I have “categories” on my blog, like “gear” and “musings.” I am not sure if this blog is more “gear” or “musings.” So let’s just call it “musings about gear.” 🙂
The age old gear discussion often involves whether one is better than the other
All craftsmen use tools. Some are generic, but often there are special tools for a particular job. I think photographic “gear” is really better characterized, generally, as “tools.” The age old gear discussion involves whether one is “better” than the other. So let’s just start this out by stating that, when it comes to photography, “better” is always subjective. And perhaps when we apply the adjective, “better” we need to think in terms of “better for what,” and “better for whom?”
Equipment that is better for me is not necessarily better for another photographer. One of my good friends, Phil Dolinger, is a sports photographer. He wouldn’t use my gear. It just wouldn’t work for him. It is the wrong tool. I could use his gear (Phil, if you give it to me, I will use it 🙂 ). But I don’t need his gear. I travel and I most often shoot cooperative (“still”) subjects. Usually, I can get closer using my feet. So I can work with smaller lenses and smaller cameras.
Before I go further, I guess I need to consider what I mean by “large” and small.” For many of the years I have been shooting, in my thinking, really large cameras were view cameras. They use sheets of film, often as large as 8 x 10 inches. Large cameras were the various iterations of the so-called, “Medium Format” (MF) camera, which shot film rectangle sizes of generally between 6 x 4.5 and 6 x 8 inches. While these cameras certainly were capable of capturing tremendous detail, the were often fiddly, expensive to operate, heavy, and required accessories. There is a reason you never see a view camera on the sidelines on NFL Sunday. View cameras and often, larger MF cameras required the use of a large and sturdy tripod.
Probably the most ubiquitous camera over the last 40 years has been the 35mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera. The vast majority of shooters, pro and serious amateur alike, used these cameras. Though their film square was a mere 35mm diagonal, they were a very acceptable compromise of film, a wide variety of interchangeable lenses, adjustability of shutter speed and aperture. Their main advantage was their diversity and portability. A variation the SLR is the so-called viewfinder camera. Most of them used 35mm film and they were, more often than not, used by pro’s who needed portability and sometimes anonymity. Or, often because they just preferred them. Since my acquisition of the Sony RX100 small camera, I now understand why.
I have always thought the term “full frame” was kind of self-serving. It refers to 35mm. All those shooters shooting various medium format and larger format cameras have to be saying “really? Full Frame? You are gonna go with that?
And then there are “small” cameras. Those are essentially anything smaller than an SLR, in my thinking (obviously, it’s all relative). We have, over the years, come to calling them “point and shoot” (P&S) cameras. This perhaps pejorative name is less based on their capability than their intended market. These were everyday, snapshooter, often inexpensive, and generally, limited systems. They didn’t have to be. I once carried an Olympus “pocket” camera that made some very high quality images. Some used 35mm film, some even smaller film. Generally, a “serious” photographer did not carry one of these “small” cameras as their primary gear. In the past 5 years, that has (at least for me and perhaps a couple others I know) has all changed.
What has been a real eye-opener for me is just how capable current small cameras are. In “the day,” nobody argued that a larger piece of film yielded finer, more detailed results; especially where large prints were involved. So the View Camera generally yielded best results. Medium Format cameras generally yielded better results than 35mm. For its first 20 years, it has been assumed (and probably proven), that the same held true with digital capture. There was no question in the nascent days of digital capture, that the medium format digital backs rendered finer, more detailed, and just overall more pleasing images. But they were completely out of the economic reach of the typical enthusiast and of many pros. The first consumer affordable sensors in a “larger” camera format were the so-called APS-sized (smaller than 35mm) sensor. Built on the 35mm SLR body concept, they have been tagged DSLRs. They are are probably still the most popular enthusiast dedicated digital camera. The roadblocks to creating 35mm equivalent and larger sensors were technology and cost. As those two factors converged affordable 35mm (so-called “full frame”) sensors became reality. But for the 10-15 years before that, an entire, new phase of manufacturing came about in order to produce lenses that worked hand in hand with the smaller APS sensors. Again, gear. Lots of it. Good for manufactures and sales :-). I have always thought the term “full frame” was kind of self-serving. It refers to 35mm. All those shooters shooting various medium format and larger format cameras have to be saying “really? Full Frame? You are gonna go with that?”
What has been an eye-opener is just how capable smaller cameras are
Again, the gear and tools analogy holds here. The reason 35mm SLR cameras were so popular was their versatility. You don’t see many view-cameras and black cloths setting up for sports or wildlife shooting. And you never see one of those being hand held on a crowded city street. Not only are the images upside-down on the viewing screen, but it is really difficult to move the camera and focus it. Another reason, of course, is the ability to manufacture and offer SLR style bodies at a price that can be afforded by consumers.
But things have changed. And oh, how they have changed! Film and digital capture sensors are both, without doubt, physical science. But the technology surrounding the physical science just gets better and better, and put in the context of our own empirical experience, unbelievable. Things like Fuji’s “Foveon” sensors, and the newer “stacked sensor” technology championed by Sony, has given us the advancement to create high image quality digital capture with very physically small sensors. So much so, that it is becoming really difficult to differentiate an image captured by a small camera and one captured by a large camera.
I need to qualify this. On paper, there is still no comparison between the image quality rendered by a large digital sensor and a small one. The larger one will yield measurably better results. “Measurably” is the key. The practice of magnifying the images to 100% and looking at the individual pixels is often referred to as “pixel-peeping.” I won’t argue that difference is remarkable. But I don’t know that I really care. For me the objective has always been display of my images in a format that viewers can enjoy. And though more and more, digital display has become the benchmark, I still think in terms of the relatively large photographic print. So, when I am able to take a small sensor image and make a good quality print at 24″ x 36″, I have obtained the results I seek. I have a couple such prints that are indistinguishable to my eye from similar prints made from my “full-frame” (35mm equivalent) camera.
The practice of magnifying the images to 100% and looking at the individual pixels is often referred to as “pixel-peeping.” I won’t argue that difference is remarkable. But I don’t know that I really care.
On my recent trip to Newport, Rhode Island, I carried the small, Sony RX100iv in my pocket the entire time I was shooting. I have started to use it to frame up images and take test shots while setting up the full-frame a7 on the tripod. What has continued to amaze me is that I find it difficult to meaningfully distinguish images shot with it and the a7. And these days, my small camera images are mostly handheld. The first Castle Hill Lighthouse shot here was made with the a7 and a 70-200 lens. after making a few shots with the R100, I waited for the “golden” light to make the a7 shot. The only real difference I can see is the light and color of the image. As far as the image quality, I really cannot see a difference. I am confident that I could print from either digital file as large as I would ever want a print to be for hanging. (NOTE: when I wrote the first draft of this, I said “Sure, it is not going to make a billboard image, but I haven’t shot one of those yet 🙂 ” )Recently, I sold an image made with my full frame Nikon DSLR that was used as a billboard sized panoramic images in an Interstate Welcome Center. Perhaps the RX100 would have shown its weakness there 🙂 .
I have used the RX100iv exclusively as my travel camera, to some pretty amazing places. I have surprised myself that I have foregone carrying the more “serious” equipment. As well, I have been surprised that I haven’t missed it and have brought home some pretty good images (IQ-wise, at least. I’ll let the viewer judge whether they are “good” images or not).
Every image here, except the first one, were made with the Sony RX100iv. I believe the quality of smaller sensors has gotten so good that I told my buddy, Rich on our trip that if I ever replace the a7, I will most likely move back the NEX (now badged “Alpha 0000”) series of cameras. While using an APS sensor in lieu of the 35mm equivalent, they — and their matching lenses — are smaller, lighter, and generally less expensive. But with pretty estimable image quality capability. I like all those things.