7.08.2017

I think photographers have been looking at one inch sensor "super" cameras all wrong.

I think so many ardent amateurs and unimaginative professional photographers have been looking at the Sony and Panasonic one inch sensor cameras all wrong. From my conversations with so many photographers I find that most feel that the "bridge" cameras, like the Sony RX10 series and the Panasonic FZ series are "step down" cameras or "convenience" cameras designed to be dragged along during assignments or travel opportunities where a big, fat, awkward bag of lenses and traditional interchangeable lens cameras would be too big a burden. They see the bridge cameras as a compromise, thinking that everything in "real" imaging should revolve around traditional cameras. But I think they are misguided. 

I went out and used my Sony RX10ii today. I had almost forgotten what a solid and proficient tool it is for all kinds of photography. But more importantly I became reacquainted with the many ways in which these cameras really are the best suited options for nearly all the image making people do these days. There are exceptions to the general rule but for the most part these cameras run circles around traditional DSLRs in handling, feature sets, and yes----even a certain set of quality parameters.

The biggest hit the cameras get from naysayers is that the sensor is too small and this won't allow for images where the backgrounds go quickly out of focus behind the main subject. This is true and it's the one limitation I'll grant to DSLR users. There is little out there that can match the look of an 85mm or 135mm f1.4 or f1.8, focused at six to eight feet from a main subject, with the background another 10 to infinity feet away. That's it. That's the one advantage of the bigger sensor from an artistic point of view. 

But the one inch sensor brigade does so many things so well. I spent time walking around shooting in full sun today with the ISO of my RX10ii set at 64. The detail I was able to get in the images I took easy rivals the image quality (sharpness, color saturation, detail, even dynamic range) that I get when I shoot the same things with my Sony A7ii and my little collection of modern Zeiss
lenses.

The thing that makes the RX10 series and the FZ series wonderful shooting tools (as opposed to wonderful academic arguments) is their sheer flexibility, combined with their overall image quality. Here's what I love about the RX10ii (and by extension, its close siblings): 

It has a compact form factor when you consider the range of focal lengths you get in one package. Even without looking at the RX10iii with it's 24-600mm equivalent zoom the RX10ii's 24-200mm delivers an incredibly wide range and does it with a constant f2.8 aperture. The lens is sharp wide open. It's extremely sharp at f5.6. 

The mechanical lens has a leaf shutter and so one can synchronize any flash at any of the mechanical shutter speeds which means the camera is usable with flash under any condition. Fill flash in full sun becomes almost fool proof. 

Whether you use the totally silent electronic shutter or the mechanical shutter operational noise is minimal. The camera can be used in full silent mode, in a packed theater, and the person sitting right next to you will not hear the camera shoot. Totally silent. Amazingly silent. 

Since the lens is custom configured and designed for the system and is built into the body there is never a worry about getting dust on the camera sensor. A huge benefit of the tight integration of lens and sensor is that the lens is formulated to squeeze the very last drop of performance out of the system. Every interchangeable lens based system is a compromise; mechanically and optically. 

While the last decade's imaging trends revolved around super limited depth of field any "one trick pony" technique gets old after a while and clients come to realize that having lots of their product in sharp focus can be even more beneficial. The deeper depth of field for equivalent angles of view becomes a wonderful feature. (In the FZ2500 you can combine this increased depth of field with in-camera focus stacking for perfect product shots and still life images). 

The RX10ii has a built in, three stop neutral density filter which comes in handy not just for video projects but also when shooting in bright light or in still shooting situations when you just need to be able to always shoot at the widest possible aperture. 

Both the Sony cameras and the Panasonic camera under discussion here have image stabilization that rivals every camera on the market with the exception of the two newest Olympus m4:3 cameras. Handholding at slow shutter speeds becomes very reliable and effective. 

This genre of cameras, with their totally mechanical symmetrical leaf shutters are mostly immune to shutter shock and also banding. Add in the flash synchronization capabilities and you have three major attributes that are superior to any focal plane shutter camera system on the market. For many artists these shutter features alone are reason enough to choose cameras like these. 

The capper for me is that when I shoot any one of these three cameras correctly, and stay at reasonable ISO, I am able to get images that, in print and on screen, match the quality of much more expensive DSLR systems with their much bigger sensors. To use Ming Thein's terminology these sensors represent ample sufficiency for most imaging needs. They have a fat "use envelope." The images I shot today (not included here) are stunning and comparable to just about any camera on the market when created in their native 20 megapixel settings. Shoot in Raw for the most flexibility but even shooting in the highest quality Jpeg settings will deliver results that are more limited by photographer competence than camera limitation.

And we have not even considered the built-in video capabilities of these cameras, which are highly impressive. Shoot a Panasonic FZ2500 into an Atomos Ninja Flame and you get amazingly accurate color with bit depth that shames Nikon, Canon and Sony camera at multiples of its price. In my experience the 4K and 1080p performance of that camera far exceeds the performance of anything coming out of the Nikon D810 or the Canon 5Dmk3 or 4. 

And the FZ2500 does it while giving one unlimited recording times. Even if you are shooting to the card in your camera instead of into the external recorder. 

While the Sonys don't scratch out 10 bit color with an external video recorder they do get a bump up to 4:2:2 color and the files are much less compressed when sent to the Atomos. When shot in this way they are stunning and compete (especially in 4K) with the A7Rii and the A6500. The RX10s sample at 6K and downsample to 4k for exquisite detail and sharpness. Very few other consumer cameras are even capable of doing this.

Try shooting video with the traditional DSLRs, or even a bigger Sony, and you'll need to add expensive lenses in order to equal the performance of the super bridge, one inch sensor cameras right out of the box. And you'll also need to add high quality ($$$) screw in neutral density filters to control exposure at wider apertures. To get the convenience, performance and optical range I can get out of a stock Panasonic FZ2500 in a Sony A7Rii I would need to add three high quality zoom lenses and a good ND filter. My quick math makes it $1100 versus about $7500. And the Panasonic has much better battery life while color straight out of camera that is easier for me to grade. 

So, why is there so much prejudice against the best of the one inch cameras? Why are they relegated to being "convenience" cameras? Why aren't more professionals embracing these camera as all purpose, high quality imaging tools? Primary tools instead of adjuncts? 

I think the answers lie in consumer mentality, advertising and profit, and ego. First, consumers in mass are slow adopters of new technology. There are always people on the cutting edge who grab new tech first but the huge part of the Bell Curve of adapters lies in the very middle of the curve. They trail the people who first have the epiphany that a product, or type of product, will out deliver a combination of quality and features. Once their assumptions are well proven in the marketplace the rest of the market starts to move. 

The second impediment to meaningful engagement with new tech and new ways of doing things is the effectiveness of the stories market leaders tell to their customers. Canon and Nikon are the dominant makers and sellers of cameras and they are telling the story that the traditional cameras (in the form factor we've know for decades now) are the most reliable, desirable and professional. They are selling a feature set and a performance target that was relevant for a whole different set of industries ten to fifteen years ago. The real final market for most images is profoundly different today, as are the skills of the practitioners. Ten to fifteen years ago wedding photographers lived and died by the expensive, large printed albums they created and delivered. Now most couples want the digital images and are willing to pay for retouched and enhanced digital images. The primary use is to share them across social media on the web. The album is an afterthought and, a few years from now as the people who grew up in the film age exit the market (parents, aunts, uncles) I think couples will yawn at the very concept of prints. 

The bulk of output from commercial photographers has long since moved from anything printed or delivered as a transparency to pure digital delivery. And the target for most of the delivered files (60-80%, depending on the industry) is the web. There's still print being done but given the paper stock and the web printing technologies any 20 megapixel image is perfectly adequate as long as it was created with best practices. Exceptions are at the high end, offset printing for premium catalogs and point of purchase, but these niches are smaller than they've ever been. Our work with the first generation of Sony one inch cameras has been in many printed pieces including an eight page feature in a classic shelter magazine. 

The final impediment to using these cameras to do professional work is purely ego. Or looked at another way, fear. The online community keeps pounding out the message that there is something about the old, cumbersome tech that adds some intrinsic value to the work that can't be found in cameras without interchangeable lenses. Or cameras with smaller than APS-C sensors. The individual tends to choose cameras much as a uniform of his or her professional status. Having the "right" cameras emboldens them in their pursuit of business or in their self-acceptance as a professional. The neophyte professional photographer seems to live in fear that they will be unmasked as unworthy if clients catch them using cameras that aren't on the mainstream radar as professional cameras. 

But if this is the case then why do Sony and Panasonic go to such great lengths to create these gems? They cannot be inexpensive to make and seem to provide cutting edge features and performance. My take is that Sony's R&D points to this format, and the features made possible by the format, as the way of the future. They see tight lens and sensor integration as a means of raising overall imaging quality. The RX10iii was the first of the Sonys to do 6K video capture downscaled to 4K for highest quality. It was the test bed for truly professional BSI sensor integration. The two latest RX10 units were testing platforms for consumer XAVCs codecs. The lenses on all three of these cameras are stunningly good.

In short, the camera makers understand that the quality of the mechanisms and output can be optimized in this format for the vast majority of professionals, high level amateurs and industrial users but---- they need to wait for the big, slow moving, slow to learn, hump of the Bell Curve of Buyers to finally realize the enhanced value proposition represented by this new tool set and, until they do, the makers will continue to supply comfortably traditional products. Canon and Nikon are dragging their feet because they own the mindshare of the medium and the vast market of slow adapters. Sony is constantly bringing their product lines into a convergence that will lead to sensor neutrality and general acceptance of the benefits of the all-in-one cameras. It's a long timeline game. 

But consider for a second what's actually happened in the market in the last five years. Almost unbelievably millions of photographers and people in business who need images for their web advertising have come to the conclusion that advanced smart phones have hit the mark of sufficiency and enable them to create work that fills a need conveniently, and with at least acceptable quality. The one inch sensor cameras are as big a step up in quality from the cellphones as full frame digital SLRs were just five years ago from the then ubiquitous point and shoot cameras. Is it any wonder that the one inch sensor cameras seem destined to be the aspirational, professional imaging tools of the next generation? Just wait until something like an RX10IV or FZ3500 hits the market with continuous tracking auto focus that's as fast and sure as the AF in the Nikon D5 or Canon 1DX. The technology is already past proof of concept and in general use in the Sony A9; it's only a matter of time until it rolls down to their (secret) future, pro, all-in-one camera. At that point what will the justification of the big, expensive full frame behemoth cameras be? If it's just about the idea of narrow depth of field rest assured that Apple has already rolled out proof of concept on software tech that can deliver exactly the depth of field you want from whatever camera and lens happens to be in your hands. 

My experiences today reminded my why I have three different iterations of the super one inch sensor cameras. They each deliver features unavailable in traditional, old school cameras and they do so at a fraction of the price. 

With video as a component of my commercial business I can say that this class of cameras has already generated over half of my overall income for 2017. That's a powerful reason to keep our eyes on future tech, even if it doesn't resemble the cameras we used to use. Reject familiarity in favor of results. You might be surprised.



A crop from the photo below.

















17 comments:

Richard Jones said...

"From my conversation with so many photographers I find that most feel that the "bridge" cameras, like the Sony RX10 series and the Panasonic FZ series are "step down" cameras or "convenience" cameras..."

I am happy that I do not know anyone who feels that way. I have several friends who, like me, use both a full frame camera and a 1" sensor camera (FZ1000 in my case). Each system has its uses.

The 1" is certainly a marvelous photographic tool, and is so convenient for many situations. But I, as do others I know, prefer the larger file size (Sony A7Rii in my case) for some things, one being landscapes.

Foliage at a distance is beautifully rendered with the larger resolution sensor. Now, if one posts at 1600 px, then often the difference between the two sensors is not obvious, and the 1" sensor is more than adequate. I have done tests to that effect.

But I like to size at 3000 px so as to zoom in to view the details. I've set up my web site so that the viewer can click to enlarge to the full size.

It's a great viewing experience to see closeup the details of Joshua tree branches in a landscape, for example. Or moss around rocks in a creek.

Another situation is closeup/macro of flowers. The FZ1000 requires use of an Achromat in order to magnify.

I've used an Achromat, and don't mind mounting it, but the quality doesn't match that of my FE 2.8/50 mm Macro on the A7Rii. Again, sizing at 3000 px provides a stunning viewing of details with the larger sensor.

Everything, it seems to me, depends on how one wants to size and use the final image.

As far as the Nikon and Canon propaganda -- well, if people don't think and test for themselves, what can one say!

regards,

Richard Jones

tnargs said...

I certainly agree that these cameras are rated well below their true value.

If the next RX10 picks up some of Sony's latest CAF capability from, say, the a6300 (putting aside the A9 as unrealistic technology for the RX10 price bracket), then I might find myself standing in the queue with a hot little credit card in my hand.

John Holmes said...

I mostly need to use ISO 6400 for my photography with my Fuji X-T2 and lens at f/2.8. How do the 1 inch sensors perform under those conditions?

Dan Boney said...

I'd like to add that the Sony RX series also provides for multi-aspect ratio shooting (especially square format) which their larger APS-C & A7 series of course do not... "Seeing" a subject in another format is often more engaging than changing lenses...

Mike Tesh said...

My biggest beef with these cameras is that they keep changing the lenses. What if I want the 24-200 constant f2.8 with the new 6K downsampled video?

ODL Designs said...

One of the reasons I enjoy the m43rds ecosystem so much is the incredible flexibility now built into the system. While I don't have any lenses longer than 300mm (ff eq.) I don't often shoot that long, and now there is a 24-200 f4 lens which may be slightly bigger than the lens on the sony and panasonic is covers an incredibly useful range very well. I susoect that, rather like the 1" cameras, it is the sensor size compromise that allows this flexibility/quality balance.

My personal choice was to pick up a couple more bodies and put my existing lenses on them for most projects as opposed to pushing into a new format. I also feel it leaves me making fewer mistakes switching from body/UI to body/UI. Keeping to Olympus bodies for now means colour, tonal range etc. is all the same from body to body.

Great article, I also really enjoyed your video!

Mark Davidson said...

I happily use my FZ1000 for all event work and some commercial work.
My FF gear still exists only because of the need for the 17mm TS-E.

scott said...

"If it's just about the idea of narrow depth of field rest assured that Apple has already rolled out proof of concept on software tech that can deliver exactly the depth of field you want from whatever camera and lens happens to be in your hands."

Google has had this for phones for over three years now, using a single camera:
http://www.androidauthority.com/how-it-works-google-camera-lens-blur-369544/

Works great.

Anonymous said...

Kirk

A rx10ii post. Been hoping for one. Since I got one really cheap used(like new I swear), I've been extremely satisfied. Most pictures are taken square, some are 4/3. To the Fuji user, you've got a great camera. According to photons to photos at 6400 iso you've got a 5.4 dynamic range, while the rx10ii is 3.5. But the rx10 is stabilized at least 3 stops which means I can shoot at 800. Still a little noisy but okay. A fantastic camera.

Jay

Brad Nichol said...

I agree entirely with your comments on the Bell Curve. I've taught well over 10,000 people people photography face to face and the great majority own either Canon or Nikon gear, but in the past two years or so the tide for both of these brands has been rapidly moving out as far as dominance in my classes go.

I'd say the majority of students who've recently bought into Nikon and Canon DSLRs before coming to me are just not that well informed, they simply made the default purchase, probably with guidance from the nice guy at the counter of the local big box store.

The really telling aspect to all this is that as soon as these students become exposed to EVFs, small form but high grade M4/3 bodies/lenses etc they start claiming they'd bought the wrong camera and should have attended a class first. I suspect the Canon/Nikon DSLR camera dominance is teetering very close to a rapid and messy decent, there honestly aren't many compelling reasons for the average consumer and even many professional shooters to buy into the DSLR camera form.

The secret to great result from smaller sensor cameras is no a secret at all, as you've said, it just requires proper technique. I'd say the one advantage of larger sensor gear is a little more tolerance of poor exposure and white balance, but then again larger sensor cameras are generally are more demanding of focus accuracy and stabilisation systems don't work near as well as they do for the small sensor gear, so swings and roundabouts.

Ultimately many of my students claim their camera choice was all about getting that "shallow depth of field" look, but I agree Kirk, it's a bit of a one trick pony and even worse it can become an excuse for poor technique and a lack of creativity.

On the issue of DOF, I have no doubt that Apple will crack that nut, most of the technology to do so exists right now. I'd much rather shoot with more detail than required and then selectively control the "DOF" rendering in post. You can't put back detail that wasn't recorded in the first place but you can quite easily adjust a "DOF rendering" to taste from a fully detailed original image and probably do it with a lot more subtlety and control as well.

I've many DOF sim'd iPhone 6S images on my new instagram account, these are all done manually (check mainly the portraits. I'm putting this page together in prep for some iPhone shooting books I have coming up, the first one is on DNG but at present there's no info linked etc and I've only tagged the first 15 or so pics at this point.

If you want to check the pics out look for "zerooneimaging" or iPhoneraw01 on instagram

Basically I think don't think the DOF sim'd pics give much away to DSLR stuff and when I've applied the same techniques to M4/3 stuff the results have been perfect for pretty much any need, and for an experienced editor it's actually pretty quick to do.

It's only a matter of time before Photoshop or some other software has some easy way to automatically or semi automatically do this "Doffy stuff", the combination of that method for 1' and M4/3 stuff plus "in iPhone" options will render the last great reason for most people owning and using DSLRs null and void. I think the focus speed/accuracy stuff is already pretty much settled with the latest high end 4/3 gear and the next RX10 will probably go one or knowing Sony, two steps better again.

PS: Kirk, If the link suggestion is an issue by all means amend the post to remove it and the related commentary.

Thomas F. said...

That's avery thorough analysis, thanks.
I would just add that for me the biggest impediment to the adoption of the 1" bridge cameras is their size and price.

Switching to one of these cameras wouldn't solve my biggest issue with my DSLR (the weight/size) and since they're much more expensive than my entry-level DSLR it's hard to justify the expense.

Kirk Tuck said...

Thomas F, very good points. We need to see some less spec'd models aimed at general photographers.

DaveW said...

Couldn't agree more with your article. Sony already has the sensor and focusing technology for the next RX10iv - it's available today in the RX100M5, itself a wonderful camera. Very high speed readout, for the benefit of 4K video and the PDAF built into the sensor, it would be a very exciting development for those of us who like the RX10 series.

Martin said...

I am very impressed with the RX100 V. It has some limitations, but is a pleasure to use and very, very competent. Most of its shortcomings, like five minute limit 4K recording and zoom range, would be adressed if the sensor was put in a RX10 body, at the expense of size of course. But few things in life are free from compromise. The sensor size strikes a nice balance in my opinion.

Kodachromeguy said...

Careful, Kirk. You are treading on thin ice. You and I know these 1" cameras are fantastic. but the "photographers" on Dpreview will castigate you mercilessly and tell you how 1" does not have the right equivalence or is unable to absorb enough photons, because it's physics, or the bokeh and depth of field are all wrong.

Kirk Tuck said...

The DPReview squad will get over it as soon as they figure out that we're right. These one inch cameras are pissing photons all over the place. It's all in the processing....

Also, remember, we're not shilling cameras here and we don't have a church worshipping any specific brand. No target here; at least not a very satisfying one.

Geof Margo said...

Kirk,
I rented an RX10 mk 3 last winter for a vacation in Arizona. I also took an aA7ll with the FE 16-35 mm lens. In summary, with good light and subjects in near or middle distance, the RX 10 was mostly just fine but not so much at high ISOs or handheld long telephoto shots of birds. Landscapes (my main interest in photographing in Arizona) with wide open scenes with lots of detail in rocks and cacti just did not compare to those I photographed with the A7ll.
No surprise really, different equipment for different tasks. I must acknowledge that a week with the camera is no fair test; but there was not enough there there for me to prefer it over the A7ll where my compromise at home is to use it with smaller primes or the 24-70/4 and give up on the versatility of a long zoom.
I disagree with you with trepidation; we are close enough in age but you have multiple decades of experience on me, so take my comments not just as statements but also as questions. Geof