Format equivalence, engineering and practical envelope

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So which one has the biggest practical shooting envelope? They’re all the same; read on to find out why***.

Much has been written about depth of field, angle of view etc. equivalency for the various common sizes – I won’t repeat that. What I’m more interested is what consequences it has in practical terms on shooting envelope limitations, and how the apparent multitude of choices aren’t really choices at all – with a very few exceptions. To complicate things further, just because something can be done from an engineering standpoint doesn’t mean that it’s desirable from a marketing standpoint, and that’s before we even attempt to factor in how other things like haptics, controls, build quality etc. affect the overall shooting experience. Two examples: a consumer APS-C-sized camera with weather sealing and no feature or control compromises (think D5600 or 200D size); or a 1″ camera with really top class interchangeable optics (well, Nikon tried, but the market didn’t accept it). Or a rugged ‘professional’ compact, sensor size irrelevant. See what I mean?

Any camera or camera system is a complex balance of tradeoffs between sensor size, sensor resolution, lens size, lens resolution, maximum aperture, focal length range, physical body size/weight, and the big secondary impact: cost. There is no free lunch: you cannot keep everything constant and only change one variable. If you want a larger sensor, then the lenses either have to get larger or slower; if you want a longer lens range, the maximum aperture either gets slower, performance suffers, the housing gets larger – or more likely, all three. Actually, more often than not, pricing is the deciding factor: you never see different tiers of medium format lenses by performance; there’s usually only one design and they’re all as good optically as they can reasonably be made – no plastic elements or mounts to save a few bucks (consumer kit zoom variants, anybody?). Through long, expensive and painful experience, I’ve found that it’s best to prioritise the most important performance parameter and be willing to compromise on the rest – lest you land up with something that’s a compromise across the board, and thoroughly unsatisfying. It’s very rare for a Swiss Army knife to be as useful or satisfying as it is convenient.

By this, I mean that compact superzoom are great on paper and on the back, but you’re going to hate the images later, or curse when you run out of light. Every format has its strengths and weaknesses – I prefer to think of only the former – make choices on this basis and you can’t go too far wrong, providing the hardware exists. In general and taking into account both practical (manufacturing, product offering, marketing etc.) considerations and technical ones – smaller formats are better at maintaining a given (or even extended) depth of field for a given light gathering ability – determined by aperture. Lenses can also be made faster. However, the tradeoffs are that you generally lose a stop in sensor performance (dynamic range, sensitivity for a given overall noise level) every time you go down a size*. You don’t, however, gain a stop in lens performance – there are practical limits to how fast lenses can be made at sufficient cost (generally, the smaller the sensor, the lower the tolerable cost; but the more you make, the cheaper the unit cost becomes) and sufficient performance. You also start to run into diffraction very quickly: smartphone cameras are almost all diffraction limited even at f2, though peak performance is also limited by the corrections required for f2 and a real focal length of ~4mm in a tiny physical size. In practical terms: you’re not going to get much faster than f1.8, with an upper limit coming in at f0.95-f1.4 for enthusiast (read: willing to pay and carry more) formats.

*Practically common sizes: 1/3″, 1/2.3″, 2/3″, 1″, M4/3″, APSC 24×16, FF 36×24, MF 44×33. Things get a little complicated because the photosite-level technology and processing routines for each sensor-DSP combination are not of equal age or sophistication, which means that the relationships are not quite linear. Smartphones, for example, have massively more computing power than most cameras, and consequently have the ability to punch above their weight class.

Curiously, whilst you can buy dedicated f0.95 lenses for M4/3 (the Voigtlander series) and FF (Leica Noctilux) – there’s not much love for APS-C other than through mount sharing. But again, mount sharing and short flange distances have complicated things further: there are f1.4 FF lenses that also cover 44×33 (and smaller, of course – just with increasingly impractical angles of view). In accessible and practical** terms, we have the following:
[Sensor size] > [max common aperture] > [crude performance deficit to FF factoring in max aperture and sensor size]
1/3″, 1/2.3″, 2/3″ > f1.7 (in smartphones) > -4.5 stops
1″ > f1.8 (in high spec compacts, though Nikon did make a 32/1.2) > -3.5 stops
M4/3″ > f0.95 in MF; f1.2 in AF > -1 stop
APSC > f1.4 > -1 stop
FF > f1.4 > benchmark
44×33, 645 > ~f2 (though some adapted f1.4 FF lenses also work). > 0 stops

**Considering a normal lens range of say 28-135mm equivalent or thereabouts.

In short: going up a size may gain you a stop in sensor performance, but it doesn’t necessarily cost you a stop in lens performance (though size and weight are something else).

What we haven’t addressed are resolution, output size, and pixel level performance. This is a much more complicated mix: if we fix output size and pixel-level noise, the larger format will always look better: there’s less enlargement required; this is well known from the film days. What complicates things now is that for the vast majority of uses and users, even the 1/3″ stuff is capable of meeting ‘normal’ output sizes (web, small print – if that) with acceptable image quality and little strain. Everything is oversampled, and by a significant factor: going from a 12MP smartphone to 4MP Instagram (max, usually less after factoring in compression) is already 3x; let alone 24, 50 or 100MP. That 4.5 stop deficit is no longer 4.5 stops for normal output. This is undoubtedly why most consumers or inexperienced users cannot see much obvious benefit from trading up. Things are of course different if you plan to print very large.

In reality, pixels aren’t created equal, either: not only do the larger sensors have more of them, but they’re larger, too – which means significantly more light gathering ability. On most 12-16MP smartphones today we are now down to 1-1.2um pixels; compare that to 5.3um of 50MP 44×33: as much as 25x the area, and 25x the light gathering ability – per pixel. This means lower noise, higher dynamic range, more accurate color (it’s easier to precisely measure a stronger signal than a weaker one) and higher pixel-level acuity. Factoring this in, for the latest available sensors (in brackets) we now have:

[Sensor size] > [max common aperture] > [crude performance deficit to FF factoring in aperture, best in class sensor performance and resolution]
1/3″, 1/2.3″, 2/3″ > f1.7 > -4.5 stops (12MP CMOS BSI PDAF, iPhone 8 Plus)
1″ > f1.8 > -2.5 stops > (20MP CMOS BSI PDAF, RX100V)
M4/3″ > f0.95 in MF; f1.2 in AF > -1.5 stop (20MP CMOS PDAF, E-M1.2)
APSC > f1.4 > -1.5 stop (24MP CMOS, D5600, X-T2)
FF > f1.4 > benchmark (47MP CMOS, D850)
44×33, 645 > ~f2 > +1 to +3 stops (50MP, X1D; 100MP, H6D)

And there’s the computing power deficit: there’s a LOT of signal processing going on inside an iPhone, for instance; I don’t know of any camera that has anywhere close to the same graphics abilities. Even the pro level sports cameras struggle to chunk around data as quickly. Hard to quantify, because it can also produce some very strange artefacts at the pixel level that are not desirable if noticeable (think watercolour noise, edge destruction, big flat areas) – let’s call this one a wash.

What isn’t a wash (and is a hot topic) is the question of stabilisation – sensor shift, optical, or in some cases, both. The new systems are really superb – you can really leave your tripod behind, and hit silly slow shutter speeds with pixel level perfection. Before somebody asks why we don’t have it on all cameras – you need to understand that effective stabilisers must move both quickly and precisely; the higher the resolution, the more precise the movement required. And the heavier the thing being moved, the more power is required to move it – and non-linearly so, since all of these systems work with electromagnets. Basically, bigger things require more power than you might think. It is generally easier to do lens-based stabilisation because the thing being moved can be reduced to one or two fairly small and light elements, plus if the right elements are used, then large deviations can be easily corrected by small displacements – this is good for longer lenses, where sensor shift may simply run out of latitude. However, it’s possible that if the stabilising element goes significantly out of plane or alignment, then optics suffer; it isn’t something that is so common with sensor-shift mechanisms due to the way these are constructed. Bottom line: the smaller the format, the more effective stabilisation – whatever type – will be; in practice this is mostly true, except size limits once again determine how big actuators may be, and effective performance. Let’s alter that table again, remembering that M4/3 will stabilise everything including the f1.2 lenses, double-stabilise some, and there are precious few FF f1.4 stabilised options (only Pentax comes to mind, and that isn’t class leading in high ISO performance). The rest are slower – f2.8, f4 or worse – and the stabiliser doesn’t really open the envelope much.

[Sensor size] > [max common aperture] > [deficit factoring for best in class, including stabilization]
1/3″, 1/2.3″, 2/3″ > f1.7 > 3.5 stops
1″ > f1.8 > -2.5 stops
M4/3″ > f0.95 in MF; f1.2 in AF > 0 stop to +1 stop
APSC > f1.4 > -1.5 stop (same lenses as FF)
FF > f1.4 > benchmark
44×33, 645 > ~f2 > 0 to +2 stops (no stabiliser)

Note: stabilisers are not always a replacement for shutter speed, especially for moving objects.

This table looks like I’m spoiling for a fight: M4/3 has an advantage over FF? Under a surprising number of situations, yes. In all cases, I’m trying to match the final output look (read: DOF and angle of view) as closely as possible:

Example #1: a low light portrait or documentary capture, handheld (imperfect):
M4/3: E-M1.2, 42.5/1.2, f1.2, 1/30s ISO 400 – this is well within plausibility and capability of hardware; 1/30 chosen because of the subject’s ability to sit still. So, not all advantage to the camera.
FF: D850, 85/1.4G, f1.4, 1/100s ISO 1600-2000 – assuming you have steady hands. The parameters look or slightly worse for MF; your longer lens to match the same FOV will be slower, and you’ll need more shutter speed to counter hand shake. The sensor is a bit cleaner and you’ve got more pixels, so overall IQ is better but not that much so.

Yes, FF has shallower DOF; yes, double the resolution and slightly larger photo sites mean that assuming no upsizing, the FF file will probably look a bit cleaner – but not that much. Look at the ISO difference. I’ve deliberately ignored some of the subtleties, but in practical terms: I think you get my point. Let’s take another scenario: where you can maximise the potential of the sensors.

Example #2: a landscape or controlled lighting setup, tripod (perfect):
M4/3: E-M1.2, 25/1.2, f5.6, ISO 200 (base)
FF: D850, 55 Otus, f11, ISO 64 (base)
MF: H6D-100c, 80/2.8, f16, ISO 64 (base)
I think it’s pretty clear in this situation that the MF camera is going to wipe the floor with the other two – resolving power, dynamic range, color etc.

The reason I’ve chosen these two examples is because they’re at the practical limits of what we tend to photograph: it’s rarely at either end of the spectrum all the time. So whilst the larger formats have much higher potential, the further away you get from perfect conditions – the more difficult it becomes to deploy it. If you shoot at the edge of the envelope, your life is probably going to be easier with a smaller format, and the results not that different. If you live in a studio, then the bigger the better.

The one final piece of the puzzle to factor in is size and weight: whilst you can have a series of f1.4 primes for FF, you’re far more likely to be at f2.8 or f4 to keep the tradeoff between range and size (and cost) manageable – which means the 1″ compact with the f1.8-f2.8 zoom is looking mighty good about now, especially if you don’t print (and even if you do). There are curveballs with really poor shooting envelope (the Canon G1X III, for instance) or unicorns with very extended envelope and small size (Leica Q), that Hasselblad X1D-Leica 50/1.4 ASPH M combination I’m now using, but these are few and almost involve a huge cost penalty. There are far too many ‘photographers’ chasing the latest gear and trying to cheat physics: I’m not the only one to have noticed that the latest supposedly ‘small’ mirrorless cameras are now huge; a similarly kitted out A7RIII and D850 are about the same size and weight. A Panasonic G9 body is larger than an X1D. You can’t bend the rules of optics, unfortunately.

I’m aware that this article is getting both long, dry, and probably confusing. We’re nearly there.

Here’s my take on all of this: there is no free lunch, from an engineering standpoint or a commercial one. Different formats have different creative strengths, and this is generally how I choose on a given day (all other factors being equal and non-liming): the small formats are great for punchy, contrasty, all-in-focus compressed scenes and portability; the larger ones for printing, subtlety and nuance. Low light sits somewhere in the middle, with either M4/3 or FF as the best all-round compromise. Factor in size, and you start to prefer M4/3. Having used all of these formats extensively, and with output requirements perhaps a bit more demanding than most – I tend to steer towards FF or MF, with (fortunately) a unicorn as the ‘compact’. It’s definitely easier to shoot at the edge of the envelope with a smaller format, but if you can make it work, larger formats can deliver something special. We all want that magic single camera solution, and there’s nothing wrong with chasing it – but remember to keep the creative objective first, or else you’ll never be in that contented place where the hardware becomes a transparent tool and you can just shoot. MT

***First image: H6D-100c and 100/2.2; X1D and 90/3.2; GX85 and 12-32/3.5-5.6. What the H6D-100c gains over the X1D in lens speed and sensor size, it loses in weight and practicality; what the GX85 gains in weight, dual lens and sensor stabilisation over the MF gear, it loses in sensor and lens performance. We haven’t even considered subject tracking and AF. But the MF guys will have more print potential in a given light condition. I have uses for all three, depending on my creative and output objectives. Don’t underestimate opportunistic photography and carrying something just in case, either – I’ve made a lot of images I like with my phone, simply because I had it and nothing else. Composition does not and should not change with hardware.

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Comments

  1. Geoff Byers says:

    Very astute article. It should become the reference reading for Photographic Equivalence on the internet. Thank you very much.

  2. Rick Denney says:

    I use a Canon 5D and 5DII for wedding-type events where the largest display is likely to be a 10×8 page in a Blurb-type book. IS makes a difference, even with a slow f/4 lens, and handling.

    For landscapes, though, I’m using a 645z, with all the technique I can muster. I want a sense of endless detail on a 16×20 print, and the price of lenses needed to do that on the Canon (and the body choice here would have to be the 5Ds) is greater than what I paid for the Pentax body, and I already have all those lenses. The extra dynamic range of the sensor makes up for the lack of IS, and the bigger print poses no compromise. It matches what I get with a Pentax 67 scanned in a Nikon scanner, or 4×5 scanned in a flatbed. With all my systems, I want to own the process, so I compare against what I can do at home, rather than the state of the art I have to pay someone else to do. It’s part of the satisfaction. So far, I can’t match the color of even cheaply scanned film or the 645z in the Canon product, even in smaller print sizes. I find removing any of these systems leaves me feeling there is a hole.

    But my equivalency doesn’t just ask tripod or no (and it’s always yes for 645z and up). It also compares tripods—light Gitzo 3532 for the Pentax versus old Bogen 3036 for the Sinar.

    But compactness is overrated. I have very large hands—too small a camera frustrates me terribly. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel the problem of bulk with the Pentax.

    Thank you for the thought-provoking analysis.

    • The 5D and 5DII have significantly less dynamic range than the Pentax – probably up to 2.5-3 stops less. It’s going to be enormously different, and since dynamic range also affects color accuracy – you’ll see it here, too. You don’t get those stops back with the 5Ds; smaller pixels are the limits here. Print size is a separate issue…

  3. Thats a great article, thank you!

    I’m so tired of people arguing if FF or APSC, or m43 or other systems are better. It doesnt make sense for me.

    Personally Im using m43 and Fuji cameras. Fuji for the wide and fast options (they give a different look than m43), and m43 for the fast and small lenses.

    For Fuji I have the Samyang 21mm f1.4 and the Fujinon 56mm f1.2 (And a general zoom, the 18-55 f2.8 to f4). These two primes provides a look that’s very hard to reproduce with m43.

    My m43 kit contains three lenses: the Sigma 30mm f1.4, Olympus 45mm f1.8 and Sigma 60mm f2.8. All of these are sharp, very fast, small and stabilized too, becouse my GX85 has IBIS.

    I’m mainly shooting portraits, but I shoot street photos and other genres too. Some people ask me why I haven’t switched to Full Frame? (It has more bokeh and cleaner image) I tell them I like my gear, its the sweet spot in size/quality and handling for me. I’m fully confident with it, and I dont think that my images would be much better if they were shot with a fullframe camera. By the way sometimes clients prefer the look of Olympus 45 over the Fuji 🙂

    I like this article becouse thats what I’m saying too. Every system has pros and cons, and you cant compare them directly. Horses for courses…

  4. Samuel Jessop says:

    Very interesting read, and for me I can see how far within the shooting envelope I am. I shoot slow and deliberate, like to use a support for night photography, and almost always stopped down to f/5.6-8. That said I can see my usage case within the examples, and it has given me food for thought. I am currently at 16MP with two lenses I like, and would like the ability to print larger. Close behind is additional dynamic range to give me more headroom for tonal corrections, although neither are stopping me shooting at present. The upgrade from 16 to 24MP does not seem large enough of a jump, plus it seems that each format up gives better rendering at the pixel level.

    Looking at tests the gap from the rendering of an A7R III, to a GFX 50S or X1D is really noticeable close up. I shoot mostly around a 50mm FOV, so would be looking at the Loxia 50, GF 63, or Hasselblad’s forthcoming 65mm. In ideal conditions I am sure the GFX and X1D are superior, but wonder to what extent I would benefit from the IBIS of the Sony.

    What I am curious about as you have experience of these larger sensors, given that a 300dpi print from all three is a similar size, is to what extent would the greater pixel level be apparent from normal viewing distances?

    • The difference isn’t so much in resolution (in fact, it’s a wash) – but dynamic range and color accuracy. Assuming your print method isn’t the limitation, said difference can be quite substantial…

      • Samuel Jessop says:

        This article has been bubbling away in my thoughts, and I think now the issue of shooting envelope makes more sense to me now. While I generally shoot in good light or with a tripod, I find even with 16MP APS-C I have to use 1/60s with my 18mm and 1/100s with my 35mm for it to be critically sharp.

        Again I should add that I am not missing any opportunities for shots, but with one eye on an upgrade can see that the information above on sensors becomes ever more apparent for when I am not in ideal light. In London that can be a decent amount of the time. Accordingly I see the two major issues for me as:

        1. Buying a Fuji X-H1 vs a A7 III seems like bad value, but at anything other than base ISO the stabilisation is likely to be more effective than the Sony because of the mass of the sensor. This essentially negates any advantage of the larger sensor.

        2. Fujifilm seems to have a much better choice of optically good lenses, unless you are stretching to the cost of the GM lenses. That brings the cost of the system closer to medium format territory, but without the malleability of the files from any of the 44×33 format cameras. Added to which, an A7R III and the GM 50/1.4 is no longer an option as a travel orientated camera.

        For my own ends it seems best to consolidate with the system I have now, which would give me IBIS, geotagging via bluetooth, EFC shutter, and greater build quality. In the long run I need to work harder on my technique, and be able to justify the cost of buying into medium format. In the medium term I would be increasing the shooting envelope as you explained above, staying in a lens system I like, and getting the most performance for any financial cost.

        • Pretty much: there is no free lunch, and as you go up in sensor size, what you gain is offset by what you lose in lens speed, extended DOF, portability etc. M4/3 and FF I think are the sweet spots largely because of lens selection; if you work off a tripod, then MF is the way to go. Otherwise – much more to gain through familiarity/practice or simply a tripod…

  5. david mantripp says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this. I was basically a launch customer for Olympus digital with the E-1 in late 2003, and have stayed with Olympus ever since. There is little wrong with my photography that can be blamed on the equipment, although in the earlier days of anything over 400 ISO being unusable perhaps that wasn’t the case. But I persevered, and although I’m no fanboy, Olympus and mFT are pretty much the sweet spot for me as a generalist.

    However… there is something about the results that every now and then causes me some dissatisfaction. I can only describe it as a certain brittleness or tonal compression in the images, especially under harsher light. This might just be the general signature of digital. But 90% of the time it’s just fine, and with lenses like the 12-100, as well as the primes (personally I love the 17mm f1.8 although I know most internauts have decided it’s rubbish…).

    My secondary “system” has been Sigma DP-M and DP-Q, and in subdued light these are fabulous. The DP0 Quattro in particular can, when in its narrow comfort zone, be sensationally good. But that zone is far too narrow, and the handling of blown highlights so horribly ugly that I’ve sadly decided not to go with the sd Quattro.

    Apart from that, I have a secret weapon: Medium Format film. The most technically beautiful images in my vaults originate from my Voigtländer Bessa 667, almost certainly the last, and imho the best MF film camera ever to be made. And not far behind, but showing its age a bit with the optics, is the Linhof 612PCii. From both of these I get images which breathe more than the mFT output, are more lucid, more spacious, more organic. All of this is totally non technical and subjective, but to me it leaps from the screen or print, and what basically matters is that ultimately MF film gives more more satisfaction than mFT digital. Sigma digital might well be the solution, if only the comfort zone was larger and the sd camera had been designed for dedicated, compact lenses.

    So, the question is, given that film is getting less practical by the month, how can I find the same characteristics from digital? Will an X1D deliver a similar differential to mFT ? The X1D or GFX are just within affordable for me, but justifiable is another matter. If, from what I gather here, they might not be.

    • I suggest the Pentax 645D — not the 645Z. Reason being, the Kodak CCD sensor appears to me to be more film-like, with better tonal separation in shadows and highlights rather than the more stark contrast of the latter. The bigger DR and lower noise of the newer camera’s sensor doesn’t translate to the kind of IQ that I want.

      • david mantripp says:

        Thanks for the suggestion. I am a bit put off by the bulk of the Pentax… but having said that, back in the day I always admired the 645 film camera…

      • It’s great value right now on the used market, too. However, beware of the limited 100k shutter life on both bodies. The 645Z has a very linear native tonal response, that transitions quickly into hard clipping with most of the dynamic range in the shadows – the files are not so easy to work with. By ‘Film-like’ you probably mean ‘nonlinear’ or with smooth highlight rolloff (since film does not fully saturate in the same way as digital)…

    • I think I know what you mean by ‘brittleness’ – it’s as though the tonal values start separating in a non-linear and non-continuous way once you start doing any heavy processing or color temperature or ambient light levels get extreme. I suspect this is a consequence of much smaller photo sites (meaning smaller overall signal levels) combined with lower read noise: what little read noise remains therefore becomes heavily amplified once you go past the threshold at which it becomes noticeable. The files then become tonally malleable up to a point (read noise not visible) but then start to ‘break’ very quickly once you go past that point, and posterisation, artefacts, noise etc. start to occur.

      No arguments on MF film from me! That said: the MF sensors now are about as close as you’re going to get in the digital world. And the same sensor can have very different tonal and color response depending on the CFA and back end processing hardware – having owned a 645Z, used the Phase One IQ250 and owned all of the Hasselblads containing the same 44x33mm 50MP Sony CMOS, I can tell you they do not handle light the same way, at all. For raw files, default settings – Pentax is very linear; clipping is clipping and some curve work is required to get what you would expect tonally. The P1 is less linear and more natural but somewhat muted and flat; the Hasselblads are more punchy and color-accurate, but appear to have less DR (even though this is not the case – highlight and shadow tails are very long and roll off smoothly). This is probably about as close to film as you can get (without going to the 54×40 100MP sensor, which has slightly smaller photo sites but benefits from a generation newer technology, so actually shows DR gains over the smaller 50MP).

    • Martin Fritter says:

      You are perhaps aware that there are no Voigtlander Bessa III 667 Rangefinder cameras available on eBay? Zero! Now I covet one all the more. I have a soft spot for Voightlander: their Nikon/Canon mount lenses are wonderful. (Not so much the M-mount ones.) They’re a pleasantly eccentric outfit. I have their 90mm APO 3.5 F-mount and it has a screw-on metal lens cap.

      Curious about how you scan your film.

  6. AmirAli says:

    Great article Ming.
    One thing that in this market really bugs me , is the persistent of the manufacturers on the f1.4 lenses. Hardly you find a premium line of f2 , f2.4 or f2.8 lenses that has latest technologies in lens development as they put in their f1.4 lenses (as they advertise). At focal lengths beyond 50 , f1.4 (alot of time even f2) is just too shallow (FF eqv.). For me that unicorn camera could have been FF if Zeiss made Otus f2 or f2.5. But a D850 with an Otus is more than 2 kgs and not good for your back and shoulders. I hope other companies follow hasselblad and produce quality slower lenses.

    • I tried to convince them there was a market for f2-2.8 Otuses (and they’d be a lot smaller as optical complexity reduces dramatically as a lens slows down for a given resolving power) – but they decided not to proceed. Put it this way: there’s a reason why MF lenses generally come in one (sensible) speed and are all built ‘as good as they can be’…

      • AmirAli says:

        Would you write comprehensive post about thechnichalities and challenges of deinging the XCD series ? (Im very fascinated if its not obvious :D)
        One more thing , How much do you think the medium format can push(progress) toward the “edge of the envelope ?

        • I wouldn’t be allowed to as there’s a lot of confidential technology-related information involved.

          There’s still more performance to be had from MF – mostly on the resolution side – but how much can be practically deployed is another thing, of course. Also depends on user skill…

  7. I’d like to add a parameter that’s important in architectural photography: UWA perspective distortion. I have posited this before in forums, in response to which mathematicians, optics experts, and photographers vehemently disputed my theory, but I’m still convinced and I’d like to state it again: my intuitive sense, having worked quite a lot with 8×10″ film and mFT format, is that, for a given FOV (and output size), smaller formats cause more stretching of the image toward edges and corners, therefore more perspective distortion. It’s difficult to test this empirically (partly due to different aspect ratios and stretching caused by software convergence correction), but in my attempts comparing 8×10″/120mm lens vs. mFT/7mm lens, after convergence correction and cropping I could not match the large format results with similar captures from the small format camera. IMO there is nothing better than a large format camera for architecture (the larger the better), even considering the capabilities of T-S lenses in FF format. I sold my view camera equipment some years back because it became impractical for commercial work, but I miss that quality of rendering. I may be wrong, but I suggest this is one “special something” — superior “spatial realism” — that larger formats deliver, even when less extreme FOVs are captured. It could be another aspect of “equivalence” that escapes definition.

    • I was just thinking this same thing a day or two ago…a smaller capture format requires a greater reduction of the actual mass of light reaching the sensory device to actually fit on it…so for larger scene based photography the larger formats do in fact distort less and convey a greater sense of scale and presence and less perspective distortion at least to these eyes…I own and use mFT/Olympus, APSc/Fuji and 36X24mm/Pentax and I feel they are all great yet certainly different.

      • Not sure this is technically correct, but the lesser distortion you’re seeing is almost certainly due to optical design factors/ compromises for shorter real focal lengths.

        • Terry B says:

          Of course, Ming. It’s not the sensor format that gives rise to this problem, but lens design and constraints. Those of us who use 35mm and who favour wide angle have always had this issue, the wider the FoV (shorter focal length) simply exaggerates it more and the more expensive the lens it can only reduce the degree, not eliminate it. It is easier to implement and design a large format lens, whatever its focal length, than it is the far shorter focal lengths that smaller sensors demand. These very short focal lengths require extreme precision and tight tolerances that are simply unnecessary for large format lenses that just don’t have, or need, the same resolving power, for example.

          • Large format lenses have other challenges (namely coverage and corner consistency). But also benefit from the fact that people who shoot larger format really want/need to, which in turn means there are no ‘budget’ MF/LF lenses…

            • Terry B says:

              Ming, perhaps no budget LF lenses if one insists on buying new, but a quick check on ebay reveals that the market is awash with LF lenses at, for what one gets, prices that are an absolute steal. LF lenses don’t need fancy computations, except the extreme W/A models, as most work at f5.6 or slower, and tend not to get beat up by their owners, so buying used is a very viable option.

              • Agreed, but my point was they were not designed to a budget from the beginning…secondary market value is something else entirely, of course.

                • Terry B says:

                  Agreed, Ming. That’s why today the used samples are such good value, one gets an awful lot of lens (and a shutter) or the money

                  • Fully agreed. Seems to be the way with very specialized/ esoteric stuff – either it costs a fortune used because they were only appreciated later, or can be had for a song.

    • I agree with this – in theory, with an ideal lens, it shouldn’t happen, but it seems that the nature of image projection for shorter real focal lengths (once the various optical factors are computed for) tends to be create strange stretching towards the edge. Larger formats therefore somehow look more ‘natural’ eve if the actual angles of view are the same. In short – it does exist, but it’s an optical design thing rather than a purely format-related one.

  8. Thom Hogan posted an article recently from a slightly different perspective “would I still invest in m4/3 gear?”, you might find it interesting if you haven’t read it already. To me, his and your article both validate my current opinion: MFT is great, but only to a point. I very much like my GX85 (and even the GM5), and with a small set of lenses (the 12-32, small 35-100, 15 1.7 and 42.5 1.7) it covers pretty much everything I need to a decent level within a surprisingly large envelope – as you explain above. But there is an upper limit, unfortunately, when it comes to your landscape example above, all other things being equal, he larger sensor will always win, and things *aren’t* equal, MFT sensor technology improvements seems to be lagging behind both Smartphones at the lower end and larger sensors at the higher end (the former because of the much larger user base, the latter I guess largely because of Sony’s investment). So although I’m happy with the GX85, there are some situations where I want higher resolution and better detail, and there is simply no point in spending more money on MFT when the limiting factor is currently the sensor – as you say the G9 is as big as a X1D, costs as much as a Sony A7III, but still only has 20MP and a base ISO of 200… unfortunately it looks like there’s still no perfect system for everything 🙂

    • Pretty much. That said, the developments in phones are mostly down to computational photography – be it on the raw image crunching side, or combinations of multiple cameras. The former will eventually find its way into dedicated cameras, but I think we are currently between hardware generations for most platforms.

      ‘Investment’ is a relative term – and depends very much on how you choose to define ‘return’. If you’re a pro, it’s simple – does the gear return more in revenue than you spent on it? If you’re an amateur, then does it give you pleasure greater than the pain of what you spent?

      • Phones will always be ahead of cameras, I think, unless you can get the DJI people to talk to their phone-manufacturing compatriots in Shenzhen? 🙂 A camera with Hasselblad quality lenses and phone-level processing and imaging sharing would be something very interesting to see….
        I think Thom meant “invest” in a loose sense, but I asked myself the same question with regards to “investment” a while back….as a non-pro I decided that the best quantitative measure that worked for me is to count the “good” photos I take, and balance it against the price in USD…. or a little more complicated as I score photos 1,2 or 4 points, but basically that’s it. This gives me a pretty good picture of which cameras / lenses are “earning their keep” and which ones aren’t. It’s also a good question to ask myself, if I buy this lens that costs $xxx, do I think I can take xxx good photos with it?

        • I keep saying it’s the processors…a good chunk of the cost of a phone is the chips and boards; for a camera it’s mostly the sensor. If you want the sensor and those chips…be prepared to pay a LOT. Example of computing power: the iPhone 8+ generation has about as much computing power as a MacBook Pro from just one generation ago…I can even open H6-100 raw files on it with LR mobile and work with reasonable speed.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      JJ part of the “problem” is that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”. Too often, the comments I see on the internet really revolve around the needs of the person writing them – not “the general public”.
      For what it’s worth, I have friends who love the Olympus cams with their 4/3 sensors and great range of glass. Personally, I want something with a larger sensor because I shoot a lot by available light and need to clamp down on digital noise more than most photographers perhaps do. And then again, there are the pros, whose commercial customers DEMAND that there’s less (or no) digital noise.
      And that’s just looking at one factor.
      What is truly outstanding about Ming’s article is that he throws all these factors up in the air and works through them, giving a balanced view on each of them in turn.
      In the end, we must make our own choices. To do that, it is far better to do it once we are more fully informed. And an article like this is invaluable, in reaching that point.

      • @JP Guaron, that’s exactly it, I like the MFT cameras, but sometimes I find them lacking, unfortunately there’s no single answer for everyone, I have to think about multiple factors…. and yes, Ming’s articles are great for explaining this sort of thing and giving a view that is not just a mouthpiece of a particular manufacturer or clickbait for advertising!

  9. Jean-Christoph Hasel says:

    Hy Ming,
    Considering the practical envelope, there is also a “how to” aspect.
    It’s more than enough for the technical equivalence for output input-purpose but what about the way you shoot:
    eye-level, navel or on the screen?
    It is not the same thing to shoot and talk through the lens with a body in front of the mouth or on the hips.
    In some cases, you are more incognito with a tripod stopped in a moving crowd than pointing and shooting on your “I” -level.
    Personally I feel the eye-level non productive because it cuts the dialogue, spoken or not, with the person you’re targeting even if it ‘s a professional model. As if the camera became a shield to protect itself and to consider the other as a potential aggressor.
    That’s why I loved the nikon DW waist-level viewfinder even if the output quality was lower from a technical point of view than bigger formats. And with Mr and Ms Everyone, I have the impression that the smaller the better the result will be.
    Regards.

    • I’ve left this out (along with other ergonomic concerns) as each format offers pretty much every method of shooting – you can find arms’ length, eye-level and waist level (groundglass or tilt LCD) for all sensor sizes.

  10. Michael T Tam says:

    The article has re-affirmed my current state of confusion, thanks. 🙂

    Now I can’t figure out if I am going to buy a Fuji X-H1 or not for a hybrid video/stills camera with its first implementation of IBIS. It’s about the same size and mass as a Panasonic G9, which is to say big and heavy. Too much? Not sure, but my switch from an OM-D E-M5 Mk. II to a Fuji X-T2 did not go as smoothly as imagined when I lost IBIS, so I’ve been keeping thoughts on the X-H1 as a possible answer to some issues.

    As noted, the recent advancements in stabilization, especially in the m4/3 area have raised the level of minimum quality for that system much higher than you would ordinarily expect. Frankly I took it for granted, and regret it. Will this X-H1 finally fix one of my biggest remaining issues, but with a cost in size, mass, and money that I find hard to agree with? Or is there a better alternative system?

    Primary attractions on the X-H1 are the shallower DoF that is easier to obtain on APS-C vs. m/43, and finally IBIS for stills and video in a Fuji. Thankfully it has a quick setting for video when you switch to that mode, so you don’t have to fiddle with all the control points that you would normally deploy on a typical Fuji for stills.

    The big thing on people’s minds is that it’s on the border of the A7III. Of course there’s issues with a FF sensor in regards to video stabilization effectiveness, not to mention a lack of smaller, quality, well priced lenses for Sony FE in particular. I’ve been eyeing it warily, but suffice to say, my previous experience with an A7RII was fairly negative, and I’m in no hurry to repeat that.

    So… top end m4/3, Fuji X-H1, or A7III. I remain as confused as ever, thank you Ming.

    • That’s only because you now understand the real situation: it *IS* confusing! 🙂

      I think your problem is you’re not sure what you were missing/ needed from the E-M5.2 – if you’re blindly ‘upgrading’, you may well find it not an upgrade at all…we must have a well-defined problem in order to have a good solution.

  11. Ming, thank you for this in-depth article and your thoughts on the subject. But for me, a more important aspect is how large I print. Since I can only go 24″ wide with my current printer, the MF 100mp is not going to out-do my D810, 55 Otus combo for practical purposes. YMMV. Fine. But I’ve been down the MF path and have found the differences in a print to be minuscule, certainly in the eyes of a consumer market.

    • At 24″ print sizes, and a consumer audience – I largely agree (unless you are shooting very high dynamic range subjects, or color that’s at the edge of the envelope – this will still show even if you are not resolution limited in output). Larger or more discerning, not so much…

  12. Alex Carnes says:

    For my own personal use and preferences: if I go somewhere to shoot and that’s why I’m there, I use my Nikons: D850 and D810. On a tripod with static subjects, in live view, focusing my Sigma Art glass manually… I don’t doubt that the medium format cameras you shoot are better, but from what I’ve seen, probably not much? And the D850 is incredibly good hand held in low light. Could any of these M4/3 IBIS cameras focus reliably in a gig? The D810 couldn’t which is partly why I now own a D850!

    Trouble is, I now no longer own a small camera, and the consequence is I shoot a lot less. The D850 is going nowhere, but I think I’ll be ordering an X-E3 very soon…

    • The difference is there if you can’t control the light, especially in both overall dynamic range and how that tonal response is allocated. The D850 seems to chuck a lot of the image in the shadows to preserve the highlights, necessitating heavy recovery; the 50MP MF stuff has the same overall clipping limits, but is more linear and outputs more in the midtones. If you can’t control lighting, that’s another thing entirely of course!

      M4/3 actually seems to focus a lot better than you’d expect. I agree the D810 wasn’t great, the D850 is much better, and the best of the M4/3 gear is not far off.

  13. Great article Ming! I just don’t know how to explain all these to my friends who were like “hey you have a fancy camera, why don’t you take a group picture” without realizing that a smartphone is better suited for such situations.

  14. Jay Connor says:

    “Two examples: a consumer APS-C-sized camera with weather sealing and no feature or control compromises (think D5600 or 200D size): or a 1″ camera with really top class interchangeable optics (well, Nikon tried, but the market didn’t accept it).”

    Well the first is covered by the not inexpensive Leica XU, I guess it doesn’t have the auto focus of say the Nikon D5600.

    Regards the second part: The the point is Nikon didn’t try real hard with the 1 system. Nikon was too slow in releasing faster lenses. Then Nikon released just one variation of the 1 series with a built in EVF. It didn’t have the strongest sensor, and that’s just about the time Sony released the RX100 Mark 1 (which of course also didn’t have a built in EVF).

    Then:

    “Or a rugged ‘professional’ compact, sensor size irrelevant. See what I mean?”

    Well, there’s the 1 inch sensored SeaLife DC2000.

    It’s well liked as a dive camera. I guess the raw buffering is very slow, but the image quality is excellent. It seems to be shooting 14 bit raws, which is odd for a the Sony 1 inch sensor it uses. 12 bit being normal. I’m sure SeaLife and add more RAM to improve buffering speed on a new version and drop the bit depth to 12.

    • The XU isn’t exactly uncompromised – it doesn’t have interchangeable lenses, lacks a viewfinder of any sort, and has minimalist external controls.

      Nikon didn’t market the 1 system well – and I think it must have been killed internally (“your flagship 1 is going to cost HOW MUCH?” “why don’t we promote higher margin APSC instead?”)

      Similarly, I’m not sure I’d call the SeaLife professional in a broad sense – it is for a specific niche, but isn’t a general tool in the same way a D850 is.

      • Jay Connor says:

        I didn’t realize “uncompromised” meant interchangeable lenses.

        The XU most certainly has an external VF, optical, with electronic focus lock indication. (No, not usable underwater, of course.)

        “and has minimalist external controls.”

        It has the controls of a Leica X, the current one. Hardly minimal, wheels, dials, buttons. Basically it has the controls of a digital M.

        True, I don’t think the SeaLife DC2000 is a professional dive camera. It is however quite a capable dive camera, and the jpegs I’ve seen from it are excellent. I have not managed to find raws, and everyone reports the raw buffering is terrible.

        It’s not simply bad marketing that killed the Nikon 1, or has nearly killed, it’s that lack of an EVF on all but one model, and that model is several iterations in the past.

  15. This is the best treatment of a complex subject I’ve read.

    The 1″ format seems to offer the most possibilities for expanding the envelope of performance but the economics of manufacture, as the Nikon 1 demonstrated, makes high performance bodies and lenses in that format no cheaper than larger ones (and harder to market.) The better Sony RX cameras use that format to good effect, albeit in a fixed lens zoom. I’ve been shooting mostly small sensor (Pentax Q7 1/1.7″ ) cameras lately and found that its small sensor size (with BSI and IBIS) often opens up new opportunities at the edge of the envelope, particularly in regards to depth of field. Its format also is a perfect match to c-mount lenses, which opens up a whole new world of interesting optics.

    A small camera has, of course, a great advantage in its lack of “intimidation effect” when shooting people.

    • Thanks. It’s a shame 1″ development never really progressed to the point of maturity, but I suspect you’re right that it was a difficult thing to market given cost and perceived ‘amount of camera’ you receive in return. I admit I’ve personally wanted to try Nikon 1 on many occasions, but been put off by the fact that the top level body costs nearly as much as the top level APSC body…before adding lenses.

  16. I have done my home work comparing the latest mirrorless offerings from Sony, Fuji and Olympus. The outcome remains that there is no point for me to switch from E-M1.2 to any of the competition. I give up maybe one stop in overall image quality when using prime lenses, but when it comes to tele zooms, Olympus wins.

    Take for example the 40-150mm f/2.8, which is 80-300mm f/5.6 equivalent. Right now it can be had for around 1000 euros new. Fuji has the 50-140mm f/2.8 (75-210mm f/4.2 eq) that is bigger, more expensive, less reach, smaller zoom ratio, worse maximum magnification. With 1.4x TC it is 294mm f/5.9 equivalent in the long end, so it actually trails behind Olympus when trying to match reach. Sony has a 70-200mm f/4, and with 1.4x TC it becomes 280mm f/5.6 in the long end. Again bigger and more expensive with no real gains. Sure, they also have a 70-200mm f/2.8 and 100-400mm f/4.5-f/5.6, but even those are just one stop ahead of the Olympus lens, with triple the price and double the weight.

    That said, Sony has really upped the game recently with the latest A7 iterations. The stabilizer looks pretty good, uncompressed RAW, much improved battery life and ergonomics, and the AF-C performance is rather impressive. For somebody who mainly shoots wide angle and normal primes, their system is really hard to beat.

    • Terry B says:

      With respect, Mikko, you can’t really compare lenses from different manufacturers using different sized sensors. The sensor size alone will impact on what is reasonably practical for that format, something Ming does allude to. m4/3rds does favour telephoto FoV for any focal length due to the crop factor, but conversely m4/3rds suffers in comparison, in general, when it comes to wide angle. Taken to extremes, we see bridge cameras using tiny 1/2.3 sensors achieve enormous zoom ranges; the quite popular and compact Panasonic FZ200 manages an equivalent focal length of 25mm to 600mm, x24 zoom, and at f2.8 throughout. As you are keen on telephoto pulling power, are you suggesting you should get this? Of course not, I don’t think you’re that daft. :D)

      • Yes, simply using equivalency is not all there is to it, that’s true. Ultra wide angle seems to be pretty much out of reach for m4/3 users, as is tilt-shift. Still, equivalency is a useful and simple metric to roughly estimate the image quality potential of a given camera system. In your example, the FZ200 has a crop factor of 5.6, which makes the equivalent aperture about f/16. Sure, at the 600mm end it’s actually quite decent, only trailing m4/3 by a stop or two depending on what lens you compare to. However, at the wide end it’s quite underwhelming, actually falling behind some cell phones.

        • Both manufacturers have 7-14mm (14-28 equiv) lenses – how much wider do you need? 😉

          As for tilt shift – tilt is somewhat less important due to extended DOF, but I agree shift would be useful. There are adaptors but they rely on manual legacy lenses which are not system optimised and usually quite poor solutions.

    • I’m not even sure that’s the case – Olympus and Panasonic now have f1.2 primes, and combined with IBIS, you’re probably one stop up (or more) on the competition once light levels start to fall.

      Remember also that whilst apertures scale with roughly doubling of the diagonal in terms of perceived DOF equivalence, the light gathering ability remains per the numerical aperture: so f2.8 on M4/3 might look like f5.6 on FF, but it gathers f2.8 worth of light vs f5.6 worth of light – two stops of shutter speed in the real world.

  17. Yves Simon says:

    For most passionate and ‘generalist’ photographers, it would make sense to have two systems – 1” and APS-C, or M43 and FF.
    I like to travel, am not physically strong and therefore would tend to go for the former combination, but there really is a deficit in the actual offer in these formats, as you point out in your very interesting paper. Ergonomy and lenses sharpness are often inadequate in 1” compact cameras. The Nikon 7200 lack specific lenses. The Pentax KP (I have one) is heavy and has a short battery life (superb IQ though). The Fuji XT20 lacks IS, is less ergonomic that I thought seeing the superb shutter speed dial, and it seems that I cannot get really sharp jpeg files with it. Also, very few primes in the tele range.
    Despite my ‘logical’ choice (1” + APS-C) I am using more and more M43 gear since I tried that system. I see that you like it too, and I have an immense respect for your work. Will probably switch fully to M43. If I expanded to FF, do you prefer Nikon or Canon? I am shooting many things (cities, landscapes, people, buildings, flowers, wildlife, art,…) but not sports. I already have a collection of AIs lenses, but don’t know if they are easy to focus on a Nikon D-SLR.

    • The incompleteness of the systems is what tends to swing it in borderline cases. If a lens or critical accessory simply does not exist, then it’s a no go.

      No bad choices with FF, much down to which system you prefer ergonomically…I use Nikon with the occasional foray to Canon, but am very happy with the D850.

  18. Great analysis, Ming. Thoughtful and detailed and as clear as possible. I’m impressed by, and glad of, your non-dogmatic approach to formats. Of course you are right that there is no ‘free lunch’ in optics. Each of us learns to compromise; even if we don’t always appreciate the full nature of the compromise until after we’re stuck with it. So it is really very helpful to have this intelligent examination of the choices.

    I’ve chosen M4/3 (OLY) for the weight, size, lenses and stabilisation: I often shoot people using the OLY 75mm f1.8 in poor light at 400-800 ISO up to f4.0 at 1/20-1/40 hand-held and can still count on maybe 2/5 of the images being useable (without aggressive noise-recovery or de-blur) and some ‘perfect’. Of course I’d love to have MF DR and MF lenses — I’m thinking of your Thaipusam images — but there’s no free lunch in dimensions or price…and articles such as this give me reason to be content with that.

  19. Said AZIZI says:

    I think in this day and age, AI should be included in this talk. It might be the reason for some manufacturer to get a « free lunch ». Really, pictures taken with the Pixel 2, iPhone X or the Huawei P20 Pro are nothing short of amazing. Including the same tech in a 1 inch sensor format will create wonders.

    Btw, I think it’s about time we see Hasselblad name on a smrtphone… à la Leica ?

    • I’ve left AI out because it can be applied across the board and is independent of capture format – the same AI could well be applied to larger sensors, too – and the relative gap remains the same.

      I’m very much against a ‘Hasselblad phone’ – we are camera makers, and a phone can never be camera-centric without compromising the phone part or vice versa. Leica also cobrands to make headphones and mugs and a whole bunch of other stuff; it’s a branding exercise. That, and it seems there may be something financial going on behind the scenes between Leica and Huawei…

      • Suppose there were interchangeable phones ported to replace integrated LCD screens on FF or MF cameras?

        • It’d make composition and viewing better, but I don’t see how that would change the fundamental properties of the lens/sensor…

          • I was imagining this possibility in response to your statement “…a phone can never be camera-centric without compromising the phone part or vice versa.” …unless the two were to be physically and computationally combined but still be independently usable. Since smartphone tech is evolving rapidly along with WiFi and internet connectivity, while the market for ILCs continues to dwindle, why not make an upgrade-able phone component compatible with the ILC? Seems to me that would make a perfect marriage. Future capabilities of AI including advanced capture and processing options developed for phones, would then become available combined with the high IQ of a dedicated camera body, to enhance a photographer’s speed-proficiency-versatility-profitability without having to upgrade the camera body. Extended power would also be available to the phone from the camera body. Many other potential advantages come to mind, including obviating the need for post processing on a desktop system (file transfer to a tablet should be adequate for larger screen viewing requirements). Samsung could have pulled this off; now maybe Huawei-Leica could start the ball rolling.

            • But neither would work independently (or if the camera could still be used as a camera, the computational part would have to remain in the camera – the phone would just be a display). I must be missing something here…

              • I don’t see why not. The camera would have limited computational capabilities (enough to write files to disk and view on its own screen) while the smartphone would have its own similar ones (limited in its lens-sensor capability) plus more advanced ones to enhance the capture, processing, and connectivity of the camera functionality, as these advances are added to smartphones (some already exist that surpass high-end cameras). Plug smartphone into camera to go full bore. Unplug to go small and light. Features developed for mobile devices due to assured ROI can then be available to bigger-sensor IL cameras. Imagine for example, an optional interface: voice commands instead of the often dauntingly complex menus of digital cameras.

                • So basically you’d only have raw in camera only, and processed files (plus other computational stuff) with the phone attached – I’m still not seeing it. Given the computational bits of a phone don’t add much weight and volume (most is battery and screen, and necessarily duplicated by the camera in standalone mode) – surely it’d be easier just to up the computational game on the camera side…

                  • I suggest smartphone tech goes beyond the “computational bits” that you seem to be perceiving as the extent of existing camera functionality. I’m talking about AI: advanced camera-lens control and processing algorithms; enhanced memory and recognition of user commands and prefs instead of crude menus and presets; high-speed conferencing and connectivity with clients; all done on-the-fly with ease.

                    Example: An architect commissions me to photograph his/her completed building in a different city, but s/he can’t be present during the shoot. I set up a link with my smartphone device so that proxy images can be relayed directly from the camera while I’m simultaneously receiving voice instructions from him/her and consulting a floor plan and other graphics which the client is marking up as we speak. After I make various requested changes, s/he gives me the OK to shoot, then I tell the camera to shoot, process, and immediately transfer the high res image via internet, so the firm can enter it into a competition or ad placement ASAP to meet a deadline. These steps would be initiated by voice commands. I don’t think this could be done without integration of an advanced smartphone and higher-end camera system, neither of which alone could enable handling all the functions.

                    I have experienced the pressure of working on a tight (seemingly impossible) deadline, and the client’s frustration of not getting everything or exactly what they expected because they could not be present during the shoot or because they could not anticipate this during consultation. I imagine such a multi-function / multi-tasking capability would be invaluable to a wide range of commercial applications and would make the photographer a “star” in the eyes of clients.

                    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

                      John, that then becomes YOUR choice – your solution, to the technical and client-related problems that YOU face in your market. I’m the opposite – I love playing around with cameras and taking photos with them and finding out more about what – for me – is the traditional photographic process. To be perfectly honest – I’ve used my cellphone only once to take a photo, and the only other cellphone photos I’ve ever taken have both been photos (with a full frame Nikon D810 camera and an Otus 55mm lens) of people using cellphones to capture their shots.
                      This post of Ming’s has been fantastic. It has been forcing people to think – what is it that I do? – what is the gear that I REALLY need, to get the shots that I want? The flood of different answers shows what a remarkable person Ming is. We all know he normally shoots MF (but not always). He didn’t push ANY particular point of view or choice. And he has opened everyone’s eyes in a way I’ve never before seen on an internet chat page. All this in his own time, at no cost to anyone else except him. This is absolutely the best website I’ve ever come across, as far as I personally am concerned.

                    • Thanks – it all boils down to one simple question: what do you actually want to do? So long as one can be objective about assessing relative merits of hardware, and of a high enough skill level to compose independently of equipment and fully maximize potential – then the choices are fairly easy.

                      As for the article – well, I’ll assume imitation is flattery since DPReview posted a poorly written rehash a few days later… 🙂

                    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

                      ROTFLMHAO – you can bask in the reflected glory – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – despite their position in the world of photography, it seems they had to consult your site and borrow from you to write their article !!!

                    • It isn’t the first time by any means. I remember being turned down for a job with them more than 10 years ago…

                    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

                      Send a polite “thank you” note to Karma ! 🙂

                    • One never knows how the alternate future would have turned out…

                    • Actually, we’re talking about the same thing. A lot of that *can* be integrated into the camera portion – why it hasn’t yet been done is for two reasons: significant existing investment in the electronic platform (most manufacturers now are either between major generations or do not see the potential return to invest in major redevelopment). The second is simply a fairly limited market – whilst I can fully appreciate the scenario you describe, the vast majority of revenue comes from consumers who want simpler, not more complex. There’s already far more capability and choice available in the current hardware than most people have ability or inclination to learn…

  20. Ming thanks for this overview.
    However when it comes down to actual hardware, and if you are not going to purchase top shelf items due to price or size/weight, then the reality is that your actual choice is somewhat limited.
    APS-C canikony cameras represent the majority of interchangeable lens cameras, yet they have the lowest diversity of native lens selection, unless you only require basic to mid spec zooms.
    Fuji have a good sense of clarity and logic to their lens selection. Pentax may be worth a look if the retailers showed some support, probably depends on your location. Even Samsung offered more choice than canikon.

    I think that Micro 4/3 is the only mount that that can truly claim to provide real choice or options that make sense of the issues you discussed. The combined choices cover the largest shooting envelope of any mount available, just not at the biggest, megapixelish, V8 mentality, end of the spectrum.
    In the IL camera world there is little (no?) reward for the manufactures that provide the greatest diversity of IL/shooting envelope. So ironic.
    Regards Noel

    • Also fair comments. And even if you are going for top shelf hardware, you’re still somewhat limited as those sensors are a lot more picky about what glass they’ll play nice with; the overall system size isn’t that big, either. The big manufacturers offering complete FF lineups see APSC as a stepping stone or mass consumer model, not a complete product line in itself – IQ isn’t different enough to FF for the vast majority of people, size isn’t materially different, so why develop a complete half-step rather than a full one?

      In my mind, it’s the recent purpose-developed systems that give you the best options – M4/3, Fuji X, the new mirrorless 44x33s. Sony FF still has the lens limitations of FF, but the compromised ergonomics of a small body. Perhaps we can include Leica in the mirrorless FF camp, but either the system technology itself is very limited (rangefinder) or the hardware is huge (SL).

  21. Robert M Scott says:

    Brilliant article Ming, I am glad I opted for the m43 route with premium lenses, I have never looked back.
    Cheers,Rob.

  22. This is the sort of nuanced analysis I crave, and is so often lacking.

    I started my journey into photography with the Oly E-M5 in 2012. I’m still not great at it, but I keep trying. This body is feeling slow now. Mostly the AF and overall responsiveness. Your post goes straight to the heart of my upgrade quandary. I love my Oly 75 f/1.8 to bits, I almost don’t want to part with the system because of that lens alone. But MFT cameras are getting large, as are the lenses. The EM1.2 is as big as the Sony A7.3 with its FF sensor. Of course that’s not fair due to lens size differences (except the Oly 25mm is actually huge). Then Fuji has the only competent APS-C system on the market. Sony has the best sensor and the best AF.

    It’s a confusing mess.

    Thank you for giving me another thought technology with which to apply to these decisions.

    • I find the deeper you tend to analyse, the greyer all areas tend to get…either you give up entirely, or find yourself with more hardware than you know what to do with and a little anxiety deploying it!

      Not all M4/3 is large – I agree the top end stuff is too big, and defeats the point somewhat. But the GX85 or Pen-F-sized things with sensible f1.8 or pancake lenses restore that balance somewhat; also, if you want to compare pro M4/3 with f1.2 lenses, then you should look at pro FF with f1.4 lenses (since there aren’t any f1.2s) – the size difference becomes significant again. Sony A7 series cameras are only small with certain lenses – there’s no cheating the laws of optics and sensor coverage.

      • Right you are, not all MFT is large.

        I think various cameras and systems hit inflection points where all of the right technologies and product developments come together. For Sony the A7.3 is that camera. There are just enough lenses to support it, the battery is large, AF is quite good, the right compromises were made. It’s the camera Sony always wanted to make, and they finally did it.

        Olympus has the wonderful habit of putting as much high-end tech as possible into smaller bodies. The EM5.2 took nearly everything from the EM1 and made it smaller. Perhaps the EM5.3 will take the blazing speed/AF of the EM1.2 and make it small. That would be an inflection point worthy of investment. Bring along the Pana 35-100 f/2.8, Oly 45 f/1.8, and similar. Take the small parts of MFT and build a kit with it. It’s definitely an option I am heavily leaning towards.

        • Am I the only one who feels that Olympus is doing it wrong by cramping as much stuff as possible into small camera bodies? To me it’s the opposite of wonderful. I have had E-M5, PEN-F and I still have E-M10. Especially PEN-F was, in the end, a mistake because of the amount of external controls and how cramped they are. It was way too easy to accidentally press buttons. The camera got into the way of making images. And I see the same trend with all Olympus cameras now, no matter the size: put in as many external (often useless) controls as possible. This is evident at least in the new E-M10 and E-M1.

          Ditching PEN-F for Fuji X100F was a revelation. Though I still keep the E-M10 for the occasion when a zoom or tele is needed.

          • No, I think there’s definitely benefit to streamlining/ simplifying controls in a sensible way. The problem is, the internet, ‘reviewers’ etc. keep dinging products that are missing a feature or two, so we land up with the kitchen sink and something that’s generally compromised. Never mind the fact that most of these ‘experts’ never actually use a camera in any meaningful way…

  23. Hi Ming, Thank you! Very enjoyable read as always! Yes, we tend to hunt the perfect camera and I actually came to similar conclusion few days ago, that instead buying the ONE newest and seemingly the greatest camera, I might just go for slightly “dated” cameras but keeping in mind what I am expecting from it! In other words, I will have not one “Swiss army knife” kind of camera, but 2 or even 3 which will do there intended purpose best.. not only for the best results, but most of all for the better sooting experience for the given situation! Thank you! Have a great day! Adrian

  24. Ming: not confusing at all, IMHO. An excellent article on equivalence; not saying that there are not differences, but that the overlap in the windows is probably larger than most people think, even if only considering sensor dimensions. And (having just had one of my workshops photographed by someone with a really good eye, using an Android phone) as always, content trumps everything else.

    Personally, like jean pierre above, and as an ex-commercial film photographer who also shot all the medium formats up to 6 x 9cm, I love what I can do with the µ4/3rds cameras I have.

  25. Tim Shoebridge says:

    Great article Ming and a very informed read. When chasing that magic single camera solution, my life really turned into Mission Impossible when I started to take a keen interest in shooting video. Finding a single hybrid camera that can satisfy my requirements for both stills and video really is the Holy Grail. There is a lot of competition in both MFT and FF formats, though all have significant compromises, and I can’t help but feel that APS-C could be the ideal format for a hybrid camera. It seems strange sometimes that so few camera manufacturers are really investing in APS-C mirrorless technology….

    • Actually, the biggest challenge when switching between stills/video isn’t the sensor so much as the control set – it’s nearly impossible to have a default layout that works for both, without either having to memorise a lot of button assignments or having so manny buttons you have to stop to look for the one you want. This in turn leads to form factor/ ergonomic issues; the E-M1.2 is actually very good for video technically and in the field, but the controls are clearly optimised for stills.

      As for APS-C – I’ve always felt it to be a bit in no-mans-land because the physical hardware is almost FF-sized (e.g. D500 vs D750), but there’s a clear performance deficit. M4/3 has a clear (and often sensible) tradeoff between physical size and image quality, but claws back quite a bit through the effectiveness of its stabilisation systems over larger formats simply because there’s less mass to move around quickly and precisely. This may have something to do with it.

      • Terry B says:

        Ming, the size issue with APS-C is because that’s what the manufacturers pump out, despite Sony showing how small a body could get with its Nex 5N, for example. But of course this does away with the mirror reflex housing to achieve this.

        Given that in area, an APS-C sensor isn’t that much larger than m4/3rds, is it outside the possibility of manufacturers to come up with a dslr not that much larger than the current crop of m4/3rds bodies, certainly the top end models? Or is it, as I suspect, the likes of Canikon, for example would rather push us down the FF route at the expense of APS-C and developing future APS-C models is maybe less of a priority? There have been significant strides in m4/3rds such that the real difference between the two as regards IQ has mostly been eroded. As you pointed out, there is little difference in the size of the bodies for FF and APS-C that given the IQ difference, what’s the point of APS-C going forward? And for how long will Sony support its Nex series with the most up-to-date technology?

        If I can add to your comparison table of sensor size including stabilisation, there was one camera that sported a stabilised f1.4 lens, albeit it was a 24-90 equivalent zoom, and it dropped to f2.3 at maximum zoom, but from 24-35 it held up well losing just .2 of a stop, and this was the Panasonic LX7 with its 1/1.7 sensor.

        • The NEX-6 and derivatives aren’t much larger but put the EVF back in. Agreed that the body isn’t the problem; it’s mostly back to the lenses. Consumer zooms, one or two token moderate speed primes, nothing really of note…from any of the manufacturers.

          There’s still a difference between the 20MP M4/3 cameras and 24MP APS-C ones, but that is completely gone (and more) under low light conditions once we factor in the M4/3 cameras’ stabilisation. Bu a small APS-C DSLR still has a lot of mechanical hardware and optics in it that a M4/3 camera doesn’t, and the smallest you can do would be something like the Canon 100D or 200D – both of which are larger than an E-M1.2 and have rather poor finders. A NEX-6 style form factor with the EVF at one end would be ergonomically better and offer a better view. But I don’t see Sony developing anything in this market as it would be likely to affect A7-series sales, and there isn’t enough margin at the consumer end of things. As you point out, the other DSLR brands would rather sell FF cameras as the margins are better (especially on lenses) – you’re unlikely to sell a midrange APSC DSLR paired with high end lenses; probably has something to do with why there are so many 18-something zooms.

          As for the LX7 – I had one, and an updated version might be interesting, but that sensor development path seems to have ended (or migrated to 1″). The increase in size to 1″ doesn’t seem to play as nice with optics, and most of the cameras in this category seem to have rather compromised lenses for some reason or other.

          • Terry B says:

            Ming, thanks for your detailed reply. I was disappointed in seeing the true line of LX cameras being put on steroids with the LX7 being the last in a line of quite exceptional pocket, well almost, friendly cameras. I’ve gone through all, save for the LX5, a friend got the 1, but I still own the 2, 3, and 7.

    • re. Ming’s “without either having to memorise a lot of button assignments or having so many buttons you have to stop to look for the one you want.”.

      I use four (yes, four) Panasonic GX85 bodies in my video studio (live to disk recording, switched on the desktop). This hugely under-rates Panny body is the best video camera I have used, and I have owned all the GH bodies (talking size/weight/control). Re. the challenge you mention in your reply, this is exactly the reason that I never take any of the Panny bodies out of the ‘circuit’: I can adjust any video parameter blindfolded in the studio—but if I take one out of the studio and reset it for stills, it’s ~five minutes to return it to the settings I have to have in the studio, and I can’t find the control I want instantly.

      I have owned all the Fuji bodies too, over the years, and the Panasonic bodies smoke the Fuji ones on the video side, re. ergonomics, output, and controls. So, for a dedicated stills camera, I will probably end up with a Sony A7S, using Oly OM manual lenses, just so the haptics are distinct; this body for stills, these ones for video. I think this is sensible, practically speaking.

  26. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Possibly the most thought provoking, intelligent and informative article on ANY aspect of photography that I have ever seen. Of course I’ve only been reading this stuff for around 65 years (I’m 75 now), so there are years ahead of me, in which to find something that might manage to outdo you, Ming – but it’s starting to look rather unlikely.
    I was intrigued by your comments on pixel size. Out there, there’s a whole bunch of ‘togs who seem to believe that “more is better”. And the odd few eccentrics suggesting “it ain’t necessarily so”. Some of the buzz seems to suggest that smaller pixels don’t give the same depth or richness in colours (we’re not talking those garish colours used in Kodacolor slide film to capture the mass consumer market – just the depth & richness of the real world!) One comment went so far as to suggest that smaller pixels end up “leaking” into one another, so you somehow lose some of what you gain by going for “more is better”. My own experience is limited by the fact that I rarely print larger than A3 – and in any case I haven’t a photography degree or a scientific background – just a lifetime of “I know what I like”. But shooting with a range of cams (a Canon PowerShot with a 12.8MP sensor – a D7200 with 24.2MP – and a D810 with 36MP), I have often been intrigued by the colour gamut from the smaller Canon sensor – is it also due to a native difference between Canon & Nikon sensors? And many pros out there have suggested that most photographers will never really “need” more than about 12MP tp get a sharp enough shot for their purposes, since they aren’t shooting for commercial customers and will never create 70cm x 1M prints.
    Stabilisers are another welcome addition. Through most of my analogue era, I was grateful to Zeiss for producing a really “heavy” camera (I had one of their Contarex cams, with magazine backs and a selection of their lenses), and the sheer weight of the camera, coupled with a hugely smooth shutter movement, gave me stability that I never found in most of the other cams I was using at the time. Now, I no longer need to keep a simultaneous diary note of the meta data – the digital world does it all for me – and I am often blown away by what these cams can do. I shoot a lot of available light stuff, cranking the ISO (watching for digi noise), opening up the aperture, and often leaving it to the camera to decide on shutter speed. (Yeah, I know that’s sloppy, but my wife gets mad at me if I fool around with an exposure meter and all the other niceties. Sometimes “quick” is all I can do.) And producing what – for me – is incredible images – tack sharp, at shutter speeds ranging down to 1/10th of a second hand held. Before these cams turned up, I would never have dreamed of doing such a thing!
    I still love looking at your postings – the look of the images from your MF gear is unquestionably “better”. Back in the analogue era I often shot with 6×6 or 6×9 cams, or even – for a while – a 4×5 (that’s inches, here). And much as I loved my 35mm Contarex, “bigger is/was better”!

    • Thanks! To some of the specific points:

      It’s nearly impossible to compare a sensor of a given size with more/less photo sites AND an equal level of development, simply because they don’t exist: the newer stuff always has more photo sites. Such comparisons are therefore based off a stacked deck – of course more is better, because a 2017 FF sensor with 50MP will outdo a 2007 one with 12MP even at the pixel level – there have been several generations of development by their point.

      That said, lenses, micro lenses and whole-system resolving power also need to be taken into account: a good example is the thick cover glass on M4/3 cameras, which severely limits performance of adapted lenses which were not designed with this additional optical element in mind. The ‘leakage’ people are commenting on is probably coma.

      The difference in gamut between Canon and Nikon sensors is down to the pixel level architecture which in turn affects channel dynamic range which then goes on to affect color – so yes, the color differences might well be down to the sensor hardware (as well as processing choices made by the manufacturers to retain ‘house’ color). As for MF – at web sizes, it’s only down to dynamic range and color, and even then – a lot of the color nuances are lost in downsampling. The difference is far more obvious at original sizes, of course. But in this case we are talking both more photo sites, larger photo sites, and not that much difference in technological maturity to smaller formats…

      • Thank you Ming for another very informative article. I happen to have an old Lumix 4/3 25mm Summilux lens that I like very much for it’s rendering. Is it a good lens to use on my Olympus E-M1 besides the size of the old lens? Or will the thick cover glass cause coma as you mentioned in the above reply?

        • 4/3 and M4/3 share the same cover glass, so you should be fine. It might be a bit slow to focus though as it’s an earlier design (and I believe the new focusing motors are much faster and optimised for CDAF).

          • Thank you Ming again for your prompt answer. I was surprised that the focus was quiet and instantaneous. Perhaps because I am using the Panasonic DMW-MA1 mount adaptor on my Olympus E-M1. It has the “Leica look” and very sharp with pleasing color rendition that I like. I am so glad that I asked for your opinion. I was about to trade in for the M4/3 25mm Summilux. Now I only had to buy an used DMW-MA1 adapter that I can also use it for my 4/3 D-VARIO-ELMARIT 14-50mm lens I kept from my Leica Digilux-3 camera.

  27. Rudolf O. Friederich says:

    Very informative and helpful! Thank you.

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