Austin, Texas Photographer Continues on Crazy Quest to Shoot Professional Assignments on a One Inch Sensor Camera. Self Destructive or ......

This the Sony RX10 mk2. It is the most capable all around camera I have used. I take it on assignments along with the Sony RX10 mk3; the second most capable camera I have used.

Yeah, yeah, professionals and serious amateurs only use full frame cameras for their work....

Oh Bullsh@t. There's a wide range of work that could be handled by just about any camera currently on the market. The real secret in most assignments is getting the light right. That's generally followed by making sure your composition is good and balanced. That's followed by... etc. etc. But unless the camera is broken the chances are that just about anything you are using that was produced after 2010 is probably more than up to the task of getting the actual images you need. Double-especially if your primary target is the web. 

I know that if I want massive clicks I can write about the Fuji XT-2 or the Canon 5D mk4 and compare them with some Nikon cameras and some Zeiss lenses and we can keep the protest fires going all day long. But what if I just want to get some work done in a very efficient way for clients who have real businesses and actually write checks for the jobs we produce for them? It quickly becomes obvious that "photography" in the service of commerce is the result of a whole system and not just the camera and one of the magical lenses. 

It should come as no surprise to anyone who reads the blog here but I am a huge fan of the Sony RX10 series of one inch sensor cameras. Earlier this year I produced a corporate video what was shot with an RX10 mk3 as our main camera and the RX10 mk2 as our B-roll camera. The video looked great. And sounded great. We shot it all in 4K (UHD) and the cameras never gave us a moment of doubt; even shooting under dicey circumstances.

A couple of months back I posted a blog about using the long reach of the RX10 mk3 to document the dress rehearsal of the play, Mary Poppins, for Zach Theatre. I supplied images in the blog post that were taken from a fairly impressive distance from the stage but which still filled the frames with bright, sharp images of individual characters and small groupings. The camera handled focus and relatively high ISO in a competent manner and it was a great way of working since I could photograph silently while capturing a wide (24mm equivalent) establishing shot of the stage and then push right in for a waist up character shot with the long (600mm equivalent) end of the lens. 

As I continue to use these cameras I get more and more comfortable with their capabilities. A week and a half ago I decided to stop being so precious about making portraits (headshots) and put down my full frame camera in deference to making a portrait of a doctor, for a large medical practice, with the RX10 mk2. I just finished retouching the client selection today and I was very, very pleased with the results. I am sure they will be as well. 

The one thing that remained vexing about shooting portraits with a small sensor camera was the seeming inability to drop the background out of focus enough to make the image aesthetically satisfying. With the new and more powerful selection tools in PhotoShop Ccxx I've experimented with a number of ways to select the portrait subject, inverse the selection, contract the selection, feather it and then apply gaussian blurs to mimic the traditional look. What I have devised is a very flexible and controllable method (for me) to emulate the style we've done with bigger cameras for years. One more barrier removed. 

And for those of you who eschew the idea of using software to fine tune headshot files I would say that your camera and lenses are already doing so much correction already that what's a bit more pixel  nudging in the service of making a picture and making a buck?

But why bother to make portraits with the small sensor camera if you own big ones already? Well, the RX10's generous depth of field and face detection AF pretty much ensures that you will never again sit down to post process and realize that your expensive camera missed focusing on your subject's eyes once again. The files are small enough to be manageable while big enough to bring the same level of quality into play. The lens on the front of any of these cameras is so flexible. Unlike using primes I can fine tune focal lengths to get exactly what I want and unlike a full frame camera sporting a 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens (to match the convenience of the smaller cameras) I don't have to worry about the whole tripod mounted assembly drooping toward the floor as I switch to a vertical orientation. Ignore the last point if your big, fat zoom lens comes with a tripod collar. 

The mitigating factor in mostly equalizing the quality between the one inch sensor and the full frame sensor is the fact that, in the studio, you have the ability to use as much lighting power as you want and can always work at ISO 100. At ISO 100, with perfect exposure and nuts on white balance, the smaller sensor cameras are able to produce an amazing level of quality. More than good enough for a 16x20 inch portrait print retouched in the same way as a full frame file.

But the most recent experience that compelled me to write this piece this morning was a session with a private collector of artifacts who hired me for several days to document his collection for a book project. We needed to document hundreds of pieces with great efficiency which was made more difficult since the objects ranged from five feet long (on the long side) to some that were as small as an inch across. We would need to shoot almost directly overhead from the objects with the camera mounted on a tripod with a horizontal arm. 

We used high output LED fixtures in medium sized soft boxes as our primary light sources. With Live View you get to work fully in a "what you see is what you get" mode. No chimping. 

I ran a field video monitor off the HDMI tap on the camera so the client and I could see the live view image without having to miraculously float above the camera to see our subjects and compositions. The 8 inch monitor was small and light enough so that we could move it around as required. I could grab the monitor and watch it as I adjusted the camera's zoom from a perch on a step ladder. I could watch the screen as I shifted the focusing point to any position on the camera screen. We could watch the electronic level for the camera and check the histogram as we shot. But most importantly, the client could hold the monitor in one hand, create wonderful combinations and collages of artifacts, and check his compositional work as he went. 

We were working at ISO 100, between f5.6 and f8, and with shutter speed hovering in the quarter second to eighth second range. The camera was set to do a five second self timer and we could trigger the camera to start the exposure with an IR remote. Alternately, the shutter button on the RX10 series of cameras is actually tapped for use with a conventional, traditional cable release! Amazing but true. 

Working with a custom white balance and consistent exposures we took ample advantage of the capacious depth of field provided by the combination of focal lengths and sensor size. We were able to keep combinations of objects in sharp focus with ease. 

While I had both the RX10 mk2 and mk3 with me we mostly used the mk2 because it is easier to focus down into the macro range and the 200mm long end was ample for our working distances. 

We often hear grousing about the Sony NPW-50 batteries but I was very impressed with the stamina of the batteries we used. We started shooting at 8 am and finished each day around 4 pm, and on each day we used only two batteries. One in the morning and one in the afternoon. For a live view set up with consistent feed into an external monitor I think this is impressive performance. Well on par with more conventional DSLRs, when they are used in a live view mode. 

So, here we are in the future. Now. I'll toss out idea that our embrace of "ultimate" quality cameras is meaningless for many of the day-to-day jobs that photographers are hired to do. Give me a convenient and flexible camera any day of the week and I'll work efficiently with it. I am consistently amazed that we are able to produce work that is easily technically better than we could have six or seven years ago with equipment that cost five times less than one of these little bridge cameras. 

None of this really matters if you do this for fun instead of money but this blog is really about the working life of a photographer, not the idea of having endless financial resources, and days in which to make one perfect photograph. There is a time value to production that is part of the mix of work. If all cameras in the bag satisfy the technical quality parameters required by the job then why oh why would I not want to choose the most efficient working tool possible? In many cases that tool is decidedly not the biggest, most expensive and highest resolution camera on the market. In fact, I would say that the smaller, lighter more flexible tool trumps the bigger tools more often than not. It does so by reducing the frictions of production in meaningful ways.  

I am now ready to hear your arguments vis-a-vis my occupational sanity....

A different point of view about value? Read this: http://animal-dynamics.com/cameras-vs-houses-sony-rx10ii/  Thanks to blog reader, Richard. 


Mark the tog said...

I recently shot a commercial job of bedding for a client and shot my Panasonic FZ-1000 alongside my Canon 5DmkIII for a few comparison shots.
After compensating for the differences in color, I sent the images to a few friends who agreed that even at 400% the images were only slightly different. Not better, just different.

I use it almost exclusively for event photography and any application needing fill flash in bright sun. 15 FPS is also a perfect way to ensure you get a twitchy speaker in at least a few usable frames.

The silence of the leaf shutter coupled with the superb range and quality of the zoom bring a joy to my work that was notably lacking with my Canons. The fact that I can shoot at f2.8 and still have decent DOF for small groups is a huge benefit.

One metric being that with the Canons I might shoot 250-300 images at an event. When using the Panasonic I regularly return with 700-1000 for a similar event. Because of the accurate AF and stabilization my keeper rate is very high.

The weaknesses it does have are common to my Canons such as low light AF struggles and high ISO noise.

Let me know if you would like to see my samples and I will send a link.

Bill Pierce said...

In the “old days” I loved shooting with my 8x10 view camera, but, face it, it was a little inconvenient to use for most shoots. Most of my work was done with some rather well worn Leicas. I have no idea why I liked to make 8x10 dupe color transparencies from my 35mm slides. I just thought they were a neat way to look at color pictures. And, of course, you know what happened. Folks said, “Boy, those 8x10 cameras sure are sharp.”

Journalists started using digital very early in the game because it could be quickly transmitted from locations and there was no darkroom delay. Digital has gotten a lot better since then. Elderly news photographers, given a lot of time to master digital cameras along with image processing and printing, have gotten better, too. And that turns out to be almost as important as the improvement in cameras. Your experience with the RX10’s really makes me want to try out a reasonable sized camera and zoom with that huge focal length range. I will not collapse in surprise if someone looks at a print from a one inch sensor and says, “Boy, those full frame digitals sure are sharp.”

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

You got it exactly right, Bill.

crsantin said...

I think one of the Sony RX10's is where I am going to end up. I have been really uninspired by new camera releases for quite a while now. I would be more than happy with one digital camera that can do pretty much everything I want or need. For portraits with lots of bokeh I still have my Nikon D300 and modest collection of Nikon glass and that system works just fine for flash photography or led where I can control my ISO. The Sony could handle everything else, including great video.

Norm Snyder said...

If anyone recalls the scene near the beginning of the second act of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a conference is underway to discuss the discovery of the monolith on the moon, and intention to explore the vicinity of Jupiter, and a photographer is using some sort of compact camera, virtually silent [some shutter noise, otherwise we wouldn't have taken it as reflecting possible reality]. He moves around, shoots photos of the participants from various angles, thanks them and is gone. It seems that I can now do that, too.

Joe Berry said...

Great post. I have two of your how-to books, and would be in line for another on photography with small-sensor cameras. Seems like you're on that road already. ;-)

Ross Harris said...


You’ve certainly opened my mind to the capabilities of 1-inch sensors. You’re comment about using these cameras in good light, i.e., at low ISOs, is important I think as each sensor size has its limits. You have experience with a broad range of sensor sizes, from 1-inch to micro 4/3rds and APS-C, through to full frame with high megapixel counts. Given that, I’d appreciate your thoughts on the limits and shooting scenarios you choose, for client work, for the various sensor sizes. In other words, what camera do you pull out and when. For example, what are the upper ISO limits you are comfortable with for 1-inch versus micro 4/3rds versus full frame? Are there other factors that come into play when choosing the camera for the job? For example, you mentioned that you like to use the high megapixel count of the Sony A7R II when shooting groups of people so that you get detail in each face – a scenario I hadn’t thought of with that camera.


Richard said...

I recently purchased a used Sony R100, model 1, for $300 from B&H. It has an earlier version of Sony's one inch sensor. I normally shoot with a Pentax K-5 with their high quality "Limited" prime lenses, so I understand quality. I am always astonished at the quality that I can achieve with the little Sony sensor paired with its Zeiss zoom lens. Astonished? is that strong enough? I am "floored." It is an amazing sensor and and in many areas is equal to an APS-C sensor from the same time period, 2012, in terms of quality.

Phil Stiles said...

I've had an RX10m3 for about a month. So far, I'm amazed by the quality when shooting in daylight, and its ability to grab frame-filling head shots from a middle distance. Here's an album from a dance event in a quarry. Many of these were at an effective 600mm. Frames 22, 29, to 24 show the range of the zoom. https://goo.gl/photos/VDq9barDkPqLBW4L9
One of my favorite subjects is jazz musicians on location in sometimes dimly lit clubs. The camera stays at home for those events, too much focus hunting and noise. This week I'm going to try it with field sports, always a challenge for fast focus. Some of the available applications like motion shot look very interesting.

Jim Tardio said...

I'm planning to go on a safari next year in South Africa. I've already decided that the Sony RX10iii will be my camera. Weight is an issue with several small plane rides required, and I certainly don't want the size and weight of other long lenses...so, the Sony 24-600mm RX10iii seems perfect.

braddlesphotoblurb said...

Kirk, love the article, as always! I remain in awe of your writing and succinct analysis, I cannot get my head around how you maintain such a high standard and high output concurrently.

I have long held the belief that DOF can often be better set in post (if you know how), you have the choice of blur types, degrees, planes of focus and more. Provided of course you have some plane separation to begin with.

Thing is I am mighty tired of the half a pupil and the 32nd eyelash from the right in focus look, it only works for tiny web thumbnails and seriously who the hell makes a dollar out of thumbnails.

Tis much easier to shift stuff out of focus but impossible to do the reverse (well by current useable technology anyway). I am truly impressed with the usefulness of my M4/3 gear and would be happy with 1 inch for sure and have nearly bitten the bullet at least 4 times in the past two years, meanwhile most of the time my FF gears gathers dust. Such is progress, for those with eyes to see and no vested interest.

Dano said...

I agree and disagree with your blog on the Sony RX 10.. I write and photograph a monthly food article for a large magazine. My shots are of the chef, plates of food and environmental shots.inside and outside, all with natural lighting. About 30% of the time I am asked to reproduce the shots for other uses which I am glad and honored to do. Here is the problem. When the prints get larger than 16x20 " they really start to lose quality and punch. Theses are usually after the fact request so I don't usually take a larger sensor camera. What steps can I take with my Sony to make my 1 inch sensor perform like a APS or full frame.

amolitor said...

While Kirk is superb at making poor choices, his inability to convert these poor choices into the destruction of his business continues to disappoint.

Butch said...

Kirk, Nikon releases its drool-worthy new DLs. The 24-500 (kudos to Nikon for giving 35mm equiv. lens specs) seems its challenger to the RX10 III and FZ1000, at $500 less at release than the RX10 is still selling for now. Something's gonna break, and won't we photographers be pleased! See http://bit.ly/2cMbBCv

George Beinhorn said...

P.S. Kirk, While viewing some early sample stuff shot with the new Nikon DL I was reminded why I appreciate your camera breakdowns. I've seen high-end DSLR reviews at DPReview where some sample images were actually blurry from shooting handheld without VR turned on, or from shooting at a too-low shutter speed. I'm disgusted by that; it shows disrespect for the readers and the manufacturers. Haven't noticed it recently at DPR but some of the early DL stuff on Nikon's site made me dizzy with lousy technique. BTW, you should check Ken R's RX10 III review sometime. Pages and pages of praise.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Andrew, Just when I think I can't sink any lower and the business is stumbling to a halt they reach out and pull me back in...tragic. Just tragic. Never did an artist try so hard to be ineffectual.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Butch, Read more. The lens on the non-existent Nikon only goes out to 500mm and at 500mm loses a whole stop compared with the 600mm Sony (the Nikon ends up a 5.6 precisely at the focal lengths at which you will wish it did not). The chip is probably the same as the Sony. The Sony has more video chops. BUT, the biggest thing is that I've had the Sony in my hands for months and have paid back my purchase price many times over by using it on video and still assignments almost weekly. The Nikon? Announced to be delivered on June 30th? Still no confirmation date at Amazon!
What do you do? Put give your clients a "rain check?" Close the business down until the cameras come in? Delay that vacation until Nikon gets their sh*t together? Or scrape up that extra $500 to get a truly authentic camera that will MAKE PHOTOGRAPHY GREAT AGAIN!?

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

George, Thank you!

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Ken Rockwell is correct.

Dave said...

I sold off my last DSLR over a year ago, and now the RX10.2 and RX100.4 go with me just about everywhere. The irony is that it was Nikon's D90 that got me started with video, and I got tired of waiting for them to build on that. I don't shoot commercially, for the most part, and for the times I sit in on senior sessions the RX holds it's own for those kind of stills. When it comes to video, my old DSLR company can't hold a candle to my Sonys. More than that, I'm having fun while traveling light.

Rather than continuously scanning Ebay for lens bargains, I'm taking on sound and audio.