161231 Cameras of 2016 - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto
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Here we are again – the changing of the year.

It's time for some adjustments and realignments for 2017, but the best way to go forward is by knowing where I've been. So I've been looking back over the past year, and the few before that, to see where I stand. A big part of that is figuring out what cameras I use, when, and why.

Because the number of photos I take varies wildly from year-to-year and camera-to-camera, I needed some sort of a reference point. My solution is to only consider the number of photos that have reached a two-star rating, which gets rid of the redundancy from my catalog, and then to measure each camera in Big Nikon Equivalent Units. The BNEU compares the other cameras against the number of photos I used my D800 for. Yes, this is partly just to be funny, but it accidentally provides a surprisingly practical baseline. I use my D800, and D700 before it, in consistent ways across the years; it's the foundation that everything else relies on.

Big but efficient. Nikon D800 and 85mm f/2.8 PC-E.

My subjective impression is that I don't take my D800 out much, but every year I'm surprised to learn that I used it more than I thought. I've created two-star (or higher) images with it on nineteen different dates in 2016, which is more than all but two of its stablemates. It remains the camera that I reach for when its no-hassle operation and image quality matter more than the hassle of its size and sound. We've been to the ROM, the auto show, northern Ontario, and finally managed to digitize the family slide collection. I'll even use it for quick product shots and other fun tasks as well. I just never carry it for no reason at all, which is something I'll do with its smaller siblings.

Miniature Format. Nikon D800 and 85mm f/2.8 PC-E.

During 2016 I used six lenses on the D800, with focal lengths ranging from 35mm to 85mm.

My 60mm f/2.8G Micro is by far the most used lens, creating noteworthy photos on ten different dates, which is double what I did with its closest competitor, the Sigma 35/1.4 Art. But the signature lens for my D800 remains the 85mm f/2.8 PC-E. It does things that no smaller lens, and no smaller format, is capable of. And no, you can't just replicate the 'miniature effect' that's one of its novelty tricks by blurring the background and foreground, because then the falling snow would also be blurred away.

To use the 85PCE well does require a tripod. I have one that's too light to use outdoors, and one that's too heavy to carry more than fifty feet, so finding one in between that doesn't cost a fortune is on my list of things to do. Not high on the list, but it's worth thinking about.

Power plant. Infrared modified Nikon Coolpix A.

The big story for me in 2016 was experimental cameras, especially infrared.

My modified Coolpix A was used on twenty-five different dates, more than any other camera, and managed a BNEU score of 0.79 despite only being in use for about eight months in 2016. I'd carry it everywhere, all the time, just to be able to learn how it saw. It was equally at home in the woods as in the city, on a lake or on a golf course. That last one is particularly impressive, as I had never been on a working golf course before. 

While I had the A-IR converted to see some colour, I almost always used it with an IR-only filter or converted the results to monochrome. The photo I've chosen here is from a walk following the Niagara River from Niagara-on-the-Lake to the train station in Niagara Falls, which took way longer than I thought it would. This should not have surprised me. 

Pretty, delicate, eats toxins for breakfast. Full spectrum Nikon 1 S1, 30-110mm lens.

While my Nikon 1 S1 only arrived in August, it was out eleven times and earned a 0.13 BNEU rating. That may not be all that significant on its own, much like the entire Nikon 1 camera line, but it's an extension of what I've been working through on the A-IR. They even use the same batteries. I use it for colour full-spectrum photography, which uses visible and infrared light, about half of the time. The rest of the time I've either converted the colour image to black and white, or used it with a filter to make it infrared-only. 

If I do create a third infrared camera – very unlikely, but always possible – I'd just have it set to an 830nm cut filter. That's what I usually use on the A-IR, which can natively see all the way down to the 590nm yellow-red part of the spectrum. The 720nm and 950nm filters that I have for the S1 are either too much or too little.

There's no longer any place like this place, anyplace. Ricoh Theta S.

The double-fisheye Ricoh Theta S is the third in my 2016 trilogy of experimental cameras. I've only had it for two months, yet used it on thirteen different days with a BNEU score of 0.24. And as I write this, January 1 2017, the fifty-five Theta photos that I've put on Google Maps have had over sixty-three thousand views. That's fairly unprecedented for my images, even if they are semi-anonymous and a form of free assistance to a massive data-aggregating advertising company. Maps images still contain possibilities for opinion and humour, and I've also used the Theta to create some photos that I genuinely like for their own merits.

And that, ultimately, is the point of all of this. Now that I have these experimental cameras, and have had my time to play around and learn them, it's time for me to put them to work and use them for something with a point of view.

Installation view: Gene Davis, Black Panther, 1970. Ricoh GR at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

2016 saw my Ricoh GR drop from its most-used status that it had for 2014 and 2015, with BNEU scores of 1.99 and 1.66 respectively, down to a meagre 0.29 for 2016. Clearly the Coolpix A-IR took a lot of my small-camera carry-everywhere 28mm attention over the summer. But sadly my GR, which has been in continuous use since August 2013, is also starting to have some reliability issues. This has made me a little less likely to carry it, both because I can't quite trust it and because I know that if it breaks completely I'll need to buy another one that day. So instead I'm slightly more likely to carry the GRDIV (0.13) than I have been in the past, especially when I'm in the mood for black and white jpegs. And I've been enjoying that a lot recently.

The niche – rhymes with quiche – of the small and excellent camera is a demanding one. The GR really is pretty much perfect exactly as it is; the only physical change I want to see in a new generation would be a standard micro USB port instead of its weird USB+AV plug. That's unlikely, so I might as well wish for weather sealing as well. But the GR really is all of a piece, and I'm not interested in any 'improvement' that detracts from its character, which I think Ricoh understands better than any other camera maker.

There's a slim chance that I'll give up pocketability and buy Fujifilm's next X100 model, which is a machine that has never quite been what I'm looking for, even though every generation keeps coming closer. I suppose I could also consider one of the Sony RX100 family, but I won't. Can't. Yes, my GR replacement will almost certainly be a newer GR. And I already have the viewfinder.

Taken right before the battery died. Sigma DP3M.

The other camera that's perfect in its own way is the Sigma DP3 Merrill. It also felt the pressure of the experimental camera year, with its BNEU dropping from 1.94 and 1.60 in the past two years to just 0.41 in 2016. It was out on thirteen different days, and was my camera whenever I wanted D800 quality and 60/2.8G macroness without the Nikon size and weight. What really holds the Sigma back from world domination is its support software, which deters me even though the SooC jpeg quality is more than enough most of the time. 

In truth, quick access to the jpegs is the reason why I have an SD card reader for my phone. Who needs WiFi?

Oddly I almost never actually used the DP3M alongside my DP2 Merrill, despite thinking of them as a pair. The 45mm-e DP2M only had a 0.08 BNEU score, creating two-star (or higher) photos on only four different dates. Granted, that scarcity isn't actually a surprise; despite being the same camera, I like the lens of the DP3M much better. Its 75mm might be my perfect focal length, and the wider DP2M has a just enough barrel distortion to annoy me. 

CF188 at the Toronto air show. Fujifilm X-T10, 55-200, full width frame.

But behind all of this experimenting and the fixed-lens favourites there's another workhorse that's called on for just about everything. My Fuji X-T10 ended its first full year in the household with a BNEU of 1.67 and was used on 21 different dates. Family events, hikes, the museum, the auto show – this was my utility camera that could tackle any event with a minimum of fuss. The standard 18-55mm zoom was its most-used lens, and the 55-200mm zoom came in second. It's not a remarkable camera in many ways, and it's not the best at anything in particular, but it's a good compromise and balance for just about everything. And I have lots of batteries for it.

Similarly, my 10x-zoom Olympus Stylus 1s is a camera that I often forget I own, but at 0.18 it took more photos than my GRDIV, DP2M, waterproof Panasonic TS3, or silent Nikon 1 V1. As a compact utility camera it tends to be what I carry when I don't plan on doing anything photogenic, prioritize versatility and smaller size over quality, or want to round out some of the more specialized cameras that I carry. That happens a surprising number of times.

Staging of "I'll Miss You a Little". Nikon 1 V1, 18mm lens.

For most of the past year in particular, and the past eighteen months or so more generally, I've been trying out different things and ideas without worrying about where, if anywhere, I end up with it. Accordingly I haven't been recording audio very much, but did get a GPS logger that can keep track of where everything was taken. That's been very useful given that I've shifted away from dedicated projects to carrying a camera while doing other things, but my plan for 2017 is to shift back to more concentrated efforts again.

And also to continue doing those other things, and carrying cameras while doing them.

Further to my plan I don't want to spend too much energy on new toys. Replacing my Ricoh GR is the only new camera I'm really looking forward to for 2017, whichever new camera that may be. Buying only one new camera in a year is actually a rather bold plan for me – the average is more like one every four to six months – and I would actually like to end 2017 owning fewer cameras than I do now. 

It's time to get to work. I'm interested to see what 2017 will bring.

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