Embracing Imperfect Cameras

Well, I hate to break it to you my friend, but if you didn’t know already, there is no single perfect camera or lens.

Once you get through the X number of cameras required to finally believe this yourself (for me X was around 80-100 with film cameras, and perhaps another 50 or 60 with digital cameras), you can settle down with the very best of the imperfect handful you’ve found and start to enjoy them, flaws and all.

By flaws, we can consider both perceived shortcomings in the design and use of the camera, and in the images it can produce.

Personally, I’d rather have a camera that is 95% amazing to use and produces 75% (or less) amazing pictures, then vice versa.

With my photography, I’m not pixel peeping, sharing with others to pixel peep, or making billboard sized prints, so I don’t need cutting edge image quality.

Plus I’d happily sacrifice some of the image quality over a more enjoyable and fluid user experience.

The other way around – highly accomplished images, but with equipment that has irritating and flow-breaking flaws – might impress the first few times. But I soon realised that the quality of the images is not enough of a payoff for how frustrating such a camera can be to use.

On occasion, I’ve landed a camera that’s been either really awkward to use, or plain faulty, and sometimes here a gritty determination kicks in, to overcome the faults and flaws to wrangle something worthwhile out of the rascally little machine.

For example a few years back I bought a Ricoh GX200 from the US, which turned out to be faulty in numerous ways.

However, because I’d invested a considerable amount by my usual camera standards (about £115!) I wasn’t going to just write it off, and managed to obtain some pleasing photographs with it, even if I did never use it again after that.

But back to cameras that are not actually broken, but have some kind of flaw that means they feel imperfect.

With these, I tend to lean into those imperfections, and almost make a feature of them.

For example, my Ricoh GRD III I find most fun using on the High Contrast B/W mode.

This means zero post processing for me, I can just kick back and enjoy the experience of using the GRD.

Which very satisfying indeed – it’s regularly my favourite camera and always in the top five.

The flaws in this particular mode especially, I would say are the smudging of details (literally, most images look like they’re made with wet ink somehow) the very black blacks and very bright whites, with not too many shades in between.

So I often seek out simple compositions where there isn’t a range of fine details to capture anyway, it’s more about shapes and textures.

And quite frequently I’ll deliberately include bright light sources that create a more overblown look that they appear to the naked eye, for dramatic and emotive effect.

The above images, all made with the Ricoh GRD III, are from perfect, but I’m very pleased with all of them, as they came out as I hoped they would, leaning in to the known “flaws” of the camera.

Plus it’s far more fun getting to know cameras more deeply, flaws and all, and making memorable images with them, than constantly switching to another new (used) camera in search of the perfect do it all device, which for me doesn’t exist anyway.

When I come across a new (to me) camera (which is increasingly rarely these days, it has to be said), I consider not only what is very good about it, but how I can put its flaws to interesting use.

But mostly I’m just focusing on the dozen or so cameras remaining, and enjoying each one’s imperfections to the full.

How about you? Which are you favourite flawed cameras, and why?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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14 thoughts on “Embracing Imperfect Cameras”

  1. Don’t think of them as flaws, think of them as characteristics. I can get and have gotten quite acceptable images out of some very cheap digital cameras such as the V1003 or the PSA70. Likewise I read reviews deprecating cameras for not having the latest “features” and scoff. For example “touch screen” is an abomination to me.
    A direct example of your experience shared would be the need to use the “back button” autofocus on the K100D (since the shutter contact is broken). So annoying I can’t do it and since I also can’t see if it’s in focus … well putting the 35mm Super Takumar on and surrendering to manual is a fine solution. I may just leave it on with the ISO at 200 and the WB on daylight and thus have a “digital film” camera as it isn’t much good at any other use but does excellent at that one!

    1. Yes absolutely Marc, each camera that remains is both enjoyable to use, and different enough in its character to bring something different to the party too. As with people, once you have that basic compatibility in the most important areas, the remaining “imperfections” can actually become the things you love most.

      Yes, good example, using an old, all manual lens on a DSLR makes many of the latter’s bells and whistles redundant anyway, so it doesn’t matter if they don’t work!

  2. All of my cameras are perfect, sorry. They each have a specific job and do it extremely well. Of course took me a while to get to this point; I only have 6 now (not including my broken FM).

    1. Yes, perfect for a specific purpose, I think this is where I’m at with my cameras too. I love the tiny Lumix XS1 when I want a, well, tiny camera that I can just point and shoot with and get contrasty b/w shots. But it doesn’t fit the purpose at all when I want to use vintage Takumars for natural colour shots, it’s then I reach for one of my old Pentax CCD DSLRs. Neither set up is perfect, but as close to perfect as I’ve found for a specific purpose.

  3. I think it is very easy to get caught up in a photographic arms race, chasing the best equipment capable of doing the most things….much ink is spilt singing the virtues of the latest gear, but I don’t think it brings much satisfaction as there is always something bigger and better just around the corner. On the other hand, if a camera is affordable, pleasant to use and can reliably captures what you are wanting to capture, then for that purpose it might be considered a perfect camera. I have an old Kodak Z730 digital, with a whopping 5mpx sensor, that is quite limited in low light. But, with it’s Schneider Krueznach lens, it make really good colour images in the right light. Because it has no real monetary value now, it is a camera that I still use occasionally, especially if I am doing something where there is a risk the camera might get damaged along the way. For that purpose it is a perfect camera, even though it spends most of it’s time on the shelf these days! And, as you know, I love my Contax system for 35mm film….

    1. Yes, “arms race” is a good analogy Steve. I’ve looked at the old Kodaks a number of times, but never quite pulled the trigger. Many speak very highly of Kodak’s early CCD sensors, an I think they may have brought out the first digital sensor camera in something like 1975!

    1. I still have my 5C, though I rarely power it up. Nevertheless, the size and weight is near-perfect for me, in terms of a mobile phone generally, and as a camera phone. My current phone is pretty amazing on the camera front (and most other ways) but it’s significantly bigger and bulkier than the iPhone, and never feels as comfortable to hold. I think Apple had the design pretty much perfected with that era of iPhone 4 and 5.

  4. I agree, no camera is perfect – otherwise they wouldn’t be releasing new ones…
    I’m trying to be non-compromising in the images I get, and compromise on anything else that I might have to, if I have to.
    So my “good light” camera is the K200D. I choose it over the K10D because I think the pictures come out just a little bit better. It’s also slightly lighter which is a bonus. But the viewfinder is quite inferior – yet I chose image over convenience.
    Similar with the K-S1, the camera I use most for my kids sports and when I need a low light camera. The grip might be the worst of all Pentax digital cameras, yet with small primes it feels like a film SLR and it’s nice to hold it when you think of that… the sensor is the best one I’ve seen in the CMOS era for Pentax, which is why it’s my choice.
    It’s a bit hard to pick up a point and shoot when you’re used to a larger sensor and good lenses… which is why I haven’t gotten one yet. The good ones cost the same as used DSLRs…

    1. Ooh I disagree with your first line! The majority of new cameras (phones, TVs, stereos, cars etc) aren’t designed and made to try to get closer to perfection, but to sell more of them and keep the international corporations in business! Imagine Sony coming out with a “perfect” mirrorless that also lasted fault free for 10 years, so anyone buying one wouldn’t need to upgrade again for a decade?

      I think in the history of every kind of man-made product, after an initial period of genuine, useful innovation and improvement with each new iteration, there comes a tipping point when any further possible improvements are so minimal as to not be worth it for the masses, so from that point onwards, the companies just invent new features and jargon and big numbers every 6-12 months just to trick people into thinking they constantly need to upgrade.

      I agree the any argument about point and shoots being more affordable is redundant. I have a great little Lumix XS-1 which is arguably my ultimate pocket camera and cost about £12. But my more capable and adaptable compacts, like the Lumix LX3 and Ricoh GRD III cost about £75 and £150 respectively, far more than the £25-30 each of my three Pentax/Samsung CCD DSLRs cost me.

      I think you talked about a certain Optio with a CCD before that you’d be interested in? What do you think about those tough weatherproof Ricoh compacts, like the WG series? Any experience of them? I like the idea of a super robust compact you can take anywhere, but in practice I don’t think I’ve ever had a camera break because I’ve dropped it, got it wet etc, so it’s not really an essential need!

      1. I agree that cameras aren’t getting “better” in the sense that they automatically give us better pictures. They are getting “better” in so-called specs.
        To the buying public, they have to be getting “better” in some aspects. So the manufacturers focus on something – like low light, high ISO performance and make that be the be-all-end-all of photography.
        But 95% of what I shoot can be shot at ISO 100. I even bought high performance f/1.4 lenses (and by chance an f/1.2) to be able to keep my ISO low.
        I’m also not afraid to use a flash.
        Another be-all-end-all for the general public is megapixel count. Now they have 108MP cell phone cameras. That MUST be better, right? 😆
        But not all is fluff. I really expect the just-announced Ricoh GR IIIx (with a 40mm equivalent lens) to be the best pocket camera ever, by pretty much any account. For sports and action photographers, I don’t think it can be denied that newer cameras offer technology that makes their job easier.
        But someone with a manual focus lens can still take good sports pictures – but the skill that is required is much greater.
        Lens design, in particular, have become better and better with time, especially in the area of coatings.
        Having said that, I’m perfectly pleased with my K200D from 2008. At ISO 100, I like its pictures better even than my 24MP K-3 (which I just might end up selling).

      2. I saw that about the new Ricoh. Very tempting specs, if only I had a spare £900 lying around… For now I’ll have to stick to my old decade old GRD III. : )

  5. Hi Dan, Like many I have tried dozens of various makes of digital cameras… and could keep going to be fair… as like you say they all seem to have their flaws… on reflection… I have to ask this question though……
    “When only film cameras were available, I brought a camera, got to know it, used it, and was overjoyed to own it…. and that remained the case…”…. non of this faffing and swopping about …. I wonder why???? I can only put it down to the fact that there was more of a joy in getting that magical shot…. than there is today with all the bells and whistles available to the owner today… which I find really sad…
    BR Lynd…

    1. Thanks Lynd. I wonder if partly this is down to the sheer abundance and availability of used cameras now? At the height of film photography I imagine really there were probably only about a dozen different SLRs available at any one time. If you search eBay now for a digital compact (or a DSLR) you’ll find thousands of cameras, spanning hundreds, if not thousands of different models, starting at literally pennies. There didn’t used to be that choice, so there was far less temptation. And to buy a camera you had to go to a shop, or browse local classified papers to find one privately. With online stores, eBay, Gumtree etc they’re so easily available without leaving your seat, let alone your town!

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