3.16.2017

A few more thoughts about super "bridge" cameras and why they make me smile.

People are slow to adapt to change. They hold onto ideas that have lost their deep roots and reject innovation because it comes in a form that they don't recognize; or reject it because of anachronistic prejudice. It's kind of dangerous because change is accelerating at a rate that's so fast we can barely recognize what exists today and few can imagine the change and innovation that will happen by next year. Who, in 2005, would have imagined that Nikon and Canon's biggest challenge
to sales, in the near future, would have come from a small sensor smart phone?

By the same token, people with a long tenure in the photo markets mostly predicted that the micro four thirds sensor standard, and the cameras that used it, were destined for failure; and in short order. But both Olympus and Panasonic have ably defied those predictions. 

In the early days of digital imaging cameras makers had much trouble implementing full frame sensors. For years and years most makers, like Nikon, Pentax, Samsung and Sony spent their time making APS-C sensored cameras and extolled the virtues of the smaller frame, but users who grew up with 35mm cameras pegged the full frame sensor as their ultimate goal and the push to deliver cameras with big chips kept driving the market. The thing most users wanted (a relatively inexpensive, full frame camera) was the one thing camera makers had trouble delivering on. They could deliver full frame, but only at a price. 

But now nearly everyone outside the Olympus and Panasonic camps has a full frame model on the market and almost uniformly there is a product from each of the makers that comes in at under $2,000. Some models are long in the market, like the 6D and the Sony A7, but they still deliver on the initial promise of quality and decent low noise performance. 

But it seems to me that as soon as the dream of full frame was realized it became more or less a ho-hum thing and the next level of product aspiration commenced. Now we have expensive medium format cameras on the market. But the rush seems to be toward cameras that are fun to shoot and boast powerful differentiators. A good example is Fuji. People love the look of the files and they get the depth of field control that used to be thought of as the provenance of full frame cameras only. Make a really good, fast lens and the wide aperture closes the gap. Or consider Panasonic whose upcoming introduction of the GH5 is already causing a buzz because of the incredible cross discipline demand for a camera that straddles stills and video exceptionally well. 

An interesting note: while shooting video with full frame cameras was all the rage from 2008 to about 2015, and lots and lots of videographers and film makers played around with full frame DSLRs as a way to get super shallow depth of field, they then realized that; a. it was a visual gimmick, and, b. that the super narrow depth of field made it harder to keep important stuff in focus. Especially things that moved. They started a mass migration back to what they call "super 35" in movie parlance. It is essentially the size/geometry of the APS-C sensor families. 

But at the same time that there is an elitist reach toward medium format and high resolution full frame there is an equally powerful reach toward the initial digital promise in the opposite direction. Smaller imaging sensors with exceptionally good performance metrics which can leverage their small geometry to provide much wider zoom ranges and much longer focal lengths. Sensors that can meet or exceed the video quality offered by most of the APS-C camera makers.

The changes in camera targets comes at a time when computational photography is ascendant. One no longer needs to shoot an 85mm f1.4 lens on a full frame camera in order to take control of depth of field. The latest iPhone offers a mode that defocuses backgrounds in portraits and it's pretty convincing. The subsequent generations will only improve on the technology.... and the aesthetics. 

With this in mind my feeling is that the zone of comfort in the future, for pros, amateurs and film makers, will land somewhere near the one inch sensor ballpark --- or in the immediate vicinity. For all the swagger of the full frame tribe there are equally good reasons to prefer a smaller sensor. I've already mentioned the ability to offer wider zoom ranges for the smaller format but additional advantages come from things like the lower mass of the sensor and its mounting. This should allow much more effective image stabilization than what is offered on larger, heavier sensors. And we see this is true when we compare cameras like the Olympus EM1.2 with larger sensor cameras.  It's easier to control the inertia of lower mass objects. Basic physics. 

The faster electronic output of the smaller chips means they routinely lead the technology race to deliver features in video like: faster fps, and better 4K video. And still imaging features like post focus, focus stacking and multi-frame, high-def imaging. The smaller sensors generate less heat and it's no coincidence that cameras with smaller chips like the RX10s and the FZ2500 can shoot 4K video without heat shutdown endemic larger sensor cameras, for long periods of time and in warmer conditions. 

I had a lot of hope for Nikon's V series of one inch cameras and owned the first generation. I would love a camera that had Sony's RX10iii chip inside but with interchangeable lenses which included a super fast normal angle of view lens (say a 50mm equivalent). But I guess we'll have to wait for someone else to come to market with that...

This past Sunday I spent a 12 hour day shooting at a SXSW showcase for a financial services client. I shot interviews, stage shots, candid photos, and everything in between. In years past I might have taken something like the A7rii with a wide ranging zoom. Most likely a 24-85mm. 

But in talks with the client we were pretty certain that all of our uses would be for web marketing and social networks. Print use would be as small images in the margins of brochure pages. Hardly the kind of final target that begs for 42 megapixel files....

I ended up taking two cameras. The RX10iii and the fz2500. I would have taken just the Panasonic but it was a gray and gloomy day and I thought we'd need to use flash for some of the work. I've got a dedicated flash for the Sony and I've tested it thoroughly so the combination was a bit of a "safety blanket." But I really wanted to put the fz2500 through a test. 

I generated about 1250 deliverable files and was able to shoot both cameras right next to each other; capturing the same content at mostly the same settings. At this juncture I'd have to say that while both cameras are great image makers the RX10iii is the imaging quality winner. But not by much. It's the classic situation in which, if you compared them separately, you would think both were exemplary ---- it's only by direct comparison that you can see the Sony resolves a bit more detail and nails color balance a bit more accurately. 

But this brings me to my final point. Whether you choose either camera is inconsequential but to my mind there is a shift that's happening in the imaging world and that's from a movement that's been ascendant for about two decades to something else. The movement of narrow depth of field and lush, out of focus backgrounds is status quo. We're moving toward a more cohesive aesthetic in which more things are in focus and imaging is becoming more contextual and information packed. 

If photographic art repeats itself then the vast majority of people making photographs will continue doing exactly the same photography they've enjoyed for the last two decades. They will not shift with the momentum of cultural preference. It's like the difference in aesthetics between Robert Frank's work on "The Americans" and the work from any number of professional photographers of his age who were practicing three point lighting, using exacting fill ratios, using large format cameras and emulating debutante poses already in vogue for nearly half a century. In painting we refer to this as "the academy," but I'll just say, "old school."

The average practitioner of the time hated Frank's work and denounced the small film camera. They derided 35mm as nothing better than toys. They denounced the graininess of the film and were basically resolute in their resistance to change. 

To my mind the Lumix LX100 and the Sony RX100iv are the Leica rangefinders of today. Even more so than the Leica rangefinders of today. Small cameras that are quick and discreet to use while delivering convincing and high quality files. The avowed DSLR full frame users are the medium format and large format camera users of this generation. The aversion to noise, and the perceived need for ultimate sharpness, is our status quo. And status quo is the thing to fight against which gives relevance to a new school of work. 

With the small sensor bridge cameras we have hit a point where imaging for emerging media has met the sufficiency (apologies to Ming for stealing his favorite word) of photo technology. Or, more bluntly, if you can't make worthwhile work with the leading cameras in this class then maybe it's not the mechanics, optics or sensors that are limiting you. It may be a vision thing. 

We think of the one inch sensor as small while traditional video producers see it as quite large. Interesting to me when everything meets in the middle. 

In the case of my Sunday shoot all the features of the bridge cameras worked to my advantage. I could do a wide, 24mm (eq) shot of a rapt audience, turn 180 degrees and capture a close up of a speaker, from chin to eyebrows. I had no fear shooting up to 1600 ISO and was helped in this endeavor by being able to shoot with either cameras' lens wide open, totally sure that the inherent depth of field would cover what I needed to have covered. 

Best of all was the moment I realized that I had more than enough still images of (former HUD  Secretary) Julian Castro and (Parallel Processing computer pioneer) Daniel Hillis together and I switched the fz2500 to shoot 4K video, and shot a two minute clip of these two men discussing data mining and housing finance. A total win for my client.

It's fine to be locked into an aesthetic paradigm that is non-evolving, if what you are doing is strictly for your pleasure. I am less invested in any style of shooting than I am in the essence of visual story telling. For me, cultural flow doesn't dictate direction as much as to suggest it. New approaches to seeing things don't always align with my clients' taste, immediately, but over time drive new clients into my orbit. The bottom line is always that I have to love something and not have done it so many times before that I am already bored by the repetition. 

There is an allure to shifting between two camps. Movies and photographs. 

Below: These are all images I shot on Weds. afternoon using the Panasonic fz2500. I find the files to be sharp, imbued with beautiful and very neutral color, and pretty darn sharp. 




Should good video look this uncomfortable to produce?




13 comments:

MO said...

Nice read :)

dinksdad said...

I get pleasing results from my Nikon 1 J5 with 18.5mm f/1.8 prime lens (50mm equivalent). This camera has a 1" Sony sensor and cost me less than $400 for the body. Impressive photos from this camera can be seen on Flickr and elsewhere. I also have a V2 for when I need an EVF. Too bad Nikon is not continuing to add to this camera line. I'm leery of fixed lens cameras with their potential for dust on the sensor issues, though I often have a Canon G9X in my pocket.

Michael said...

Thanks again Kirk. I have the A7rii. I think Sony made the camera too small - another fad of sorts. It should have a larger battery, a larger gyroscopic mechanism for the shake control, and two cards. Hmmm, sounds like the GH5.

Mike Marcus said...

I have a friend who is just itching to buy a new camera. I keep telling him, for the reasons he is wanting a new camera, that is, travel, he really should seriously consider a 1-inch sensor camera, like those that have become among your favorites. This post of yours should be a "must read" for him. I hope he actually does read it! Again, thank you for another fine post. After TOP, your posts are the next ones I check out almost everyday.

rlh1138 said...

Nice thoughts. Shows the depth of your knowledge/history - as well as thinking about the present/future. (Compliments off) I remember the impact of Frank's work, for me sort of a 'What, you can photograph that?' Really open my eyes. (And Danny Lyons - Did you like 'The Bike Riders?) As to bridge cameras, I know you liked my fave, tho it doesn't hold up too well today, the R1.

Keep up the nice writing!

Ray H

Rufus said...

Let me offer a counterpoint.

The thing is, Kirk lives in a world which seems so often is flooded with light. If the sun isn't shining in Austin, then its lit nicely by a stage or by Kirk himself, who is a master at lighting. This makes life easy for cameras with a 1 inch sensor.

Today I was in the North of England in a cold, damp and grey twilight. Having to use high ISO's or lift shadow detail to a more extreme way in LR. That is when these smaller sensor start to scream enough.

If you cant control the light, there are times when the small sensor cameras hit their limits. And given that cameras like the RX10 have a similar mass to, say, a a6500 or a Fuji XT2, I find it hard to get excited about them.

But thats me. I live in the dark much of the time. YMMV. :)

Kirk Tuck said...

Touché. Well said.

seany said...

While I agree with most of your points Kirk I think the Robert Frank analogy is wide of the mark,Frank had the luxury of a Guggenheim funded trip to indulge in his photographic tour of the USA and produce what were not very favorably received images, which I believe he failed to get published in the US and had to go to France to find a publisher some years later.
To compare Frank's work and those who were plying their craft in commercial photography at that time is unrealistic, indeed to compare his work with photogrphers trying to earn a crust at any time period since is not realistic, indeed were you yourself to follow his lead Kirk, Ben would be working several low paid jobs to try and fund his education and studio dog would be living on scraps from the kitchen table and rather than musing on the future of the digital camera world and putting bad thoughts of buying more equipment into your readers heads,you'd be busily employed trying to meet next month's rent money.

Diogenes Baena said...

From the moment I started using my now-well-worn RX10, I knew I found my personal digital version of a Leica M3". Ready to shoot and built like a tank. I would love to use it for Weddings and Events, and I have brought it to weddings for candies. But 95% of my wedding gigs is as a subcontractor and the status quo is that full frame is still required. The middle ground for me is the APS-C sensor, and where Stills and Video sweet spots converged, IMO. Weddings and Events typically require higher ISOs and the look is no-flash available light)
Having said that, for gigs where video is the main (and most often the only) capture, I shoot with a CX900 (for unlimited run) and the RX10 (for second cam) using the amazing XAVC-S codec. The matching sensors are easy to grade. I'M planning on going 4K and thanks to your whole-heated endorsement, the FZ2500 will be my unlimited run-time camera (instead of the AX100) and the RX10II will be my second camera. for video, I shoot mainly talking heads, crowd reactions.
I admire the fact that your gear loyalty is for what works for you, in your current situation! I like to think I'm like you in this regard (I've been called, affectionately I think, a gear slut.

Grace Spradin said...

Kirk
Your suggested ideal camera would have a 1" sensor and interchangeable fast primes. Is this for stills or video?

Jason Orth said...

For all talk about limits and "one camera, one lens" I've gravitated back to a all-in-one approach. Too many times I've left with the wide prime wishing I had the tele, and vice versa.

I'm at a point now where I've shot long enough to know what I need and when. The worst part is now "which camera?" The 1" super zoom group is looking like the regular answer to the "which camera" question: Its simply going to be "that one."

Zaki Jaihutan said...

Kirk, you should write something like this more. This is very thoughtful and a true eye-opener (if not a reminder on where we are with all our "imaging toys"). Really enjoy this, and it gives me new perspective with my cameras.

Cheers,
Zaki

Craig said...

This is a timely post. I recently traded in my Fuji gear to get into m4/3 for a variety of reasons (video, speed, less bulk), and the sales associate brought up the rebates on the full-frame Sony A7 series.

I commented how I was actually looking for more depth of field at a given aperture, and he mentioned I was the third person that week to make a similar comment. A recent experience shooting office candids had me stopping down my Fuji 23mm 1.4 down to f/4-5.6, just to get three people around a desk reasonably in focus. The consequence was an ISO of 1600 and a shutter speed on the ragged edge of comfort for a non-stabilized combo.

With m4/3, I could have shot at f2-2.8 for the same DoF, at a correspondingly lower ISO. The same applies to video. In most circumstances like this, the ~2/3 stop advantage of APS-C over m4/3 is a moot point.

I ended up with the Olympus EM5mkII, and after getting it set up, am incredibly pleased. Lenses that are in proportion to the body, great stabilization, an option to display clipping in the EVF, fast & quiet AF, weather sealing... I could go on. The lens line-up is well established and has everything I could hope for.

As an image-making machine, I have a lot of love for Fuji - the control layout, the quality of glass and the colours they produce.

But for my needs and goals, the answer was a smaller sensor.