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.