"Systems" Cameras

A funny thing has happened in the transition from film to digital: the definition of "system" in "system camera" has changed. It's important to understand that, because there are implications that may impact even your initial purchase of a system. 

In film, you bought a camera, some lenses, maybe a flash, put it all in a bag and went off to shoot. Your system was simple. A few intrepid souls—including myself—built and used darkrooms to process and print their work, but the whole workflow for most people who shot film went like this:

  1. Buy film
  2. Shoot
  3. Hand/send film to processing lab
  4. Receive/pick up film from processing lab
  5. Pick selects; send extra prints to friends/family, usually in person or by mail
  6. Give negatives/slides back to processing lab for larger prints
  7. Receive prints back
  8. Put all the originals in a storage container (box, sleeves, whatever)
  9. Frame and hang print on wall

For 99% of the world, there was no equipment involved with the process after the shoot. Thus, the "system" consisted of just their camera equipment.

That's not true of the digital world for serious users:

  1. Shoot
  2. Download images to computer
  3. Sort, tag, edit
  4. Post process selects
  5. Post/email/share selects
  6. Print a few super selects (which may be done at home or via labs)
  7. Backup everything

One thing to notice in both scenarios: cameras really are used only the start of either process, but in the digital world, the serious enthusiast needs equipment beyond the camera to achieve their goals with their images.

Don't panic if you're not a super serious photographer. Yes, you can still use a film-like process:

  • Shoot
  • Download images to computer
  • Pick selects; send images to friends/family via email or by posting somewhere

However, when you approach system cameras in that simplified way, you might want to think seriously about whether the marketing is distracting you towards things that will conflict with what you want. In particular: megapixel count. If you're into that simplified process I just mentioned, buying a camera with 16mp or 24mp is overkill, you're just slowing yourself down, and you're need more memory and storage.

I run a simple experiment with friends who ask how much camera they need: I take an image I've shot on one of my lower-end mirrorless cameras and downsize it to fit on my big-screen TV in the living room. If they like the results and would be happy with that, I can then tell them to ignore megapixel counts entirely. Why? Because the best any common HD TV can do is 1920x1080 pixels, or about 2mp. Buying a 24mp camera instead of a 10mp or 12mp doesn't really help for that level of use. In fact, it tends to inhibit you, because you either have to significantly downsize all your images to use them in the places you want to use them, or you end up storing way more data than you will ever really use.

However, once we start talking about wanting to make quality prints, especially large ones, those pixels start to become more useful.

So let's return back to my initial hypothesis: 

  • In the film world when you considered a "system" you needed to consider: camera, lens, flash, accessories.
  • In the digital world when you consider a "system" you need to consider: camera, lens, flash, accessories, transfer mechanism, computer, image management software, image editing software, storage, and maybe even printer. Yikes.

So does what you pick at the front end of that system (the camera-related components) make a difference to what you need/choose at the other end of that digital system (computer-related components)? To a small degree, yes. 

If you're in a system that's growing in megapixel count (and which one isn't?), the back-end components need to grow when you upgrade, too. When you bump from 12mp to 16mp to 24mp, you need a faster CPU, more memory, and definitely more storage space. 

But there are subtle aspects to the "system" now. For instance, software support. The store you buy the camera from will probably point out that it comes with software. Frankly, the stuff supplied by some makers is what most of us who've been in the software industry would call Crapware. It doesn't do much, it isn't updated often, it has frustrating controls and abilities, it still doesn't support the latest OS change, it may even crash a lot. Okay, we can solve that by adding some better software to our system (Aperture or Lightroom are sort of the gold standards for a barebones organization/edit/manage program). But even this can be a bit tricky: does that software get updated for new components of your system frequently? For example, is Adobe updating the lens profiles for your "system"? How soon does Aperture support your brand new system?

An even trickier question for those who shoot raw files is this: which software gets the most (best visual output) from the raw data? And how easy is it to do that? 

Don't panic. What I'm trying to do here is make sure that you don't underestimate how far your camera system extends these days. To most of us, it's a camera, lens(es), flash, accessories, card reader/WiFi connection, computer, software, storage, and maybe even a printer.   

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