After I posted some photos from Iceland, taken with a Lumix G9, we had some questions about what is "good enough"? And also why I continue to buy big, expensive, full frame cameras. I thought we might discuss just that.

Photography is a weird hobby/craft/profession. So much of our practice is tied to lore from the film days which purports to inform us about things like which ISOs to use or what format we "need" to have in order to succeed. Then there is the ever present rabbit hole of resolution and pixel size. A lot of the confusion surrounding technical considerations in our current practice comes from our inability to change our perspectives about the "rules" of how to make good photographs which have changed from the days of film to the current age of digital imaging. 

Most photographers are not scientists or engineers and because they lack technical groundings they tend to lean on simple measurements and shared legends and history to guide their choices when buying cameras and lenses. And lights, etc. 

In the days of film a bigger format was really, discernibly, better than a smaller format. It all had to do with how much information could be captured on a negative or transparency. Also, even the very best lenses were not nearly as good as the highest caliber lenses today. In order to get enough detail in a final print a conscientious worker had to start with the best negative possible. Image quality was dependent on exposure, the quality of lenses, the care used in developing film (and even in choosing the right developer, agitation technique and timing), the quality of one's enlarging pathway --- from the light source to the enlarger lens, and so much more. 

We learned, back then, that bigger film meant higher sharpness and resolution in the final print; assuming that all film formats were printed to the same size. We assumed that lenses were only at their highest performance level if set at least two or three stops down from wide open. We assumed that the smaller the camera's format the worse the technical performance of the camera would be. And, I believe, that all of these assumptions were based on how an image would like when viewed directly, at arm's length, on an 11x14 inch or 16x20 inch paper print. That was the de facto print size range for display prints from the 1960s until the end of film (and yes, dear pedantic one, I know that film is not yet completely dead....). 
Within that range and with the way film generally worked it was entirely possible to see exactly what bigger and smaller formats brought to the table.

The trade off of course was always that smaller cameras (35mm?) were easier to carry, easier to use, easier to buy and a lot less costly to supply with film. (per frame).  That's what drove their popularity. And honestly, if your goal, as it was for many back then, was to print at 8x10 or smaller, the format was competitive. 

So, folks of a certain age learned all about how FILM photography worked and have spent the last twenty or so years doggedly trying to apply the strict rules of technique they learned FOR film to what is essentially a different technology: digital. And they are also applying those rules regardless of the display medium on which they view the final results. 

I would estimate that fewer than 3% of advanced amateur photographers still make a habit of actually printing most of their images, which are shared, on paper prints. Just looking at the numbers the vast billions of images being shared, both for commerce and personal pleasure, are consumed on small screens. Most of them are viewed on cellphone screens. The second biggest viewing medium for the vast majority of images is on smaller computer device screens such as the 13 inch average screen size of laptop computers or the 10 inch average screen size of iPads and other tablet devices. Only a small fraction of users are daily viewing photographic images on professional, calibrated 27 inch and larger 5 and 6K screens/monitors used on computer desktop systems. 

My target market here at VSL might skew to more desktop users as people interested in the topics covered here are more likely to be older, more affluent and more disposed to viewing images on computers in the comfort of their own homes or private offices. If this is you please understand that you are NOT a typical sample group!

If we look only at the metrics of screen size and screen resolution we can pretty obviously see that we only need between 10 and 12 million pixels of camera sensor resolution to amply fill just about any viewing screen a person consuming photography is likely to use. When and if 8K screens come to market in quantity we night need to revise that number upwards to somewhere around 32 million pixels but upscaling from 20 or 24 megapixels is now child's play for most applications and users. And it's such a small degree of upscaling as to be undetectable by 99% of viewers. 

We also have to understand that unlike our conventional ideas of film size versus resolution we can have high resolution on all the common digital sensor formats from one inch sensors to the new "pixie" medium format sensors. Even phones can have as high a resolution as all the other devices. For the last decade or more plain old resolution has become meaningless when it is held up as a primary measure of quality.

We want to use the rules we learned in the film days because decades of reliance on those concepts more or less hardwired the ideas into our brains. We presume that all those rules are transferrable when they are not. Younger photographers aren't necessarily held captive by these older practices and concepts...

We can make the same arguments about the noise performance of digital cameras as well. When we shot film we took grain (analog noise) for granted. And, if you were a working photographer shooting under lots of different conditions you probably found out quickly that the maximum ISO you could use with film and still get a "nice" image unmarred by "noise" was around 800. Sure, you could push process film but there were always obvious trade-offs. Now, with digital processing, you can use cameras with any size sensor from one inch (which is less than one inch in diagonal measure) all the way to medium format and work with comfort at ISOs like 1600. Newer cameras can deliver even more ISO range before noise intrudes. But the reality is that few people actually work at the ragged edges of low light and therefore most will never really see much degradation in their digital photographs. The vast majority of images are made in good light. But even in lower light levels cameras such as the Sony RX10IV, which is a one inch sensor camera, are quite good when used with higher ISOs. And competitive with all formats in good light.

I didn't start out to make images at any particular ISO range with the samples I'm showing here but none were done above ISO400 and I think that's typical for most travel photographers (excluding night scenes). 

We are playing by different rules in the realm of digital imaging. Lenses for smaller formats are designed to take optical diffraction into consideration and so on the best of them the maximum (most open) aperture is what is referred to as diffraction limited which essentially means that wide open is its highest quality setting. We have artificial intelligence coming into the noise reduction post processing space and as can be seen by progress in the sensor output of phones that post processing works and is powerful. 

So, what does all this add up to? Do we need to pursue ever higher resolution in our sensors? Are full frame sensors a must for quality images? Do we need larger formats for any technical purpose other than for the way longer lenses render out of focus backgrounds and foregrounds?

Do we really need to spend money and sweat using bigger camera formats when our primary targets are no longer primarily large, enlarger made prints?

The photos here are basically my answer to every non-commercial photographer who asks (and by non-commercial I make no assumptions about artistic ability or technical chops. Many of my friends who shoot for pleasure are far better photographers than I). 

I have shot with three different medium format systems, all of which had geometrically bigger sensors than the current crop of Hasselblad XD and Fuji GFX medium format cameras. I have used every major camera makers full frame cameras; from Sony, Canon, Nikon, Panasonic and Leica. But I also have almost two decades of experience using four thirds sensor sized cameras (mirrored and mirrorless) as well as the one inch Sony RX10 series cameras. 

In my opinion, for the vast majority of the work we do for fun and commerce, there is no appreciable difference in quality between any of the sensors. No differences in sharpness unless you pixel peep. No differences in color purity or color discrimination. Nothing. When I went to Iceland where I shot the photos presented here I took two Panasonic Lumix G9 cameras. I still think of them as the "gold standard" for m4:3 cameras. I also took along good lenses. Lenses computed to work in sync with the smaller sensors. These included the Olympus Pro 12-100mm (which I think will be noted as one of the legendary lenses from the last ten years) as well as the Panasonic/Leica 15mm Summilux and a very excellent copy of the Sigma Contemporary 30mm f1.4 lens.

The camera's 20 megapixel sensor, combined with great lenses made for the format, resulted in images I think are mostly perfect; especially for the viewing setups most people in the modern world will be using. I'd also be confident printing them as big as 16x20 without fear of any obvious degradation. 

In my mind the system size, the lens ranges, the resolution and the ease of transport and handling of the micro four thirds cameras is the perfect balance for most diligent and persnickety photographers. From portraits to landscapes the images from those sensors are every bit as good as photographs from today's full frame sensors. Especially obvious if one only stops to take ego and pride of ownership totally out of the equation... And if one works in the fat and juicy center of technical parameters = good light!

But if I know this and it's all demonstrably true then why do I buy expensive, full frame cameras and equally expensive lenses to use in my business and for my own personal work? Let me answer the second part of that question first. I use my current cameras for my personal work because they are available to me as a result of my determination that there are some commercial projects at the ragged edges of performance that require them. Since I have them at hand I shoot them to stay fluid with them. With their operation. And I also chose them because I like the way they handle. How they feel.

The first part of the question, "why do I buy these particular cameras for work?" has a number of answers. First off, not being saintly and rigidly logical like some of you, my ego clearly influences some of these decisions. Having an expensive camera and lens on set is part of marketing. To some (but not all) clients it says you are successful and can afford "the best." Successful people want to work with other successful people and the gear you use is a shorthand signaling to those who know their brands. I get it. It shouldn't matter. And I have thousands of commercial images produced with smaller sensor cameras which should render this reason ridiculous. But there it is. And, from a marketing point of view it can work. Given the right market. So, ego. Justified as marketing.

Then there is the whole basis of fear. Will my competition get a technical advantage with a higher resolution camera that can perform better as the edge of the performance envelope? Should I pre-empt perceived advantages of my competitor's gear by arming myself with equal or better gear? 

Then there are work specific use cases. A recent job for a huge medical products company required very high resolution images suitable for very large trade show displays and large, printed magazine advertising. Their budget was not a constraint. But their parameters were set in stone. They wanted files in a certain size range and their in house art director wanted to work with the raw files. No post process cheating allowed. I only have one camera now that fit their specifications and that was the Leica SL2 (which does really brilliant big work). I might have been able to res up images from a sensor with less resolution but then we'd circle back to the idea that some part of these purchase has to do with indemnifying oneself against failure. If we buy for overkill we have more assurance that we'll hit client targets. And, again, theses targets aren't phone screens or even calibrated professional desktop screens but very large graphics that would be viewable at close range. Not the same as a billboard hundreds of feet away. So yes. Fear. 

By the same token I used to buy fast, long lenses and full frame sensor cameras for theater photography. Live action in lower light. Mostly to immunize my images against noise when working at high ISOs. I am aware though that with faster lenses I could have done equally good work with smaller format cameras. And many times did just that. For the fun and perceived challenge of it.

Finally, with all logic aside, I am as vulnerable to marketing as anyone. Tell me I'll be missing out if I don't embrace the latest thing in my field and I'll rush to "research" and quickly acquire the thing that promises to deliver golden eggs. But that doesn't change the fact that we could all do great and wonderful work with older, smaller cameras. Because we can. 

Some of my purchase choices are because of personal preferences that became embedded in my formative years as a photographer. I like bigger cameras. Most of the bigger ones exist as larger format bodies. I like certain ways of designing menus. I've tried cameras that "on paper" should be exquisite only to be put off by their handling, their build quality, their menus or any combination of all three "faults." 

I love the image quality of Olympus m4:3 camera and their lenses but I hate the Olympus menus and so when I buy cameras in that format they are almost always Panasonics. And so on. 

My current passion is all things Leica. It mostly stems from very early successes I had in the film days with used M series rangefinders and then the R series of cameras. The body designs are cool and some of their lenses really are demonstrably superb. But as a reviewer once noted, (paraphrasing) "Yes, lens X is slightly sharper than lens Y. But if I move the sharpening slide in post production a bit further to the right when processing images from lens Y then I can't tell the images apart. Is that worth an extra $5,000?" And I totally get that. 

I can probably (but maybe not exactly...) replicate the look I get from a Leica camera and lens with similar gear from Nikon, maybe Canon, with a lot of luck maybe even a Sony. But there are human emotional intangibles that also drive my decision making. Why does a baby boomer finally buy a Porsche? Not because it's efficient and economical transportation but to reward oneself after paying off their mortgage, getting their kids through college and navigating a long career. Why does anyone by an SL system Leica? For pretty much the same reasons. M cameras are different, but that's a topic for another day. 

The bottom line? Yes, pretty much any format you choose to work in today and make images to share widely will work and work well. You don't need anything more than about 16 megapixels of resolution and a good color processing system to get good images out of a vast range of cameras. You'll get great images out of the same camera if you invest in better and better lenses. But even there the final display limits the value. 

You can buy the camera you need pretty easily. But you can also buy the camera you want. And they may be different --- for a dozen reasons. And there you have my opinion on this divisive topic. 



Andrea Bellelli said...

Kirk, I agree entirely! Let me just add one more thing. You could usually obtain very good BW negatives from 135 rollfillms if you could shoot in good light. But more often than not (in my experience) you might have wanted to increase a little the contrast; thus you could buy The Negative by Ansel Adams, and start developing n+1 in 1:80 HC110. But there is no way of obtaining a good negative from a 135 roll in this way, thus you had to raise the game up and go 120. With digital there is little or no penalty if you want to edit your images. So to me film was 120 and digital is micro 4/3!

Rewster said...

Kirk, I started digital with a Canon 5D and L lenses and was pleased with the images although I am a not so good amateur. I was in my late 60's and as I aged I found my damaged left shoulder would not let me be very steady handholding. I switched to Olympus 4/3's to get the benefit of their IBIS and their fine lenses. From there I moved to m4/3's and even smaller lenses. I understand your frustration with the menus. The OM-1 has a new menu format which alleviates the menu complexity.

I only print images to 13x19 so I don't worry about resolution, but I now get 50mp images handheld with OM Systems' computational photography. My daughter uses her Iphone 14 and her images look as good as mine on a phone screen or even a TV screen. I haven't seen what they look like as a 13x19 print. You are dead on that resolution doesn't matter for most of us anymore, but to me the joy of looking through an eyepiece and composing an image beats your dirty diaper hold of a phone.

Congratulations on hitting the nail on the head with your essay.

Anonymous said...

Excellent essay Kirk! I am an admirer of your work and photographic honesty. I remained with MFT because my major interest is photographing small things (usually less than 10mm) so at 1:1 or greater magnification a full-frame sensor would have a large unused area. Just moved from Panasonic to an OM-1 because Panasonic's auto-focus was dreadful close-up, making live skittish subjects very difficult with only manual focus (setting the focus first and moving to focus often startled the subjects). Please keep writing and sharing. . .

Tony M

crsantin said...

There is an emotional component to camera purchases, just like everything else. Your home, the biggest purchase you'll ever make in most cases, is very much an emotional purchase. It has to feel right in addition to ticking any must-have and practical boxes. I have multiple cameras from multiple systems and I use them all. It really depends on my needs that day AND my mood. I love my micro four-thirds kit. But different formats do render images a bit differently. The look from a full-frame sensor is not quite the same as the look from a one-inch sensor. They render the subject differently. Both are good, just different. So I keep multiple sensor sizes and choose accordingly. I never buy new and I have a rule of keeping to $500 and under for any purchase. I've gotten some great deals over the years by being disciplined with that dollar amount. When I retire in a few years I think I will treat myself to something new and who knows what will be on the market in 2026. Something special to look forward to for me

EdPledger said...

Did all of my Iceland photos with Oly E-M1ii. No prints, all viewed on smaller screens and, while no one asked about camera, etc., several noticed that images were a big notch above what they could capture with their cell phone, esp telephoto shots. Of the traits of your readers I only fit the Older category. And as Rewster stated, the excellent m4/3 IBIS is a very tangible benefit. Having a 60MP camera is not of great value if hand holding a 300mm lens and it’s jiggling to beat hell and you’re trying to manually focus with 7x magnification. In cases like that the steadiness of a smaller sensor trumps the other advantages a larger sensor might have. Perhaps the IBIS of the latest Panasonic FF model is closer to that of the m4/3s.
I am a mere hobbyist, but I would definitely do as you have for commercial work. The cost of the equipment is written off as business expenses, discriminating clients know a chihuahua is not a doberman, and you have listed other reasons to shoot the best. A well written essay on what is good enough.
BTW an interesting article about the “Evolution” of Austin in the New Yorker.

Steve Miller said...

Well said, Kirk. 💯


Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Ed Pledger, I just read the piece in the New Yorker. I laughed a bit and cried a bit. Having bought houses in Tarrytown, Clarksville and Westlake Hills I guess I am as much part of the problem as part of the solution. I did work for MCC and Sematech, have worked for M. Dell's company for decades. Attended and then taught at UT. Had an office in downtown in the 1980s. Saw Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray Vaughn at gigs that cost me and my punk rock girlfriend $2 cover charges. Swim at Barton Springs. Run the trail. Hung out with and photographed Eddie Wilson and Kirk Watson.

Once the tech folks get through with it the whole city will probably turn into a gated community with private security. Not looking forward to it.

Pretty sure it's inevitable...

Richard said...

I shall now think of your blog as being subtitled “Onward Thru’ the Fog” !

Mike Marcus said...

Kirk, to be clear, which maybe I was not (I am often "a fellow of too many words" that can get confusing), the point of my questions to you on your previous post was that I am trying to understand "what is the Leica look" and how is different from what comes from other camera brands? I am sorry if my questions might have been read as being critical of you having a collection of Leica cameras. If anything, I am jealous of that. This post of yours clearly tells me that, as another of your age-75+ readers, it is time to let go of my 60-year lust for a red dot camera. I am, in fact, pretty okay with the four cameras already on my shelf and the collections of glass that goes with them. So, again I thank you for continuing your well-written posts and for sharing many of your photos from your daily walks, travels, and work, as well as reports on the weather, household chores, and visits to the pool. As I have said here before, I now find your posts to be like letters from an old friend having many similar interests. Thank you!

James said...

Love this post. I long ago created a spreadsheet to see how big I could reasonably print a picture. You've confirmed for me that 16x20 is no problem even for a 12 mp camera (confirms what Thom Hogan once said as well). Nevertheless, I've been wavering; but now you've given my 16mp D7000 a whole new lease on life. Although, a Z6II would be nice...

Dick Barbour said...

I occasionally look back at the 11x14 and 12x18 prints I made from the 6mp Canon D60 at the dawn of the digital age (2003). They were made on the old Epson 2200 printer which wasn't in the same league as today's printers, for sure. I don't see much if any difference in quality compared to the ones I can make now from 20mp on the Canon PRO-10 printer. The main difference to me is in the much better software that we have now, which makes it a lot easier to get good prints.


karmagroovy said...

Yes, the Thom Hogan post Why Do We Speculate About Future Products? is right up this alley. You should do a survey of readers who print on a regular basis. I'm guessing it's less than 10%. If your primary output is to a 4K monitor, then all you need is 8.3mp images.

Anonymous said...

Right tool for the job, changes from job to job. Some times it's FF Film, other times it's a smartphone. #f8/be there.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Mike, No affront taken. Your question gave me the idea of doing this blog post and it's probably past time that people just come out and say that none of these new camera crushes are at all important for 98% of the work we do...

I think about this a lot. I have way too many "state of the art" cameras and way too few opportunities to do anything really meaningful with them. And by that I mean projects that would actually show off any differences. Thanks for the inspiration to write it.


Mike Marcus said...

Whew! Glad we are all good, Kirt. You actually confirmed what I have long believed to be true, beyond about 8MP, most of us have maybe too many MPs in our files. I clearly do. A final note, my most "popular" image that has been used on a book cover, inside of two books, and on the front of several reports about the middle Rio Grande is one of the first four digital images made using my first digital camera, a 2MP Nikon EP800. Perhaps I should have ended my G.A.S. with that camera. :-)

John Y said...

An excellent, level headed and honest piece!

Kirk, I went to re-read your old posts on MJ’s TOP. At time you liked PL25/1.4 and its versatile FOV that (I paraphrase) it could do both standard portraits and environmental portraits. What has made you change heart and “switch” to PL15/1.7? Is it its more compact size or the wider FOV?

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Thanks John. As to the 15mm versus the 25mm... I owned and used them both concurrently. I liked both of them a lot but needed both to cover different angles of view. The 15 for wider shots and the 25 for standard angle of view shots. Both are wonderful lenses for the m4:3 systems.

No switch. Owned both. They lived in the same camera bag at the same time..


John Y said...

Thanks Kirk about 15mm vs 25mm.

You said to Mike you had too many cameras and too few opportunities to do anything meaningful with them. Even I stick with only one system (m4/3), I still have way too many prime lenses (9/1.7, 20/1.7, 42.5/1.7, 60/2.8 macro, 75/1.8) to use them all meaningfully. 90% of the time I'll just grab the 12-100/4, for the fear of missing out. The only time I stuck to one prime lens was when I tried MJ's OC/OL/OY project with the 20/1.7. That lasted only 3 months. Very hard. But it was rewarding.

Yet I still have GAS and am eyeing on the 15/1.7. That's why my previous question.

Terry Forrester said...

Well done Kirk, an informative and well thought out essay.

In your third last paragraph you made the following reference to the the Leica M system,
"Why does anyone by an SL system Leica? For pretty much the same reasons.
M cameras are different, but that's a topic for another day."

I would, as I have no doubt many of your readers would also appreciate your thoughts on the M system.
It seems that the M cameras are no longer regarded as a viable (professional working) system. Sad as I feel the lenses are brilliantly compact being manual focus and with the M10R and the M11 bodies provide a very effective package for those who are not seeking out the so called "all round package".

Thank you and kind regards

Anonymous said...

I have a box of a thousand transparencies in the attic from a trip to Iceland in 1989.I hired a camper-van and drove up country for one week, and then returned via the coast the next week. I had a pair of 501's loaded with Ilford 400 and Kodachrome, a short zoom on one body, and a long zoom on the other. I remember now more about the country, the skies and the colours than I will ever recall about the mechanics of the trip. And about how difficult it was to restrain yourself from taking one photo after another, all the while wondering whether what you were seeing before your eyes was going to reappear at home. Landscape after snow-covered landscape (I was there in February just at the start of the melt), jagged rocks infested with the shadows of trolls, and starry nights camped by waterfalls. Your photos have brought back a lot of memories of that trip, thank you.

Which begs the question, how did you react to the Icelandic vistas - did you find it difficult to stop shooting? :). I see there seem to be a few more people about now than there were then - I saw almost no one for two weeks!