The Curious Incident of the Zoom Lens that acts like a bag full of primes.

It seems like I never stop learning about how to push back on the perceived limitations of the photographic process. I've been locked in a battle that resembles a sine wave. I want to do things in a different way than before but I come to doubt my motivations or my resolve or even the premise of my undertaking and then rush back in the old direction to re-embrace a comfortable but unexciting methodology. I swing from risk to comfort like most people. I guess our hope is that each swing into newer territory has us walking forward by five feet and retreating by "only" fifty-eight inches once we lose our nerve...

I'm back in the m4:3 sensor camp for now. It will take a bit to nudge me away this time because the format caught up with where I always wanted it to be. 

I have a confidence in the format now that I never used to and a belief in the best lenses for the system that dwarfs what I felt I got from large format system lenses.  In a sense so much of why systems excel or fail has to do with the synergy between body and lens. 

I was at ZACH Theatre last night photographing a new production called, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." The play is from a popular novel the protagonist of which is an autistic teenaged boy in England grappling with a shifting and ultimately unsettling family landscape. The play depends on projections and dramatic light changes to push the audience into the mindset of the main character. 

It is harder to photograph plays that are about ideas or about concepts than to photograph more "narrative" plays and plays with multiple scene changes and costume changes. Those productions have visual texture on which to hang technique. This play is more cerebral and spare. But, of course, I gave it my best shot. Or multiple hundreds...

Given my selection of the first five images in this blog you can see the scene I liked best; in visual terms. It's meant to be a small group of people standing next to a subway track, waiting for the next train. Our hero, in the red jacket, is observing so he can learn how to use the "tube." 

Last night was my first attempt to use just one camera and just one lens to photograph the complete dress rehearsal of a play at ZACH Theatre. We had a live audience and I was constrained, once again, to be mid-house; half way up from the stage and pretty much dead center. It should come as no surprise that I was using the GH5 camera body nor that my choice of lens was the Olympus Pro 40-150mm f2.8. With this system if I could see something clearly on the stage the camera was able to lock focus instantly and capture the image without much fuss. 

This series (the first five) of photographs documents a scene set near the rear of the stage. I needed the full reach of the lens for the tighter crop and still a tight focal length to get everyone at the "stop" from head to toe. 

Since the lens is as sharp as the sting of a wasp, even when used wide open, I had no reason to stop it down. At f2.8 I was able to stay in the 1/250th to 1/400th shutter speed range, and I kept  the ISO at 1600 for the entire evening. If one part of the exposure triangle needed to be changed to compensate for changing light levels it was always the shutter speed I chose. 

I watched part of the tech rehearsal on Sunday evening and I quickly surmised that the color temperature of the light on our people changed frequently and, massively. With a warm light cue the dominant light on stage was around 3200K, + or - 200K. In the cooler cues the lights sat at around 5700K with a healthy dose of magenta in the mix. On this play I set up three different white balances in the custom WB settings. As I was shooting I'd watch for different light cues and assess their white balance. With the camera to my eye I could hit the WB button on the top panel of the camera without having to look. The submenu opened to the current balance and the flick of a control wheel took me to the next white balance. One hits the "set" button to make the change. 

Setting up the camera in this way, and having an easy "touch to identify" physical button meant that I could soon make the changes almost subconsciously. This turned out to be a time saver in post; I was in the ball park in nearly every situation and could concentrate on just tweaking exposures and shadows for my conversions to Jpeg and subsequent delivery. 

Following along on my "one lens, one camera" experiment last night I can also report that the entire evening's shoot was accomplished with just one battery.

It's odd to try to watch a play and to photograph it at the same time. There two completely different brain uses involved. One is passive observation while the other is active editing with continuous, mini, calls to action. Look, frame, commit and then push button. Repeat. If I knew a "non-photogenic" few minutes came along in which I could put the camera down and just watch and listen but there was an inertia that slowed me down from switching back over the active mode. It seemed like a case of always wanting to be doing the opposite thing. 

So, I was working at ISO 1600 and, in post, boosting shadows in Lightroom by plus 25 or plus 50. I was also tweaking exposure, adding anywhere from plus a quarter stop all the way up to adding a stop and a half of exposure. These are all things that should lead to noisy files. Especially in shadow areas. But when I look at the images I've included here I find them to be no more noisy than the images I used to get from my Sony A7ii or A7rii. In any event files from either system were easy to "sweeten" with a judicious lean on the noise reduction functions in Lightroom or PhotoShop. 

Where does this leave me? I'm currently thinking that all cameras are good but that all cameras take time to understand and time to practice with. There needs to be a shoot-look-shoot-look break-in period. A time in which you learn where the breaking point is for files from each system and each model. You learn where these negative inflection points are and then you learn to compensate for them. And if you are doing your job right you come to find that, with a few tweaks, the camera you enjoy shooting can pretty much match its competitors for image quality. Now you can safely choose the cameras you want to use by how they feel in your grip and what kinds of features you think are most beneficial to the way you work. 

I must say that my regard for the GH5 cameras grows with every use. The bodies are extremely solid and convey a sense of indestructibility. The files seem to say to me that if I do everything in "best practices" mode I'll be rewarded by beautiful technical file attributes. 

Nail exposure = get no noise. Hold the camera still = get sharp photos. Nail the color balance = get malleable and pleasing color right out of the camera. 

These practices are not limited to a brand or a format but are things we should be consciously practicing every time we do work with our cameras. 

After reviewing the 600+ files I presented to the client today I have to say that my purchase of the Olympus Pro series 40-140mm f2.8 lens is one of the smartest purchases I've made for photography in the last year or two. It makes my work look better than it should. Actually better than a bag of primes...

"The GH5 and the GH5S are so big! Why are they so big? I thought the whole reason for making m4:3 cameras was to make tiny, tiny, tiny cameras. And lenses! Right?"

No. Wrong.

If you look at cameras as wearable jewelry you could be forgive for imagining that the new generation of smaller sensor cameras should be tiny enough to wear around your neck on a chain. Or fastened, all bling-style, to a heavy, gold-plated wrist chain that also features the dangly parts emblazoned with signs of the zodiac and your various allergies to medications. 

If you really want a camera that fits in all your pockets it really does make sense for you to pick up a nice phone and learn to use its feature set to its highest potential. If you are looking for a camera that's small enough to do your own D.I.Y. endoscopy/colonoscopy then I suggest that you may misunderstand many of the reasons that we own the cameras that we do.

I can't think that anyone with a functioning brain looks at a GH5 and thinks, "Yep. That's the camera for me. It's so teeny-tiny. I'm sure it will fit in the watch pocket of my Levi's 501 classic jeans...." The reason for the GH5's existence and popularity have little or nothing to do with its size relative to other cameras and everything to do with its deep list of features and capabilities. 

Let's start with 4K video. Yes, Sony offers 4K video in some of their A7 cameras but there are some caveats. First of all, the entire Sony line conforms to the EU standard of limiting recording time to slightly less than 30 minutes. With a GH5 you can record until you run out of space on two UHS-11 cards or until you run out of battery juice. Put two V-90 SD cards in the two slots on the camera, add a battery grip to the bottom of a GH5, and you'll be able to shoot for hours and hours. Your only limitation will be the size of the files you choose. And, unlike the Sonys, you can shoot All-I files at up to 400 megabits per second directly in the camera. OMG! That's insane. But good insane. This capability alone creates a demarcation between professional and advanced amateur when it comes to video equipment that can really be used in the field. Nikon, Canon, Sony, etc. None of them can match this kind of performance, even at two or three times the price. 

But there's more. The Panasonic is seemingly impervious to the heat generated when making enormous, detail rich files. But not so with the Sonys we've owned in the past. All but the RX10 series have been plagued with thermal shutdown issues. There is a workaround that was introduced to quell consumer revolt with the A7Rii model and that was to allow the temperature to rise and allow the cameras to deliver noisier and noisier files. Panasonic purposely designed the GH series of cameras to handle heat by making them big enough and thick enough to house highly effective and highly efficient heat sinks. I've run my GH5s for several hours in Texas Summer heat and never had an issue. I've run various Sonys in the studio and suffered heat warnings. An amazing achievement by Panasonic when you consider that the camera is pushing through about 4X the data stream that the Sonys are managing....

Apparently Panasonic is using the total volume of the GH5 body in a way that maximizes performance and equipment longevity while ensuring the highest quality of their files in actual daily use. Now that's novel. 

The Panasonic pro bodies are also subject to being paired with professional quality lenses. The lenses, not compromised by size constraints, are being designed for sheer optical quality. In this instance I am thinking not only of the professional caliber lenses from Panasonic but also from Olympus. Some pros demand a "no holds barred" optical performance from their lenses and the get it from the high end products offered by Olympus and Panasonic. Some of the fast (and glorious) lenses such as the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro from their Pro series are built like tanks. They are hefty. And if you are going to hang them off the front of a camera you need to design that camera's mount, and the surrounding infrastructure, to handle the load. This means that the mount and camera in general have to be generously sized to ensure longterm plano-parallelism and reliability. Logic dictates a certain minimum camera size for that as well. 

Now we have two things that mandate a certain camera size: mechanical tolerances with high reliability and effective heat dissipation/management. 

We can easily toss in a third parameter that strongly suggests a certain minimum camera body size and that is overall handling characteristics. Is there enough space on the exterior of the body on which to place good, tactile buttons and controls without crowding them and making them tactilely confusing? Is there enough space for professional connection points for things like a full sized HDMI cable, headphone jack, microphone jack? Is the camera comfortable to hold while using a heavier lens? Is the camera body big enough to accommodate a battery that doesn't need changing every 45 to 60 minutes of on time? Can there be a rear screen that's big enough to evaluate stills or video without overwhelming the overall space on the camera back? Is there adequate space for two SD cards slots (both of which are UHS-II)? Can your pinky finger find purchase on the grip of the camera or is it dangling painfully under the body of the camera?

I learned during my time owning various Sony Nex cameras that there actually is a minimum camera size commensurate with sure and happy handling and the Sony Nex cameras that I owned missed that metric by a good 25%. Not so with the professional cameras from Panasonic. 

Finally, uninformed pundits often opine that since the camera is X size it should have a bigger sensor. Generally these people are "pie-in-the-sky" techno-Luddites. They just don't get the idea of compromise. Panasonic might have been able to put in a bigger sensor but they would have had to compromise on: rolling shutter, heat dissipation, file size, writing latency, inferior in body image stabilization, worse performance on most file edges due to optical issues, and they would have had to make lenses even bigger and heavier to get close to matching the performance currently being delivered to the right sized format  of the current Panasonic cameras. 

The GH5 is not a heavy or burdensome camera. Even a feeble and out of shape person like me has little problem schlepping a couple of these around. The people who are calling for ever smaller cameras instead of calling for ever evolving and improving performance are pissing up the wrong rope. They are busy transitioning from the rational pursuit of serious photography into a world of bad fashion and worse user experiences.