Why bother?

A friend just pointed me to the new Canon PowerShot SX30 IS, a newly announced super zoom.

“Why bother with something like a micro four thirds camera?”, he asked. All he needs is the super zoom capability. “It has a 14.1 megapixel sensor; why do I care whether it is micro four thirds or not?”

Well… you know I’ll weigh in on that.

When not using an SLR, I like Micro Four Thirds cameras like my Panasonic Lumix GF-1:

Panasonic GF1, photo Michael Willems

Panasonic GF1, photo Michael Willems

And for some very specific reasons.

  1. A larger sensor means lower noise. The higher the pixel density (pixels per square mm), the lower the signal-to-noise ratio, and hence, the higher the noise in any given picture. That is why Canon very sensibly went down in Megapixels between the G10 and the G11 (by the way, the G12 was just announced).
  2. Hence, less ability on small sensor cameras like the Powershot to go to higher ISO settings. I can take good pictures on my full-frame camera at 3200 ISO. Forget even 800 ISO on a typical small frame camera. And that’s physics, so there’s not much to be done about this.
  3. Inability on small sensor cameras to go to selective depth of field. The aperture as a ratio of the sensor size determines “how blurry I can make the background”. Large sensor = ability to really blur the background. On my micro four thirds Panasonic, which has a sensor almost as large as many SLRs have now, I can create really blurry backgrounds at f/1.7. On a small point and shoot: forget that, even at the lowest “F-number”, your background is still crisp and sharp.

So that is why zoom ability and small size are not everything.

Four more days

Saturday I’ll be here:

Mono, country home with flash

Mono, country home (with flash)

But it will be rearranged and full of lights. This is my Mono, Ont. Country home, where Joseph Marranca and I are holding our all-day Advanced Flash workshop.

That snap was taken with the little Panasonic GF1, with its built in little flash raised to very successfully fill in the shadows.

Blurring backgrounds

A quick tip, today, for new or inexperienced photographers. But one that some experienced photographers forget sometimes, too.

In a good photo, you draw attention to your subject. You can do that by framing, by using converging lines, by making the subject large, by surrounding it by negative space… or by blurring the background.

If like me you like blurry backgrounds, how do you achieve them? Using a camera with the largest possible sensor size, use any of these methods:

  1. Use aperture mode (A/Av) and select a large aperture (i.e. a small F-number, like 2.8). This is why lenses with those low F-numbers are so good, and so desirable, and worth paying for.
  2. Use a longer lens (zoom in).
  3. Get closer.

Or do several of these at a time, like in this snap I took during a tweet-up the other day:

iPad in hand, by Michael Willems

iPad in hand, by Michael Willems

The blurry background shows just enough to make the viewer work, to understand what is happening; but it also accentuates the iPad very nicely.

I used the Panasonic GF1 with its 20mm f/1.7 prime lens set to f/1.7 (yes, a very low F-number).

Quality

I was amused to see Leica announce recently that they would not be issuing any micro four-thirds lenses. In a recent Popsci blog, Leica’s VP marketing is quoted as saying:

“One reason why we’ve decided not to move into Micro Four Thirds is that we have looked at the sensor size and realized that it cannot produce the image quality that we need. Therefore we decided to stick with the full format in addition to APS-C. It’s all about the ratios”

Interesting. Really? So why is Leica selling rebranded Panasonic cameras at the bottom end?

So let’s see what a real micro four thirds Panasonic, my new GF-1 with fixed 20mm lens, can do against the top of the line Canon, the 1Ds Mark III with a prime 50mm lens. Crazy comparison, eh? Who’d be crazy enough to shoot the same object with a highest-end SLR versus a point and shoot?

Me.

I just shot my most patient model in the studio, lit by a couple of Bowens strobes.

  • Both cameras set to manual, 100 ISO, f/9, 1/125th second (as measured with the light meter). One shot focus, focus point on the eye.
  • 1Ds Mark III: 50mm f/1.4 lens on this full-frame 23 Mpixel camera
  • The 12 Mpixel GF1 was fitted with a 20mm f/1.7 lens. Because the sensor is four times smaller than a negative, this is equivalent to 40mm “real” length.

So the shots:

Full shot, Canon:

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 50mm f/1.4 lens

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 50mm f/1.4 lens

Full shot: Panasonic:

Panasonic GF1, 20mm f/1.7 lens

Detail, Canon:

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 50mm f/1.4 lens (detail)

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 50mm f/1.4 lens (detail)

Detail, Panasonic:

Panasonic GF1, 20mm f/1.7 lens (detail)

Panasonic GF1, 20mm f/1.7 lens (detail)

In all cases, click to see a larger picture.

These were RAW images that have been read into Lightroom and edited slightly for white balance and exposure. No sharpening or noise reduction was done.

What does this show me? Yes, I suppose at higher ISOs I’ll see more of a difference, but at these low ISO settings, any megapixel count over ten is “enough”, and the difference in the case of such a controlled shot is minimal.

Certainly, this does not in my opinion warrant the comments by Leica.

While I am not about to hang up my DSLRs, I am impressed by the small camera’s ability to produce professional work.

So to Uncle Fred (and you are not Uncle Fred, or you would not be reading this):

  • It’s not about the equipment;
  • It’s about the picture.

There! Let’s start thinking more about the image than about how we make it.