Coda: Guess the format

The previous post of course needs a conclusion; some of you guessed right and said cameraphone, but others were thrown off by apparent DOF and background blurring and other factors. There are very few giveaways: yes, it’s possible to have shallow DOF with a camera phone: ‘telephoto’ module, near subject, distant background; and computational bokeh options on subjects that lack messy edges and where there are clear transitions works quite convincingly. Perspective isn’t even limited now – given we are starting to see very wide and very long focal length modules on cameraphones. Dynamic range can be managed, and even larger sensors clip. Rolloff can be improved, but to be honest – I was deliberately a bit sloppy with the PP here to give the audience some help. I also left everything in monochrome: I find the biggest remaining give-away at web sizes to be color tonality and accuracy; DOF can be managed in either direction by choice, but you have to work very, very hard to get accurate color out of a small sensor. I suspect this is for a number of reasons: lack of individual sensor calibration and variation in the CFAs; early individual channel clipping due to dynamic range limitations.

But the point of all this is of course that at these (typical) viewing sizes: it’s pretty damn difficult to see any difference. The more ultimate IQ your hardware has, the larger in output size and higher in tonal gamut you need to go in order to see any difference. And given where we are today even with small sensors, I’m going to repeat the same things about sufficiency for 99%, self-awareness for the special needs of the 1%. Back the point most ‘photography’ sites choose to miss (and even readers here selectively interpret): by far the largest deficiency, area for improvement and limitation – for all of us – is the operator. Nice hardware might make shooting more pleasant, or motivate you to get out and use it: but ultimately you still have to make the image. MT


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  1. Fun fact: I made a comment on a dpreview forum recommending someone to choose the tool that best fits his needs instead of just going “bigger” (FF) without good reasons. Then in came the horde of FF zealots preaching their gospels of sensor sizes, circles of confusion, light physics (which accuracy I am highly doubtful about), and associated suspicious sciences.

    • Well, one of the ‘best’ and most popular camera ‘reviewers’ and ‘photographers’ is now selling ghost hunting equipment, so suspicious sciences doesn’t surprise me at all. 99.99% of ‘photography’ on the internet is for the insecure looking for justification for their buying choices, and nothing to do with actual images…

  2. Egmont Bonomi says:

    Agree with you one hundred percent Ming. For web applications (Flickr etc.) and social media (Instagram etc.), a high-end smartphone could replace an ILC 99% of the time. That’s exactly why I stay away from sharing any of my work on those platforms. Easy for me to do since I am just an amateur, impossible for a working professional that needs to get his work out. I stick to making prints and showing them to friends and family or face-to-face meetings with fellow enthusiasts with a 12.9 iPad. That’s where I draw the line. It’s a conscious decision I make to avoid selling myself short…

    • The large iPad does an above average job of display, I think – between screen resolution and gamut you *can* see the difference most of the time. Also my choice for presenting portfolios to clients; reality is most of this stuff is now distributed digitally anyway – but they always want the flexibility to do something else with it, especially if a major shoot.

  3. iPhone X(s)? And you use the same camera profile as before, or have you updated it for the newer phones?

    • I need to update it, but haven’t yet since these were monochrome. Hardware a mix of XS Max and 8+.

      • Ørjan Laxaa says:

        Is it difficult to create camera profiles from scratch? I’m upgrading from my half-broken iPhone 6s and I’m undecided between the iPhone Xr and the latest Samsung. On the 6s I use your profile (from the weekly Photoshop-series), but if I’m going to switch platform I would need to create a profile to get a neutral starting point (Samsung-phones have a tendency to saturate colors and overexpose)

        Tl;dr: Do you have any pointers on how to create a color profile. I’d reckon it’s a lot of work.

        • Not that bad but you’ll need a) a color checker chart and b) a calibrated monitor. It’s obviously a bit more involved than that, but I do cover it in PS Workflow II. This remains the workflow for cameras that I haven’t profiled…

  4. Oops -worrying I’d forgotten I’d replied already (and you replied to my reply). Apologies.

  5. I gave up trying to guess on the original post… With colour it is sometimes possible to discern differences in tonality but my eyes and brain aren’t up to doing that reliably. One important lesson I recently learned is that smaller format photographers (myself included) often shoot at unreasonably narrow apertures for the format they’re using.

    • Yes, the smaller the format the larger the aperture before diffraction sets in (and visible microcontrast/ acuity losses along with it). For a smartphone sensor, you may already be diffraction limited at f2 or less…

  6. One of the things I learned, accidentally, from a year of shooting full frame…. If something works well at fx, on full frame, then I’ll not see much of a difference when snorting at fx/2 with Micro Four Thirds. It took actually trying a different format, for myself, to draw that conclusion. And then, as you’ve observed, we have the computational photography that is starting to creep in. My Huawei phone actually started taking rather nice (JPEG) photos after one of the updates they applied.

    • Composition is independent of format…both because angles of view and relative foreground-background relationships remain the same, but also because if the subject/composition is that arresting – the rest of the technicalities are nice to haves rather than crutches.

  7. Håkan Lindgren says:

    Well, cell phone cameras have really improved a lot, compared to the cacky camera in my first phone. My guess was micro 4/3 for most of them, and medium format for the helmet.

    • The exercise worked 🙂

      And yes, cellphone cameras have improved a lot, but mainly because of the computational power that comes with them – less so due to the sensor silicon, I think. It’s very visible at the pixel level that there’s a lot of manipulation going on (and clearly in real time) which doesn’t happen on larger formats; right up to pretty much none at all on MF.

      • Richard Bach says:

        “And yes, cellphone cameras have improved a lot, but mainly because of the computational power that comes with them”

        On the photo forums across the internet there is a loud cry of the smartphone sensors overtaking the larger ones due to the availability of computational power these things have.

        While that technology is certainly impressive, it always seems to fall apart at the pixel/critical viewing level to my eyes. I wonder if the tech will play catch up and eventually improve, or if there are hard limitations on the IQ of a smaller seniors.

        Really curious to know your thoughts on this….

        • There are of course hard limits because of the underlying physics. I agree at critical viewing there are things computational manipulation can’t fix – but as resolution keeps increasing so there’s a lot of oversampling going on before final output/ viewing – this might not matter so much. Flip side is of course computational techniques are universal, and independent of the sensor – so there’s no reason you couldn’t run the larger sensor data through the same filters to obtain an even better result.

  8. Terry B says:

    C’mon, Ming, admit you are a cheat.😜 Everything in monochrome, which the vast majority don’t use, and PP’d, leaving out the colour which you confess could have been the biggest give away.

    But this little jibe aside, it does demonstrate that using what most believe the be the least capable capture device, the camera phone, and viewed on the ubiquitous screen, it does show how the eye can be deceived, providing one doesn’t look too close. It has to be recognised that most, especially those who use the phone exclusively, do not print their images, so my questions is a bit moot: how well would they stand up to being printed?

    Looking at some of the images, especially the one with re-enactors dressed in period military uniform, do you regret not capturing these with you usual high quality quality gear?

    • Play to the strengths/ avoid your limitations and all that…

      On that particular trip – my purpose was not photography. I wouldn’t have brought the larger camera anyway at that particular time given I was on the way to other meetings…

  9. I am not sure if this is the right place to point this out but one of the reasons I really enjoy Olympus is that the photo stacking that is happening in the camera lets me do night sky photography (deep space) in the camera and see the results in location (for fun). Seeing the result in situ for these long exposure shots is something I am not sure why only Olympus provides!? By the way, I wanted to point out it is not fair to talk about the quality of sensors when you take the photos (just kidding). You have an amazing eye for color and composition and whatever it is in there that mesmerizes me!

    • I’m pretty sure Sony and Pentax have this too; Pentax also has the star tracker function that uses the IBIS system to move the sensor to counteract star trails…

      • I was mainly referring to Live Composite and Live Time. I did some search for it on Sony but I cannot see anything similar. These two are very fun since I can do star trails in the middle of the city even though my eyes cannot see the starts they start to appear after some time.

  10. Jos Martens says:

    Dear Ming,
    Thank you so much for pointing your finger into the photographer’s eye, carried away by gear and onto his eye necessary to see a great photograph.
    Great to have a finger to press the shutter by the way. Just wonder how long that will still be necessary in the digital age.
    I would like to put my finger to your recommended gear list. Isn’ t there something missing ? I am thinking of a new sort of camera : the smartphone.
    Keep up the excelllent and provocative

  11. tyblogy says:

    I wonder what is the future of photography. What will market offer in 10 or 20 years in terms of equipement? We don’t need better. Faster. Crispier. etc.

    Is some people’s comeback to film/analog answer?

    And how about photography itself in the future?

    • I’d like to think less PP work because we have a) more information and b) a bit more intelligence about how it’s used. Beyond that – why wouldn’t there be? Video still hasn’t replace stills. Let’s not even talk about 3D/ holograms; your physical point of view can change and that doesn’t afford the artist the ability to force a certain perspective on the audience, which is one of the huge strengths of photography…

      • tyblogy says:

        We will see. Maybe future is already happening and we will go in loops….and might come back to some points.

        • Already happening, I think – witness the film renaissance…

          • Apropos film renaissance: The new digital Hassy with adapter made me to buy two CF lenses and “by chance and coincidence” a film body came with it 🙂 So there is a Special Rucksack with those and the old 4×5 field camera. Films and chemicals are pretty expensive here, luckily, B&H is more affordable.

      • About future gear my limited imagination (for merely 2D stills) does seem to include further advancements to sensor tech and the data recorded; and expanding overall the current boundaries of shooting envelopes. I could also imagine it being pleasant to have further advances in output media; I don’t necessarily mean bigger viewing sizes but how about for example improvements in color gamut of common display devices?

  12. richard majchrzak says:

    do i sell my gear, lenses etc……. why bother …….zen zilch …..???

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