Act Casual: Photography in the Age of Big Lenses

Beginning in the mid 1980’s we noticed all cars started looking the same. They’d all been through the same wind tunnel. Yes, ads all look the same. Phones too. Fashions persist particularly in user interface design (via dangerousmeta!), but devices tested in similar ways yield similar results and convergent design.

Now camera lenses seem to be getting huge and heavy:

The Online Photographer: Age of Inglorious Excess:

At 136.2mm long (5 1/3 inches), with 17 elements in 12 groups, with a filter size of 86mm (bigger than any medium format lens I ever owned), and tilting the scales at a staggering 1,090g (38 1/2 ounces, not far short of two and a half pounds), it’s got to be a big zoom, right? What, a 28–200mm? Wrong, aperture-bouche. It’s a 35mm normal prime. “Prime” being, of course, slang for single-focal-length lens.

I assume that optical bench software combined with digital camera sensor characteristics led to common considerations: make the lens mount as big as possible and stuff the big lens full of fancy glass. Thus we get the larger mounts of the Leica SL and Nikon Z mirrorless cameras. Then for best edge to edge sharpness, that hulking barrel of a lens holds precisely aligned specialty glass that’s been molded just so.

And so we’re presented with huge, heavy primes and zooms of astonishing quality. Personally I think the Nikkor Z mount lenses are the best they’ve ever made. I get the impression the Leica SL primes may be the best lenses ever made. All very pricey, but very sharp, very high contrast. Thankfully still with some personality in how the scene is rendered, leaving some art in the design for sure.

Why not compromise at least a little bit? After all, the Jeep still looks like a Jeep. These big systems are specialty outfits used for the best possible capture when the subject is aware and generally allowing their picture to be taken; these are not cameras optimized for stealth or style. Or carrying around all day.

For the casual photographer there are a range of other systems like the Fujifilm retro styled cameras or the Leica Q2, M or CL. Or the iPhone for that matter. I’ve found that the big professional tools are now only welcome in places where photography is expected- family events, national parks, tourist attractions. They are not welcome in residential neighborhoods or on most city streets. Big cameras draw suspicion and hostility in equal measure.

For casual photography, documenting life and environment, a more casual camera is needed. We still need to work on once again accepting that cameras can be used in public. I’d like to see the return of casual photography driven by social media sharing. Perhaps we can get back to a place where the guy with the camera is a bit odd, but no longer a threat.


  1. I bought a Canon G9X specifically for this purpose … but the 20MP files output are pretty awful. They just don’t have the useful ‘depth’ to be manipulated in post-processing. And with limited, small, fiddly controls, ‘getting it right in the camera’ is near impossible when faced with fast-changing subjects. Of course, that’s way over on the far side of ‘small form factor’.

    What I’m saying is … I agree wholeheartedly.

  2. That’s a lot like my experience with the Sony RX100. Every time I used it for casual photography I’d be unhappy with the images because I was expecting more from a camera. I’d find I was happier just using my iPhone as “good enough” or even “surprisingly good” even if the Sony images might be better.

    In the film days, a compact camera like the Olympus Stylus could give you 90% of the equivalent focal length SLR camera and lens combo. With cost driven into the sensor, a full frame compact was never seen as a viable value proposition. Although a Leica M10 is now the same size with the same lenses as the film version. And there are APS-C compacts used by some very good photographers, generally Fuji users.

    I think that may be the conclusion from this exploration of cameras for my casual photography. My M10 or film.

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