Monday, March 3, 2014

All the cameras are better than you are...

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.

33 comments:

Ash Crill said...

"we all stopped buying cameras for a year?"

Deal, but only after my next camera purchase. Just one more....

Wolfgang Lonien said...

A wonderful peace on gear, Kirk. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Well said! Cameras are now computers with lenses. What differentiates them is ease of use, not necessarily imaging quality, as I personally have experienced.

Brad Burnham said...

Well said.
I'd like one if those shirts.

Racecar said...

Sounds as if you've arrived at an epiphany. When I look at some of the 4X5 slides from yesteryear, it occurs to me that the current crop of sensors are capable of producing similar results. Have a look at some slides from the early forties:

http://extras.denverpost.com/archive/captured.asp
See what I mean?

Richard Leacock said...

Count me and another half dozen fellow photogs in as well. Are they going to be available in 18% grey, 3 stop under exposed charcoal and also a colour in the spirit of the Pentax 01 in their Lego Yellow? Maybe also some great looking ball caps with "VSL" on the front and "Pixel This" on the back! : )

nigelrobinson said...

Hi Kirk, can the T shirt also have one of those zone system strips somewhere?

Max De Martino said...

I completely agree.

Wally Brooks said...
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Wally Brooks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wally Brooks said...

I traded my 4x5 view camera for a sigma Merrell dp2 and kept it on the tripod, set it up for a 2 second delay to steady the leaf shutter, and was shooting it at ISO 100. It sucks above ISO 400 yet I shot my film at ISO 300 so in terms of what I traditionally shoot I am in the same spot. I still have to work in post on color, sharpening, image look and feel. I don't miss the smell of fixer and still print big really big. Vision is a craft that needs honing and lots of work.

theaterculture said...

But but but...it's so much easier to console myself with the thought that I'd be a "pro photographer" if only I could afford a constant drip of $5000 cameras that "meet client expectations" than it is to admit that I haven't got the business skills or self-motivation to do it no matter what camera I own/how good my photos of my cat/nephew playing football/neighbors car are!

Anonymous said...

I'm an older guy snapshooter that drinks coffee. I bought my first digital camera last year (e-m5) bucause I got tired of standing on the sidelines of digital and the Olympus camera just hit all the right buttons for me. the IBIS really helps and I decided that 16 MP was enough for me. I bought the E-M5 because it was small, light, IBIS, and much better tool than I am as a photographer. I remember film cameras and the Canon, Nikon digital cameras in general are giants compared to 35mm film cameras of the past.

Your really spot on about high iso, the next best camera quest, huge boxy digital cameras, print sizes, and so on.

I have yet to make a fine art print or a large print.

Michael R

Anonymous said...

Great article!

Digital is amazing, and the transition from CCD to CMOS sensors has indeed given us ridiculous high ISO capabilities (in addition to extreme dynamic range). That is tremendously useful when shooting in lousy light.

But unless you are shooting sports in a poorly lit gym (where the see in the dark ISO and the ultra-high-speed AF really count), or making deep crops of shots of little brown birds in flight, just about any camera today will do.

Canikon relies on a number war arms race. Used to be MP counts, but now its ISO since people figured out that 50MB files are not only unnecessary, they are no fun to process. Soon I suppose it will be video frame rates (look for LOTS of ultra-extreme slo-mo videos to be the "next big thing" in the coming years).

As for really big enlargements, the dirty little secret is you do not need huge MP counts to get great prints. I'm fortunate to have a 24" HP Designjet photo printer, and my walls have LOTS of huge prints taken with my old 6MP D70. They look great. If you want to take a loop to them, you'll see the pixels. But who does that?

For my serious shoots, I use a 30 year old medium format Mamiya and film. Despite all the advances in digital and post processing film (my preference is Kodak Porta 160) just looks better to me.

Dwight Parker said...

Loved looking at these....thanks for the link....

Robert Roaldi said...

We don't need to hunt for food or fight each other for access to women, and we have all the shelter we need and more. The only thing left is shopping.

Mark Davidson said...

How true. When I got my Canon 10D I was stunned by the quality at 40x60. But I will admit to believing that just a few more MP will make my stuff better.
Today I am bringing my Panasonic GX-7 on my commercial shoots and shooting side by side with my 5DmkIIIs and the main difference is that no one hears the Panasonic and the images are tack sharp always. Shallow DOF in event photography with slow shutter speeds will sharply drop your keeper rate.

Anonymous said...

Kirk,
You have it right.
It's never been about the camera. It's always been about content. Nicely done.
Shane Tyler Adams
(Not sure about the rules around here but if you stick a dot-com after my name you get to me.)
Oh yeah. Almost forgot. Austin is a great town. STA

Alf said...

Fully agreed: I know that the limiting factor is not my gear: it is me.

Anonymous said...

In my early days of digital, the camera was the limiting factor. No way to sync an external flash, 1.3 megapixels, no RAW, no Manual exposure, Guesstimation manual focus.
As digital cameras slowly advanced, it put me and all other photographers in a mind sync of waiting for the next advancement and grabbing it to be competitive.
We forgot how to stop consuming and be satisfied with our cameras and pay more attention to our technique.

Somewhere is a blurry line in the sand that marks the point when cameras became good enough for decent prints, and we never noticed that we crossed it already.

Anonymous said...

Where do I buy the t-shirt?

Jr. Miller said...

Excellent post...

Anonymous said...

My go-to camera right now is my iPhone. I've got a Lomo LC-A+ with Ektar 100 for special occasions. Sold off all the expensive ILC systems. The right light, good composition, a little creativity and be there. That's all one needs!

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly re resolution, ISO capability, low noise etc. My humble D5100 has capability way beyond my ability or patience to use it properly. However, there are always other features that tempt me to upgrade such as larger and higher resolution LCDs, tilt-swivel LCDs and more focus points.

My current M43 cameras are useless for aircraft in flight and birds in flight (the Nikon copes quite well) and I am not upgrading them or dumping the Nikon until I am convinced that autofocus in those cameras has improved substantially.

John F. Opie said...

Reverse the logic of the T-shirt: "I'm a better photographer than you are" + "But my camera is crappier than yours"...or on the front "My camera is crappier than yours" + "But it makes no difference: I'm the limiting factor". :-)

Otherwise: bingo. Oh, I'll be upgrading to a new body (EM1, most likely) to use my legacy glass and the smattering of 4/3 and m4/3 lenses that I've acquired over the last few years. But it's all about the glass. When I see friends spend $$$ on FF bodies but stick with a god-awful kit lens, spending hours in post fixing problems, I just shake my head, put a battered Nikon 85 f2 lens on my EPM1 (or EPL1 or EPL2, all acquired when they were discontinued) with the VF2, shoot using IS1 and S, and come back with images that don't need hardly any post...

Richard Leacock said...

LOL…Is that all that's left?! Shopping, the current hunter gatherer skill set…LOL

Wes said...

Kirk, maybe do a T-Shirt with the converse. "My Camera Is Better Than Yours" , and on the reverse,"But I'm A Crappier Photographer".

Anonymous said...

Anyone who ever shot transparency or reversal film for a living quickly learned to obey the numbers and smooth their technique. Nothing like waiting for a few rolls of film to be processed only to find out that mistake(s) were made.

That said, for me, technically (as opposed to esthetically), the quality of the image is dependent first on the skill of the photog, and second on the quality of the glass used. Sensors and film? Meh.

Jacques Cornell said...

Excellent article. Been coming to the same conclusions over the past year. I realized that more pixels made little difference without prime glass and perfect technique when the 1Ds Mark III came out and I couldn't see any difference in handheld studio shots from the Mark II. I later bought the Mark III anyway for other improvements, but now it's up for sale and I've already replaced it with a GX7. It's clear as day that unless I'm going to be making prints larger than 24"x30", 16 megapixels is all I need. With fast glass, ISO 1600 is all I need. All the extra pixels of FF help little when an ultra wide zoom is soft at the edges. And, ISO 6400 noise disappears when my clients resize for the web. And, EVF, Touchpad AF, and electronic shutter represent substantial advances for my working method.

Anonymous said...

Since Olympus abandoned us 4/3 users I will be shooting my E5 for many years to come unless there is some kind of revolution in imaging technology that I just have to have.................now back to shooting my old incapable high noise 4/3 E5 and loving it.

L. James Lynch said...

Now I know Im NOT crazy.. Someone else feels the same as I do...
When I bought my latest camera (Olympus EPM2) I thought "This is just to hold me, 'till they release the replacement for the EM5"...

Wrongo' buckwheat... That tiny camera EPM2 can out shoot me to a "fair thee well".

Up to and including ISO 1600 its product looks pretty damn good (as I found out one day when I said "what the hell, lets try Auto ISO").

I wont replace this little gem until it wears out!

Same sensor as the EM5 and apparently the same engine.

I dont need to worry what customers will think, as I have retired from shooting events.

thequietphotographer said...

Great Post. I agree 100%.
Now, when these T shirts will be available ? :-)
robert

Peter said...

I believe every camera has different characteristics that a user will like. No matter how cheap or expensive it is, if it fits the needs of the user, then it will always be as precious as gold.