(By the way when I say downsizing, I mean my gear – not my waist line – in case you were curious!!!)
I’m going to need you to put aside your biases for a minute and hear me out.
Many of you (but not all) know I am involved in a year-long project where I rely on my iPhone 13 Pro as my “main camera.” Many factors have put me on this road. Starting with being both inspired and astonished by what my pal Jefferson Graham (former USA TODAY tech columnist and current professional photographer and co-host of the iPhone Photo Show podcast – with yours truly) has accomplished with minimal gear. Additionally, numerous medical problems and my impending decrepitude due to old age have helped push me in this direction. But so has an understanding that free of the burden of lots of camera bags, my eye seems to do a better job. Read on if you’re intrigued.
I spent nearly five years as an Olympus Visionary (Micro Four Thirds) and that was my first attempt at downsizing. I left my Canon 1DX MK II (a lovely camera by the way) in the dust and went to M43. I’m getting old; older every day, and I have had lots of medical problems including lots of shoulder problems. My doctors (I think I have about 20 now – it’s takes a whole team of them to keep me going) said I had to lighten my load so I went with Micro Four Thirds.
Then, I got a job offer working as a cinematographer so I had to abandon my beloved Olympus gear. It simply didn’t provide the output my producers needed. I miss that gear too.
Since life is never easy (for me anyway) COVID put a one-year delay on that job. So I decided to try this experiment of downsizing further and living with an iPhone 13 Pro as my main camera.
The problem is, I am a bird and wildlife photographer. This means I need more focal length than most of you. (Think 600mm) and that’s just not available on an iPhone. Digital zoom sucks (repeat that over and over in case you might be tempted to forget.) So I needed optics.
I went with digiscoping and here the news gets no better. Not because digiscoping doesn’t work. It does. I just encountered some NEW medical challenges that include me having trouble with my vision. (Yep – kind of a big deal when a photographer cannot see well.) Digiscoping requires manual focus through a very small eyepiece and I am not seeing well enough to get sharp images that way. So I abandoned that idea and decided, what the heck – time for a bridge camera.
Over the last six months, I have fully tested a dozen cameras and while I liked things about all of them, they were all too cumbersome or had some other feature that made it hard for me to embrace them. Except one – The old Sony RX10 MK IV (yeah – Sony) blew me away. Once again, I owe my pal Jefferson a hat tip. He uses one of these cameras for anything his iPhone won’t let him accomplish and he gets amazing results. I looked at those results and decided, that will work.
I know what many of you are thinking. You are surprised I’d go for something less than the newest, latest, greatest, most expensive, etc. And a Sony no less. But sometimes you just gotta do what you just gotta do. And the RX10 meets all my needs. And don’t be fooled by the fact that this is an older camera. The Sony RX10 Mark IV is truly an amazing camera I wish I’d have discovered it sooner.
It has a 20.1 MP sensor (more than enough for me.) A great image processor, and a stupendous Zeiss f/2.4-f/4 24 to 600mm lens (EFL) which will be enough for most situations.
It has lots of features, including super slow motion, 4K video, a great hybrid 315-point autofocus system, 24fps shooting, a bright OLED viewfinder, dust and moisture resistant, image stabilization, and yes – a one-inch sensor. It isn’t the greatest low-light performer, but then again, I am always CHASING the light so shooting in LOW light never makes sense to me. And when I do need to boost the ISO, programs like Topaz Denoise AI and OnOne’s new NoNoise, give me great looking images.
Yes it’s old. Yes it’s a bridge camera. But as I get older, and more experienced, I have come to realize that my skill and photographic vision have improved sufficiently to make great images from just about any relatively modern camera. And while most of my career has been about the top-of-the-line cameras and telephoto lenses, that was just gravy. I didn’t actually NEED that stuff. Sure, it was nice to have, but it would also be nice if I were 30 years old again and in much better physical shape.
I am bumping up dangerously close to that dreaded 70 mark. I know many of you will dive out of this article just because of that. Us old guys aren’t relevant these days. And no matter how hard I try, I cannot grow a man bun.
But the thing is, despite my advancing age, I still love photography and cannot give it up. I can’t help it. So I need to make compromises and after all, hasn’t photography always been about compromises?
Every time I lighten my load, someone says “Won’t you miss getting ____________ (fill in the blank) kinds of shots?” And the answer is – maybe. But that’s the wrong question. The right question is what kinds of shots will I get now that I used to miss because I was burdened by all that gear I used to haul around? And so far, as I’ve been downsizing, the answer has been simple – I get more than I give up.
I spend more time in the field now, and more time LOOKING because I don’t have so much gear to manage. And I can go just about anywhere without being obtrusive.
The best part of all this is I can carry my iPhone (even in a cage) and my Sony RX10 in ONE small bag that will fit on ANY airplane. I have everything I absolutely need (if I throw a small monopod, or tripod or Platypod (or all three) in my checked bag) to go on a photo safari.
It’s impossible for me to convince most people that the gear isn’t usually the answer to their photographic problems. Most of us go through periods where we think “If I only had THAT lens or THAT camera body, THEN I could get published, etc.” But it’s just not true. I hate to break it to you, but it just won’t matter. But you just have to learn that for yourself. You will – learn that, eventually. It takes time.
Chase Jarvis coined the phrase “The best camera is the one you have with you.” Depending on YOUR mindset, that can come off as trite or brilliantly deep. That’s on you, not Chase. I do have to say that as every year passes, I learn the true meaning of that catchphrase a little better.
I think some people miss the point of the original quote entirely. It’s not some dismissive remark which can be made to anyone who asks the question about which camera is best. It’s a philosophical point aimed at encouraging creativity from anyone and everyone who has “any” camera in their hand. Be it a smartphone, a bridge camera or anything else.
Coming up in the old days (when gasoline cost 32 cents a gallon,) some of the photographers who taught me the most were far from gear-heads. I don’t want to shame anyone so I won’t mention any names, but I can tell you that some surprisingly big names out there (back in the day of course – because the Internet has made EVERYONE an expert now) knew little of the gear. More importantly, they moved PAST the gear and made amazing, evocative and powerful images with cameras and lenses that almost everyone reading this would scoff at.
I feel like I need to be a voice for those who cannot afford to, don’t have the physical strength to, or simply do not want to – have lots of expensive, top-of-the-line, gear. I say this knowing many of you follow(ed) me because of the gear I use. That’s a shame. I would hope you follow me because you like my images. It’s the product – not the process, that counts. At least in my opinion.
I have seen the camera forums devolve into cesspools of misinformation so I try to stay out of those. But once in a while, something happens, right in my face, and I have no choice to react. So the last part of this post is intended to empower those of you who for WHATEVER reason don’t have the best gear or a lot of gear or the gear your friends think you should have.
I’m speaking out against gear shaming. Very recently I was at a place along side many other bird photographers and a small woman came up and asked if she could stand by me since it was crowded. I welcomed her and immediately the guy on the other side said (unsolicited I might add) “Well you certainly don’t have enough lens to shoot from here.”) It just so happens the woman was using a Sony RX10 MK IV. She indeed had plenty of lens.
My upbringing and inclination in such situations is to come to the aide of people who are buillied. But I have come to realize that my intervention might not be welcome. I shouldn’t assume the woman needs ME to defend her – so I did the only thing I could do to carefully slide along the right line – down the middle and I said, (loudly) “Welcome – you have a very nice camera there.” The woman smiled, thank me and the guy on the other side of her just grumbled and we all went about our business making images of birds. Everything doesn’t have to be a fight!
The moral of the story is an old one. Gear doesn’t make the photo – the photographer does. You all know this. You may wish it weren’t true. It would be great if all it took were money to buy a great camera to make oneself a great photographer. But it doesn’t work that way. Despite that fact – Some will continue to beat the “gotta have more gear” line. Feel free. I am just here to say, it’s okay to just enjoy photography with whatever tools you have. While there’s no reason to take my advice, because, well – everyone knows I am a screwup – but I wouldn’t (and won’t) tolerate someone gear shaming me just because I don’t have the latest and greatest camera in my hand.
Photography is supposed to be fun. If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong. And while it’s always nice to have a new piece of gear that you like, you should remember what David duChemin says: “Gear is good, vision is better.”
Don’t be surprised if you see me with nothing but an iPhone in my hand or the Sony RX10 next time we meet. Feel free to make fun of me even. I am doing everything I can to stay involved in photography and will continue to tell stories and protect memories using whatever camera I have with me, right up until the day I die.
Thanks for reading.