4.12.2009

Easter Confessional about point and shoot cameras....

I'm hardly clandestine about it but I thought it was high time I professed my fascination with what are commonly called "point and shoot" digital cameras.  I find them irresistible.  Lately I've been snapping up the Canon G series, starting with the G10.  Small and dense, this little 14 megapixel camera pulls my attention like gravity.  

Last week I found a G9 and snapped it up like candy.  I've also acquired a Nikon P5100 and a Canon SX10 and I find all of them to be good.  Better than I thought they'd be.  In fact I prefer them to my other, more professional cameras in day to day shooting and here's why:  They reintroduce an element of unpredictability and challenge into projects.  But at a basic level they can be compelled to offer the quality and control that was unimaginable in a digital camera just ten years ago. Probably five years ago.  The photo (above right) of Ben was a quick shot taken this morning with a little florescent light bank.  He resented being dragged into the studio while still half asleep but I wanted to see how the little G10 handled a fast portrait.  

While others have reviewed the G series and bemoaned the lusty noise at any ISO setting over 200 I've been fascinated by the performance at 80 ISO.  The smooth texture of skin tone and the enormous amount of real detail.  I've given up shooting raw on my little cameras.  I'm too lazy.  So what you see above is a cropped Jpeg right out of the machine.   But beyond the performance of the file I find the convenience features of the cameras compelling.  

Have you used "face detection" autofocus?  It's fabulous.  It works.  It's easier to focus a portrait with this camera's face option than it is to focus with my D700.  Really.  And when your subject moves around in the frame the little face square follows the face around, constantly keeping things sharp.  Don't laugh until you try it.  Do you ever shoot self portraits?  You've got to try "face detection self timer".  It just works.

Do you think the little electronic view finders (EVF's) on cameras like the Canon SX10 suck? Well, I don't and here's why:  I can comp a scene in the finder with the camera set to manual exposure and while I'm watching the scene in the finder I can slowly change the shutter speed or the aperture with the little command dial on the back while watching the effect in real time. Before I click the shutter.  No post image capture chimping necessary.  I can even throw in a live histogram if I want.  But I gave up including the histo because the EVF image matched the final image I see on my calibrated studio monitor really well.  Bonus, the final image always looks about 20% better on the monitor than in the EVF but in terms of exposure accuracy it's very close.

Another confession:  I already had a G10 when I bought the (lesser appreciated) SX 10 IS but I bought the SX10 to be my "take anywhere" digital web video camera.  What the heck?  Why not?  Do we really need to shoot everything in HD if it's going to end up as a YouTube video or a short tutorial on a website?  And the SX10 has almost everything I want in a web video camera, including stereo microphones, a long lens and ample image stabilization.  Pop out the SD memory card, pop it into a recent Mac and you're ready to edit your movie.  You could shoot your lighting tutorial on a Red One camera but why?  It was only after I started using the SX 10 for videos that I realized it is also a fabulous still camera.  

I'm in love with the bendy, twisty two and a half inch finder screen on the back.  I love to pop a Hoodman Magnifier on the screen and use it like a waist level finder.  It's outrageously convenient for ground level shooting.  I used it all day last Thurs. on a photo shoot outside here in Central Texas and it couldn't have been more convenient.

At this point someone will no doubt lob in the usual caveat about these small sensor cameras.  "But the depth of field is so big you can't put the background out of focus!!!!"  Oh so true.  But think about all the times you wished you could keep the background in focus.....I was shooting landscapes last week and I wanted the foreground to be tack sharp and the background to be sharp as well.  Piece of cake with my SX10,  not so piece-of-cakey with my D700 and a 24-85mm lens.  There are lots of times when you wish everything was in focus and, for the most part it can be with these little cameras.  No one who reads this owns only one camera and expects it to do everything.  If you need a blurry background in a portrait you are smart enough to grab a DSLR out of the bag and pop an 85mm 1.4 lens onto the front.

But then we venture into issues of sheer quality.  You've got me there.  The best of the pack, the G10, is no match for the Phase One 45+ (medium format digital camera) I tested last fall.  Once I get that Phase One up on my tripod, focus carefully, set the exposure carefully and use my best technique, those MF files blow away all my small cameras as soon as I start printing the results bigger than 11x14 inches.  But wasn't it always this way?  Wasn't your Hasselblad always a bit sharper than your Canonet QL17?  Didn't your RZ 67 usually show a bit more detail than your old Leica M3?  I don't know about you but I still loved shooting with the 35mm stuff. Even used it on jobs.  Even though I owned 4x5 inch cameras and medium format cameras.

So what's the real thrill?  It's all about shedding the professional photographer emotional and physical baggage and re-acquiring that early thrill of photographing.  I can dump three or four different little cameras in a small Domke bag and shoot just about anything.  I can take one small camera out for the day and play without invoking a major Heisenbergian uncertainty paradigm.  The low profile of the small cameras doesn't cause the psychic disruption that a honking big D3 with a monstrous 24-70 2.8 zoom lens on the front.  (And God Forbid you should go full Strobist Insane and try to traipse through urban streets unnoticed with three or four flash units hanging off your main rig..........).  

It's the same subtlety that has been employed by our most successful voyeurs for the past century.  The tiny cameras (relative to their day) of Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank. The little Olympus digital cameras of Alex Majoli and many others.

I'm smitten but I'm fickle.  In the same week that found me tracking down a good clean Canon G9 I also arranged to get another Rollei 6008.  But I have different uses in mind for that camera...........More on that later.


The second book is here.