Still mirrorless, but now APS-C

My history with digital photography extends back to the dawn of the consumer digital camera age with the Apple QuickTake 100. When I was introduced to the QuickTake, I had a decade of film shooting (and black-and-white darkroom experience) under my belt. Although low resolution and miserable in anything but better than perfect light, I saw that digital was the path forward. Digital cameras had the potential to become compact, unobtrusive artistic tools drawn from the same vein as an original Leica I rangefinder of 1927.

So here I am in 2018, fully committed to mirrorless digital with a nostalgic connection to the equipment of the film era, and yet I’ve been frustrated with the direction of camera and lens design in recent years. I switched to micro 4/3 mirrorless about 10 years ago as the format provided me with three key things:

  1. Image quality that was on par with my favorite walk-around 135 film (which, at the time, was Kodak Porta 400NC).
  2. Camera designs that fit well in-hand over modern DSLR and late-model film bodies (my ideal benchmark was and still is the Nikon F3).
  3. Compact lenses that, in time, would provide optical quality and reach to rival that of pro SLR/DSLR lenses of the time (my ideal benchmark are any of a variety of rangefinder lenses that adeptly marry quality optics with a compact package).

Mirrorless photography achieved #1 quite handily. As far as #2 and #3, regression in both in recent years has frustrated me as a photographer.

I started my mirrorless creative adventure in micro 4/3, which seemed to get the balance right by embodying what small sensor mirrorless could offer. Panasonic and Olympus started the format by creating both small lenses and small bodies that in many ways, rivaled all but the most high-end DSLRs of the era. There were tradeoffs, however. Because of the sensor size, I had a great telephoto camera but something that was pretty weak on the wide end of the scale. At the time, that was fine as I was a moderate telephoto shooter anyway, so a a high quality 40mm f1.4 Voigtlander Nokton rangefinder lens suddenly became a stunning 80mm low-light telephoto in a very small package on G1. That compact win with high quality glass offset the wide angle limitations.

And then a curious thing happened — the bodies started getting bigger to the point of being larger than some DSLRs. Lenses grew in size, too, but led by the quality work of Olympus the compactness of most designs remained. So micro 4/3 became a format of oversized bodies relative to its compact lens designs. Ergonomically, for me, this trend is not a great combination. I upgraded to a GH3, but the body was, relative to the lenses, huge and in some ways more awkward to handle than my old Nikon D200.

Frustrated (and fortunately not deeply invested in m4/3 glass), I started looking for alternatives and along came Sony. Sony introduced what should have been the ideal camera – full frame and mirrorless in a very compact body. Shortly thereafter, I picked up a used A7 and discovered wide-angle photography again. My Contax G lenses projected glorious images on that full frame sensor. The vintage lens collector in me was very happy, too, as I could use virtually anything on that body and “see” what the lenses were designed to capture across the entire film plane.

What I hadn’t realized is that my photographic needs changed with my change in location. In Chicago, I needed something compact for street photography. In Monterey, I required something both wide and long to capture nature close up and wildlife far away. The A7, while a dream for wide angle lenses and compact body size, ended up surfacing a problem I was trying to get away from – big glass for big reach. Casually, I couldn’t realistically walk around with a long lens all day, and the all-in-one kit zooms simply don’t have the reach and either quality or character that I feel would be worth investment.

In 2017, we took a trip to Tokyo and I swung through both the Sony corporate showroom and the camera shops in Akihabara hoping to find a solution. What disappointed me the most was the lens design direction of Sony. Instead of capitalizing on the compactness of its mirrorless system and an industry-proven history of quality rangefinder lens designs in compact packages (Leica, Zeiss, Nikkor, Rokkor, etc.), it moved in a decidedly uninspiring and bulky direction of huge lenses crafted from a history in DSLRs. Sony, the company synonymous with miniaturization, was heading in the opposite direction in full frame lens design. Olympus, on the other hand, kept to its compact design vision but the micro 4/3 format just isn’t wide-friendly enough for me anymore. As for Panasonic, well, bigger is not always better for shooters like me.

Ugh. I want something in the middle.

One of the first things I did was decouple lens system choice from sensor/body combination. By committing to mirrorless years ago and as an adept manual focus photographer, I could use virtually any lens I desired. I didn’t have to depend on lens mount or autofocus-only designs for my daily use system. Second, I accepted that for specialized needs like sports or ultra-long lens photography, I could either rent a package or pick up a used micro 4/3 body tailored to my shooting requirements. High quality digital bodies are becoming a dime a dozen, so the thought of having a different system body that can adapt to anything isn’t as much of an issue as it once was. Third, I realized that a compact rangefinder-like body is the most comfortable and makes me the most happy.

With that in mind, I’ve moved to a Sony A6500 and APS-C as it embodies all three of the key things I embraced about mirrorless to a greater degree than other options. I can:

  • have a compact shooting package when I need it,
  • have the flexibility of a growing family of autofocus lenses (full frame cropped or to a lesser extent, format-native),
  • shoot wide or long without too much compromise at either end of the spectrum,
  • gain capabilities such as sensor-based image stabilization, and
  • incorporate 4K video into my workflow where appropriate.

Although the popular consensus is that Sony will like pay less attention to APS-C as a format, what is most important to me today about photography is being able to concentrate on the style and character of my work.

The A6500 just feels right for what and how I want to shoot.