Which camera to really learn photography?

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A discussion of cameras that truly address the needs of real photographers.

I’ve come to the conclusion that beginners truly wanting to learn photography need a striped down camera. Instead of something with all the bell and whistles, which quite frankly the stuff professionals simply ignore, someone just starting out in photography would gain more value from a simple camera. And I’m not talking about things like “IA” or “Intelligent mode”, “Automatic mode” or “Idiot mode” as in the camera does all the work, no I mean a camera that gives the user quick and easy access to the three basic factors in photography – ISO, Aperature and Shutterspeed. It also would include a real viewfinder instead of an LCD screen and a single non-zoom lens.

Back in the film days the go to learners camera found in high schools everywhere was the Pentax K1000. It featured a needle exposure meter and an all mechanical design that could be used without the need of batteries.

The Pentax K1000 (originally marked the Asahi Pentax K1000) is an interchangeable lens, 35 mm film, single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, manufactured by Asahi Optical Co., Ltd. from 1976 to 1997, originally in Japan. The K1000’s extraordinary longevity makes it a historically significant camera. The K1000’s inexpensive simplicity was a great virtue and earned it an unrivaled popularity as a basic but sturdy workhorse. The Pentax K1000 eventually sold over three million units.

Pentax K1000 camera

Instead of going through a bunch of confusing software menus, a camera such as this gave the user instant access to all of the important elements of an exposure via mechanical dials.  Plus this was the pre-autofocus days so the user was actually fully involved in selecting where the image would be focused on.

I picked up this Petri Racer camera at a flea market basically as a photo prop because to me it has all of the features of what one would expect in a film era single lens reflex camera.  Although this is actually a rangefinder camera.

The Petri Racer is a Japanese fixed-lens 35mm rangefinder introduced in 1966. It features a built-in match-needle coupled CdS lightmeter but no automatic exposure program. It could be equipped with a Petri 2.8/45 or 1.8/45 lens. The shutter is a ten-speed Petri.

Petri Racer Rangefiner Camera

With a rangefinder camera you don’t look through the lens but rather through a separate view finder.  To focus you set the distance of the subject on the lens.  Street photographers love type of camera because they can preset the focus and then shoot from the hip without bringing the camera to their eye and perhaps alerting their subject.  Without a mirror flipping up and down, rangefinders are also very quiet.  Also the camera came standard with a 35mm lens which is a favorite focal length of street photographers as it provides enough of a wide angle to include the “story” of a scene.

For someone learning photography, this camera like the Pentax K100 has a lot of mechanical features and all of the settings are visable at a glance.  On the lens itself there is an ASA ring (to days film sensitivity or ISO), aperture setting, shutter speed (The Petri Racer only has 10 shutter speeds from B to 500) and distance settings.

The only thing important thing missing in these basic vintage mechanical camera is the instant feedback afford by today’s modern digital cameras.  The ability to gain instant feedback on exposure, composition plus the zero cost of recorder images digitally compared to the old film days of buying expensive film and waiting until the roll is finished and processed to see how well you are progressing to me is the most amazing thing about modern photography.  Digital has the ability to shave years off of the learning curve as well as saving the beginner a lot of money.  If your first 10,000 photographs are your worst as famously said by Henri Cartier-Bresson, is true then at least with digital it doesn’t really cost anything to shoot, evaluate and delete 10,000 images.

Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Modern equalilants

So are there modern equivalents to these old workhorse learning cameras?  Unfortunately in the digital era there haven’t been too many “striped down to the essentials” cameras on the market.  Manufacturers have been in such competition to bring out feature after feature that even today’s inexpensive point and shoot is chock full of “features” that most people probably forget about after they leave the store.  Who really wants to have to remember a laundry list of “exciting” features and modes for every situation under the sun?  Wouldn’t you rather have an understanding of exposure and then easy access to controlling the elements of exposure – ISO, Shutterspeed and Aperature.  Don’t you think if you got all of the whiz bang features and modes out of the way maybe we could concentration on taking a good photograph instead of flipping through menus?

Well finally there are some cameras coming out of the market that addresses this interest for a more basic, let me say “photographers camera” as opposed to gadget lovers camera.

One of the major players in the rangefinder market has always been Leica.  The favorite of famous street photographers, Leica cameras have always been focused on quality where it counts. Fantastic lenses, sturdy bodies, and only the features photographers really need. Leica 10773 M-P (Typ 240) 24MP SLR Camera with 3-Inch LCD (Black)

But beginning photographers rarely have $7,000-$8,000 to spend on a camera!

Luckily for those a bit more budget conscious we are now starting to see some more reasonably prices rangefinder type cameras come on the market.  In the past I’ve had experience with some “pro” style point and shoot cameras like the Panasonic LUMIX DMC-LX7K 10.1 MP Digital Camera with 3.8x Optical zoom and 3.0-inch LCD – Black, which include more manual dials then the average point and shoot and emphasis a quality lens.

One camera that has caught eye lately is the Fujifilm X30 12 MP Digital Camera with 3.0-Inch LCD (Silver)

The Fujifilm X30 is a stylish, premium compact camera with class-leading functionality, superb design, enhanced battery performance and unrivaled image quality. This large-sensor premium compact has evolved from the best-selling X20 camera. In addition to its high quality 2/3-inch X-TransTM CMOS II sensor, the X30 features an impressive real-time viewfinder, EXR Processor II and a new control ring along with extra dials and function buttons for more control. Tilting 3.0-inch 920K-dot LCD monitor, improved battery performance (approximately 470 photos /charge), remote WiFi shooting from your smartphone and a variety of manual functions make shooting with the X30 a true pleasure.

  • 12MP 2/3-inch X-TransTM CMOS II sensor with no Optical Low Pass Filter
  • 2.36 million dot OLED viewfinder with 0.65x magnification
  • Bright F2.0-2.8 Fujinon 4 x Optical Zoom Len
  • Instinctive control ring
  • 11 Film Simulation Modes including – New Classic Chrome, Provia, Velvia and Astia

I’m thinking that this camera would make a fantastic camera for someone who really wants to learn photography.  In has the instinctive manual controls needed to truly grasp the concepts of photography. The new control ring, which automatically determines the most appropriate settings for the chosen shooting mode, functions like aperture, shutter speed and more can be quickly chosen without taking your eye from the viewfinder. This is complemented by the manual zoom ring, and physical dials which have become a hallmark of the X series.

I also like the large sensor, HD video quality, fast autofocus, large viewfinder (something missing from a lot of smaller cameras) and an built in interval timer for time lapse video (something my Canon 6D doesn’t even have).  The camera also has WIFI features such as remote control via a smartphone and WIFI image transfer.  Rather amazing package for less than $600.

This trend for more easy access to controls is certainly one I’d like to see continue. The market needs more cameras focused on photography and less on glitz. The low end market is disappearing as the snapshooters realize that all they need and want is their cellphone to take Facebook snaps. Time to bring out cameras for real photographers who want easy access to the things they actually want.

The Fujifilm X100S 16 MP Digital Camera with 2.8-Inch LCD (Silver) features an larger sensor.

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3 thoughts on “Which camera to really learn photography?

  1. I completely agree. Fortunately, when I first got on board the photography-obsession train, the Nikon D40x was available. Pretty stripped down little camera, yet even to this day, can create a beautiful image. And you’re absolutely right, I ignored the “scenes” options and practiced, practiced with shutter speed, aperture and all the basics. I think it was a great first dslr experience!!

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