Shooting product in the studio with a small sensor camera. What the heck?

I enjoy shooting products in my little studio. I've got a shooting table that's just the right size and a crazy range of lights so I can customize my lighting based on the subjects at hand. Recently I had an assignment to shoot this product for the manufacturer. They went on to use the photographs for trade show graphics and general marketing, and public relations. 

The product is fairly small, as you can see by the size of the back panel connectors. When the product first came through the door I took a few test shots with the Nikon D810 and a macro lens but the process was kludgy and the depth of field issues were annoying. Now, I am sure I could have extended the depth of field to cover what needed to be covered if I had done some accurate focus stacking but that takes time when shooting and even more time in post production. I had another idea. I would photograph the products with a smaller sensor camera and take advantage of the increased depth of field. 

The first time I photographed the product I used the Olympus OMD EM-5ii camera and various lenses. The images were very good and were quickly approved by the client but in several instances, while shooting, I found myself wishing
for even more depth of field. The client called a week after our first shoot to let me know that we needed to reshoot the product. They had inadvertently sent along the wrong version --- the new one had 8 LAN inputs instead of four. I got my chance to try out my theory about shooting with an even smaller sensor camera.

I set up the same lighting which was a design using four LED lights and a collection of scrims and bounce panels to control and distribute light where I wanted it. I lit the background to a smooth, even white to make the process of making clipping paths easier and then I went to the camera tool box to select my working camera. 

I decided on the Sony RX10ii because I like the lens and also the wide range of available f-stops. I limit my aperture selection on that camera to f11 because I don't want to lose sharpness due to image diffraction. I like using EVF enabled cameras in the studio because it's so easy to immediately see changes in lighting or composition without having to click frames and evaluate them. I am able to see the effects of f-stop and exposure right on the screen on the back or through the EVF. With zebras enabled at 100% I can see the point at which the background actually goes to white and, with focus peaking, I can see exactly where I've placed the point of sharp focus on the subject. 

The RX10ii at f11 gave me the same sort of depth of field I could have expected from the full frame Nikon set to f22 to f32, but with little of the sharpness robbing diffraction that is an inevitable part of the law of physics. 

To be sure, the full frame cameras have a big advantage at higher and higher ISOs. They pull ahead of the smaller sensor cameras, where image quality is the prime consideration, very quickly as the camera sensitivity goes up. But consider this; with a camera on a tripod and with continuous lighting I am able to use any shutter speed required to use my smaller sensor camera, with my desired aperture, at any shutter speed I desire. That means I can stick to low ISOs like 80 and get files with 20 megapixels of great detail with no hit in noise. None. And since the sensor technology underlying both formats is very similar (if not the same) the dynamic range within the files are nearly the same. 

What did I lose by not using the bigger camera? Bragging rights to my peers about shooting with bigger and more expensive cameras. What did I gain by using the smaller sensor camera? I saved a lot of time in actual production because moving the camera and exploring different angles was a much quicker process. As was exposure and color balance (the custom white balance procedure is faster and more sure on the Sony RX10ii than on the Nikons). But most importantly I probably saved half a day in post production because the files were sharp out of the camera across the full field which I needed them to be. They required no focus stacking; either in shooting or in post. A real time saver and one less thing to go wrong. 

It's easy to make knee jerk assumptions about which cameras and formats will actually work best for any one project. Especially if you are of the certain age group that remembers shooting on large format film and the historic restrictions of smaller formats. But the parameters that professionals work under now are different and different choices sometimes apply. Sometimes the best camera for the job at hand is not the biggest camera or the one with the highest megapixels but the one that helps you provide your client with just what they need at a price, and on a delivery schedule, that works well for both of you. 

Just a note:  I have been shooting selected projects on one inch sensor cameras since 2011, starting with the Nikon V1 and including the Sony RX10 series, as well as the Panasonic fz 1000. I own three different full frame Nikon cameras, including the D810 and understand the benefits of both ends of the format scale. This is not my first image production rodeo.

All images ©2016 Kirk Tuck. 
All rights reserved. 


Honeybadger said...

Your product pictures look great. For future reference, have you tried the auto focus stacking with the new Olympus update. It works with the Olympus 60mm 2.8 macro, and works very well. It takes 9 pictures in fast silent mode, 40% in front of the focus point and 60% (or so I've read) behind. It then merges the photos together with some cropping, so you have to futz around a bit with composition. But the pictures, front to back, are as sharp as a cats toenails.

Philip Lewis said...

I too was thinking of the new focus stacking with Ver. 2 in your EM-5 ii. I played with it a little with the EM-1, which got it with Ver. 4. I think the jewelry shooters will really like it. Only works with 3 lenses - 60 macro, 12-40 and 40-150.

MartinP said...

I am slightly relieved to see no-one has commented that you 'must' use 4x5" Ektachrome and Mr.Scheimpflug for this sort of job . . .

Anthony Collins said...

DOF is the reason I hung onto my Canon G12, however my "product shots" are mainly for Ebay. Next time try your 'phone, you might be surprised.

Daniel Walker said...

Every time you talk about a camera with a 1" sensor I want you to go much further and talk about how to optmize it's performance other than use as low as possible ISO. I have a panasonic fx 1000, I love the lens range but the resolution seem to fall way short compared to my Sony a7Ii for landscape work other than in bright light conditions. What else can I do?

Edward Richards said...

> The RX10ii at f11 gave me the same sort of depth of field I could have expected from the full frame Nikon set to f22 to f32, but with little of the sharpness robbing diffraction that is an inevitable part of the law of physics.

I think Shannon's first law of information - there is no free lunch - should kick in here. If you get equal depth of focus with the D810 (small aperture) and downsize the image to make it comparable, you should get the same sharpness. I have not tried this with formats smaller than 35 FF, but I have tried this with 35FF compared to 4x5 shot at really small apertures.