On Formats and Sensors

Why do photographers use different cameras? Why for example would they choose to photograph with a large format, cumbersome old camera versus a nice new modern 35mm DSLR? Why do some photographers prefer using a Pentax 645 or a Hasselblad 6 by 6 for their work? And why on earth would some photographers choose film over digital?

I want to say first of all, that even though photography is a visual art and the end product of what we do is something to study and look at, it is also an activity that is based on process. Therefore image quality aside, some photographers very much enjoy the process of shooting on large format compared to how easy it is to snap an image with say a cellphone or a 35mm point and shoot.

But in terms of image quality, let’s consider a few of the most important differences between formats.

1.) The larger the format or sensor size, the less depth of field and the better the separation between focus planes in the image. Typically when you go to a larger format you need a longer lens to get the same image coverage. And although you could shoot at a smaller aperture to compensate for the depth of field difference, the image is still rendered differently. Image planes are separated better and with a sharper transition than wider lenses can accommodate.

2.) The larger the format or sensor size, the greater the dynamic range and the more subtle the transitions between adjacent luminosities. This is perhaps the number one reason many landscape photographers tend to choose large format cameras. Not only are they typically shooting scenes with large dynamic ranges, but they also tend to print big. Some modern DSLR cameras handle dynamic range quite well while others do not. The capture curve on some cameras is very linear producing unnatural looking tonality. And there are some cameras that may have a smaller actual dynamic range, but they have a curve that renders the high-mids to high luminosities in a much more gradual and natural looking way.

3.) The larger the format or sensor size, the larger the image receptors and the more spread out over a greater area they are. This results in better signal to noise ratios which are perceived as better edge definition and clarity. And, when viewing large prints up close, certainly more pixels per inch is a huge part of what gives us the sensation of being immersed into a scene rather than just say looking at some flat rectangle from a distance.

An interesting aspect to this story that most people do not realize, particularly when it comes to tonal transition and resolution, is that most web images simply cannot show you these differences. In fact it’s not until you start to display images that are at least 3000 pixels in size that you will begin to appreciate this. Not many people are in the habit of outputting 100 percent crops of their web images or displaying them in that size. 4k monitors are becoming much more prevalent, but even still, the typical size of a web image and that kind of downsizing of a high resolution sensor cannot possibly yield any advantage to resolution or edge acuity, the very reasons why we think we should choose a large format camera.

So this brings us back to the question of why we need to shoot with a larger format camera or sensor size. I’d like to think that most who shoot these kinds of cameras are in the habit of outputting their images to large prints. But there are also those who simply choose to shoot different formats because it is the “process” that they enjoy regardless of the image quality. It is indeed a whole different thing to shoot a large format camera compared to a 35mm.

And lastly, why do some photographers choose film over digital? It’s been my experience that the response curve of film is very much like what we see with very gradual tonal transitions in the high end, whereas most digital cameras, particularly those with smaller sensor sizes have rather unnatural and abrupt response transitions to clipping. Trying to capture large dynamic range landscapes with an iPhone is going to produce images that not only suffer from poor resolution, but may have unfavourable highlight clipping or poor colour rendering. Cell phone cameras have really improved of late, and may be a huge advantage as far as stealthiness and convenience, however, they are not the camera of choice if you’re looking for high output resolution or image plane separation.

This all brings us back to what I’ve mentioned in many of my previous blogs about things to consider when choosing a camera. You need to look at and consider your end goal. If you’re only interested in printing the occasional 4 by 6 or outputting your images to Instagram, then why are you using a medium format sensor or a DSLR with a massively high resolution?  I hope your answer is because you enjoy using the camera and not because it gets you more likes. (But we all know that those of us who still shoot film cameras are cooler right?)

Something to think about…

Happy Shooting,

Doug

Nobody Writes About This Stuff

Nobody writes about this stuff…

All across the internet you’ll see an endless supply of information about the latest and greatest cameras. You’ll see all the technical stuff about megapixels and sensors. But at the same time you see next to nothing about the importance of seeing and visualizing what it is you want to do with your image.

The way it works is like this:

1.) The photographer

2.) Situation

3.) Light and atmosphere

4.) Choice of lens

5.) The camera

What does this mean?

1.) The photographer

Everything you’ve ever seen and experienced in your life contributes to the way you see the world. Your feelings about things and your interests come into play. The way you’ve been treated by others and your own little personality quirks – your sense of humour and humility influence your vision. It’s the total package. It your likes and dislikes. It’s your fears. It’s your emotional state of being. It’s the sum of who you are that has a huge influence on what you take photographs of and how you take them.

There is also all the things you’ve ever learned about photography – including good habits and bad ones, that influence not just how you compose and shoot the image, but how you process it after it’s shot. It’s a collective recollection of all the stupid mistakes you’ve ever made and all the almost invisible tiny little details you’ve learned along your road.

2.) Situation

The success of a photographer has a great deal to do with not only your personal set of circumstances, but also on your work ethic. How much are you willing to sacrifice to get a good shot? Are you willing to put up with being cold and muddy? Are you patient? Are you prepared? Do you practice your photography on a regular basis? And then, as a result of these things, your photography depends on the opportunities you create for your pictures and the situations you put yourself in to get the image you’re after.

I’ve always said that it’s important to consider the photographer’s own personal situation and take that into account. Remember that the next time you look at photographs. If someone works a demanding shift job at a steel plant in Pennsylvania, you can’t really expect them to have the world’s finest collection of Burmese Tiger photographs.

Always take into consideration the effort that the photographer may have made to achieve the image. And consider where they are in their photography evolution.

3. Light and atmosphere

There are numerous ways you can draw attention to the subject you’re photographing such as contrast, colour, light, focus, motion etc., but light and atmosphere have a enormous effect on the impact your photograph has. When you think about it that’s what you’re doing – you’re recording values of light and darkness (contrast or lack of contrast). The atmosphere determines the overall mood of the image.

4.) Choice of lens

How do you see the scene? How do you wish to render it – like your eyes see perhaps? Or, do you wish to bring out the importance of the foreground? Perhaps the background needs to be emphasized. In short, how do you wish to tell this story? Choose a focal length that helps you to achieve this.

5.) The camera

Do you notice how far down the list this is?

A camera is just a box between the film plane/sensor and the lens. It has a shutter. It’s real importance is that it is easy to use and functional. It should get the job done and it should be minimally obtrusive. What I mean is that it should not be a distraction to what’s really important – what’s going on in the world in front of you.

When you choose a camera, choose it for the right reasons. Choose it for its simplicity. Choose it for its ability to accomplish a certain task. Choose it for its convenience. Don’t choose it thinking that it’s ever going to give you better images. Because in almost all circumstances it won’t. (I’m not going to mention the specific exceptions because you probably already know what they are.)

Anyhow, put that in your pipe and smoke it for awhile…

And happy shooting always,

D.

There Is No Magic Camera

I’ve been taking photographs for a good part of my life, and I’ve gone through all the same stages of learning and seeing that most other photographers have. Over the years I’ve tried my best to keep up with trends regarding techniques and technology. I shoot both digital and film. I shoot large format, medium format, multiple 35mm film cameras, polaroid cameras, Instax lomo and twin lens reflex cameras, rangefinders, point and shoots, and of course some nice digital cameras such as the Leica 116, Fuji x100s, and a Canon 1dx.

I’ve always tried to be a diverse photographer, doing my best to understand and be reasonably proficient at photographing in the studio as well as the great outdoors, everything from portraits to documentary, to wildlife, to landscape. I’ve always taken an interest in the history of photography. I collect photography books and enjoy looking at the work of the masters. So in other words, I feel that I have a fairly good general understanding of a broad range of photography.

What I’m about to say is not profound in any way, however it may upset a few of the technical photographers out there…

There is no magic camera that will ever make your photographs better. There are only two things that will ever affect the impact your photographs have.

1.) opportunities you create for yourself and/or luck, and

2.) the way you see the world.

Now it’s true that certain types of photography demand specific qualities from a camera in order to properly carry out the task, and that certain cameras do some things better than others can do, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

I’ve seen many many people convince themselves that their photographs will improve if they got a better camera, only to find out that after a year of using the new camera, their images pretty much look the same as they always did.

We don’t photograph things as they are, we photograph things as we are. If you’d like your photographs to improve or change in any way, you have to do the changing. You have to spend every day of your life soul searching and learning to see a different way…to think like a photographer and to see like a lens.

Some of the most incredible images that have ever been taken, have been captured on very simple technology – technology that lets the photographer concentrate on the world before them instead of some hidden menu item or camera gimmick.

So if you’re someone who is interested in photographing the night sky, then yes, you’ll benefit from a camera with a low noise sensor. If you’re someone who loves wildlife photography, then yes, you’ll likely benefit from a camera that has a fast shooting rate. But overall, if you’re thinking that the new camera is somehow going to dramatically alter your images and transform them from something blah to something everyone will want to look at, think again.

There is no magic camera.

Do some soul searching. Take a walk. Find a mentor. Slow down. Look at things. Carry your camera always, and develop your vision.

Food for thought…

Happy Shooting,

Doug

The True Test of a Camera

“The true test of a camera is how it makes you feel when you pick it up and carry it around with you on a daily basis.”

After teaching photography for many years, I’ve been able to make a few interesting observations about the average person who enjoys taking pictures:  A few have been using a relatively poor camera and have simply not been able to make any amount of progress with their photography at all. Many are “part-timers” who will only pick up the camera on special occasions such as photographing a child’s birthday party. However, the vast majority of the people I’ve had attend classes are folks who own a decent camera but really have no idea how to use it to its full capabilities. These are the ones who will spend upwards of a thousand dollars or more on the camera and a few lenses but only know how to take the photo on the “automatic” setting. They could also be described as having little or no knowledge of basic photographic principles. I’m not in any way trying to offend anyone. I was there and so were many of my photographer friends. We all start somewhere. But the point I’m trying to make is that a great many people do not ask themselves what kind of things they like to take pictures of, and how they plan on using the camera. As a result, after a brief length of time, the camera that they purchased has failed to continue to inspire them to be a better photographer. It has in fact, become more of a burden to them instead of an extension of their eyes and hearts.

I have asked many of these same people if they brought their camera with them when they went on vacation to Europe or Mexico or wherever. “No” they said, “Just their cellphone.”

“Why?”, I asked.

Most wanted to travel light, and others were worried about getting their camera gear stolen or damaged somehow. They did not want to be inconvenienced by having to tote around a backpack or a larger bag with a DSLR and a few lenses, filters, cleaning supplies, and all that other stuff that you must have with you.

It’s a bit astonishing really when you think about it. So many want to have a nice camera and are willing to part with their hard-earned money to get one, but just can’t be bothered to take it anywhere or use it except for the odd occasion – only when it’s convenient.

What are my thoughts on this? Well it tells me that many of the people mentioned above did not take the time to really think out how they would like to use their cameras. They are disappointed when they realize that the images on their expensive camera really don’t look any different than the ones on their small point and shoot. In fact, many have told me that they used to take a lot more photos than they do now. And therein lays a huge clue…

To get better at photography you have to practice. You have to carry that camera around with you wherever you go. To do that, the camera has to become an extension of your eyes. It must be easy to use, easy to understand, and able to inspire you to be creative. And, it must be small enough so that it’s not a bother for you to bring along when you go for lunch at the local diner.

When you are given limitations, you are forced to be creative. When you are travelling with a small, light camera setup you will find yourself taking more pictures.

I cannot help but think that many people would have been happier to have purchased either a small point and shoot or a nice mirror-less camera with a fixed lens.

Now it’s true that a small number of people may be interested in eventually selling their prints of landscapes for example. A few are interested in setting up a studio perhaps. And an even smaller number may be interested in specializing in wildlife photography. Certainly those genres demand a wide variety of bigger, more sophisticated camera/lens setups. But most people I’ve had in my classes have told me that they’re interested in photographing their children, travel photography, macro photography, and the occasional landscape that they see when on vacation. And while the DSLR’s they own are more than capable of doing these types of photography, for many, they are just not something that becomes a part of them, a means to express their way of seeing the world.

Most of the time, it’s the Leica people, or the owners of small mirror-less cameras like the Fujifilm X series that you see with their cameras tethered to their bodies. Talk to the Ricoh GR people and you’ll see lots of smiles. Only the truly diehard DSLR’ers or seasoned professionals pack a big bag of gear around with them.

So this is really something that I think is important for the average person to strongly think about when they go out to buy a camera. Some of the wonderful smaller mirror-less cameras that are available today can produce landscapes, portraits, lifestyle, travel, street, and macro photographs that far exceed the needs of the average photographer. And they offer all of this in a small convenient to use package that could inspire you to use your camera every day and become a better photographer.

Megapixels, resolution, sensor noise, burst rate, buffer size and things like that are really not relevant for the average person. What is important is that you love your camera and the way it makes you feel. What’s important is that your camera inspires you to be creative. What’s important is having a camera with you, and one that is intuitive and easy to use.

“The true test of a camera is how it makes you feel when you pick it up and carry it around with you on a daily basis.”

Happy Shooting,

Doug

Notes from a Small Town Street Tog (February)

“If we limit ourselves, a whole new world of possibilities will emerge.”

“Some situations terrify me. That’s how I know it’s time to press the shutter.”

“Even if I go out and return home with no photos to show for it, I still feel good. It’s only a loss if I’ve learned nothing.”

“In street photography you react. Thinking is for when you’ve got time.”

“I don’t take photographs for the taking’s sake. They have to mean something twenty years from now.”

“What is photography if it isn’t putting bookmarks in the pages of your life?”

“There is a point where you can become too technical or too demanding. After that the photograph no longer has meaning.”

“I don’t get angry if I have to shoot at a high ISO. After all, it’s not a contest to see who can produce the cleanest photograph. There are situations where I embrace grain.”

“The more transparent a camera is the more I like it. I just want it to do what I need it to do with minimum fuss. I have to get on with my work.”

“In small town street photography there are really only two approaches: either you have to become involved in a situation or you have to be invisible.”

“Sometimes we need to take a step away from reality to emphasize reality.”

“Being in a state of readiness and able to anticipate what’s going to happen is most of what I do.”

“A smile can go a long way in street photography.”

“I don’t consider all of my photos to be good. Many though, are necessary.”

“After taking someone’s photograph, thanking them then walking away must be a little bit like – What the fuck just happened?”

“We’re all colour blind at first.”

“I enjoy photographing dogs. They’re usually so attentive or not.”

Does the Camera Matter?

 

 It’s an ongoing debate in photography circles, and a topic that often get’s off track, lost on some tangent of anger.

 

These are my thoughts:

 

First of all, I’d like to point out that I regard photography as an art form. It’s not just some physical action of pressing a shutter button and what you end up with is entirely what the camera got for you. If that was the case, the camera is everything. Photography involves vision, creativity and timing. Anyone with half a brain knows that. It also involves having an understanding of technical stuff. But the essence of being a photographer isn’t just understanding the technical stuff. It’s about knowing the technical stuff so well that you can forget about it and concentrate on creating images that stir the imagination or conjure up feelings in the viewer, or recording a beautiful moment. A camera can’t do that. The camera doesn’t see the photograph. The person behind the camera does that before the camera is even lifted to the eye.

 

So what then exactly is so important about having a good camera? Does it really matter?

 

The camera is a tool that allows someone with vision to express their creativity, their knack for seeing and recording events from a different perspective, or at the exact second the thing happens.

 

The camera is important in that its particular features may or may not allow the photographer to be creative with manual exposures, fast shutter speeds, rapid frame rates, grabbing difficult subjects etc.

 

The camera isn’t important in that if the photographer has no vision, and shoots entirely on “auto”, then a small, inexpensive pocket camera could probably do the job just as well as a professional dslr.

 

If you sell fine art and large prints, then perhaps having clean, sharp images is very important. You’d want a camera that is capable of giving you low noise levels with high resolution.

 

If you are a wildlife photographer, then the camera’s ability to achieve rapid and accurate focus on moving subjects is paramount. You’ll also really appreciate having a camera with fast frame rates. But can you take nice wildlife shots with an entry level camera? The answer is yes you can. However, your ratio of good shots to poor ones will be much better with a professional camera – one that is more suited to the task at hand. So the question then becomes, how patient are you? How much of a perfectionist are you?

 

As someone who regularly teaches photography to beginners, I get to see some of the struggles first hand with students. Some have cameras that are so bad that shooting any kind of manual exposure is an exercise in frustration. Those kind of cameras are meant purely for what they are – to be used in “auto” mode.

 

Other cameras have a menu system that makes it difficult to find even the simplest things that a photographer needs to access all the time such as ISO or exposure compensation.

 

Again, does the camera matter? Yes. But you need to ask yourself what kind of shooting you like to do. Do you have an interest in star photography? If so, a camera with low noise levels at higher ISO’s is important. Are you a serious landscape photographer? Maybe a camera with a full frame sensor is better for you than a cropped sensor. Are you a jpg shooter who shoots exclusively on “auto”? If yes, then perhaps spending all that money on a 5dmiii was a little excessive.

 

Does the quality or cost of the camera have a bearing on how you see as a photographer? No. The camera doesn’t see for you. Just like in music, if you have a tin ear, then playing a more expensive guitar isn’t going to improve the quality of your playing.

 

So figure out what kind of photographer you are and where you want to go with your photography. Then you can make an informed decision about which camera will suit your needs now and in the future. Some of the best images I’ve ever taken have been with an entry level dslr. The camera had no bearing on the outcome. Yet, other images I’ve taken could only be achieved using a more accurate and faster autofocus system on a camera with fast frame rates.

 

So does the camera matter? Yes, you bet it does. Is the outcome of your images dependent on the quality of the camera in all cases? Nope. Not at all.

 

 

Happy Shooting,

 

 

Doug