Today’s digital cameras, even basic ones, are capable of extremely high image quality (at least up to a reasonable size, say, A4 – more than most of us need 90% of the time) that is the match of old-school large-format photography. In addition, even most phones can now shoot broadcast quality HD video.
Higher-end digital-single-lens-reflex (DSLR) and medium-format digital cameras will, with careful handling, match the quality of large-format film photography at even greater enlargements.
In short, for comparably less than what medium-format or large-format film cameras used to cost, a high-end DSLR will all but make your breakfast.
The catch with the relatively cheap price of the camera is with the add-ons. When you buy a brand (Hasselblad, Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc.) for the most part, you are locked into its Eco-system. Measured against the cost of the camera, the relative cost of manufacturer’s own lenses is extortionate. Lenses are now designed and built by computers – not by craftsmen in workshops grinding glass. Compared with the computer-that-happens-to-take-photographs that is a digital camera body, a lens is pretty basic; though I accept that there is the issue of volume sales, and some popular lenses are priced accordingly.
Fortunately, the mechanized production of high-end lenses, in particular, isn’t the exclusive domain of the camera manufacturers. Lens manufacturers such as Sigma (with, for example, their Art series of lenses) have shifted the goalposts in favour of the photographer. Lenses chosen judiciously with the aid of sites such as DXOMark can be at least the equal of, and sometimes exceed, the equivalent made by the camera’s manufacturers.
But, my main gripe with camera makers is their relative performance in after-sales service, and particularly in relation to firmware updates.
Simply put, in a camera the firmware is the inbuilt software which runs the camera’s hardware. Anyone who owns a computer or a mobile phone is aware of the regular software updates that are required. These updates (usually) improve the product’s compatibility between the different software packages running on the product and the overall performance of the phone or computer.
Firmware updates for a digital camera can eliminate bugs (very rare, admittedly) and, more usually, add new features. Some manufacturers are better than others when it comes to this; Sony are good, Hasselblad are superb while Canon, in my experience, are poor.
Hasselblad’s X1D camera is one of the most talked-about cameras of the last few years (no, I don’t own one, but I wish I did). Since its release it has had, by my calculation, six firmware updates all free of charge. These have added a host of features to the camera, many as a result of user-feedback. What started as a very high-spec camera gets even better with every update.
Canon, on the other hand, have released three firmware updates for the 5D Mark IV camera since its launch about two years ago. Two of these addressed a few bugs in the camera as well as adding in-camera support for new Canon lenses.
The second release issued mid-2017 offered C-Log exposure for video shooters. Essentially, video in a DSLR is capturing motion at 25 Jpegs per second. The problem is that setting exposure for video capture is a delicate operation with little margin for error. C-Log allows the user to override the camera’s in-built settings and take more control over the exposure.
The catch with this update is twofold; 1. You have to bring your camera to a Canon dealership, thus losing the use of it for a few hours at least – usually, firmware updates are user-activated. 2. Canon charge almost €100 for the privilege – about 3% of the cost of the camera. Not good enough.
It should be noted that Hasselblad’s X1D is about three times the price of a Canon 5D Mark IV. But, Sony’s a7R lll is cheaper than Canon’s 5D Mark IV and offers a high-resolution 4-shot capture feature that is akin to that of Hasselblad.
The key point is Canon’s competitors’ constant drive to improve their products with firmware updates, rather than simply waiting for new hardware releases.
Canon, please take note.