Sufficiently Sufficient?

Performer at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Several years ago.

Sufficiency. It's a word that Ming Thein uses and I'm starting to warm up to the concept. The nature of many photographers over the years is to continually strive to own and use the absolute best gear they can possibly afford at any given time. My pursuit of the Nikon D810 and then the Sony A7Rii is an example of that. My clients were perfectly happy with "lesser" cameras like the D610 and the A7ii but something vulnerable in my psyche kept pushing me toward potentially "better" cameras. 

My recent purchases of two cameras has stopped me in my tracks. Two cameras, one ten years old and the other one twelve years old, made me pause and consider. How did the two different 12 megapixel formats stack up to the cameras I'd been reflexively buying since owning them? Were there files better or different? Was my photography better now? Or worse? Or the same?

When we are trying to justify new camera purchases, especially if we already own perfectly good and reliable ones, we mostly talk about resolution, and the way the cameras handle low light/high ISO situations. With the exception of things like in-body image stabilization and different viewfinder options there's really not a lot else to compare. 

Like many other photographers I presumed that the cameras I used nearly ten years ago would have been eclipsed by the newer models and that the differences in actual performance (in "real" use) would be so glaringly obvious that one would have to be a dolt not to see it and want the newest magic sauce, if for no other reason that the color improvements in the latest sensors. Right?

Then I found a folder of images I'd taken a while back at our local music festival, SXSW. There were a bunch of images of performers on stage. I know they are nearly ten years old because the camera data in the files shows that they were done with a Nikon D300 camera and a (non-stabilized) Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 zoom lens. I started clicking through the hundreds of images I'd taken (on assignment) that at the festival that year and I have to say that I think the skin tones and colors are as good as anything I've taken since. In terms of dynamic range I am fascinated that the camera (and I) have nailed exposure on the performers face (above) but the backlight on her blond hair is not blown out at all. I can also see into the shadows without much strain. 

The D300 had a more limited raw buffer than we are used to today and the finder was smaller as well, but the body itself was stout, reliable and easy to handle. 

I guess the question I keep asking myself is: Why did I continually upgrade? What metric was so bad on the older generations of cameras that I felt compelled to keep buying and selling them? And, controversially, where was the sweetest sweet spot and how do we get back there?

I had an interesting comment on the blog yesterday. I'd posted an image of the Nikon D800e sitting on a tripod in the studio with a 105mm lens attached. One daily reader (MM) wrote to ask what I had done differently when shooting the image. What new sharpening routine had I embraced? 

All I had done was to put an "ancient" Nikon D2XS on a firm tripod, focused a 30 year old, manual focus 28mm f2.8 lens as well as I could, locked up the mirror and shot at f8.5. The file started life as a Jpeg. I tweaked it a little bit (as I normally do...) in SnapSeed, dialing in some shadow lifting and a little bit of "structure." No more or less than I would do with a file from a Panasonic GH5 or a Sony A7Rii. But something in the file from the ancient Nikon resonated with an experienced and savvy viewer. 

Did we hit the peak of camera performance for some subject matter, use targets, and points of view a decade ago? Were we so focused on the "potential" of new technology that we failed to see what we actually had? I wonder. 

I know the improved high ISO performance of sensors has helped many. The higher resolution comes in handy for some demanding applications. Live view can be handy. But if we come to grips with the nearly universal experience that the web is our real target for 99% of photographs then the larger pixel wells and various other attributes of the older cameras might be a better match for much of what we do. 

I point to recent cameras from Sony and Panasonic as examples of a re-consideration of larger pixel aesthetic pursuits; both in the GH5S and the A7Sxx cameras. Perhaps more camera makers will embrace the offering of cameras with sensors adapted for more than just resolution horsepower. 

Me? Just snapping up old D2XS and D700 cameras as fast as I can find them....Might look at D3S cameras as well....

Thanks to Ming for introducing "sufficiency" into the dialog. It's an interesting and worthwhile concept to consider. See Michael Johnston's ruminations as well: http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2018/04/whats-adequate.html

Buy yourself something nice at Amazon. I have an idea.....


Anonymous said...

Aw shit. I hate it when people have actually examples that prove their arguments. Nice work!

Nigli said...

I miss the viewfinder of my Pentax 6x7. I'd be pretty happy with a 16 mix camera with a viewfinder like that.

Eric Rose said...

Like you I have used a number of digi cams over the years. My favourite for all around use has been the D700. People laugh at me when I describe the files as "juicy" but then I'm a very tactile guy. The D700 was the only camera I regretted selling. My endeavours have branched more to video with still images being a secondary consideration so I sold the D700 to buy into the m4/3 eco system. As I've mentioned before my old D70s has a look I rather enjoy as well.

Since I'm not a gear nerd I rarely concern myself with specs and all the other things that keep photo forums alive. My major concern is what does the final image look like and how much work does it take me to get what I want. If the camera gives me a pleasing, organic RAW file that I don't need to torture to get what I want, that's the camera for me. I don't care if it's 20M pixels or 50M pixels.

I've used cameras that are on the cutting edge of todays technology and hated them. I can get use to almost any arcane menu system but the files out of the camera were horrible. The equivalent of the best and brightest concert musicians all playing off key by just a bit. After a short while your brain just starts to hurt because it's sick and tired of trying to auto correct and you turn the recording off.

I guess I'm just a fussy old codger.


Mike Rosiak said...

Back when I dabbled, briefly, in the game of golf, I began with a set of yard sale clubs, and similar bag. As I got into it a bit more, the old clubs seemed to be holding me back. That's when I learned about "game improvement" clubs. Such clubs are not meant for the pros, but for absolute duffers like me. I gave up the game after a couple of years of persistence, when i realized that I could approximate my final score by just doubling the par for the course.

I'm thinking that what has been happening with cameras has been the incremental addition of "game improvement" features. Pros like, oh, Kirk Tuck, know how to milk the best pictures out of the camera, even the ones from 10-15 years ago. Photography duffers (like me) need all the help they can get. Image stabilization, cause I can't hold a camera steady enough to save my soul. Weather resistance, so I can be a bit careless about my equipment. Precise auto-focus, since my skill at this sucked, from the days of my Argus C3 and Canon AE-1.

My recent purchase from eBay of a Sigma SD-14, and an adequate 24-70mm zoom lens, (a capitulation to a nascent lust for a Foveon sensor camera), has revealed just how far this "assistive" technology has come in the last dozen years. I really have to WORK to get good pictures. Tripod. Custom white balance. RAW. Good lighting. Stationary subject. 2-second delay after shutter press. Slight over exposure to avoid shadow noise, LR tweak to back off over-exposure in post. Hard to get used to a 20-second write to the CF card also.

The whole experience makes me question my having the Lumix GX8 on my wish list. I have the GX7. I have an LX100. I have an LX7. These cameras are all better at picture taking than I am. They're more than satisfactory, or adequate, or sufficient. What's my motivation?

Anonymous said...

Too bad you refer to Ming Thein here, as he well may have talked about suffiency but he’s always been able to argue that the coolest, latest, most expensive gear was what was sufficient to him. He’s a gear nut and you’re not. That’s a compliment to you.

Joseph Kashi said...

I believe that what is "sufficient" depends upon the context. One size never fits all needs. Professional sports photographers really do need those high-end D5 and 1Ds systems but most of the rest of us do not.

Good lighting is the great equalizer, allowing older gear to use optimum lens apertures, fast shutter speeds, and low ISO while reducing the need for high ISO image quality and stabilization hardware. The lack of good high ISO output and good stabilization is probably the most significant constraint of older cameras. Good lighting avoid both of those constraints.

If you're doing fine art photos in good light on a tripod, for enlargement up to about 18x24, then my 10 year old Sony R-1 works great, unless you need to go above ISO 400 or shoot hand-held at slow shutter speeds. Even my older Canon G9 and Kodak P880 cameras are still pretty good for slow, deliberate work in good light, at least when shooting RAW.

If you're planning to make really big prints or need to work at high ISOs, then a full-frame 36MP or better system with high-grade, fast prime lenses is appropriate.

If you're doing hand-held video, traveling or otherwise need to make high quality images and need a light, compact system, then a well-stabilized Micro Four-Thirds fits well, particularly with fast, sharp prime lenses.

If you're simply posting 1920 or 1280 photos on the web or showing on your cell phone, then virtually anything will be "sufficient".

ODL Designs said...

Was the picture at the top of the post a recent raw conversion or the old one.

It is a lovely file, maybe your processing was different, or maybe this was just a really good one and you could pull similarly good ones from all the cameras you have used.

Kirk Tuck said...

Actually, I think it started life as a Jpeg...

Anonymous said...

ha ha I have been waiting for the price of the d700 to come down a bit more. You are not helping.

David said...

Whenever I think about this sufficiency issue, I then think about pencil drawings: the wonderful works of art I've seen that were made with a piece of paper and a handful of pencils. Which brings up a question you can ask about any piece of gear: Can you make art with it? In the case of cameras, even phone cameras, the answer is almost always Yes. (I've got a couple of very nice pinhole camera pictures hanging in my house.)

The real question is: Can I make MY art with it? That's what makes a camera sufficient or not.

Wally said...

Several years ago I bought a Sigma Merrill DP2 to digitally match my 4x5 view camera shooting Black and White negatives for the landscape work. At the time I was struck by how all the expensive full frame cameras needed low ISO to get maximum tonal range and image quality. I keep coming back to duplicating how I got great image quality and tonal range on my film negatives; big heavy tripod, remote cable release, Low ISO, show up at dawn, pray for no wind. This holds true for digital today too...

Peter said...

The current stage of photography reminds me of Hi-Fi in the 1970's: Audiophiles would argue endlessly about this or that cartridge or (heaven help us) interconnect cables, but any actual difference would be completely blown into the weeds by the music itself and the artists. Nearly everyone ignored this, until they suddenly stopped ignoring it, and all the Hi-Fi shops went out of business. (Of course audio engineers still know where to make their very specialized purchases.)

Great subject matter, lighting, composition, and timing will likewise blow tech specs into the weeds every time, but you just can't go to a shop and buy those things. In the not too distant future, camera shops are going to follow the audio shops from the scene, I'm just not too sure what the tipping point will be, then all that will be left are a small number of people buying very expensive and specialized equipment (think of the Olympus gear your specialist doctor friend used on your last health check), or actual artists (and the rest of the population) using very inexpensive cameras like iPhones.

Dave Jenkins said...

My main camera from 2006 to 2014 was the original Canon 5D. Looking through some work I did with that camera for my book "Georgia: A Backroads Portrait," I realized that those files had a special beauty. The camera had one fatal flaw: the lack of automatic sensor cleaning. I spent a discouraging amount of time zapping out dust spots from skies in my architectural photos and moved to the 6D in 2014. Now all Canon gear is gone and I am finding the files from my Fuji X-series cameras amazingly good. (And sufficient!)

Alan Mermelstein said...

Kirk, after reading your blog I just reviewed a wedding that I photographed in 2011 with the D3S and D700. I look back and love the tone and character of the images. Now I feel like I ran down the rabbit hole with the D800, then D610/600, then D500 and D750’s... not to mention trying out Olympus M4/3. I do like my Fuji’s now with F2 primes, but once I mount my 16-55 F2.8 or 80mm macro there’s no weight advantage!

The other thing though I don’t miss with Nikon is having to auto fine tune lenses lol!


Gato said...

"where was the sweetest sweet spot and how do we get back there?"

That question has been stuck in my mind since I first read this post a couple of days ago. Don't have an answer yet, not even to the first part.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, sufficiency. Remember this one:

"Big Prints from 4/3-format Sensors - how big can you go?"



Mitch said...

This weekend, watching the PBS Documentary "Soundbreaking" I was taken by how technical restrictions bedeviled musicians and engineers. But their responses seemed to be "how do we make it sound like..." as was the case with Pete Townsend and the Beatles. Or, "how do we work around the restriction of" as was the case of Jack White using what appears today to be ancient recording devices, learning about how it was done way back when.

The perspective was based so much on achieving an end result of a vision, as opposed to acquiring endless technology (a big hammer) with which to go looking for something to use it on (...the nail).

And how many musicians said 'and a kid in their bedroom can now use their laptop and ...'

We've entered a time where we can grab any image capturing tech and allow our vision to show us what else we need as we progress through capturing what we want to show.

We may not need to get back to "the sweetest spot" as we may be right in the middle of it. Grab something and go shoot.

David said...

What camera stores?
I live in DC area and there all gone. My favorite Penn camera was gone 2 years ago. The only store I have left with cameras to test is bestbuy. They surprisingly have m43rds on display. But mostly Canon and Nikon. Sony and Fuji are absent.
Amazon and B&H with used off Keh and ebay are my options.