Starting a project with one camera and one mind but finishing up the project with a whole different species of camera and outlooks...

This image was taken in the very first Half Priced Bookstore in
central Austin. It was taken 36 years ago with a
Canonet QL17iii. It is attached, tangentially, to this blog
because it is of a child surrounded by books. 

I've been taking photographs at a school nearby for the last three days. It's a client I've worked with for four or five years now. I like them. They have a good way of working; at least as far as I am concerned. We have a conversation about what they would like to end up with (nothing too specific) and after we talk they give me a badge and leave me to my own devices. So, I'd like to discuss the whole idea of devices and how they (cameras) get selected and used for projects like these.

What we're basically doing is providing fresh visual content for the school's website, annual report and basic marketing media. The school needs images of students from kindergarten to eighth grade, and they would love to have a wide range of student situations. Everything from group participation in robotics to basketballs games at recess. From fingerpainting to classes in Mandarin Chinese. 

This year also marked the completion of a new wing of the main school building which added about 32,000 square feet of classroom and library space. So, of course, the school wanted images of the interiors, complete with students in place.

Part of the assignment was to be aware of the need for some of the images to go up large. Like four feet by six feet large for wall mounting in the new addition. And at first it was this parameter that led me to initially choose to work with bigger, Nikon D750 cameras and a smattering of high performance lenses, including the 24-35mm and 50mm Sigma Art lenses.  As an afterthought I tossed the Sony RX10ii into the bag and dropped an extra battery for that camera into my pocket. The bag was heavier than my last time out during which I had used the Olympus EM-5 cameras and lenses.

When I got to the school on Monday morning I started shooting with the Nikons and the 24/35mm and a Nikon 24/120mm lens. I chose the Nikon 24/120 as my primary shooting lens partially for the range but also for the image stabilization as well as the high central sharpness of that lens. I used the 24/35mm in a more immersive way by getting closer to the people I was photographing and shooting wider.

The days were partially unstructured because that's the nature of photographing in a school. I would drop into classes; from kindergarten to eighth grade, wait for the initial furor of something new (me) to die down and then shoot like a fly on the wall --- or a roving surveillance camera. I tried to isolate small groups of students from their cluttered backgrounds and to generally get images that were upbeat and positive. Images that expressed the comfortable and professional ethos of the school.

At times when the situation was right I would dip into the camera bag and pull out the Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art lens and use it for a series of shots. I also pushed myself to try and get closer with the 24-35mm Art lens to get a more immersive feel. But, to be honest, I'm not there yet with wide angles for freeform documentation and I ended up defaulting to the wide ranging zoom lens, and then the Nikon 85mm. The 85mm 1.8 was my comfort zone because I could isolate one student, drop out annoying backgrounds and also have vague shapes of other students in the backgrounds.

But for all my good and intellectual intentions in using the big, full frame cameras, something odd started to happen in about the middle of the second day of shooting. I would look down at my hands and find that the little Sony RX10ii had snuck in and displaced the bigger cameras. I could almost swear it was a subconscious series of choices. But, however it happened, I would find myself staring through the (very nice) finder of an EVF camera and having more fun.

I didn't mean for it to happen. I had packed along the small camera just for grins. Perhaps to shoot a personal shot or two as I spent the day going up and down stairs and in and out of classroom. I fully intended to "lean on" the prodigious low light capability of the D750s and the razor sharpness of the Art lenses (which I have paid dearly for --- but not as dearly as older Leica lenses...). I intellectually understand the benefit of the bigger pixel wells on the bigger cameras and the boost to quality that they theoretically provide. And it's not like I'm rationalizing out of a deficit of real choices. But, if we are to face facts (for me) then I must admit that the Sony RX10ii is just a heck of a lot more fun (for me) to shoot with.

I've said it many times before but it's the tight link between what I see in the electronic viewfinder and what I eventually have to work with on the screen of my computer that makes the camera so useful. That, along with a flexible and fast lens, and very good image stabilization, make the camera quite fluid to use. And here's a point that's a bit more complicated to make but I will try to make it nonetheless....

For some reason the review images that come up on the Sony's two screens are more accurate as a measure of what color and, even more importantly, what exposures I can expect from the files after I've shot them. Many, many times, with a wide range of traditional DSLR cameras, I've shot images and reviewed the results on the rear screen and found them to be right on the money when viewed on camera. The happiness seeps away quickly, however, when I load the same files into my very well calibrated computer and review them in Bridge or Lightroom. When I do this the images can be all over the underexposure map. Some are delicately underexposed while others are massively underexposed. You can tell me till you are blue in the face that it's because the camera is showing me "protected" Jpegs but that the Raw files have more headroom, etc. etc. but the cold, hard truth is that when I pull in files from images made with the Sony RX10ii (reviewed on either the back panel or the EVF) the exposures are a much closer match between camera and monitor. Much closer.

Once a camera proves itself to be a nice match (review wise) for your post processing system you logically have more trust in the overall system and that trust enables you to shoot in a much more fluid manner. If you can see through a trusted EVF that an image will be darker or lighter than you intended then you can correct it as you are shooting. Even at times when I've stopped shooting to review images on the DSLR cameras there is still the frustration of not knowing exactly how much darker an image will be in real life.

Just my observation here but I think people are NOT embracing mirrorless cameras just because they are SMALLER but because they get better exposure and color results from having monitors and cameras that represent more of a closed and harmonious system. The general shooter may not even realize the reason for their preferences, at first blush. But after shooting with the constant pre-review of their images for several months few, if any, are willing to give up an EVF for the dubious pleasures of the traditional camera system.

With files from the Sony RX10ii I found myself applying plus corrections of about 1/3 to 1/2 stop to achieve a bright and well balanced final photograph. This is from initial exposures based on the camera's review images or preview images. On the same job, in the same light, with the same subjects, I found myself having to apply nearly a full stop of plus compensation in Lightroom to match the same results with photographs from the DSLR cameras. And while both the RX10 and its newer sibling, the RX10ii seem to agree on the various screens, as far as color and exposure are concerning, each of the three Nikon cameras I used had its own particular exposure bias. The worst being the most expensive and the best being the older, used D610 I've held on to.

It's embarrassing to have been a photographer for as long as I have practiced the profession and not be able to predict, effectively, how the image, which looks so good on the back panel of various DSLR cameras, can be so different and variable when translated onto the screen of a 27 inch monitor.

Whatever the cause I found myself making more and more images on the Sony than on the Nikons. At the end of three days I'd logged about 2600 frames on the two Nikon cameras and about 1700 frames on the new Sony. When I got into post processing the amount of time I spent correcting Sony images was roughly half (per image) compared to the Nikon images.

Now, I won't argue that an optimally exposed, full frame image from any of the Nikon cameras I own will have somewhat better tonality and less noise than the files coming from the camera with the much smaller sensor. I only wish there was a logical way to give a numeric measure to the difference in quality and, even more importantly, some way of estimating if the percentage of difference in final use was even worthwhile.

I am sure that the well exposed images from the Nikons will make more convincing wall size posters but I am equally sure that more people won't really see the difference at the proper viewing distance. I'm just as sure that the use of the images on the website, and in a printed annual report, will not show much difference in overall quality either. These are no longer the days in which the cheaper, smaller cameras are plagued with poor fine detail, ratty color and very limited dynamic range. In fact, the sensor in the Sony might be the most advanced technology among the sensors in all three Nikon cameras and the ONLY differentiation in quality is due COMPLETELY to the actual size of the imager and the quality of the lenses (and their tight tolerances in relation to the sensor...).

I'm not in the business of delivering the best of the technically best images to my clients. I am in the business of translating marketing ideas into photographs. If one camera makes the process easier, more fluid and more transparent, it goes a long way to mitigating the technical supremacy of another (less facile) camera choice.

There are two advantages I saw in using the Nikon D750 for this sort of work: One is the absolutely superior depth of field control ---- in one direction. That direction being the amelioration of background detail. The second is the smoother and more detailed way the files handle higher ISO situations.

The disadvantages of the D750 are more plentiful in comparison to the Sony RX10ii: The cameras with their attendant lenses are much, much bigger and heavier. The focus accuracy is not always ---- optimal and I'm getting a bit tired of AF fine tuning thousand dollar lenses. The visual feedback loop (on camera file review) is medieval, at best. The need to either change lenses often or work with multiple cameras; each with its own lens, is a cumbersome burden and one best left back in the 20th century.

This is not Kirk saying that the Nikons are gone, banished, and traded. Not yet. Not by a long shot. As long as there are clients who want big files and all the attendant quality I'll be holding on to what I've got now. As long as I enjoy making and looking at portraits with sharp eyes, soft ears and unidentifiable backgrounds I'll keep shooting with fast, long lenses on full frame cameras. But I can only think that Nikon and Canon are insane for not offering all of the benefits of electronic viewfinders and accurate review mechanisms. I'd buy a D5 in a heart beat if it sported Leica's SL EVF. You can give me all kinds of reasons why an EVF will never work for you, ever, but for me it's a great tool that aids in providing massive gains in imaging productivity.

Jobs like this, where I experiment to a larger degree with different cameras, are a win-win for clients because we come back with more content, more choices and more photographic differentiation. They are a net lose for me since I am able to see, first hand, the foibles of the tools and also endure the sheer quantity to images I end up processing.

I am beginning to expect that I am, at heart, an image hoarder since I hate to throw away various iterations of a file. This is the first job in a while on which I shot more than 100 GB of raw files and then sat down and processed the majority of them. I hope my next job is all about getting one perfect image. Yeah, right.......

One of the original Craftsy Photo Classes and 
still one of the best! 

I met Lance a couple of weeks ago in Denver
and found him to be really fun and knowledgeable 
this class reflects what he teaches in hands-on
workshops in Ireland and Iceland, as well as 
cool places around the U.S.

How to make what we shoot into a cohesive
train of visual thought.


Anonymous said...

At least digital hoarding won't prevent you from easily fleeing in case of a house fire.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, I love your site. You are interesting, erudite and eloquent. I know that you keep your political opinions to yourself but I wanted to get a point of clarity. I realise that Texas has and still uses the death penalty and its views on punishment differ substantially from those of us who live on the other side of the Atlantic. But did you really mean fingerprinting? Or did you mean finger painting? Sorry, I'm not being pedantic but I trust the kids don't have to provide their fingerprints, do they?

George Beinhorn said...

Kirk, this is intensely interesting, not just because I recently ditched a D7000 in favor of mirrorless, but because I'm the photographer for a small private school here in Palo Alto. And your experience mirrors mine (sorry, dreadful pun) exactly. I, too, grew weary of fine-tuning AF on lenses and wondered why in the heck this was happening in 2015-16. Gosh, my mid-1990s Nikon F4 was wonderful in that it absolutely nailed the basics - perfect focus and perfect exposure every damn time (including insanely backlit scenes, e.g., shooting gulls against a dramatic light-afternoon sky while pointing the camera directly into the sun: almost no flare with the wonderful 80-200mm/2.8).

And again, when I pick up the mirrorless it's with a deep sigh of contentment, knowing that, of 100 shots of dancers in motion on a stage, all but 1-2 will be in focus and properly exposed - and the misfires will be due to user error, where I pointed the focus spot vaguely at the background. AND, the mirrorless will do it absolutely silently - I mean, no sound at all, save for the near-inaudible hum of a stabilized lens.

Fortunately, I don't have clients that have to be impressed, so mirrorless is fine; they're interested only in the results, and then more journalistically and vibrationally - they just want parents to see that their kids are happy and enthusiastic about school.

Which reminds me, circa 1973, I worked at Runner's World as a staff photographer. We had several other mags, and I remember tweaking the nose of an editor who was kind of status-conscious by shooting products for him (skis) with - yes, Kirk! - a Canonet QL with its lovely 1.7 lens. AND the camera strap was binder twine. Oh, and the photos came out great.

It really tickled me to have my experiences and inklings confirmed by a true pro with a lot more DSLR experience than I. Thanks for a very interesting read.

Dave Jenkins said...

My experience would certainly agree with this. I think I've commented in the past that exposure accuracy and auto color balance are far better on my Olympus EM5s than on any DSLR I've owned.

cfw said...

I can't even imagine shooting anymore without an EVF, the main reason I haven't used a DSLR in over 5 years (but I've never made wall size prints. 17x22 is the biggest I ever go, and more often it's 11x17).

Rob Katz said...


thank you for this morning's comments.

i have spent more than a moment looking over and playing with (at b&h) the sony rx10mk2.

it appears the mags and wags have showered much attention on the little brother, the sony rx100mk4.

but since i am 80% video/20% stills, i have been wondering if the sony rx10mk2 could be employed as you use your trusty gh4 setup.

i look forward to any thoughts you have on the video from the sony rx10mk2.

once again, and always, thank you for your efforts and your sharing.

be well.

Michael Matthews said...

So what happened in the film days, when there was no image review? Were your exposures problematic to the same degree?

Set aside for the moment the obvious advantage of real-time final image viewing (or close to it). Have the DSLR's in-camera metering systems, coupled with reliance on exposure compensation, changed the way you work -- making the outcome less predictable? If you could nail exposure using film, wouldn't the same practices work the same way in digital?

I'm sure I'd prefer an EVF as described -- if I could ever afford one. Those which I've encountered thus far on older Olympus and Panasonic cameras have come up sadly short.

Kirk Tuck said...

Anonymous from the other side of the Atlantic. Good catch on the fingerprinting/fingerpainting. I'll chalk that one up to Texas spellchecking. I absolutely meant finger PAINTING even though we are currently embroiled, in a city scope, with the idea of fingerPRINTING Uber drivers.... Also, willing to go on the record as opposed to the death penalty.

Frank Grygier said...

Great post. I am firmly in the EVF camp and I was hoping that Pentax may offer an EVF in their new FF K1. When will Canikon see the light?

Kirk Tuck said...

Michael, I'm pretty good still with film and a meter. The issue I'm having with DSLRs is seeing a perfect image on the rear screen of the camera only to have it NOT be perfect on the computer monitor. If it were my bad technique why would I not see the same thing on the EVF of a mirrorless camera?

Kirk Tuck said...

Rob, the video in 1080p on the Sony RX10 is very, very good. Probably right in the ballpark with the GH4.

Michael Matthews said...

Sorry if I wrote the question above in a way that implied bad technique. Not intended at all.

I guess what I was trying to ask was whether you find the different approach, using internal metering, to be a contributing factor. My use of a Nikon D80 gave me plenty of experience with spiffed-up JPGs on the camera's LCD leading to consternation upon viewing the NEF files later. Even the Olympus E-PL1 gave me a more realistic representation on its LCD of what the actual file would look like, when it wasn't completely blanked by the ambient light.

Gato said...

Lovely photograph. Really sweet.

I have fond memories of the QL17. A friend of mine described his as a nice fast 35mm lens that came with a free camera attached.

Daniel Walker said...

You should be commended for discussing the values of cameras with a I" sensor . I don't know of another blogger except maybe Bob Kirst that is brave enough to discuss the issue, of course many bloggers aren't real working pros that must make make a living with your craft. Sometime I would like for you to discuss how to optimize the small sensor during shooting.