Isn’t All Photography Borne From False Camera Gods?

On Visual Science Lab, Kirk Tuck enjoys his Olympus MFT cameras so much he sometimes waxes lyrically, ‘they’re good enough for commercial work’.  When a client is writing the check, however, he dutifully brings full-frame Nikons, like the D810, D600 and lately the D750.  I’d like to argue that if he really believed MFT was good enough he’d use them on shoots (and sell the Nikons).   However, I know full well that most clients would be uncomfortable watching their professional photographer taking photos with glorified point-and-shoots (I jest!).  And I know full well Kirk knows more about cameras than I do.

Although MFT cameras produce noisier images than full-frames, and optically can’t produce the same shallow depth-of-field, the quality is good enough for most commercial work where good lighting is a given.   The question is, why use a camera, where you’re handicapped if you don’t have good lighting, or need a super shallow-depth-of-field?  The conversation ultimately pivots to those who believe it’s better to focus on the creative process, with a small camera, then slave over large, heavy cameras just to reach certain technical specifications, which are often over-kill.

One difference between Kirk and I, is that he’s a commercial photographer looking for artistic fulfillment and I’m a hobbyist looking for professional legitimacy.

When I take a photograph, I’m looking for the best quality behind my image.  The quality is important to me because I’m the client, so to speak, and technical differences are definable.    If I didn’t have a goal I’d become paralyzed in indecision, starting with where do I point the camera?  So I decide full-frame is better, that I have to shoot with a certain lens, use particular post-processing software.  IF, I knew how to make a beautiful image with ANY camera, I’d do it.  But I don’t.  I need some way to get the confidence (I’d even say inspiration) to get that beautiful image.

GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) is the gist of my photography mill.

Kirk must work backwards from a client’s specific needs.  He’s not trying to get the best artistic shot from a million possibilities, he must get the best image from from a narrow, commercial requirement.

When people write on blogs about all the arcane, number of angels on the head of a pin, technical benefits, and limitations, of this or that equipment, they can easily be parodied as those who hide behind technology instead of doing real photography that sells.  Is that fair?  Isn’t every artistic process born in a process, that in itself, has nothing to do with Art?  What would it mean to say, I have no commercial requirements, and don’t care what camera you hand me, I can produce good Art?  If we know what good photography is, can’t we make any camera to do it?  Why are there so many different kinds of cameras and lenses?

When a commercial photographer like Kirk Tuck leaves his professional Nikons at home, and uses, for lack of a better word, consumer cameras, isn’t he setting himself a technical challenge too?  The challenge is to take as good a photo with the consumer camera as he could with the professional camera.  The question is, does that prove, or deliver, better art?  The viewer doesn’t see, or care, what camera is used (full-frame or MFT).  The challenge is in the photographer’s head.  When Kirk, or anyone, goes from a full-frame Nikon say, to a MFT camera, they are not ignoring the technical issues of cameras, they are only reversing the challenge they have set themselves.

It’s always about the technology.  Can any of us pretend it doesn’t matter?  Without a camera there is no photography.  The camera always matters, whether you choose think about it or not.

Kirk doesn’t take better photos with the MFT because it’s as good as the Nikon.  Quite the contrary.  He takes better photos because he must make those images as good as he can get with the Nikon.  The extra struggle is what pushes him into new artistic territory.

It’s easy to look back at photos we took in the past, with cameras we’ve forgotten, and believe they were shot in simpler times.  We want to get back to those days when the camera didn’t matter.  Only, that never happened.  We were just as screwed-up in the head about cameras, we just forget.   We can look back at the 1950s and think that the golden age of family life, forgetting that most men were stuck in the same job their entire life and the wives stuck at home with screaming babies.

Most amateurs can’t afford, or don’t want to deal with heavy, full-frame cameras–for many reasons.  VSL is a popular blog (which I visit every day) because Kirk Tuck pushes himself as a photographer at both ends of the spectrum.  As a commercial photographer with professional equipment, and as another newbie like the rest of us, searching for artistic meaning.

I’m lucky in that I have a limited time with cameras ,so feel the challenge of reaching commercial quality.   That is, I can challenge myself by using cameras that I can barely handle.  Professional photographers have it worse in that if they already have the best equipment, how can they become better photographers?  In a sense, they have to go backwards.

Here are two photos that illustrate why I can’t embrace MFT cameras as an amateur looking for professional quality.

Panasonic LX100 at f1.7
Panasonic LX100 at f1.7

A perfectly fine, quick portrait that the subject wouldn’t complain about.  I would prefer the shot with the A7, however, because it provides a shallower-depth-of-field which isolates my subject.  Even with properly exposed subjects, I believe I can see greater dynamic range in the larger-sensor camera.

Sony A7 / 55mm 1.8
Sony A7 / 55mm 1.8

The lower resolution and  limited dynamic range hobbles photos where I need to push the shadows, or pull in highlights.  This is a photo taken with the LX100 where I want to bring the scene across the street into proper exposure (I purposely exposed for the sidewalk).

LX100 DR adjustment
LX100 DR adjustment

The same photo taken with a Ricoh GR (APS-C sized sensor).

Ricoh GR
Ricoh GR

In the end, I recognize that the time I spend trying to get, and properly use, the best equipment might hobble my creative vision.   It might not.  I don’t know how to get to a great photograph.  I only know to go after the false god of a perfect camera and hope I get some good shots along the way.

Professional photographers are at the top of the equipment pyramid, gazing up at the Gods who give no further indication of what more photography can offer.  They use the best cameras, to the best of their ability.   After that, they’re on their own.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

Since I have a couple of nice Olympus lenses for the BMPCC (and GM1) I’ve been interested in the new Olympus OM-D EM5 Mark II.   I love a large, light-sopping sensor, so find if difficult to trust MFT reviewers who believe full-frame sensors are over-rated.  Kirk Tuck, at The Visual Science Lab shoots with the Nikon D800, so if he loves the EM5 what might I be missing?

One of the features that really intrigued me is the “Hi Res” mode, where it take 8 frames and interpolates them into one 40mp high res image.  With a 16mp chip, I wasn’t interested in the “resolution” issue as much as the full-color information available to each pixel (light ray).   Could the EM5 shoot super color-clean images like the Sigma?  I figured I’d test (more on that later).

Unfortunately, I’m having trouble getting past my initial qualms about the MFT format.  Certainly, outdoors, the EM5 takes very nice photos. It’s small and quiet.  Built solidly.  Moving indoors, however, the low resolution and light sensitivity hobble it.   I found some old Nikon lenses at Goodwill a few days ago, so gave them a spin.  I put the 105/2.5 on a speedbooster and took this.

Olympus OM-D EM5 Mark II with Nikon 105/2.8 on Speebooster
Olympus OM-D EM5 Mark II with Nikon 105/2.8 on Speebooster

In PS, I could not recover enough detail in the blown-out cheek.  She was standing next to a window, in even, not especially bright light.   If I had been shooting with an Olympus 45 I’m certain the photo would have been tack-sharp.  If I had been shooting with a Nikon I could have saved the blown-out parts of the image.  Okay, the camera isn’t a studio or portrait shooter, that isn’t news to anyone.

If I didn’t have, and love, the Ricoh GR I’d want this camera as my take-anywhere camera.  However, I wouldn’t be able to put the EM5 in my side jacket pocket (unless I put a pancake on it).  Once I have to put a camera in a bag it must compete with every other non-pocket camera.  Yes, the EM5 is very small, but not significantly smaller than my current favorite, the Sony A6000.

There’s nothing like using a camera to see if what should work in theory, works in practice.  I expected the in-camera stabilization to be as cool and useful as many people have reported.  I found the opposite.  If I take the camera outside and photograph a building at 1/8th of a second, I can get a nice sharp image, as good at an APS-C sized sensor at 1/60th, say.  In real life, people are in my shots and PEOPLE MOVE!  They will be less blurry in the APS-C size camera, shooting at 1/60th) than the sensor-stabilized camera, shooting at 1/8th.   If I am going to take photos of buildings, I’m going to put the camera on a tripod or I won’t mind carrying a bigger camera.  So why would I want to shoot with a 16mp, small sensor camera, when I could get a 24mp, larger sensor camera for less money?  Or I’d use the Sigma DP1M.

Then there is video.  Factoring out ISO and DOF issues, the Panasonic GM1 shoots beautiful video.  Perhaps because of the odd video aspect-ratio issues, according to Gordon Laing at CameraLabs (which makes sense to me),  the video from the EM5 is, as Andrew Reid at EOSHD points out, not very good (I paraphrase).  The camera stabilization is good if you’re shooting with manual glass and standing fairly still.   It doesn’t give the nice POV look of a camera on a stabilizer, like the Sony A6000 on the Nebula 4000.

If I had to have one camera with two prime lenses (say the 17 and 45), and I wanted the setup as small as possible (and rugged) the EM5 is THE camera to have.  For me, having other cameras, the EM5 trades off too much photo dynamic range and resolution (using the MFT sensor) in comparison.  If I take it with me, and I take a photo in sub-par light, I’ll kick myself for not bringing a bigger camera.

Again, in no way am I trying to talk anyone out of getting this camera.  If one’s interest in manual-mode shooting, portability and composition than this is beautiful camera.  If I had to take one camera on a European vacation this camera would be on my short-list.  I can see how Kirk Tuck loves this camera.  After lugging around big cameras in his day job it must be nice to grab the EM5 and hit the sunny streets of Austin.   It’s the camera equivalent of riding free on a motor-bike.

Because the EM5 takes 1 second to create a Hi Res image, I had already given up on the idea of comparing it to the Sigma DP1.  I forced myself for you few readers of Maxotics 😉  I picked a scene with a fence because I find bright lines (steel wires) are perfect to show aliasing/color issues.  They should be neutral.

First, the two shots.  I cropped the DP1M to match the EM5

OMD EM5 Mark II HiRes
OMD EM5 Mark II HiRes

As you can see, though shot at 1/400th of second, Pepper is blurry from moving during the 8-shot sequence.  Now the Sigma DP1M.

Sigma DP1M
Sigma DP1M

I l’ll leave you to judge the two images.  It’s no contest for me.

Next I looked closeup at the pixels through PS.

Olympus EM5 HiRes
Olympus EM5 HiRes

Next the Sigma

Sigma DP1M closeup
Sigma DP1M closeup

Even though the Olympus EM5 removed a lot of color aberrations common to bayer sensors, it still succumbs to it.  I believe the problem is that it is trying to create a high-resolution 40mp photo instead of a color-pure 16mp image (which is what I want).  My 2 cents is that Olympus should work on getting 16 million perfect color pixels and faster exposure times.  If can do that, THEN is might compete with the Sigma.

The Sigma image, as usual, doesn’t exhibit color distortions.  Of course, the Sigma struggles with red, and high-ISO shots, but in good light it approached medium format clarity.  With the Sigma, neutral colors stay neutral.  The sky in the Olympus is a bit over-saturated, like most bayer cameras.  Although the Sigma has limited dynamic range between 6 and 8 stops according to Bill Claff (not much compared to Nikon’s 12 stops), when the exposure is within that range the color is perfect–as good, I would argue–as the tank-sized D810.  Sigma cameras are proof to me that dynamic range is not a be-all, end-all.

I want to give another plug for FastRawViewer.  I’m no longer shooting RAW+JPG in the Ricoh GR or Sony.  The viewer is fast enough that I can scan through the images and open them in PS easily when I want to bring them to fruition.

 

 

 

Samsung Note 4 Ricoh GR ?

I’m going to take a photo as I write this with both my Ricoh GR and Samsung Note 4 cellphone.

Samsung Note4 compared Ricoh GR
Samsung Note4 compared Ricoh GR

Photographers will be able to tell the difference.  The Ricoh has more detail (photo, right), blurs the background a bit (f 2.8), has more natural colors, etc.  However, both photos would be deemed the same quality to most people.

When I took my first comparison shots I expected the GR to make a joke of the Note4.   I was surprised.  For any photo I would take in auto-mode, the Samsung Note 4 did very well.

There are times when camera comparisons help me become a better photographer, and other times, like this, when they send me into a depressing spiral of self-doubt.   If the Note 4 is good enough for everyone else in the world, why not me?  If the qualities of my cameras are not obvious to others, have I made a fetish of little black and chrome machines?   Am I more interested in the technology or the emotional value of the image?

I have to look at the win-win here.  People who might not even buy a point-and-shoot, let along a DSLR, now have very nice cameras in their pockets.  In the camera line, I can now look at images with my old eyes with focus peaking, overlaid histograms and zebras.  I can use some nice lenses made in the 60s on my Sony cameras made in 2014. These are some very exciting times for photographers and filmmakers.

Here’s a photo taken with the Ricoh GR.  Could the Samsung 4.0 taken something similar?  Probably.  But I know the GR brings out the most photographic quality in situations like this (where the camera must be with me in a pocket).

Taken in my sister's bathroom during my Mom's 80th birthday
Taken in my sister’s bathroom during my Mom’s 80th birthday

While I’m here I want to recommend FastRawViewer.  I’ve been shooting both RAW + JPG with the GR and the workflow has been  a pain for me.  I want to view the DNG files quickly and then open in PhotoShop if I want to pursue them.  Until now, I haven’t found a fast solution for dealing with DNGs (without using the embedded JPG which is not good enough for me).  FastRawViewer is made by the guy behind LibRaw I believe.  It allows me to quickly go through RAW files and then open in PhotoShop with a quick keystroke (“R” for me).  It’s well worth the $20 to me.  I also use it for my Sony ARW files.

f 3.2 1/40th sec ISO 800
f 3.2 1/40th sec ISO 800

With the GR I can make decisions not possible with the Note 4.  I rested the camera on the table so knew I could shoot at a lower shutter speed than normal, 1/40th.  I focused on the bottle and opened to 3.2.  The ISO ended up at 800, which I knew will be just before noise began to overcome the camera.

Well, I believe my Ricoh GR has finished charging, so back to it!