When buying a new camera, professional photographers and serious hobbyists usually opt for an interchangeable lens model. Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras fall into this category, meaning you can swap out a fast prime for a wide-angle lens or a telephoto zoom depending on the situation.
But there is another option, one with a strong and passionate following: Cameras with a fixed, prime lens such as the Ricoh GR III, Fujifilm X100V, Sony RX1R II, and Leica Q2.
When Fujifilm introduced the X100S in 2013, I immediately fell in love with it. I carried everywhere, and on many occasions, I declared that if push came to shove, I could lead a happy photographic life having it as my only camera.
It also had abysmal autofocus and frustratingly yielded more blurry images than any camera I have owned before or since, and I ended up selling it. I immediately missed it in the way you miss an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, fondly remembering all of the good things and willfully ignoring the reasons why you broke up. Thankfully, I was recently able to buy a brand-new X100F at a bargain price. It has everything the X100S had and then some, including a functional AF system.
None of the cameras I mentioned are low-end point-and-shoots. These are professional-grade offerings with high-performing sensors with plenty of features and prices to match. The Ricoh is the bargain of the bunch at $950 USD, the Fuji rings it at $1,400, the Sony will cost you $3,300, and the Leica is a staggering $5,500.
What then explains the widespread appeal of these cameras — particularly the Ricoh and the Fuji — when for the same or less money, you could enjoy the benefits of being able to switch lenses?
Size is part of the draw. These cameras are easy to carry and are quite stealthy, a big plus for street photography or any situation where you don’t want to call attention to yourself or your gear. Despite their small dimensions, they share the larger APS-C and full-frame sensors from their interchangeable lens brethren, so image quality isn’t compromised.
In the case of the Fuji and Leica at least, it’s hard to deny their beautiful design aesthetic. While looks have no direct bearing on the images you can make, there is much to be said about a camera that makes you want to pick it up and use it.
But the reason you’ll hear cited most often also addresses the elephant in the room when it comes to its limitations: You can’t change lenses, and you are “stuck” with one focal length. You are either working with a 28mm (Ricoh and Sony) or a 35mm (Fuji and Leica) field of view.
So how is their most significant limitation also their biggest advantage?
For one thing, it eliminates “analysis paralysis” when deciding which additional lenses to buy (none) and which lenses to take with you when you’re packing your camera bag (the one that’s permanently attached). For the over-thinkers among us, removing these decisions from the equation is incredibly liberating.
Second, it deliberately introduces a creative restriction. When you see something photo-worthy but you’re a little too close or too far away, there’s no option to zoom in or out. There is no option to change lenses. You either figure out how to make it work with the lens you have or move on.
This concept is downright frightening to most photographers. What if you’re out walking around the streets and want to make a sweeping cityscape? No can do, but you could look up and find an unusual angle to photograph one building. What if you find a willing subject and want to make a classic candid headshot with a dreamy blurred background? Not this time, but how about a waist-up environmental portrait instead? What if you’re out hiking and see a Tufted Titmouse fifty feet away? Bye-bye, birdy, but just look at that field of wildflowers!
To be fair, there are times when purposefully limiting yourself to a fixed focal length isn’t something I’d recommend. For instance, if you’re on a once-in-a-lifetime trip where it would cause you to miss shots that you may never have the opportunity to capture again (“See that little dot? It’s a whale!”). And yes, in theory, you COULD choose a smallish interchangeable lens camera, pick a lens, and never take it off, but personally speaking, I don’t have that kind of self-control.
If, however, you’re looking for a new way to get out of a creative rut or re-imagine the way you see the world around you when you have a camera in hand, adding a compact, fixed-lens camera to your bag might just be the ticket.