Friday, March 16, 2012

Focus change

For those of us who were working with digital cameras while they were still in their relative infancy (not talking early 90s Kodak SLR monsters, but rather late 90s-onwards, where digital cameras started becoming more common for consumers), it might appear that we have reached a point of "sufficiency" when it comes to camera gear. A decade back each new generation of cameras generally meant a big step forward in some way: resolution, ISO performance, dynamic range, card write performance, frames per second, autofocus performance and so on and so forth. But today, I would argue that for the average shooter the gains from upgrading are diminishing in significance with each new camera released.

Certainly, one can be impressed with the new 36MP D800, the ISO performance of the Canon 1DX, and other niceties that are showing up on the leading edge of digital. However, how much of a difference can these cameras really make to your type of shooting? Today the vast majority of digital images never leave the screen, and of those who make it to print few ever make it to large enough output sizes that the theoretical gains from a newer camera would actually make a visible difference.

Like many, I sometimes get suckered into pixel peeping and comparing ISO 25600 shots at 1:1, and judging that camera X is "clearly" better than camera Y. But if one were to take the very same files, post process and apply appropriate noise reduction, and print them to average print size, would this clearly visible difference still exist? In most cases, no. Furthermore, how many of us really need extremely high ISOs? For those of us who started out shooting film, ISO 1600 was an emergency only option. Now we sit and complain about ISO6400 not being perfectly clean. Has our needs changed so massively, or are these needs merely created by our obsessive pixel peeping and measuring? Sure, shooting in a very poorly lit room with an f/2.8 lens might require very high ISO for a proper exposure at reasonable shutter speeds, but what is wrong with using flash? I see example after example of images that "could not have been taken" with lower ISO, and quite often they are images where a flash could not only have let you used a more reasonable ISO, but actually made the image look BETTER thanks to removing some shadows and harsh lighting.

Again, there ARE EXCEPTIONS of course. Shooting concerts can be one, where you often deal with poorly lit venues that may not allow you to use a flash. Theater performances, ballet etc, as well. But how many of those clamoring for the next greatest high ISO rig will actually use them in this manner?

I think that what we should be looking for today is not the camera with the most loaded spec sheet, but rather a camera that really fits our needs. Today, just about any m4/3, APS or FF camera will be sufficient for the vast majority of the shooters. That leaves us with the option for finding the one we most like shooting with, the one that has the most suitable lens lineup, the one that fits our size needs and price range. While I would surely enjoy shooting a 5D3 or D800, I opted for the E-M5 because it is a compact, capable rig that meets my personal needs, and is small enough that I will be likely to carry it everywhere. And frankly, the performance of say the 5D3 would be completely wasted on me since I never print larger than 13x19 and really don't need useable ISO 25,600. So why pay the higher price and put up with higher weight and size when the end results would not be any better for my shooting?

Who of us really NEEDS these ultra high end cameras? Not saying we should quit buying gear, but maybe that we should all consider what strengths to focus on.

Full disclaimer: I own a 7D and 1DsII and intend to keep them both. The 7D I put to full use for bird and wildlife shooting where the AF performance really makes a big difference. The 1Ds II I can't defend other than having an irrational love for the thing. I really don't need it.

1 comment:

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