What is the best camera ever?

Damn Good sign
This vintage-style Damn Good sign adorns a wall at Denver’s recently opened Torchy’s Tacos. Related: It is totally correct. Taken with iPhone. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Dozens of articles and blog posts every month try to answer the question, and literally thousands of options are in the running. But what is truly the best camera?

It’s kind of complicated.

There are so many factors to consider when choosing a camera — whether one to buy or one to take on a certain assignment, trip or even just a walk — and there are tons of articles about them, too. Whether to choose film or digital, how to pick the best digital camera or the best film camera, whether for beginners or for professionals. Some are pretty much agnostic to form, medium, size, etc., and others focus on only a particular type of subject matter.

There is a deceptively pithy answer, too, from Chase Jarvis: “The Best Camera is the One That’s With You.” I’ll get to that.

Ultimately, choosing a camera comes down a combination of both objective and subjective factors — things that are measurably better or worse, and things that are matters of opinion, respectively.

Objective factors

objective /əbˈjektiv/ adj. 1. (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts. (via Google)

A camera’s technical specifications have demonstrable and irrefutable influence over the technical perfection of the images it is capable of producing. These factors are often very important to users, and they get mentioned a lot in reviews (I know, because I mention them all the time).

Objective factors include things like:

Shutter The shutter’s design can impact how it captures motion, as well as its overall reliability and longevity. The shutter’s fastest speed, flash sync speed and whether or not it has a bulb mode impact how you’re able to use a camera in bright or low light, and so on.

Aperture The maximum aperture of the lens (or available lenses, for interchangeable-lens systems) affects the minimum depth of field and can limit the camera’s low-light effectiveness. The minimum aperture may affect your ability to shoot in bright light and the maximum available depth of field. The shape and number of aperture blades affects the bokeh — the shape and quality of rendition of out-of-focus portions of the image.

Fountain on 16th Street Mall
A public fountain on Denver’s 16th Street Mall, with the Colorado State Capitol in the background. Taken with the Konica Auto S2. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Viewfinder The magnification and coverage are of the viewfinder are popular mentions in camera reviews. These days you may also have to consider whether the viewfinder is optical or just an LCD with an eyecup over it. Is it big and bright, or hard to see? The type and design of the focusing aids — whether a split image or microprism, simple ground glass, or 50,000-point autofocus system — can impact your ability to get the focus right and get it where you want it. For rangefinder cameras, consider the location and quality of the rangefinder patch — or the usefulness and magnification of the dedicated rangefinder on older cameras.

Meter If you’re using older film cameras (or most large format and some medium format cameras), you might not have an integrated light meter. In the latest digital SLRs, there could be fancy matrix metering with dozens of selectable points or point groups, spot metering, and even configurable center-weighted metering ratios.

Lenses Lenses can have a variety of elements — from a single-element meniscus design up to more than a dozen discrete pieces of carefully shaped glass — which affect the lens’s sharpness, distortion and chromatic aberration. Coatings on the elements can improve or destroy color rendition, and eliminate or exacerbate flare. The size of the filter thread can impact the affordability and availability of compatible filters. If the lenses are interchangeable, the selection of compatible lenses may impact your purchase decision.

Form factor Are you planning on making 8×10 black and white glossy headshot prints? A 35mm camera may produce stunning results. Going to blow something up to insane sizes for hanging on the side of a building? Consider going with something medium or large format. Size also impacts the availability of film, and likely, the price of the camera (I’m looking at you, $45,000 digital Hasselblad). Format also directly impacts the physical size and weight of the camera.

Power source Even discounting the mercury battery problem suffered by some older cameras with light meters based on CdS photocells, battery cost and availability are worth considering. Battery life is fairly crucial for digital cameras, and even a lot of newer film cameras. Some cameras function mostly or completely without batteries, though.

Features Self-timers, autofocus, continuous shooting or panoramic modes, automatic exposure, double-exposure prevention, automatic loading and winding, hot shoes and PC sync sockets, film reminder windows and shutter-ready indicators are all available in varying combinations on cameras from a multitude of manufacturers, and range in usefulness from nice-to-have-now-and-then to basically-critical-for-your-shooting-style.

Accessories System cameras likely have a healthy array of available accessories, while some one-offs have very few. Very old cameras may be incompatible with modern accessories, with originals few and far between. Depending on what you intend to do with the camera, certain accessories may be crucial.

I’ve left out a lot of things you might consider when determining if a camera is capable of performing the task you intend it for. Some cameras generally excel at a broad range of photographic tasks, and sometimes a job calls for a specific set of options without which the work simply cannot be completed. You may need to make a list of requirements your candidate cameras must have, and then study everything on the spec sheets and compare the additional features available on those cameras that meet your prerequisites.

Olympus XA2
The Olympus XA2 is whole heck of a lot of camera in a teeny tiny bundle. Durable and easy-to-use, all in a palm-sized package. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Subjective factors

subjective /səbˈjektiv/ adj. 1. based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions. (via Google)

Basically the opposite of everything above. Subjective factors are mostly very personal things, such as how the camera fits in your hands and whether you feel cool holding it.

Placement of controls could impact your ability to handle the camera easily, or its flash recycle time might not be fast enough for your shooting style. If the camera is too heavy for you to carry on your shoulder, but you want to hike with it for remote landscapes, that might present a problem. You may require a camera that is waterproof, or threaded for a standard cable release, or which accepts lenses you already own. You might need a fast flash sync speed on the shutter for shooting in an arena with remotely triggered strobes.

These factors are all things that determine the suitability of a camera for you, your subject and your shooting style. A camera with a maximum shutter speed of 1/500 second is not distinctly better or worse than a camera that can go to 1/4000 second — thousands of stunning and famous photographs have been made with slow shutter speeds. But if you’re hoping to freeze action on subjects traveling at 200mph, or shoot wide open while looking into the sun without a neutral density filter, that faster shutter speed will be rather necessary.

Affordability is another big subjective factor. A professional photographer who relies on them may not bat an eye at carrying several $5,000-$10,000 Leicas. You may be limited to $20 for your first camera purchase. It’s up to you to decide if the price of a camera is commensurate with the features it offers and with its fit for your style, and whether it is therefore a good value. Or, if you’re independently wealthy, price may simply be no object (but if you don’t like that Rolleiflex 2.8E, send it my way instead of using it for a doorstop…).

No two photographers will have the same subjective opinions about every feature and curve of every available camera, so it’s up to each of us to research, test, and make choices.

Stock Show Parade 2014
At the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo Kick-Off Parade in 2014, a cowboy pauses to let a child pet his horse’s nose. Taken with the Nikon F3. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The real factor

By now you’re probably wondering what my point is. Simply put, it is this:

The best camera is the one that works for you.

When Chase Jarvis said the best camera was the one you had with you, he was alluding to the widely held belief that your camera doesn’t matter. Ken Rockwell quotes Ernst Haas as having said, “The camera doesn’t make a bit of difference. All of them can record what you are seeing. But, you have to SEE.”

And that’s great — and, I believe, totally correct — when you haven’t got a choice or your choice is limited. But what about when you have a choice?

When you’re buying a camera, you have the ability to match its features and capabilities to your needs. The best match is the one that does what you want, in a way you like.

“The camera’s only job is to get out of the way of making photographs,” Rockwell writes, and he’s spot on.

If you’re struggling with your equipment, you’re not making photographs. And even when you are releasing the shutter, you’re not going to produce the same quality of work, whether because you’re distracted or because your chances of messing it up may increase exponentially when you’re not able to treat the tool as an extension of the hand, operating it with muscle memory alone.

It’s equally important that you be satisfied with your results. Holgas are wildly popular. Easy to use and remarkably flexible, it’s hard to find a way to fight with your equipment when you’re shooting with a Holga. But the results are wildly unpredictable, and suffer myriad imperfections — in fact, they’re prized by many adherents for those seemingly random shortcomings alone. Personally, I’m not a big fan.

My advice to you is not to fall into the trap of buying the latest and greatest, the most expensive, or the most feature-rich camera. Instead, try out many cameras and use the experience you gain to inform your decision. If you decide you were wrong? Try again. “Good judgment comes from having made bad judgments,” as my dad is fond of paraphrasing Mark Twain.

Find a camera that fits both your objective and subjective requirements — a camera the feels good in the hands, becoming a natural part of your arm; that makes you feel cool and doesn’t weigh you down; that produces the look and feel you want from your images; that fits the technical requirements of your photographic style and meets your stylistic needs. Above all, get the one that makes you happy.

At the end of the day, the camera is just the tool of the photographer — it’s the photographer that makes the pictures.

Leica IIIc and Summar 5cm
My war-era Lecia IIIc with its Leitz Summar 5cm f/3.5 lens and cap. After a tune-up, it turns out to be a quirky, but very good, walking around camera. (Daniel J. Schneider)