Once again, it's time for me to play a notional whack-a-mole. An idea pops up. I smack it down. It pops up again, I smack it down. Repeat ad nauseam.
One of those subterranean burrowers popped up repeatedly in the discussions around Mike's post "Connectedness" and the preceding "Great Cameras" posts. It's that small format digital cameras are not suited to really serious professional photography, certainly not the kind that results in portfolio prints. Oh yes, maybe screenshots. But the hard stuff? You need a big sensor for that!
Nonsense. Balderdash. Hogwash. Bunkum.
Why can't we stamp this one out? Honestly and truly, real-world results just don't support it. They haven't for years. Not even by highly demanding aesthetic standards.
Dodging the red herring that pops up alongside this mole, I'm not saying bigger can't be better. 8x10-inch sheet film was better than 35mm. How many professionals found it necessary to go to that large? Damn few. You may be one of them. Fine. This isn't for you. It's talking about what, in general and on average, a discerning practitioner needs.
Two specifics drove me to engage the furry varmint again. The first was the notion that the Sony RX10 20-MP camera (right) with a 9x13mm sensor (that's 1:2.7 of 35mm size) wouldn't be capable of serious work, especially if one needed prints of "large" size.
I suppose it depends on what you mean by large. Unless you're talking bigger than 20x 24", I have real doubts that this camera won't satisfy. If you're talking a mere 17x22", I'm certain it'll perform. I've gone there with older, lesser cameras, and it hasn't even been all that hard.
Currently I'm working in the Micro 4/3 camp. Remember that $19.95 print that Mike and I offered a year back? That was made with an old model Olympus, the one with the original 12-megapixel sensor. It's 13x17mm (1:2 of 35mm size), not hugely bigger than the Sony RX10's. Definitely not enough to make a big difference in image quality, especially not with four years' worth of improved sensor technology backing it up. (And while I'm whacking moles, a reminder that most dimensions of image quality scale with linear dimension, not sensor area. Also addressed in previous columns. You can look it up.)
Okay, so some of you are going to say, "Well, yes but it does have a bigger sensor, and besides it has much fewer pixels so they're much bigger, hence they're much better." Which is not necessarily true. All pixels are not created equal; four years makes a big difference in the technology. Look at the image quality improvement between the old generation Olympus and the current OM-D series. A third more pixels in the same space, with massively better image quality all around. But, still, I get your objection. So let's wind back another generation, to a smaller format than the Sony RX10 has.
Before the Olympus Pen, I was using an all-in-one Fuji S100fs 11-MP camera, which had a 6.5x9 mm sensor (that's 1:4 of 35mm size). That is, only two thirds the size of the one in the Sony RX10, with just about the same pixel size. Now we're talking technology five years old, at least. I will certainly give Fuji credit for making really good hardware, but I'd be awfully surprised if Sony hasn't managed to equal it five years later.
Just how good was the Fuji? Good enough that a lot of the 17x22" prints I offer for sale on my website came from that camera (figure 1). In fact, before the Bay Bridge photo turned up, Mike and I had been discussing about offering one like this as an example for the small-camera/big-print sale.
Yes, you had to use the camera carefully to get that level of quality out of it, and it wouldn't provide it at high ISOs. How much care? Less than I needed to get the same quality out of 35mm film in large prints, that's for sure! And, oh yeah, that teeny-sensor, five-year-old camera had better noise vs. ISO characteristics than 35mm film, too.
I'm not saying my Olympus OM-D E-M5 ain't better. It's so massively better. But the Fuji was good enough, and there's no possible way that the Sony isn't a lot better than good enough.
Let's continue to climb down the ladder. How about them camera phones, folks? Two data points for your enjoyment. The first was a 20x24" print I made for Mike Johnston from a Nokia 40-megapixel cellphone camera. It looked fabulous! The only visible deficiency was just a bit of banding in the skies, a consequence of having only 8-bit JPEGs to work with and mapping from RGB into the printer's CMYK color space. In most photographs, you'd have never seen it. I could have massaged it away, but that wasn't the point the exercise. We just wanted a peek at the quality.
Fig. 2. Photo by Pete Su (a.k.a. psu). Made with an iPhone, processed entirely in camera, and uploaded to Flickr. It prints as an excellent 10x13-inch image. Might even be able to go larger, but I'm picky.
The second is the photograph that reader psu posted to Flickr from his iPhone and linked to in the comments to the Connectedness column (figure 2). Just to confirm my intuition, I downloaded the full-resolution version and printed it out, 10x13" image area—close to what Peter Turnley calls "European collector size." Just as I expected, it looked really, really good. I'd feel uncomfortable taking it bigger than that, but I am really fussy.
As a reality check, I showed it to Paula with no explanation and asked her what she thought of it.
She said, "It's a nice enough photograph. Doesn't knock my socks off but it's entirely okay." So I asked her what she thought of the technical quality, and she said, "Oh, that's fine. It's got nice detail, even in the background. And the tones look good."
Then I told her it was from a cellphone and her eyes got big, and she said, "Oh, REALLY!"
Okay, I'm done.
Until the damned mole pokes its head up again. I'm hanging on to the mallet.
Ctein's column pops up on Wednesdays on TOP.
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