So I always like to at least have the option to pack light with a tool that can hang around my neck for hours at a time without giving me back pains by the end of the day. In an effort to simplify, I had recently sold off all my old Fuji X cameras, which had previously served that purpose, choosing instead to centralize my gear around Nikon. But that left a gap for a small camera to fill. And, business related or not, it felt clear that the Z fc could scratch the itch.
So why the Z fc and why now? Well, the “why now” portion of the question is easiest to answer. Having now been out for over a year, I was able to find a used copy of the camera, which made it easier on my bank account to pull the trigger on a purchase. Why the Z fc as opposed to other cameras in the same price range or others in the Nikon line? Well, here are a few reasons.
Yes, I can hear the derisive calls of “hipster” being hurled at me digitally already. But, the simple fact is that the camera is just darn pretty. This has absolutely zero effect on image quality. But there is a practical advantage. Hear me out.
I recently broke up with a woman I’d been seeing. That’s a story for a different type of article. But I brought her up simply because one of the things we enjoyed doing was going on long walks together. Similar to my afternoon solo excursions, there was no particular destination in mind. Rather, it was just a way to spend time together, talk, and grow as a couple. Because I like to always have a camera on me, I would often want to bring along a camera as we went. Combining my “seeing” practice with our leisurely strolls. Part because I wanted to shoot a bit. Part because I wanted her to know that part of me, since photography plays such a big role in my life.
But she was not a photographer. And while you and I might love the idea of traipsing around the city with a flashy full-bodied pro camera around our necks, even I can see that the “tourist look” might be less than appealing for my walking partner. The small form factor and stylish nature of the Z fc, on the other hand, makes it far less conspicuous. Sure, it’s still a camera around your neck or in your bag. But it’s pretty enough that it could be considered a fashion accessory of its own.
Even when I’m out solo, it’s not the kind of thing that puts strangers on guard to see hanging from my neck. It just doesn’t seem as out of place as seeing someone walking down the street with a huge Z9 and a 24-70mm for no apparent reason. Instead, the Z fc just seems like something I put on the same way I would a necklace or a really cool watch.
Do any of those reasons make it any better at capturing photos? No. But do those reasons make it more likely that I’ll have it with me at all times? Yes.
Speaking of strolling through the city with unconscionable amounts of camera gear on you, there’s a real benefit to lowering your burden, both in terms of weight and liability. As I said, I’m pretty careful when I choose where I do my walkabouts, but you never really know what or who is lurking around the corner. And even though my pro gear is all well insured, I can’t say I particularly relish the idea of having to choose between my gear or my physical wellbeing should someone try to take it from me physically.
Now, let’s be clear. Your safety is always more important than your gear. Under no circumstances should you take risks with your physical wellbeing to protect an inanimate object. But, of course, that’s a far easier decision to make if the camera someone is trying to steal is on the less expensive side of the spectrum.
The lower price (especially at used rates) also makes it easier for me to use as a knock-around camera. My pro bodies can absolutely absorb massive amounts of punishment. That’s part of the reason why they cost so much. But, there’s something to be said for a camera at a price point where you don’t much care if it absorbs punishment. I can toss my Z fc in a bag, in a glove compartment, under a seat, or wherever else I feel like sticking it between shots. I pick it up and put it down multiple times throughout the day. Its job is to always be on hand to shoot. And, in the process, it takes a licking. But it keeps on ticking and providing exactly what I need it to. A quick and easy portal to help expand my vision as a photographer with a minimal amount of fuss.
Easy to Use
When I was growing up, my father would always spend lots of money on cameras he would rarely use. My mother, on the other hand, would purchase whatever camera in a disposable box might be hanging in the impulse buy section of the grocery store checkout line and was capable of doing everything for the user just short of pressing the shutter button. She would refer to these as PhD cameras, as in, "Push Here, Dummy." The true definition of point-and-shoot.
Now, as I said earlier, one of the main reasons I like to have a walk around camera is to develop my eye. This often includes very intentional manual manipulations to exposure to try new approaches to technique. But sometimes I just want to see and shoot. I do enough mental gymnastics on exposure when shooting professionally. When I’m out on a walkabout, it’s often more important to just “see” rather than burden myself with too many adjustments. Again, this is not to say that I don’t understand what adjustments are being made. Only that sometimes when you go on a nice photo walk, you’re as interested in having a nice peaceful walk as you are in the photos.
The manual dial setup of the Z fc makes it very easy to transition from full manual mode to PhD mode. So, when I want more of a challenge, it’s there. But, when I want to just turn off my brain and feel my way through a scene, that option is there as well.
The Right Specs for the Use Case
As a commercial photographer and director, there are certain specs that are simply non-negotiable. Often these center around resolution, frame rates, delivery formats, and so forth. But, in a personal fun camera, my needs are different.
Take, for example, the 20.9-megapixel sensor. This would not be nearly enough for the type of work I do professionally. But, when taking a bunch of photos for fun, the smaller file size associated with this megapixel count is actually a blessing. Who needs 102-megapixel images of their dog sleeping? Okay, maybe I do. But that’s just because Archibald is very cute. But the vast majority of shots I take for fun should consume the smallest amount of hard drive space possible.
Likewise, the camera lacks many of the high end video features that I, as a director/cinematographer, find to be absolute necessities. No log formats. No raw video formats. Only certain frame rates available in 4K. But, again, this isn’t the tool I’m likely to choose to shoot my next feature film. It might, however, be the tool I would use to shoot behind the scenes or vlogging content. Footage that I’m not likely going to need to do extensive grading to in post. Rather, it would be the type of footage that I’m going to want to take straight out of camera and edit it into a sequence or stream in its natural state over social media. The specs of the Z fc aren’t going to blow your socks off. But they are the exact level of spec necessary for the use case of the camera.
Access to the Z Mount
Am I likely to attach the same massive wildlife lens I used on my Z9 to my Z fc? Probably not. But it’s nice to know that I can. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve simplified my life and attempted to bring as much of my gear collection as possible inside one brand. Because I have my main professional cameras as Nikons, having a personal camera that utilizes the same camera mount just makes sense. I might not always use the same lenses on each. But I can. And this ability makes packing gear more efficient and sensible. The Z 28mm f/2.8 pretty much lives on my Z fc. And while it doesn’t often find its way onto the Z9, the fact that I can put it on my Z9 gives me that many more options to play with.
There are a number of great entry level cameras on the market these days. The Z fc isn’t even Nikon’s latest entry into the category. But, despite the fact that it was a decidedly personal purchase rather than driven purely by business need, I couldn’t be more happy with my acquisition. It provides me with a great tool for personal shooting. And more important than that, it’s provided me with a great deal of fun.