By Roger Overall
Here's a question for you. If someone offered you a 6-MP DSLR for free, seven or eight years old but never been out of the box, would you accept it, and, importantly, would you use it? You know the high ISO performance isn’t going to be up to much. Start up will be lethargic. And you get more pixels in a decent smartphone these days.
Let's be honest. Most of us would feel more comfortable with something a bit more current. Digital cameras have a use-by date, or a user-bye-bye date. It's what camera manufacturers trade on. Their marketing departments have a genius for convincing photographers that their newest camera is so much better than their previous model. They operate some kind of reality distortion field. Suddenly, the camera that has served you perfectly well just doesn't seem up to the job. It's practically a miracle you managed to produce a useable file from it to begin with.
And guess what? Eighteen months hence, you'll find out that this new model is equally inadequate in the face of the latest and greatest release. And so on and so forth. It's a relentless acquisition cycle of barely adequate cameras that can only be redeemed by the feature set of the next model.
Several years ago, I decided enough was enough. I'm an intelligent guy—moderately so, anyway. At the end of 2005, I decided to invest in a Canon 1Ds Mark II—a camera that would last me for many years beyond the day that the final payment would leave my bank account. The specs were impressive and I knew it would deliver what I and my clients needed regardless of what subsequent models would bring. I applied devastating logic to the situation. If I was happy with the camera today, I would be happy with it tomorrow, and for many, many days into the future. Canon's marketing department be damned.
The Canon 1DsII has almost 17 MP, housed in what feels like an indestructible shell of battlefield-grade armour. (That turned out not to be entirely true following a sharp interaction with a marble floor in 2010, which cracked the camera casing but left the stone floor undisturbed). It has 45 autofocus points, and its ISO 1600 files are very useable—a real boon for a documentary photographer often working in dull conditions.
From the moment it arrived in my life, new camera releases left me cold. The 1DsII and I produced wonderful work together. Clients were satisfied. I was winning awards. We were happy. Even the acquisition of a back-up Canon 5D Mark II, with its even better high ISO performance and high-definition video, didn't diminish our bond. If anything, I felt even less inclined to worry about new camera releases. Together, the two cameras covered more bases than I needed covered. OK, neither could focus particularly well in murky light, or particularly fast in any kind of light, but that was a minor quibble. For three years, no new camera release, or rumoured release, could pique my interest.
The Lapland Shift
Lapland changed everything.
It wasn't intentional. I wasn't looking for my head to be turned. It was just one of those things.
A Dutch couple asked me to photograph their wedding in Lapland, in northern Finland, in November of last year. I knew from experience that at that latitude, daylight would be at a premium so late in the year, but I wasn’t unduly concerned. For most of the day, the light levels would be no worse than what I encounter on wedding assignments here in Ireland. I was more concerned about the cold, and how I would marshall my cameras to deal with the changes in temperature as they went from indoors to outdoors. Bringing a cold camera inside would cause condensation on the lens that would take a while to clear. I could hardly ask everyone to hold it for ten minutes while the lenses defogged—particularly during the ceremony.
My solution was to place one camera coupled with a wide-angle lens inside the ceremony venue early on the day of the wedding. It would be at temperature and ready to go when the ceremony started. I chose a wide-angle because the venue—a glass tipi—was a tight space.
That brought with it another problem. I'd only have a single camera to photograph all of the preparations with. There is a saying in professional photography: "If a job requires one camera, bring two." Redundancy is important when there's a pay cheque involved.
A friend offered me the use of his Canon 1D Mark III. A piece of equipment designed for press and sports photography. If my 1DsII is a bit of a Bentley (serene and measured), the 1DIII is more like a Ferrari. It goes. Boy...does it go.
You might remember that when it was launched, the 1DIII was derided for its autofocus performance. Under certain conditions, the camera simply couldn't produce a sharp picture. Eventually, Canon identified a fix to the sub-mirror assembly of the autofocus rig, though that didn't appease the camera's detractors. The reputation of the 1DIII never recovered.
I do wonder why. It is a remarkable machine. In Lapland, it became my go-to camera ahead of my own 1DsII and the 5DII. Regardless of its reputation, its autofocus was doing things I'd never experienced before. It was locking on perfectly in virtually no light at all. And it was doing so on moving targets—during the dancing, for instance. This was autofocus by clairvoyance, or divine intervention, or something. Whatever the magic ingredient was, Canon hadn't included it in the 1DsII or the 5DII—both of which, in dim conditions, just throw up their hands and go into a sulk.
I was getting photographs with ease that I'd previously had great difficulty taking.
Moreover, the 1DIII was a good deal lighter than the 1DsII, due to improved battery design.
For the first time ever, the 1DsII looked less attractive to me.
Since Lapland, I’ve been working happily with my own cameras again—there's only so long you can hang on to a loaner before its owner really does want it back. The photographs are just as good as before. I shouldn't be surprised. After all, the overriding input device hasn't changed: the photographer. But still, now that I've had a taste of what current autofocus systems are capable of (and there have been further improvements since the 1DIII), the gear acquisition node in my brain is itching again: I want a new camera.
The camera I desire has the almost marble-proof ruggedness of a current 1 series EOS camera, the size of a 5DII and the autofocus performance of a current 1 series EOS camera (or Nikon equivalent). Dual card slots too. High-definition video is important to me as well. About 18 MP would be nice.
The problem is, nobody, as far as I can tell, makes this camera. Yet.
But I'm back monitoring the rumoured releases for 2012.
And despite my best efforts, I have to concede that the latest camera sometimes really is the greatest.
Roger Overall is a photographer based in Cork, Ireland. Here's his blog.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Gordon Cahill: "I admit it. I gave in to the lust. I succumbed. I'm weak. I love the new gear. It's fun. Even if I don't need it and I'm never going to use all of its capabilities, I'll want to see where it may take my photography. I'm honest enough to admit thee only reason I ever say I don't need a new camera (or that the one I have is 'perfect') is that I can't afford it."