Specs Aren’t Everything

As photographers it is good for us to remember that specs aren’t everything when it comes to buying and effectively using camera gear. Like other folks I’ve learned some lessons the hard way. Fortunately those lessons didn’t cost me a huge amount of money. It is critical that each of us buy and use whatever format and brand of camera gear best meets our individual needs.

NIKON D800 + TAMRON 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 600mm, ISO 6400, 1/80, f/6.3

Believing the Hype.

My first realization that specs aren’t everything was years ago when I bought into the full frame hype that was rampant in the industry at that time. Internet chat rooms were full of comments that a person couldn’t be a ‘real’ photographer unless they used full frame gear. The amount of dynamic range a camera had, and its low light performance, were held up as the the Holy Grail of photography. Mega pixel wars were emerging and ‘bigger is better’ messaging was everywhere.

Blue Pools New Zealand, Nikon D800, 24 mm, f/8, 1/100, ISO-800

Did the full frame cameras I bought have more dynamic range and better low light performance than the APS-C gear I owned? Absolutely. Did they offer more resolution? Without question. Ignoring that specs aren’t everything… I continued to invest quite a bit of money into additional full frame lenses and ended up with a collection of about 8 lenses that included both primes and zooms.

Coromandel New Zealand, Nikon D800, 24 mm, f/8, 1/1250, ISO400

As my client video work increased I added camera supports like a slider, a follow focus unit, a stabilizer, a skater dolly, a jib, and a collection of tripods, video heads and studio lights/stands. It didn’t take long for my gear closet to be overflowing with equipment.  When going on a client assignment I’d have the rear seat and passenger seat in my hatchback folded down and my entire car was chock-a-block full with gear.

Cape Foulwind New Zealand, Nikon D800, 24 mm, f/8, 1/1000, ISO-400

We should be clear that in today’s competitive environment, hype is everywhere in the photography market. There is hype associated with all of the various sensor sizes, brands, camera models, lenses, software, and technology. The internet is exploding with competing claims and influencers trying to peddle something to their audiences. Many with the hope that they can make some click-through sales commissions. No wonder we get confused and stressed about what to believe. It can be truly mindboggling… and cause us to forget that specs aren’t everything.

Moeraki Boulders New Zealand, Nikon D800, 62 mm, f/8, 1/400, ISO-400

I really wanted to like my full frame camera gear. After all I had invested thousands of dollars in it. I kept reading reviews and watching videos extolling the virtues of what I had purchased. It was a way of avoiding the cognitive dissonance I was beginning to feel.  A good bout of discomfort, both mental and physical, came during a trip to New Zealand in 2013 when I spent a few weeks slogging around with a bag crammed with heavy, full frame camera gear.

Lupins in New Zealand, Nikon D800, 24 mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO-100

I came to the realization that I wasn’t having a lot of fun creating images with that system. It was tiring physically and I was having trouble mentally connecting with my equipment. That was not a recipe that nourished my personal creativity. Then, I made a fateful decision and bought a back-up body for my video business. That ended up changing everything.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 7.3mm, ISO 160, 1/125, f/5.6

Buying my first Nikon 1 V2 with a kit lens and FT-1 adapter seemed like a simple decision. I could get my gear into small, tight spaces and still use my F-Mount glass in ways that provided me with additional equivalent fields-of-view. I appreciated the flexibility.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 97.2mm, ISO 800, 1/60, f/5.3

It wasn’t long before I recognized the time-saving benefits of using the Nikon 1 system to shoot client videos… and bought the three Nikon 1 primes (10 mm f/2.8, 18.5 mm f/1.8, and 32 mm f/1.2). The crop factor allowed me to shoot shorter focal length lenses at f/2.8 and still get the depth-of-field I needed, rather than using f/8 with my full frame gear. That faster aperture meant I could leave my studio lights at home, and reduce my onsite shooting time.  By mid 2014 I was using Nikon 1 exclusively for my client video work… but still had my full frame system for still photography.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR VR 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 30mm, ISO 800, 1/20, f/5.6

In the fall of 2014 I decided to take my Nikon 1 gear on a trip to Greece as I didn’t want to replicate my 2013 New Zealand experience. After returning, that trip resulted in a decision to get rid of my full frame system. I had promised one of my sons that I’d photograph his wedding in July 2015… so I retained my full frame equipment for that specific event.

Nikon 1 V2 + Nikon 1 CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, 70mm, efov 189mm, f/5, 1/60, ISO-1100

The day after his wedding I sold my Nikon D800. Within a few weeks all of my full frame gear was gone and I had recouped most of my original investment. Then… I allowed myself to fall prey to more hype. This time of the negative variety.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKON 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 77.1mm, ISO 1600, 1/125, f/5.6

I began to have second thoughts about only using my Nikon 1 kit for all of my video and photographic needs. I had been stupid enough to allow myself to be affected by the constant barrage of negativity about the Nikon 1 system. After doing quite a bit of research… reading reviews and watching videos… I decided that buying a Panasonic GH4 with a couple of their ‘pro’ f/2.8 zooms would provide my business with a safety net of sorts. That proved to be a bad decision.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKON 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, ISO 400, 1/320, f/5.6

I made the mistake of not trying out a GH4 out in advance of my purchase. I naively believed what I had read and watched online. As it turned out, there was nothing that I liked about that equipment. The final straw was attempting to photograph some perched birds in low light at Bird Kingdom. The GH4 auto-focus failed miserably in what was a ‘no brainer’ situation for my Nikon 1 V2. I’d only had the Panasonic gear for less than 2 weeks so I was able to return all of it… and only paid a modest restocking fee to do so.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/8, 1/640, ISO-160

Practical Realities Matter

My experiences with full frame and Panasonic M4/3 equipment reinforced the notion that specs aren’t everything when it comes to camera gear. We all have practical realities that must be met with our camera equipment. Specs aren’t everything when increased dynamic range came with having to use gear that I found cumbersome, inefficient, and heavy. Specs aren’t everything when expanded video capabilities came with unacceptable auto-focus performance for still photography.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 PD @10mm, efov 27mm, f/5.6, 1/20, ISO-160

Specifications Don’t Work in a Vacuum.

It’s pretty easy to go online and read all of the detailed specifications of a particular camera. In a strange way reading specs can be exciting. We can get sucked into the trap of comparing minute differences in specifications between cameras and make value judgements based on those comparisons. We may overlook the fact that many of those specifications and capabilities could have nothing to do with what we actually need.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/20, ISO-200, cropped to 3692 on the width, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 270 mm, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

Skills Leverage Specifications

Once we get enthralled with a camera’s specifications is can be easy for us to forget that we need the skills to leverage those specifications into being able to successfully create photographs. A camera may have the an incredible specification in terms of frames-per-second with continuous auto-focus, but if we lack the eye/hand coordination to consistently find a bird-in-flight in our viewfinder we quickly learn the specs aren’t everything.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/7.1, 1/15, ISO-200, in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 460 mm

I had a very interesting experience earlier this week. It occurred to me that I had not tried to use handheld in-camera focus stacking for macro photography with my wife’s E-M1 Mark III. I assumed since her camera has the same IBIS rating as my E-M1X (i.e. 7.5 stops with an IS-Sync lens) that I should be able to operate her camera at the same slow shutter speeds as my E-M1X.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/5, ISO-800, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 450 mm

I popped my M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro lens on her E-M1 Mark III and attempted what I thought would be a very easy in-camera focus stacked image at 1/30 of a second handheld.

I was surprised that her camera gave me an error message. I tried again. Then again. And three more additional times before I successfully captured my in-camera focus stacked handheld macro image at 1/30 of a second. I shook my head in disbelief.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/13, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 280 mm, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

Both cameras have the same specs when it comes to IBIS performance. How could I mess up six times in row at 1/30th of a second when I can consistently create that kind of image with my E-M1X at 1/20 or 1/15 of a second? The answer was simple… it was me. I hadn’t developed the specific skill set needed with her camera to be able to use that technology at slower shutter speeds. Even though our cameras have the same stated specifications when it comes to IBIS performance.

As I finish writing this article it occurs to me that I still don’t know if I will ever be able to consistently create handheld in-camera focus stacked macro images at 1/20 or 1/15 of a second with her E-M1 Mark III. Specs aren’t everything.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files or from out-of-camera jpegs using my standard approach in post. This is the 1,246 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

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4 thoughts on “Specs Aren’t Everything”

  1. I fully get your situation with the E-M1X and the E-M1 MkIII – I tried both out at the Olympus NZ product launch and I was surprised that the much larger “1X” was ergonomically another level above the E-M1 MkIII – even my wife preferred the bigger model. As you say there is no substitute for handling the camera because it doesn’t fit you then it is asking for disappointment. And good handling definitely helps your hand held performance at slow shutter speeds.

    1. Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your comment and sharing your experience. A couple of years ago I bought a second E-M1X as a back-up camera for our business because of the handling and ergonomics. I realized that I wouldn’t have been happy with the smaller body format.


  2. Yes. I could probably do my work with something other than full frame Canon but I’m committed to the lens system and like the system in general. I tried three different newer mirrorless cameras that offered much better focusing and can use my lenses but I hated all of them. The quality of the pictures was great, but they were awful to hold and the controls were badly designed. I was able to borrow them and test them on the job for a week at a time and realized I’d never be comfortable to be able to use them all day. So I waited till another model was released and it was perfect as I discovered after borrowing that for a week.

    1. Hi Simon,

      I think you are very wise keeping what you have rather than jumping on some bandwagon. I can really identify with your statement, “The quality of the pictures was great, but they were awful to hold and the controls were badly designed. I was able to borrow them and test them on the job for a week at a time and realized I’d never be comfortable to be able to use them all day.”

      The comfort, handling and ergonomics are some of the most important factors with my E-M1X bodies… I just love them.

      I had the opportunity to use a couple of Olympus bodies on a test basis for an extended period of time and that was extremely important for me.


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