Another image that convinced me the time had arrived to re-appraise one inch sensor cameras. It's a "lab test."

A laboratory in New Jersey. ©2106 Kirk Tuck

I'm pretty sure I'm going overboard with all this "one inch" enthusiasm but please know that I'm not rushing to abandon all other formats or denigrate their use as great imaging tools for photography. I guess I'm sharing this succession of images and stories from my experiences shooting smaller format cameras on real jobs because I am personally so amazed at how well they work in lots of different situations. I believe that the smaller format cameras are important tools to have along on most projects and offer an ease of shooting that, in many cases, is unparalleled. 

We all have a prejudice, based on digital camera history, that tells us that all big sensor cameras make better images than all smaller sensor cameras. If you are just measuring noise response at higher ISOs you'd be more or less correct but there is so much more that goes into the success of an image and a lot of it has nothing to do with the noise formula. Even in that arena the one inch sensor cameras I am currently using outperform the noise characteristics of even full frame camera from only a few years ago. I have only to pull up images from the Sony a850, a900 or Canon 1DS mk3 to know that this is true. So, here we are five years down the road from the introduction of the full frame
Sony cameras only to find that, head to head, the (currently) $700 Panasonic fz 1000 is better in low light. And with a sensor a fraction of the size.

The image above was shot in a lab in New Jersey, late last year. The first priority of that assignment was to take location portraits of twenty+ executives for a large pharmaceutical company. The style the advertising agency and client were looking for was one with a very narrow depth of field so we could drop industrial backgrounds out of focus quickly. To that end I dutifully packed up a couple of Nikon full frame cameras and some fast, prime lenses. But I also dropped the fz 1000 and a couple batteries into the case just to have a fun "personal" camera to play with in the off moments. 

We got good use out of the Nikons and they performed the out-of-focus function we needed very well. The colors and the exposures were great. They should be, we had lots of time to set up on a tripod, do custom white balances and use live view to triple check everything. 

Once our full day of portrait work was done we moved the next day from the board room to the factory floor to shoot processes and details that would be used to accent the web site. I started off with the camera and lens I had planned on using; the Nikon D750 and the 24-120mm f4.0. We were moving fast and a tripod is a burden on a dangerous shop floor so we needed to shoot handheld. In order to make it all work we were shooting nearly wide open. And here's where the issues started to cascade in. The lack of depth of field (a boon for portraits....) was an issue. On the shop floor I wanted deeper focus! I wanted to see whole machines sharply rendered. To do it with the bigger camera required stopping down to f8.0 or f11. That pushed ISOs way up. And even though the camera handles ISO 6400 well enough the files still fall apart (as do nearly all high ISO files) when underexposed. No matter how meticulous I was the automatic white balance was too easy to fool. And since we only had the day to get a lot done it was a time vacuum to chimp the shots and then add in needed corrections. I might get a shot of a worker moving in a certain way with a certain gesture only to find it was a bit too dark or a bit too unsharp from motion blur. Maybe the color was off. Whatever. Most of the situations were such that we couldn't stage them and there was no chance to shoot the exact same thing again. 

Frustrated, I tossed the bigger cameras into a bag and we dropped the bag off in someone's office. Out came the Panasonic fz 1000. Until that day I just didn't realize how good the image stabilization is on that camera. I set it up quickly and started shooting. In nearly every frame I could have elected to shoot Jpeg (but actually shot raw...) because the automatic color balance was right on the money, nearly every time---and I could preview it in the finder as I was shooting. The same with exposure. 

I used the camera mostly with the lens wide open but in the shot above I shot at f5.6 to get more depth of field. That shot, one of hundreds done in the course of a day, was done at ISO 800, handheld, and with no supplementary lighting. I am still amazed at the richness of the file and the crisp detail. To get the same basic image I would certainly have had to be at f11, at a minimum, to get the depth of field that makes this shot work. I would have been on a tripod to do that because I would need to use a slow enough shutter to make the exposure work without getting into an iffy ISO area. And I would have needed to do more post processing to get the white balance nailed in. 

As a portrait photographer who loves narrow depth of field in studio and location portraits I am NOT giving up my full frame cameras. They do something that I can't duplicate with smaller sensor cameras. BUT!!!! There are many, many situations in which the smaller sensor cameras excel and give me shots that would be harder and more time consuming to do with bigger cameras. And, at the end of the day the images from the bigger cameras would not be "better." 

There are reasons (for "omnivorous" professional photographers) to own a variety of cameras, just as a carpenter owns a variety of hammers or screwdrivers. Please stop inferring that just because I have discovered and am singing the praises of one format that I am jettisoning all other cameras and taking a vow to never touch them again. 

The looks are different. "Nothing is good nor bad but thinking makes it so..." Shakespeare. 

That being said, I can't imagine doing run-and-gun, handheld video with a manually focused, full frame DSLR. Not after having used the Sony RX10-2 in its sweet spot. Try some. See for yourself. 

And thank you for reading the blog.

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One of the original Craftsy Photo Classes and 
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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.


Bob Krist said...

Couldn't agree more, Kirk! Great post and observations.

George Beinhorn said...

Kirk, this was interesting to me as always, but in this case for a very specific reason. Yesterday, I shot a dress rehearsal of a very lavish annual all-school play (yes, it has a $20K budget!). We rented a Nikon D750 and the 70-300 VR lens (because I knew we would need 300mm). I also shot with a Nikon V1 - that underrated, quite marvelous "shooter's shooter."

I shot about 450 frames with the V1 and 950 with the D750. What I found was that each had its very special applications. I shot the makeup sessions and pre-rehearsal kindergarten reading circle with the V1 and the lovely, stabilized 6.7-13mm lens (18-35mm equivalent). The V1 was almost perfect for that purpose. It had just the right depth of field (I wanted to include girls giggling behind the main subject getting her lips done). But the D750 was nothing short of magnificent for the rehearsal itself. I could not have shot in the relatively low light and achieved the same wonderful clarity of detail, if I had used the V1 and its excellent 70-300mm equivalent lens (the 30-110 = 81-297mm). Finally, after the rehearsal I shot the full cast with the kids standing on stage and me in the choir balcony at the back of the church building, using the 70-300mm. The D750 captured wonderful detail on every single kid's face, something the V1 couldn't come close to doing. Yes, the V1 has a measly 10mpx sensor and the D750 has 24mpx. But I've shot from the same location with a 16mpx D7000 and the 70-300 lens and found that the faces shot from that position lacked contour and texture - they were flat with unnatural skin tones. Granted, it's the diff between DX and FX. Still, the point is, I'm very skeptical about the FZ1000 and Sony RX10 II for this kind of stage work. I'll have to see samples where faces shot small on stage are equally clear and vibrant. I was kind of sorry to return the D750 body, and also sorry we hadn't rented the 16-35mm Nikon lens to use for the makeup sessions; while I loved the DOF of the V1, what the big camera did for faces, shot from maybe 30 feet out at up to 12,800 ISO with the stabilized 70-300 was amazing. AFAIK, no small sensor can yet match it. Would love to know your thoughts; your theater shooting articles have been quite interesting.

Craig Yuill said...

I understand your enthusiasm for the 1-inch-sensor cameras. I have been using them for over three years, albeit ones with interchangeable lenses. When I want to take a single camera for both still and video work, out comes a 1-inch camera. I like it even better for video now that I have upgraded my video-editing program. I have been finding that the software's improved color-grading tools are allowing me to produce much-better final video than I thought possible. The camera seems to "punch above its weight class" when stills and video are processed in the right way. And I appreciate your comments that you also like to use other sensor formats for producing different looks - you use the most-appropriate tool for the specific job at hand. The shallow-depth-of-field look is not the only one worth striving for. Sometimes, lots of depth of field is called for.

Henk said...

>A laboratory in New Jersey. ©2106 Kirk Tuck<

Test-driving your nano driven time machine? ;-)


George Beinhorn said...

Craig (and Kirk) - I would love to hear more about Kirk's process for exposure, white balance, and post-processing as a system, in order to get the very best out of these 1-inch sensors that, as you say, punch above their weight class.

Kirk Tuck said...

George, I'm unclear on what you are asking for when you say, ".....as a system..." Let me know what, exactly, you are looking for and I'll try to accommodate. Maybe Craig will do the same...

George Beinhorn said...

Thank you, Kirk. I reckon my request is based on laziness - I come from a primitive time when I could get by in sports photography with two camera settings: Tri-X 35mm at 1/500 and 5.6 in shadow and 1/1000 at 11 in direct sun.

In your articles you've noted the need, especially with small sensors, to nail exposure and white balance if we're aiming for top results. Forgive me; while I'm not a rank amateur, I do feel it's never too late to review the basics. So, I'm guessing it would be helpful to know how you do it. The photos you've posted from the FZ1000 and RX10 II are beautiful and I would like to work toward similar quality. If you've covered this in a video, I think the price would be a good investment. Starting with setting proper exposure in the camera and proceeding to Lightroom or whatever other tools you use to post-process. I do a LOT of shooting indoors including dance, speakers, musicians, and kids being active.

I love the look of RAW photos opened in Nikon Capture NX-D. And I've had good success using Perfectly Clear where applicable. In fact, I wonder if you might be pleased by the three-dimensional look of products and people photos post-processed with Perf. Clear which uses X-ray visualization technology to adjust the exposure for each pixel (cameras apply the same exposure across the sensor). Example of a Creative Commons jpeg of cows processed in PC: http://www.joyfulathlete.com/2015/08/07/alberto-salazar-and-the-pecksniffs/. (Disclaimer: I have no connection with Athentech.)

I apologize for the long answer and perhaps asking for too much. But, as you can see, I'm engaged with VSL! - gb

amolitor said...

Ctein says that m43 is, and long has been, as good as medium format film ever was in terms of getting actual real pictures on to real actual paper. He's a heavy hitter, and is not to be dismissed lightly.

1" is a little smaller, but not a lot.

Taken in the light it seems perfectly reasonable that 1" is perfectly acceptable for almost any real uses. In terms of putting real pictures onto real paper in the real world.

Where, you know, we *live*.

Davonroe said...

Small sensor better than large sensor in certain situations? Heresy!

Kirk, you're my kind of heretic!

Daniel Walker said...

I would love to hear more about how Bob Kirst uses his Sony RX 10 since he is a different kind of shooter .

Craig Yuill said...

George - the processing I refer to usually involves adjusting tonal controls to eliminate clipping and getting detail out of shadows while still getting good tonal separation. Moderate adjustments to color saturation and sharpness help too. Nikon Capture NX-D is really good at getting RAW files to initially look like OOC JPEGs, albeit often with more-subtle shades and detail. I find, however, that the UI and many of the adjustment tools are relatively unrefined. For video work it is important to use color grading/correction tools that reign in the blacks so that they are no lower than 0% and whites are no greater than 100%. Being able to adjust midtones is also extremely important, especially when shooting in low light. I have been amazed at how good photos and videos can look when thoughtfully-applied post processing is done.

amolitor - I don't doubt Ctein's statements about the quality of m43 images. I was pleasantly surprised a couple of years ago to see pictures of a building I took at night with a handheld 1-inch sensor camera set to ISO 3200 had similar detail to shots of the same building taken back in the 1980s with a tripod-mounted medium-format camera on Fujichrome 50 transparency film. The 1-inch photos were grainier and less colorful, but probably no worse than using whatever ISO 400 transparency film was available in the '80s. In spite of all of the howling one can read on certain website forums, about how certain manufacturers are using "obsolete" sensors, digital cameras made in the last 5 or so years have good sensors. It's the pre- and post-processing skills of the photographer that really determines the ultimate quality of pictures and videos.

George Beinhorn said...

Thank you, Craig. This is really good information. I can see that my next step must be to engage brain to understand and begin to work with the fine details of post. Your response to amolitor was also very helpful.

Ian Kirk said...

Great article Kirk. I must admit I am a fan of 1" sensor cameras - there is some lovely kit ( both still and video) being made now.

For me as an amateur shooter my 1" gear has totally replaced my DSLR's - although as you say different users with different needs will still want bigger sensors.

James Weekes said...

So, by 2106, they will have invented a time machine. Looks pretty impressive. Of course by then 1" sensors will bring snickers and smirks. So big and inefficient.

I love the results so far from my RX10, I don't do video and the EVF is fine. Thank you and keep writing the blog.

George Beinhorn said...

A brief follow-up to my earlier comments about using the D750 and V1 for a school stage event. I spoke prematurely. I expressed doubts about the V1 for low-light quality. Well, I used the V1 to shoot another 1500 pics this morning, and I'm profoundly pleased. Lovely rich colors, fine skin tones, and superb focus accuracy. The V series cameras are known for their fast, accurate focus, and I only had to throw a very few out-of-focus frames. Altogether extremely pleased.

George Beinhorn said...

Okay, I'm embarrassed. On further review, the V1 photos look ... much better ... than the D750. Hmm, real life trumps theory. Go figure. The only area where the D750 might win is subtle gradation of skin tones. Maybe. But darned if there aren't a lot more blown highlights, problematic shadows, and shots with missed focus from the 750. Looks like I'm getting the point, Kirk. These mirrorless cameras rock.