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?

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Why most images are compromised (or, whither the decisive moment)

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A photograph is an observation of a scene at a given moment in time. It’s an effectively instantaneous snapshot of the state of a scene or person or other subject, given the relative rate of change of those subjects. If we extend the duration of observation – i.e. with a long shutter speed – we might see some hints at that change in the form of motion blur, or eventually, averaging. If we get lucky, or observe for a long period of time, we might eventually be able to capture an interesting change or temporary state of the system; however, this assumes two further things. Firstly, that we can differentiate what is ‘interesting’ and have a good benchmark of what to look for; secondly, that we are aware and responsive enough to capture it. I think we can already see why there are some serious challenges here.

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Tradeoffs

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Not a people mover, and never meant to be. Similar things abound photographically: resolution, or bulk? Reach, or size? Ease of file handling, or quality? Edge resolution, or weight and filter size? Controllability or compactness?

The story of photography is really a series of compromises – I suppose the same can be said of life in general, though there are specific consequences and considerations when it comes to making images. At the risk of appearing to contradict myself*, I’m writing this post somewhere over the South China Sea, after having a little epiphany. The difference between life and photography is that compromises made in the former usually come with a mixed bag of consequence that are both unknown since we have affected causality and the flow of events by making a choice, but in photography, we almost always know what we’re giving up – or we think we have a fair idea of it. Surely this should make creative and technical choices in image capture easier to make?

*Forcing creative development through restriction is not the same as knowing you’ve stopped before you’re done.

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