Digital maturity

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State of the art – but for how long?

We’re now into ten years into the mainstream DSLR revolution started by the Nikon D70 and Canon 300D; that’s a decent amount of time by any measure, and by consumer technology standards, an eternity. I suspect many readers of this site will remember those cameras well – they probably marked the point of switching from film, a revival in interest in photography, or the beginning of a new passion. For me, it was the latter: I go into the digital game in late 2002, with a Sony compact that I carried pretty much everywhere (and made zero memorable images with). A bridge camera followed in 2003, and was swiftly replaced with a D70 on release day in 2004. I would say that was personally the opening of the floodgates: I had good enough, and I didn’t have the inconvienience or cost of film. The rest was up to me.

Retrospectively, a lot has happened in the last ten years. A quick survey of the camera market at all levels shows that it’s now possible to match or exceed D70 image quality under most circumstances with a number of smartphones; it’s now possible to get a new DSLR with a lens for $350 if you don’t need the very latest model and can patiently wait for a sale; mirrorless even cheaper (Amazon had the Olympus E-PM1 kit, which remains a very decent piece of hardware for $199 at one point). The low and midrange point and shoot is all but dead, because why on earth would you want one other than for size when you can get a M4/3 sensor at that price? Going up the food chain, full frame digital is affordable – we have the D600/610/6D – and at the high end, knocks the socks of medium format film and approaches large format in the form of the D800E/D810. We even have a new generation of lenses designed to match the pixel pitches of these things – the Zeiss Otuses and Sigma Arts come to mind. Niches are filling in – Ricoh’s GR, the Fuji X100s, Leica M240, and the Sigma Quattros and Merrils. Even medium format has become relatively affordable in the form of the Pentax 645Z – in my part of the world, at least, there isn’t that much difference in price between say a 1DX or D4s and a 645Z body, and the 645Z is actually cheaper than the M240.

Bottom line: hardware limitations are no longer an excuse for poor images – not that it has ever been, but we photographers have always liked to believe that a little extra X (insert your poison of preference here) will up the game a little. Interestingly, the display medium has always been a limitation for digital photography: even in 2004, we were working on computers with XGA or perhaps 1440×1050 resoluton if we were lucky; my current laptop has no more pixels. Retina displays aren’t exactly mainstream yet. Even if desktop displays have gotten larger and more pixel-dense, fewer people have desktops which mean less content is consumed that way; most of it is on mobile devices. Even though the pixel density here is increasing, we’re still limited by bandwidth, compression in file loading/ optimization (look at how little control we get over what size files are loaded into an ipad’s native gallery app) and gamut: none of these things are profiled, of course. I simply don’t feel the digital display medium has grown in the same way as the capture side of things: we’re looking at having gone from 4-6MP at the low end to 24MP+, even on compacts.

I still strongly believe that the only way to really appreciate a photograph in the way it was envisioned by the creator is in the form of a print; and one at a size or resolution that allows the image to breathe and not feel constrained by the medium. I have not yet experienced a digital presentation solution that comes even remotely close to the experience an Ultraprint is capable of delivering in person – which is of course why I persist.

The point I’m getting at is not so much one of sufficiency or necessity of printing or knowing your output – or even that we should not allow the quest for or obsession over gear to dominate the creative side – but more an observation that nothing has fundamentally changed. There are more images made now than ever; I bet however the proportion of those images that are actually viewed is lower, simply because the audience will eventually suffer from content overload. Or if they don’t, then it’s in one side and out the other.

Photography is the process of seeing and capturing. The seeing process is a function of human psychology, and since that mindset hasn’t really shifted much – there’s always been openness and secrecy and unfounded obsessions over security* – it’s the other part we need to look at.

*If you really wanted to reconnoiter something, why on earth would you use an incredibly expensive and conspicuous camera that requires some degree of training to get anything useful out of? Cameraphones are far more of a threat. As an example of images that should not be made: I’m sure the notorious voyeurs of the Japanese subway don’t use a 645Z, because somebody would notice.

The invention and maturity of digital is perceived to have also brought about an increase in complexity to the image-making process; in reality, what’s happened is that far more control has been given to the photographer. The majority of people did not develop their own film or make their own wet prints; the labs did that. Serious photographers did, however. But the majority of people now do have access to image-processing software, either in the form of whatever was bundled with the camera, whatever is onboard on the camera, or third party applications or mobile apps. The automated minilab process that made the capture to final output conversion somewhat opaque has now been removed: it means you can make better images with greater ease, but you’ve also now got to think a bit more about why something doesn’t work or the results don’t quite look the way you expect. Increasing the speed of feedback and ease of viewing has probably driven this somewhat, too.

We should, in theory, be seeing an average increase in the quality of images – both technical and artistic – across the board. I’m not sure this is necessarily the case; there’s also a level of commitment required that’s simply too much for most people. Carrying a tripod is a necessity for optimal results with slow lenses and high pixel counts, for instance; I doubt most will bother more than once. Especially when cameraphones are continually improving even more.

I see the photographic market splitting: the majority of consumers will be increasingly satisfied with their phones; they might take photography more seriously, but the historical pace of development has borne out that it’s more than capable of keeping up. The enthusiast market has stagnated; innovation is required to sell more cameras, not a marginal spec bump or a retro design. Those tricks will only work a couple of times, and then it’s too late: a competitor will have taken the innovation risk, and eroded a little more of your market share. Nikon and Canon may be dominant now, but I bet the status quo is going to change quite dramatically in the next ten years or so. Something as simple as achieving accurate focus with high resolution sensors is still a challenge, which is quite pathetic considering it wouldn’t take much to make live view workable – look at the A7R and E-M1, for instance. The innovation I see in the market isn’t coming from the camera companies – it’s coming from the electronics companies, which is somewhat concerning as they have frankly no idea about what makes for a good UI.

There’s probably only really one thing we’re missing for digital to completely surpass film at a technical level: dynamic range. But that’s as matter of time, I think. A much higher resolution array – say 100MP, binned down to 25MP with data for each pixel location extracted from R, G, B and ND filtered pixels (for highlight dynamic range) would take care of it, and is really not that difficult to execute with today’s technology. But cynic that I am, I suspect we won’t see it until the camera companies have extacted the last possible dollar out of our pockets for old technology.

On the output side, the professional image-making market is going to undergo yet another shake up: quality will be even less of a deciding factor than it is now; jobs will be sold on relationship and the ability to produce something different; in the long run, perhaps even the ability to understand the psychology of the viewer enough to influence their decisionmaking. A few will survive and prosper, the rest are going to have to find other jobs. Personally, I still think the future of the industry lies in education. It’s the main reason I’m concentrating more and more on teaching: the ability to get the most of those tools doesn’t come in the box, it’s down to the operator. I believe you’ll get far more out of one of my teaching videos than an accessory or two which probably won’t do much of anything at all for your output 🙂

Personally, the weak link in my image making chain is in two places: my own creativity, and the output medium. At such a point as a 4K display makes sense, I’ll certainly be using one – it’s much more representative of the final print than even the current 2560×1440 displays, even if it will be a pain for retouching because pixel–level flaws may land up being too small to see. I’d love to go to higher resolutions for the site, but I suspect that’s going to create all sorts of compatibility and viewing issues, not to mention even more image theft since the file sizes will get to the point that they’re more than adequate for any application. Until then, the prints will have to suffice. Or perhaps there’s a halfway house in a paid-acess 4K digital gallery.

Is it still an interesting time to be a photographer? No doubt. There’s certainly almost no reasons left to wait or excuses left to give. But I think it’s probably also the time for most people to be focusing on creative development more than hardware acquisition or technicalities, at least until the manufactures get their act together and actually start changing the way we shoot…MT


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  1. Moving beyond technical sufficiency and the flattening marginal rate of technical innovation….

    Smart phones replacing cameras is both a reality and an excuse. Because there were always cheap mass-market consumer cameras, from the first Kodaks 130 years ago through Instamatics / Brownies and 110 and 126 and low end auto 35mm and APS cameras. This good-enough photo market is a long lasting one; smartphones are not targeting an overwhelmingly new segment. So I’m not buying that smart phones are killing the enthusiast market alone.

    Another nail in the enthusiast market: Demographics. Hobbyists of all sorts- people who fiddle with ‘things-‘ are aging quickly. Ham radio operators, golfers, motorcycle riders, and even cameras. The main buyers are getting older and can afford less.

    The final nail in the enthusiast market: Price. Manufacturer prices for cameras are way way beyond what they sold for in the 50s and 60s and 70s, and even allowing for inflation. Everyman’s hobby is now out of sight. Add to that manufacturers constantly rolling out new lenses in the $1000+ range, and the near zero residual value of cameras 24 months old, and what consumer can constantly afford that churn?

    More: in the 70s retailers could set their own prices to meet the markets, and compete with each other. Today, manufacturers only allow selling at an MSRP made up in the back room of product marketing, not at the critical point of sale.

    In short, camera stuff costs too much for the casual hobbyist, who is now more apt to think, I’ll just use my smartphone, much as I wanted a nice camera.

    So, yes, the smartphone is partly at fault, but realistically as a secondary fault, because too-high prices left broke consumers with little choice. Which is why I say, blaming smartphones alone is an excuse by product marketing to cover up its own too-high prices.

    • You bring up a bigger social trend, actually: it seems people don’t really have hobbies in the conventional sense these days; work takes up most things – do you know anybody who actually has a 9-5? – and social obligations seem to take up the rest. Where does this leave a time consuming hobby that actually requires some dedication to be good at? Not so desirable in the current instant gratification society…

      • Everyman’s hobby became the latest trendy & thinner phone assorted with tablet to spend more and more time on social networks. The outstanding amount of cash spent every year on that stuff is never seen before in the hobby market. Cameras on phones are getting better and better, but only because of their more intelligent software to allow dumbier and dumbier users, yeah instant gratifications, durable deceptions. Drug Addicts don’t leave anything of their budgets for a hobby… or this would be called a cure!
        Buying cheap used analog cameras and film has never been so cheap, your images never been that unique and your regression has become the true progress. Do we really HAVE to buy the newest camera every iteration (or even two) ?

        • FILM IS NOT DEAD. To every self proclaimed technical expert professing digital superiority over film… Even the next Star Wars (used to be one time advocate of all digital) is being shot on film. Digital cameras and mass market CCD/CMOS captors produce boring blend results and irrealist oversaturated “all the raimbow all the way” renditions that I dislike… Everybody’s always talking about MORE and MORE dynamic range when I prefer shorter and more carefully selected contrast range. Why everyone’s trying to get the technically perfect pixel only to try to bend them to look like a plausible emulsion? Why the art market is still valuing way more the analog print ?

        • Absolutely not, especially now we’re past sufficiency and the really top end film gear is now very cheap…

  2. Hi Ming

    Do you think we’ll ever reach the holy grail of achieving Ansel Adams-like 8″x10″ negative quality from a digital hand-held camera?

    How far are we away from that? I don’t know since I’ve only ever used APS-C, and don’t know what level of quality they’re getting with the current Nikon D810.

    Does digital medium format come close to the Ansel Adams standard that he achieved from 8″x10″ negatives?

    From the little I can see from DPReviews comparisons which use the Phase One camera as a benchmark, it seems those types of digital cameras are quite amazing, maybe even surpassing the old 8×10 negatives?

    I’d be curious: if we took a Nikon 810 — lowest ISO, using a professional-grade Nikon prime lens at optimum aperture, on a massive, rock solid professional tripod, printed to the same paper dimensions as Adams’ Moonrise Hernandez — what difference we’d see?

    • p/s after writing my above comment, I checked out the performance of the Sony A7R, and it seems a higher benchmark than the Nikons for achieving the holy grail of equivalence to the 8×10 large format film used in view cameras.

    • I assume we’re ignoring the aesthetic part and quality of light for the time being. The 645Z gets there, I think. I also shoot 4×5″ and frankly I prefer the 645Z’s output. The D810 is at least at 6x8cm or slightly beyond.

      • (1) If you prefer the digital Pentax 645Z, why shoot 4×5? I assume for the overall experience of playing with a view camera?

        (2) Given that you think a medium format digital can come close, even now, to a large sheet film camera — here’s hoping that in 10 years time that current medium format quality will filter down to Full Frame. Any thoughts on that being a limitation, and that we’re going to run into a wall in terms of the physics of the lenses and sensors?

        The bottom line is — yes, aside from the aethetics and artistry of an Ansel Adams — I’d love to be able to have the tools to produce Ansel Adams-like quality with a full frame. I see the Pentax 645Z is 1.5 kg for the body alone, so there’s no way I’m going to lug that around, even if I could (not) justify the pro price tag.

  3. RE: downrezzed 100MP sensors – these are but the first step towards true photon counting sensors, i.e., Eric Fossum Quanta Image Sensors. The idea is to sample a massive array of pixels (JOTs) so fast that a single photon can be detected. From this almost any response characteristic can be derived, and motion compensation can be provided. An intermediate step would be to allow for multiple-electron pixel well capacities but with similarly high readout rates. At the 100-200MP resolution level this intensely computational approach to image capture becomes realizeable. Much more than just downrezzing – much more.

    However, it still won’t do anything about the photographer’s vision and of course the light. Can’t get around the 4 Noble Truths of Photography.

  4. Martin Fritter says:

    Only ten years. How strange it seems. In many ways hugely disruptive. As I mentioned elsewhere on this site, it took ten years for the musicians, recording engineers and producers to get their heads/ears around digital recording. I’m not surprised that the quality of the photography has lagged behind the technology. Can’t wait to see what the creative people have in store. This site is in the vanguard, I think.

    • I try! Making an image whose creative/ aesthetic properties make the most of the medium is tough: especially when the output medium cannot really convey all of the information contained in the image. I do hope we eventually get to a point where I no longer need the Ultraprints to at least get 50% of the way there – right now, a web jpeg contains about 1% (!) of the information in an Ultraprint – no wonder it doesn’t feel anywhere near the same…

  5. Wish that Nikon’s current top of the line digital cameras were as good for manual focus as the ancient Nikon SLR’s that I previously used for almost half a century. The difficulty with manual focus is preventing me from buying the latest Nikon camera body. As a result, the next full frame camera that I’ll buy will need to have an electronic viewfinder.

  6. Enlightening and well considered article Ming; thanks for posting it. I started out – 45? – years ago with a Werra, than a Zenit, than a Yashica TL Electro (great camera that!). Did all my own b&w developing and printing. Than, in comes the money, and a Nikon FM2n, early 1990, some secondhand Nikkor primes and colour film, pro lab developed and printed. Ten years later the interest had waned, and I was into snapshotting only; small Contaxes (of course), film first and than a digital one. I didn’t really dive into digital; didn’t really understand what it meant.

    Comes summer 2008 and all at once the interest is back. Nikon D200 with a zoom, replaced two years later by a D700 with the 24-70. I was on a steep learning curve (still am). Zoom sold and replaced by primes, D700 replaced after three years by a D800, now an 800E, and the primes are still there. 24, 35, 58 and 85, all 1.4G’s.

    Your article made me realize the technical ability of the tools available to me have long surpassed my own photographical abilities or, being slightly kinder to myself, taken precedence too often. My tools don’t need to be better.

    It’s time to concentrate on what’s really important: creating the images you want to make and envisaged, and mastering your tools. Your article drove that home that message very forcefully, so thank you for that.

  7. John Bresnen says:

    Lordy Ming, Wish I had a 10th of your knowledge. Almost all the pictures I take are on auto. I joined a photo Club with the hope of learning. My wife ordered a Panasonic gx7 as a gift. She is fantastic and said to return it for something else if I liked. We are both 79. Have not received the gx7 yet. If you have time, give your opinion…..If no time I sure understand. You must get 100s of emails A day…….best to you and thanks

    Sent from my iPad


  8. I’ll happily admit bias here, but for me one of the real milestones was the original Canon 5D. That big old full-frame sensor brought a massive leap in quality at a price that was affordable(ish) to keen enthusiasts. Bear in mind that this was a contemporary of the Nikon D70 but with twice the megapixels (12.1mp), 11+ stops of dynamic range and a usable ISO1600. It’s almost a decade old now but can still happily go toe-to-toe with Canon’s current APS-C range (on image quality at least, UI and features are a different matter!).

    Why does all this matter? Well I believe it was the first non-pro camera to cross that line of sufficiency which (as you say) has barely changed to this day. It’s still my go-to camera today and I see no reason to upgrade. Until it dies, my money is going to go on film gear or lenses instead.

  9. Another great article, Ming. It makes me remember how far I’ve come since the advent of digital. The new camera in the iPhone 6 has extraordinary versatility and sharpness for its 8mps. Given the thought and work being poured into that product each year, I think it will continue to be the dominant player. In the meantime, my E-M1 and M9-P serve my goals elegantly. There’s just no reason to upgrade.

  10. John Lockwood says:

    I would like to offer a slightly longer historical perspective. In the mid to late 1990’s, Canon offered two choices, the DCS-520 and DCS-560. The price points were $15K and $30K respectively. For the princely sum of $30K USD, you got a 6MP full-frame CCD. Or, for the same $30K, one could buy a brand new Mercedes-Benz.

    Thankfully, Nikon came to the rescue with the announcement of the D1 in 1999 for ONLY $5K. I got mine in early 2000. The Nikon D1 marked the end of film for newspapers across the USA. As a portrait and wedding specialist, I can report that neither the cameras, nor pro labs, were quite ready for digital in 2000. Initially we had to sell clients on the viability of digital compared to film.

    For camera companies, digital was a godsend. The film camera market was stagnated as everyone who needed one, already owned a film camera. With the advent of digital, we “needed” a new camera every two years. At first it could be justified. Lately, not so much.

    Sufficiency has been achieved long ago. For most users, today’s cameras are up for any commercial or personal task.

    • A correction: The DCS-560 was NOT a full frame camera but used an APS-H sensor. A 1.3x crop. The first full frame digital was the doomed Contax Nx1. It was also six megapixels and probably sold in the hundreds. The first full frame consumer digital camera after the Contax NX1 was the highly successful Canon 1 DS followed quickly by the Kodak 14. All of these were announced and mostly delivered in 2002. Look it up on the Wiki. I owned the Kodak DCS 760 (the sister to the Canon you mention) it was APS-H and 6 megapixels as well. Other than high ISO performance any of these camera would work well today for most web based and smaller print applications.

    • There’s one more thing to consider: back in the 1990s, pros could actually recoup that investment in not much time at all. The saved film costs alone would have paid for it within a couple of months for a heavy shooter. These days…the economics are a disaster, but you can’t really turn up to a job with a D3100, either…lest your client starts saying how his niece’s high school friend has one just like it and why are you charging me $500 when she could do it for less?

      • Agreed about the economics.

        Stepping back away from the economics for pros, there’s this question: do people (meaning humanity overall in this context) enjoy a higher standard of living and / or increased productivity because of access to inexpensive gear that’s at the point of sufficiency?

        • No, I don’t think so. There’s either frustration in still not being able to get what they want out of it (and not seeing that education is the missing link) or unnecessary seeking of affirmation from forums and the like.

  11. The story of my life. After a learning the facts of life with film, a brief affair with a digital Canon P&S then a lasting commitment to Nikon (D70). But nothing is forever. Now going through divorce (D800e). As in most divorces I’m taking a huge financial bath. Haven’t given up hope for some future love (mirrorless?) but for now am just hanging out with some old buddies from the 60’s and 70’s (Rolleiflex and Hasselblad).

  12. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Despite all the wonderful hardware available, DSLR sales recently dropped 30% and mirrorless is growing very slowly. Olympus actually lost sales. I know smartphones are partly to blame, but I think something else is going on. I need to read printing for dummies. Definitely, relationships and creativity is the key. Any moron can produce technically correct images today.

    • I think the reason is saturation: us enthusiasts are a small portion of the market and definitely have atypical purchasing behavior…

      • Ron Scubadiver says:

        Saturation may be taking place because the last generation of digital cameras was at such a high level that the improvements in the latest generation are not enough to wow the consumer into a new body. Sometimes I feel like I am waiting for the next shoe to drop.

      • Except in Japan, populations are growing in most countries, so saturation cannot be a full explanation.

        • Affluence isn’t necessarily increasing with population – if anything, the income gap in most places is widening. Last month’s article on food security in middle/low income America was quite shocking…

          • randomesquephoto says:

            When your food bill is as much as your car payment. Or even mortgage in some cases. That’s nuts.

            • Or you live in a country that has such silly local crony protectionist laws that you actually have to take a mortgage to buy a car…and the payment is about the same as your house. But you need that car, because there’s no public transport and someplace walkable costs a fortune because foreign speculators bought everything. In short, welcome to malaysia 🙂

  13. Good points Ming.

    Among everything I could wish built into one camera once and for all it is like waiting for a thing that never happens, I would certainly opt for a 4K screen as soon as the OS has matured for scaling. I’ve tried a RGB calibrated Dell 24″ 4K some time ago and it was stunning how much more pleasant (the richer and denser color tones) it was to look at vs HD. However as useless as pleasant due to the scaling of text of third party application PP SW. It will be solved in a closer future of course.
    I print my best images and have an eternal turnaround of images decorating my walls. My fun of course yet the ultimate viewing experience IMO. But I would be more than glad about having more monitor viewing pleasure looking at high resolution images. There is no fun looking at pixel level by a poor HD screen, it’s not anymore a picture but a crop of it.

    • Bingo. And I think 4k still isn’t there – we’re still only looking at less than a quarter of a D810 image, or even less for medium format…

  14. Speaking of “Digital Maturity”, I find the reduced MP sensor on the A7S to be particularly compelling especially given your comments relating to display mediums (I rarely do prints larger than 8×10). 12MP is more than adequate for 90% of my work and the quite frankly, the A7S/55 1,8 combo renders images more beautifully than my megapixel monsters. Don’t get me wrong, I love my A7R and D810, however I find myself more and more reaching for the A7S on the way out the door for streets n such…especially at night 🙂

    • Yes it is – it’s also a lot more forgiving with lenses and shot discipline. That said, you could just downsize a D810 or A7R file to the same 12MP and the results will be similar – or possibly even better. One of the reasons I said goodbye to my D4; doe sampling the D800E/810 yielded identical noise but more detail. Doing the same with the 645Z yields two more usable stops for the same pixel noise level, and even better detail and color. You of course also still have the increased resolving power if light cooperates…

      • This interesting. I’ve bought an A7S some time ago to be able to catch more light power by the sensor. Yet I am not sure I like the tonality over my EM1, actually not. I am trying to sell the A7S though without any luck yet.
        I have though tried to upsample the 12 MP to 24 MP before printing. Seems to be a tad richer on an A3 print.

        Would you think Ming, I would benefit downsizing the 16 MP files from my EM1 to achieve lower noise at a given print size equal to the A7S A3 print?

        • The A7S – and all the A7 series – have some serious compression going on, which affects tonal transitions. As for downsampling during printing – I would not do it simply because noise is a lot less noticeable in print due to the reproduction medium itself NR being linear/regular.

      • Downsampling you say…hmm…no I’m afraid not. I wish it were just that simple to explain. No I’m afraid there is something else going on with the A7S sensor that cannot be that easily explained away and the phenomenon is only enhanced when processed from RAW, especially in Capture One. Oh and I’m not talking about viewing on the typical monitor. In that case and to your earlier display media point, I don’t notice it as much. However, when I pull the files up on a 2560 or higher display, the superior rendering is quite obvious.

        • Have you tried downsampling from a 52MP file to compare? I have, and if done properly, the 52MP file is (unsurprisingly) superior.

          With lower pixel counts, what you might be seeing is the effect of S-log gamma on tonality (which does not affect resolving power or noise).

      • I have the A7R; I consider selling it for the A7S to get better low light performance and to avoid shutter vibration (but to tell the truth; I do not notice any vibration shooting handheld with my 35mm). Ming; would swapping the A7R for the A7S just be silly? I guess downsampling A7R to 12MP would kill all visible shutter vibration? And you are saying that there is no advantage with the A7S for low light?

  15. There came a point when I felt I had gathered my ideal camera kit — a Nikon FE2, FM2 and 28, 35, 50, 105 and 200 mm Nikkor lenses plus the then current autofocus DSLR. I could see myself using those cameras for life. In the film era, no matter how cameras improved, you could use them forever because of film being the medium.

    Then the digital age came. With each year, the digital-film got so much better. To be frank, I loathed the constant annual improving of technology. I just couldn’t wait to find the digital camera that I could settle on for life. I think we’re getting there because we’re past the point where the 24-36 MP sensors can out-resolve many of the non-professional lenses. I think, once the Nikon D800-level quality comes down to the APS-C level, I think that’ll be it for me. Presently very happy with my Sony A6000, and have about one more upgrade left in perhaps 5 years time.

    I’m camping out on APS-C and not going to full-frame merely because of the size of the lenses. Even with the lighter mirrorless Sony A7-series bodies, those full frame lenses are still massive.

    Now, if lens designers can make breakthroughs in making full-frame lenses to be significantly lighter and smaller than they are now, that’d be a way for them to lure me out of my camera-for-life peace of mind.

    • The problem with full frame lens design is the telecentricity demand – made worse as sensor resolution gets higher. Combine that with a long enough flange distance to clear the reflex mirror, and size balloons. Note how M lenses aren’t particularly large, but they also work with very short flange distances and almost none are telecentric.

  16. 300D for me 🙂 Thanks for reminding me that was a full decade ago! Eek!

    I went on to do the same thing as many shiny new toy buyers: left it on a shelf for five years…

  17. It’s logical that the market does split again in the way you suggest. And in fact, a relief. Prior to the digital era, there were professional photographers and amateurs and “families”. The pro’s used things like Nikon F’s and the serious amateurs Canon AE-1’s and Nikkormats. “Families” were exactly that – people who owned millions of Kodak Instamatics and Pentax Point and Shoots etc. This group took images of their family, memories, growing up etc.
    Along came the digital era and it was new. And marketed everywhere. Suddenly everyone was toting a DSLR around and everyone was a photographer. But maybe those people have realised that all they really want are memories after all. And an iPhone or smart phone is the digital Kodak Instamatic. That’s why the classifieds are full of hundreds of little boxy D3200’s and 650D’s for sale second hand.
    All that is happening is that the process started by the digtal era is coming back full circle. To where it should logically be, in terms of statistics and the numbers game. Because not everyone is actually a photographer and most people just want memories.

    • Very well observed, Peter. Now if only the toll taken on the professional market would also reverse; today I had a potential client enquiring about a product shoot but she believed the budget should be less than a day’s studio rental! I left it at an observation that their product prices were non-negotiable, and you get what you pay for…sigh. Increasingly, this is getting more common, especially in Malaysia. Work at a loss, or work not at all.

    • randomesquephoto says:

      And every serious photographer has a telephoto that is the size of my arm…

  18. Physical limitation could also be in form of shooting envelope of said physical hardware. With a tilt screen+fast AF responsiveness, the m43 camera can definitely compose better in angles where a Nikon dSLR can’t. It all goes back to your article on shooting enveloppes and I’m using it on my own Olympus EM10 + Nikon D600 combo system to decide which lenses I sell and which lenses I buy in the next few months.

    I do miss the print a lot. Last magazines I bought were mostly just photos printed on great quality paper to enjoy page after page. I think this needs to come back instead of online galleries. I think when you are limited to a book (many pages, enjoyable anywhere it could be carried) or an expo (smaller amount of images, impressive in a dedicated space), sequencing becomes the main challenge rather than the creation of photograph that digital has rendered… more effective thus producing more volume of images in which creators might find difficult to find time to compile into a comprehensive group of images. After that, figuring out how to present them to the viewer is also a process lost in image processing.

    I have spent the week shooting with the EM10 and the Sony A7. I was significantly using the EM10, mainly because of superior UI and ergonomics. Electronic companies seem to focus on making cameras quickly with specs and money making. Photo companies, like figuring out how to sequence images, tend to take more time in rolling out their system roadmaps. I think photogs appreciate that more, but the consumer less.

    I think it’s a confusing time to be a photographer. Financially, you’d have to pick between a sure bet (a dSLR system) or a up and coming system on its way to be awesome (mirrorless system or perhaps your 645z?). You can’t start with both at the same time.

    Thx for reading this 🙂

    • I think one should really start with output: what do you want to do? Then select the minimum you need from there. And there’s nothing stopping you from printing yourself; arguably, high quality, digital, small-run printing is even more accessible these days…

  19. Ha, we nearly have the same progression. My first digital was the tiny Sony U20 (somewhere in 2001, I believe), followed by a bridge cam, the Olympus C750UZ, then the DSLR came after that (Canon 10D in 2003, I believe). What a difference those “good old days” were.

    I’m not really liking the trend for higher resolution displays, 4K and up. The problem is resolution is scaling up faster than the rest of the hardware can sufficiently/reasonably manage well (GPU power for gaming performance, hard drive and internet bandwidth for the storage capacity). Can’t argue about how good it looks though.

    • There’s one more challenge for us commercial types: as the pixels get smaller, retouching gets much more difficult because it’s either hard to physically see individual imperfections, or difficult to judge because you have to upscale beyond pixel level and it gets blocky…

      • I’m sort of used to that a bit, often zooming in to 300-400% to do dust/spot removal… but I see your point. It can get annoying to zoom in to blocky levels just to evaluate simple and routine tasks such as evaluating critical sharpness, focus, etc.

  20. My first DSLR was the D2x. I was a late adopter to serious digital cameras (fought it initially) and didn’t get the D2x until 2006. Wonderful camera, but the sensor was limited by today’s standards.

    In fact, just yesterday I was running through some upcoming shooting logistics in my mind, trying to determine if I could photograph celebs on the red carpet this weekend using just the E-M1, the 12-40 f/2.8, and the 75mm f/1.8 … without flash.

    So I went back and looked at the last time I had done that type of shoot … and lo-and-behold it was with the D2x. I made some captures back then of ‘Lost’ actress Evangeline Lilly on the red carpet against a lit sponsor wall, using that camera and the older AF Zoom-Nikkor AF 28-85mm f/3.5-4.5 (which had previously resided on my F90x). I looked at one frame in particular, and noted the EXIF data:

    – 85mm
    – ISO 400
    – f/8
    – 1/60

    No flash.

    Looking back, those weren’t the optimum settings for that situation, but the resultant image is perfectly usable (note that the D2x topped out at ISO 800).

    What I realized was that the E-M1 will offer:

    – Faster maximum apertures
    – Better quality lenses (at least the two I have)
    – An improved sensor architecture
    – Higher ISO capability
    – More resolution

    Plus face detection and image stabilization.

    And much lighter weight!

    So shooting without flash in roughly equivalent light to 8 years ago should be no problem. And preferable, as far as I’m concerned, to lugging the D3s and blasting the SB-910 into the ceiling through the dome diffuser … which is almost certainly what many photogs will do that night.

    We have indeed come a long way in 10 years. As have I. And I wasn’t exactly a novice 10 years ago, either.

    • I am using a em10+9-18+15+25+45+75 on jobs and clearly it’s been great enough to replace the 70-200 on my nikons for reach. Just waitin’ on the 12-40 and 40-150 now 🙂

    • Arguably, with the D3S you wouldn’t need the flash either, since it tops out a couple of stops higher than the E-M1…

      To me, the reason to use flash isn’t to increase brightness/ ambient light anymore: it’s to control directionality and shape it.

      • Absolutely. I could pair it with the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AIS and have plenty of light. But then there’s that weight thing again.

        I, too, am not so interested in using flash to add light quantity anymore … but more for controlling light quality when necessary, or getting some catch light into the eyes. Otherwise, I never, ever use on-camera flash unless I have no other choice.

  21. Upgrades are becoming meaningless. I have many cameras, but can do fine with the D700 and the F6. If I buy one more of each, I probably have enough for a lifetime, at least my lifetime. I even consider trading down for travel and video, from GH3 to LX100.

    Lenses is a totally different matters. I will never quit buying lenses, and I doubt that I will sell any. Lenses have personality, cameras… have a shutter release 🙂

    • I’ve been considering toning the mp count down by going from d600 to the df… perhaps the body is easier to manage on lens sharpness and camera/shutter shake.

    • I think that was true in the film days, somewhat less so with digital – there’s definitely a difference in the output and tonal response of different cameras, enough that one has to be quite careful if you want to get the very last bit out of it. Not the same with film, of course…the camera then is merely a box and viewfinder.

  22. Hello Ming. I hope you’ve recovered from your cattle car ride in coach recently! It’s pretty amazing to watch what has happened these past 10 years with the advent of 0s and 1s replacing film and what it’s wrought to photography. If Photokina is any indication, there are a few camera boardrooms scratching their heads trying to figure out where this is all leads to down the road.

    The camera phones have really upset their world. But you know what impressed me most about Photokina? (Btw, I was not there to see it live). It’s what Leica did with the majority of the space they had which I think was around 50,000 sqft, photo galleries of several different photographers. Yes, they had their new and existing hardware on display. But it the importance they put on the true final output, The Print.

    • Just about. Timezones were a bigger challenge – not fun sleeping at 7PM and waking up at 2AM!

      Leica did a smart move with this one: it’s both an acknowledgement that it’s about the image, and a marketing move: buy our cameras, make these images.

  23. Excellent points. I was a slow adopter of the DSLR and tend to use things up before I move on. It’s not only my nature and my minimalistic values but also a way for me to stay with something until I feel I’ve educated myself enough to warrant buying up. I have much to learn and develop so I’ll continue to learn from the people I respect like yourself. Thanks for all of your quality content, truly appreciated.

  24. many strong points here….and the basic one stands: current standards of digital cameras are incredibly high now. it is an embarrassment of riches…it really is all up to the photographer at this point. almost anything is possible.
    the only caveat i would make is that in some cases i think the size of sensor/res does still connect to print size/quality…meaning that for a certain small part of the market those 80MP sensors do deliver bigger prints and in certain parts of the fashion and fine art world people do notice the difference. when the MF digital world catches up with the sensor tech of something like the Nikon D810 resulting in 100s of megapixels that will raise the bar even farther.
    however for the most part….fantastic images can be made now with even a modest investment….and the artist’s taste (and connections) will be the final arbiter.

    • Absolutely – but even at the highest end of commercial uses, 80MP is enough – nobody is making Ultraprints for advertising, it’s just too expensive. I can certainly deploy all the resolution I’ve got – and have lately been stitching from both Pentax and Nikon to get a bit more – but how many have the shot discipline, glass and processing horsepower to make the most of it? I can’t see that as being a very large market.

      But before we even get to that point, there’s the whole idea/concept/composition…and that doesn’t come in a box with the hardware. The only way to get that is through hard work…

  25. Good post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ming. For last few years I’m shooting with Hasselblad H4D-50 and to me is very interesting to see how they are trying to catch-up to the current market or even borrowing technology from electronic companies like Sony. Some how it forces me to think that is Hasselblad, PhaseOne and Pentax (on the MF side) loosing their DNA which was mainly based on their experience and knowledge and they might at some point loose the battle, similar to what Apple iPhone did to Nokia, Siemens and BB.

    Next few years is going to be an interesting era for imaging industry, especially when video and still camera technologies merge in to a single platform!

    • Hasselblad is the worst of these – they’ve really lost their way and seem to be playing catch up. I smell a Sony-takeover at some time in the future. Pentax is rejuvenating, and providing real competition to P1 and the rest.

      What will be interesting is when phones start to sport enough processing power to run multiple camera arrays on the back to use for 3D/DOF management/stitching/NR/DR etc…

      • Sony takes over Hasselblad? Interesting thought and possibly a very clever move by Sony, that has stelaar (sensor) technology but still not so much credibility as a camera maker. Why not buy that credibility and expand it (this is not wood grips stuff)?

      • randomesquephoto says:

        HTC is already working on that. With two cameras on their body making one image.

  26. I think the mainstream future of the industry is phones. The Lumix/Leica offering was the most interesting offering at Photokina. It’s the shape of things to come – amateur photographers will want an all in one device, and the compacts market will all but die.

    Photography with anything more than my iPhone is a conscious effort – even carrying a compact. As such, so many of my photographs – snaps – are taken with the phone. The alternative is that they wouldn’t get taken. And the phone is the natural connection to social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, etc, so the device combines convenience of capture (its in our pockets all the time anyway), with final output (sharing via apps).

    The rest is for those who are willing to carry (mirror less), or lug (DSLR+) a system around. This must surely be a much smaller niche than it once was, when so many people’s needs today are met with phones.

    Printing is important to the serious amateur only. The labs went from film to digital input for the same output, put they have died. I went to a Kodak Express store the other day with a USB stick to ask if they could do some prints. They don’t do even those anymore – just passport photos, and other stuff. Crazy. These days, when people want to ‘print’, they mean photo books, calendars and so on, right?

    When I see your Ultraprints in my hands I see the value of that form of output and the value of the discipline that ensures you get there – far in excess of what you need for digital display. But that is a (laudable) tiny niche approach.

    No, output for 99% of photographers – even serious amateurs – is electronic, whether it be to social media for simple sharing, or higher quality output to Flickr, or whatever will surpass that. As screen resolution increases I suspect we will see a sort of Flickr+ type service to match.

    Canon seem reasonably diversified. But I would be concerned about Nikon – so completely committed to cameras and lenses, and nowhere in the phone/media space. Even Leica are involved in phones now, and are trying to expand their online media market.

    And all of this is why I sometimes like to revert to 100% analogue!

    • You’re probably right: there were effectively no small sensor compacts of note this time round, and everything pocketable/ without an interchangeable lens was going fast/large sensor. The only way for the manufacturers to continue capturing the enthusiast dollar, I think. And the incentive to take an image is much higher if you’ve got a camera already with you; even for a keen photographer like myself, I notice myself resorting to the camera phone with increasing frequency simply out of convenience – partially to capture things I might not otherwise have bothered with, partially because the images are actually usable (if not Ultraprintable). The image hosting services aren’t the problem, it’s the displays – ironically, it’s more common to find a HD mobile display than a laptop one…

      The bleeding edge of anything is always going to be niche.

    • Photography without prints is too ephemeral for me. Not interested.

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