2.20.2012

Spirited Nonsense and Neutral Reality.


The camera on the left is a Panasonic G3.  It features 16 megapixels of resolution, pretty clean files up to 1600 ISO and it weighs next to nothing.  The lens on the front of the camera is very sharp and has beautiful tonality.  The camera on the right is a Canon 1DS Mk2.  If features 16 megapixels of resolution, pretty clean files up to 1600 ISO and it weighs a ton.  The lens on the front is a Zeiss ZE 85 mm 1.4.  It's sharp once it's stopped down one and half stops and it has beautiful tonality.

The camera on the left cost me $550.  The camera on the right originally retailed for $ 8,000 but I bought it well used, in the middle of last year for $1,800.  There are differences between these cameras and similarities.  They both turn out really nice files and the files look really nice on my monitors.

If we use our knowledge base from 2005 and earlier then the one on the right is the camera to have.  But if we are open minded, cognizant of market changes and willing to make a go at understanding the impact of technological development, the camera on the left can be compellingly argued for.

I just read two different discussion threads on a global photography website.  One thread praised the advances in cellphone cameras and noted that a flood of images from citizen cellphone-o-graphers is supplanting traditional photojournalists around the world in supplying content for news oriented websites, magazines and newspapers.  The gist of the article was that the 8 megapixel files from the cellphone are acceptable to editors far and wide.  The argument is that once a certain technical threshold is crossed the content trumps the device with which it was captured.  I'll buy that.  So, the new professional in the field of photo-journalism is the guy or girl who is in the right place at the right time with the minimally acceptable or better equipment.  Access being the prime feature.  In one camp the prevailing thought among amateurs and hobbyists is the vindication of their talents by the eradication of a profession and its replacement by free operators.  And it's all made possible through the de-evolution of technical necessities.  Pixel content is less rigorous than printed content.  And more forgiving which lowers the barriers to entry while sheer quantity allows the editors and art buyers to crowd source their way to competence.

The other, opposite argument I read concerned what constitutes bare minimum necessities in a "professional" camera.  The unwashed majority vociferously insisting that no one, NO ONE could be deemed a "pro" unless they were equipped with a camera that outperformed all previous cameras in the history of modern, digital photography.  The camera would have to shoot at high frame rates, focus in the dark, see in the dark, withstand nuclear blasts, electro-motive pulses and as much rain and mud as you could possibly throw at it.  The pro camera would yield files as smooth as ISO 64 film from an 8x10 view camera but it would do so at 25,000 ISO.  In their world all pros shoot with enormously long and complex lenses.  They must have, at a minimum, lenses at 300, 400 and 600mm that open up to f2.8 in order to put "cluttered" backgrounds out of focus.  All zooms should be f2.8 or faster.  No professional work could conceivably be done with anything less than a full frame sensor.  And not just any sensor but whatever tomorrow's sensor is, today.

The later camp compiles their information based on what they read in magazines about photographers who seem to all have contracts with Sports Illustrated.  The first camp seem to derive their information from the legions of starving pros who are trying to "own" the mobile niche of telephone photography in order to sell gee-gaws, lectures and software packages.  "Actions!!!!!" Even the word feels like we're all moving the game forward....

So, what's the reality?  I'm thinking it falls in between and also lives with the outliers.  Paul shoots his architectural stuff with medium format cameras and incredibly expensive optics from the Black Forest and the mountains of Switzerland.  I shot books today for a very large corporation using a nice little micro four thirds camera.  We're finally living in a time that gives truth to so many of the mythological sayings that have been dreamed up in the service of explaining photography.  "Horses for courses." (which I hate) means you get to choose precisely the best equipment for your task as Paul does.  "It ain't the arrow it's the indian...."  (equally offensive) is the tactic I pressed into service today.  The final destination for my images will be the corporation's website.  The camera was less important than the lighting, the angles and the post production.  Perhaps we could have even shot this one with an iPhone given total control over the lighting and aperture.....

With the emphasis shifted to post processing and to web use the truisms about what constitutes professional gear are rendered silly and anachronistic.  The knowledge, taste and point of view are important.  The brand or size of camera are much less so.

Given the use by my client of the final images today the camera I reached for was a micro four thirds camera with the stunning 45mm 1.8 Olympus lens (although the 40mm 1.4 would have been equally good......).  The full frame camera I used on the last go around was not as successful.  Why? because we were working close but with a longer lens and the depth of field was a critical aspect.  When shooting a book it's usually important to keep the entire product in focus even though you are shooting at an angle to show dimension.  The smaller format with the shorter focal length delivered a more convincingly sharp file that required less work than its full frame cousin.

Tomorrow I have a portrait shoot that will require very narrow depth of field and the smoothness that comes from lots of detail.  I'll use a full frame camera for that.  But I could probably make an equally good photo with a fast, long lens on the smaller format if I toss in some time for post processing.

The bottom line is that no one outside the field, or even outside your business, really knows what the hells is going on.  If you are basing your business plans as a photographer on what you read on forums you are pretty much doomed to failure.  You might make a unique selling proposition out of the flexibility and portability of smaller cameras.  You might have a style that depends on a larger format camera and it may be a style that appeals to an affluent niche.

But it's never a good idea to try and fit all of the pegs into a single round hole.  It never works out well.

Right now my money is on the smaller cameras.  They lower the barrier to entry, deliver proficient and efficient results and they require so little investment that they become disposable.  That lowers the momentum to resist change when paradigm shifting technology innovations destroy existing markets.  And they are more fun to tote.  But, being conservative, I'll hedge my bets by keeping my premium, full frame cameras and prestige lenses handy.  Handy but probably undisturbed...

I've been writing about small cameras for nearly three years now.  I think the things we've discussed here are starting to come to market fruition.  I know the smaller gear is demanding more and more of my mindshare.  What about you?

A small camera I've been playing with. Yesterday. Panasonic G3. The pre-OM-D.

 Tiny, Light, Fast, Detailed, Sharp, Quiet, Compact and Cute.  90% of the way there.  Olympus did a great job with their PR for the upcoming OM-D camera.  Everyone I know who has an interest in mirrorless cameras is talking about it, saving up their money to buy one and rushing to get themselves on a list.  And who can blame them?  It looks like everything we've pined for over the last few years.  Not to mention that the whole mirrorless m4:3 universe now has some powerhouse lenses as booster rockets for our insatiable imaging.  In some camps the OM-D is starting to sound a bit like the second coming of the camera industry.  But here I go again:  The relentless contrarian.
  
While I researched the OM-D I came across a camera that sounds eerily like the camera we've all been waiting for....only it's been on the market since June of 2011.  It has the following specs:  Fastest focus in all of m4:3rds (arguably),  The best 16 megapixel sensor in all of m4:3rds as stated by DPReview and DXO.  A built-in 1.4 megapixel EVF finder.  A swivelling, large rear LCD panel.  And a brilliantly implemented touch screen interface.  OMG did they launch the OM-D early and not tell anyone till a few weeks ago???  No, it turns out that Panasonic has been building and delivering this camera for the better part of a year. It's called a G3.  But for some reason no one seems to care.  Except the Panasonic users who are currently hoarding them and shooting them.  There are only two features that the G3 doesn't deliver that are on the OM-D checkboxes:  Full Navy Seal weatherproofing (for all you rugged types who routinely photograph deep in the jungles with rain and blood spattering your cameras hither and yon).  And, built in image stabilization.  That's about it.  The sensor is already there.  A full two stops better noise performance (by some accounts) than the EP3 at higher ISOs.  But I picked one up, with the 14-42mm zoom lens for a bit under $600.  Turn key. All done.  No waiting list.  No fuss.

Without a doubt the OM-D will trample the G3 when it comes to body construction and design.  It's in a whole different bling class than the plastic-over-aluminum frame construction of the G3.  There's no way to stick a battery grip on the G3 (that I know of) and the jpeg colors of the OM-D will probably take the G3 to school.  But....it's a great sensor and a great implementation of controls and it's cheap.  I've had one for a couple days but yesterday was the first day I had a few spare hours to go downtown and give the G3 a run through.  So let me give you my opinion.  And remember, this is all about my impressions.  We don't do technical tests here at the VSL secret, underground labs.  Our massively parallel supercomputing nest is dedicated to data mining the epicenters of creativity.  We can't allocate computing resources for something you can easily discern with your eyes and your hands (haptics rears its beautiful head....).

But, in fact, I have come to praise the G3, not to bury it.  I'll admit that I don't keep up with every camera announcement from every camera manufacturer.  I had the prejudice that Panasonic made cameras in only two m4:3 flavors:  The button and dial laden, professional GH2 with its EVF and then a slew of smaller, less capable cameras with only LCD screens on the back and the option of adding a vastly inferior EVF.  At least that's what I saw the last time I took a look.  

But, when I finally focused on the relatively new line of cameras Panasonic had on the market I saw I was mistaken.  The G3 is reviewed to have better noise performance by a small amount, than the GH2.  The AF system samples at 120 Hz just like the EP3 so the performance is comparable.  The EVF has similar specs to the current state of the art in the Olympus segment.  And, while the G3 body, with its limited supply of external controls, takes a bit of time to get used to I can see that the menu driven touch screen is viable and, in most cases fast to use.

When we talk about contrast detection auto focus a prime variable in the overall performance equation is the sampling rate which is driven to some extent by the speed/throughput of the processing sensor.  The AF motor moves the lens through the range of distance until it find the peak of contrast in the scene you've put in front of its sensor.  It must repeatedly sample and shift and then sample and shift until it isolates the setting that gives the highest level of contrast.  Within the sampling are latency periods where, once sampled the information must be processed and compared.  Reducing the time of the latency periods and increasing the frequency of the sampling are the two ways to increase the speed of the system.  The GH2 and the G3 were first to increase the sampling speeds from 60 Hz to 120 Hz (they both use the same "Venus" processor).  The EP3 also adapted that strategy and added optimized lenses in order to further increase the speed and allow them to boast of having the ultimate AF speed amongst mirrorless cameras.  The new OM-D AF seems to be based around increasing the sampling performance of the AF circuitry to 240 Hz.  Whether or not we'll see improvements in lenses that are not optimized for the new processor initiative remains to be seen.  But today, right now, the EP3, the GH2 and the G3, in good lighting conditions, are all just as fast as I need them to be and they are more accurate with higher speed (bigger aperture) lenses than their DSLR brethren.

I have not used the G3 in any configuration other than raw format and I haven't used it yet with any other lens than the 14-42mm kit lens that came packaged with the body.  The lens seems to do a good job with most close up scenes but when I look at my building shots at 100% I see a little softness as we get into near infinity focus.  That's easy to fix.  You just put on a better lens.  The 14-42 kit lens doesn't seem to garner many kudos and yet, for around $125 with built in IS I think it's a good value.  Especially for routine, close-to-mid distance shots.  I'll spend some time with the camera and the Panasonic/Leica 25mm 1.4 Summilux in the next few days and I think that should make a huge difference in overall quality.  Even so, in the samples I have here I'm not disappointed.  On screen the 16 megapixels are sharp and the noise at everything I shot under ISO 800 is non existent.
There are two things about the G3 that I didn't think I'd like.  I was wrong.  Serves me right for pre-judging.  The first is that the camera  doesn't have the dandy automatic switching between the EVF and the LCD (cost savings concern, no doubt).  You have to do it manually, with a button.  But that's fine with me because I want to use the EVF for everything except final review and menu setting.  I don't want the screens to swap every time my hand moves past the little sensor.  Especially when mounted on the tripod in the studio.  Panasonic engineers are smart though.  You can set a menu setting so that when you hit the "play" button to review what you've shot the camera automatically switches to the LCD.  There when you need it but not switching when you don't.    I prefer it this way.  Thank goodness for cost saving measures.

The second thing I was prepared to dislike was the touchscreen interface.  But I ended up liking it a lot.  Mostly because it's user programmable.  You get to choose the five different menu items you most use and you put them on the screen.  I chose ISO, focus settings, WB, file formats, and exposure compensation.  Now, to use any of these settings all I have to do is hit the "Q" menu button and directly access the menu item on the screen.  The screen is pressure sensitive rather than capacitance sensitive.  It has positive feedback.  This is quick and easy and you can program whatever controls you use most often.

So, if you add it all up it's a pretty convincing little camera.  Detractions?  The styling is a bit pedestrian.  The lack of IS bothers me when I think about using prime lenses with no built in IS, and the body feels a plasticky.  But you have to consider the other side of the equation.  For about half the price of the announced, but not available, OM-D you get a camera with a sensor that's probably very close to what will be in the OM-D and, for all practical purposes will be very close in raw performance.  You get a fast focusing camera.  Maybe not as fast as the new Olympus when the Olympus is coupled with the state of the art lenses but almost certainly in the same league with most of the existing lenses.  You get a fun and more flexible implementation of  the touch screen technology and that makes this camera interesting to me and the people who are looking for straight out performance over additional features.

But it all goes back to one of my basic premises:  Most modern cameras are really damn good.  If your technique is good and you learn the interfaces you should be able to get almost indistinguishable files from all of them.  The lowest common denominator will be generally be your user chops and the level of interest inherent in your subjects.  I am currently using the GH2 in manual mode for a lot of my studio work and I'm happy with its on-the-final-screen performance.  The G3 makes me re-think my lust for the newer cameras.  Could it be that Panasonic had the level of sensor performance last year that we're waiting for from Olympus with bated breath this year?  Is the AF performance on the G3 almost comparable?  Aren't they all in the same family?  Won't all the lenses work interchangeably?

I don't have any doubt that the new OM-D will have features that makes it more desirable than the older Panasonic G3.  I want in-body IS.  I like the idea that it will be the best IS in the history of the galaxy.  Almost as good as my old tripod!!!  And I'm sure that the Jpeg color engine will be the industry leader.  Finally, there are a legion of people who are crying out for weather proofing.  I have to say that I've yet to lose a camera to rain or dust but I've only been shooting for a few decades.  I'm sure other people have experienced camera failures as a result of exposure.  I'm a disciple of the Ziploc bag religion of camera protection but I fully acknowledge the right to exist of weatherproofarians no matter how extreme I find their belief systems.  The Olympus will be a nice package.  In the way that a BMW is an upgrade to a Honda.  But, like the car analogy, there will be some who want the sensor and AF performance who don't have the budget for the premier offering.  If they don't need built-in Ziploc Bagging, and they can live with the AF that comes resident on some of Panasonic's better lenses, and they can live with the stigma of a "lesser" model, they may find the absolute performance to be pretty much the same.  

What a terrible realization for me to present you with on President's Day.  I thought we had the whole m4:3rds thing all figured out.  The OM-D was to be the Holy Grail of little cameras and we would all be happy and content once we acquired one.  Funny how the market works and funnier still how my vision narrows close to launch dates and expands again while I'm awaiting delivery.  Once again the G3 serves to remind me that we've all been here before.  We're always hopeful about the silver bullet that will take our art to the next level only to find that all it delivers is photographs with a little bit more detail, a little bit faster focus and a little bit steadier steadiness.  In this case perhaps no more resolution than what we can get right now, not much more high ISO noise reduction than we get right now and AF that is marginally faster for a handful of new lenses that we don't yet own.  Our consolation?  The new camera is very nice to look at and feels very nicely balanced in our hands.  We hope.

The bottom line?  I don't know that there is a bottom line.  The camera world is a chaotic place with little camps swirling around banners.  In one corner we have the full frame 35mm high res contingent for whom everything hinges on ultimate resolution and sharpness.  We have, of course, our micro four thirds camp where we look to blend high performance with high usability and high portability (after all, what good is all the gear if it's too cumbersome to carry?).  We have the pilgrims of nose bleed performance who have knotted the ropes of high intention around their photo vest frocks and set out into the desert in pursuit of the mysteries of medium format, and we have the legions of people traipsing around willy-nilly with their iPhones snapping a glorious quantity of interesting  frames and then shoving them through the kaleidoscopic blender to make them more.....appealing.

I've been beaten over the head with the idea that there is no "right or wrong."  That all approaches are worthy and equal.  That there's an equivalence of sorts whether you use an 8x10 inch film camera or your happy-snappy phone to create your images.  While I tend to veer toward a more defined philosophy where effort has value and is integral to the process I won't confuse things by arguing that today.

Where I will comment is on the performance of Olympus' promotional machinery.  Well done, marketers.  In a short amount of time you created a tremendous amount of buzz, filed us with desire we barely knew we had, deflected our attention away from similar products and got us all excited.  If the product they deliver does everything they say it will be a monumental success, and, no doubt, it will be a hell of a lot of fun to shoot with.

The G3 is no OM-D but it's a hell of a lot closer than a lot of people might like to believe.  I think I'll go out and shoot with mine again today.  After all, it's already in my hands.