As I have made the full transition to mirrorless cameras in the last year–having sold off my Nikon D850 and pretty much all of my DSLR lenses a year ago–I started thinking about the cameras that I have used and those that have been critical to my success over the years. And seeing that there has been a major gap in blog posts recently I thought this might be a fun one to post.
This is in chronological order–both when I had them and worked with them–and when they were on the market. Since I started out in photography (as a teenager) way back in the mid 1980s half of these cameras are from the film era and the rest are from the digital age. Amazingly, you will notice some gaps at the beginning of the digital age since I found most digital cameras from that first decade lacking quite a bit compared to their film counterparts. It took a while for the industry (and for us photographers) to get everything figured out.
Of course, I have not used or owned all the cameras ever made. So, obviously this list is biased to those cameras I used and owned. There have been a lot of great cameras on the market in the last forty years, but these are the ones that I chose to use and purchase after extensive research–and the ones that really helped me take the craft to a higher level. In that vein, I am including images created with each of these cameras as well as commentary on why they made it onto the list.
Of note, there are some very popular cameras that I have owned and used that did not make it onto this list such as the Nikon D300, D700, D2x, D3, and the D5 as well as the much older Nikon N90, N90s, and the F5. It is is not that those bodies were bad, they just didn’t resonate with me as much as those listed here. As you can see by the list above, I have mostly worked with Nikon 35mm film cameras and Nikon DSLRs with a few medium format cameras sprinkled in. It is only recently that I started working with the incredible FUJIFILM GFX cameras–which I have to say have the best image quality of any camera I have ever worked with (film or digital).
So, without further ado, let’s jump in.
Nikon FM2 / Nikon FE2
I started out as a 13-year old with an Olympic OM-1 that my father lent me to try out photography but the first camera I purchased with my own money was the Nikon FE2 and later an FM2. I also used a Nikon FM that my father had for a while as well before I got the FE2. That FM was what clued me into the Nikon system–and the Aperture Priority option on the FE2 seemed like a great idea after using that fully manual Nikon FM for a while.
The FE2, along with a few lenses I acquired in my teens, was what I started my career with back in 1995. I quickly purchased a Nikon N90s in 1996 to gain access to the new autofocus technology, but the FE2 went on a ton of mountaineering trips in extremely cold conditions–like -40 Fahrenheit temperatures on Aconcagua as shown above. On this morning the winds were gusting over 80 miles per hour and the temps were wicked cold, well below -40 F with the windchill. The FE2 did incredibly well in those crazy cold temperatures.
After those mountaineering trips, at some point I worked with the FM2 as well for a while. And then before autofocus came along I also acquired the Nikon F3HP (discussed below). The FM2 was a workhorse all-mechanical camera that only required a battery to power the exposure meter–everything else was mechanical so there was very little to go wrong. Regardless of the legendary status of the Nikon FM2, I always preferred the FE2 and the F3HP.
To this day, the Nikon F3HP is still one of the top two or three favorite cameras I have ever owned. If I had to use it again now, I am sure it would feel ancient and slow, but the ergonomics were some of the best ever on any camera. I gave away my F3 to a needy photographer in Russia–and I am glad I did as he needed it badly and put it to good use at a time when I wasn’t using it. One of these days I will pick up a used one just to have–and maybe even run a few rolls of film through it every now and again. Above are two images of the F3 HP, one without the motor drive attached (left) and another with it attached (right).
The Nikon MD-4 motor drive for the F3HP was large but it allowed for up to 6 frames per second shooting, which at the time was blazing fast. Remember, there were only 36 images on a roll of film so at 6 fps that lasted only six seconds before you had to change film. The motor drive, as did most motor drives in those days, even further improved the ergonomics of the camera. As a manual focus camera, it was certainly slower to use than modern day fully-automated cameras but at the time it felt like a speed machine. The only automation on the camera was Aperture priority exposure (like the FE2). Even though I only worked with the F3 HP for a year or two, I loved it nonetheless.
The Mamiya 7II is a 6×7 medium format film camera. It was an attempt by Mamiya to create a rangefinder version of their venerable RZ67, which was a humongous studio camera used by just about all portrait photographers in the 80s and into the early 90s. The 7II was super light for medium format–especially given its large 6×7 film size. There were only four or five lenses ever made for the system–all primes–but they were some of the sharpest lenses I have ever used.
Sadly, I never owned the 7II. I borrowed it for one of my big assignments early on in my career from my close friend and mentor Marc Romanelli. He was kind enough to loan it to me for a few weeks and I took it to Mallorca, Spain for an assignment with Men’s Journal documenting the then brand new sport known as Psicobloc (a.k.a. Deep Water Soloing). This was before any other photographers that I know ever went there to document the sport. The photo editor at Men’s Journal indicated that she somewhat despised 35mm film images so I took the 6×7 camera along to placate her tastes. You can see the opening spread from that article (from way back in 2004) below.
The Mamiya 7II was relatively easy to work with. It was massively simplified compared to larger, more cumbersome medium format film cameras of the time. It was super easy to load film into it–much easier than with a Hasselblad (as shown below). The rangefinder autofocus was the tricky bit with this camera. Those that are used to Leica rangefinder cameras might find it easy to use, but in low light (i.e. any situation without direct sun) it was very difficult to get accurate focus–especially if the subject was moving. This was partly due to the 6×7 film size, which offered up super shallow depth of field. Regardless, the image quality this camera created was some of the best I had ever seen and I feel they have only recently been surpassed by modern medium format digital cameras.
The Hasselblad 503CW was the first medium format film camera that I purchased–and it is to this day perhaps the one that I regret selling the most. In a meeting with Rob Haggart early on in my career, who at the time was the Photo Editor at Outside magazine, he told me that we adventure photographers “couldn’t light our way out of a paper bag.” And he was right. Back in the film days, at least for myself, using artificial lighting was scary. His advice was to get a medium format camera and some lighting gear and start learning how to craft a decent portrait so I purchased this Hasselblad setup and some strobes and got to work.
When I bought the Hasselblad, I wasn’t really excited by the square format but I grew to love it in time. If pressed, I might even say square is my favorite aspect ratio. It definitely makes you compose the image differently than any other format. As can be seen at the top of this section, I also purchased a winder grip and an angled viewfinder for the 503CW. That made the camera heavier but much more ergonomic. I stinking loved this camera, but since I got it in 2004 and with the coming digital transition just starting to happen I didn’t love scanning film. As I moved over to digital fully in 2006, I just didn’t pick up this camera as often and eventually sold it to fund another expensive pro-level digital camera body.
The 503CW was slow to use, slow to focus, and loading film was painful. With only 12 shots per roll, you ended up loading and unloading film often. I had a second film back so I could have two loaded at the same time but even then it felt like you were constantly loading film. It was a rare shoot where I went through a dozen rolls of film–especially since I almost always had a 35mm film camera or a DSLR with me for the assignment. Regardless, this goes down as one of my all time favorite film cameras–up there with the Nikon F3HP.
The Nikon D4 was a workhorse professional camera. This was my main camera body for anything action oriented for more than seven years. I purchased the D4 and the Nikon D800 at the same time and sold off both of my D700 bodies shortly after getting this pair. The D800 was revolutionary but not really a top-end action camera. Hence, purchasing both the D4 and the D800.
Looking through my image catalog some of my best and most well-known images were created with this camera. The D4 was a more refined version of the Nikon D3, which changed the camera industry due to its stellar low-light performance. Any of the larger Nikon pro bodies were all tanks that could pretty much deal with anything. The D4 went deep into the heart of the Amazon and braved temperatures as high as 118 F (48 C) and also went on quite a few frigid assignments where the temps fell well below 0 F (-18 C). The camera never seemed phased by any conditions–rain, snow, sleet or temperature extremes.
Even though it was only a 16 MP camera, at the time it was blazing fast for that resolution. It also did exceptionally well in low-light and had super-fast autofocus. The D4 was such a great camera that I never upgraded to the Nikon D5–even though the D5 was an incredible camera as well.
Towards the end of its life in my camera bag, the lowly 16 MP seemed lacking, especially compared to the Nikon D810 and D850 discussed below. Even so, in my office and home I have quite a few 20×30 and larger fine art prints from this camera plastered on my walls–and they look incredible.
The Nikon D810–as well as the previous version the D800–were a huge improvement in image quality for DSLRs. The D800 series cameras in general for a full decade were my main cameras and the D810 in particular was the camera I worked with on some of my most iconic and well-known assignments. Some of the best images I have ever created were captured with the D810 (as shown below). The D810 was a much refined version of the D800 with the same incredible image quality.
The only reason I ditched the D810 was that Nikon further refined it with the D850 listed below. The D810 had its flaws but at the time nothing in the 35mm space could touch it in terms of image quality. And it rivaled or matched some of the lower resolution medium format cameras as well.
The Nikon D850 will likely go down as the best DSLR ever created. There are a whole host of folks who have expressed that same sentiment so this isn’t just me saying that. The D850 was a further refined D810, and with the same autofocus as the Nikon D5, it was so good and so ahead of its time that it was always difficult to get and Nikon couldn’t make enough of them for years. In fact, the D850 was so good that Nikon really had a hard time beating it when they launched their mirrorless cameras in 2018. I would say that they have only recently matched or exceeded the D850 when they launched the pro-orientated Nikon Z 9.
At 46 megapixels, the D850 also pushed the top-end Nikkor lenses pretty hard as well. The camera out resolved most of the F-mount lenses and pointed to the fact that for better image quality the need for superior lenses was paramount. I had a pair of D850 camera bodies and they could pretty much do it all. Sports, portraiture, landscapes, etc. You name it, the D850 was up to the challenge. The only thing it didn’t have was a super fast frame rate but with the battery grip it could get up to 9 frames per second which wasn’t bad at all. That was certainly fast enough for the adventure sports I was documenting.
One of my first photo shoots with the D850 was at Peahi, also known as JAWS, on the north shore of Maui. I shot nearly 9,000 images in one day as the waves were giant. Some of my best ever surfing images are from that one day. The D850’s autofocus blew me away as well. It was able to track the relatively small surfers on these giant waves even when they dropped into the massive tubes and bowls and even when ocean spray popped up between myself and the surfer. The D850 was and still is hands down the best DSLR I ever worked with.
Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi
In an effort to create high-end portraits, back in 2014 I started looking at medium format digital cameras. For most photographers at that time, purchasing a medium format digital camera was lunacy. The expense was ridiculous to be sure as they cost anywhere from $30,000 to upwards of $50,000 just for the camera body. Previously, I had worked with an early Phase One camera and absolutely hated it. I tried out Phase One first as they had a new system, but I wasn’t blown away enough to spend $60,000 for a camera and two lenses. Shortly after that Hasselblad sent me a camera for a week to try out and at the same time they had a massive sale on the H5D 50c WiFI which cut the price by 40%. The Hasselblad was a much more usable camera and I found the image quality was equal or in some scenarios bested the Phase One XF IQ350 that I tried out. I took the plunge and spent more on this Hasselblad than any car I have ever owned. And it paid off as you will see below and in the next few cameras.
Above is a photo of the Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi camera system with the Hasselblad 24mm, 100mm, 150mm and 50-110mm lenses. The H5D autofocus was slow. It was glacially slow, but it was extremely accurate. The camera was massive and weighed a ton. I pretty much needed to have it on a tripod at all times save for when I was using its top shutter speed of 1/800th second. It forced you to slow down, which was part of why I liked it. It was essentially a much more refined version of the 503CW I had a decade earlier.
I have to say, the color straight out of the camera was absolutely astounding. I have never seen more accurate and pleasing color from any camera before or since (including my Fujifilm cameras). Hasselblad has the best color I have seen from any digital camera hands down. The Fujifilm GFX cameras are a close second (among the cameras I have tried).
I created a wide variety of excellent images with the Hasselblad. It was a pain to lug a full digital Hasselblad kit and a 35mm Nikon DSLR kit around the world but I did it for four or five years. When everything started heading towards mirrorless cameras, pretty much every manufacturer sent me cameras to try out. Sony, Olympus, and Fujifilm all tried to woo me to their systems. I resisted for the most part as none of them were as mature or as far along as the Nikon or Canon DSLRs were at the time I tried out those other systems. But I will say that the Fujifilm GFX system caught my eye and I was very impressed by the small size and insane image quality it offered–and I had heard rumors of an even better monster medium format camera that was going to change that genre forever. So I stayed in touch with them and…
FUJIFILM GFX 100
Through an incredible twist of fate, I was one of a handful of lucky professional photographers that created images for the launch of the FUJIFILM GFX 100. The prototype camera was hand delivered to me by Justin Stailey from Fujifilm USA who flew down to Santa Fe and spent five days going through it and working through some bugs to make sure it would work for the upcoming ten day assignment photographing rock climbing and downhill mountain biking (as seen in the images below). Before and during the assignment, Justin was in touch with the Fujifilm engineers in Japan on a daily basis to tweak the camera firmware so it would work better for the images we were capturing. We updated the firmware almost everyday of the assignment and the autofocus continued to improve every day.
I knew about the GFX 100 five months in advance of the launch. Reading the specs, I knew it was going to be good. And it would have autofocus that would actually be able to work for some of my adventure sports photography–which was not the case with any other medium format camera ever before. The image quality is unbelievable. Once you see the image quality from this 102 MP sensor you cannot unsee it is how I put it to my peers. So, be forewarned, it will spoil you for any other camera system. And it is not just the incredible sensor that creates this image quality. It is also the phenomenal lenses Fujifilm has crafted for the GFX system. I have not worked with any other lenses–on any system–that are as sharp as the GFX lenses. And I am not just saying that because I have worked quite a bit with Fujifilm these past three years, I am saying that given all of my experience as a professional photographer over the last 27 years. My Nikkor lenses, even the new Z lenses–which are excellent–aren’t as good as the GFX lenses.
What also separates the GFX 100 (and the GFX 100S below) from all other medium format cameras is that it has sensor stabilization built-in as well, which allows this camera to be used in a much wider variety of situations than any other camera with this resolution or those that are even higher resolution. The Phase One IQ 150 (a 150 MP camera) has I am sure amazing image quality but without stabilization it is very limited in how you can work with it. The stabilization in the GFX 100 (and 100S) allows for reliably tack sharp handheld shots down to 1/20th second with a good portion of the GFX lenses. That is utterly astounding–especially having used the Hasselblad H5D 50c WiFi listed above where I could not get a sharp handheld image below 1/500th second with that camera–and it was only 50 MP (i.e. half the resolution). Needless to say, once I worked with the GFX 100 I sold my Hasselblad as it was just redundant.
FUJIFILM GFX 100S
As with the GFX 100 launch, I was privileged to create images for the GFX 100S launch as well. With the same image quality as the GFX 100 but in a smaller, lighter package, the GFX 100S has become my go to camera when I want 102 MP medium format quality and need to go light and fast. The 100S has ever so slightly better image stabilization than the GFX 100 but all in all it is pretty much a smaller, lighter body and also $4,000 cheaper. With this camera, Fujifilm has brought incredible medium format image quality to the masses–or at least the well healed masses.
For the launch we created images of downhill skateboarding in in Malibu, California. The image below was used in Fujifilm’s advertising all over the world. I have since taken the GFX 100S on pretty much all of my assignments since I got it early last year. Notably, I used it for a New Mexico Tourism assignment with a spacesuit, which turned out spectacularly well.
With both the GFX 100 and 100S in my bag, as well as a large collection of GFX lenses, this kit is my go to camera of choice–and it is my most recent favorite camera. For those assignments with crazy fast action that require faster frame rates I take my Nikon Z 9 and Nikkor Z kit. But for the foreseeable future, and that may be the next five years or more, the GFX 100 and 100S will more than adequately serve my needs in terms of image quality for still photography.
Of course, there are a few other cameras that I love, and have owned that didn’t quite make this list. Those include the FUJIFILM X-Pro 3, the Olympus OM-1 (the camera I started on way back when) and possibly the new Nikon Z 9. I haven’t had the Z 9 for long enough to add it to this list. The FUJIFILM X-Pro 3 is definitely a stellar camera as well but was just edged out of the top ten.
If you made it this far, congrats. Let me know what some of your favorite cameras have been in the comments. I have never worked with Leica, Canon or Pentax cameras. They have all made some legendary cameras to be sure. But as with any list like this it is completely biased according to my own experiences–and a lot of fun to consider.