Rumours of a Full-Frame NEX camera to come recently triggered jolly flame wars with (uneducated) comments successively denouncing the technical impossibility of the task and, more interestingly, how pointless the whole endeavour is.
Now that comes as no surprise. The photo world is dotted with interest niches and, as self-centeredness often overrides intellect, fanboy antics inevitably follow big announcements.
Trying to convince the adverse camp you’re right being totally meaningless, let me jump right in with the most consensual arguments that come to mind 😉
By Universal Law, there 3 reasons for wanting bigger sensors :
Having publicly made a fool of myself, let me now defend my honour.
Ever heard of Goldilocks ? The lass would fall for the Sony NEX-7. Not the 5n or the mighty Nikon D4.
Huge & heavy camera are nuisance and the only sane people who use them need their specialty features to bring food home. And having ranted for years against the bulky DSLR, getting my hands on the Sony NEX-5N was a revelation.
But that may be a just tad too far in the other direction. Even my current Olympus OM-D [rest-of-the-stupidly-long-name-omitted] is a bit too small for comfort. Some controls are too cramped for some hands, including my own average-build sample pair.
Bigger means more room for wheels and dedicated buttons. If Leica designers didn’t have an obsession for suppositories, they’d have it nailed just about perfect.
The race for smaller cameras has given us smaller sensors. But we don’t need smaller cameras! Seriously, if you need something truly pocketable, get a smartphone. Their cameras are ample enough for the family shot and for recording scenes. Instagram and other apps let you add fun filters and you can share the newly born instantly with 900 millions others on Facebook. 99.9% of pocket cameras are lousy. My 12 year-old daughter has outgrown hers, feeling frustrated be the constant limitations in focus and exposure.
For small, get a smartphone. If you need something that lets you make your photographic decisions for yourself, ergonomics will matter wayyy more than absolute tinyness.
So let’s have bigger sensors so manufacturers give us bigger cameras 😉
Yeah, I know this reasoning is so 2009. More pixels, right. I was one of the “no-more” protesters.
But what we got instead of the pixel race is even more preposterous. The vast majority of the best pictures in history were created below ISO100, yet most cameras today won’t even let you use such a low setting. That is so $*#@OM-D EM-5&£$ irritating!
Marketing departments have managed to convince us that we absolutely need low-noise images at 12800ISO and dependable 50000ISO, so camera quality is now judged by photographing bats in caves without a tripod. Well, bats stink, what an obnoxious idea.
If you absolutely need to be making handheld pictures in a very dark place, why not consider an f/2 prime instead of that f/5.6 megazoom and – even better – internal stabilisation. The one in the Olympus [I forgot the middle part] E-M5 is fantastic. It adds 3 stops to your range plus it stabilises live-view with long lenses.
So instead of the utterly nonsensical ISO200-25600 range, could we please have ISO25-3200 ? Please ? I mean so that 1/4 second exposures in mid afternoon doesn’t require space-age filter technology ? It doesn’t seem to occur to those marketing and engineering departments that some people actually *want* to make long exposures. If that’s wrong, let’s just ban people like Michael Kenna from the Internet, shall we 😉
Good. Now that we’ve established that all beyond-ISO1600-nonsense is bad for your Karma, let’s see why a big sensor is better !
Depth of field ? Nope. The above pic was made with my lovely Olympus OM-D EM-5 (yay, made it !) and its humiliatingly small chip. Shallow depths of field are indeed easier with larger sensors, but for me the main reason is the lower enlargement required for equivalent-size prints.
Conventional wisdom suggests that DPI is responsible for print quality, but if you examine well made gallery exhibits made with a 5Mpix Nikon D1x and compare that to your latest pocket 20Mpix effort, you’ll soon dump conventional wisdom right down the chute. Bigger pixels are better pixels (all else being equal), end of story.
Take the two photographs below :
The first was made with the Sony NEX-5n and its fantastic sensor. But it’s heavily processed (from RAW) and no amount of digital massaging will allow me to print it more than 12 inches wide with really good quality.
The second predates it a fair bit and used an equally lovely Fujica folding 645 camera. By the time my APS view of Hong-Kong is blown to 12 inches (13x enlargement), the arboretum covers 30. Small may be beautiful but big is beautifuller 😉
So, if the asinine hunt for High-ISO is not the way to go,why would high pixel count fare any better?
Ken Rockwell recommends you FART before you shoot (his exact words : “I take my best pictures when I FART first.”). May I humbly suggest you consider a crop as well ?
The man about to be crowned best photographer of all time was a strong advocate of cropping. The best format should not be dictated by technological considerations but purely artistic reasoning. The best crop is the one that makes the picture the strongest and best fits you vision.
In the first picture of this post, for example, any extra information would have broken the abstract design and provided unwanted context revealing this is an English church, not an Atlantean palace !
There’s no way around it : Just like Guiness, croppin’ is good for you! Ponder.
Another argument in favour of cropping is this : get rid of heavy telephotos. A 3x crop on a 36Mp Full-Frame NEX-to-be using a 180/3.4mm Leica-R lens will produce a 4Mpx image of stunning quality (probably enough for a 12-16 inch print, if you don’t go wild on processing). Equivalent focal length : 540mm. Money saved : a lot. Back-ache saved : even more. Pictures saved : countless, because that 500m f/3.4 would not follow you up a mountain, if it even existed.
The third use is even more fun ! Face a tall building with a wide lens. Hold it horizontal so that the street is lined up with the middle of the frame and the top of the building is lined up with the top (if not, walk ;)) That bottom half of the frame is littered with rusty cars, passers-by and 9-year-olds doing graffiti. But that’s all right because we can … yes … crop it. And voilà, that kit lens just gained Shift-lens status. For free, curtesy of the many many pixels that let you dump half of them with no quality cost … Isn’t life wonderful?
Oh, and number 4 is so trendy. Imagine this. You’re this great photographer in that cave. And there’s that bat you absolutely need to photograph while the black cat is pouncing on it. You desperately need to freeze the action because your editor won’t have it otherwise and you’re so good you don’t use flashes or tripods. Well here’s where those 40Mpix come in handy. Bin them. Bin them 3×3 for extra low noise and transform your ISO3200 into high-quality ISO25600. Isn’t that wonderful?
I tried this below. It looks great doesn’t it ? Absolutely no noise in the blacks ! 😉
But too many pixels mean small pixel. Unless that is, you have a large sensor.
Storage size, you say? Shoot fewer photographs. Make every picture count!
Phew, that was close. But let me take this a step further …
My Gran, best Gran in the world, once handed me a small gardening book entitled “A gentle plea for chaos” that changed my gardening life for the better and forever. The little pamphlet brilliantly captivates you through wonderful storytelling and suggests you let nature reclaim some if its rights in your garden and invite more freedom into your gardener’s life. No other book has had the same impact on me (in my gardening life, that is. Let’s not forget St Ansel’s The Print ;))
Well, with far less talent but no less enthusiasm, I would like to request that camera manufacturers breathe a little more freedom into our photographers’ lives as well.
Here we are in 2012 with camera technology defying all we’ve ever known in the past but stuck with a sensor format that predates World War I. At the time, the introduction of a small film area made possible by darkroom enlargement equipment was essential to mass market cameras.
Today, what is the rationale, I wonder with some frustration …
The only reasons are apathy and fear of change. Understandable but very silly. Four-Thirds and now Micro-Four-Thirds systems deliberately abandoned the format in favour of the far superior 4:3. And they seem to be doing well enough.
Why do I care? Certainly not because of the format’s age, but because it’s plain horrible in most cases. Not wide enough for a true horizontal sweep as in panoramas but too slit-like for many scenes. Worst of both worlds? Just take a walk in picture galleries and examine the paintings and photographs. Except for Magnum photographers, how many do you see in 3:2 format? Not that many. One of the reasons for clinging to my Olympus OM-D is that the 4×3 aspect ratio is soooo much more pleasing to use.
But that’s just my very personal opinion. However, with a 4:3 format, you lose very little if you crop for a 3:2 format or for a more square-ish format. When you start with Oskar’s elongated 3:2, you lose far more (and need to crop far more often). I know I know, cropping was a great thing just a few lines before. But HAVING to crop and having the OPPORTUNITY of near lossless cropping are two very different concepts 😉
And even better is the square format. It’s doubtful any mainstream camera maker will dare go that way, but think about it : no horizontal/vertical means simpler ergonomics (and boundless joy for tripod users) and a square lets you crop to any other format (why not use electronic frames on the fly?). And it’s not like the risk would be that big of people disliking the result, either. The square format used to repel a few photographers who found it difficult to compose with but, today, 50-100 MILLION Instagram users seem to enjoy it no end! Where’s the risk, then? Auto-stitch for panoramas and here’s your universal tool.
So here’s where we stand: we’ve established that full-frame 50Mpix sensors with low ISO range and in-camera stabilisation are a cure to poverty and famine and essential to a good FART, shift and crop. And that the square format rules and is THE way to go.
Being tolerant by nature, I’ll settle for a 4:3 close second best. But please forget about the ugly duckling that will never grow into a beautiful swan 3:2 format and please torture anyone suggesting higher ISOs than 3200.
Bring back the big fat pixels and the smooth joy of ISO25.
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