At the end of Mitch Alland's article a couple of weeks back, he wrote, "Indeed the overall performance of the GRD III helps validate the idea of the small-sensor camera as a new, serious format, in the way that 35mm was a new format when the first Leica was introduced."
That got me thinking, and I realized that I simultaneously thought that Mitch was right, but wrong.
From a technical point of view, I think his comparison is apt. I've already worked with two small format digital cameras whose image quality (for some arbitrary aggregate definition of "image quality") was better than 35mm film at all ISOs, as I've written in several articles, including "Great Expectations." Undeniably, an awful lot of world-class photographers found 35mm film adequate for doing serious work. (Mind you I wasn't one of them...but that's about me.) Why can't the same be true for small format digital cameras? So, I think Mitch is right; people don't take small format digital camera as seriously as they should.
There's no question that small-format cameras can be used for serious (ahem!) photography...but will anybody care? (photograph made with a Fuji S100fs camera with a 1/4-scale sensor, and, yes, it looks great at 11x14)
But just because they should doesn't mean they ever will. I think Mitch is wrong for non-technical reasons: the stuff that Mike has talked about at some length about what format photography settles into—the way it settled into 35mm as the dominant form and the population didn't see a need to push to anything smaller. My guess is that something somewhere between Micro 4/3 and 35mm is going to wind up as the de facto standard in digital photography. Doesn't have to be bigger than 4/3, but there's a lot of "legacy hardware" for 35mm, so my crystal ball's murky.
There also seems to be this rising expectation thing going on, with the average serious photographer expecting better quality from a digital camera than I expect to get from my 6x7 Pentax. Nothing inherently wrong with that; I applaud high standards. But, it likely precludes everyone except eccentrics like me from doing much serious work with small sensor cameras.
In which case the historical judgment will turn against the small-format sensor camera as a "serious" tool.Let me just make it clear that I am not saying that bigger isn't better. If big floats your boat, great! A big sensor will usually (not always) produce better quality than a small one. But, remember that 8x10 wasn't the "sweet spot" for film formats, although 8x10 film photographs usually had much better technical image qualities than medium format. Medium format usually trumped 35mm. Yet, 35mm wound up dominating the world of film.
Size matters...just not always the way we think.