A Journey to the Perfect Camera System

A Journey to the Perfect Camera System

This one will be a subjective post, but I will not make it a praise piece for my camera brand of choice. Instead, I'm talking about the pain points that led me to a particular brand over any other. 

The camera system I use is not perfect for everyone. But for me, the pros of my camera system far outweigh any shortcomings. I have been through quite a bit in my career as a photographer. I started photographing my friends on skateboards and BMX bikes in my teens, around 2005. The photography scene was very different then. Digital was becoming mainstream and affordable to the average person, while some were still shooting film. I'd been photographing with film and processing it at a lab that would supply me with a CD of digital images, a hybrid approach. 

Starting in Digital

After having my trusty Canon film SLR stolen from a backpack, I was ready to buy into my first digital system. I saved my pennies and purchased a Nikon D70s. One ley selling point that swayed me in this direction (rather than the Canon option, the 350D) was the 1/500 flash sync speed. I shot lots of flash then, and this extra stop often allowed me to overpower the sun when I couldn't otherwise. This was way before the days of high-speed sync. My love affair with the brand was born, and over the next 10 years, Nikon would be my camera of choice. 

I still have a soft spot for that camera and would love to use one again. It's the camera that shot my first ever paid work and on which I started to find my footing in the industry that would consume my working life. 

Eventually, I needed money, and bike magazines could have paid better. So, my work became increasingly more commercial and studio-based. I dabbled in fashion, but I would spend most of my time shooting model portfolios for a few agencies alongside whatever bits of work I could: headshots, interiors, menus, corporate events, products, etc. Only a little of this was exciting, but my Nikons served me well. 

After the D70s, I upgraded to a D200, then a D700, followed by a D750, with which my time using Nikons would end.  

A Turning Point

But why did it have to end? In 2016, I decided to leave the studio and transition into weddings, and those cameras were heavy. A few months after this decision, I was finishing a wedding day and feeling pretty exhausted.

I packed my backpack: two full-frame DSLRs, a 24-70mm, a 70-200mm, and a couple of flashes. I even had a laptop in there. I popped it on my back and stood upright before falling under the bag's weight again, straight to the ground. The guests were undoubtedly laughing more than I was! The only thing I hurt was my ego, but I knew something had to change if I was going to do this regularly.

I'd been looking at some mirrorless cameras. I knew the systems could be a little lighter, which brings me to the first time I would cheat on my Nikons. 

In 2017, I headed to The Photography Show, a big trade show in the UK that most brands attend to show off their products. My specific aim at the show was to find a lighter camera system or some lighter lenses for Nikon, perhaps some primes. 

Finding Micro Four Thirds

This shopping trip had one objective: I was putting my camera bag on a diet. I'd heard through the grapevine that Sony mirrorless cameras were great.

But things could have been better on our first date (arriving at the Sony stand). I picked up their latest offering, probably an a7 II, and something didn't click. As impressive as I knew the camera probably was, it just didn't feel right to me. I also recall a huge lens attached to the front of the body, and I was on a weight-saving mission. 

My wandering took me to the Olympus stand, where I'd be well and truly impressed. Their cameras were beautiful, and I particularly loved the styling of the OM-D EM5 Mark II. It was not the most elegantly named, but the retro look appealed to me. One of their ambassadors at the time, Robert Pugh, talked me through his camera bag for weddings. 

I watched in awe as he unloaded his wedding bag: a small Think Tank shoulder bag containing two camera bodies, a vast selection of prime lenses, a speedlight and even an iPad. Here was a guy shooting weddings for a living, just like I wanted to. He used a camera kit that seemingly weighed less than one of my Nikon bodies. 

Within a week, I was the proud owner of two new bodies and a couple of lenses. 

Using Olympus Cameras

I know what you're thinking. Those little Olympus cameras aren't for professional work. I need to disagree, though, as they served me perfectly well at the time. 

I shot some of my favorite photos, even to this day, on that camera system. It changed how I work and allowed me to adopt a more documentary style of wedding photography, something I'm very passionate about today. The system also drove a love of prime lenses, which I keep. 

I was happy in my micro four-thirds world for a while, but things weren't perfect. My list of requirements had surpassed what the system could give me. First, of course, I wanted to keep my camera system light. I also needed multiple card slots, a faster camera to work with, better autofocus, and, perhaps most importantly, better image quality. Importantly for me, too, was that I still needed to enjoy using the system. Cameras were released to address some of those concerns, but the sensor remained the same.

Don't get me wrong, the files from the small sensor were often more than acceptable in good light. My issues came when the sun went down, and after a fully booked winter season, I craved a camera with better high-ISO performance. 

An Almost Perfect System

Whatever was I to do? I didn't want to use Sony for reasons I couldn't put my finger on. Canon's and Nikon's mirrorless systems were in their infancy, and I knew that full frame would mean returning to heavy lenses. 

What about Fujifilm? 

The Fujifilm X-T3 camera had been on my radar, but I'd never handled it or looked into the system. Was this the one for me?

These cameras have beautifully designed, retro-styled bodies. They had rapid start-up times, good battery life, and a selection of small but perfectly formed prime lenses. Two SD slots were the cherry on top. 

More importantly, although the low-light performance wasn't at the same standards as some other brands, it was much better than I had been using. 

After handling some of the lenses in my local camera shop, I left with two bodies: a Fujifilm XF 23mm f/2 R WR lens, and a Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R lens. And oh my, I was smitten! I finally felt like I had found the system I could shoot with forever. Of course, a few things could have been better, such as the autofocus, but it was an improvement for me and was only going to get better. 

And so, we were close to perfect for me. I had cameras that were fast enough for me with image quality that was almost there. I could shoot up to around ISO 12,800. They were small, light, and a dream to use. 

Making It Perfect

That's my rather drawn-out story of how I discovered my love for Fujifilm through multiple minor pain points that Fujifilm eventually ironed out for me. But was it perfect? 

The release of the Fujifilm XF 18mm f/1.4 R LM WR lens and the XF 33mm f/1.4 R LM WR lens brought this dream closer. I've used them for around 80% of my work since their release. My trusty 56mm and a wider XF 14mm f/2.8 R are in my bag if needed. 

The icing on the camera-shaped cake came this year: the new bodies! The Fujifilm X-H2S and Fujifilm X-H2 brought with them two new sensors and a whole host of new magic. However, the body for me was the brand new Fujifilm X-T5

I've not written a review on the newest addition, but plenty are available already. After collecting two bodies, though, I've already shot two weddings with them. 

The X-T5 camera takes everything I love about my older X-T3s and improves almost every aspect dramatically.

Now, I'm using the perfect camera system for the first time. It might not be perfect for you. Perhaps you're a full frame purist. Maybe you prefer another brand's colors. If this is you, you will undoubtedly disagree with me in the comments, and I can't wait to read them.

I look forward to hearing if your camera system is perfect. The great thing about having all these camera brands available is that our favorite gear is almost as subjective as photography can be. We can all love different brands and systems, which keeps our gear-lusting world interesting. 

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20 Comments
Hector Belfort's picture

I've had alot of different systems. I've a soft spot for micro 4/3 but I think the lack of development of the sensor made me give up. That and the cray menus (which have got better) . Hopefully OM will continue to develop micro 4/3. There are lot of nice Olympus lens but I think the price of the 150-400mm is crazy. I've had a number of Fuji's, always nice cameras and lens. It's a good allround system. Mainly I'm Canon and I just find everything about them excellent. I've a number of Canon DSLR's and all very solid and reliable with great lens. I have an R5 too which I am very impressed with. I was very slow to go to Canon Mirrorless - wasn't sure what was the point but the R5 has surprised me as how good an allround camera it is. We are lucky we are in a time where its hard to buy a bad camera.

Paul Waring's picture

I've looked into the new canon mirrorless system and handled some of the cameras, they feel like very capable beasts and I can see why people love them so much. For me, though, they're a little big and don't handle the way I've become accustomed to. Thanks for commenting!

Mike Rubin's picture

I used Canon gear for 40 years. From an AE-1 up to a 5Dmklll. Then I needed to lighten my load. After very thorough hands on research, I chose a Fujifilm X-T3. Its an incredible camera. With the advancemts in sensor technology, you no longer need FF. Its the Camera manufacturers that want people to believe they need FF.
Also, when I used Canon gear, I had to shoot Raw. Now I shoot in Raw and Jpg
and only need a raw file to salvage an image if I mess up my shot.
Yes, for 2 years, I thought the AF on moving subjects was bad BUT then I learned that if even just one AF menu option was set wrong (even if you never accessed it) for you needs that it really messed things up. Now I photograph moving subjects with only an occasional miss. So far, I have no reason to upgrade from the X-T3. Sure, the X-T5 has some nice features but my decision is based on NEED rather than WANT.

Paul Waring's picture

I agree, the XT3 is wonderful. Mine were just feeling a little tired after around 150 weddings... And so the XT5 was the obvious choice.

Myles Erwin's picture

Hey Paul, thank you for the great article! Do you use flash, on or off camera, much with the Fuji system? I'm interested in how that works for you if you do.

Paul Waring's picture

Hey Myles! Honestly, I'm not a big user of flash. If I need more light, I prefer video lights. It's a personal preference from trying both. I do carry a couple of small godox flashes with me, though. They come sometimes out really late at night. I use the small godox tt350 flashes but I've also used the AD100 flashes in the past, they're a great system if flash is your thing.

Stephen Felce's picture

After my experiences with Fujifilm, I will never go near them again. I will get to that later.

I gave up 57 years with film, having started at the age of nine. I did my own processing from the outset, learning from my father who also enjoyed photography. I have always liked shooting against the light, that resulting in high dynamic range and more drama, but in monochrome developers like Beutler on film downrated by about a stop coped with that and gave beautiful gradation. With colour I chose low contrast negative stock and achieved much the same thing, still doing my own film and print processing. Digital definitely gives better results overall, but the gradation in black and white or colour is not as good.

When I settled on digital, I was not prepared to fork out a small fortune on Photoshop, even though I need to do a lot of manipulation for such things as changing skies when in landscape shots that was needed, quite often in fact. However, for my skill with Photoshop Elements 2 in cloning out things like weeds growing in the gutters of a house, removing a sign sticking out from the side of a building, those two things and quite a lot more, I won Photoshop CS2 and over the years have become quite expert in those features I need to use. I tried later version but never upgraded, finding the user interfaces cluttered and confusing, never needing the additional features. What you can do with Photoshop depends more upon developing a mastery of it, rather than the upgrades, which mostly are to persuade people to spend more on it.

So I miss those days, all the lovely film cameras I had. Over the years I have had a Retina 1a, Rolleicord Va, Tele Rolleiflex, Pentax S1a, Contaflex, Canon AE1, Canon T90 and Nikon F80. I do not get quite the same pleasure using a digital camera, having had an Olympus C-5060 to try digital out, then a Nikon D300 followed by a D610, Fujifilm XT-3 for a week, now Olympus OM-D E-M5 II.

If you wish, have a look at some of the albums at www.ipernity.com/home/contrajur, although I have nothing there especially recent.

I bought a Fujifilm X-T3 and three prime lenses, downsizing from a Nikon D610 and three zoom lenses, but returned everything for a full refund within a few days. The camera was outrageously full of bugs, one of the lenses was decentred.

A couple of years later I bought an Olympus E-M5 II second hand in mint condition for very little outlay, preferring that to the E-M5 III, Laowa 10mm F2 and m.Zuiko 24-45mm F4 PRO lenses new. I used to hate EVFs but this camera simulating OVF is OK and I am very happy with this outfit, the results, size and weight. The menus are difficult and the logic that blocks some features with others set is annoying but you figure out the few compromises needed, nothing too serious, then forget about it.

In my opinion MFT is fine for most people, those who take pictures rather than being pixel peepers. With a 16 mb sensor, the resolution is more than adequate for very good quality prints up to A2 (59.4 x 44 cm), which I use for my best pictures. The image quality on a monitor is far better, but I think the aura of an attractive picture in a frame on the wall superior to that.

There is far too much talk of equipment for my liking, far too few photographers whose work is worth even a passing look. I used to visit the annual exhibitions of the London Salon and the Royal Photographic Society religiously every year to marvel at the beauty of most of the pictures displayed, but not any more. The Salon no longer exists and most in the RPS annual exhibition now is garbage, like almost everywhere else. People like Ansel Adams will be turning in their graves.

Do not worry too much what equipment you have. Just try to use it to get good pictures of some distinction on a personal level. For me the greatest benefit of 69 years at it is the eye to see things most people miss and enjoy it, whether I have my camera with me or not. I can sometimes even retain a beautiful image in a moving sequence on my TV for a second or two in my brain and enjoy that after the TV has moved on. Train yourself to be better at using a camera, any camera. One famous British photographer, I think it was Stirling Henry Nahum known professionally as Baron, who used to show what could be done with a modest camera just to prove the point. As is often said, it is the man behind the camera that counts. Do not keep changing what you use. (If you think it is the pot calling the kettle back, remember that the twelve cameras I have had have been over a very long period.)

Michael Atlas's picture

I think Fuji is a nice happy medium option but their glass, IBIS, and build quality/reliability is not up to par with Olympus.

The sensor size is the limitation on Olympus but I use it in low light all the time with my Zuiko Pro f/1.2 lenses. The full frame jock riders talk about the DOF being too shallow on m43, but shooting my 17/1.2 wide open gives the look of a full frame 34/2.4. That's still plenty of blur but not so much as to completely obliterate the background.

In very dark nightlife situations, I'll use my 17/1.2 and only need to use ISO 400 maybe 800. For night scenery I'll use this lens with hand held hi res mode on my E-M1 III to make 50 mp files, and something like a 3 stop improvement in noise & dynamic range.

I'm fortunate that when I need a bigger sensor I have a separate Nikon full frame DSLR + 35mm film SLR system. But Olympus is my ride or die.

Paul Waring's picture

sounds like Olympus is a great system for you. I had my niggles, mainly sensor-related. The lenses, bodies, etc, however, were wonderful and I really enjoyed using them.

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

Great tour of camera systems AND your learning to improve even with new rigs to lean operations of, Bravo to your steadfastness! There is no perfect camera system but the operators abilities. Been at it longer from film in the mid 70's to full on digital from '10. In photography it is a continuing learn of systems and abilities of cameras. Like Sony with low light and Fuji with great color. From cameras with IBIS and lenses with IS/OSS over time and now a film cameras with video some with too much sugar for a dime. I am not a pro but a hobbyist that one day on a beach a Phase One camera owner watched me and saw the results that night bought my small brand the next day, then on a tour of a Antelope Canyon I bracketed shots without a tripod (forgot my tripod plate) others thought I was playing but after saw the results and wanted the IBIS and the 12mm super wide lens. It is all about what is needed and you learn about one way or another. It also is about the $'s you can use and not going beyond. You will always yearn for better. But remember software will do a lot of magic too! The last was done with an on camera filter app.

Paul Waring's picture

lovely work, Edwin, thanks for sharing the photographs and wonderful insight!

Nick van der Touw's picture

Always great to hear about a photography journey across multiple brands. The first camera that made me realise photography was a career I wanted to pursue was the Leica D-Lux 4, which was essentially a rebranded Panasonic.

I received it as a gift for a birthday and before then hadn’t realised that I had always been the person taking pictures, even going as far back as to the first Nokia camera phones. And I’ve kept every single image.

I was deep into a degree in behavioural genetics when I had this realisation and it took meeting a friend with a Canon 5D MKII to try and make the change.

I took photos on the cruise ships with a Nikon while also trying to sell Olympus mirrorless cameras to tourists. It was very Mickey Mouse photography but it gave me something to put on a CV so that combined with a portfolio when I got home I managed to get a job for a fashion E-commerce company.

I’d bought my own Canon 5D MKIII but the idea of a camera that was lightweight and had a digital viewfinder instead of optical always lingered in the back of my head.

Fast forward and I’m currently a Sony fan as they meet almost all my needs besides the terrible screens, which are improving in newer models.

The very long-winded point I’ve been trying to make is that trying different systems should be encouraged as there isn’t a superior brand just different tools with different applications.

Try everything and then settle on what works for you. The image captured will always be more important than the gear used to capture it.

Paul Waring's picture

I also served my time on cruise ships... Two contracts with P&O UK.

I agree with your sentiment, it's healthy to explore other systems and keeps the manufacturers on their toes. I often pick up other cameras in shops or shows and the new nikon system comes closer than any other, but its still not quite 'for me'.

Teemu Paukamainen's picture

There's no perfect system and I doubt never will be. For me m4/3 is by far the best option and OM-5 has the perfect size & weight and has plenty of amazing and lightweight lenses but is it perfect? Far from it. Especially the AF needs improving.

If the IQ and AF were on par with - let's say Nikon Z9 -, then I'd might consider it (close to) perfect but there's still a long way to go. And no, Z9 isn't perfect either. The weight alone is something that would keep me as far as possible from it. :)

Paul Waring's picture

there is never going to be perfect system across the board... But I hope I got across my personal thoughts on finding the right one for me.

It all depends on what we want from it. The same applies to most things in life. The perfect car for everybody does not exist, but if you just want a car that looks amazing in a garage then an Astin Martin DB7 comes close to perfection... If you need it to go off-road, however, its less than great.

Dave B's picture

I've owned Sony mirrorless cameras since the release of the original. At the release of the a7 I actually bought the Fuji XE2 but ended up returning that because it just didn't perform well enough. Since then I've owned nearly every a7 and a handful of their a6XXX cameras and RX100s but sometime last year I sold off my a6000 and lenses for a Fuji X-T3. A totally unnecessary thing since I have an a7IV and a7RIII with incredible lenses but somehow the Fuji just looked appealing. Fast forward to today and me EDC is the Fuji X-T5 with the new 30mm macro while my Sonys collect dust. They still have their purpose (for now) but the X-T5, 30mm, 18-55mm, 70-300mm, and Viltrox 23mm 1.4 combined weight the same as my a7IV with Sigma 24-70mm and barely take up more space, while producing incredible images especially when paired with film simulations from Fuji X-Weekly. I literally shoot JPEGs with film sims and spend zero time editing. Fuji's not perfect, their AF still gets destroyed by Sony, and half their lenses are dated and desperately need updating for better AF and higher IQ sensors, but their camera system just makes photography enjoyable while not requiring a dedicated 30lb backpack.

Peter Blottman's picture

Congrats on finding the perfect camera. I do question why you would change a system (m43) that you were happy with to an entirely new system when a body upgrade would have made all the difference. From EM5 mkii why would you not have upgraded to a em1 mkii that was available in 2017? 20mp vs. 16, and significantly better low light performance. Of course the OM-1 would be a current day further upgrade. Olympus system would still be significantly lighter than the Fuji. Nothing against Fuji or any of the other fine cameras, but I find it odd folks spend considerable money on changing systems when they already have the glass they seem to like. Cheers.

Paul Waring's picture

at the time, I needed an upgrade because I was struggling to get the quality I wanted. the upgrades available still would not have given me what I desired.
I think even now, the low light performance isn't where I would want it to be.

Paul Chambre's picture

The HSS (Auto FP) capable Nikon SB-800 was release in 2003... two years before the D-70S.

Paul Waring's picture

If i remember correctly, the budget simply didnt stretch to include SB800’s. They were fairly expensive and I remember using older manual flashes.