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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Photography for the Unprofessional 

Sheet Metal Workers' Rocket: this is one of 23 pics I took in about 10 minutesI've been thinking a lot about digital cameras lately, as the volume of photos posted here might indicate. Since it's near Christmas (and Boxing Day, for that matter), I thought I'd share some of my general thoughts about digital cameras, and what a year of using one has taught me. I think it's especially relevant right now, because I believe that consumer-oriented cameras have crossed a threshold: they are good enough. Oh sure, they're going to get better (though I think more slowly) and cheaper (though I think that prices will soon be constrained by the less-malleable cost of good lenses than the ever-shrinking cost of good image sensors), but for the usual amateur photographer needs, 5-10 megapixels is probably enough that the lens will start to be a bigger limiting factor in ultimate resolution than the pixel count.

According to my iPhoto listing, I have uploaded more than 1200 items, the oldest from mid-May. Now, that's probably a modest week of photography for some pros, if not a vigorous day, but for me -- and keep in mind I used to be a photographer at my high school, and had unfettered use of one of my father's Pentax Spotmatic SLRs from a very young age -- that may be more photos than I took in the other 31.5 years of my life. This is because of the first rule of digital photography for amateurs: when the marginal cost of taking a picture is so close to zero, you will take a lot of pictures.

Taking a lot of pictures is good for your skills, and a good habit for any photographer aspiring to take better pictures. Sheer chance helps here, too: more photos equals a better shot at getting lucky.

As if that wasn't enough, digital cameras give you instantaneous feedback. It's a bit crude in some cases: I use the rule that a photo isn't really bad until it has been confirmed bad by looking at it on the computer. But a quick check can confirm how the last shot turned out, and hit at how to change settings for the next shot. In traditional photography, the standard method was to bracket and hope. Pros, knowing the value of feedback and being able to justify the considerable cost, used to use Polaroid photo backs for their cameras, letting them check composition and lighting on the fly. Now everyone can have that kind of feedback anywhere. Let's call it the second rule of digital photography for amateurs: instant feedback equals instant learning.

I think those first two rules are pretty uncontroversial. But my third rule is a bit odd: I've come to the conclusion that all things being equal, it's probably okay to sacrifice quality if it means the camera is smaller. Let's put it this way in the third rule: make your camera small enough that you carry it anywhere.

My third rule is born of experience. I like quality shots. But as a person who grew up around several amateur photographers (mainly my father and his sister), we have all noticed that when push came to shove, our SLRs stayed at home most of the time. A compact camera just made more sense in most cases.

To make a long story short, my father and mother now own a Canon A85, a compact digital with a good reputation and pretty good manual controls. My own camera is a Nikon Coolpix 2500, a camera which is mostly pocketable and a mere 2 megapixels. It doesn't even have full manual aperture and shutter controls. But it comes most places with me. If I was to upgrade, rather than move to one of the many really nice cameras in the size range of the very good Canon A-series, I would probably look for another camera the size of mine, such as the Canon S80, or an even smaller option.

So there's my basic theory of digital photography: the first camera an amateur digital photographer buys should be one small enough to carry everywhere, whatever that means for you. I think other considerations come after that.

Since I have you here, let me share my other digital gear theory: the great missing camera out there is an interchangeable-lens rangefinder. Since the LCD screen on the back of digital cameras already offers a through-the-lens display, why not just give up on the pentaprism altogether? Probably not acceptable for pros, but for most amateurs I think the trade-offs would be worth the size and weight advantages. Sony has come very close, and may even be better than my idea (who are you betting on: a large electronics company with years of experience building digital cameras, or me?), but doesn't have a removable lens.

So go get a camera and start shooting. Even a gearhead like me knows that the pictures are more important than the gear. But of course, that's the killer advantage of digital: more pictures. Play to that strength.

I think the LCD is not usually good enough for setting manual focus is why.

Also, until Sony's recent new camera, no fixed-lens camera even used an APS-sized sensor -- the power cost of keeping it on all the time for an LCD live preview was just too much.
I think your second point is exactly right: Sony does seem to have done yeoman work on the power issue.

As for the first point, well, I think manual focus is mostly hype. For the times when autofocus, adjustable focus points, focus lighting and focus lock can't do the job, maybe the LCD's aren't good enough. I suspect the way to go in this case is a good non-LCD rangefinder sight, though my good experiences with a Minolta Hi-Matic rangefinder may not be typical.

But my mythical "sweet-spot" rangefinder doesn't have to be better than SLRs: it is unlikely to convert the pros. It just has to be a smaller, quieter camera that also has interchangeable lenses.

Don't get me started on prosumer cameras that have electronic viewfinders and back-panel LCDs. I guess there are reasons for it, but the duplication seems wasteful to me. A glass rangefinder would seem to be the preferred solution.

Maybe, as with the new Sony sensor, technology will overtake this problem, and higher-resolution LCDs will improve the manual focus problem. It may also be that between high-quality built-in zoom lenses, and decent telephoto, wide, and macro converters, we're already most of the way to my magic camera, only cheaper.
I was a pro but have not been for many years and buying a 1 megapixel Cannon for US750 about 5 years ago I really learned that the small carryable camera opened up a whole new way to photograph. I was just given a Kodak c340 by a friend who had it spare and it is a useful and much needed replacement - 5 megapixesl and 2/3 the size. I going out of my way to carry it on my belt and we'll see what happens. The last time I did that it was a old Leica thread mount loaded with Tri-X set to hyperfocal distance. Plus ca change..... L Gude Perth Western Australia
Great post. Here's my response:

What you see is what you get?
Epson has an interchangable lense rangefinder, the R-D1, priced for those who already own Leica glass.

Have you looked at the Panasonic Lumix?
Check out the Luminous Landscape review of the RD-1. Nice camera. Shame about the lack of a live LCD screen! It appears to suffer from the same problem Andrew mentions in the first comment: until Sony solved the problem, no large-size sensor was capable of life previews.

The various Lumix cameras are very nice, and Leica is certainly a name to conjure with in the lens department. It seems to me that the Canons outperform them with the compact and very compact A and SD series, but in price-performance the super-zoom Lumixes (Lumices? Lumixen?) seem quite nice, and I think the new ones use image-stabilization, which looks like a useful feature.
Ryan: as somebody who is currently working as a professional photographer but who has very little experience (the contradiction can be explained by the necessity of yearbook photos; you can train an amateur to do assembly-line stuff in a very short period of time), I can think of a reason that prosumer cameras have both the LCD and the viewfinder: The professionals use them.

My studio uses Fuji S2s* for the vast majority of its work, and has little need to even change to specialized lenses. The LCD is an unecessary power drain to have on all the time, and the auto-focus is indeed set in the viewfinder; we set the shot through the viewfinder and then confirm that it is good with the LCD. If really necessary we can also check the laptop we're hooked up to, but they're older Dells and don't have the speed we'd like— thirty seconds per student. Ideally, of course. We almost never get that fast.

*I understand that the Fujis are a bit expensive to be speaking of them as "prosumer" but we have, on occasion, used personal S2s as substitutes, so I know that non-professionals own them.
unNecessary. sorry.
b. durbin: you misunderstand.

I was talking about electronic viewfinders, which effectively mean that the same camera has two redundant LCDs for seeing the shot.

The optical viewfinders found on digital SLRs and a lot of mid-sized cameras (the Canon A-series, for example) make perfect sense, for the power-saving reasons you say, and also because sometimes the lighting or circumstances will be such that the photographer wants to sight their shot with the camera on their face.

Regarding the pro/prosumer difference, it's more about the primary purchasers than the exceptions. Going back as far as photography has been a widespread hobby, there have been amateurs using unexpectedly high-end gear. Whether it be Nikon F-series SLRs in the 1960s or high-end dSLRs today, there is always a group of non-pros willing to pay big bucks for the pro-grade gear, for whatever reason.

(I see the same happening in cycling, where slow amateurs will often tool around on the fanciest, raciest, most exotic bicycles available.)

"Prosumer" cameras (or gear in any category) are cameras that don't really meet pro requirements, but which do have very high-end features and are normally priced accordingly. This is a category of very, very good cameras, ones that might even suit a lot of dSLR-toting amateurs better than the even-more-expensive camera they actually bought. But they're not pro gear.

Interesting to hear about the workflow at the mass-production end of pro photography. I run into some of this at work, where we produce ID cards for internal use, but we don't need high-res output for that, and use a dedicated capture system that is part of a computer. I doubt we can hit 30 seconds per student, either.
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