Spirited Nonsense and Neutral Reality.

The camera on the left is a Panasonic G3.  It features 16 megapixels of resolution, pretty clean files up to 1600 ISO and it weighs next to nothing.  The lens on the front of the camera is very sharp and has beautiful tonality.  The camera on the right is a Canon 1DS Mk2.  If features 16 megapixels of resolution, pretty clean files up to 1600 ISO and it weighs a ton.  The lens on the front is a Zeiss ZE 85 mm 1.4.  It's sharp once it's stopped down one and half stops and it has beautiful tonality.

The camera on the left cost me $550.  The camera on the right originally retailed for $ 8,000 but I bought it well used, in the middle of last year for $1,800.  There are differences between these cameras and similarities.  They both turn out really nice files and the files look really nice on my monitors.

If we use our knowledge base from 2005 and earlier then the one on the right is the camera to have.  But if we are open minded, cognizant of market changes and willing to make a go at understanding the impact of technological development, the camera on the left can be compellingly argued for.

I just read two different discussion threads on a global photography website.  One thread praised the advances in cellphone cameras and noted that a flood of images from citizen cellphone-o-graphers is supplanting traditional photojournalists around the world in supplying content for news oriented websites, magazines and newspapers.  The gist of the article was that the 8 megapixel files from the cellphone are acceptable to editors far and wide.  The argument is that once a certain technical threshold is crossed the content trumps the device with which it was captured.  I'll buy that.  So, the new professional in the field of photo-journalism is the guy or girl who is in the right place at the right time with the minimally acceptable or better equipment.  Access being the prime feature.  In one camp the prevailing thought among amateurs and hobbyists is the vindication of their talents by the eradication of a profession and its replacement by free operators.  And it's all made possible through the de-evolution of technical necessities.  Pixel content is less rigorous than printed content.  And more forgiving which lowers the barriers to entry while sheer quantity allows the editors and art buyers to crowd source their way to competence.

The other, opposite argument I read concerned what constitutes bare minimum necessities in a "professional" camera.  The unwashed majority vociferously insisting that no one, NO ONE could be deemed a "pro" unless they were equipped with a camera that outperformed all previous cameras in the history of modern, digital photography.  The camera would have to shoot at high frame rates, focus in the dark, see in the dark, withstand nuclear blasts, electro-motive pulses and as much rain and mud as you could possibly throw at it.  The pro camera would yield files as smooth as ISO 64 film from an 8x10 view camera but it would do so at 25,000 ISO.  In their world all pros shoot with enormously long and complex lenses.  They must have, at a minimum, lenses at 300, 400 and 600mm that open up to f2.8 in order to put "cluttered" backgrounds out of focus.  All zooms should be f2.8 or faster.  No professional work could conceivably be done with anything less than a full frame sensor.  And not just any sensor but whatever tomorrow's sensor is, today.

The later camp compiles their information based on what they read in magazines about photographers who seem to all have contracts with Sports Illustrated.  The first camp seem to derive their information from the legions of starving pros who are trying to "own" the mobile niche of telephone photography in order to sell gee-gaws, lectures and software packages.  "Actions!!!!!" Even the word feels like we're all moving the game forward....

So, what's the reality?  I'm thinking it falls in between and also lives with the outliers.  Paul shoots his architectural stuff with medium format cameras and incredibly expensive optics from the Black Forest and the mountains of Switzerland.  I shot books today for a very large corporation using a nice little micro four thirds camera.  We're finally living in a time that gives truth to so many of the mythological sayings that have been dreamed up in the service of explaining photography.  "Horses for courses." (which I hate) means you get to choose precisely the best equipment for your task as Paul does.  "It ain't the arrow it's the indian...."  (equally offensive) is the tactic I pressed into service today.  The final destination for my images will be the corporation's website.  The camera was less important than the lighting, the angles and the post production.  Perhaps we could have even shot this one with an iPhone given total control over the lighting and aperture.....

With the emphasis shifted to post processing and to web use the truisms about what constitutes professional gear are rendered silly and anachronistic.  The knowledge, taste and point of view are important.  The brand or size of camera are much less so.

Given the use by my client of the final images today the camera I reached for was a micro four thirds camera with the stunning 45mm 1.8 Olympus lens (although the 40mm 1.4 would have been equally good......).  The full frame camera I used on the last go around was not as successful.  Why? because we were working close but with a longer lens and the depth of field was a critical aspect.  When shooting a book it's usually important to keep the entire product in focus even though you are shooting at an angle to show dimension.  The smaller format with the shorter focal length delivered a more convincingly sharp file that required less work than its full frame cousin.

Tomorrow I have a portrait shoot that will require very narrow depth of field and the smoothness that comes from lots of detail.  I'll use a full frame camera for that.  But I could probably make an equally good photo with a fast, long lens on the smaller format if I toss in some time for post processing.

The bottom line is that no one outside the field, or even outside your business, really knows what the hells is going on.  If you are basing your business plans as a photographer on what you read on forums you are pretty much doomed to failure.  You might make a unique selling proposition out of the flexibility and portability of smaller cameras.  You might have a style that depends on a larger format camera and it may be a style that appeals to an affluent niche.

But it's never a good idea to try and fit all of the pegs into a single round hole.  It never works out well.

Right now my money is on the smaller cameras.  They lower the barrier to entry, deliver proficient and efficient results and they require so little investment that they become disposable.  That lowers the momentum to resist change when paradigm shifting technology innovations destroy existing markets.  And they are more fun to tote.  But, being conservative, I'll hedge my bets by keeping my premium, full frame cameras and prestige lenses handy.  Handy but probably undisturbed...

I've been writing about small cameras for nearly three years now.  I think the things we've discussed here are starting to come to market fruition.  I know the smaller gear is demanding more and more of my mindshare.  What about you?


  1. Yes, the desire for small, lightweight yet capable equipment hit me too. Two years ago I sold all my Nikon gear, a D300 and this year a D5000 and purchased first an E-P1 then an E-P2 for the EVF. Next up will be the E-M5. So far I have been very satisfied. That doesn't mean I don't yearn for a Pentax K-5 now and then. But I've learned that with the appropriate in camera settings and careful PP all is good with m43.

  2. Couldn't agree more, Kirk. I'm one of the ones keening for the importance of the lump of flesh operating the shutter button being more important than the gear.

    I think most people are emotionally invested in something they spend upwards of 2-3K on, defending their choice thereof in the face of all contrary logic and even hard scientific evidence.

    The example I always use is that many, many guitarists play stock, off-the-peg Fender Stratocasters, but there was only one Jimi Hendrix.

  3. It is definitely my intended focus for future gear. Shooting landscape work, hiking in some challenging locations, I feel every ounce of the 5dmkII kit. I'm tired of lugging gear in a bag that weighs 8 lbs empty, just to protect the investment in L glass, in order to get a quality raw image. With the advances that are coming in the recently announced cameras, I finally see solutions that offer image quality in low light at reasonably high ISO's and rugged bodies. Combined with features that I feel have been intentionally crippled in previous products, makes cameras like the Oly-D very appealing. I, for one, am glad to finally see brand loyalty challenged by those bold enough to think outside the box.

  4. Then there's those of us who have gotten older or developed medical conditions which prohibit carrying larger cameras. In the last few years I've gone from a Mamiya RZ and Nikon F's to a small Pentax Kr and I'm now on the verge of purchasing a m4/3 (once I can make up my mind). All simply because I can no longer carry or hold the larger equipment. Interestingly to me, I've also found that the less I carry, the more frequently I have a camera with me and the more free I feel to experiment and just tryout something different.

  5. It looks like the G3 has been discontinued. Wonder what Panasonic is coming out with as a replacement.

  6. I like the small cameras and I think they're getting to be viable tools for commercial gigs. I had the good fortune to get some hands-on time with an OM-D on Sunday, and I came away seriously impressed. It's well built, leagues faster than my E-P1, low light AF is snappy, high ISOs (within reason) are pretty clean, and it has a built-in finder. My time with it was limited, and I wasn't able to keep any jpegs, but I am so far convinced that this is the future of photography. And I am a staunch film shooter who still burns many rolls a week.

    The rep, who still shoots commercially, was telling anecdotes about shooting sports and events with the new little camera and not having any hiccups. Keeping in mind he was there to sell cameras, it all sounded very exciting despite the grain of salt. Anyhow, I'm pretty much sold on these little cameras. Portable, great optics, and image stabilization with any lens you can fit on it... count me in.

  7. i could not agree more, the 'middle path' is the one ...

    i went through the micro 4/3 period myself (always an early adopter when it comes to new electronic crap!), and i was super pleased with the results i was getting. once the image is off your camera (and i mean camera, not cell phone; for me a cell phone should just make and receive calls, a simple task that nowadays seems to be increasingly hard to perform) and onto a sheet of paper (or on a screen), who can REALLY tell what it was taken with? who should really care and why? as long as you and/or your customer are pleased, that is all that matters!

    the only reason i got out of the micro 4/3 was that for me it was going to be a 'second system', something light and easy to carry on my travels, when i did not want to - or could not- take my M8 with its lenses.
    however, once you get carried away with buying more and more lenses, the 'light system' is requiring a mid size bag, instead of a large pocket ... at that point, if i had to choose between carrying M8+lenses or EP2 with lenses, there was no clear weight/space advantage.
    i could have easily switched to M43 100%, they can be that good; however, i just cannot let go of my rangefinders ... so the leicas are still here, and i got a small sigma dp2 for travels - at least with that one you cannot add lenses :-)

  8. I have been part of the small camera cult for two decades. It started when I got a used OM-2sp. Couldn't replace it with anything larger or with a lesser construction.
    In digital, I was never impressed by the high ISO movement and RAW fundamentalism, but then my photography does not depend so much on technical quality. When m4/3 appeared I dived in and almost immediately felt at home. I think that this system could not have become successful without the phone camera. Camera geeks feel it's cool to shoot with fashionable phones, but want something more versatile with just a bit more quality. So m4/3 is becoming cool, too. And the newly announced OM-D is more than just cool. It's actually a mini-DSLR with most of the functionality packed in a tight, good looking package. Not a REAL camera, but not too far off.
    To me, however, it may be the last camera I buy for many years.

  9. I like the G3 and went to try one out locally. I found the unnaturally bright image in the EVF when using it in relatively low level indoor lighting to be very off putting. The assistant couldn't tell me if there was a way of dimming this and I can't find any reference to this aspect on line. Do you know of a way to make the EVF image dimmer or, if not, how do you find using it in low light environments?

  10. Interesting article Kirk, but I would take the 1DsMk2 every time. I tried a GF-1 for a while, I hated the EVF, I was always bumping the adjustment that makes the EVF setting work at my reading glasses distance, so I gave up and bought an E-1. This year when I change my camera the new EVF's would have to be exceptional to stop me buying an E-5.

  11. Very good article. I am still surprised when reading on forums how full frame is pretty much the best solution for landscape work. I wonder if these people drive right to their landscape.
    A smaller camera is always better, just because of the fact that it'll be more often with you.

  12. You hit the nail on the head in my opinion. The Internet school of photography wisdom has convinced people like myself to spend a lot of money of large camera bodies when in reality we don't need them. The E-P1 got my attention three years ago and life has never been the same. Funny thing is that I love the output from my GH2 more than about any camera I've owned except my 4x5 Wista field camera, but I can't take one of those to my son's school events :)

  13. Macboyoo1 and others. There are controls for dimming the EVF's in nearly all the cameras that use EVFs. You might have to explore the menus a bit further.

    The first Panasonic outboard EVF finder sucked. Look through one of the newest ones or the Olympus VF2 before you make any life changing decisions about the quality of EVFs.

    I think the files in the latest generation of 16 meg Panasonic cameras rivals what we get from some current APS-C cameras. I consider the files good for any project that doesn't require huge blow ups.

    My technique is the limiting factor in most of my set ups. I need to be more careful: Focusing, with exposure, using a tripod, composing. All of these things should be under my control. I find that my images get worse as I get lazy or tired or in a rush.

  14. Be careful, Kirk. You don't want to run afoul of the shallow depth of field fetishists!

  15. Scott, I too was in the full frame, Zeiss 85 1.4 uber alles camp of super narrow DOF until I discovered that I can get the same basic DOF with my 60mm Pen 1.5 and that my new 50 Summilux for the m4:3 is so sharp and nice wide open. Now it's a wide open crap shoot.

    But then, wasn't it always?

  16. Agree re. smaller cameras. I have a Nikon D700, considered "light/small" for its class. But I increasingly find it a PITA to carry around, and similar for lenses. If and when I replace it, it won't be with a D80/900-whatever, but with something a lot smaller and lighter. If there's a Nikon lens adapter for special times, that will be icing on the cake. Will we see Nikon and Canon following the Kodak model?

  17. "Will we see Nikon and Canon following the Kodak model?"

    I think we already are....

  18. Anonymous, I have a Nikon-to-Micro 4/3 adapter and the AI-s lenses are among the best I've used on the Pen, albeit a bit bulky. In fact, one of the best advantages of this system, to me at least, is that you can adapt pretty much any lens, get great results, AND have image stabilization. But with Panasonic and Olympus turning out such great optics for m4/3, it is rather icing on the cake.

  19. Right on, Kirk!
    I have a similar photo except my camera on the right is a more modest D300. But it, with a 16-85mm lens are heavier than the G3 with 14-42mm, 45-200mm, 20mm and 45mm lenses. If I add my E-P1 and 17mm lens to the mix the mFT is heavier, but by only 4 oz.
    Plus I can use a 2lb tripod instead of a 5lb tripod.
    In 2008 I went overseas with the D300 and an E-3. Last year I carried the D300 and an E-P1 to Europe. This year I'm heading to Africa with the mFT gear only. I've shed lots of pounds but have given up little in image quality and gained a few things, like good quality video.
    The G3 looks like lesser Lumix models, for sure, but that is actually a benefit because no one pays much attention to people using "tourist" cameras like that.

  20. A great post. As added reading, if you haven't already, you should read Mark Dubovoy's article over on Luminous Landscape about what really matters in photography. It is a very different way of looking at photography and seems, to me, to take all of the joy out of creating.

    You, on the other hand have added to the joy I feel when I am out shooting and I find a good picture. As I am retired from photography, all of my work is "play" and you keep adding new games!

    I love the micro 4/3 cameras and lenses,and still hold onto one Canon, the 5DmkII and one Pentax K-5, mainly for the lenses. Keep exploring for us.

  21. kirk tuck said...

    "Will we see Nikon and Canon following the Kodak model?"

    I think we already are....

    Wow! Sobering thoughts. You might very well be correct. And I love bodacious, full-figured, full-frame, shallow (depth of field, that is), uhh... cameras.

  22. "Will we see Nikon and Canon following the Kodak model?

    "I think we already are...."

    Wait, what? You've already forgotten the V1?

  23. Another mythological saying is, "All the gear, no idea" It doesn't just refer to photography.

  24. Yes you are right, and formulate it well!

    I'd say any m4/3 camera with 12 mp or better are quite capable for photojournalism even for glossy magazines.

    I'm one of those who like photos on my walls and I regularly have prints made in 30 x 40 cm or 30 x 45 cm depending on what camera I use. I think I could make much bigger without problems.

  25. One thing for sure, camera bodies change almost as quickly as I change my socks, but a great lens is here to stay. When I look at a "system", I look at the optics first, and decide accordingly.

    Right now, out of all the mirrorless cameras (with the exception of Leica), the system with the best lenses is micro 4/3. I would be more than happy owning every lens in the Lumix line-up, even the kit 14-42; and those little Olympus primes are just exceptional. Sony, Nikon, Samsung, etc., just cannot compete on that front, and probably never will. Fuji could possibly, so I'm keeping an eye on them.

    Here's a recommendation for a very high quality, fast, micro 4/3 zoom that works very well on the Lumix and Olympus bodies: the Olympus 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5 Mk II zoom. Oh yes, it's a 4/3 lens, but thanks to the folks at Oly being smart enough to equip it with contrast-detect focusing, it works great on any micro 4/3 body you mount it on, with adapter of course. As a matter of fact, I think it's the best overall zoom you can buy for micro 4/3, in terms of size, weight and image quality. The far more popular Olympus 12-60 might seem like a better choice, but it will not AF at all on a Lumix body. The fact that it works great on Olympus & Panasonic 4/3 DSLR's too is just the icing on the cake.

    If I were to get an E-M5, I would order one with the 14-42 lens, and then get the new Olympus adapter for use with the 14-54 Mk II. The 12-50 is just too slow for my needs, the weather & dust sealed 14-54 is a much better choice. Though for video enthusiasts, the 12-50 is the lens to get.

  26. My rational brain recognizes the essential truth in what you've written here, Kirk. Then I step out of your blog and run over to, say, Canon Rumors, or some other bigger-more-grander-is-much-more-better technophilic site and all my resolve leaves me. I know that the vast majority of my work can be done by existing m4/3 cameras at least as well as well as my current equipment. I know any shortfalls lie inside me, and not with the stuff in my bags. Then some pedant types some ridiculous nonsense alluding to pros only using full-frame cameras or that medium format is the wave of the future and I can't square that sentiment with going smaller and lighter while producing professional results. Thanks for sharing your own ruminations and struggles on this topic with us. I'm sure you're not alone among the old-timers. But you're the only one I've seen really writing with such candor in the face of the ever-present marketing assault that is the internet.


  27. Kirk, after prompting against your anti-Panasonic pro Olympus bias back in 2009 I think its sorta funny that you've come to the same conclusions on your own.


    we're spoilt for good choice these days aren't we '-)

  28. Kirk,

    I find your perspective on these things so refreshing. I too retain my Nikon gear, and when I need it, it's the best solution. But, my twin DMC-G3 kit gets FAR more usage these days.

    Thanks for your thoughts.


  29. I was just minding my own business looking for an alternative to the very nicely styled and interesting, but with bad low quality jpeg only output, Samsung NV24HD compact, which I had used a few times when I didn't feel like carting around a Canon DSLR body and a bunch of lenses going back and forth to my day job - when I ran across the little Olympus PEN cameras and began to discover how good they are. And cheap. An E-PL1 for less than $300 with lens? Definitely a deal.

    I first heard m4/3 and mirrorless cameras being proclaimed as the wave of the future from Trey Ratcliff's (he lives in Austin too, so you must know him, right? :) ) article http://www.stuckincustoms.com/2012/01/04/dslrs-are-a-dying-breed-3rd-gen-cameras-are-the-future/.

    Enjoying reading your blogs. Always interesting.

  30. @Brian: I agree that the rational brain knows one thing, but there is still something very powerful about the differing emotional part, too.

    Example: the difference between silver and black versions of the same camera. Silver = hobby; black = professional. The Olympus OM-D will come in both styles; it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

    I think one could conduct a very interesting and in-depth study of the emotional ways we make decisions, even when we can readily acknowledge the opposite rational truths.

    I think it haunts many of us, and Kirk just isn't afraid to say it out loud.

  31. Kirk, excellent writeup as usual.

    You know where I stand on this small camera issue.
    My new two camera Olympus Pen setup

    It is amazing how my usage of small cameras seem to expand as my Canon 7D sits there, lonely.


  32. I have been looking for a small camera alternative to my D3s and Pentax 645D. The smallest DSLR I have owned to date was the Olympus E-3, a fine camera. I did however find the controls a little tight for my large hands and that is always going to be an issue for me with any of these small cameras. I too, am not a fan of the EVF, preferring instead the clarity of the optical prism viewfinder. Additionally, depending on your end use there is a difference in files created with sensors of various size. Just yesterday I was doing side by side comparisons of the D3s sensor and the Pentax D sensor. The 645D had smoother, rounder color transitions than the D3s, yet given its weight and size it is cumbersome in the field and I do drag it around with me nonetheless. My pro work is architectural, and even though most of the images are web use and small print use, to my knowledge there is no micro camera with PC lenses yet, so they are out for my assignment work. I use the D3s with PC lenses. Not to give up on the small camera idea, I am waiting for the Canon G1x to debut. It just might be the camera I can have with me all the time.

  33. We're coming at this from two different levels, me being a 'hobbyist' photographer and you being a pro. Having said that, I understand gear and all the various arguments for certain features/functions in cameras and many people can make a good point...but, there are way too many anonymous loud-mouths in those discussion forums. If I were you (Kirk), I'd try really hard to ignore those people. They can be very insulting with the things they say. They're the know-it-all type and nothing you say will shut them up. I wish just once though that a well-known pro at the top of the photography food chain would pop into the forum one day and put those clowns in their place. Otherwise, I think the best think we can do it let them congregate there and be miserable together. It really must be a sad life to have nothing better to do than get on those forums and talk the nonsense they talk. I guess it makes them feel better. Apparently the D3x shots of they've been shooting of the squirrel on the bird feeder in their back yard it not fulfilling enough, so they take to the internet to let everyone know how smart and how correct they are about everything. :-)


Comments. If you disagree do so civilly. Be nice or see your comments fly into the void. Anonymous posters are not given special privileges or dispensation. If technology alone requires you to be anonymous your comments will likely pass through moderation if you "sign" them. A new note: Don't tell me how to write or how to blog!