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Wednesday, 29 January 2014


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You know what the funny thing is? It's the consumers who need the larger sensors. Whereas I'd wager the TOP readership is able to use techniques to get the most out of any camera, the average consumer takes photos in crap light with normally fussy subjects (ranging from hyperactive kids to vain relatives). A large sensor with high ISO capability like a D4 actually works best for them.

Anyone wants to take that 16 megapixel sensor, mate it to a fixed 28mm f/2.8, and stick it to the back of a phone? First one to do so successfully (expensive won't do it, neither will clunky) will usher in the next mini-craze in smartphones.

One of my best landscapes was taken with a Nikon P7100. I printed it at 16x20, it looks great. I really love small sensor cameras, they are a blast, and have their own unique way of rendering an image. My current love is a Fuji x10, lots of fun. It's unfortunate that how "good" a camera is, is tied into sensor size and megapixel count.

My most cherished picture is my daughter holding my newborn son in the hospital taken with an Olympus C2000Z. Printed just fine as an 8x10. I remember the astonishment of the photo lab guy where I took it to be printed.

This may be true if you manipulate RAW files but many of us have no use for that. I rely on jpgs - after a lifetime of working in IT the last thing I want to do is spend time in front of a damn computer playing with RAW files. I had m43rds systems twice, and both times I ended up selling everything because the images were so poor compared to APS-C and full frame. My RX1 full frame produces images that are so better than anything I could take with smaller sensors. Yes, I realize that is more than just the size of the sensor - the 35mm lens and Sony's jpg engine are responsible, too. Sony's RX100 produces better jpgs than either of my m43rds cameras did, for that matter. I will admit part of my dislike of m43rds is that I have yet to see a UI on any Panasonic or Olympus that I cared for, including the OMD.

My RX1 and RX100 covers everything for me, and if I ever do decide to shoot RAW I am sure they will be more than sufficient.

Digital has a big advantage over film. Film enlarging is largely limited by grain, but with digital there is lots of software which permits enlarging the image to considerable size before loss of sharpness or resolution are an issue. Still, remembering the huge Kodak photo murals in New York's Grand Central Station, good tech can do wonders with film. I was able to get close to them, on the balcony, and even there they were sharp.
But sharpness/resolution isn't the only sensor quality issue. Dynamic range and color rendition are equally important, and problems tend to show up in enlarged images. Yet we hear much less about them in the discussions of relative sensor quality. Perhaps because for most users, they are harder to measure and/or quantify. Still image quality is much more than a pixel count.

Well spoken, Ctein! And that's why I visit here regularly.

But . . . as an opponent of all cruelty to animals, can you swap that mallet for a mullet, please?

@YS: "It's the consumers who need the larger sensors"

You describe me perfectly. The reason I went for APS-C and not M43 or 1" is because I want to take family photos in poor light. So I chose Fuji with their nice fast lenses :-)

The samples and comments reference landscape photographs - static subjects in good light with depth of field. In this case, yes, many cameras would pull off a nice, large print. Would your mallet be able to hit a moving mole in challenging light with shallow depth of field?

When I think of professionalism (that's the important word here), the technical aspect discussed here pretty much misses the point.

I have no doubt (it's been demonstrated time and again, and tests will reveal just how far you can push it for any particular situation) that smaller format cameras can often be found to be entirely sufficient in providing good enough files.

But even if you demonstrate that in a given (relaxed) situation you can end up with nice files, that's not nearly sufficient to fulfill the needs of a professional.

Professionals have to deal with all sorts of unpredictable situations that call for creative solutions that are sometimes quite demanding of the equipment. To do my job, I need a camera that is reliable (I shot long exposures at -20°C a few nights ago, for example), that has a rich system around it (compatible with easy to find accessories and software, too), that can be replaced quickly at the closest camera store if need be, etc.

And I simply wouldn't feel confident if the client saw that I was using was a small consumer-looking camera (let alone a compact or phone)—for certain clients or jobs it would be outright unacceptable to show up with that.

So even though small format cameras could often provide good enough quality files from a technical standpoint, I'm sorry, I would still think that they are not suited to really serious professional photography, no.

"average discerning practitioner" sounds like an oxymoron to me.

Yes, you can make big prints from small sensor cameras. Great.

The look of the image is affected though, and for those of us not wanting complete depth of field, larger mediums are an advantage. You can print an iphone shot at the same sizes you can print my 6x6 images, but the images from the 4mm ƒ2.4 lens do not look the same, or as good IMO, as those from a Zeiss 110mm ƒ2.0.

Steven Shore's work with an 8x10 may not have been the same had he shot it with a Minox, and Avedon's portraits while possible with a Nikon, may not have had the power they have now.

In today's terms, a portrait with a 5D and a Canon 85mm is going to look worlds different from the RX10 set to 85mm~e.

It's not all about lines per mm, or dots per inch. Formats, focal lengths, etc contribute to the overall style of the image in a way far more complicated than the blanket, overused, frequently misunderstood term, "Image Quality."

You tell 'em, Ctein!

Interesting subject + good light + thoughtful composition = good work

In my mind, the gear only matters if it's in skilled, experienced hands AND the subject, light, and composition are spot-on. Gear can't cover up shortcomings in the other areas.

Better photographers take better photos.

I'm still doing some work with the Nikon D300 12 megapixel camera and have done double page magazine spreads with it that look fine for what they are. I was in on the dawn of digital imaging, because I managed a large internal photo studio for the advertising department of a big regional retailer, and I was constantly bombarded by salesman wanting to sell me a bunch of different stuff, most of which was unacceptable, BUT, it's good to remember that the standard for quality with digital was new, was how it would reproduce in a 100-150 line screen in a newspaper or magazine. I don't even think anyone was thinking that it would replace "real" film at the time.

Based on what I've done, I certainly think you could do just about anything with a 24 megapixel APS-C chip for a long, long time...the thing I want? 16 bit color (hell, 32 bit color)...

Hey thanks again for the shoutout! As a small extra detail: that shot is with an iPhone 5s, which is somewhat better than the earlier models, but not by that much. I continue to be surprised by what the phone can do, but I probably should not be.

Once again I posted a nice long, thoughtful comment here and then moved on to do other things. And once again the comment was lost because I forgot to check for the follow-up Captcha spam filter that proves I'm human. All too human, apparently.

re: JH

For me the iPhone only has two major weaknesses: (1) no telephoto lens and (2) no real way to deal with motion or dynamic focus. Of course, you can use the video camera for that if you want.

As far as low light, the barrier is not that great. All of the crazy tricks that the big sensors are using to get incredible noise performance are applicable to smaller hardware. The current iPhone certainly does as well as older point and shoots. I haven't verified this, but it also does better than I remember the D70/D200 class Nikon DSLRs doing back in the day.

Here is a reasonable example of a shot taken in normal to low restaurant lighting in the evening:


I've also started using the m4/3 stuff lately, because the D700 was weighing me down. The *only* real weakness there is dynamic autofocus. The low light performance is not quite what the D700 can do, but it's not so far off that you usually notice it.

My favorite digital cameras are STILL my pair of 6MP Nikon D40 DSLRs. There are certainly some images I've shot with newer cameras (Canon 6D and Fuji X100) that I believe are subjectively better due to the advancements of the past few years (or because they are heavily cropped past the point I can get with 6MP), but right now if I'm going out the door and I have NO idea what's coming my way, I grab a D40, usually with a 18-55mm VR kit lens. And I'm ready.

These discussions can often devolve into talking past each other unless we acknowledge the obvious: there are different kinds of professionals. Different professionals have different needs from their gear.

Ctein's post is obviously about image quality only, and even within the issue of image quality, I suspect he is really only commenting on the ability of small sensor cameras to record detail and tonality at low ISOs.

His post does not say anything about focus speed or tracking ability, performance at ISO 25,600, depth-of-field, durability, flash synch speed, availability of accessories, number of qualified repair centers, availability of rental gear or any other number of issues, real or imagined.

He is not claiming that every professional photographer could or should use a small sensor camera for their work. All he is saying is: "You can make portfolio quality prints up to around 20 x 24" using small sensor cameras."

The big sensor and heavy equipment usually matters to the client more than it does to the photographer.

I have a friend (an established pro) who does most of the studio work with a small fixed lens G-something Canon, but he always, always, keeps his old 5D close, in case a paying costumer shows up.

"It's that small format digital cameras are not suited to really serious professional photography, certainly not the kind that results in portfolio prints.
… Nonsense. Balderdash. Hogwash. Bunkum."

Wait, are you talking about sensors only or the suitability of small format digital cameras for all types of professional photography? If all you mean to discuss is sensor quality, then that is an overly-broad assertion, no?

I fully agree that m4/3, etc. sensors are good enough to print for pretty much all normal print sizes, as you describe. However, I would posit that sensors are not the only concern when it comes to serious or professional photography.

For example, are you able to repeatedly and reliably get great moving wildlife and bird shots solely using any of the m4/3 cameras? If you are a professional photojournalist assigned to cover the Super Bowl this weekend, will an OM-D or an RX-10 be enough to reliably capture the peak action? Would you trust it if your livelihood depends on getting that shot this Sunday? What if it is snowing and the light is horrible?

The sensors (including in camera phones) may more than suffice for prints if the camera is used correctly in ideal situations, but imho smaller digital cameras still fall short in many areas or less than ideal situations. They're almost there, but not quite yet. And that, I submit, is why smaller-than-DSLR cameras are not good enough (yet) for all types of professional photography, sensor quality notwithstanding.

One other big factor is the content of the image itself.

I sold 20x30" prints in 2005 that looked fantastic even though they were out of the 6-megapixel D70 -- because they were silhouettes against a blurred/bokeh background. Sold a ton of those. The flip side is how I struggled to print that same size from 12-megapixel D700 images, because they were winter landscapes of bare trees, chock full of tiny detail that begged you to move in close. The lesson? It's seldom only about the sensor.

I'm eager to own a smaller, lighter camera, and I've learned that I no longer have to fret about noise at ISO 800 or detail in the highlights and shadows. Those issues seem to have been solved in almost all of the current mirrorless cameras. And many of them offer spot metering, exposure bracketing... So I do see a small, mirrorless camera in my future, at least as a second camera and maybe some day as my only camera.

But I do a lot of work with shallow DOF, especially for portraits, and I just won't get the same DOF out of a micro 4/3 camera. Sensor size still matters for some things.

I'm starting to think that an APS-C sensor might be the sweet spot for small/light plus shallow(-ish) DOF, especially coupled with two or three fast prime lenses.

Sounds like a Fuji, right?

Dear Dave,

Hmmm, interesting question!

The difference in format size between micro 4/3 and APS-C is not enough to produce a distinctive difference in the look of your photographs. That's entirely due to using a better camera, not to the size of the sensor. And, boy oh boy, are there differences between cameras! The quality of in-camera JPEG's really does depend heavily on the camera (especially at higher ISOs). They were pretty lousy from the Fuji I mentioned; they're remarkably good from the Olympus. They'd meet professional standards. I just don't use JPEG enough to pay much attention, But if I wanted to I could.

In fact, I did that on a session last weekend! Had to be able to whip up a presentation REALLY fast. It'll be a column in a couple of weeks. I think you'll like it.

Possibly incidentally, some considerable time ago (I'm afraid I can't find a pointer to it) there was a discussion of workflows and several professionals here described how they had developed RAW workflows that were just about as fast and efficient for them as using JPEG's. The key seems to be to NOT try to custom-develop your raw files. Figure that if you were happy with the cameras standard “development” to make JPEG's, regardless of the photograph, then you'll be just as happy with some standard development of the RAW files. The difference is that doing it with the RAW files lets you customize everything to your taste: you can get several stops more exposure range in your derived JPEG's (assuming you want that), you can get the curve shape just the way you want, you can get the balance of noise reduction and/or sharpening to your taste, and you have control over various aspects of color rendition like saturation and contrast.

I'm not trying to push it on you. Just saying you might want to look into it. Once you get the look you want, which can take a bit of fiddling, you save it as a preset and thereafter you just apply it as a batch process to all your RAW files. Very little more work on your part, and you might end up with JPEGs you're even happier with.

Maybe some reader here with a better memory than mine can find a pointer to those descriptions?

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear rnewman and Mark,

Did I say it was solely about pixel counts and sharpness/resolution? In ALL aspects of image quality, including exposure range, color rendition, and pretty much any other one you can define, small format can meet most professional needs. As well or better than 35mm film could, anyway.

As for the look of large-format, sure it's distinctive and distinctly better. Fer shure, no argument, see paragraph 5. Already addressed.


Dear Charles,

Funny you should mention -20 C! I just finished testing my OMD system at -25C. There will be a complete report in a couple of weeks.

Oh, I totally agree that image (the one you project, rather than the one your camera makes [g]) does count! It's why a lot of film professionals used Hasselblads and even 4x5's in situations where 35mm cameras would suffice, because their clients expected them to and if they didn't they wouldn't be taken seriously. Really, though, that's outside the scope of this column. And fashions change with time: In the 1980s, no serious wedding photographer would be caught dead with 35mm, but by the mid-late 1990s it was the norm. People got used to it.


Dear robert,

Sounds like you're reading it wrong.


Dear JH,

Yes, most definitely!

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

I got hooked on mft with my first Pen, an EPL-1 with the 14-42 kit lens. About three months ago I upgraded to an EPL-5. Wow! The IQ from the new Pen is at least a quantum leap better. ... And, those f/1.8 Oly prime lenses are top-notch. I've made some beautiful 24 X 32 prints from RAWs. The files are robust and hold up well in post. I have no problem with using the Pen on jobs. It's light, capable, and fun. Ten years ago I shot with a 16 megapixel 36 X 36mm MFB. The Pen is much more versatile and the files are better.

I'd like to respectfully disagree with Charles Lanteigne's critique of smaller-format cameras as professional tools. Let's take the last criticism first. The client's perception. To the extent that being professional involves what one might call the theatrical aspect of photography, he has a point. Larger cameras are more impressive, though less so if the client happens to own the same camera you're using, or the next step up in the product line.

The other points seem more dubious. There is no clear difference in reliability between top-end smaller-format cameras and top-end "full frame" cameras. Nor is it clear that you have to be in a "relaxed" situation to get good files. In fact, I'd dispute that. It may well be that Ctein's OM-D E-M1 won't do what Lanteigne needs. That's not to say that it doesn't fully satisfy other professionals who have different needs.

"So even though small format cameras could often provide good enough quality files from a technical standpoint, I'm sorry, I would still think that they are not suited to really serious professional photography, no."

Did that guy just say that Ctein and a whole bunch of other people don't do serious professional photography?


Has four years' worth of improved printer technology made any difference to your work?

I am using a four year old (perhaps older) six color pigment ink printer and still enjoying very good color and pretty decent b&w output from Minolta A1 to Leica Digilux 4 to Panasonic DMC-L1 to Nikon D7000 files. That A1 is still a great camera and produces lovely files at base iso.

90% of the time the only real printer output difference is how I shot the image by not taking into account sensor limitations or during post-processing expecting more from the image than my total skills could deliver (from camera operation to computer software application use to printer configuration). Seems like a better image output pipeline is in no small part cognitive rather than mechanical/digital.

Yes it took some time to hit a color sync profile that best matches what I see and to match printer paper with intended output. But I see little reason to upgrade beyond printing larger or perhaps achieving better tonal quality and shadow detail.

Which is sort of the justification for chasing sensor size / pixel density. But as you aptly demonstrated, not always a reasonable reason- all things considered.

Thanks for the reminder.


There used to be a time, not that long ago, when leaders in photography journalism,such as a certain editor of the late, lamented Camera & Darkroom magazine, used to write articles educating us as to why the size of photographic prints didn't correlate at all with aesthetic worth or quality.

"Go to any well known museum exhibit of photography-you'll be surprised at how small many famous photographs are!", they would say. "Why even 5x7 is quite large enough for the right photograph."

Well, here we are in the early 21st century, and everyone blithely speaks of 20x30 and 17xgoodness-knows-what sized prints.

Me? I've rarely seen anything larger than an 8x10 in a home settings, and in 35 years, have had only one of my pictures printed as large as 11x14. A total aesthetic flop, by the way, at that size - it worked much better at 5x7.

Where on earth do people hang, display or mount these monster sizes that everyone seems to think are indispensable?

Dear Ken,

"Wait, are you talking about ... the suitability of small format digital cameras for all types of professional photography?"

Ummm, why in the world would you think so?!?!

Paragraph 5 pretty well contradicts that. Also, if you go back and look at the criticisms of small sensor cameras that I'm referring to, they are primarily talking about image quality. So that's what I'm debunking. That's all, nothing more. Adamct nailed it.

But, to address all the straw men you set up... yes, the right small sensor camera could do fine in each of those situations. Because I've photographed in all those. (Or technical equivalents -- Superbowl's trivial compared to roller derby!) But, as I said, the right camera for the right job. And the right pro.

No one camera is most suitable for all types of photography. Just as no one professional is proficient at all types of photography.

pax / Ctein

...and yet, one can tell in magazine reproduction, magazines like Vanity Fair, the large format chip, heavy megapixel ad shots of products like luxe watches, vs. the DSLR lower megapixel stuff of just their regular people photography. I've seen people stuff in there so blurry as to be shamed by a film point-and-shoot of the last era. You know, they sell that expensive, large chip, multi-megapixel stuff for a reason, and you CAN see the reason. What the DSLR has easily replaced was the film/photojournalist/snap-shotter of the last generation. Large format photography? Not so much...

Another "pro" buddy of mine, and I, talk incessantly about how the quality of digital in a DSLR format changes under conditions. One day under strobe, it looks like 120 film, the next day under similar situation, but daylight, it looks like crap. And it's hard ot keep track of what's "on" and what's "off"... I do believe a careful working, under the perfect circumstance, can make the smallest chips look good in that specific situation. But in every situation? Nope....

Reminds me of that old childhood saying my dads bigger than your dad.You know gentlemen who suffers the most in these petty arguments over sensor size?Photography!Ctein is right,get over it and
take some photos.

Dear Crabby,

Oh man, are you ever preaching to the choir! But I bet you knew that [grin]. Sez the guy who wrote columns explaining why we really need multi-hundred megapixel cameras.

Your mention of advertising reproduction reminded me: did you ever see a book that Kodak published back in 1973 called “Impact––Photography in Advertising?” Hardcover, 8.5x11, with very decent reproductions for the time (nothing compared to how good it got after we got computer-controlled laser-cut plates––by today's standards it looks so-so). When I bought that book, the thing that startled me was that even in single page reproductions I could readily see the difference in what we now call image quality between different formats. And I don't just mean between 2-1/4 and 4 x 5, but between 4 x 5, 8 x 10, and 11 x 14 sheet film! You wouldn't think you'd be able to see the difference between 8 x 10 and 11 x 14 Ektachromes in an 8 x 10 four-color press reproduction.… But you could!

That's probably what started me on my research into just how far human perception could go in these matters.

This is why I always try to distinguish between “good enough” and “it can get better” in my discussions of the subject. We've drifted off into the latter, while the column was about the former, but it's good to remind people that “good enough” is most definitely not “as good as it can get.” Thanks!

I am afraid I have to quibble with your “… careful working, under perfect circumstance…” assessment. Circumstances can be far from perfect before smaller-format cameras stop meeting professional standards. As always, it will depend on the model of camera–– but that was true back in the film days––there were an awful lot of 35mm cameras (and films) that just weren't up to professional snuff. That said, though, up to ISO 800-1600, format isn't a deal-breaker. Above that, bigger matters. Similarly, most team sports photography can be done just fine with the right small-format camera. Football, which many people point to, is actually pretty damned easy to photograph, technically (yes, I've done it) –– what makes a great football photographer (which I ain't) is art and skill. But “racing”-type sports definitely need the best autofocus money can buy. Not so incidentally, the new Fuji X-T1 claims to have extremely fast autofocus. It will be interesting to look at the tests and see if it can really match the big boys (or at least be “good enough”).

Similarly, if your work requires such shallow depths of field that even an 85 mm f/2 lens (full frame) may not cut it, you definitely need to stick to the larger cameras. If not, there are small format camera-lens systems that will provide you sufficiently shallow depth of field.

(Before someone chimes in to say that this proves that small format cameras can't serve professional needs because they don't do everything, I would note that I've never known a *good* professional who did claim to do everything. Everyone specializes in some way, in the kind of jobs they feel (and are) competent to take. What most professionals do does not exceed the capabilities of small format cameras.)

This is drifting a bit far afield, I know, since this column was only debunking the claim that small format cameras couldn't offer professional image quality, nothing more. But I think it's still useful advice to impart.

Again, thanks for the redirect!

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Hey Ctein...

I actually remember that book! Or at least I think I do...I remember a lot of Kodak pro publications from that era, and up to a few years ago, I had a lot of them, then sold them on eBay (sniff)...

Just an FYI, I'm another guy experimenting with M4/3rd's, so altho I cannot afford the large plate digital cameras like the 50 and 80 megapixel models that I lust for and see results from while reviewing some of my friends work, I think the M4/3rds is better than 35mm used to be, and the mirrorless stuff will be the format of the future, in any size, primarily for it's "multiformat" style, like easily shooting square and 4X5 sizes, as well as the "dreaded (for me) 35mm format, and the ability to focus anywhere on the screen. I can't tell you how much doing a simple product shot on M4/3rd's, using the rear screen, seems like I'm back using a 4X5 view camera...makes me happy...

Re the tendency now for people to talk about big prints vs the smaller prints of the past in museums....
The smaller print is an object in and of itself. Today's uber prints are decor.

The "look ma, small sensor!" has been done before...back in 2008.


As others have indicated above, different tools for different needs. M43 might work great for you and your working style, but surely not for others who have other needs. This "my small sensor is as good as your larger sensor" banter is akin to the DSLR vs. Rangefinder/Canon v. Nikon/establishment vs. upstart/us v. them/etc. silliness.

Hello. I want to have a clue about the minor printer resolution we can use to enlarge an image. I mean, for an Epson 3880 the less PPP would be around 250? Did Ctein resample to get the size he wanted? Many thanks in advance for your help

I'd echo all the comments that Ctein makes, I now shoot mainly with Olympus micro four thirds and their gorgeous glass, as well as the panasonic. I have also an LX7 which produces gorgeous images and prints.

I have always said the lunacy that is the chasing of evermore mega pixels is in the majority of cases irrelevant. Most folk shoot and never print, they just upload to the usual places so destroying the argument of the need for evermore of the precious..another much missed camera that delivered the goods was my Ricoh GRD III. I loved to ask audiences when I do talks what they thought the image I was showing was taken with, because they invariably got it wrong.

This week I shot a colour piece for my newspaper. The tools for the job were an Olympus XZ-1 and an iPhone 5. I decided to shoot on the fly concentrating on content and allow the 'quality' to follow. In the end I submitted 35 images from the nights festivities from the Olympus and a couple of images from the iPhone once processed through Snapseed. The assignment was completed, had I used a larger camera, more than likely I wouldn't have been able to do so.
The great thing about shooting smaller was concentrating on reacting rather than attempting to build a photograph. I still believe that the sweet spot for most photography is between 10 and 12 mega pixels. I'm thinking about incorporating a Panasonic Gh2 into my tool box. It's sitting on my window will right now and I've used it for family pics, it's sweet piece of kit.
So, I'm using a phone camera, small format, M43, APSc, and 35mm format for my work. I never worry about what format, but people are so visually aware now that, the format matters less than the final output and the compromises a photographer is prepared to commit to in order to achieve the final image.

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