What is it with fixed length compact cameras?

Leica, Fuji, Sony, Nikon and now Ricoh. All leaping in with a fixed length compact camera with a large sensor.








We get the usual stuff about how great they are for street photography and there is a huge amount of review site and forum space devoted to them. Now I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with them, in fact I'm sure they are all probably top quality. I owned a Leica X2 for a while and it was certainly a decent camera, but like that and the Fuji X100 I had before I soon found it very restricting. I was locked into the same kind of images all the time. One focal length dictating what I could and more importantly, what I couldn't take pictures of. So ultimately I didn't keep them long.

I'm bewildered by the appeal of them and I also wonder how many they sell. Particularly since none of them are cheap. I doubt whether these are 'family' cameras and seem to be directed at 'photo enthusiasts'. There also seems to be the usual photo-documentary, Cartier-Bresson, 1930's Leica buzz about them as if as soon as you pick one of these up, magic powers suddenly transform your photography into something suitable for a gallery wall. However most of the samples posted by users are anything but that. The usual street photography cliches from those who have looked at a few photo books and the rest pretty mundane snapshots. 

I'm not immune to the charms of the retro sensibility, but I've never been particularly keen to use a retro styled camera to create retro styled images. I find the whole 35mm equivalent lens, black and white thing strange and backward looking. I write time and time and time again about this obsession with using similar gear to what C-B and all his contemporaries used. Where is the photographer who gives us a new perspective on the jaded old street photography genre? Someone who uses a 400mm lens for their shots or a fisheye for example. Something other than a moderate wide-angle. 

I find one focal length fixed lens cameras restrictive, stifling and I get the feeling that my gear is controlling me rather than the other way around. There are times when the picture I want is close up with a wide-angle and other times when its some distance away compressed with a telephoto, and of course everything in between. Most of my favourite shots wouldn't have ever been recorded if I had just used a FLC. I like for, example, to frame images precisely and exclude anything that detracts from the point I'm trying to make. Years ago the owner of a picture library told me he liked my work because I approached a subject from different angles, used different lenses and offered a selection of images on any subject or place I photographed. And thats pretty much what I've been doing ever since.

I believe that there is never just one shot, there is no one 'decisive moment' in fact I would argue there are lots of them, and different angles, perspectives and compositions to explore. Different relationships between picture elements, different lighting effects, different contrast, colours, depth-of-field, angles and all the other things that we are supposed to see if we deserve to be called photographers. When, for example, I'm in a great place with great light, I'm constantly exploring, constantly changing lenses, zooming if I have a zoom lens with me and trying different things. And no not everything works, but having done this for a long time most of it does.

When I've returned home after being out with just one focal length, I often look at the images on the screen and go 'OK' and leave it at that. I like looking at and photographing the world in a variety of ways, with a variety of lenses. I like to include everything in some shots and isolate in others. If I want to capture a beautifully lit detail of a building, there is no way I'm going to be able to 'zoom with my feet' unless I hop into a phone box, rip my shirt off and do a quick spin. The lenses I take with me are the extensions to my eyes, they take me places to capture images that I can't get to any other way and I certainly can't do with a fixed focal length camera. But the way people talk about these FLC's is like they are some badge of 'photographic purity' usually referring back to some photographer who used them extensively. However since that was probably because the photographer in question was somewhat limited in choice, its not always the case that this had anything to do with making creative choices. 

Now we all can decide what we want to take pictures with and I'm certainly not going to tell anybody else what they should use. However I would suggest that sometimes its a good idea to think about the images we want to create and what we want to create them with in the future, rather than spend so much time on the tools we use and what they have been used for in the past. Its also a good idea to think about our own unique way of seeing the world rather than attempting to see it in a way somebody else has. We are not obliged to follow anybody else's rules or ways of working, nor are we obliged to restrict ourselves out of some kind of reverance for whats happened in the past, and indeed what other photographers have used or are using now. And if we decide that what works best for us is one lens with a fixed focal then thats all well and good, so long as we are doing it for the right reasons and not because of some idea of 'Thats what we SHOULD be using' or because a certain kind of camera suddenly becomes 'The one to have'.

If somebody asked me what lens I would choose if I could only have one, in the past I might have come up with a fixed length prime. Right now its a (light) 10X zoom, equivalent to a 28-300mm in 35mm terms. Not particularly sexy and these days it seems, not particularly fashionable, but one that gives me the widest possible choice to create the images I 'see'. And for me thats the point of a lens (or lenses), a tool (or set of tools) to give ME the choice and not dictate what I can and can't photograph. Others of course may feel differently.