Creative envelope

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I’ve discussed the meaning of shooting envelope at length in the past. This is a practical, quantitative limit which effectively determines the conditions under which you can get an image of acceptable quality – usually, we apply it specifically to situations with one core constraint; either that the image must be made handheld, there are moving elements that have to be frozen, distance limits etc or something else. It applies indirectly to creative limits, too – if you want to make an image under certain creative (as opposed to physical) constraints, then one must seriously consider strengths and limitations of various possible bits of hardware. Put simply: I think of ‘creative envelope’ as the hardware’s ability to support the limits of my imagination. And this factor more than anything else has always been the underlying driver of purchasing decisions for me. I just realise I’ve never really explained it until today, undoubtedly leading to a lot of incorrect accusations of being a gear whore. What I intend to do today is explain the key factors that I consider for my own needs – yours may of course vary or change priority depending on what you prefer to shoot. I’ll also throw in a curveball: my best or most enabling purchase in each category to date.

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Creation or gathering of light
Best purchase: frosted white perspex, semi-transparent. Used in every single watch photograph I’ve made to this point. Honourable mention: the Godox AD400, for color, power and bang for the buck.
No surprises, since photography is all about light; this category is perhaps a little vague, but includes everything from light sources/ monoblocks/ speedlights/ modifiers/ cardboard flags to tripod heads, high ISO capability and stabilisation. If one can’t see it, one can’t photograph it; and by a similar token, if you can imagine a visual outcome – you can probably create the lighting setup to match. Though it’s nice to have power and speed from one’s lights, I find color consistency and directionality a lot more important – but that’s because most of my images involving a lighting setup are for product photography and thus rely heavily on constructing the desired specular highlights and reflections in an object, and color variances are important. I spend just as much time making lighting modifiers from mount board because 99% of the time, what you need for a specific setup does not exist commercially – you’re likely the only one who’s ever needed it. A good example would be a 2×20″ grid-strip – I needed it to create a long specular highlight on a convex reflective watch – any wider and you lose the shadows; any shorter and the ends of the concave curve wouldn’t be lit.

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Handheld use
Best purchase: Nikon Z7, Nikon Z6 would likely be even better
I’ve always been a strong proponent of shooting as light as possible and handheld, simply because this allows you to walk further and react faster. Even if you’re in the studio, it gives you a freedom and flexibility to position yourself in exactly the right way, without being frustrated or constrained by motions of your tripod – or worse, losing the angle by the time you’ve figured out how to move that fifth axis. However, the cost of doing so is always image quality – be it camera shake, or loss in sensor performance due to increase in sensitivity. The early quest to expand this envelope involved stabilised lenses and faster glass; the tradeoffs were about the same (slower stabilised lenses of less effectiveness than today, faster apertures in non-stabilised, but ultimately requiring the same sensitivity). Fast forward to today – other than for photographing watches, where millimetric positioning is actually critical for focal plane placement and reflection management, I shoot everything handheld. The liberation of going from almost entirely tripod bound on the 100MP medium format camera to now having stabilised f1.4 lenses and decent high ISO capability is immense; under practical situations, you can gain as much as six stops – by which time any larger sensor advantage is completely academic. I throw the Z6 in the mix here as if you don’t need the resolution (or ability to run DX lenses with decent resolution remaining, but greatly reduce physical size) because it easily adds another two stops of usable high ISO on the Z7, which downsampling to match resolution doesn’t claw back.

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Size/ portability, (and to a lesser extent, ergonomics.)
Best purchase: tie between the Nikon Z7, 16-50 Z pancake zoom, and iPhone 11 Pro
Carry less, walk further, see more, present yourself with more opportunities. Have a camera with you, and preferably one with a decently large shooting envelope that doesn’t land up frustrating because you see something and can’t even get a decent representation (let alone a gallery-quality one). The first combination gives me more than sufficient image quality in something pocketable, with no ergonomic compromises or things to frustrate. Yes, it’s only 20MP and DX, but because of pixel quality, stabilisation, and focus precision, effective image quality beats out the 24MP APS-C DSLRs, and the whole thing is smaller. And I can put an FX lens on and have all the IQ I can possibly require. As for the final entry: I was initially skeptical but following a friend’s repeated insistence, I tried out the iPhone 11 Pro and found that they really had done something pretty interesting with the computational stacking modes in that phone – low light envelope opened up; dynamic range started to look natural; in effect, by averaging 8 (or so) frames, the effective sensor area increases by the same factor. Now we have effective area somewhere between 1″ and M4/3, and it shows. On top of that, there’s enough computing horsepower in there to avoid artefacts in most situations. And it fits in my pocket, and is ubiquitous enough that nobody gives you a second glance when using it in public. Two compact cameras, almost no creative limitations (that I can reasonably see at this point) effectively every situation sufficiently covered. I can’t believe there are still people complaining.

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Focal plane manipulation and perspective changes
Best purchase: Nikon PC-E 85/2.8 Micro and Nikon PC-E 19/4
Tilt shift and stacking: for what I do, I generally need to be able to either get everything in focus despite running out of ability to stop down, or shift my perspective. I use those two lenses on pretty much every single product and architectural shoot I do, and there’s really no substitute. However, I’d also expand this category to include any hardware that lets you shoot from a different perspective: waist level finders, drones, etc. Beyond the obvious benefits of a drone, there’s also something to be said for the little action camera that’s waterproof, has a tilting screen and a 1″ sensor: yep, the hideously expensive (but again, alone in a field of one) Sony RX0 Mark II.

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Best “purchase”: the Ultraprint process
This applies to both spatial and tonal parameters; they’re not actually independent. The more spatial resolution you have, the better your ability to describe a tonal gradient; therefore, the better the tonal gradation you can represent. However, the more luminosity steps that can be captured and displayed – the more subtlety and fidelity can be conveyed. Any image is really a 3D map of both luminosity and color – and the more boxes you have, the better you can make a digital representation fit a physical scene. In hindsight, Ultraprinting was perhaps ahead of its time: it’s difficult to explain exactly what it is without being able to see it. I used to carry folders of prints to workshops to demonstrate, and never had anybody disagree – today, it would just be easier to describe the difference between a non-retina and retina display. If people chase this in digital output, why not physical?

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Angle of view
Best “purchase”: Nikon AF-S 24-120/4 VR
In essence, the lenses and focal lengths you carry with you. It’s possible to reach the extremes of either end very quickly, but with poor quality or severe aperture limitations; I don’t consider these to be ‘good’ options. However, what is interesting is a lens that allows you to have a significant change in perspective with decent quality in a single unit, which means such options are always going to be with you: and the champion of all of these, for me, is the humble Nikon 24-120. I’ve had mine for eight years now, and shot a good chunk of my professional career assignments with it. As much as I love other lenses for their specific properties – they’re narrow and not always useful. But if I had to pick one lens to be buried with, it’d probably be this one. Now where is the Z mount version…

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Best purchase: Nikon D850
Though conventional expectations of speed are all about FPS and AF tracking – there’s also speed of operation through virtue of menu operations, ergonomics etc. which I’d honestly consider to be more important than outright frame rates. It is both intuitiveness and haptics; do the buttons you need fall under hand exactly where you expect, and do they respond in the way you want? Unfortunately, I think the probability requirement is at odds with speed one, simply because a larger body has more surface to arrange dedicated buttons and dials on, and there’s less risk of grabbing it and hitting the wrong thing inadvertently. I can live with the reduced control layout on the Z bodies for the vast majority of my work, but the D850 is more intuitive and requires a lot less menu diving.

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Environmental resistance
Best purchase: Sony RX0 Mark II
I can imagine a lot of photographers prioritising this one more highly – anybody who shoots under extreme conditions will value gear that can continue going when the weather gets interesting. (Unsurprisingly, this is when you’ve got the best chance of making a unique image: both because such conditions are transient, but also because there’s far less chance of anybody else being out and shooting at the same time in the same place.) Most gear these days will hold up to light drizzle; but not everything that claims to be weather sealed actually is. I suggest carefully inspecting all the ports and doors before exposing your hardware to the elements and then finding a leak somewhere later on; this of course includes lenses and mounts. And don’t do something stupid to compromise resistance, like changing lenses in the rain (remember what I said earlier about angle of view?). For a long time, there’s been a series of images I’ve wanted to make inside a wave. I’ve now managed to do that, with the RX0II; on further though, I suspect the new iPhone with increased water resistance might well be able to do the same or better (and get less fooled by floating bits in the water). Only one way to find out…

You’ll notice I left out computational photography and post processing. Whilst I’m a proponent of presenting each image in its best possible way, optimising with PS or JPEG parameters as necessary, I’m not a fan of manipulation so heavy as to leave the original subjects unrecognisable. This undoubtedly requires skill to execute well, but it isn’t photography; I’m a bit of a purist stickler in that regard. Even my product photographs are all single take, single light setup – there are no composites or anything that you can’t see with your naked eyes under the same lighting setup (or even positioned where the camera is, with the modelling lights on).

After all of this, the bottom line is pretty simple: ask yourself what you want to create, and then figure out what’s holding you back. Then only go out and see if there’s anything that will fill in the missing gaps. This is also why it’s so important to assess validity of opinions and reviews on how well you relate to the reviewer: their needs may be very different from yours. MT


Prints from this series are available on request here


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  1. A vote for the Leica Q in low light. Full frame sensor very close to z6 high iso capability, F1..7, and OIS. Plus quite good autofocus in low light. Factor in stealth and you have a very capable low light machine.

    • I had one of the first ones anywhere. Loved it and all was great until the stabiliser started developing issues and Leica were their usual belligerent selves over service… 😦

      I’d still put the Z6 at least a stop ahead though. Just too bad it seems we have every f1.8 FL except 28!

  2. The first rule of gear whoring is, there are no gear whores. YOU are a curator of a fair amount of precisely tuned equipment. I, on the other hand, am a gear slut. But for me, it’s justifiable. I might have $50k in gear at any moment, but that gear is used to produce 1 million in revenue every 4-5 years. The gear is actually an investment in my future earnings. The more I know, and the better the gear, the better the revenue. And its an endless pursuit, you can never know everything about it, because the new gear capabilities encourage you to invent new standards of quality. The pursuit of excellence.

    • That’s no different to what I do – I buy whatever tools I need to make the images I want; that might be a $400 D3500 or a $40,000 medium format body. The ‘professional’ part comes into play when we have to make the economics work sustainably as a business 🙂

  3. Robert Ikenberry says:

    Ming: Under size/portability – did you mean the Z 50, instead of the Z 7? It’s much smaller and in many cases my choice for casual/travel shooting.

    • Not that much smaller (still requires small bag) and less versatile in controls/ overall scalability. Plus if you already have a Z7…

      • Ming, great article as usual, and lots I need to think about regarding my current motley camera collection. I also really like the diner photo.
        Sorry to come back to this but under size you spoke about 20mp and dx. This isn’t a z7 even if you might have been thinking of one.

  4. Ming,
    I always really enjoy your insightful point of view, for example I have never read anywhere else, the reasons why you love the Nikon D850 as you do . In this whole debate that the smaller and more compact a camera is the better it is, but not in all occasions as you pointed out. I never thought if that way and agree with you, in the time you need to find the buttons quickly is as important and maybe more that weight or dimensions sometimes .

  5. Even before reading your contribution, I know that this is the most important I’ve ever read. These were the things, I always thought,before buying equipment. For me the most important thing is a camera, that I can carry in my shirt’s pocket – but 24 hours, seven days, everywhere. Creative envelope No. 2 is then a maximum performance within these limits.

    In the moment, I am with an Panasonic LX7 since 2014 (once lost in a robbery in 2017, but bought again), planning to buy (maybe) the LX 100 Mk. 2 (or the Leica equivalent), but I’ll have a look on this Sony high performance dwarf.

    All the best for you, Ming Thein, and thank you so much for your blog, which I have been reading now for many, many years!!!!

    • My pleasure. I think you would probably enjoy the shooting experience with the LX100II better than the RX100 series; having owned the I and III, they feel too much like gadgets for my liking and not enough like cameras…

    • I’ve had the LX100 for a couple of years and I’m still amazed sometimes at what it will do considering the size and weight of the camera.

      • The only thing that bothered me was it seems that most (at least four of the six samples I tried, both LX100 and Leica-branded variant) had very obvious front or back focus – should be impossible with a CDAF system. Other than that, I rather enjoyed using it…

  6. I love dis work… It makes me feel more relax
    And a kind of putting more effort in my work

  7. What has really astonished me Ming, is that up until now, I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and thought about my equipment in a purely “what I need” way instead of a “what I want” way, or a “wow, that lens is impressive” way. I suspect there are others who may realise the same thing.
    In the last five minutes, I’ve realised that I have three or four things that are basically useless for what I like to do.
    This is some of the best advice you’ve ever given.
    And, I love #3, (the diner).

    • I’ve probably said it quite a few times in various places – but it’s much easier to be irrational in a “it’s a hobby, want is fine” kind of way – until the results aren’t what you expect, and some troubleshooting is required…

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