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It was (is) All About the Medium

Kodachrome 25; 1990s

For potentially bored readers, I have some good news. I just returned from another European trip in October, which means some new images again, rather than my historical stroll down memory lane. I am post-processing images right now. But first, another reminiscent post:

Kodachrome, was simply the standard by which any other choice was measured. And until the 1980’s they generally just didn’t measure up.

My “evolution” series got me thinking a bit about the medium. Those who have been shooting only during the past 20 years may be vaguely aware of an old cellulose material called film. When I jumped in, film was all we had, and the “pickins” were slim.  If you wanted to shoot color slides (the medium of choice, it seems, for serious “nature” photographers), you mainly had Kodak. There were competitors, but in the early years, Kodak dominated the film world, for a number of reasons. Most shops and retail stores stocked Kodak products.


In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth ….. and Kodachrome

Perhaps the most important reason was that Kodachrome, was simply the standard by which any other choice was measured. And until the 1980’s the others generally just didn’t measure up.

prior to about 1936, color photography was not prevalent among all but a limited group of professionals. Color wasn’t really that great (though it was relative, I suppose). Early results (including some early color slide films) are reminiscent of the early “colorized” movies we saw. We all knew it was black and white with some color added. In my mind, this was true until Kodachrome became the standard.

In 1936, a couple of musician-turned-scientists were hired by Eastman Kodak to complete their experimental process. As I did my research, I was interested to learn that there actually was another “Kodachrome,” which was a 2-color process, developed by a Kodak engineer in 1913. In 1936, Kodak introduced the 3-layer process which became the vaunted Kodachrome. Called a non-substantive film (an odd name in my view – but addressing the lack of dye or colorant “substances” in the film emulsion itself), the Kodachrome process was complex. It was essentially a B&W film, in which color dyes were added to the 3 different layers during the development process.

Fuji Velvia

This meant that a specialized processing setup was necessary, and until 1954, Kodak successfully maintained a monopoly on this process (known as K-14), by selling Kodachrome only with pre-paid processing by Kodak as part of the deal. In 1954, the United States challenged this practice as an anti-trust violation, and an agreement was entered into, among other things, ending this practice (and of course, allowing competitors to acquire the accoutrements to develop Kodachrome).

Originally, Kodachrome was released at ISO 10. A 20-exposure cassette cost $3.50. That, for those interested, would have been about $65.00 in 2019 dollars!

Kodak (Ektachrome) E100SW

In 1936, there was no ISO (or ASA, as it was originally known). During the World War, the military wanted a single standard to be able to increase their efficiency. Prior to this time, there were several standards (and thus, several different marketed light meters – all handheld in those days). The American Standards Association created a “standard” measurement for light sensitivity measurement, which then became known as the film’s “ASA,” or ASA rating. In 1987, the International Organization for Standardization was created and film manufacturers worldwide shifted to this international standard (which is numerically identical to the old ASA standard). So we now refer to light sensitivity measure – on all media – as “ISO.”


There were non-believers …

That same year (1936) German film and camera manufacturer, AGFA, introduced Agfacolor. While very similar to Kodachrome, including its three layer emulsion, AGFA engineers embedded color dyes into the film emulsion, making the development process less complex. I shot maybe one or two rolls of Agfacolor. Didn’t care for it. It looked, as I noted above, like lightly colorized black and white. It did seem to make a big hit in the motion picture industry, however, and was widely used in film-making for a number of years.

The Fujifilm company was established in Japan in 1934. I was not able to find much about early film offered by Fuji. Of course, they catapulted into top status with the release of Velvia, years later.

Fuji Velvia

Kodachrome II, was introduced in 1961, with an ASA/ISO rating of 25. In 1962, they a released 64 ASA version (later they simply became known as K-25 and K-64). In 2007, K-25 production was discontinued. K-64 production followed suit in 2009). One source noted that in 2009, sales of Kodachrome made up 1% of Kodak sales revenue. Kodak had essentially ceased processing Kodachrome themselves by 2006, and by 2010, the only one Kodak-certified facility remaining was Dwayne’s Photo, in Parsons, Kansas. Later that year the even they ceased Kodachrome processing. Which led me to wonder, what if I had any rolls of undeveloped Kodachrome? Some “Google” research will reveal that there are processors out there who claim to be able to process it. But I checked my freezer. No film of any kind in there. Phew! 🙂


Nothing lasts forever …

In addition to its complexity and considerable expense, there were other Kodachrome drawbacks. Transparencies were designed, of course, to be projected with a relatively strong light (anybody else remember those “travelogue” slide shows that were prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s?). The medium was consequently, relatively high contrast with lots of shadows. This made it particularly touchy to produce photographic prints from. And, we have learned in later years, the process of scanning and converting Kodachrome to digital images often is challenged by colorcasts which need to be addressed in the scanning process.

Stemming partly from photographers (particularly consumers) demand for cheaper and more convenient products, and also partly borne out of the 1954 antitrust decree directing Kodak to endeavor to release a newer, more consumer-friendly film that was in development, Ektachrome, with a new “E-process” in which dyes were embedded in the film emulsion was introduced in 1955. Originally ASA 32, a 160 version was introduced in 1959, and 64 and 100 ASA versions in 1977. I wasn’t even shooting yet! Two years after I got started, in 1979, Ektachrome 400 was released.

Kodak Elite Chrome 100

Ektachrome had some advantages. It was cheaper than Kodachrome and cheaper and easier to process. You could have it processed locally. If you wanted to make the investment in color processing equipment (essentially, some relatively affordable tanks and chemicals), you could process it yourself.

I shot very little of it. This was probably partly due to the prejudice I acquired early on, from my shooting inspiration. But there was also still no doubt that Kodachrome was still the professional-preferred medium for most. Ektachrome also had a known blue color cast, and I found it cool, and a bit less saturated than my personal taste. So, throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s I shot Kodachrome.

Kodak Elite Chrome II (50)

When I came back to serious shooting in the early 1990’s, the industry had changed. Fuji introduced its Velvia 50 in 1990. Its characteristic was a very colorful, saturated, and contrasty profile. It took aim at Kodachrome and punched it in the face. It quickly became the slide film of choice for nature photographers – especially for landscape and flowers. And it used the E-6 process (by this time virtually every emulsion used the E-6 process, except for Kodachrome).

Again, while there were others, there really weren’t 🙂 . Fuji and Kodak went head to head. Fuji released Velvia. Kodak parried with Lumiere 100 (a neutral balanced Ektachrome) and Lumiere 100X (a warm-saturated Ektachrome). Fujia added Velvia 100. Lumiere was short-lived and said by some to have some inconsistency in color from roll to roll. Kodak replaced it with E100S (saturated), E100SW (warm saturated) and E100VS (very saturated – Kodak’s answer to Velvia).

Kodak Elite Chrome II (100)

Fuji, in 2003, in response to criticism that Velvia was just too colorful (perhaps unrealistic to some), introduced Provia, in 100, 200, 400, and 1600 ISO versions, and  Provia F (ultra-fine grain).

These were all so-called “professional” films. They tended to be more expensive. Whether they were that much better is probably a personal judgment. They probably had better quality control. I remember going to my photo shop in my community to buy these films (they weren’t generally available in the big box and drugstores), and they were generally stored in refrigerated conditions.

To cater to consumers, both companies released (almost simultaneously) “consumer” versions of the above film varieties. Kodak’s Ektachrome became Elite Chrome, Elite Chrome II, and Elite Chrome Extra Color.

Fuji Sensia II

Fuji’s consumer version of Provia was Sensia, Sensia II, and Sensia III, in various ISO ratings. I am not aware that they ever marketed a consumer version of Velvia.

Interesting stuff for some of us, and by the mid-2000’s, essentially irrelevant to most of us. 🙂

Fuji Sensia II (100)

Before I did the research for this piece, I spent a few hours going through my archives to find examples of some of my images made with all of the above media. The problem is that it is truly impossible to make comparisons, here. This is partly because in order to do this on a blog, it became necessary at some point to convert all the media to one single media: digital. So this may not have been a very useful exercise – but it was fun doing it. Presented as digital media, I can see some nuances, but not any huge differences (of course, post processing software has “recipes” to “recreate” film “looks” in digital post-processing these days. I have done very little of that, except for B&W, and cannot really say how accurate they are). I did very little post-processing of the “film” images; just a bit of sharpening mainly. I would be interested if you can see any difference.

For me, digital processing made everything possible; digital capture made it much more convenient

 


And there shall come a Rapture …..

Digital shifted the focus (see what I did there?) from all of the considerations of film, down to one thing: the digital sensor. And it is all about the quality, sharpness, and resolving capability of those tiny little electronic chips. We moved from cost and technical ability to manufacture affordable digital sensors, to “size” matters, and then back again these days to the fact that maybe it doesn’t even matter so much any more.

Nikon D100 (2002)
6 megapixel – “APS”

The Purple Coneflower is one of my first flower images made with direct digital capture. As noted above, it is difficult to make useful comparisons with film. First, doesn’t scanning a film image convert it to a “digital” image? Then, once we get into the post-processing world, everything we once knew kind of goes out the window. We can post-process a film scanned image in much the same ways we can post-process a digital capture. It may be possible to capture “cleaner” images directly, but we still have to deal with “digital” grain (noise). Color rendering becomes pretty much what you want it to be. One interpretation of the coneflower, for example, is that it has a “color-cast.” This is purposeful on my part because I like the warm, saturated color in many of my more colorful “nature” images. But I did this (of course, you can inadvertently capture color-casts, but if you shoot in the raw format, you can almost always correct, or adjust it, as can be seen from the white daylily image made with the Nikon D200).

Nikon D200
10 Megapixel; APS

I had to laugh as I reviewed digital images in my Lightroom Catalog. I apparently have an affinity for lilies, probably because they are an easy, plentiful, and colorful subject (emphasis perhaps on “easy” 🙂 ). In any event, I have almost 400 lily images. The closest second is around 25.

We moved from cost and technical ability to manufacture affordable digital sensors, to “size” matters, and then back again these days to the fact that maybe it doesn’t even matter so much any more

When I shifted to digital, I was satisfied with what was available, but not completely happy that the sensors were still small. Size, with sensors, had at least three dimensions: actual physical sensor size, and pixel depth (the number of pixels on that space), and the actual physical size of each individual pixel. Obviously, they are interrelated. And in the beginning, this was a pretty big deal. Larger sensors and larger pixels could handle capture with less noise, at higher ISO levels and more detail. So, almost from the beginning, there were “pixel wars” between the purveyors of digital cameras. But also in the beginning, the successful manufacture and hence, availability of larger sensors was prohibitively expensive. Of course, the sensor size itself also effected the optics in a big way. The 35mm SLR camera had become the sort of “standard” by which most of this stuff was measured. But the affordable sensors at first were the so-called “APS” sized sensor, which is significantly smaller than the 35mm film rectangle we were used to, but as you can see by the gold rectangle below, much larger that what we first had with Point & Shoot cameras.

Sensor Sizes Compared

APS sensors meant that the lenses made for the 35mm perspective, did not work the same way. There were pros and cons (covered ad nauseum by others elsewhere). Because of the perceived combined “advantage” of a higher-quality capture and regaining the use, especially, of their wide angle lenses, many 35mm users almost immediately began to call for a so-called “full frame” sensor. I have always found this kind of illogical. What would a “medium format” (4 x 5 inch), or a full 8 x 10″ view camera user call a sensor made to their size? :-). But “full frame” caught on. I eventually jumped on that train, believing “full frame” capture was necessary for me to achieve the image quality I desired. I want to emphasize that there is certainly nothing negative about owning the larger sensor. There is little doubt that you can coax more out of it than the smaller sensors. But to me, it may have been the purchase of a dump truck, when a small pickup (or even a wheelbarrow) was sufficient. There are a couple factors – all empirical for me – that bring me to this conclusion.

D800 “full frame”

First, I had some personal experience. While I am not sure this is any longer true, at the time, to me the “holy grail” was the photographic print, on traditional photographic paper. I have owned a couple Epson printers that were capable of making inkjet prints that rivaled anything I had ever received from any lab. And, I was able to do my own “darkroom” adjustments. For economic reasons, the largest I generally made were 13 x 19″ prints, and that became my de facto standard for measuring quality. And while I enjoyed and appreciated my “full frame” Nikons, my “testing” didn’t prove out the benefit (for me) of the larger sensor (except, perhaps with its integration with some really fine pro- zoom lenses designed for 35mm).

Sony NEX APS
(equivalent to Nikon APS)

The real eye opener came some years later, when I made side-by-side images with my Sony “full frame” and my Sony RX100, and printed them. I could not see much difference. To be fair, much of what has gone on has been in the post-processing realm (both in terms of technology and my abilities). There have also been technology gains which have made the smaller sensor just that much better.

Sony NEX APS
Zeiss 50mm f1.8 lens

 

The red lily image illustrates this, I think. It prints beautifully as a 13 x 19. I believe it could easily print much larger with no noticeable degradation. It illustrates to me my earlier premise that resolving power, low light, and clean capture-capable sensors (regardless of size, and often regardless of the number of megapixels) has really become the “media” of today.

 

A Comparison; DSLR / Mirrorless

What can I say? I am in a “gear” mode these days. I know this isn’t the first time someone has compared the two.  But mine might be more like a rambling muse 🙂  (again, you might want to look at my page describing my gear reviews to see how I come at this. I leave the heavy lifting to the pros).

I have had some “back and forth” discussion with several of my friends over the past few weeks, about my switch from Nikon DSLR to Sony MIL gear (Sony also “plays” in the DSLR world, but in my view, doesn’t offer any reason for a “seasoned” non-Sony DSLR user/owner to consider a change from their current gear).

The seed was planted that maybe we could achieve “pro” results in a small, light package

The “world-changing” event came through Sony’s mirrorless interchangeable lens system (MILS) bodies. They were not the first to the table. Olympus has made a pretty big splash with its 4/3 system; well-made stuff and great glass. Nikon has its own proprietary size sensor MIL system (which has always left me scratching my head). Fuji has a nice system (using an APS sized sensor) and is probably the closest “apples/apples” competitor to the Sony System (Leica offers an APS sized MILS system, also, but its — well — Leica). My draw to Sony’s system was probably logical enough. Sony manufactured (perhaps still does) the sensors Nikon used in its DSLR lineup. Sony also offered the ability (primarily through 3rd-party adapters) to use my Nikkor lenses on the body (albeit as MF only lenses); and as I “grew” into the system, the availability of glass manufactured either directly by Zeiss Optical, or in a partnership between Sony and Zeiss, which created “Zeiss-quality” glass and more importantly look and feel (there is no doubt some debate about whether the partnered lenses — which are built by Sony — are as good as the pure Zeiss.  I owned and used both on my NEX-6 and I couldn’t see a difference).

2012.  Sony’s early offerings were their “NEX” line of cameras, using APS – size sensors (Sony has discontinued the name “NEX” in favor of what they deem their more consistent “Alpha” naming scheme.  The newest available iterations are basically the same body style, with some “improvements” – more later). Ironically, the Sony NEX-6 which I first acquired in 2012 (and still own and use regularly) had the same Sony-manufactured APS-size sensor as the very good Nikon D7000 DSLR I owned at the time as a backup.  I traded it and for a time, I carried the NEX-6 as an all purpose travel and walk-around camera and backup to my Nikon DSLR system. I kept the Nikon D800 and glass for my “more serious” shooting.

I fell in love with the Sony-Zeiss 24mm 1.8’s buttery bokeh

As I began to experiment with some of the fixed focal length glass offerings for the NEX, I fell in love with the Sony-Zeiss f1.8 24mm lens and its buttery bokeh.  The seed was planted that maybe one could achieve “pro” results in a small, light package like this (it is a thought almost “retro” to the old rangefinder cameras used by some pretty amazing pro photographers years ago).

2013. Along came the a7 “full frame” series. The a7 sports a 24mp 24 x 36 “full frame” sensor, and the a7R, features the same 36mp 24 x 36 “full frame” sensor (including the lack of AA filter) that resided in the top-of-the-world, Nikon D800e! All in a small (it turns out, “smallish”) mirrorless body which was reputed to be pro-like in build quality. How could we resist?

It Begs a number of Questions

And it begs the question.  It actually begs several of them. Some of them have been asked and answered. How many megapixels do we need? I have come to the conclusion that 36 is overkill for most of us. Do we need “full frame?” In my view, that may be the real question. And, the burning question: can we have a full frame, DSLR-equivalent shooting experience in a smaller, more portable (and possibly less expensive) package? Lets try to answer a couple of them — Not necessarily in the order asked.

1.  Can Mirrorless Full Frame Compete with DSLR Full Frame?

Lets start with the big one. Following the lead of a couple of my friends, I did some “quick and dirty” comparative research. This is not scientific. I used B&H pricing and the specifications published on their catalog site. I rounded. But I don’t think the rounding error will be significant enough to skew the result. I will use my “default” “kit” (as the Europeans like to call it). I carried (for the most part) a Nikon D800 body with a 24-70 f2.8 and a 70-200 f2.8, and a large enough tripod and head to support that gear. The camera and lenses will cost you $7,600. An equivalent A7r, 24-70 and 70-200 setup will cost you $6,800. That $700 would buy a pretty nice tripod, or another piece of glass.

It’s not apples/apples

However, its not apples/apples here. First, the “equivalent” lenses are maximum f4, against the f2.8 apertures of the pro DSLR lenses. Is the added bokeh worth $350 a lens? Maybe. It’s pretty important.  I have to say that I was “wowed” by the difference between f2.8 and f1.8 when I first shot the NEX lenses.  Also, I have compared the two 70-200 copies. They are not “equivalent.” The Nikkor IQ is palpably better, in my view in that lens. With the 24-70 (Zeiss quality glass), the two are virtually indistinguishable (again, not a pixel peeping, scientific comparison – just my “feel”), but the Nikkor can produce slightly nicer bokeh in many cases, with its maximum f2.8 aperture.

And there is a non-lens comparison issue that for some is huge (for me, not so much). According to Nikon, its digital camera engines produce a true 14 bit “lossless” raw file. The Sony cameras do not! The raw file from the Sony “engine” is apparently partially processed – presumably to save some size? It can, in some cases, produce artifacts which Nikon and Canon’s raw files are said not to have. At least at the pixel peeping level, for the serious bits and bytes squashers out there, this just might be a deal breaker. Seems like it is easily enough addressed by Sony, if they choose to (and in my view, they should).

There is a perhaps, more apt comparison. The newer Nikon D610 sports the same “full frame” 24 x 36 24mp sensor as the Sony a7. Trade out the D800 for the D610 and your total cost goes to $5,000 for the Nikon rig. Trade out the a7 for the a7r and your total Sony cost is $3900. Is the $1,100 difference worth it? Is it really $1,100 (what if you “live” with the 24mp D610 and the Nikkor glass and now have a less expensive setup than the “best” Sony?). Some of this goes back to my first question above. Do you need 36mp? I think that for the vast majority of us, the answer is no.

The Nikon rig weighs a total of about 7.5 lbs. The Sony rig: about 3 3/4 lbs

Here’s where it gets interesting. My “premiere” Nikon rig weighs a total of about 7.5 lbs. The Sony rig: about 3 3/4 lbs. And that does not take into consideration that you can probably go with a smaller, lighter tripod with the smaller, lighter gear. And there is also a difference in overall size. The body is smaller and the lens barrels shorter and slightly smaller in diameter. As I write this, the a7 and 24-700 sit next to me on the desk and I am struck by how similar in size it is to the old, familiar Nikkormat camera with a 50mm lens attached that I shot for many years.

So, does size really matter? I think the answer is no different than it has always been, when the issue has been about gear: It really depends on your intended use, and your travel parameters. I have noted on other blog posts that the Sony setup I use is very suitable for general purpose use; as I use it. Travel, stills, landscape and the like all lend themselves to this rig. For wildlife, sports, etc., I do not think it is there. If I were going to do bird or wildlife shooting, or sports shooting, I would probably lean in the direction of the D610 (or better) setup above. I do think that except for very exacting specification shooting, 24mp is more than adequate and for reasons I will discuss below, probably preferable to the 36mp sensors. But if you shoot like I do, and size and weight are a real factor, then less than 1/2 the weight, and noticeably smaller in size to make it very attractive.

2.  How many Megapixels Do You Need?

As the digital revolution has now passed us by, so, too probably have “Megapixel Wars.” My first DSLR (the D100) was a mere 6mp.  Yet, I have 24 x 36 prints that are pretty impressive, from shots taken with that “dinosaur.”  But as with all “bigger is better” kind of things, there comes a logical point of no return. I think the digicam industry has taken us there, and we are coming back to the field.

Before we can really address the “right” number of megapixels, I think we need to put “size” into perspective. Megapixels is just a number. In an oversimplified way, it is just a measure of the number of photosites on a given camera sensor. If I put 36 megapixels on a 24 x 36 chip, I am going to get a far different result than if I put 24 on there. In the latter case, if 36 sites fit on it, I will either have significant gaps with the 24 example, or I will have to make the 24mp photosites bigger themselves, to fit the space. Of course, it is the latter that is the case, and in terms of every measure except perhaps detail, these bigger photosites are actually going to yield a more pleasing result. This is because of physics and electronics way above my pay grade. But for these reasons, under most circumstances, I believe the 24mp will yield cleaner, more noise free results. The advantage: better low light imagery, and probably just overall cleaner images.

I think 36 megapixels is overkill

Even more important for general use; this will be a more “forgiving” sensor. Because the 36mp chip in the D800 and a7R is capable of resolving significant detail over “smaller” sensors, it will also show more of your “warts.” If your glass is not very high quality, the result is likely to be “highlighted” weaknesses of the glass. If your shooting technique is lazy or poor, your weaknesses will show up in a magnified way. In that sense, the 36mp sensor is really best suited for a painstaking professional with high quality lenses, painstaking and expert technique (read: locked down on a steady tripod, remote release, good technique and mechanics to avoid movement and vibration, etc.). For general purpose, it will probably not enhance – and could very well hinder – your photographic results.

And, of course, the files are huge. That means slower post-processing and more computer power and storage memory needed. So what would be the advantage? Will you be making gigantic prints which require minute detail? Will you be making significant crops out of the images? Do you demand the absolute very best that can be had (and that is, of course, a subjective judgment at best)? Otherwise, I think the 36mp model is overkill. Given that the a7R has some noted issues, if you do not already have one and insist on the 36mp model, I would wait a few months and see if Sony fixes the problems in its a7RII release.

For all of the same reasons, If you think you “need” full frame, I think most current Nikon users who are invested in decent or good glass could be really happy with the Nikon D610 and using the fabulous Nikkor glass?  Not sure if Canon has a like camera – but if they don’t, they will – seems to be a continuation of the “tastes great/less filling” argument between the “white hats” and the “black hats,” year in, year out.

“Full Frame” is a “fiction”

3.  Do You Really Need Full Frame?

What is “full frame,” anyway? It is a fiction. The “Full Frame” misnomer was created by DSLR users.  Long ago the SLR industry established a standard size of film for SLR cameras that had a diagonal dimension of 35mm (hence the 35mm SLR). But there have always been other formats, from sheet film in the back of a full view camera, to so-called “Medium Format,” (which had a couple different film rectangle sizes). All were rectangular (but lenses are round, leading comedian Stephen Wright, I believe, to wonder aloud why if lenses are round, why are photos rectangular? 🙂 ). But the lens size and length was generally designed as a function of the size of that rectangle of film.

In the early 2000’s, the manufacture of electronic sensors for cameras was a much more costly and limited process than it is today. In order to make a sensor that would perform in an SLR-like body using the lenses then available, the technology/cost matrix meant that an affordable DSLR would have the APS sized sensor (closer to the size of a standard U.S. postage stamp than to 35mm). This phenomena immediately created some issues with lens lineups. Because of the so-called “crop-factor,” the angle of view of lenses was decreased by about 1/2 (generally, multiply the 35mm-equivalent by 1.5). It varied slightly from camera to camera. But it immediately created a perceived issue for long time 35mm film shooters.  They began to wish for and even demand a sensor that was the 35mm rectangle their lenses were originally designed for, and began to refer to such a sensor as “full frame.” Eventually these sensors (probably already in the planning stages) were introduced and are generally referred to as “full frame.”  But try to convince a larger format camera user that 35mm is “full.” 🙂

At the same time, camera makers (and third party lens makers) began to manufacture lenses to the APS specification and in a sense, the “distinction” has become academic. It is no more “full frame” than any other sensor-size/lens combination which is properly designed for one another.  For those reasons, I am not sure the “full frame” reference is really a significant factor in one’s choice of camera.  More importantly, larger sensors might yield higher image quality.  That goes back to the discussion above about the “correct” number of megapixels.  See, I can use circular reasoning with the best of them.  🙂

When Nikon announced the enthusiast level “full frame” DSLR, the D700, I purchased one. By then, I had been used 2 iterations of the APS sensor (D100, D200) and had acquired some APS-designed Nikkor lenses. With the change “back” I had to completely re-think this lineup. I was never one who “yearned” for “full frame.” For the above reason, I never thought of it as a particular advantage or disadvantage. In fact, one advantage is that it is cheaper and easier to design smaller lenses for these smaller sensors. This is particularly notable in the mirrorless arena.  Of course, another advantage is that they will be smaller and lighter.

Sensor size is probably one area where “bigger is better,” at least in terms of quality. Bigger physical sensor size means relatively bigger photosites and as noted above, better, cleaner images (especially at the edges of light). That drove my move to the D700 100%. I wanted the best IQ I could “buy.” That motivated me to go to and stay with the Sony a7 also. On paper, I should achieve top-notch IQ with the “full frame” 24mp sensor.

Sensor Sizes Compared

Sensor Sizes Compared

But I have to question my own thinking here. Do I really need it? At least one of my “pro” friends tells me that if you want to sell traditional stock (read, Getty Images), you probably do. It is a matter of the minimum file sizes they will accept. I would bet 99.9% of the readers here are not full time professional photographers and do not plan to try to make (even part of) a living from stock sales. So again, do we need it? What are you using your images for? Again, the 99% majority are posting them on Facebook, or their own blogs and websites. Some are making books and cards and calendars and just snapshots for memories. Not many are making large (24 x 36 or larger) art-quality prints. and even then, the need for 36mp is probably limited.  I have a 24 x 36 art-quality print framed, matted and hanging in my office behind my desk that looks pretty darn good (if I do say so, myself) :-). It was taken, traveling in Venice, Italy, with the APS sensor, 16mp Sony NEX-6. When I travel, I always have to decide whether I am going to carry anything more than the NEX, a very small travel tripod, and an array of very small lenses to use with it, or the “bigger” outfit (for me, that is the 3 3/4 lb. Sony a7 setup these days). So, when size and weight become a serious consideration, so should these diminuitive APS mirrorless offerings.

The current version of the NEX-6 is the Sony a6000. It is intriguing: New “engine;” Improved a7 menu system (the NEX menu structure was mind-boggling – the a7 is somewhat better); 24 megapixel APS sensor (question about whether the same “spacing” issue of the photosites applies here? The photosites have to be smaller than those on the prior 16mp NEX6. A matter of tradeoff); Faster, better AF. Brighter viewfinder. If I were not invested already, this would probably be my entry-level purchase and just might suffice to be the only one. At only $450 a copy, you could buy 2 a6000 bodies for less than the price of one a7/a7II. You could carry them with different lenses attached. There is no 70-200 lens for this sensor/mount combination, but the 70-200 f4 mounts, and works well with it. There is a Sony-Zeiss rough equivalent 24-70 (the 16-70 f4). It has IS. The cost for this 2-lens combo and the a6000 would be $3,850. The weight would be under 3 1/2 lbs. (and 2 lbs. of it would be the 70-200!).

When size and weight become a serious consideration, so should these diminuitive cameras

I will watch with interest what competitors, Nikon, Canon, and Fuji do this year. I think Olympus is pretty much married to their 4/3 system and I think the smallish sensor size is just too much of a compromise. Nikon’s mirrorless array has been a non-starter for me, primarily because of their insistence on their own, proprietary sensor size/lens design. I don’t get it, Nikon. You already have APS sensors that are tried and true, and lenses designed for them. Sony has proven you can put them in a small package. Marketing, Nikon? I have no idea where Canon is in this – or why.

The next time I post here, Christmas, 2014, as well as some other holidays will have passed us by (not meaning to be insensitive or display my ignorance – but having been raised in the Christian tradition, all I know is Christmas) :-).  I want to say Merry Christmas to all my friends and readers out there and for lack of a better term, the “PC” “Happy Holidays” to all who may celebrate other holidays this time of year!

Size Matters!

Certainly, a hackneyed, old phrase, but in matters of digital photography, it is a fact. The size I am referring to is the digital sensor, but not megapixels; physical size. There are a fair number of parallels to the film-based systems we used before the so-called, “digital revolution.” But with digital sensors, there is a significant difference; technology. Very much like the computer industry, by the time the latest and greatest sensor hits the market, it is already “old technology” (there were major technological advances in film, too, over time, but they happened in a matter of years, rather than months).  This is a very technical subject that many others out on the net explain in technical and engineering details that I cannot begin to match.  This is a layman’s perspective.

The consumer camera began to drive new technology advances

The first digital cameras were adaptations of 35mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera bodies that were used to build digital imaging tools (today referred to as a Digital SLR; or DSLR). They had very small imaging sensors (significantly, smaller than the rectangular cross-section of a single 35mm film frame), and were capable of producing only around 1.2 megapixel (MP) images. They cost $20,000 to $25,000; not within the budget of most photo-enthusiasts.

Digital image-making brought a new phenomenon to the camera manufacturing industry. Suddenly, the consumer camera (we often refer to them as “point and shoot” or “P&S”), began to drive new technology advances which often first appeared in the consumer P&S cameras, only to be put into the higher-end “pro” cameras later.

Sensor Sizes Compared

How does this all relate to sensor size? The P&S cameras have a much smaller image sensor in them than the DSLR cameras and the newer Medium Format digital cameras that are now available on the market. I currently routinely carry and use 3 different cameras: a Canon G12 P&S, a Nikon D7000 “DX” sensor camera, and a Nikon D700 “FX” sensor camera.  As the illustration shows, there is a pretty remarkable difference in sensor sizes (if you would like to do your own comparison, I used this really cool tool to make this illustration). Especially when we can upload and view all three of these at relatively the same viewing size on our computer monitors, and—within reason—make similar-sized print images from all three. But there is a notable difference in the quality of these images.

Why did the original cameras not have a sensor identical to the 35mm film cross-section that those bodies were designed for? The answer is simple; technology and cost. The technology that continues to “knock our socks off” today was the most limiting factor back in the late 1980’s. The cost to manufacture even a 1.2 megapixel small physical sensor was prohibitive. A 35mm size sensor cost as much as 20 times the cost to manufacture the smaller sensors. And while over time manufacturers rapidly designed and manufactured sensors holding many more photo-sites (hence, more megapixel capture capability), the cost to manufacture larger physical sensors remained expensive. This explains why the cost of the so-called “full-frame” DSLR is still substantially higher that a higher megapixel DSLR with the smaller sensor.

Why weren’t the original sensors identical to the 35mm frame size?

Megapixel Wars.  For the first 10 to 12 years after the introduction of the consumer-affordable DSLRs, there was a huge emphasis—and indeed a “race”—for more and more megapixels. Megapixels translated in many people’s minds into higher quality. There is some truth to this, but it is only part of the story.   When I talk about “size” here, I really mean the physical size of the sensor, more than the number of megapixels.  As Thom Hogan recently noted in his D800 review, the megapixel increases are linear, not geometric.  In other words, the 36 megapixel sensor in the D800 does not create images 3 times larger than the D700’s 12 megapixel sensor (in fact, Hogan estimates that the increase from the D700 to the D800’s image sizes are about 70%).  The arguably more important part of the story is the quality of those megapixels.

My first DSLR was the Nikon D100; a 6 megapixel camera. My “upgrade” to the D200 was 10 megapixels. My current “pro” model D700 is a 12 megapixel camera; while my “backup” D7000 is a 16 megapixel camera. Logically, it would seem that the progression from D100 to D7000 kept getting me to the best sensor. But that is not the case.  The older, 12 Megapixel D700 sensor still yields a much higher “quality” image than the 16 Megapixel D7000 sensor.

You might think that the progression from D100 to D7000 kept getting me to the best sensor. But that is not the case

At the time I bought the D100, there were point and shoot cameras available with higher than 6 megapixel counts. But I could still produce a cleaner, better quality image with the D100 that could be printed larger (I have 13 x 19 prints of images made on the D100 that are indistinguishable at that size from prints made from D700 12 megapixel images). Nikon’s newest “entry-model” consumer DSLR is the D3200, which is a whopping 24 megapixels (only the pro D800 beats it with 36 megapixels – the largest megapixel DLSR available at this writing). One would think it should make “better” images than the only 12 megapixel D700. But it cannot even come close!

The primary reason for this is size. You can readily see the difference in the image sensor sizes of my 3 current cameras. And the number of photo-sites that are packed onto the sensor and the size of the photo-sites make a huge difference in the quality of the image produced. This is most obvious in the low frequency (shadows and low light) side of the digital photographic equation.

Cruise Dock; Port Everglades, FL
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

Noise.    When a sensor captures light it is converting light to electrical signals and certain “stray” signals can produce a grain-like pattern or effect in an image that is referred to as noise. This noise is largely created by low frequency signals (often the product of low-light conditions), but also by heat and other anomalies in the electronic processor. A small sensor, with many photo-sites packed onto it can create more degrading noise than a larger sensor. It can generate and accumulate more heat because it has less area to dissipate the heat energy. At the same time, the larger photo-sites are capable of capturing more and better detail, yielding a better quality digital image. These higher quality “raw” images, in turn, yield much better files to work with in the post processing stages. The image here, taken at the Princess Cruise Terminal in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, in the early morning hours, demonstrates this. The noise is simply un-manageable. The same shot, taken with the D700 would have been salvageable.

G12                                         D7000                                         D700

Angle of View.    Another controversial area over the years has been the concept often referred to as “crop factor,” or “magnification factor.” When manufacturers began making digital interchangeable-lens camera bodies, they simply adapted the current, 35mm SLR body. While one might wonder why they didn’t just design and build a new “digital” body, the most obvious answer is probably again based on economics. It was probably much less costly to adapt the 35mm SLR body. And, it meant not having to create a completely new lens mount and require all of us to buy a whole new series of lenses. They had a ready-made consumer, just waiting to purchase the DSLR and use their existing lenses.  The composite above is shots from the same tripod position, taken a 140 mm on all three cameras, at their maximum aperture.  The G12 is obviously with its built-in lens.  The Nikon is with a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom.

The “crop factor” / “magnification” debate doesn’t really matter

The first sensors were significantly smaller in cross section than the 35mm film frame. The SLR lenses were designed for the larger 35mm cross-section. So, the sensors only used some of the inner part of the lens circle, effectively “cropping” the outer part. The effect of this was to create a narrower angle of view. The appearance is a “telephoto effect.” The practical effect was that you lost your wider angle and “gained” a longer view on all of your lenses, by a factor of 1.3 or 1.5. Because these sensors were similar to the size of the (largely failed) Nikon Pronea APS film camera, they came to be known as “APS” size sensors (Nikon has since denominated their “APS” sized sensor as a “DX” sensor).

There is no such thing as a “full frame” camera

There has been a considerable amount of debate and even “flame wars” on the internet over this concept. It really doesn’t matter. The debate is, for practical shooting, silly. The reality is that if you have a wide angle lens, on an APS sensor, it just won’t view or capture as wide. Conversely, if you have a longer lens, you get a longer angle of view on the entire sensor, effectively increasing the “telephoto” effect of the lens. Depending on your intended use, this can be a good thing or a bad thing (I actually made my recent backup decision to buy an APS size sensor partly on the premise that it would give me slightly more length for certain wildlife shooting).

Likewise, the controversy over whether a camera is or is not “full frame” is non-productive. But I’ll weigh in anyway :-). There is simply no such thing as a “full-frame” camera. I know that might draw some debate, but it is just a reference point. To a lifelong 35mm shooter, “full frame” means 35 mm (24mm x 36mm). But to a Medium Format or View Camera user, that’ hardly “full.” Indeed a View Camera 8 x 12 sheet of film makes a so-called “full frame” 35mm look like what it really is: a Postage Stamp! Again, it’s a reference point. To my way of thinking, the larger the better.

But there are practical considerations. When I bought my 6 megapixel APS frame D100, I carried a couple 2G flash cards around. With my 12 megapixel “full frame” (Nikon refers to their 35mm size frame as “FX”) D700, I use 8G cards. With the new D800 36 megapixel FX sensor, I don’t even know how large the cards would have to be. And with each of these increases in file size, an equal increase in hard drive storage and computer processing power (memory) is needed. At some point, it may become overkill. When Nikon announced their Flagship D4, at “only” 16 megapixels (same as the D7000 consumer body), many of us thought it might signal the end of the megapixel wars). But they have since released the D800 FX 36 megapixel body. Interestingly, the D800 is the “entry-level pro” camera and the D4 is the flagship pro body at a significantly higher price point (suggesting that a lot of working pro’s don’t consider the megapixel issue significant anymore at 16 megapixels). I cannot personally see a need for more than double the capacity of my D700 which creates some splendid digital images, in low light conditions.

It is difficult or impossible to get those pleasing out of focus effects on a point and shoot camera

Canon G12; 140mm; f4.5

Depth of Field.    Interestingly, sensor size also affects depth of field. This is analogous to the film reference above (as was the comment about “full frame, Medium and Large Format). It relates to the field of view and image size geometry. I am not capable of explaining the science, here and will leave it to more capable persons. But as a general rule, the smaller the sensor, the greater the depth of field for a given lens focal length. This explains why it is difficult or impossible to get those pleasing out of focus effects on a point and shoot camera.  As you an see, the G12 image, which is shot at its longest focal length and its widest aperture, still captures the background in reasonably sharp focus.  On the D700, everything is blurred except the main subject (of course a big part of that is the wider aperture).

Nikon D700; 140mm; f2.8

In the end, it is still first and foremost, about quality! When the consumer affordable DSLRs first came on the market, there was an immediate hue and cry for a “full frame” (i.e., 35mm size) sensor. The main reason, I believe, was because those of us used to using 35mm didn’t like the change required when thinking about and using our existing lens arsenals. I bought an 18mm lens and it solved my concern. Over time, the camera lens manufacturers have answered the call by designing lenses specifically for the APS sensor size. This has created some of its own issues, as we now have 35mm size sensors available. A “DX” lens on my “FX” D700 will have a big black vignette circle in the viewfinder, but will simply crop the image to the DX format. It just means we have to plan and think about what and how we are shooting.

My primary criteria for purchasing a camera will always be its sensor quality

When the D700 came out, I immediately decided to buy it. The sensor size really had absolutely nothing to do with it. I had “moved on” to the smaller sensor / lens combinations and had a bag of lenses that worked well for me. Buying the D700 made me have to re-think that and it was, frankly, in the short run, a nuisance to do so. Eventually I have sorted that all out. But my primary criteria for purchasing the D700 – and it will probably always be my primary consideration in purchasing any camera, was sensor image quality. And there is just no question on my mind that the camera I have in the bag that yields the highest quality image, is the one with the biggest sensor.

For lots more than you ever wanted to know about sensors, sensor size, and electronics, see Wikipedia and this DPreview page.