I started taking pictures with my father’s Nikon F when I was eight years old and not long after began developing film and making prints in the darkroom. Back then watching a photo come to life in a tray of developer was instantly gratifying—granted it was sometimes hours, but more likely days after capturing the moment with a camera. Nowadays, as it has been for quite a while, the definition of instant gratification has been realized with digital cameras immediately playing back each image captured. And having nearly unlimited storage space for those captured images means we’re taking far more pictures than in the days of 36 exposure rolls of 35mm film. And having cameras on our phones means that we’re taking pictures in every possible situation. What has stayed the same for me until now, though, is the idea that I only need one camera for the job. A camera phone is fine for trade shows, but a full-fledged DSLR is necessary for fast-paced action. And for portraits and casual moments a mirrorless or lightweight DSLR will do just fine.
On a recent trip to Namibia I found my camera trifecta. Instead of carrying my Nikon Df and two fast prime lenses, I set out with a Nikon D5 fitted with a 70-200 f/2.8 lens and the Sony Alpha 7ii with a 35mm f/1.4 (both on loan for review). And my iPhone 6s+, of course. We were moving fast and constantly in and out of the cars. Not knowing what to expect next, readiness was key. If I took the time to change lenses, I would have missed so many shots. And if I used just one super-zoom lens that ranged from wide to telephoto the image quality would have suffered. Ultimately, I’m really happy with the shots that came from this journey and realize that simply being there was a photographic opportunity far greater than any specific camera model. That said, I do love my gear and testing new equipment is a pleasure. In the slideshow above you’ll see images from all three with call outs for which camera was used to capture each image. There are five shots from each camera. Read on for specific notes on each model.
Nikon D5, 70-200mm f/2.8
This is Nikon’s flagship, top of the line, professional DSLR camera that was announced in January at CES and has just begun shipping to customers. The form factor is very similar to its predecessor, though the guts are all new. Focus is faster and more controllable, the full frame sensor holds more information and works beautifully in very low light, and the now touch-enabled playback screen is more brilliant. Why they chose not to build in WiFi or GPS, however, is beyond me. For full specs go to Nikon; it’s available for $6500 from Adorama or B&H. Though the 70-200 zoom lens I was using isn’t new, it’s still perfect for shooting from the seat of an off-road vehicle due to its active image stabilization option. It also maintains a nice depth of field even at long distances.
Sony Alpha a7ii, 35mm f/1.4
So many photographers I know are shooting this camera right now. And I get it. Being mirrorless it’s a smaller and lighter body, yet the full-frame sensor is best-in-class. Fortunately there’s a viewfinder for those of us who still prefer to shoot with one eye looking through a little window. Yeah, that’s me. What’s brilliant about the digital display in this camera’s viewfinder isn’t the high speed and superb image quality (those are requirements if you’re taking away the mirror, IMHO), it’s the split second image playback after taking a picture. You get just the slightest glance of your shot to confirm whether you need another without ever having to change your shooting posture or risking missing a moment. The handgrip is very comfortable, however the control dial ergonomics seem to be oriented for automatic mode shooters as the exposure compensation is way more present than the shutter speed control and I often mixed up the two. There’s also built-in WiFi so transferring quick selects to the phone for previewing and sharing is super easy. This was the perfect camera to catch the energy and environment of certain moments so to give context to some of the tighter shots I stuck with Sony’s 35mm f/1.4 lens, which is a lovely piece of glass with both extremely sharp focus and smooth, velvety bokeh. The Sony Alpha a7ii runs about $1700 and is available at Adorama or B&H.
iPhone 6s Plus
Considering the image sensor on the iPhone 6s Plus is majorly smaller than a full frame 35mm sensor, it delivers impressive image quality with modest noise and reasonable depth of field. Besides always having my phone on me and it sometimes being the only camera within reach, it’s valuable for native features like Live photos and easy panoramas. I opted for the Plus-sized version of the iPhone mostly because the larger screen makes for great image viewing, though at times the device still feels big in the hand. I’ve also started taking reference photos with the iPhone even when shooting another camera in order to capture the GPS data for that location. Beyond having the phone readily available to take pictures, I love all the app options for editing photos on the fly. Whether shot on the iPhone or transferred in wirelessly, my editing app of choice is Darkroom. Another favorite app for tracking and predicting sun and moon locations (I prefer to shoot in natural light) is Sun Surveyor. Then, of course, there’s the original and still greatest looping app, Phhhoto.
Ignoring the hard math and statistical analysis I’m still confident saying that there are more great pictures in the world today not because people are getting better at photography but because with so many pictures taken every day, chances are good there will be a lot of good ones—regardless of the photographer’s creativity and mastery of the craft. The creativity is somewhat intrinsic while the craft can be learned. What matters more than anything else to be a great photographer today is access. Being present among people and places are the most rich opportunities and I’m grateful to have them—even if I’m looking like a total nerd carrying three cameras in to the moment.
Images by Josh Rubin