WE BOARDED The Celebrity Apex on Friday and hit the ground running. We stopped in 4 ports before we had an at-sea day. Given that we had a pretty ambitious 3 days in Rome beforehand, it was a formula for exhaustion. We found ourselves looking forward to the coming at sea day, just for some R&R.
I knew before we started that Cinque Terre would be the highlight of the entire trip for me
BUT I must confess that I knew even before we started that the first stop, the first day, would be the highlight of the trip for me. La Spezia is an interesting location. There are options, but few seemed enticing. Pisa is some 40 miles away. Florence is about twice that distance. Doable, but a few hours of riding in a vehicle. And Livorno, which some cruises stop at (notably, Princess), is much closer to both (12 miles to Pisa and 45 miles to Florence). We did that in 2015 on a Princess Ship, which stopped in Livorno. We still felt a bit shortchanged in Florence (which is a city I think one should visit for a day or two – at least an overnight). It was also possible to go into the country in Tuscany, where you could sample wines or just view the countryside. Again, that would involve hours in a vehicle. We have walked around the city of La Spezia a couple times. Frankly: not much going on there. So the one that seemed to make the most sense was Cinque Terre.
there is no better landscape photographer’s destination in the world, in my opinion
I REALLYwanted to revisit this amazing place (it is, after all, mainly about me 🙂 ). But seriously, this is supposed to be a photography – related blog, and there is no better landscape photographer’s destination in the world, in my opinion. Less than 5 miles from the cruise port, the first of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore, can be reached by commuter rail in just minutes. It involves a brief taxi ride to the train station in La Spezia, and the purchase of an all day, on and off, 18-euro, train pass on the trains that travel between La Spezia and Levanto to the north. In between these two cities lie 5 small fishing villages and the train stops at each one. The time between stops is just minutes.
LITERALLY “FIVE lands,” Cinque Terre consists of 5 historic villages in the Province of Liguria, built into the mountains above the Ligurian Sea. The 5 small villages thrived from the 11th – 16th centuries, mostly producing fish, wine and olives. Most of the agricultural cultivation took place on man-made terraces built into the steep mountainside. After the 16th century, the area experienced a period of economic decline, until repurposed mainly for tourism during the 1970s. It is difficult to reach by car, and most travel to and between the 5 villages is by train, boat, or on foot. There is a hiking path that runs between the 5 villages that is very popular with hikers.
FOR ME, the primary draw to this region is photographic. In 2019 we took an Italian Riviera cruise that stopped in La Spezia. That was when I first “discovered” Cinque Terre (though I am sure I had seen the photographs at some previous time), and knew I had to go there to photograph it. Prior to this trip, I did a fair amount of research. Cinque Terre’s 5 villages, from south to north, are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterroso Al Mare (“Al Mare,” means “by the sea”). My research (primarily commentary from other photographers) suggested to me that of the 5 towns, 3 were very much on my horizon: Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Vernazza. The others – for a number of reasons were not so much. The main reason has been time. Both visits were one day cruise stops, substantially limiting both my time and shooting conditions. Corniglia is up in the mountains and does not have a seaport. I am sure it is photogenic in its own right, and my next time through there, I will probably visit it. For now, I was particularly drawn by the fishing village/seaport aspects. Monterroso is flatter and appears to be more of a beach community these days. While the beaches look fabulous and I am certain it is photogenic, I again wanted to focus on the more rustic seaports. I have had a few other beach opportunities. Given another trip, I am likely to visit both Monterroso and Corniglia. But not this time.
YOU ONLY need to look at the colorful and iconic images from the 3 villages I did photograph to understand the draw. Centuries old, the buildings built into the mountainsides are a feat of architecture. I was interested to learn that the colorful paint jobs which make the images so romantically iconic are not really historically accurate. I wonder what the landscape looked like before they were painted. My “processed” version here might be semi-accurate? If so, not near as colorful, and though still photogenic, not in my favorite way: with color! But in the 1970’s, seeking tourism, the locals came up with the idea for the brightly painted buildings that are really Cinque Terre’s photographic signature today.
MY FIRST trip in 2019 was nice, but somewhat of a “bust.” We joined a group of new friends we had met on the cruise and took a taxi all the way to Manarola (a mistake not to repeat – take the train). My research had indicated that of the 5 villages, Manarola was the most popular and photogenic. The day was kind of rainy and drizzly, and we did not get a very early start off the ship. We didn’t know about the 18 Euro all day train pass, nor just how quick and convenient the train was. But what we also didn’t know was that there is no car access to any of the 5 villages. There is a large parking area well up the mountain, above Manarola, where cars and busses could park ( I suspect the other villages had similar parking accommodations). We walked down a very steep, though well paved pathway. It was hard on the knees. While it seemed longer, it was about 1/2 mile down to the level where the train station is. We learned later about the train setup and ended up going back to La Spezia on the train. Everyone else was more or less sightseeing, but I was on a mission to photograph at least this one village. I walked on ahead, all the way down to the seaport, which I knew was where the path to the photographic viewpoint began. Fortunately, it was not a long, nor steep walk out the pathway, and turning around to see the village, it was immediately apparent where the photo was! I blogged about that village and posted my photos from back in 2019here. The lighting conditions were not very good, and looking back, I am not happy with my post-processing (colors look odd – I will go back and re-work those), but they give the viewer an idea about the potential.
THIS TIME I planned differently. We had all pretty much decided (there were six of us) to do at least parts of Cinque Terre. But I made it known to the group that I was going to be off the ship at the earliest possible opportunity and on my way to Cinque Terre. We had texting capability and asked them to let me know when and where and I would meet them in one of the villages. Ironically, that turned out to be Manarola. In the meantime, my first stop was the southernmost village: Riomaggiore. I was a bit surprised at how much of a downhill climb the base of the village was from the train station. Having done 3 of them, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the steepest (not sure about Cornigilia). I took some back stairs down part of the way and the image near the top of the blog post shows where I exited onto the seaport area. As previously noted, my reading indicated that Manarola was the “preferred” photographic venue (not that the others weren’t also great). Now having been to both, I am not sure I agree. They both have their charm. But I really like the color and the setting in Riomaggiore.
ANOTHER CONCLUSION I have come to is that – at least for Riomaggiore and Manarola, the best photographic vantage points are actually the most popular tourist spots (maybe there is some logic to that). 🙂 In Riomaggiore, that meant up the hill on the south side of the harbor, where the tour boat offices are. I did venture a way out onto the rocks, but really not very far as it is a bit steep and slippery and requires some exertion. But my short look said to me that the viewpoint wasn’t going to my best perspective. Importantly to me, both “standard” spots (Manarola and Riomaggiore) get me at building level, where the tilt factor of my wide lens was the least problematic. It is partly why I believe they are the best photo ops in these two villages.
EVEN THOUGH I had already shot Manarola and wanted to make sure I had time to do Vernazza (the third of my chosen spots), I felt the desire to stop again at Manarola, and take another look. Not only did I have time, but the rest of the party had texted me by then that they would meet me there. My research told me that there were 3 or 4 different viewpoints from which to photograph the Manarola Village. One was the primary tourist spot which was the trail on the way to Corniglia, to the north. Another was on a terrace above that trail, where there were a couple restaurants. I had climbed up there in 2019 and concluded that it wasn’t enough different a vantage point to be worth it. I had also shot from down at the water. The final spot was in the cemetery, “just a ways up the hill.” OMG! My question to the writers who recommended the cemetery: are you serious? The dirt trail up to the cemetery is a rugged and strenuous uphill walk, for anyone but the most robust hiker. And it is a long way, all uphill steeply. Once you reach the cemetery, which is neither well marked, nor obviously a cemetery, you then must walk on through it out to a trail that finally opens up above the village. Having gotten there, the photo viewpoint is (I think) underwhelming! As others have noted, the foreground is challenging, as it is grasses, scrub brush, and some ugly fencing. Perhaps during a time of year where there might be some bright flowers, or foliage, it might be pleasing. But as you can see from my shot from here, the foreground (in my opinion) detracts from the image. Then there is the factor of distance and perspective. The angle of the foreground partially obscures both the village and the harbor, even at fairly wide-angle viewing. My two cents in 5 words or less: it’s just not worth it. I will admit that it is a very high up view and pretty spectacular. But the hike is not for the faint of heart, and it certainly isn’t the best photographic spot. Again, for both Manarola and Riomaggiore, I would direct a photographer to the two popular tourist spots. You will get a good shot from them.
AFTER COMING back down the mountain, our party had encountered some issues with their train ride and were still not at the meeting spot, so I sat in the cafe and had an espresso and some water. Once they arrived, I and showed them the photo spot and we walked around the small town, a bit, wandering in an out the shops and having a snack. When the time came to decide what the next move was, two of the group decided to return to the ship. I was determined to go on to Vernazza, eitheralone or with whoever wanted to come along. Four of us ultimately continued on to Vernazza. Though seemingly more touristy, and in my view slightly less photogenic, Vernazza was also less hilly. But like the other two villages, it had a very nice harbor, with lots of small fishing boats. Unlike the other two villages, Vernazza also had a small “beach” at the harbor. I found my best photographic perspective from out on the wide and easily navigated seawall/walkway.
THERE WERE some nice close up “studies” of the moored boats. Also, the rocky breakwall in Vernazza afforded probably the best opportunity to shoot the Ligurian see out away from the villages. All in all I was very happy with my day in Cinque Terre. Someday, I would really like to go back there and spend a couple nights in one or more of the little villages (Probably Manarola) and take some nighttime images, with the buildings lit and reflections in the water below. But for now, I was satisfied to add some nice, colorful, classic images to my portfolio.
NOVEMBER MARKED our 3rd Celebrity Cruise for 2022, and our 4th trip to Europe. Following up on a brief Western Caribbean cruise, then Portugal by land, and then the Baltic region, this one was a relatively familiar trip covering (important) parts of Italy, France and Spain. We had visited the majority of our destinations over the years, mostly with previous cruises on Celebrity and Princess. This one was a bit extended, as we were traveling with some folks who had not done most of the spots and wanted to spend time in a couple of major places in Italy (Rome and Venice). So, we started in Rome, spending three nights in a VRBO, and covering some of Rome’s coolest features.
YOU CANNOT really “see” any major city in 2-3 days (much less a one-day port stop). So, we (they) chose their most important destinations, beginning with a 3-hour drive around by our airport pickup service and driver. This part was fun for us as the driver actually took us to a few points of interest that we had not seen before in our other couple visits to Rome. This was the first time we had spent more than a day there. The first place he took us was to one of Rome’s many fountains, the Fontana Del’ Acquia Paola. We learned that Rome is a city of fountains which were – generally – built at the terminus of an aqueduct. Rome’s most world-famous fountain is the Trevi Fountain, in the center of the old city. But the Fontana Del’ Acquia Paola was built more than 100 years earlier, and according to our driver, is considered by the Romans to be the most beautiful and impressive of all the fountains of Rome. I have read that it is colorfully lit at night, but we did not get there except during the daylight hours. Named for Pope Paul V, the fountain was built in 1612. Built on a hill on the west side of the Tiber River, there is a steep drop and wall just across the cobblestone street in front of the fountain, making photographic perspective a real challenge. I stood on a bench on the wall to get additional height, by you can see by the image that I still needed to do substantial “work” in Photoshop’s Perspective correction tools.
FOR PERSPECTIVE, our driver did take us to the Trevi Fountain. The contrast was remarkable. As you can see from the image above, the Fontana Del’ Acquia was nearly devoid of people. The Trevi fountain, on the other hand, was totally mobbed. We have been there twice before. The first trip in 2013 was nearly as crowded. On our second trip in 2015, the fountain was closed for refurbishing. Even then, there was a pretty good crowd of viewers. Getting a shot of the Trevi during the day is virtually impossible. All my images either show close up views of parts of the fountain, or the large crowds in front of it. I did not even bother to make a shot this trip. We essentially did a drive-by of the Colosseum, letting our driver know that we had a Colosseum tour scheduled for the next day.
ABOUT MID-afternoon, our driver made his way to our VRBO, which was just a short walk off of the very popular and beautiful, Piazza del Popolo (which our driver said translates in English roughly to “People’s Square”). The piazza essentially faces south, and there are 3 streets that fan out in a trident from the twin churches as the south end of the plaza and head south. Down each of those streets are restaurants, hotels, and shopping. It was pretty bustling about a block south. But our street was comparatively quiet. We weren’t able to get into the VRBO for about another hour, so our driver found us a small restaurant just a few steps away that would allow us to bring our luggage in and have some lunch. There, I started my pasta odyssey. For each of the nights in Rome, I had pasta for my main meal. In each case it was the best pasta I can remember. This first afternoon, we were in a restaurant called Dal Pollarolo 1936. On the Google map is shows moderate pricing ($$). The carbonara was the best I have ever had. Everybody who tried a taste agreed. One of our travel mates – Bobbie – was a bit of a carbonara afficionado (I am told she makes a very good carbonara herself) and tried (unsuccessfully) to duplicate it in other restaurants. The second day, we walked over to another restaurant near the southeast edge of the piazza: Canova Piazza Del Popolo (no cost information on Google, but equivalent to the first day), I had a pepper/cheese pasta that was “to die for.” Perhaps my favorite meal of the entire 18-day trip! The next day, in the same spot, we were somewhere in the city, having visited some of the catacombs, and stopped on the street. I don’t remember the name of the place. I had Pesto pasta. Very good, but not as good as the first two. I was so “on a pasta roll,” that I had pasta the first night on the ship, too. Again, though good, not even close to those first two dishes!
THE VRBO was great except for one feature. There were three bedrooms and 3 baths – which was just right for our group. There was a very nice balcony, which gave Clay and me a nice place to smoke cigars in the afternoon/evenings. We found a nice little liquor store and a great little deli type store (selling meats, cheeses and bread), both just steps away from the VRBO. I would give it 5 stars, except for one design feature. In the two ensuite bathrooms, the showers were small to the extreme. It was like showering in a wardrobe closet. You could hardly turn around and seemed wedged up against the wall or the shower door. That is a design feature. I know they are noted for less ostentatious and smaller rooms in Europe, and we are o.k. with that. But these were the smallest showers we have ever experienced. Coupled with the lack of any shelves in either the shower or around the sink areas, this would cause me to lower by a star. Oh well. “First World problems.” 🙂
AS IS my custom, I was up early the next morning, and out on the Piazza Del Popolo, with my camera. When our driver dropped us off the day before, he gave us a brief rundown on the twin churches, which I believe are the only ones like it in the world. I tried to get a lower, wide-angle perspective, with the twilight sun just beginning to rise in the background, coloring the sky nicely. In the middle of the piazza there is an obelisk, surrounded by some pretty fountains. The piazza is very large and open, and as you can see, already popular even early in the morning. This was said to be the first thing travelers to Rome saw as they approached the city. Even with my 9-18m (18-36 35mm equivalent) lens, the height of the obelisk and the ground-level shooting position, leaves perspective challenges. The churches were originally planned to be identical (apparently in the neoclassic style). They were started in the late 1600’s by architect Carlo Rainaldi, but ultimately completed by Bernini and Carlo Fontana. Ultimately, the two churches are not identical in their details, though both similar and symmetrical in Baroque style. In any event, an impressive sight and a wonderful photographic opportunity. I think it might ultimately photograph well as dusk, also, with the sun lighting the churches.
FOR THIS day, we had a private, early Vatican Tour scheduled. In 2015, with our friends Paul and Linda, we had a similar tour during the day we were on shore in Rome. Logistics for that tour meant getting off our ship and getting transportation the hour plus to Rome. This made the tour time later in the day. The result was some very large crowds in parts of the Vatican, which was not optimal for either photography or viewing. You can see what we faced in the image above. At the time, I asked our guide if there was a “better” time to come. Her response wasn’t encouraging. She noted that any time the Vatican is open, this was more or less what you got. Remember, this was pre-Pandemic. Fast forward to 2022, a relatively early morning appointment, and (my opinion) a world still coming to grips with a worldwide shutdown less than 2 years behind us, and the photo below is the result. While not the best of reasons, it certainly made for a much more meaningful, leisurely, and photographically conducive experience. As the image of the artwork below demonstrates, we had a clear view to the walls, with art, tapestry, sculptures and frescos. These shots wouldn’t have been possible in 2015.
WE ALSO were able to walk right into the Sistine Chapel (contrasted with a 30-minute standing wait on the stairway down in 2015). It was still fairly crowded in the chapel but we had the cool experience of having one of the resident priests come in and say a prayer while we were in there.
OUR FINAL piece of the Vatican was St. Peter’s Basilica. It is impressive, with mosaics, tile floors, artistry on the walls and ceilings, stained glass and more. The altar in the center of the cathedral was perhaps the most impressive to me. Build with 4 uniquely shaped columns, it stands many feet tall. The columns are made from solid brass (the exterior surfaces) and filled with solid metal in the centers. We didn’t really spend any time outdoors this trip, as it was a rainy, drizzly day. All in all, though, I thought a better experience than our prior visit. I was glad we did it.
IOFTEN mention churches, cathedrals, and basilicas, on the blog. More than once while writing I have wondered about the differences. Each is the designation of a Christian house of worship. In Ancient times, we are mainly speaking of Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches. In very much lay terms, here is a quick primer. “Church,” is really a generic term for house of worship. It encompasses all of the other terms. A Cathedral is a Christian Church that is the seat of the bishop. A church can be famous, very important, even a basilica, and not be a Cathedral, if it is not the Bishop’s seat. A Basilica is a church that is so designated by the Pope, generally as an important church for various purposes and reasons. Once the “basilica” designation has been made, it is permanent cannot be removed, perhaps making the designation the highest hierarchical designation.
PARTLY EXPECTING the same crowds, and knowing it was rainy, I did not carry my Olympus rig with me that day but opted to carry just my smartphone. All the images from that day at the Vatican are made with my Samsung, S21. I continue to be impressed by its ability to make indoor photographs.
THE FOLLOWING day we had a 4-hour tour of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum scheduled. We had seen the forum from the high distance somewhere on Palatine Hill during our driving tour of Rome in 2015. This morning, our driver picked us up and then dropped us off at the beginning of the Forum, in the center of the city of ancient Rome, where we walked the entire length, on our way to the entrance to the Colosseum. In context, “forum” means the same thing as “square.” A space about 3 football fields long and about 550 feet wide, the Roman Forum was essentially the center of early Roman civilization and housed political bodies, churches, triumphal arches and courts. Unlike most other classic Roman fora, which were built to a plan of sorts, (and much like many of our modern U.S. cities), there wasn’t a grand design for the city center of ancient Rome. Named for Rome’s first king, Romulus, the forum developed naturally over several centuries. There is evidence predating Roman presence as far back as 1200 B.C. The center of everyday life in Rome for centuries, the site is a valley between two hills (Capitolene and Velian Hills). Originally a swampy low area, the site was drained in the 7th Century, B.C., and building commenced there. But because of this geographic setting, over the centuries, silts seeped back in from the Tiber River, creating many layers of ancient ruins that were excavated in later years. During many of its up and down periods, much of the construction materials used in original construction were “scavenged,” taken away and used to build other sites, often by plunderers over the years. This means that unfortunately, a lot of the original materials that in modern days we try to so carefully preserve, are no longer there.
RELENTLESS AND ongoing silt deposits also means that excavation reveals several different levels or layers of development over the centuries. I especially liked the Temple of Romulus, where our guide told us that at one time, the green door was just a few steps about street level, with a small set of steps up to it – the entrance to the Temple. That is a lot of silt. 🙂
THE ORIGINAL Senate and Republican form of government originated here, in this center of Roman civilization. It was also the place where triumphal marches were held as the Romans conquered other places. It was traditional to construct a triumphal arch for each conquest. You can see the arch at the entrance of what was the original Senate. There is also another well-preserved arch toward the southern part of the forum, just before leaving the area and approaching the Colosseum.
OUR LAST venue for the tour was the Roman Colosseum. We had been there before in 2015, but our travel mates had not – and it was high on their desired list. And every visit to one of these locations is a bit different, often with different information. In in my case, a different camera and lens, allowing me to make wider angle images of the massive facility. We learned a lot about the construction of the facility, as well as the activities therein. Their “civilized” activity was much more violent and unforgiving than our society today. At least the part that is authorized. What a different world we live in today. But we do, have some pretty uncivilized and violent things that happen in our world that the inhabitants of those time could not imagine.
CONSTRUCTION OF the Roman Colosseum is impressive and detailed. The large, outside walls, (more than 3 stories high) are stabilized by “flying buttresses.” There were “box” type areas (similar to the current sky boxes in today’s modern sports stadiums), and specially marked seating for people of “noble” status (the alternating white and brown stone). Completed in about 80 A.D., it is said to be the largest amphitheater ever built (and the largest still standing today). Its maximum capacity was 80,000. For comparison, the largest U.S. football stadium is the University of Michigan Stadium, with a seating capacity of just over 107,000. Several others are very close to that. Saying the largest ever built might be taking some liberty, but remember, this was a couple thousand years ago. And there is a (however nuanced) difference between an amphitheater (an open-air theater which can be viewed from all around) and a stadium, which appears to limit its meaning to an arena dedicated to sports (in ancient times, a stadium was a horse racing track). Modern stadiums, of course, can also be roofed or enclosed. “Amphitheater,” by the way, is roughly translated “both sides,” and therefore differs from “theater,” in that the viewing can be all around the action, versus a front-on only view in a theater.
SURE ENOUGH, there is a Triumphal Arch at the entrance to the Colosseum. We finished our tour, and went to lunch back near the Piazza Popolo. Later that afternoon, after a rest, I walked down to the deli store and bought an assortment of meats, cheese and bread. We had picked up a bottle of wine earlier, and some bourbon. We pretty much stayed-in this night. The next day we would be transported to Civitavecchia, the seaport for Rome, about an hour and 15 minutes away, to board the Celebrity Edge cruise ship.
IWILL freely admit that I am – and have always been – a bit of a gearhead. Part of it is an appreciation for finely made tools and mechanical things, probably instilled-by-my dad and grandfather. I have always been a fan of fine craftsmanship and attention to details. I love the way a well-made tool of any kind fits in the hand. And I’ll be the first to admit that certain accessories and tools just make the process easier, more fun, and therefore, “better.” And that is all well and good.
we get bogged down with gear obsession
BUT I also recognize that sometimes, we get bogged down with gear, and in the process, lose sight of the true goal: making pictures. As I read the proliferation of (Facebook mainly) groups dedicated to a particular model, or system, at some point, I think: “enough is enough.” Grab your camera (whatever model you have) and a lens or two (whatever you already have) and go out and make some pictures!
What do I really want the camera to do for me?
OBSESSION WITH gear (especially on-line) has impressed me more than usual recently (especially camera bodies and lenses). Camera manufacturers and some accessory makers are constantly iterating “new and improved” versions. In a technology rich world, that is inevitable. And much of it is really amazing new technology. But do we need it? I know people who like to discuss and analyze gear and digital photographic technology. I think that’s great. I do it too. But I do so with the intuitive understanding that (for the most part) a new, or “better” piece of equipment will (probably) not make my craft “better.” It’s fun to look, discuss, and consider new stuff. But that’s gear. It’s not photography. Lately, I often read or hear questions like, “should I buy the xxx lens, or should I ‘upgrade’ to the xxx body? I don’t know. Will that body or lens give you a tool to do something specific that you need/want to do? Will it give you joy? Will it make “better” pictures? Or should you maybe just go out and use the gear you already have to make some pictures? I read a lot of answers and commentary about focus stacking, and high-res mode, and fast, high-end lenses (that cost an arm, a leg, and – your firstborn). I read about technical wizardry of some of the newer cameras and what “they can do for you.” But to me, that begs the question: what is it that I really want the camera to do for me? In the end, I think we might all benefit from looking away from megapixels, digital AI wizardry, huge apertures, and things like “resolving power,” and turn back toward the fundamental reason we picked up a camera in the first place: to make photos. And I use the word make purposely. Not take. Because the camera is a tool that – having learned some skills, some optics, and some physics – we photographers use to “make” pictures. So, I am not sure I am really that excited about all the “gee-whiz” things that a particular camera can “do for me.” A couple of my fellow photographers who I highly respect work with the camera in its “manual” mode almost exclusively. I am not against using certain features that have been added over the years to make things “fit” my shooting style, or just for convenience. I use “aperture priority” mode often and have done so since it was first available on film bodies. I am not sure that is so much technical wizardry, but more of a “shortcut” to using the manual controls I pay the most attention to in my landscape work (aperture). But for the most part, I like basic photography. And I think that is all about making nice images.
Grab your camera (whatever model you have) and a lens or two (that you already have) and go out and make some pictures!
FOR ME photography is a hobby. I am not sure anything I (ever) write here would apply to professional photographers who are doing it to make a living. Many of the variables are different for them. But for the rest of us, we probably spend more time than we should online (and in camera stores, if there are any of those still to be found). We learn. But we also get “sold.” I see brand “fanboys” surprisingly often, in this day and age of parity among brands. I also see an inordinate focus on “specs.” I read and hear that “pro” f1.2 lens is “better” than the variable f3.5 – 5.6. It has more “resolving power,” or is sharper, for example. Yep. But does it make aesthetically “better pictures?”Maybe. Do you need it? Maybe – but probably not. Will it make your own overall photography intrinsically “better?” In a very select few instances, perhaps. For the most part, I doubt it.
AND SOMETIMES I read things that just don’t resonate; or even don’t make any sense at all. After acquiring my m4/3 Olympus gear, I joined several different Olympus and m4/3 groups on Facebook. And, for balance, 🙂 I also have recently joined two groups dedicated to the Sony A7r (one specifically labeled “A7r V”). I mean, seriously, the thing just came out. 🙂 And I am already reading glowing “reviews.” But they are posting only “soundbites” like: “I love my new camera; it’s remarkably better than my A7xxx” Or they post single photos with no further commentary, and then say that “the extra resolution pays off.” O.k. How? Or (even though the posted image is out of focus), “I am really impressed with the IBIS in the camera.” Or one of my favorites: “new Sony user here. This A7rV is leaps and bounds better than its predecessor. What??? And I read questions like: “will the xxx lens (current Sony lenses designed for their current FE mount) work well with my A7rV. I have been using it on the A7riii, but I know that is a really old camera, and . . . . .” 🙂 The A7riii is notreally “old.” The technology in hand with that camera is pretty impressive and stacks up against most of its modern competitors admirably. And of course the lens will “work” with it. In reality, all technology by all manufacturers has gotten so good and so advanced, there really isn’t a lot that can be added that enhances basic photography.
Do we need these features? I think the honest answer for most of us is no
AS READERS here know, I own the Sony A7rii. I went through (I think) some pretty objective analysis before choosing it. You can see that story here. But having read some of the glowing reviews of a camera that has been out for just a few months, I went on DPreview.com (going to miss them) and used their compare feature, to take a side-by-side look at all 5 A7r iterations. Guess what? In terms of what I think are fundamentally important in a camera body, there are just not really any “must have” new features for the general photographer (it may be different if you were seeking a particular feature for a reason). The mark iv and v increase the pixel count from 40-ish to 60-ish megapixels. There are a couple of tweaks in the image processing setup from model to model. The AF and IBIS gets incrementally better, but only by a tiny bit each time. And then there are those new digital technology features (eye recognition, hi-res image stacking, and the like). Do we need these features? I think the honest answer for most of us is no. And I think side-by-side images, viewed normally (the purpose they were made in the first place) made by the earliest and latest iteration of any model camera are going to be pretty much esoterically the same. We could all gain more in our imagery by concentrating on good technique (exposure, focus, composition, etc.) rather than by spending a few hundred dollars on the next best new thing!
ONE THING really confounds me? Brand switching. Historically, there have been numerous competitors out there; mainly Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus, and when digital became a thing, Sony joined the fray. For those who wanted only the very best, there was also Leica (and a few others). There is little doubt that today, Canon, Sony and Nikon are the market leaders for digital cameras. But the others have certainly kept up. The thing is, they are all really good cameras! One of the truisms of R&D in the camera industry is that one maker gets to a technology breakthrough before the others. But they take turns. It is not always the same manufacturer. And if it is an in-demand technology, the others usually get there shortly later. So switching for the perceived features of one brand makes no sense to me (I know. “Pot: meet kettle.” I am guilty of my own criticism, as I switched to Sony many years back after a long relationship with Nikon. I like to think I justified that 🙂 ). But I know people that switch back and forth between brands frequently. Like every year. And because of the investment, they lose thousands of dollars by doing so. Consider the various “flagship” cameras. At the top of the heap, appears to be the Hasselblad pictured at the top. Then comes the Leica M11 at a cost of $8,000 (too rich for my blood, btw – and in keeping with the theme here, very unlikely to “improve” my photography). Nikon’s highly regarded Z9 body is $5,500 and Canon’s comparable EOS R3 is $6,000. The Sony A1 is $7,000. If you buy (or have bought) any one of these and you “trade,” you will never recover the $ invested! I am reading comments online about how the newest A7rV is “better” than the A1. It is “only” $4,000. So, because it might be “better” (I will give you that it is newer), should you dump your previous investment in favor of it? I’ll bet you can tell that I don’t think so. If you go from brand to brand, I think it is even a worse hit. The same questions arise. Do we need it? Will it make our photography better? Of course, we can ask that same question any time we change any item of gear. But in some cases, the answers come more readily than others.
we spend more time than we should online (and in camera stores, if there are any of those still to be found)
IHAVE recently been working on my DAM (digital asset management) in my archives. One of the things that I have never really looked at was the number of images I make on a regular basis. I think that getting out more and traveling with camera in hand has moved my perspective away from gear and tech and toward making pictures. I was somewhat surprised to learn that my mean average take is about 2,000 images a year. One year it was 4 times that. Others have been substantially less. But on average, 2000/year. During those years, I briefly (maybe over a 3-year span) owned 3 “pro” high-spec lenses. I don’t own any of them now. In fact, the vast majority of my images are taken during travel and made with rather pedestrian “consumer” lenses. A lot of them are nice, pleasing images. Some of them are pretty darn good. But when I look at them, usually it is not the high-spec lens, that made them. It is not some feature on the camera that is designed to make a certain image. It is good old, “basic” photography. “F8 and be there” type of stuff. When you get into more specialized shooting, gear probably makes more difference.
I think that getting out more and traveling with camera in hand had moved my perspective away from gear and tech and toward making pictures
GEAR IS fun. Especially high quality, high-end gear. I am not condemning the acquisition and use of such gear. Nor did anyone appoint me judge of whether you should or shouldn’t buy or trade gear. That’s your call. But then, this is my blog, so I do get to voice my opinions and muses here. 🙂 If economics didn’t play a part, I would love to have more of it – especially high-end stuff. I see people getting a lot of enjoyment out of non-conventional shooting, often using some of the digital features out there. Again, it is a hobby, and enjoying “playing” and experimentation is certainly a legitimate part of the hobby. But the technology doesn’t make us good photographers. And it doesn’t make good pictures. let’s face it. We have all seen some pretty unremarkable photos made with Leica gear, the Sony A7r, and Nikon or Canon’s “best” lenses. And we have all seen some pretty remarkable photos made with “smart phones.” While there is undoubtedly a combination of things that factor into making good images, the biggest single factor is getting out there and doing it. When someone asks me if they should consider a piece of gear for this or that, and I know they already have a camera and lens, these days, my curmudgeonly response is: “Get out there and make pictures with the lens or camera you already have. Just get out. Make pictures.”
BETTER HERE? Or there?” Anybody who has had a full eye-exam has heard this, or variations of this phrase. I am not an Optometrist (and I don’t play one on TV, although I do know one). 😊 I just used the name and phrase for a “catchy” byline, although “catchy” is obviously in the eye of the beholder. See what I did there? And I liked the use of the “specs” to frame the two cameras. Usually, it is pretty apparent whether “1” or “2” or “A” or “B” is better. But sometimes – even when you can see a difference – it is just not possible to say one is definitively “better.” Like maybe here. Read on to see what I conclude. I think it is important to note that this is an opinion post, and that I can only comment and write from my own experience. That includes cameras I have owned (or at least used). I cannot really comment critically about cameras or systems I have not used, owned, or at least researched (though I still do so, on occasion). I also think it’s important to note that my observations and choices of gear are as much personal as they are technical. For example, I have appreciated and used the familiar “SLR-like” camera body (with “pentaprism” viewfinder and dial controls) for most of my photographic “life.” I just like their “look and feel.” Those factors certainly strongly influence my conclusions, here. I know there are some who are just the opposite, and fully appreciate – and use – features like the rear screen and touchscreen. I have often repeated here, that cameras are tools, and their selection and use should be primarily governed by their usefulness to the craftsman. But I also think shooting should be fun; and fun partly includes shooting with something you like. Something that “feels” good.
sometimes – even when you can see a difference – it is just not possible to say one is definitively “better.”
IN THIS post I will comment about camera and sensor size and make some comparisons. They will be empirical but based on my own experiences. I am not a pixel peeper, nor a particularly deeply technical digital analyst (though I am told I can be anal). 🙂 I have had a fair amount of “hands-on” experience. Enough that I think I can comment – and maybe inform somebody who is on the fence about acquiring a “system.” Let me start by saying that of the systems I have owned and used, I think that as I write this post, the 35mm-equivalent SLR-like, “full-frame,” medium to high resolution cameras are still the best and most practical system for most of us. Today, this has expanded from the now “old-school” DSLR to the “new and improved” mirrorless offerings – primarily by the new “big three”: Sony, Canon and Nikon. The only reason for this comparison between m43 and “full frame” is size. Size does matter.
SINCE THE “digital revolution” began, I have owned and used a pretty good handful of digital capture cameras. I came from the film genre. I think most of us who did used 35mm SLR cameras, as 35mm still seems to be the “yardstick” against which we measure sensor size and lens matchups. My own cameras have ranged from very small, to so-called “full-frame” sensors (the latter being that 35mm equivalent size), and several in between (including APS-C). They have ranged from around 1 megapixel to my current +/- 45 megapixel “full frame” Sony A7rii. More recently, I have embraced the m4/3 system for travel (currently maxed at 20mp). I have used them all in a variety of conditions, including night shooting, handheld shooting, both on and off a tripod. I have numerous different cameras represented in the images on my LightCentric Photography website.
35mm still seems to be the “yardstick” against which we measure sensor size and lens matchups
LATELY, I have subscribed to several m4/3 pages on Facebook and read a lot about the m4/3 system. These are smaller sensor cameras (third from the right in the illustration table above) that have a popular following. Mostly, Olympus seems to dominate. They have a lot of discussions about noise, focus tracking, bird photography, and some of the bells and whistles of the system (mostly related to jpg shooting). The posters are often very opinionated – often to the point of being “fanboys.” But there is also a lot of good information out there, and a few commenters who are very knowledgeable about the system. I find that occasionally helpful when trying to get a handle on my own Olympus camera system.
FOR ME, my system choice has been a bit of an odyssey. It has been driven by technology, availability, budget, and my own photographic “needs.” In the early 2000’s, we bought our first digital camera, the 3-plus megapixel, Canon Powershot S20. Chunky, with its rangefinder style viewfinder, I never warmed up to it. As a tool, there was nothing wrong with it. But going back to those aesthetic considerations that I noted earlier, it wasn’t long before I had something different. In those days I was a pretty much dedicated Nikon guy, and I moved to one of their point and shoot “digicams” (the 5-megapixel Coolpix 5000). Neither of these cameras were what I considered a “serious” camera at that time (though as you can see from the illustration, the Coolpix had more of the look and feel I was accustomed to). They were what we have referred to (not always kindly) as “point and shoot” (P&S) cameras. No lens interchangeability. A “rangefinder-like” viewfinder. And the sensors were small. But they were the only digital alternatives to film that were remotely affordable at the time. Prior to these digital capture cameras, I had already begun the process of converting my film images to digital images, using a slide film scanner. By then, we were posting images online on places like America Online forums. All my “serious” photography was still done with my Nikon 35mm SLR film cameras. The only thing close to that for digital shooting in those early days was the Kodak/Canon/Nikon collaborative 35mm SLR style bodies (still only a couple megapixels), which were costing around $10,000. In 2000, Both introduced their own “pro” DSLR Cameras (Nikon D1 and Canon EOS 1-D). Both were more than $5,000.
MOST OF us prosumer enthusiasts waited anxiously for Nikon and Canon to release an “affordable” DSLR body. Finally, in 2002, our hopes were realized, as Nikon released the 6-megapixel D100, and Canon, the 3-megapixel EOS 60D, DSLR bodies. Both were priced at the $2,000 mark (still a chunk of $), and many of us made the switch at that time (kind of amazing when you compare what $2,000 will buy you today).
IN TODAY‘s terms, they were really pretty rudimentary cameras. But for the times, they were a breakthrough and proverbial “game-changing” development. For the next several years, they leapfrogged each other with newer, higher megapixel models and better and better sensors. At the same time the other major camera companies (and a newcomer or two – notably, Sony) all jumped on the bandwagon. All of these original DSLR cameras (pro and prosumer alike) featured the so-called APS-C sized sensors. At some point, sheer numbers of megapixels were less a big thing, and the industry shifted focus to larger sensors with better ability to handle things like signal noise. As the “yardstick,” the goal was a 35mm film rectangle size sensor, which became known as “full frame.”
OPTICS DICTATED that the APS-C sensors would present a different focal length for lenses, the vast majority of which had been designed for 35mm film. The new bodies accepted the old lens mounts, but it caused some angst, particularly as we lost some of the advantage of our wide-angle lenses (an approximate 1.4 – 1.5x magnification). So, of course, manufacturers began to produce new APS-C mount-specified lenses. Then, when they finally released the “full frame” sensors, there was again a demand for the 35mm lens specification. But over time, even they have evolved, due to the different physical specifications and capabilities of digital sensors (particularly in the case of the newest “mirrorless” configurations).
THEN THE next “revolution” happened. Sony had been a major player in the P&S market since the inception of digicams. In 2006, they joined the fray with their first Sony Alpha (APS-C) DSLR. But they were quietly pursuing a completely new direction – the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. The mirrorless design would change a lot of things somewhat radically, including the ability to make smaller components. In 2010, Sony debuted their NEX line, a pair of very similar, small footprint, 14-megapixel APS-C cameras with interchangeable lenses (Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5). Just a year later, they introduced the NEX-7, with a 24-megapixel successor. Sony has long been noted for its quirky numbering system, and they didn’t introduce the 16-megapixel “little brother” NEX-6 until 2013. In my case, for various reasons, the NEX-6 was the one I chose, as my first mirrorless camera. I really fell in love with its small size and relatively easy handling. It was what eventually moved me away from the DSLR camera – and away from Nikon. Neither Nikon nor Canon appeared to have strong interest in this market at that time. They have more recently gone full-on mirrorless with what might be expected: some very good offerings. But they do have a new big kid on the playground today that they didn’t have before: Sony. Today, they are the 1-2-3 industry leaders in sales (Canon, Sony, Nikon). While they still offer a few APS-C sensor models, All 3 offer “full frame” models as their flagship cameras.
WHILE ALL of this was happening, another phenomenon was quietly developing. The ability to make smaller, lighter, and sometimes cheaper components has a real appeal and following. In 2008, Panasonic introduced the Lumix, a m4/3 (“micro-four-thirds”) sensor camera. In 2009, Olympus released its first of many m4/3 offerings. They pretty much went all in on the m4/3 sensor from there forward and today, offer a pretty broad selection of cameras – mostly very traditional look and feel, DSLR-like boxes. The distinct advantage of this camera is the ability to provide good quality images at much smaller sizes. It was this size and weight component that won me over to a set of Olympus gear for my travel needs. A long-time quality player in the photography business, Olympus produces not only very high-quality lenses (and of course, Panasonic and Leica joined in a partnership to offer Leica designed and branded lenses), but some pretty advanced technology, including perhaps the best in-body image stabilization available. Olympus recently sold its photographic division off, but the new company, OM Systems, has pledged to maintain the level of quality and R&D on to new products. Time will tell.
KIND OF a long history. But I think necessary to put my comments and comparisons in context.
Only in the world of the camera industry would “medium” be larger than “full”
WHY DO I only compare the m4/3 system with the so-called “full frame” system? For an interchangeable lens system, the m4/3 is as small as I personally will comfortably go for “serious” photography at this time. While there is a sensor larger than “full-frame” (confused by the terminology yet? 🙂 ) known as “medium format” (only in the world of the camera industry would “medium” be larger than a “full”), it is neither developed enough, affordable enough, nor common enough for my personal consideration. “Medium Format “is now offered by Fujifilm, Hassleblad, Leica, and Pentax. They range from $3500 to $50,000. They offer anywhere between about 50m to just over 100mp sensors. Interesting, but not in my wheelhouse at this point. Presumably the body and lenses are going to be even larger and heavier (though I recently shot with my friend, Rich Ennis in Vermont, who was shooting one of the Fujis and was pleasantly surprised to see that the body was not appreciably larger than a “full frame” DSLR).
ISEE my personal “bookends” at m4/3 and 35mm-equivalent “full frame.” For the moment. What about the APS-C system? In my view, it sits pretty squarely in the middle between the bookends. Looking at the sensor size comparison chart above, the difference between the m 4/3 and APS-C sensors is not that much. Especially when you compare them with the difference between the APS-C and “full frame” sensor. I don’t really consider APS-C, primarily for the reasons I do consider m4/3. It’s really all about size, in my opinion. Given the modest sensor size increase, the size of lenses and bodies are currently too big in my view. Not worth the tradeoff. m 4/3 lens and body size differences (compared with “full frame”), on the other hand, are significant. Having now shot a lot of images with my Sony 35mm-equivalent and with the Olympus m4/3 camera, I feel comfortable in making comparisons between them. And while the image quality for the m4/3 is very good, I don’t think it holds a candle to the Sony sensor’s image quality. Indeed, I wouldn’t even be talking about Olympus – or m4/3 – here, but for the sole consideration of size! Note that I am only considering Olympus’ so-called “entry-level” camera, the OMD-EM10 series. Again, the primary reason is size. It is their smallest body (maybe the smallest SLR-like body available from any major brand). OM Systems has some higher-end cameras out there. But they immediately begin to get physically bigger, and more expensive. And if I am going to go there, why not focus the “better” and more expensive factor on my Sony system (which I have already stated I think is superior)?
BY THE same token, if size is my “only” criteria for a travel camera (and if you read carefully, I haven’t said that – just that it is a very significant factor), why not choose an offering from Olympus (my own choice for the best m 4/3 camera system) that is equivalent in specs (actually, even better) than the EM10, and noticeably smaller? In an even smaller package, the Olympus Pen F has some high-end features that make it very attractive, including the 20mp sensor (the EM10iv I now carry also has the newest 20mp sensor and chip), the high-resolution feature only available on the higher-spec OMD models, and a fully articulating rear screen. Well, at the moment, it comes down to two things. Most importantly is what I say in the first paragraph here. There is some personal, whimsical part in my decision-making. The EM10 is not that much larger, and it has a look and feel that makes it fun to shoot. Secondly, the Pen F is about $400 more expensive, new. A factor – however significant or not. But if size matters for you, it might be something for you to consider, also.
I wouldn’t even be talking about Olympus – or m4/3 – here, but for the sole consideration of size
BACK TO APS-C for a moment. I expect those images to be “better” than the m4/3, but not as good as the “full frame.” And what I know about the APS-C gear is that it is not appreciably smaller than the Sony A7r (especially when you consider lenses). Yes, it is smaller (particularly the mirrorless offerings like their XT series from Fuji – and maybe the current Nexus bodies from Sony). But as you get into better quality lenses, things begin again to get bigger. But there are really two reasons I don’t pay much attention to APS-C here. First, the difference between the m4/3 and the APS-C is much less than the next step up to 35mm-equivalent (see the sensor size comparison chart above). In my mind, there is not enough improvement from m4/3 to APS-C given the size and weight considerations. For me, the “middle ground” just doesn’t give me enough benefit. And second, I couldn’t find a pair of glasses with three lenses. 🙂
Size matters in a number of ways. Probably the most important is sensor size. There are two components to this (there is a third, known as “pixel pitch,” which punches way above my weight class; so I won’t even try to cover it). A larger sensor allows for larger pixel dimensions (as opposed to the number of pixels). It also can allow for a larger number of pixels, less densely packed. Both equate to less digital noise, and greater image details, and therefore, theoretically better, sharper images. As well, the larger number of pixels yields a larger image, and more depth for cropping. In 2021, I made a very distant shot of a hillside while in Vermont for fall foliage season. I was with a friend who shot it with a 300mm lens. My longest was 105mm. But I cropped the 46mp file “as if” I had shot it at 300mm. I was astounded at how the image quality held up in a crop of only 1/3 of the original file. With my smaller, and lower megapixel Olympus (20mp), that is just not going to happen. I am not advocating making huge crops. But it is nice to know the potential is there.
But physical size matters, too. The physically smaller dimensions of the m4/3 sensors allow for a much smaller “box” (my OMD-EM10 body is very small and very light). The same characteristic makes the physics of lens making very different, also. My 70-300 zoom for my Sony is 7 inches long, and 3 inches in diameter, and is substantially heavier than the equivalent m4/3 lens. They are both “consumer” grade, slower lenses, allowing for smaller, lighter design. Believe me, packing and carrying a camera that is 1/2 the size, and a lens that is under 4 inches long and less than 2 inches in diameter, and feather lite, is a world of difference.
There are some noise issues. This is something that has been noted online frequently, and my own empirical evidence confirms that. I have observed noticeably more noise in my m4/3 images, especially when ISO has been bumped up. Because I am using “slower” consumer lenses, ISO tends to be higher in these shots, particularly in low light conditions. Faster lenses get noticeably larger and heavier, defeating my primary purpose for using the m4/3 system in the first place. I know there are those who will suggest noise is not really an issue, because we now have some really great post-processing software for “de-noising available. Yep. I know. I have tried several of them (including the – not very good in my view – noise adjustment in ADOBE’s ACR raw converter). I use the NIK version myself and find its results the most personally pleasing. But all of them ultimately result in a softening of the image. In some cases, it isn’t a big deal, if the noise is in areas that are not inherently sharp. But all in all, I would prefer to start with a relatively noise-free image before processing. But once again, size matters. For the bulk of my travel shooting, the conditions do not yield these noise inducing conditions. Generally, when they do, I have deemed the levels acceptable. After all, it is pictures I am seeking, not pixel-peeping perfection.
What’s all this noise about noise, anyway? Noise seems to be the current “hot topic” online. When I browse on FB, or read (or at least, used to read) articles on Dpreview.com, it seems like all I see is this or that software purveyor’s “new” Noise Reduction Algorithm. I know a couple people who have bought some of the software, and are using it. As I noted in the blog text above, I am not really uber-impressed with most of it. Like the former “hot-topic,” sharpening, much of it yields what I think are “artificial-looking results. Most of my criticisms around sharpening “breakthroughs” (if they worked at all) were that they looked plasticky (I know, not a word), or digitized. In my experience, they often resulted in more image degradation. And if the original image is not reasonably sharp to begin with, I am still of the school that doesn’t believe it can be made sharp digitally (yet), despite what the Google Pixel Phone advertisement claims about “making your blurry photos sharp.” The noise reduction stuff feels much the same to me. Mostly not really a breakthrough. But perhaps more to the point, not really as much a problem as the software sellers would have us believe. There is a certain amount of “softness,” and a certain amount of “noise” that is naturally occurring. With the exception of night images (and certain very low light images), I don’t generally look at my images and say: “jeez, that’s noisy. I better apply NR software.” In other words, a certain amount of “noise” is acceptable (just like a certain amount of grain was acceptable – and even sometimes desirable – in a celluloid photograph).
“Image Stabilization” is a pretty significant factor in today’s cameras. The Olympus m 4/3 cameras all implement “In Body Image Stabilization” (IBIS). In other words, the stabilization mechanism is in the camera, theoretically meaning it works with any lens attached. Some of the close competitors for my “small” setup only use “in-lens” stabilization. Not all lenses have stabilization built in. Sony just released its newest “high resolution” camera body, the A7riv, and its in-body stabilization (IBIS) specs sound very good indeed (they claim 8 stops!). The Olympus IBIS is known, however, to be very, good. Perhaps the best in the business. They use a 5-axis system, where other manufacturers (to the best of my knowledge) use a 3-axis setup. On my older OMD EM10 body, I could hear and feel the stabilization gyro system. It is smoother and quieter on the mark iv, and I have not detected it so far. But I know it is there. I mainly use my Sony system on a tripod, so stabilization rarely comes into my process with that camera system. On the other hand, the Olympus is a travel camera, used for street shooting and travel shooting. It only rarely gets mounted on a tripod. Which makes a really good IBIS system an important consideration for handheld shooting.
Depth of Field and Bokeh
Physics, again, comes into play here. Several, often interrelated, things create bokeh. Lens focal length is a big determining factor. It is much easier to obtain nice background bokeh with a telephoto lens than with a wide-angle lens. Conversely, it is also more difficult to obtain a wide depth of field for subject-focus with a telephoto lens. Aperture, and subject/background distance also both have significant effect on bokeh. For example, the shot above was made with an APS-C sensor (essentially all I shot with until the late 2000’s when I acquired my first “full-frame” Nikon), and a 32mm (48mm at 35mm equivalent) Carl Zeiss prime lens, at an aperture of f1.8. Even though the lens is not particularly “telephoto,” the very wide aperture (and perhaps the great quality of the lens) creates very nice bokeh. Depending on the focal length and aperture being used, the distance between the subject and the background can also increase bokeh. The effect is much less with a wide lens than with a telephoto.
What about sensor size? At a given focal length, the larger sensor/larger lens circle combination naturally produces narrower depth of field (which can mean more bokeh). Conversely, the smaller sensor generally means that it is much more difficult to produce nice bokeh backgrounds. This is not to say it cannot be done. It is just more difficult. Other factors – which often compete with your goals – have to be adjusted. Very wide apertures (think f2 or wider) can help, especially if you are able to separate background in conjunction. But wider aperture means bigger, heavier lens designs. This competes with the “small” factor that is important to me for travel. Enough so that I don’t even bother with wide-aperture (“fast”) lenses for my travel kit. My “go to” aperture range for about 90% of my shooting during travel is f8 – f11. Given the small m 4/3 sensor size, physics tells me I should be able to get pretty sharp results as large as f3.5 – 4 (wide open on my consumer lenses). But I think of the f8-ish aperture as an insurance policy. Of course, lens construction and characteristics also weigh in here.
I am generally looking at bokeh in images for shots like the one above. I normally will be using my “full frame” gear and lenses. I do own a couple prime, wide aperture lenses in the “full frame” kit. I generally don’t see any point in duplicating that in the m4/3.
IN THE end, I think this all comes down to something I have harped on here fairly often. Cameras are tools. You pick the tools for the job. And in every case, you compromise. You also think about what you are trying to accomplish. I have shot birds, and some limited sports/action. But that is not what I gravitate toward. My comments here are going to be biased in favor of what I do shoot. In my landscape work, it is almost all nature stills. While I use AF all the time, sophisticated tracking, phase detection, and face detection algorithms are not particularly important – or useful – to me. If I were shooting action subjects, they would be. My “stills” are 95% made from a tripod. So (in spite of the rather impressive current specs on Sony’s newest iteration of my camera of choice), image stabilization for that camera/system is not of particular concern for me. For the same reasons, I don’t really need a long, fast (and big and heavy) telephoto lens. I carry a 70-300 zoom, but it is a variable aperture and not very fast. It is quite small and very light, which is what I am seeking. I use it for landscape – not for wildlife. What does any of this have to do with the subject at hand? It simply means you have to make your decisions based on your photographic goals.
IF I had to choose only one system, I would say that the full frame system wins the “better here” visual/image quality test without much of a challenge. But it loses the “convenience” test handily. In practical terms, what this means is that for the foreseeable future, I will maintain two very different sets of photographic gear. But if forced to choose just one, I would stick with my Sony setup – today. I don’t know what the longer-term future holds. Sensor technology and quality continues to rapidly improve. Just look at the smartphone industry, with its tiny sensors and what they can produce today. As unequivocal as I am about my statement that currently, “full-frame” wins the IQ test, I am just as confident that when smaller sensors reach equivalency with larger ones, I will be one of the first to go completely “small.” We’re just not there yet, in my opinion.