I finished shooting a box full of books for one of my clients who publishes books about real estate and I was looking for something to cleanse my "visual palette." I found this old Kodak folding camera that my mom sent me. Apparently, it's been living in my parent's closet for a few decades. It came from a relative's collection many years ago.
I cleaned it off and put it on one of my tripods and then thought about lighting. I set up a different lighting design than I had ever tried before. I placed a big, 1,000 LED light panel (the cheap, Chinese variants) on either side of the camera and used the barn doors to keep spill light off the gray wall that was, maybe, five feet behind the camera. The LED panels were pretty close. You can see the placement in the image below. I expected the chrome parts to burn out and the dark areas to be noisy but it didn't turn out that way. Even though the camera sits directly between the two lights I thought the overall effect was dramatic and pleasing. I shot the set-up with a Panasonic GH2 and the 14-140mm lens. When I opened the raw file in Lightroom I was delighted. There wasn't much post processing to be done.
My favorite aspect of the shot on top, and even more so in the middle frame (above) is the way the light falls off as it goes down the tripod legs. I'm equally happy with the way the light falls off so quickly to the background that the wall goes black. And, at ISO 160, I'm not seeing any noise in the shadows. It's really nice performance for an inexpensive little system. Once I finished shooting this I wrapped up everything and went into the house to have dinner with the family. I can't decide which of the two above images I like the best. The camera alone is nice and clean but the second image resonates with my inner photo nerd. I wish I'd done the shot earlier because it would have made a nice addition to my book. I'm anxious to try the same kind of lighting in a portrait set up so I can get that same rapid fall off.
Today was totally insane. We had nearly 20,000 pageviews of my Olympus OM-D introduction. This followed yesterday's big, web wide announcement of the Nikon D800. The lure of the new cameras was palpable. There was clearly credit card adrenaline in the air. But when I looked at the new stuff I had a sense of having been there so many times before. I'm starting to feel like Pavlov's sad little dog because I find myself drooling at the internet signal that tells me that new camera dog food is heading to my bowl.
In both instances the camera makers are moving their respective balls forward. The Nikon may be the camera that pushes the medium format either off a cliff or into making a price competitive product for people who want or need a really large sensor. It will certainly be strong bait for people who want the best you can get (conditionally--meaning: the best for under $5,000). The promise of a 30+ megapixel camera is tons of detail and smooth tonality. It may be overkill but that remains to be seen.... Wait a month and Canon will, no doubt, debut their answering salvo and the race will be on to lock down customers. It's pretty much an easy sell. Lots of dots and lots of good numbers for a pretty affordable price. If you're an aspiring pro this is the kind of camera that popular wisdom will lead you to.
The Olympus OM-D is the magic camera enthusiasts have been waiting for. It's small and sexy and by all accounts it's going to be a very, very good picture taker. But what is the real appeal of this whole micro four thirds niche? Do you get it? Can I explain it? I'll try...
First of all, it's no longer "cool" to carry around huge cameras and lenses over your shoulders anymore as you go about day to day life. It's kind of the equivalent of dragging around a huge laptop just to be able to cruise the web and read your e-mail at your favorite local coffee shop. Get a tablet. Save some table real estate.
At the heart of it the appeal of the small, mirrorless cameras in general is that for all intents and purposes the image quality of these cameras is more than adequate for 95% of the kind of shooting and sharing that 95% of the people who are ardent photographers, want to do. Really. We might be shackled by nostalgia into thinking that only a "full sized" camera will work for us because "our" needs are specialized. But really, if you aren't shooting a job or assignment you're probably sharing most of your photo output on someone's computer screen.
I did another job today for the "book" client. The first time we shot together I shot all the books with a full frame, "professional" camera and a dedicated macro lens. But the client's only use for the images was as illustrations on their website and as product illustration on Amazon.com. I'd be shocked if they were used any larger than 800 pixels on a side. Today we shot the same kind of stuff on the Panasonic GH2 and, after I finished dropping out the backgrounds and doing my post processing, the images were equivalent to the earlier full frame shots. The one difference I noticed in the actual shooting was that the increased DOF for the same angle of view meant that I didn't struggle to keep the product in focus at the cost of the effects of diffraction. Oh, and the live view was much easier to use. Oh, and the touchscreen was pretty cool for moving the AF sensor cursor around. I guess my point is that while huge print sizes and ultimate quality are still the provence of the biggest camera sensor you can get it's not a binary equation for all photography.
The users of the m4:3 cameras that I know have all graduated from bigger cameras. They are looking for great image performance in a package that's a good companion. Small, easy to pack, light enough to carry for a full day and not in your face. Having graduated from the mainstream they seem to have left behind the idea that the camera itself conveys some level of competence to the photographer. Now they just practice their craft for the joy of practicing their craft.
The other thing that seems attractive about m4:3rds is a side effect of the lack of the mirror. The lens mount flange to sensor distance is much smaller and that means that every lens designed for longer sensor-to-flange or flange-to-film plane distances can, with an adapter, be mounted for use on these cameras. That appeals to the experimenter, the do-it-yourselfer, and the glass epicureans who understand that all lenses have their own personalities and styles. People routinely mount everything from long, fast Nikon telephotos to jewel-like Leica M lenses.
But now the m4:3's have come of age. Both Olympus and Panasonic have started revving up the optical workshops and they've been introducing cutting edge prime lenses than can be designed to be optically better than lenses hobbled by having to clear a mirror. A big gap between the lens and the sensor means that lens designers have to use retrofocus designs that are a compromise. The new lenses made for the smaller format can be optimized for better wide open performance, better sharpness and higher contrast.
I think the graduates get that. Maybe not the exact engineering but surely the idea that the lenses, even though small, are heavy hitters. And they return really superb images.
Smaller, lighter, cheaper, designed for the hand, fully implemented EVFs and lots of other intangibles. What's not to like?
Do I want one of the new OM-D's? You bet. Do I need it? Not for a second. I'm still happy with the Olympus EP2, spoiled by the EP3 and well satisfied with the workmanlike GH2. Can we shoot jobs with these? Of course. Look to the destination. Heading to the web? Perfect. Prints up to 20 inches? No problem. Super impressive to clients? Nope. But that's a whole other story.
I'm not preaching for a total takeover of the market by mini-cameras. I think there's a place for everything. And I'm sure lots of other pros will be able to make the case for big Canons and Nikons and that may be true for them. But the market isn't homogenous. I think it's smarter to choose a camera that's fun and facile rather than following any of the herds and buying a camera that's just right for someone else.
Hope you're having fun. There's never been a better time to enjoy photography. Just don't let the obsession with gear ruin your fun...