Small sensor systems. Practical commercial tools? Why not?

Corporate Executive volunteering at Central Texas Non-Profit Agency.  
Nikon V1.  30-110mm lens.  ISO 1600.  ©2011 Kirk Tuck

Love it.  One of the discussions I've been following is on an Olympus forum, and guy named "Marty" asked recently if a small sensor camera system, like a Pen EP3 or similar camera system, could be the sole camera for a photographer.  I'm going to say that, if you were a journalist or a newspaper or editorial photographer, you could do so with aplomb.  

The image above was part of a reportage coverage ( meaning: catch "it" if you can because we're not pausing or setting anything up. And we're not going to repeat anything ) of a locally headquartered, executive leadership team donating their time and energy (and no little amount of equipment) to a very worthy, non-profit organization.  In the past I would have used some flash bouncing off the ceiling to get the color balance right and to fill in shadows.  Last year I would have used a Canon 5D mk2 with fast lenses to get shots like this and I would have used fast ISO's so I could get enough depth of field to keep parts of the frame sharp.

This year I took along the Canon 5D mk2 and an assortment of Zeiss single focal length prime lenses and it was my intention to shoot the assignment with the full frame camera.  But I also took along the Nikon V1 and the lenses. I started shooting casually with the Nikon and I never stopped.

What I ended up with is an image that's slightly noisier than it would have been had I shot the same frame with the Canon. But I also ended up with a camera that could shoot silently, and quickly, and with incredible depth of field, given the angle of view.  It helped me keep the executive in focus, while he was in motion, and also held focus on the computer products on which they were working.

Because I have lots of legacy photography baggage to deal with, accumulated from the last twenty years, I was incredibly nervous about making the decision to use the smaller camera.  But in retrospect it was just right.  Do you know why?  Because all of the use will be in situations that don't require a film-based print focus.  And by that I mean that I knew full well that the images were headed to two media: newsprint and the web.  We didn't need to make 16x20 inch presentation prints or posters.  We wouldn't be running the images as double trucks in a glossy magazine.  We'd be incorporating small files into a web site and we'd be sending out images, sized to 6x9 inches @ 300 dpi for splatter onto newsprint.  Porous, gain-y newsprint.  And the Nikon V1 files could deliver all the quality, and more, needed in that application.

A younger photographer wouldn't have thought twice.  After all, they've pretty much grown up knowing that their targets don't require the level of quality that was required when the world thought of the magazine page as the gold standard.  They know that the web only needs so many pixels.  And that downsizing the files or printing in a newspaper hides the difference in high ISO performance.  Handily. 

We stick with a lot of assumptions out of habit.  And some of those assumptions can be self defeating.  I caught myself the other day processing 21 megapixel files in 16 bit depth in photoshop and making meticulous corrections in a number of parameters.  And then I remembered that the client was looking for 8 bit, srgb files, sized to 640 pixels, on the long side, for their website.

As professional image providers we can sometimes be hampered by how we did things in "the old days."  It pays to pay attention to now.  In this regard I tend to learn a lot from younger photographers.  The way they edit.  The way they post process.  And even the way they market.

These days the need for big files is less frequent.  It's good to know how to do things when "no compromise" is the plan of the day. Or when the client wants a poster campaign.  But it's also good to know when you can deliver, and prosper, from getting stuff done on a smaller scale. With agile and discreet tools.

I'm learning to stop telling art directors how we used to do all our still life work with 4x5 inch view cameras and transparency film.  Now I'm happy to use a much smaller format because it's so much easier to keep everything in focus.  And move quickly.  And process quickly.   The craft is changing and clinging to a life raft from the past is probably a poor strategy for continued financial health.  Quick, crisp and immediate might actually be the best strategy for a client who knows exactly where the images are heading. You just have to decide that you're ready to shift.

Staying relevant means constantly changing.  Not necessarily just your style but also your production  and your delivery, and your outlook.  Just a thought as we anticipate 36 megapixel cameras from Canon and Nikon....any day.  Does your client care?  Should they?

The Nikon V1 and the Micro Four Thirds, and the smaller cameras like the Fuji x10 are speaking a different language.  Are you fluent or are you still trying to sell a solution you are comfortable with and which your client may not need or want?