The Endless Allure Of The Interchangeable Lens

There’s something I find very comforting about a camera with a fixed lens.

Though some might think of these cameras as too limiting because you’re “stuck” with just one lens, for me the removal of another layer of decisions to make is refreshing. 

We’ve talked at length before about simplifying the photography practice by pursuing a zero processing workflow and finding cameras that are so instinctive to use they’re close to invisible.

Back to the fixed lens camera, and of course if that fixed lens isn’t particular good for your needs (or at all!) then it renders the whole camera unsuitable.

If, for example, you love making portraits with an 85 or 100mm lens, then something like one of the Ricoh GR/ GRDs with their 28mm prime lens is unlikely to attract you.

Many fixed lens cameras (I’m talking digital compacts here) have zoom lenses, which gives you more scope and options than a prime lens. But at least they are still fixed lens, and in time you can learn which focal length(s) work well for you, and how to get the best from the lens and camera.

The options are still within fairly tight limitations, and indeed these limitation can be empowering and encourage you to commit to the camera more and find new ways of squeezing the most pleasing images from it.

Which is the kind of photographic simplicity I’ve come to love. 

Then there are camera bodies with interchangeable lenses.

SLRs and DSLRs are the traditional examples, and more recently in photography’s history, others have arrived with mirrorless bodies like the Pentax Q, Sony NEX/Alpha, Fuji X, and Panasonic and Olympus’s Micro Four Thirds (MFT) venture.

I still have a couple of DSLRs (though they are in my “to sell” box) and owned a Sony NEX 3N for nearly four years.

After many lenses (like, hundreds) passed through my hands during this time, I had finally settled on around 10, mostly M42, with a trio of Pentax K for the two DSLRs, and sold the Sony.

But then I discovered digital compacts with wonderful capabilities like the Ricoh GRD III and GX100.

As well as the Pentax Q, which is an interchangeable lens camera, but far more limited for me with its range of seven native lenses (of which I have just two), than something like a Sony where you can get an adapter for any number of vintage lenses.

When these very capable cameras were giving me such fantastic results, in a pocket sized package, I questioned whether I would ever use my DSLRs and those 10 lenses ever again.

As has often happened on my photography journey, a couple of paths seem to intersect to send me in a new direction. 

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Getting to know a Lumix LX3 – and now really starting to enjoy it after a disappointing start – made me wonder about other Lumix cameras.

Considering selling my DSLRs, I wondered what to do with this small set of my favourite of the favourite lenses I’ve curated over the last five years.

Sell them all too?

My solution for now – which potentially deals with both dilemmas – is to try a Lumix MFT camera. Specifically the GF1.

It’s an interchangeable lens camera, and as with the Sony NEX I had previously, there are a number of adapters available to use vintage lenses.

With the MFT sensors having a crop factor of 2x, it means an adapted 35mm lens from a 35mm film camera gives a field of view of 70mm. A 50mm lens gives a 100mm equivalent view, and so on. Far from full frame, but interesting and usable.

With my DLSRs seeming a very unlikely future option due to their size, weight and complexity now I’ve seen what digital compacts can do, the Lumix GF1 can give my beloved M42 lenses the chance of a swansong at least, if not a guaranteed long and fruitful future.

But the GF1 is a dangerous beast. 

Very well built (a significant step up from the LX3, which itself is impressively crafted), still pretty compact and with very decent handling, it’s potential for me is vast.

Add similar performance and set up to the LX3 – including the excellent Dynamic B&W mode that gives me marvellous monochromes straight out of camera – and this Lumix, fused with the likes of my Zeiss Flektogon 35/2.4, Takumar 55/1.8, Helios 44-2 58/2 and Takumar 105/2.8, promises mouthwatering results.

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Whilst I have no urge to explore any further M42 lenses, the native MFT range is pretty expansive. Panasonic and Olympus have been churning out dozens of lenses I believe in the decade since MFT’s launch, as well as a few other manufacturers.

This means that with say, the Lumix 14/2.8 lens I might well have a camera to rival the Ricoh GRD III. With the Lumix 20/1.7 or 25/1.7, it should punch as well if not better than my Pentax Q with its 47/1.9 01 Prime. And with the 12-32mm zoom it would have an almost identical range (24-64mm in 35mm equivalent) to my Ricoh GX100 (24-72mm) and Lumix LX3 (24-60mm).

In other words, this one body could offer a competitive alternative to all four of my favourite digital compacts, plus my two Pentax K DSLRs… 

Right now I’m equal parts excited and intimidated.

Excited that one body could do so much (and already in my initial playing I know it’s a body I like very much indeed), and give me very satisfying (Dynamic) b/w photos straight out of camera.

In contrast, my Sony NEX didn’t handle well, always felt like a clever image making device not a camera, and needed lots of post processing to get images I liked the colours (or b/w) of.

Intimidated that as with my Sony NEX, there are so many lens possibilities with the GF1, I might become completely overwhelmed with the choices before I’ve barely begun. And I’m long done with that kind of decision fatigue.

Time will tell of course.

What I feel I should do is use the GF1 purely with my top three or four M42 lenses, then sell the other M42 lenses, the three Pentax K lenses and my two DSLRs. 

Then decide whether I want to explore a native Lumix lens (I don’t have any yet, just the M42 adapter) that might have one or more of my digital compacts looking over their shoulder.

We’ll see how this pans out…

How often do you use interchangeable lens cameras compared with fixed lens? What do you see as the pros and cons of each?

Please let us know in the comments below (Remember to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what my photography life looks like right now.

16 thoughts on “The Endless Allure Of The Interchangeable Lens”

  1. You do talk about wanting to strip down and focus on your photography a lot, but not five minutes after you’ve found a camera you like, you’re moving on to the next thing.

    You say you’re in search of the perfect set-up but that doesn’t exist. Just admit that you like cameras and gear AS WELL AS creating art with them. Nothing wrong with it.

    1. Well you do have a very valid point!

      I’ve said a number of times in different posts that there is no one perfect camera, but I have found a small collection that are very close.

      Two or three years ago I had over 50 cameras and over a five year period from 2012-17 I must have owned hundreds, plus even more lenses.

      So to now have essentially five cameras I use regularly (Ricoh GRD III, Ricoh GX100, Pentax Q, my Xperia phone, and recently the Lumix LX3) it’s a huge progression.

      In the rest of my life I keep things pretty stripped down and simple, so having so many cameras was really at odds with my personality and I wasn’t comfortable with it. Plus I never got to know cameras like I do the Ricohs and Pentax Q because I was buying new ones every week.

      Since using the digital compacts mentioned above in the last ten months, my two DLSRs plus around ten lenses have been gathering dust.

      I can’t see me returning to DSRLs any time soon, but many of those lenses I love, make delicious images, and I would like to put them to use again.

      So the GF1 promises the option to use my favourite, say, three or four M42 lenses, then I’ll sell the other six or seven, plus the two DLSRs. With a native Panasonic lens, like a 12-32mm (35mm equiv 24-64) it could also be as appealing as my other digital compacts, albeit slightly bigger and weightier.

      I do continue to strive for balance (in photography and life!) and when there’s a potential option that allows me to simplify and strip down further (GF1 + Adapter + three lenses I already have instead of two DSLRs and 10 lenses I’m not currently using) I’m very interested.

      And yes of course I like cameras and gear – especially those that are a great pleasure to use, and don’t get in the way of the enjoyment of the process because of poor ergonomics, user interface, lens focal length, a disappointing final image and so on. These are what I’m seeking, and I’m lucky to be able to do this in the fist place, and to have found a handful that I love.

      Thanks for your challenging thoughts. : )

  2. I have thought about that camera also. I do love my M42 lenses. I will be watching to see how this pans out.

    1. Thanks John, there’ll be a follow up post soon. Initial thoughts are the my 105 and 135 lenses are too long with 2x crop factor for my needs, but my 35mm Flektogon, 55mm Super-Takumar and 58mm Helios 44-2 are all very appealing combos.

  3. If nothing else, Dan, it’s been interesting following you along the Panasonic path (a route I’ve not been down): the LZ1, the LX3, and now the GF1; 1/1.25 CCD, 1/1.63 CCD, and now MFT MOS sensor stages. Fixed zoom to ILC.

    A progression in sensor size and sophistication, well into Leica glass territory: better, sharper images, expanded capability, wizard processor; and, with a variety of cost-effective adapters, a chance to use all your favorite “prime” lenses from other marques and mounts. As the common wisdom has it, “primes” are always better/faster/sharper than zooms.

    And the death of simplicity.

    Shouldering-up a weighty, stiff and zippered canvas bag dully clunking with two bodies and four lenses, I reflect on my own fruitless quest for simplicity, for minimalist kit without sacrifice of acutance-contrast-dynamic range: a rueful truth – no free lunch, eh? The best images when faced with changing subject/lighting/distances are gonna mean ILC, and thus, ah, freight: capacious bag, lenses, adapters, bodies.

    1. Wiilaim, thank for your thoughts as always.

      I have always been curious about the Lumix brand, and it’s appealed to me in the way some brands don’t really at all (eg Sony cameras, Canon cameras).

      I hear what you’re saying, and the LX3 (talking Panasonic, but I would include the two Ricohs and Pentax Q) has a more than good enough lens for my needs.

      I think because I used SLRs (and my Sony NEX, and then two Pentax DSLRs) for a few years and gradually found my favourite lens mount (M42) and lenses in the mount (Zeiss Flektogon 35/2.4, Super-Takumar 55/1.8, Helios 44-2 58/2 Takumar 105/2.8, Jupiter-37A 135/3.5) I feel a fair bit of time and energy has been invested in that kit.

      I could sell the lot, and focus purely on the fantastic compacts.

      But a camera like the GF1 gives the potential to give those M42 lenses another throw of the dice and see if I do still value them enough to keep.

      Plus the GF1 has a couple of helpful things my DSLRs don’t – dynamic mono straight out of camera and a very useful screen magnification for manual focusing.

      Not to mention that whilst the GF1 is a step up in bulk and weight from the compacts, it’s still lightweight compared with a DSLR.

      Then there are the native M43 lenses, all of which are light and well regarded, and two of which are in the “pancake” category (20/1.7, equiv 40mm field of view, and 12-32mm zoom, equiv 24-64mm field of view), and wouldn’t make the GF1 much bigger or weightier than the LX3 et al.

      Yes it wouldn’t be as simple as just one digital compact, but the prospect of one camera where I could either pop on one of my favourite old vintage M42s for slower, more considered manual shooting, or simply attach a native Lumix M43 lens and point and shoot, is actually a streamlined solution overall.

      Even though I have those M42 lenses now, I don’t load them all up and head out. Sometimes I might take two – one on the camera, one in my bag – but that’s it. So I’ve never been burdened with a lens for every occasion.

      This wouldn’t change with the GF1, and it’s very likely I’d decide before I went out whether to use an M42 (with adapter) or a native M43 lens. The two modes of shooting are distinctly different for me to not want to mix them on one photowalk.

      I will of course keep you posted as to what evolves, I have some M42 shots from yesterday to edit later today. My hunch is I’ll explore the Flek 35mm, Tak 55mm and Helios 58mm further and selling the longer lenses (plus the two DSLRs) to fund a native M43.

      Certainly on my experience with the GF1 so far it’s a very impressive and exciting camera.

      1. Ah, no, Dan – you really *have* pared way down – would that I had done so well. Based on your examples, those short Leica zooms are clearly very much better better than most.

        I recall a single day trip years ago with my nephew, when he proposed to drive me ahead of him up the steep side of a short mountain above the confluence of two rivers. Worried that we might not have everything we might need with a variety of subjects to hand, our two backpacks were stuffed with 30 pounds of tripods and legacy gear. Today, the Panasonic kit technology might well have reduced that to a single camera and lens each.

        Your proposed scheme for native short zoom plus a couple of M42 bits is exciting – I look forward to the results as you explore.

        1. We complain about SLRs, look at the kit someone like Ansel Adams used to hike up mountains with to capture those stunning views!

          I’ve never understood the race for long zooms on compact cameras. I know Panasonic have a TZ (Travel Zoom) range which are a step down from the LX series, but they feature crazy zoom lenses. A TZ7 from 2011 had a 12x zoom, 25-300mm! The current TZ30 has a 30x optical zoom, 24-720mm. Insane! I don’t think with a compact I’ve ever shot anything beyond about 80mm, and then rarely!

          I would think it’s inevitable that cameras with shorter zooms like the Ricoh GX100 and Lumix LX3 are likely to be far better across the whole, relatively short range, than something than zooms to 100, 200, 300mm plus.

          The same logic must follow for interchangeable lenses, and by all accounts the Panasonic 12-32mm (24-64mm in 35mm terms) for Micro Four Thirds is good across the range too, hopefully comparable to the LX3’s zoom.

  4. I have always strongly preferred fixed lenses. Even when I had a zoom lens (mainly on the digital compacts), for 99% of the photos I used the widest focal length. With film and digital cameras with interchangeable lenses, I always owned just one lens – 35/38/40/50mm (or equiv.) – most of the time, so the advantage of being interchangeable was zero.

    The most important reason – apart from the elimination of extra choices – is consistency. I mainly shoot series, and I like it when everything fits seamlessly together. With a 35mm-ish lens I can photograph any subject, from a larger scene to a portrait. That is why the X100 is perfect for me.

    My experiences with MFT are somewhat unfortunate – both times, however, Olympus. Image quality was excellent, but the awkward handling, the 2x crop factor and the inaccurate AF were too many negatives for me. I hear a lot of good stuff about the Lumix cameras, so I hope you will have a lot of fun with the GF1.

    1. Thanks Robert, yes I am similar in that I don’t really love zoomz, and when I do use them it’s usually at a fixed focal length. The main reason I usually favour my Ricoh GX100 over the GRD III is I have the GX100 set up at 35mm on the zoom steps, and it’s more useful for me most of the time compared with the 28mm (fixed) lens of the GRD III.

      I have heard/read very patchy things about the Olympus MFT cameras. Usually that the interface and handling are awkward at best. Not been keen to venture down that path so the Lumix cameras have far more appeal. And the GF1 so far is very impressive.

  5. I think that if my favorite film SLRs came with integrated lenses I might not use them any less, as each one has “the lens” I tend to pair it with.

    1. Sounds like you love those bridge cameras Jim (film and digital), that usually offer the image quality and features of an (D)SLR but with a fixed lens (usually a zoom) and smaller size and weight.

    1. Mel, thank you, you were certainly an influence with your experiments with vintage lenses. Haven’t tried my Helios 44-2 yet but certainly plan to. The GF1 is old and simple and low MP enough to be affordable and not too expensive or overly spec’d.

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