I always feel a little bit like a dork for suggesting that the distinctions between the "Big Three" normal-sized FF cameras—the D700, 5D Mark II, and A900—amount to anything more than personal preference. Aren't they all good enough cameras to take pictures with? It's like deciding between big, expensive new Mercedes, BMW, and Audi sedans as basic transportation. Each is flagrantly overpowered, overengineered, and overbuilt. All three are going to get you to work and back with more competence, luxury, and comfort than you need. And half a second's difference in the 0–60 times are not going to make much difference when you're gliding away from a stoplight with a Malibu in front of you and a Fusion in back, a Camry on your left and a Sonata on the right. Yeah, you might have your preferences. But any one of the three will do. This whole notion of "which is better" sometimes seems like such...primate behavior. It can all get a little excruciating at times.
And yet, dang me, I love the Sony A900. (Here it is on Amazon.) In a way that I don't love the D700 or the 5D Mark II. Did when I first used it and do now. Granted, it's 20% too big and 20% too heavy, give or take 5%. (Although I wouldn't want the size of the grip to be any smaller.) Other than that, it makes me happy. I love its feature set, which is to say that I love what it does have—fantastic image quality, big, clear viewfinder, straightforward controls and menus—and, just as importantly, I love what it doesn't have, too: no pop-up flash, no Live View, no video mode.
As an aside, you'll have to believe me when I say I know people like a lot of the things the Sony doesn't have. Like and use. You don't have to send me any lectures—really. I don't need convincing. I use the outstanding Live View on the K-5 all the time (partially because the camera focuses better in low light with LV, but never mind that). Strobist has more readers than TOP, so my canny brain is able to deduce that there must be people out there who use flashes. I've been to YouTube, so I realize that, yes, people shoot videos.
Part of the appeal of the features that aren't there is this notion I've always had that cameras—really, technological devices of any kind—should have what I need and no more. This is in part an aesthetic stance—an aspect of connoisseurship. It doesn't make some peoples' radar, and I know that. It is also in some senses a phantom goal, because what one person needs, another person doesn't, such that any two people—even two people who find the idea of basic simplicity equally appealing—also stand a good chance of not agreeing about what's essential and what's extraneous. Finally, I also realize that the idea of simplicity is so unfashionable in this age of software-controlled everything that it's almost been blasted into nonexistence. Devices that do one thing well have become as quaint as a Model T or a mechanical watch.
An automotive analogy again: I hate cup-holders in cars. Hate 'em. Hate the fact that people demand them; hate the fact that you can't buy sports cars without them. (And I should tell the amusing story someday of my nomad status with regard to word-processing programs. Thank the lord the newest version of Pages has a WP option—another shelter from my wandering, for now.) How about just not drinking in the car? Do we need a hotplate and a mini-fridge in there too? Minivans come with TVs in the back. But then, I admit I like my car stereo. How about a mattress in case you need to sleep? The old New Beetle had a flower vase, which made me want to visit dealerships in the night with a hammer. Don't get me started on idiotmobiles that have complicated internet connectivity from the driver's seat.
You're in a car—so drive, already. Stop playing Nazi Zombies. Keep your eyes on the road. Concentrate on what you're doing. Wait till you get home to brush your teeth. So you say you want to take good still pictures? Here's your camera.
The big Sony's big marketing gimmick, at least at first, were those 24 million pixels. (I'll have more to say about that later.) Set that aside, though—imagine the same camera but with a 12- or 14- or 16-MP sensor, say—and the camera would still be essentially a no-nonsense purist workhorse. When the A900 came out, I thought it was ironic that a big electronics company had made a more classic, purist camera than any of the traditional camera companies had; but since then the S2 has arrived, and it's even more simple and classically single-purpose; and anyway it's looking now like the A900/A850 were one-off anomalies rather than a stable development direction for Sony.
Still, part of the appeal of the Sony is that it's pretty purely pure camera. Not a lot else there. And I like that.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by photogdave: "I see your point about camera features, which is why I shoot my film Leicas more than anything else. But I think you would absolutely hate my car [below]! It sleeps four, has a two-burner stove, fridge, sink with running water, two dining tables and cup holders!"
Featured Comment by John Camp: "The problem with simplicity is, not all buyers have the same definition of 'simple.' I don't even know if a Venn diagram would suffice to illustrate the multiple concepts of 'simple.' I think what you, and many more people want, is not a simple camera, but a custom camera.
And, you may eventually get one, if you're willing to thoroughly understand the camera-as-computer. There's no particular reason that the software couldn't be designed so that, say, Live View couldn't be shut off, or the pop-up flash disabled. The K-5, for example, offers a good Live View and a pop-up flash, and it's two-thirds the weight and considerably smaller in dimension than the A900, so Live View and the flash can't be blamed for adding size or weight. If there was simply a software switch which would make the K5 Live View or flash invisible to the user...what's the problem? The problem, of course, is purely conceptual....
This issue has been endlessly hashed over on the L-Camera, the Leica forum. Despite the fact that some Leica lenses can't be readily focused (at all—like the 135), a good many members of that forum would reject Live View if it were available, even if it could be shut off and made invisible, because they don't like the idea. They don't like the idea even though it would radically improve the function of the camera, and that they could make it invisible if they wished.
To me, this (and rejecting such concepts as cup holders in cars) is like Puritanism—you can't stand the idea that somebody, somewhere, might be having a good time...or living in a slightly different mode than the one you approve of.
To get down off my rant, I suspect one subliminal reason you like the Sony is because you have said you liked Minolta at one time, and when you pick up the Sony, you can sense the Minolta gene. The same thing happens to me with Nikons, even though I don't use Nikons much anymore.
Mike replies: I see your point, and you're on to something, but I would argue the opposite when it comes to your point about Puritanism. I have no objection whatsoever to anyone wanting cupholders or TVs or even (pace photogdave) beds in their cars. (Heck, people can even drive pickup trucks as a fashion fad for all I care :-) What I dislike is the tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of the market. What happens is that enough shoppers want cupholders, such that all the car makers are afraid to make even one car without cupholders because they're afraid it might affect sales—and then the people who don't want cupholders are left without options.
And it's not a question of invisibility—in my favorite sports car, for instance, my elbow lands on what should have been the center armrest—and goes smack into a cupholder. It's annoying, and there's no simple fix. In the next-to-latest version of the Miata, to name another example, they put molded cupholders in the doors—where they whacked many drivers in the leg whenever they closed their doors. A little two-seater sports car shouldn't have to have cupholders. It's not a commuter car. It's a car you get into to have fun driving.
(I assume people are getting that this whole cupholder thing is also a metaphor. So we don't have to get into the specifics of various camera features, which we would have more of a tendency to argue about.)
Cupholder in the NC-1 Miata (just to the left of the steering wheel). The door pull had to be located awkwardly and the cupholder hit people in the knee in the car's tiny cabin—Mazda had to redesign it because of all the complaints. God forbid they just leave the silly thing out.
The problem is that certain things sell, so certain things become mandatory add-ons because manufacturers think their absence might affect sales—then consumers take those features for granted, and every product that lacks those things is criticized in reviews and downgraded on simple checklist-style consumerist evaluations. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People don't buy the Kinderhauler because Leaping Lemming magazine marked it down thirty points for having only six cupholders whereas the Lumpenmobile provides 24. It's not always because the people don't want all the featuritis—it's because the products without all the features don't comparison-shop well, and because it requires connoisseurship to understand how something that isn't encrusted with a zillion features can actually be better than something that is.
Leaving aside the A900, as well as perhaps the well-designed 645D, the only company with the courage, discipline, and vision to currently make a truly "simple-enough" camera is Leica. Nobody else does it. Not even in the realm of point-and-shoots is there a single camera that's as simple as a 1985 Konica MR-70 (a.k.a. "Mister Seventy"). And that's in a market with how many hundreds of choices? Would there be a consumer revolt if, say, one out of every hundred point-and-shoots was minimalist? So the people who wanted that could have a choice?
So nobody's saying anything about Puritanism. I don't want to deny the masses their precious cupholders. I just don't necessarily want to be forced to do every dumb thing they do and be forced to buy every last dumb feature they demand, that's all.
Featured Comment by David Adam Edelstein: "+1 for the curmudgeon crowd. I finally snapped and cashed out my entire Canon kit for an M9 (I already had M lenses). When astonished friends ask me why, I say 'because the M9 has. no. features.'"
Featured Comment by David Luttmann: "I found it felt cheap and plasticy in hand. No meat to it."
Featured Comment by Andy: "Mike, the Lotus Elise doesn't come with a cup holder. If you want one, really want one, the dealer will sell you something that looks like a silver ring with a thong you can install yourself. For $247. Lotus really doesn't want you to have a cup holder either."
Featured [partial] Comment by Christian Dönges: "I suggest that the answer is not to find the lowest common denominator, but rather to build a platform that is customizable to the needs of each individual user.
Can't do it? Sure we can! My guess is that just about every iPhone on the planet is unique: you buy a basic package and then install whatever apps you need to turn it into your iPhone. Need to add a feature? Get a new app. Don't need the feature anymore? Delete the app. Simple.
Why don't we do this with cameras? I don't know. Thom Hogan has been writing about this concept forever, so it can't be because the idea is secret....
(Incidentally, I've been suggesting something similar to engineers in the automobile industry since about 2002. Nobody home there, either. ;-)"
Featured Comment by Kelvin: "The cycling world has already gone through this. Someone took the minimalist thing too far and ended up with taking brakeless fixed-gear single speed bikes off the velodrome and onto busy city streets. Your curmudgeonly ways are dangerously close to current youth hipster chic philosophy! :) (These are the same youths now running around with Lomos and waxing lyrical about the wonders of expired film.)"