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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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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