I’ve gotten a number of emails recently asking for me to define the meaning of ‘shooting envelope’ – it’s a term which I use quite a lot in my articles and reviews, and it appears I’ve been rather remiss in explaining exactly what I mean by it. We’ll remedy that today, and explain why it matters.
Every camera/ lens/ system has a range of conditions under which it will work optimally and be able to deliver the best image quality it can. This is its ‘shooting envelope’. It isn’t just the amount of available light, but also takes into consideration other factors such as ease of use, stability, and even to some extent, subject matter. The wider the shooting envelope of a camera, the more versatile it is; however, the tradeoff is almost always that cameras with a very wide shooting envelope in one direction are severely limited in others.
Here are the nine main factors that affect shooting envelope, all under typical deployment (i.e. if we’re considering large format, we’d consider low light ability on a tripod since that’s how you’d normally use it anyway):
This takes into account both the sensor’s total pixel count (or equivalent pixel count in terms of film) as well as the optics available for that system. It should also take into account acuity – a D800E will score higher than a D800, and Sigma DP Merrill will score higher than a Bayer sensor of the same pixel count.
Body weight is meaningless – you have to take into account the whole system under typical deployment scenarios – this means that even though the camera itself might not be that heavy, if it requires lenses that are, or a tripod, then the score goes down considerably. You’d have to include a suitable tripod for a large format camera, for instance. I think you can basically divide cameras up into a few categories – trouser pocketable, jacket pocketable/ belt pouch, sling over your shoulder, needs a bag, needs a sherpa.
Low light ability
This metric is more than just the raw high ISO noise score – you also need to consider built in stabilisers, maximum aperture of available lenses (and the ease of focusing those lenses in low light) etc. On that basis, an E-M1 will score much higher than say a GM1 even though their sensors have very similar noise characteristics; the stabiliser claws back quite a bit of image quality by enabling you to use a lower ISO – though because it cannot freeze subject motion, even though it may buy you several stops back compared to a D4, it still won’t score as highly.
Self explanatory, really. More is better.
Beyond ease of use, how enjoyable is it to use? Do you want to shoot with it? There’s no qualitative way to measure this of course, but I still think it’s important to consider. I personally find myself far more inclined to experiment with cameras that are fun to use.
What lenses, accessories, flashes etc. are available? Is there a system at all? For cameras with fixed lenses, you could consider the range of the lens (both max. aperture and zoom range) in addition to any other converters.
A combination of mass and low light ability – a large format camera on a tripod will be very stable, but not so good in the dark not just because exposures will be long, but you’ll have a lot of difficulty actually composing and focusing on the ground glass…
Consider focus acquisition and tracking, menu navigation, settings changes, time from storage to shot etc. Cameras that operate quickly may actually be slow to get the first shot – the GM1 is a good example; it’s responsive in use, but because of its size, you have to de-pocket it (which means storing it with lens cap on) – remove the lens cap, extend the lens, power switch on. As opposed to a D4 around your neck which would be flip power switch, raise to eye. Or a mechanical film camera that’s always ready to go and always set – just focus it (or don’t even do that, for hyper focal shooting).
How much abuse can it take? Can it stand a bit of water? The more the merrier, of course…
And perhaps a better way to visualise this is on a radar chart I’ve created that actually shows (subjectively, at any rate) the shooting envelope for several cameras based on the list above. Wider coverage means a larger shooting envelope. Depending on which you prioritise, having this chart in your mind helps you select the optimum tool for the job depending on your priorities – getting caught with the wrong tool and knowing that you had the right one at home can often be more frustrating than not bringing anything at all! One twist to consider is that scores may change considerably depending on how you deploy the cameras: a Hasselblad with film or digital back are very different, for instance. Or a D800E shot with the intention of maximising resolution as opposed to for web use and heavy downsizing.
Let’s take a look at the charts again. I’ve split them up into low and high resolution cameras because too many coloured lines just becomes confusing:
Here, it’s pretty clear that you trade portability for ergonomics, system completeness, low light ability etc.: bigger is clearly better.
For high resolution cameras, it’s not so clear cut: each camera has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. It also shows just how versatile the D800E is. You’re probably aware of most of these already at a subconscious level, just as people have aesthetic preferences: however, evaluating things objectively is of course another thing entirely.
Beyond that, understanding your camera’s shooting envelope is important because it roughly defines the boundaries of what you can do; there’s no point in trying to make it do something it can’t – or if you’re masochistic, you can find situations in which to deliberately challenge yourself…MT
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