Join the blog----already in progress. (To read the first paragraph head over to the Visual Science Lab).
.....There were few arguments about having hit the original metric. We had achieved the goal of replacing the cameras most of us used to shoot film with cameras that would shoot digital files equally well but at that very moment the marketing race lunged off the starting mark and began dragging the marketing carrot around the track with vigor. Was 6 megapixels enough? Well, of course, but it didn't take long for Canon and Nikon to realize that this was a new game and one they could rig by playing to our uncertainties. Our insecurities as artists. After all, if your competitors only had 6 megapixels wouldn't you be more....infallible with 8 megapixels? And then 10? And then 12? And then....
I remember when we hit the 12 megapixel mark. Canon had their 1Ds (full frame) camera and Nikon had their D2x camera. Both were superb. Both could knock images out of the ballpark when used appropriately. What do I mean by appropriately? Well, if we shot them the way we did in the film days (when we were more than reasonably happy with the performance of our film+cameras) that would mean using good techniques. And good techniques meant using the lowest ISO possible, choosing the optimum aperture and providing a stable base for the camera. Easy stuff. I looked back recently at some portraits I'd done on the D2x and wonder why I fell for the next campaign of fear and uncertainty and "upgraded" from there.
But I know why we upgraded. The camera companies did a remarkably good job at creating the appearance of competition between photographers. When they ran out of megapixels they turned their attention to another area they could exploit; the ability to deliver cleaner files at high ISOs. With a Nikon D2xs you were safe shooting anything under 400 ISO but you were definitely on shaky ground once you passed the ISO 800 mark. And anything over 1600 qualified you as a photo-pointilist. The Seurat of imaging. And rather than embrace and hug our tripods or turn up the volume on our plentiful flashes we followed right along and bought the cameras with the cotton candy ISOs. Everywhere we looked people were shooting mediocre, unlit images at 3200 ISO. So many crappy images were shot with no noise that it actually changed (by sheer inertia) the basic styles in which we shot. Everything became poorly lit and had tiny planes of sharp focus.
Once gifted lighters became, almost overnight, "available light" photographers. That just meant that even though they knew that "motivated" lighting was superior they were willing to be lazy and just depend on whatever (usually crappy) light they found on whatever location they were working. My friends in the film industry call this "New York Lighting" which suggests that a New York D.P. walks into any room/location, no matter how heinous the light, and if there are enough aggregated photons floating around (no matter how green or uni-directional), they consider the room "well lit" making the effort of additional lighting unnecessary.
Almost overnight all of the best practices of generations of photographers were thrown out the window and an endless cascading chorus of, "DON'T WORRY, WE'LL FIX IT IN POST" resonated in advertising agencies and Starbucks hosted photo offices almost overnight. The sad thing is that most of us bought into this "space race" mentality and slavishly followed along.
But a few years ago the myth all started falling apart. A company called Olympus chummed up with a company called Panasonic and they introduced a tiny new format called micro four thirds ( a really dumbass name, to be sure...) and they started making cameras that reminded us of the fun, smaller cameras we used to have. The ones that didn't weigh a ton. And we started to use them. At first they weren't as good as the cutting edge "fat boy" digital cameras of the day but over the last two years they have become almost unimaginably better. Surely within striking distance of everything in their price class. And while the adaptation rate in the U.S. (lower education standards than most of the rest of the world) has been slow many parts of the world are snapping them up and eroding market share of the conventional mirrored digital cameras. This is even more interesting since the smaller cameras had the misfortune to be launched during the biggest financial meltdown of our generations (yes, plural!).
But recently, when some well known photographers compared the best of the m4:3 cameras to the newest generation of full frame, high megapixel cameras they came to an interesting conclusion: The files from the smaller cameras looked just as good or better. Russell Rutherford (famous fashion and sports shooter) went into a store to buy a Sony A7 and came out with an Olympus EM-1. People started leaving D800s at home in deference to Sony, Fuji and Olympus mirror less cameras. And the people who did this found out a very interesting fact: Since about 2008 all of the better cameras (non-budget, non-point&shoot) made files that were.....good enough. Really. For every use other than critical work at huge sizes the files---when used with identically good technique--- they were the equals of each other up to about 16x20 print sizes. But really, who is still printing large prints on a regular basis?
The other realization that seems to have sunk in is that most people----make that nearly all people--- who profess to be photographers end up sharing the bulk of their work on the web. Not just half their work but something like 95% of their work. And that includes everyone from advertising photographers to photojournalists. The only group not included here is fine art photographers who live and die by print sales. They haven't quite figured out how to monetize the web...(but few other photographers have either...).
I looked around the web and was stunned to find that the vast majority of pros and demi-pros who show work on the web show it at 1500 pixels on a long side or less. What happens to the other 4000+ pixels on that long side? The ones we paid so much for, over and over again? They get tossed. Just tossed. Oh, we all have the good intention of going back and making "amazing" prints from the files but the numbers just aren't there. While we've been focused on the overall decline of camera sales we seemed to have missed the numbers that point to a decline in high end ink jet paper sale and the slow down of ink jet printer ink for the high end of the market. We've finally admitted that though the print was the gold standard of the film age that quantity and relative quality of the web is the standard of the digital age, and though we grouse about it, we all seem to be accepting that and showing work there and doing our commerce there. And, for the most part, you are paying fast and loose with the truth if you say you aren't.
Being a good consumer I bought into all of the endless megapixel hype. I rushed to buy a Canon 5Dmk2 and when Sony camera out with a higher megapixel camera, the a99, I rushed to buy that one too. But then I made two critical errors. The first one was buying a Sony a850 camera made in 2010 but based on the technology of the a900 introduced in 2009. Then I shot the cameras side by side in the way I had always shot my cameras---in the studio with lights---working at the optimum apertures and optimum ISOs (native). And amazingly the cameras' performances were nearly identical. If anything the a850 has better color separation. Or finer discrimination between colors. It's a camera that amazes me with its image quality in the same way that the Nikon D2x still amazes me. According to DXO the D2x is a piece of crap. If shot correctly it's largely still competitive for most working photographers who don't "need" to work at high ISOs. And for even most print applications the camera works well...
And the second mistake? Recently I've been working with smaller and smaller cameras like the Panasonic GH3 and even the Sony RX10. And what I keep seeing is that at most of the settings I routinely use the limiting factor is not my camera but my laziness with technique. I've written it before but it bears repeating:
A bad camera on a good tripod generally delivers better image quality than a much better camera that's handheld by an adult who drinks coffee.
A mediocre imaging sensor shot at its native ISO will nearly always outperform a much better sensor that is pushed to extremely high ISOs. Translation: A Canon G10 will deliver a better file when shot at ISO 80 than a Leica M240 with a $5,000 lens pushed to 3200.
An image with great content, shot with a shitty camera, will always beat an image of your cat sleeping on the carpet shot with a medium format digital back and priceless German glass.
A current m4:3 camera with brilliant image stabilization will almost always produce a more detailed handheld image than a full frame, 36 megapixel camera. (If the small camera is competing with an A7r with the non-optional shutter shock then make that "twice as detailed.").
What I am essentially trying to say here is that all of the cameras I've come across in the last two years, from the Nikon D800 to the Olympus EP-5 to the Fuji EX2 to the Sony Nex-6 and Nex-7 and, yes, even the Pentax K-01, can deliver results that are nearly always better than the technique and capabilities of the person holding them.
In fact, we the users have become the lowest common denominator in the camera performance equation. We are the filter. We are the limiting factor. And in a nutshell that's why the market has slowed down/declined/entered free fall. We consciously or unconsciously know we have been manipulated into buying the "$200 dollar marathon racing shoes" when we know we can barely run a mile. We've bought the Lamborghini only to find that it bottoms out on our driveway and then, minutes later enters the crawl of rush hour traffic. We've bought the ultimate cameras only to point them at our cats and that pot of flowers while holding the cameras in our shaky hands and setting them to automatic... We slavishly buy better and better cameras and then wonder why our images don't improve.
Now, that doesn't apply to all of you. I'm sure that you (you know who I'm talking about) always use the lens two stops down at the ultimate aperture. I also know that you use the biggest Gitzo tripod on the market and then hedge your bets by locking up the mirror before shooting in order to squeeze the last millimeter of sharpness out of your images. And I'm equally certain that you---that one reader out of every hundred---carefully sets a perfect custom white balance every time you shoot since you know that color balance also effects exposure. And I'm certain that you never trip the shutter unless you have a wonderful image, worthy of sharing, in your sights. Right?
So, here we are. All the cameras have more megapixels than any of us ever get around to printing with. The color out of all the cameras is gorgeous (or can easily be made to be so...) and the noise in even the tiny sensor cameras is pretty good for most rational use. Why then the persistent interest in "the next camera?" Ahh... the elegant body design. Is that it? Insert laugh.
Wouldn't it be cool if we collectively decided that everything we have is already good enough for what we want it for and we all stopped buying cameras for a year? That might spur camera makers to: A. Lower their prices. B. Introduce useful features. C. Focus on lenses. Etc. But then it would put the burden on most of us to actually go outside and make interesting images.
I'm thinking of a T-shirt. It's got a slogan on the front. It says, "My camera is crappier than your camera." And on the back it says, "But I'm a better Photographer than you are." And we'll give them out to everyone who is able to make great image without having to rush out and buy the newest and greatest camera of the moment.
It is kind of wonderful to know that we've hit a bit of a plateau and that we really can relax a bit and enjoy the bounty for a while without feeling left behind. Once the equipment barriers fall down it really does help level the playing field. Maybe we'll see some real new talents rise up. Maybe we'll have time to learn how to use what we've got and how the menus work before we trade it in or sell it. That would be novel....
Reality: If you shoot at ISO 100, 200, 400 or even 800 just about any interchangeable camera on the market will do a really good job making images. If you make reasonably sized prints every camera with 16 megapixels or more will do the job well. If you don't shoot sports for a living all of the current camera models will focus quickly enough to make most of us happy.
There are outliers. There really are people who love to shoot sports. There really are people who want to shoot in super low light just to say they could. And there are people who want to carry around the latest big camera because it's generally cheaper than buying a really cool car and more portable too.
But I am not one of them and I'm pretty happy with what we've got now.