Haven't digital cameras just gotten good in the last five years?

I buy into the hype as often as everyone else.  I get convinced that a camera like the D800 or the newest Canon is an amazing leap forward and that I'll need to rush right out and get one or my competitors will trample me into a puddle of non-commercially dysfunctional goo and my career will grind to a bitter halt.  I'll be the Willy Lohman of photography.

I guess this insecurity with our cameras comes from many of us regarding them as little computers, bound intractably by Moore's Law.  That every 18 months the value, speed, coolness and everything else about new cameras will be double what it was before.  And that may be true of some of the processors inside, but.....

So there I was this morning, walking into the Austin Kipp School campus with my latest and greatest cameras getting ready to set the world on fire with 24 megapixels of hyperventilating coolness when I was stopped in my tracks.  Just kinda paralyzed in place by a visual smack on the head.

You see, I'd done a job for them about seven years ago and they'd printed it large.  How large?  The smallest image was about four feet by five feet.  The images were printed on a Lightjet printer by one of the best labs in the country and mounted on one inch thick GatorFoam.  And the school hung the images all through the entryway and lobby of the school.  They were stunning.  Incredibly sharp.  No obvious noise (especially at the viewing distance required by such big prints..) and tonality to die for.

My ability to process files that well is non-existent, I'd sent the lab raw files back then, knowing that their lab software, costing thousands of dollars, would do a much better job on the images then me running them through PhotoShop or a similar, consumer raw processor.  (which makes me think the raw conversion software has improved a lot more than the cameras....).

It took me a moment to remember which camera I used to shoot the images up on the walls.  Judging from the prints I imagined it might have been a medium format camera with a Leaf back I used to use from time to time, in the past.  Then I remembered.  They'd all been shot with a Kodak DCS 760C camera.  A whopping six megapixels on an APS-H sensor.   I'd given the camera as much of a head start as I could.  I used the lowest ISO which was 80.  I used a tripod for every shot.  I used a Nikon 105mm f2 DC lens at it's optimum aperture range (f4-5.6) and I used Profoto Electronic flash equipment in a big softbox.  No issues with subject or camera movement, etc.

I also did my set up tests tethered to a computer in order to make sure the exposure was right on the money.  The camera's rear LCD screens at the time were almost useless for fine tuning exposure...

When I walked into the school today I walked right up to one of the big prints.  It's of an African American teenager holding a microscope and staring into the camera with calm self-confidence.  I can't think of a better way to make that image today, even with "better" gear.  It's as perfect as I think I could make it.

In light of this I have to laugh at myself, my friends and all the people on the web who create so much self-inflicted anxiety in their quest for the latest and greatest cameras.  Yes, the new Canon 5D3 will shoot better in lower light but we needed the lighting not for the photons but for the direction and style and look.  The light from the ceiling mounted fluorescent bulbs wouldn't have the same feel.  Yes, the Nikon D4 would smoke the AF of the DCS 760 but then my subjects were all standing still in the glow of my modeling lights and focus just wasn't an issue.  The fact of the matter is that manufacturers have made shooting easier but not necessarily better.  Let me explain that for engineers and their surrounding Umpa Lumpas of high tech.  The camera makers made all the stuff you could measure "better" but they aren't in charge of manufacturing the art.  We add that.  And in the end, once you've crossed a certain line of quality or have the discipline to work in the sweet spot of the tools, all the mechanical and electronic stuff melts away and it comes down to how well you can direct, light and motivate your subject. The camera, in many ways, becomes nothing but an afterthought.

If you see the camera work before the art then the photograph has already failed and all the extra pixels in the world won't make a difference.  When Joe McNally shot a spread for Nat. Geo. with a Nikon D1x (5 megs.) he broke the acceptance of digital barrier for everyone else working in print. Since then countless great images have been done with 6 megapixel cameras and, at the 2000 Olympics, most of the shooters were using 4 megapixel Canons and 2.7 megapixel Nikons.  The pictures were stunning.  The world gasped.  No one asked for more.  The artists had done their work...

This post is partially to answer a reader who asked if the Nikon D2X was really such a good camera or, only good for the time.  Yes.


  1. Well written ! My needs were pretty well met with the 12MP APS-C cameras out 4 years ago (Sony A700, Nikon D300, etc). It was actually a feature that drove me to upgrade (much as you like the EVF on your latest camera ... I have occasion to make good use of a camera with a quiet shutter). The IQ boost that came along with that upgrade is appreciated (particularly at high ISO) but wasn't a big consideration. I think we're "there". Luminous-landscape today has links to a handful of reviews of the D800 that apparently all conclude that this camera rivals low end medium format gear. State of the art is beyond what I need; it's been very good for quite a while. Nice follow up from yesterdays post (it seems misguided when people argue over measurements between two state of the art cameras, when it's unlikely that one camera meets someones needs and another fails). It's all very interesting to me and I love to read the tests and the reviews, but it's all academic. We're "there" and have been for a while.

  2. If I may, I would add that even the oldie EOS 1Ds MKII (just get multiple batteries and a camera that has low mileage) and the 5D (the first announced on 22 August 2005) are really great cameras for today's standards, sure they don't do video, they don't have 1,000 FPS nor they have ISO 1,000,0005 but an used Sony NEX is cheap and you can get adapters to get nice manual focus lenses (Love focus peaking on the NEX), people are too worried about camera gear when the determining factor for the quality of their work is how well they convert concept to photo: their creativity and not the gear they use :).

  3. Good point. Some years ago I took a close-up of some pumpkins using, as I recall, a Sony F717, a 6mp camera. I had a 24x36 print made and mounted on gator board. Schlepped around to some ad agencies. One of them called in the whole creative team and said WTF is this!!! A very small area on one of the cut-off stems appeared a little pixellated, but the rest of the image was vibrant, sharp, and exciting, with great color.

    It can be done. But if you're into really large prints, or tight crops later used for large prints, you do need all those megapixels.

    1. That's not really true, Eric, and that was the point of my post. We hear that over and over again and it might be true for subjects that are highly detailed but in my experience viewing angle and moderately good pixel count is enough for almost any application.

    2. Actually, Sony F717 had 5(!) megapixels. It was an excellent and really beautiful camera...

    3. I've always felt that sharpness and acutance beat low-contrast fine grain day in and day out. Tri-X in Rodinal 1:50 vs. Panatomic in Microdol-X, if you know what I mean...

  4. For me there's no need, or even use or anything better or "more" (in any area) once we've reach the D700. That cam is just the summit of everything I need to humbly take the best photographs I know how. Problem is, I now want the exact same IQ into a GX-1 size body ;-) I have no fear though, I believe it's only a couple years away (and don't tell me mirrorless is there yet, I'm a shallow DOF nut...)

  5. Well said Kirk. I am now faced with a (digital) dilemma. Do I buy a brand spanking new Leica M9-M with new Summicron 50m ASPH @ aprox £11,000.00 to replace my Leica M8 or do I re-buy the digital camera I had the most fun with in the Nikon D2X for a mere £500 - Biggest "No-Brainer" of time or what?

    i.e. = 12 mp is twice what most photographers need even in 2012. It's what the files look like that counts in my book. With the Nikon D2X I had to do very little post processing of files overall, wish I could have said that about the pathetically long, expensive and unnecessary list of digital cameras that followed it.

  6. Like someone I know (well I feel like I know since he publishes quite regularly and I read it quite regularly) once said: "you have to do your time in the water" ;-). Boy do these camera manufacturers know their marketing!

  7. Thanks Kirk, for your inspiring reply. I also had a DCS760. When everything came together, the files were beautiful.

  8. Well, that you can make an amazing leap forward doesn't mean the place you're currently in is any less comfortable. And for all the blame it receives, the computing world learned that lesson quite some while ago. Think about it: when did computers break the 2 Ghz barrier? at least half a decade ago. But how fast is your average 2012 notebook?

    Now, if you're willing to pay for it you certainly can buy, today, some 8-core, 3 Ghz monster that can calculate all the digits of Pi faster than you can say "irrational", but you'll have to pay for its R&D because the mass market won't. And software engineers? we're the ones using Thinkpads from back when they were still manufactured by IBM and the photography world was busy debating whether they'd ever need more than 6 Mpx. Certainly the newer high-performance monsters are better in every conceivable way, but if my current machine is cozy and warm and does all I need it to do, why move away from it? it's cozy, it's warm, and it does all I need it to do.

    But tech talk aside, that's a gorgeous photo you used to illustrate your post.

    1. There's a good theory about Daniel's point. Read the 'Innovator's Dilemma' and 'The Innovator's Solution'. It paints a paradigm around that most products start with a solution that is disruptive but barely adequate and only for the brave early adopters. Then it receives incremental improvements until it's good enough for the vast majority, and further increments only benefit a small elite minority. At that point the product is vulnerable to new disruption, because no meaningful improvements are possible.

      DSLRs in many ways have hit that plateau. Disruption is coming in some of the mirrorless systems Kirk has been writing about.

  9. right on.

    i was just debating the same subject today with a fellow photographer, who has much more experience than me, and i was saying that i have reached the conclusion that, once you are above a certain minimum threshold, the camera itself does NOT make a huge difference.
    we need to focus on the subject and on our ability to capture it in a compelling way. that is the crucial element, sine qua non, we are kidding ourselves.
    chasing relentlessly after the newest gadget, like we have all been doing in the last few years, has not really improved our skills (i speak for myself of course, but i have a feeling that i am not alone in this).

    i was reviewing a few days ago lots of images that i took with a variety of different cameras, and noticed that i had great pictures taken with so-so cameras, and so-so pictures taken with great cameras.

    my best digital camera for black and white was -by far- my Epson r-d1, which boasted a whopping 6 megapixel sensor; no doubt the new Leica M9M will be an astonishing camera, but it will not by itself guarantee better pictures.
    an M8 - which i also used to own - would do just as well.
    i think the fact that Leica bundles the excellent nik silver efex with the M9M tells me that they know very well how a solid post process will enable any of their customers to make all their pictures LOOK good (so they will not feel like fools for spending all that money in the first place!). however, bad pictures will remain bad pictures, regardless of how nicely one finishes them.

    my main current camera produces humongous files with its 46 megapixel sensor; true, the degree of detail that i can get from those files is unreal (probably close to a good scan of a medium format film), BUT, what is the point of having the sharpest detail possible if the image is boring?

    i am not preaching that we should go back to old technology just for the sake of it, i appreciate the tools we can use today.

    i just do not believe that we NEED them in order to produce better images.

  10. I just listened to a good interview with photographer Babara Bordnick on The Candid Frame. She mentioned that she was amazed at the quality she saw when she used her first digital camera, the Canon D30, only 3 megapixels. She ended up making a book of flower photographs with it, quite beautiful. She said she still sometimes prints up to 20 x30 for people who want those particular prints large, somewhat pixelated but still nice... http://www.barbarabordnick.com/

  11. I thought this article, "Do you really need an expensive DSLR camera? Point-and-shoot vs professional DSLR", by Alex Koloskov was interesting: http://www.photigy.com/do-you-really-need-an-expensive-dslr-camera-point-and-shoot-vs-professional-dslr/

  12. I think you may also hit on something else. You handed over raw to be developed by a raw specialist. Do they still exist? Now with the cameras and photoshop or DXO or Capture 1 I think the photographer is more responsible for final output. For this same client, are you handing over raw or final images?

    1. David, I would never hand raw files over to a client. They always need to be interpreted. But I have no qualms about engaging people who are better than me to squeeze the best out of the product. Especially for a use I don't have a huge amount of expertise about. There are still professionals in the post/retouching space who know a lot of stuff and can work wonders on files if you need something to be both big and great. And I hear from them that the files are always just a starting point and that the software and firmware is responsible for a lot of the quality increases that we tend to credit to new sensor tech.

  13. Such a great post. This the kind of conversation recently I had with a fellow photographer. I believe gear is a tool that will make your life easier to craft an art. But at the same time if your art not require that tool do you need an upgrade. Don't make your limited gear as an excuse... It's actually your limited knowledge that stoping you to craft better image. Lately I also challenge myself to create a decent image with just a small camera. So I play with m4/3 and some people don't believe me when they saw some of my photos.... Here some of my sample @ www.suzaidee.com ... Thank you for sharing your thoughts :)

  14. Dang it Kirk, just tell me what to buy so I can be a "professional photographer" and get lots of impressed 'clients" already!

    In all seriousness, though, this post and the recent ones about LED lighting on location and the Laramie shoot ought to be required reading before anyone is allowed to enter an internet discussion of photography. You paint a really complete picture of the skill-set that actually goes into being a successful image maker, and how much of the work has nothing at all to do with the operating the camera, let alone what _kind_ of camera it is.

  15. As photographers, we may be doing ourselves a great disservice by obsessing over the latest and greatest gear and defending any one particular camera brand or technology.
    Perhaps we need a change in the manner of our dialog?

    In realistic terms, there have been very few "true" game changers in photography recently. Is the OM-D a good camera? Certainly. Does it do anything that other cameras cannot do? No. It merely does it in a smaller package. This is a natural evolution of technology and not a revolution.

    One of the first things someone says to me when they see a good photo I've taken is: "Wow, that's a good photo. You must have a good camera."

    In short, the technology or obsession over it, instead of the art, has helped to devalue the work and importance of the photographer.

  16. It would be like telling a writer that the article was great. "You must have had a good pencil".

  17. Thanks for a great post Kirk. Spot on the money, as always :-)

  18. Yeah, cameras really are at the point where it is very hard for the manufacturers to sell an "upgrade". Two years ago, I bought an Olympus E-PL1. In that time, I haven't rued a "missed shot" due to slow AF, or a "lost opportunity" due to lack of weatherproofing. Sure, I lust after an E-M5: but the EVF is basically the same on each of them (just that the VF2 is more goofy looking), and I have never printed anything where the difference between 12 & 16MP is significant.
    Yeah, I'll get an E-M5, or something similar, but I'm gonna try to kill my E-PL1 first.
    On a similar note, I used to lust after a Rolex Submariner. Couldn't even afford a spare link for one, so bought a New Zealand made carbon copy for diving. Ten years later, my wife asked me to replace "that old thing" and buy a Rolex. Nuh. Still trying to kill the cheapie. Ten years further on, we bought each other a Rolex for our 20th. What did I choose? A Rolex Submariner, cos it was like my old watch. BUT, I bought a Sub with no date, cos it was the one thing that annoyed me about the old thing. Why have an accurate watch that you have to adjust every couple of months to get the date right?
    What I would really like on my E-PL1 replacement is a camera with no LCD, just a top of the line EVF...the LCD is the one thing that really annoys me about that camera. Once you have the EVF, an LCD screen is about as much use as t*ts on a bull....


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