The Conundrum of Choice

The “brand battles” warmed up when Canon and Nikon committed to mirrorless, but they haven’t diminished. If anything, the proliferating choices are making it tougher and tougher to figure out what to buy. (See also my recent article about growing into a camera rather than growing out of a camera.)

First, my oft-repeated advice: If you have been using one brand, try to stick with it. I’ve watched an enormous number of users leak or switch to another brand earlier in the mirrorless era—often because their brand choice didn’t make a particular model level—only to switch back. Canon, Nikon, and Sony all use different control positions/definitions, and have long-established UX (user experience) that includes consistent naming, labeling, and positioning of controls. Abandon a brand at your own risk. Muscle/brain memory is useful in photography, because you’re making snap changes and decisions. Relearning to the level of being second nature takes more time than you think.

We’ve now got a huge number of choices at a wide variety of levels in mirrorless. For example, consider:

  • Entry — The Canon R50, Fujifilm X-T30II, Nikon Z50, OMDS E-M10, and Sony A6100, for example, all sit in a similar position at the bottom of their respective brands’ offerings. Pricing variation is definitely at play, with Canon at US$800 for an R50 kit and OM Digital Solutions also at US$800 for an E-M10 Mark IV kit at one end; Fujifilm is at the other end at US$1000 for the X-T30II kit (Nikon’s Z50 kit would be there, too, if not for the persistent discount that places it in the middle). 
  • 24/33mp Full Frame — The Canon R6 Mark II, Nikon Z6 II, Panasonic S5 II, and Sony A7 Mark IV are all in the hotly contested full frame enthusiast spot that has the highest level of purchasing. Here we have the Nikon and Panasonic bodies at the low end (US$2000) with Canon and Sony at the high end (US$2500). 

At almost any slice of the market (price, sensor, capability) we now have plenty of players with products that are near enough in equivalence that making a decision is near impossible if you try to tackle it by simply asking “what’s the best choice?” 

Second, my other oft-repeated advice: Every camera currently on the market is capable of excellent prints at the largest size a desktop inkjet printer can produce. I first wrote that somewhere around 2005/2006. Desktop inkjet printers have gotten a bit better since then, but the cameras have far outpaced the output side. 

As I’ve written elsewhere, the “output bar” for photographs is still relatively low. Basically 2mp for Web/social media work, 20mp for maximum-sized desktop inkjet prints. Buying more pixels gives you some cropping flexibility, sure, but cropping isn’t the same as changing perspective, and major cropping starts to lower your effective dynamic range due to increased noise visibility. Meantime, higher frame rates and maximum pixels produce more images for you to transfer and deal with, though they might make it easier for some to capture a specific moment in time. 

The camera makers are over-selling video in our cameras these days, too. Most of you are viewing TV or streaming at FullHD, not 4K. 8K is still far off in most of your futures because of that. The old Kodak “capture your memories with the best” type of marketing still persists and makes you buy more on fear of not having the best rather than buying what works well.

Meanwhile, in a pocket near you lurks the smartphone. Today’s smartphones are certainly easily capable of excellent 2mp stills and FullHD video, and with pretty gratifying results. Which is where the “good enough” problem starts to creep into the picture (pun intended). At the lowest output bars, Apple, Google, Samsung,, provide both a camera and a camcorder that fits in your pocket, thus making them the “carry everywhere” choice. Ignore the 200mp (or even 48mp) claims; you’re almost certainly not going to use smartphones with “extra pixels" for massive stills and 8K video. 

I kinda hoped that Instagram was just a phase—technically, it is—but I’ve been noticing more and more practitioners. It used to be that the only cameras in a locker room were those of the credentialed sports photographers covering the event. Now I find pretty much everyone in the room Insta-ing, TikTok-ing, Tweeting, or Tubing. All the Millennials seem to have become influencers, trying to make a few extra dollars by talking their peers into buying something they got for free. 

Which brings us to this question: why are you buying a mirrorless camera? 

Throughout the history of consumer cameras, way more cameras were bought because the purchaser fell for a marketing line than for a specific need. Indeed, I documented that back in the late 70’s as part of my PhD work, and have been able to repeat those findings several times along the way to today. 

Starting with the Kodak Brownie, it seems that marketing was able to trigger fear-centric buying—missing out on capturing a key moment in life—over and over, and specifically centered around “life events,” such as graduation, marrying, first child, and so on. This led to household adoption of “a sophisticated camera” that hit a penetration of 60-70%. Most of which lived in closets except for a few of those sporadic life events.

Today, of course, you have a choice if that last paragraph describes you: (1) buy pretty much any current camera; or (2) use your smartphone. Guess which one is easier?

Unfortunately, this leaves the camera makers pretty much back where they were at the tail end of the film SLR era: catering to a smaller audience. That audience was basically serious hobbyist/enthusiast as well as professionals. Moreover, it was an audience with disposable income to spend on their hobby, or which had recurring income from their profession. 

Those groups tend to be the ones that read my Web sites, and whose questions I find myself answering when they’re confronted with the conundrum of choice. 

With the professionals, it tends to be easy to answer their questions and help them make good decisions. They have specific needs, know what those are, they are value oriented, and professionals don’t tend to become unflagging fans of something (other than “it works”). I’ve helped a great number of pros transition from film to DSLR and now to mirrorless. These days, I’m fielding more and more video questions from them, as most request for quotes they deal with in their business now involve both still and video needs. 

The vast majority of you reading this article—wow, you made it this far, despite my all my keyboard wandering!—are in the serious hobbyist/enthusiast realm. You’re much tougher to provide good answers for, because you range across a wide array of ability, you do have brand loyalties, yet you’re far more open to experimentation and discovery. The question you aren’t always asking but need to answer is “what do I really want to achieve?” 

That’s not always obvious. Indeed, when someone sends me a gear-related question via email, we often have to have a back-and-forth about that specific question before we can get to the correct gear choice. Too many of your questions are outward facing, and not inward facing. By that I mean you’re worried that Enthusiast B is able to do something you can’t. Or that Brand C may provide a new experience, even if you don’t know what that is yet. Or that Future D may find you in a dead-end gear wise. 

You’re actually Enthusiast A. So stick with the A observations ;~). Where are you (photographically)? Where have you been? Where do you see yourself going? What constitutes a great photo to you? Have you ever achieved one? If so, how and with what? Have you maxed out your achievement with your current equipment? How? Whose work do you admire? Why do you admire it (hint: it isn’t because of the logo on the front of their camera)? 

I’ve watched a few hobbyists and enthusiasts get worse at photography with better equipment. That’s because ultimately it isn’t the equipment that makes the hundreds of decisions that go into making a great photograph. Indeed, more sophisticated equipment sometimes adds decisions you have to make in the spur of a moment. Photos are about moments, so you don’t want to be taking too long to make those decisions.

Let me try to put the conundrum of choice into context for you. 

I obviously have my pick of pretty much any photographic gear. If I don’t own it, I can borrow it from this site’s exclusive advertiser. For my pro work with clients, I’m very careful about my equipment decisions, and make the best possible choice for what I believe will result in the best possible work for the client. 

I take photos casually, too. I have three casual trips this year where I’d like to take some photos if I find them, but where I really want to spend most of my time trying to get to know the place. I have no specific requirement to come back with a photograph of something. But I’m sure I will come back with some photographs. This is very akin to the vacation photography a number of you do. 

So, which camera do I pick?

I only produced two bullets up above because these were the two specific camera categories I’ve been considering taking on those casual trips. I don’t want to load myself up with camera gear, so smaller and lighter is going to pretty much mean my Z9 cameras sit in the office gear lock-up while I’m out on those trips. 

It’s easy for me to say Nikon Z50 or Z6 II because I also have access to pretty much any lens for them. But I also run this mirrorless site that covers all brands, so I’m not going to just say “Nikon” and be done with my decision. The more experience I get with all the brands, the more I can deliver useful and insightful information to you, obviously. 

I’ll probably end up carrying a different set of gear on each of those casual trips, but even there I’ve identified nine contenders and we’re only talking about three trips, so I’m in the same choice conundrum as some of you, though for a different reason. And we haven’t even got to lens choices yet (probably just going to be one kit lens, maybe an additional prime; again, I’m not going to carry much gear). 

So how do I decide? How do you decide?

It gets back to those questions in the paragraph starting with “You’re actually Enthusiast A.” And a bunch more questions. For you that should also be salted with “which brand are you most familiar with.” 

Now go buy a camera that you can grow into (as opposed to out of), and you have your decision. Simple as that ;~).

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