Professional photography with compact cameras

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Regent Square architecture, London. Ricoh GR-Digital III

The title of this article isn’t a contradiction: I did really just suggest shooting for clients, for money, with a compact camera. I’m not talking about compact system cameras or ILCs like Micro Four Thirds; those have recently come of age and are very, very competent indeed – in fact, for most purposes, they produce indistinguishable final results (think print, or web, rather than pixel-peeping at 400% on a perfectly calibrated monitor) from larger cameras if used within their limits.

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GuB Marine Chronometer. Ricoh GR-Digital III

The reality is that while the big guns have been steadily improving, and have almost all surpassed the image quality level any professional photographer may require, there have been steady improvements in compact cameras (fixed lens, small sensor) too. It’s often not clear which arm of sensor development leads which: the desire for lower noise and improved photosite efficiency has undoubtedly helped improve dynamic range and noise properties of larger sensors. And vice versa, development of CMOS technology for larger sensors is slowly finding its way into point and shoots.

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Gas Malaysia. Ricoh GR-Digital III

What does this mean? In the real world, my clients almost never have final uses for the images that require more than 12MP when properly shot and composed (i.e. not heavily cropped). We can delude ourselves into thinking more is better – all else equal, it usually is – but most of the time, it makes no difference. Even if you’re doing a billboard, you don’t need medium format – I’ve done a couple with the mere 4MP Nikon D2H – simply because the individual pixels are about the size of golf balls, but nobody notices because you never get any closer than 20 meters.

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Selfridges, London. Ricoh GR-Digital III

I recently shot some wildlife images for the local Malaysian launch for the Leica V-LUX 3 (a full review is here on the official Leica Blog). The spec is ambitious: a fixed 24-600mm lens,12MP, and full resolution images to ISO 3200. Did I mention the sensor was just 1/2.33” in size? It doesn’t get much smaller in the compact realm; there’s 1/2.5”, 1/3”, and then you’re into cellphone sensors.

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Scarlet Ibis. Leica V-Lux 3

In any case, the images were printed to at least 20×30”, and in some cases, larger. I even used ISO 400 (base of 100) and very dodgy shutter speeds for some of them. Was the color odd? Did they look grainy and horrible? Not one single bit, even with your nose pressed up to the print. I shot raw and did zero noise reduction – zero. Would they pass for fine art, let alone commercial use? Absolutely. In fact, the results were on par with the Nikon D200 and it’s APSC sensor that I used for the same kind of thing about five or so years ago.

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Leica Visoflex III on M9-P. Leica V-Lux 3

I did some other testing with that camera, too: studio product work with flash. Here, the result was even more difficult to distinguish from a larger sensor camera – at base ISO, controlled lighting and optimal apertures, everything looks superb even to the pixel level. In fact, possibly better, because to achieve the same depth of field in the final image, I’d have to stop down so far on a full frame camera that I’d be incurring a softness penalty due to diffraction.

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Tulip staircase, Queen’s House, Greenwich. Ricoh GR-Digital III

So what about putting my money where my mouth is? I have already. There are photos I submitted to Getty Images – which were shot with an iPhone 4 (5MP) – and accepted. I swear the file quality is fine for A3+ prints, so long as you’re shooting at base ISO and watch exposure carefully – I’ve tried. I recently shot another job (to be the subject of a future On Assignment article) with another compact – the Leica D-LUX 5. Yes, it has a slightly larger sensor, and I was using LED light panels, but the result was successful: the client (and I) would not have been any happier had I used a larger camera.

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KL Drift. Ricoh GR-Digital III

We all know Alex Majoli made his name shooting with compacts – famously half a dozen Olympuses C5060s – because of their silence, unobtrusiveness and low replacement cost, especially important in combat or hostile environments. (I’m told he uses an M9-P now, though.)

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Welders; Hommage a Majoli. Ricoh GR-Digital I

I should probably talk a bit about the situations in which a compact would be more useful than a larger DSLR or even ILC:

1. When size or weight is a priority. I haven’t done it (and probably never will) – but I wouldn’t want to climb Everest with a Nikon D4 and suitable lenses. There’s plenty of light, so I’d probably go with one of the more robust compacts.

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Shipyard inspection. Ricoh GR-Digital I

2. When you don’t want to stand out. Sensitive or covert photojournalism/ documentary photography immediately springs to mind. Nobody is going to pay you a second thought or glance if you’re ‘just shooting with your cellphone’ – everybody else is doing it, so you just blend in. Compacts are pretty much socially acceptable and transparent in most situations; if you’re not 100% sure of that, adopt the shooting pose of a complete photographic ignoramus and you’ll soon see what I mean.

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Nepalis protesting in London. Ricoh GR-Digital III

3. When there’s a lot of light. This sounds stupid: it’s not, because you’re going to have a to stop down a DSLR in the tropics if you’re shooting in bright sunlight; I’ve hit the 1/8000s limit even at f4 or f5.6 and base ISO before – especially with anything even slightly reflective, like water or glass. Short of using a grad ND so you can open up the aperture a bit more, you’re going to land up having to stop down anyway. And guess what: compositionally, there’s no longer any difference between the images cameras of a different sensor size produce. (Dynamic range is something else entirely).

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Tea time. Ricoh GR-Digital III

4. When you need extended depth of field. There are compositions that only work with compact cameras precisely because everything is in focus – something which may be optically impossible with an SLR, especially if you need a telephoto perspective. You’re probably wondering why I don’t use one for macrophotography: simple, nobody makes something that delivers the right perspective, and since you can’t change lenses, there’s not a lot I can do to rectify that. Secondary optics and adaptors are an option, but then you’re going to be getting compromised image quality because you’re adding components to an optical system that’s optimized for something else.

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Trees. Ricoh GR-Digital III

5. When you want a different look. There are times when the harsher, higher contrast look that’s a property of smaller photosite sensors (specifically: lower dynamic range, because the electron wells are physically smaller and can’t collect as many photons before reaching full charge capacity and overflowing – i.e. blowing out or saturating). If you’re shooting in bright daylight, this could look like exposing for the shadows and completely losing the highlights to white; or exposing for the highlights and leaving the shadows dark (or even black). The latter produces some very arresting black and white work, actually. Or if you’re totally masochistic, perhaps you like the look of massive chroma and luminance noise.

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Croissants a Poilane. Canon SD780 IS

The one final piece of advice I suggest is that you talk to your clients beforehand to make sure they’re okay with you using a small camera: very often, it’s about perception rather than reality; your client may not be aware that you can deliver the same image quality or unique images through your choice of equipment – it may negatively affect your reputation. Most importantly, make sure you have enough practice and confidence that you can actually deliver what you claim with your compact – don’t experiment on paid work, unless it’s B-roll. And as ever, always carry a backup. MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Why only rich grd’s? I personnaly use LX3 ou GRD IV for street photography, but it comes the time when I need really quality images like for landscapes, I use a Canon 6D. That said, what’s worth the most is the eye

  2. Ravindra Kathale says:

    Dear Ming,
    I came to know you through your articles in The Daily Post Photography 101. I liked that book and your articles very much. I am a purely amateur photographer and own an Olympus SZ 10. I am overall satisfied with its performance. I am fascinated by faces and my camera gives me great results. But as you said in this article, which is really great, the depth of field is the issue, in the sense, getting the background blurred so that the object gains prominence is difficult. Also, it does not have the facility to shoot in black and white, and black and white is something I love. Any tips on how I can get better results with the help of this camera?
    Sincerely yours,
    Ravindra Kathale

  3. Thank you for this informative article. I am a believer now! 🙂 Convinced of buying a XF1 … a bit too much of lugging around my 30D with 30/1/4 while chasing around my 2.5 yrs old toddler 😀

  4. jlmphotography says:

    As I mentioned in another post I shoot stock not only with my dSLR’s but with my Panasonic Lumix LX5 — identical to the Leica except for $400 US less… LOL I absolutely love that little camera. I don’t know what I would do without it. Regardless of where I go, and what equipment I take, the LX5 is either on my person, or in my spouse’s purse. Always ready for action.

  5. Officially hate you 🙂

  6. I am wondering how the heck you got guetty to accept a phone shot? You already passed the requirements with a regular “accepted cameras” then you submitted the phone shot?

  7. Just something to note: when you say “In fact, [image quality is] possibly better, because to achieve the same depth of field in the final image, I’d have to stop down so far on a full frame camera that I’d be incurring a softness penalty due to diffraction,” that’s not exactly true. A smaller image sensor lets you use a shorter focal length and therefore more depth of field for a given aperture- that’s true. On the other hand, because you are cramming more pixels into a given space, your sensor is more sensitive to diffraction. If you take a look at this calculator: you’ll see that at equivalent resolutions, a compact camera with a 1/2″ sensor will be diffraction limited at f/5.6 where a 1.5x crop DSLR or EVIL will be be diffraction limited at f/16. It turns out that everything neatly cancels out except for the electrical properties of the sensor which means at a given resolution and sensor technology, a larger sensor camera is always better.

    Of course, the advantage of compact cameras is that they are compact. And these images definitely prove that they can still produce amazing results. Great article!

    • That’s true, but in the real world most compacts have smaller sensors than 1/2″; the ones I’d consider using are 1/1.7″ and 10-12MP. Comparing this to full frame sensor like the D800E, and you’ll run into diffraction as low as f11 – and that’s nowhere near enough DOF at your typical 60-100mm macro focal lengths. Given that most compacts are stuck at a real 5-6mm focal length, even f4 gets you plenty of DOF. But as you say – it’s not exactly a straightforward comparison because of the number of variables involved. And yes, they’re compact 🙂 I’m trying to see if there’s a middle ground somewhere with M4/3…

  8. thethirdcoast says:

    Outstandingly thought out article and supporting shots.



  10. Great blog…very informative. I’m thinking of getting a compact or something smaller than DSLR. Any recommedations? Have you tried the GDR IV? Thanks.

    • Thanks! Try the Olympus Pen Mini. I’ve got a GRDIII and love it; the GRDIV is supposedly a bit better though. However, the Pen Mini does give you much better image quality and not much extra size – especially with the 14/2.5 pancake.

  11. Andreas Weber says:

    > You’re probably wondering why I don’t use one for macrophotography: simple, nobody makes something that delivers the right perspective, …

    I’m actually wondering about that statement 😉 While compacts usually default to their shortest focal length, even in macro mode, nobody forces you to use that (and the corresponding ridiculous working distance). My Ricoh CX3 will give a minimum field of view at its longest focal length and shortest focussing distance that’s equivalent to 1:1 on a full frame camera – with > 20 cm space between lens and object. Between 28 mm-e and 50 mm-e it can focus on the dust on it’s front lens, but magnification at the longer focal lengths (with useful working distance) isn’t that bad… Smallest useful field of view is about 20 mm wide, at 85 mm-e focal length, with about 20 mm working distance.

    • I actually used to have a CX3 for two specific reasons: the telephoto MFD in macro mode, and the long zoom. However, the image quality wasn’t great so I didn’t keep it.

  12. parameteres says:

    Ming, your shots for Leica V-Lux 3 are amazing! and yes it’s all down to the photographer skills and technique. i owned the GRD3 but didn’t have much success with it. (sort of glad it was stolen on my trip – i’ve seen so much good photos from GRD3)

    • Thank you! The lens on the V Lux 3 is pretty spectacular. We printed some of these up to 30×40″ for the launch gallery here – note some were shot at ISO 400 – and I was quite surprised by how good the prints were. If you’d told me they came out of a DSLR I wouldn’t have questioned it.

      As for the GRD series…I find they are cameras that take some getting used to. The first one I had – GRD I – I bought because I loved the feel of the thing, but I just couldn’t get used to 28mm or the noise. In the end I didn’t land up using it much, and sold it fairly soon after I got it. But for whatever masochistic reason, I bought GRDII and GRDIII too, and the GRDIII remains my favorite compact camera ever. Until they release a large sensor version of the GRD, I suppose.

  13. Robert Stark says:

    I very much appreciate and understand your comment ” Even if you’re doing a billboard, you don’t need medium format – I’ve done a couple with the mere 4MP Nikon D2H – simply because the individual pixels are about the size of golf balls, but nobody notices because you never get any closer than 20 meters.”

    This holds true, I think, even for photographs in an art gallery or museum. It seems very well accepted that the larger the print size, the greater the distance at which a photo is comfortably viewed, in fact there is a formula that holds for most of us. For this reason, I also wonder if a bit too much is being made about the resolution of the D800. Of course super fine detail becomes more important if one crops the image but then other issues, such as the depth of field and perspective, come into play. In short, there are many reasons other than the resolution to own the D800, many of which you have discussed, much to your credit and to the benefit of your readers.

    Obviously, too, the degree of fineness desired in the detail is an aesthetic choice. This has always been the case in art — Jan van Eyck painted with great precision and detail while Rembrandt van der Rijan did not. The great Chinese landscape paintings done on screens or scrolls (over many centuries covering a number of dynasties) did not require D800e resolution nor do landscape photographs today.

    In short, I agree with those who believe there are many reasons to own a Nikon D800 other than the 36 megapixels. There has been, I think, an imbalance in the various on-line discussion forums in favor of form and not enough about the substance. This wonderful little illustrated essay of yours is thus very much welcomed.

    • Thank you. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with wanting a camera because…you want the camera. Just don’t confuse it with necessity and you’ll be fine. A great photographer will always be able to make a compelling image regardless of he equipment; the converse is also true. If you’re missing the basics of technique and composition, more pixels isn’t going to help at all.

      • Robert Stark says:

        Your essay also corroborates my dislike of designating cameras as consumer, “prosumer” (an absurd and unnecessary coined word) and professional. Can you imagine designating musical instruments this way and then making fun of, say, a medical doctor for playing a professional violin — that he really ought to be playing a prosumer model?

        I hope you are having a very fine holiday.

  14. I absolutely adore my Lumix LX-5 (poor man’s D-Lux 5). It is perfect for the situations you described above and the image quality easily surpasses earlier APS-C DSLRs. It was so liberating to be able to travel to South America with one compact camera and a few memory cards rather than lugging around my D300S, three lenses, speed lights, filters, hoods, etc. and not feel like I was compromising picture quality.

    • Agreed – the only thing is sometimes you do wish you had the SLR, especially when it gets dark…the only compact I’ve had that can cope is the Ricoh GRD III – that lens is just a black hole. Somehow it manages to collect a lot more light than even it’s fast f1.9 aperture would suggest – I suppose Ricoh did an amazing job with the optical design and coatings to keep the T stop high.


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