None of the images in this article have any clues as to the camera used, but I feel that they’re strong images nevertheless; if you’re curious you can click through to the image’s flickr hosting page and scroll down to the bottom right; EXIF data is there. Try to ask yourself first though: are there any giveaways that mean it could only have been shot with one particular format or piece of equipment?
This is the first article in a two-part series about photography today, with the ultimate objective – as always – of making a great image, but this time taking full advantage of all the technology at our disposal. After spending some time with medium format in a quest to get another one of those creative spurts brought on by a major change in equipment, I’ve pretty much made a complete U turn and am contemplating a Nikon P7700 instead. Allow me to explain; excuse the somewhat roundabout logic, but I think it will make sense once we reach the end.
We need to backtrack a bit to take into account some fundamental viewer psychology. In the increasingly huge sea of images that are being produced today, what stands out are those that look different from the rest. And for the most part, that difference is obtained by turning something up to 11, rather than nailing the fundamentals of what makes an outstanding image. Commonly seen ‘techniques’ include: oversaturation, HDR, fake cross-processing-hipstagram-effects, over-contrasty black and white conversions, ultrawide perspectives, supertele perspectives, walls of nothing but bokeh…I think you can see where this list is going. In short: if one aspect of the image has to shout to cover the deficiencies of the other portions, then this cannot be a good image in the first place because it fundamentally has those has deficiencies to begin with.
Yet the very reason why these types of images stand out will erode as there are more of them in circulation: they will no longer look different from the rest of the pack. This brings us back to a focus on the fundamental things that make an image work; I’ve said this so many times I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody decides to engrave it on my tombstone (or perhaps I should get a tattoo of it) – light, subject, composition; then, the idea. The idea can come first and override the other three if it’s strong enough, or it can be the underlying reason for their execution. Images with all four properties will endure time and transcend the medium: a strong image in this way will still be arresting whether it was shot with an iPhone or a medium format back.
In that case, why isn’t it the focus of every aspiring photographer to nail the fundamental structure of an image before worrying about the number of pixels or number of stops of dynamic range it has, or the maximum speed of their lens? Simply because it’s much more difficult to do so. On the other hand, photographic technology has some so far in recent times that there are few reasons why we should continue to bother with the technicalities of it all, so long as you know how to control the fundamental parameters that affect the audience’s perception of the image: in a way, it’s taking the Apple design approach to photography. We identify the fundamentals, throw away what isn’t important, and spend a lot more time focusing on what does matter. But at the same time, we avoid things that can be gimmicky or difficult to execute with the aim of providing the average photographer with a nice set of fundamental skills that will serve in the majority of situations.
Although I suspect most photographers already shoot this way – aim, focus, compose to varying degrees of precision and consideration, perhaps compensate exposure, then shoot – a lot of them hide behind the pretence of a lot of complex-looking settings and adjustments that are seldom used outside fully automatic mode, and more often than not just confuse and get in the way when an accidental button press delivers behaviour other than expected.
What I’m saying is that perhaps we should consider the possibility that for the vast majority of situations, it’s not a bad idea to acknowledge and embrace that. Why do I need to manually set my exposure if the camera’s meter can get it right? Why does it matter what white balance is or the exact Kelvin temperature of a scene if the camera’s automatic white balance can cope? Why do we need to pick the focus point if most of the time, the camera is right, and the rest of the time, extended depth of field covers the errors? Why spend time processing RAW files individually if the JPEGs are excellent, or even better?* Let technology do the work, and forget about all of those settings that don’t matter – don’t even bother including them. Why should there be an option for dynamic range 100%, 200% and 400% when clearly we want 400% for 99% of situations? We shouldn’t even need custom functions if the camera behaves in a sensible and consistent manner.
Since it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be approached by a camera maker and offered both a blank sheet of paper and some deep funds, we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got. And in the marketing-driven world of photographic products, we actually have to go to either extreme of the product spectrum to find what we’re looking for: a camera which has solid, reliable automatic functions, no frills, and the basics like exposure compensation and spot metering. It would be nice to have a range of perspectives easily to hand too, though for novices perhaps it’s safer to go with a fixed lens and forgo the temptation to compose with the zoom. Add a good sensor, speed and responsiveness into the mix, and we’re done. I used to be hung up about having an optical viewfinder for stability and visual nuance, but that’s changed with improvements in stabilisation systems, and even more so with increased LCD resolutions more accurately displaying focus at the sensor plane and the added flexibility to shoot from other vantages where the camera doesn’t have to be at your eye. Depth of field control is a nice to have, but not critical; it’s just another way to isolate your subject – but there are many ways of doing that, and it’s not the most pictorially powerful anyway. Too many people rely on extreme bokeh to make an image that looks different; we don’t need super-fast lenses for common applications anymore now that even small sensors are capable of delivering good results at ISO 1600**. Finally, being a pack mule for your equipment isn’t fun: the less we can get away with carrying, the better.
**In the early days of photography, photographers struggled to get more depth of field rather than less – perhaps it was a case of art imitating life (perception), art (photography) imitating art (painting). Yes, we have that additional tool, but don’t overuse it: there is such a thing as too little depth of field. Note that this is different from good/ bad quality of bokeh; another axis of variables, if you will.
What does this mean in real terms? If you add everything up, for the majority of photographers, we’re looking at a prosumer compact, possibly with a larger sensor, possibly not. These cameras are designed to be automated; the manual controls are just put in mostly to appease the marketers and obsessive photographers who like to twiddle their aperture dials, oblivious of the fact that with a 20mm real focal length, there will be no visible difference in depth of field at f5.6 or f8 with a subject that’s 30m away, or that no matter what focusing mode you use, it’ll still be too slow to track action. I am not saying that all photographers should abandon control; if anything, the opposite. I certainly won’t be replacing my full-frame DSLR and lenses with a compact for client-critical work anytime soon, if ever. What I’m saying is that for casual photography, we should focus on mastering control of the elements that matter, which conveniently are also those that can easily be taken care of even with the most basic of cameras. For most uses, those are limited to a few critical things: light (exposure compensation), composition (perspective, positioning, focus) and subject (timing). The rest are secondary or specialised.
Compacts have some big advantages that often get overlooked:
- They’re small and discrete, easily portable and don’t attract attention;
- They cover focusing errors through extended depth of field;
- They might have limited dynamic range compared to larger sensor cameras, but that can actually be helpful from a pictorial/ artistic point of view by emphasizing contrast and differences in light;
- You can carry a lot of perspectives in a small size, without too many optical compromises – 28-200 isn’t unheard of, and I believe there’s a Canon that even covers 24-1200m (!!);
- They focus close, once again allowing perspectives that might not otherwise be possible;
- Extended depth of field + unusual perspectives = compositions not easily achievable with a larger sensored camera, e.g. highly compressed images with everything in focus
- They’re very easily positionable; lenses can be poked through holes in fences or walls, held high or low etc. – especially the swivel screen models
- Sensor and stabilizer technology has come a long way. With the D800E, I might need ISO 6400 to shoot at f8, 35mm and get enough shutter speed to handhold without shake; even with VR. Let’s assume the stabilizer advantage evens out. I could shoot at 17mm and f4 on the OM-D and have the same perspective and DOF, but I’d be using ISO 1600 for the same shutter speed; on say the Panasonic LX7, I could be at a larger aperture than f2 (unfortunately there isn’t one at this focal length) and two stops better again, at ISO 400. We’re looking at some form of equivalence here: sure, the D800E image will have more detail, but that won’t really come through in typical print or display sizes for the majority of photographers***. Perceptually, they’d look pretty similar at a 12×18″/ A3 print; I’d much rather carry the LX7, thanks.
- AF speed has come a long way – for static subjects, we’ve pretty much got as much speed as we need. For moving ones, until we get phase detection sites onto our compact sensors, they’re all equally useless and you’re going to have to find a DSLR.
- Buffer and usability isn’t really an issue anymore; it hasn’t been for compacts since about 2009. My Sony RX100 will shoot 20MP, 14-bit RAW + JPEG fine images at 10fps for 10 frames.
- Price: even the best of the compacts will cost significantly less than a midrange DSLR or mirrorless camera and a decent zoom. Again taking the example of the Sony RX100 – we’re looking at about US$700 +/-, which compares very favorably to even a Nikon D3200 and AFS 16-85/3.5-5.6 VR at approximately US$1,200 – and that doesn’t even come close to the Sony’s f1.8 wide end. And if you get bored of it, it’s not going to cost too much to trade it in for the latest and greatest. (New cameras can be a source of inspiration in themselves, but that’s another topic for another article.)
You’ll note that I’ve excluded Micro Four Thirds and the other CSCs from this list, mainly because there are compact and good all-in-one lens solutions that make the cameras pocketable. If you don’t mind a bit more bulk and a prime lens, then these are great options too – for not much more size, you get a lot more image quality. But there’s no way you’re going to put even an E-PM2 and the smallest 14/2.5 prime lens into your pocket without risking arrest on public decency laws.
Let’s boil this down a bit further: what do we really need in a compact?
- Responsiveness: everything from AF speed to menu operation and navigability, shot-to-shot speed, image review etc. Speed is the priority;
- Fast AF. I can’t emphasize this one enough;
- A fast lens: it’s much easier to make fast, decent zooms that cover a smaller image circle than a larger one; f2 or better on the wide end, and ideally something fairly close on the long end (though that will tend to be compromised as the lens’ reach increases);
- A decent range of perspectives: wide/moderate wide to moderate telephoto; enough to get a clear difference in perspective. Personally, 28-85 is fine for me, though I don’t have any complaints about a bit wider or a bit longer; compact sensors tend to be 4:3 rather than 3:2, and since the focal length posted follows the diagonal of the sensor, you’re going to need a bit more width to get the same horizontal field of view;
- A good LCD. Forget the optical finder, it’s going to be a tiny tunnel. I’d rather have a nice, bright, sharp 3″+ LCD. Bonus points for something with an antireflective coating that’s also visible in daylight, and a tilt/ swivel screen;
- RAW support, or outstanding JPEGs;
- A good image stabilisation system;
- Easily accessed exposure compensation, preferably on a separate dial;
- A sensible auto-ISO mode, ideally allowing setting of minimum shutter speed, if not linked to the focal length used;
- A solid meter, or spot metering, or preferably both;
- Fast image review, with a quick way to check critical focus;
- Finally, tactility matters. Something that feels nice to use will simply be used more often; it’s in the quality of the materials, the feel of the controls/ switches/ buttons/ knobs/ dials; the grippiness of the rubber; the solidity of the build.
In part two, we’ll consider the current candidates and field a bit of a compact camera masterclass.
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