Plugged In: Progressing clicks on with move to smaller cameras

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

There’s a quiet shift occurring among prof-essional photographers, with many nationally prominent professional photographers switching to smaller compact-system cameras for their paying work.

When working pros first switched from film to digital cameras, the only digital cameras capable of providing acceptable image quality were early, inevitably bulky, full-frame models. More recently, as imaging sensors and data processing chips both improved and became smaller, the technical reasons for using bulky digital cameras are less and less compelling.

The transition now underway to compact-system cameras isn’t unique or even surprising. Broad adoption of smaller, more capable cameras has occurred repeatedly ever since the first crude photograph was taken in 1826, and is likely to continue awhile longer.

By the 1890s, Kodak’s convenient roll and sheet film quickly displaced awkward and potentially dangerous wet-plate processes that required immediate development in a mule-drawn portable darkroom wagon. By the 1930s, studio and view cameras using very large sheet film negatives largely gave way to more portable Speed Graphic press cameras that merged hand-holdable cameras containing a rangefinder and viewfinder for quickly focusing and capturing fast action, with smaller, 4-by-5-inch sheet film contained in a heavy case, two-shot film holders. Making 20 images in a day with such equipment required a strong back. Professionally acceptable final prints up to 16-by-20-inch were easily made, and perhaps one size larger with very careful exposure, film processing and printing.

Improvements in film and lens technology during World War II, along with the need to capture fast-moving military and naval action while remaining relatively unencumbered and agile, led to the widespread adoption of 35-mm rangefinder cameras made by Leica, Zeiss and Nikon. These dominated professional photojournalism in the 1950s.

By the early 1960s, further improvements allowed perfectionists like Ansel Adams to substitute easily portable 120-roll film cameras made by Hasselblad for their bulky, tripod-based view cameras without losing the excellent final image quality for which they were so well known. Relatively portable Hasselblad roll film cameras were good enough to record the Apollo moon missions.

However, none of these cameras worked well with the higher-magnification telephoto lenses then coming into vogue. Single Lens Reflex cameras in 35 mm, however, worked quite well with higher-magnification lenses by combining a moving mirror and a direct optical viewfinder. As a result, 35-mm film SLR cameras became dominant by the 1970s.

The first 35-mm film SLR cameras, such as the original Nikon F, were relatively bulky. By the 1970s and 1980s, professional quality results were quite feasible with more compact 35-mm film cameras, particularly Pentax’s Spotmatic and Olympus’ OM film cameras. These became professional favorites by combining high image quality, good reliability and excellent lenses in a more compact package.

By the year 2000 or so, modern, fine-grain films and higher-end 35-mm film cameras produced prograde results that rivaled the output of much bulkier, large-format press cameras of only a few decades earlier.

We’re witnessing that same transition again. As an example, Canon’s 1D Mark IV digital camera (currently, $4,999) introduced in 2009 and intended for professional photojournalists, scores lower on critical DXO image quality metrics than Nikon’s 2013 entry-level dSLR camera, the D5300. Yet the D5300 is significantly smaller, lighter and less expensive. Olympus’ even smaller 2013 E-P5 Micro Four-Thirds CSC camera ($800) scores just as high on image quality measures as the bulkier 1D Mark IV, made only four years earlier. The more modern D5300 and E-P5 also include important features, like better image stabilization and high-definition video.

However, there’s probably a lower size limit where any camera may become too small for the limitations of human anatomy. That occurs when buttons, dials, grips and viewfinders are too small to be easily and comfortably used. I recently experienced that frustration with a Panasonic GM1, the smallest Micro Four-Thirds CSC camera available. It really was too small for me, so I returned it.

Physics also places practical lower limits upon what we can achieve with current technology. Digital camera sensors are already being made with internal wiring and pixels so small that they’re nearing the smallest size we can fabricate without new semiconductor breakthroughs. Very small lenses are degraded by an effect known as diffraction.

Diffraction limits the ultimate sharpness of any lens but the effect is more noticeable and severe with tiny lenses at smaller apertures. Although some cameras advertise a “diffraction correction” feature, that “feature” merely adds more sharpening to JPEG images shot with smaller apertures. “Diffraction correction” features do not, and cannot, actually overcome a fundamental limitation of physics.

For these reasons, as well, it’s likely that cellphone camera functions, although certainly useful, will not supplant compact-system cameras for some time, if ever.

Canon, Nikon and Pentax are the last three major camera makers to base their primary camera models on moving mirrors and optical viewfinders. Because electronic viewfinders have improved so much in the past two or three years, every other major camera maker now concentrates solely upon mirrorless compact-system cameras. Substituting an electronic viewfinder for a moving mirror makes technical sense. Not only are mirrorless camera bodies substantially smaller, they’re easier and less expensive to make and use smaller, optically more efficient lenses. Similarly, as digital imaging sensors continue to improve, CSCs based on smaller sensors provide the same high image quality as much larger, prograde cameras sold only a few years ago.

Although every major manufacturer now makes some sort of compact camera system, some products seem a halfhearted defense of established dSLR camera lines. Canon’s M series, for example, was crippled from the start, sold poorly and was withdrawn from the North American market.

Nikon’s “1” CSC cameras at first similarly seemed to be an insincere effort, even to Nikon loyalists. More recently, though, Nikon’s newest 1 series, the V3, is finally a serious, although overpriced, camera.

Pentax’s tiny Q series is something of a joke, but sells well in Japan. From my perspective, why bother with an expensive, interchangeable-lens camera based on a tiny sensor no larger than the noisy sensors used by inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras?

Pentax’s K01 series was in some ways more interesting, using Pentax’s existing line of excellent, compact prime lenses and the same sensor- and image-processing chips as Pentax’s acclaimed K-5 series. The K01 thus had the K-5’s impressively high image quality but sales suffered as a result of the K01 camera body’s quirky design.

Until recently, Sony’s NEX/Alpha cameras and the joint Olympus/Panasonic Micro Four-Thirds CSC systems were the only major players in the CSC market. More recently, though, Fujifilm, Samsung, Leica, Nikon’s revised 1 system and some full-frame Sony products have all reached maturity. All of these vendors are, finally, directly supported by Adobe photo software and capable of high-grade results.

Over the next several weeks, this column will examine the most significant CSC camera lines from each of these vendors, along with the best lenses for each.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s