Saturday, December 8, 2012

Obsolete cameras?

"Obsolete" cameras? Or just different personalities?

While waiting for my computer to batch process a bunch of raw files that I had edited in Adobe Lightroom, I stepped out on the landing of my studio, and spotted a leaf that had stuck in a side-lit spot on the railing. I had also been charging the batteries for a series of "old" Canon digital cameras that I like to keep in working condition, if for no other reason than out of nostalgia. The first one I grabbed was my very first digital, a Canon PowerShot G1 that I bought in spring of 2000. It's a 3 megapixel beast that operates slowly, but does have an articulated LCD that made it easy to compose a close view. It also supports saving raw files, so I had some latitude to add contrast without losing quality. I wouldn't want to hang a 30"x40" print of this image, but until you try enlarging it, it holds up surprisingly well in a comparison to files from newer cameras. Of course, this is a static subject with limited contrast range.

As soon as I'd captured the scene with the old G1, I pulled out an EOS 1D MkII. That model is a DSLR introduced in 2004, and features an 8.2 megapixel APS-H sensor (something like 15 times the area of the one in the G1), not to mention 8.5 frames per second continuous shooting with autofocus - in other words, an action camera. It was perfectly capable of handling a still life, but has inherently shallower depth of field (because of the larger sensor) than a compact camera like the G1, and led me in a different direction.

Because the degree of background blur rendered some objects unrecognizable, I allowed some interesting color to bleed in from a blue recycling bin and a green garden hose.

I tried my oldest DSLR, a Canon D60 (not to be confused with the 60D), and got this result. The sensor is APS-C, smaller than APS-H, but still much larger than a compact camera's. Note that all of these shots were hand held. I wasn't trying to directly compare different cameras with exactly the same composition, but rather to see what I would come up with using each one naturally, quickly and intuitively. Meanwhile, the light was changing, of course.

The next day I was preparing to leave on a road trip, and was amazed to see the leaf still in place. I tried a shot with my cell phone, and found I rather liked it. The phone camera has an even smaller sensor than the compact G1, resulting in substantial depth of field and limited background blur. I used that characteristic to emphasize the lines in the background and foreground.

When I got back from the four day trip, the persistent leaf had finally blown away. There were lots of others around, though, so I put one on the rail and decided to complete my little journey by doing some shots with a full-frame DSLR, a 21 megapixel 5D MkII. This is the largest sensor of the lot (greatest in area, not just the number of pixels). Are these "better" than the photos done with older or lesser cameras? In some technical ways, they certainly are. In terms of what you see on a web site like this one...well, you be the judge.

I would be the last person to claim that the camera doesn't matter. In addition to levels of fine detail that can be captured, dynamic range (dark and bright areas that can be held within one exposure), and speed of response, each camera features a set of design goals and compromises that make it good for particular types of shooting, or perhaps very flexible and good for many things (at a price). But of course a photographer's vision still makes a difference, and one of the fun things about working with different types of cameras is that you can allow them to lead you to see a bit differently, if you are sensitive to their "personalities".



  1. It's interesting to see the way your choice of camera makes such a difference in the resulting pictures. People have a way of thinking of photographic images as "real," but there are so many variables that affect the image.
    In the first instance, there's the choice of camera. It goes on from there, when the photographer makes choices about subject, light, framing, and speed, that each help to create the reality he wants his audience to notice. "Here!" he's saying. "This is what I want to bring to your attention. This is my vision."
    As a painter, I'm reminded of the way the choice of medium and the choice of tools make such a difference in what one can express. Those choices are the beginning of the process of self-expression.
    The way one handles the tools is even more personal and specialized.
    It's clear that photography and other art forms have much in common!

  2. It is gratifying to elicit a thoughtful comment like this from a painter. I think it has always been evident that the tools or medium of an art form influence what we create, yet in the field of photography there has been an even greater divide than elsewhere in what people perceive as the effect of the mechanics. This may parallel the whole question of whether photography can be an art, which was seriously debated many decades ago, but (fortunately?) less so recently.

    I have seen many photographers comment, when questions about equipment arise, along the lines of "would you ask what brand of brush Seurat used, what type of canvas Monet favored?" In fact, although imitating a choice of brand of paint would gain one nothing, even with my limited understanding of painting techniques it is clear to me that artists - even within the realm of oil on canvas - used many different types and sizes of brush (and palette knife, etc.) to great effect in getting the look they wanted. I would even hazard the guess that many of our greatest painters, having limited means and availability of goods, were coaxed into developing creative ways of using the few brushes that they had on hand at any given time.

    So, in other words, the value of the work grows out of the vision of the artist, but it can be instructive to pay attention to the tools and techniques that they use.


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