I don’t mind the performances, controls suck

New DSLR, new mirrorless, new high end compact, new point and shoot, new smartphone. Every week will start with some good news with photographer. Sensors’ capabilities are now outstanding in low light, in high contrasts for landscapes, and for depth of colours for portraits. Other cameras’ performances are also always improving in terms of Autofocus, how fast the camera will shoot, and much more.

This does not matter so much to me

Cameras’ manufacturers are following the herd, that’s a marketing law. We, users, are supposed to be mostly early adopters and geeks. But we are not that much, we may even be deceit by this character. We are just photographer. Performances are right now really impressive, I will always need better ones, but that’s not the point. Manufacturers have forgotten the basics.

Three dials or nothing

It looks so trivial to me, I just don’t know why I am writing this: photography is first and foremost about f/, speed and ISO. That’s it. Shoot RAW if you don’t want to bother with anything less, and shoot JPG and take care of WB (White balance), DR (Dynamic range) and so on. But photography is mostly about these three parameters. Why can’t we change them so easily? Why these damned menus? (I know the answer…). When you are using programs, Av or Tv (Aperture / Speed priority), you still need the 3rd dial for correcting exposure. When you have shot a few times, let’s say a few dozens of thousands, more or less, sometimes much much less, you know the bias of your exposure, you also still need the ISO choice and the variable parameter. 3 dials or nothing. Period. How many cameras comply with this basics? Not so many.

Much more complex ?

But it is not that simple. There is also the AF mode, the WB, and much more. You will find hardly photographers shooting the same way. However, most of the cameras are still mostly products, not what I am calling photo platform with heavy customization capabilities. That’s a real pain because we are not the same, and we need to customize our control. We need customized display on buttons to remember what they are used for, we need much more “custom modes” (u1, u2 modes or C or whatever the name), we need to get control. Some manufactures are masquerading the past years, like Fuji, in a rather sensible way, what has been done before, which was not that stupid but which is already just obsolete. It was indeed stupid to remove the f/ control from directly the lens. Some are saying it was a way to build cheaper lens, but photography is not a cheap hobby, so that’s a wrong answer. However, I am very rarely impressed by controls efficiency of new cameras.

Few innovations, at the end of the day or too much to forget the basics?

There is obviously some common belief. New high end cameras are a plebiscite, mostly because of old fashioned controls and incredible performances. But it does not matter. I want a bigger view finder, I want my three dials back, I want great lenses, I want my customised controls. Nothing else really matter – at least that would not be missed.

Which camera manufacturer will not listen to the usual suspects, and will focus at what photographers really need? This blog might sound arrogant, fair enough, give me my three dials back (like in the Sony NEX-7 but for DSLR please), give me my great lenses back (not like the NEX-7!). Don’t forget my AF controls, my custom modes, my customized buttons, not just one or two, but all of them somewhere, don’t charge me 40% more for getting a bigger sensor I don’t need or a new lens line which bring nothing but a higher price and I will again accept that I am just an arrogant blogger.

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An off-beat apology of small sensors

Every month, a new camera is released and their is a real inflation of bigger and bigger sensors: mirrorless sensors at APS-C’s size are now more or less the norm whereas it used to be the micro 4/3 a few years ago. The rumour says a new Nikon D600 low cost full frame will be released in 2012. Sony released a competitor of the Canon S100 (expert compact camera very small) with of course a bigger sensor. Canon refused to release like the others a mirrorless, just to release a bigger new G compact camera, the G1-X.

It is a well known fact, the bigger the sensor, the better the quality. A better quality for either portrait photography (Colour depth), landscapes or actions shots (read DxO Mark for more information). So it seems to be a no brainer: take the bigger sensor available and shoot. That’s cannot be more simple no? Actually, that’s not so black and white. Let me be more specific:

Don’t follow the herd

First, one should notice that when the sensors’ sizes are inflating, so are prices too (Canon G1-X and Sony new camera DSC-RX100 are much more expensive than Canon G12, the precedent G camera and Canon S100, the most obvious Sony competitor).

Even more important, small body does not go so well with bigger sensor even if some manufacturers did miracles (Sony and the NEX cameras, Sony again with the DSC-RX100, and Canon with the G1-X). Conversely, some mirrorless with small sensor (Nikon 1) can be chunky compare with other cameras with bigger sensors. But I mean, if you want to make it small and light, small sensors have more potential.

More important, the depth of field (DOF) is always much significant with small sensors, it is actually quite dramatic. For many photographers, that’s a pain because many, like me, like to play with the shallow DOF. But in many occasions, a great DOF can make some of your pictures really better. Some photographers can make excellent pictures with small sensors, taking advantage of their huge DOF.

I have already explained why small sensors can suffice in many occasions. Nowadays, small sensors are so good in normal light conditions, you many not need a bigger one. AF speed, controls ergonomics, view finder are still often a pain, but that’s not a sensor’s size issue.

The final word: controls and ergonomics suck, not sensors

Don’t be a pigeon, don’t pay too much for something you don’t need. More important, take advantage of small sensors specificities. Learn the limits of your camera, and you will know which one you really need. It may be one expensive with a bigger sensor, or not, but as usual, don’t believe the marketing guy.

I may recommend manufacturers to rather focus at controls ergonomics which most of the time really suck. We don’t need bigger sensors with more pixels, we need cameras easy to use with direct access to the main controls we need so that we may focus on taking picture rather that “where is the damned option” or “How do I change this”. The issue is not trivial, and manufacturers are very conservative when it comes to ergonomics. I am no Apple fan boy, but who will be the Steve Jobs of cameras?

Do you really need a better camera? Episode 4: everyday life

I am comparing a DSLR and a compact, both modern and famous for their excellent quality images (Nikon D7000, Canon S100), in order to evaluate when we really need to get one or the other, or both together. Sometimes, I am also comparing the pictures with those taken by a smartphone (Samsung Galaxy SII).  I am also doing this as I have noticed this kind of comparison is seldom done. Most of the time, people are comparing cameras of the same kind but don’t ask themselves whether they really need this category of camera. Previously, I have noticed that outdoor/landscapes shots during the day may not really require the big and fat DSLR. I mean I have been surprised by the performances of modern tiny sensors as soon as there is enough light. However, I have also noticed that for Macro, the DSLR was still much better.

So now let’s come to a very basic kind of pictures: portraits done inside. Everybody is taking some, of friends, family, … I have chose to shoot at the end of the afternoon, my little baby, either when she was playing, or in the arms of her mother but with back to the light. These two kind of pictures are actually technically quite challenging for the cameras, and this time, again, thanks God, the DSLR is again much better, as expected:

The very compact camera cannot be fast at 120mm equivalent (f/5.9). I had to shoot at 1600 ISO, and the speed was from far too slow (1/8 s). The stabilization does not help so much as a baby is not always standing still.

With a modern DSLR and a fast zoom (70-200 VRII f/2.8), everything works as expected, thanks God. This gear (body + zoom) is 8 times more expensive and 10 times heavier than the compact!

With back light, the light evaluation was not as good with the compact than with the DSLR. Further more, I had to shoot at 3200 ISO and whereas the speed was almost fast enough, the back light underexposed it so much I had to post-process the RAW to get an acceptable picture. But the noise is pretty much unacceptable! Last and not least, you can compare the depth of field (DOF). f/5.9 and a small sensor is making more or less any picture with too often too much  DOF.

With the DSLR, the picture is not perfect. The back light made the picture under exposed too but the post processing of the RAW file is providing a much more acceptable results. The speed (1/125 s) was what I wanted (I respected the rule 1/f equivalent FX) and the DOF is much more adequate too.

Comparing the grain of both cameras, after applying some noise reduction during the post process, the difference is not obvious, which mean that you should more take care of the dynamic of the sensor than just the MP (which is a little bit a surprise to me by the way). That said, difference between the two sensors is not that big (12 MP and 16 MP):

(Canon S100, crop 1:1)

(Nikon D7000, crop 1:1)

Conclusion:

To make a long story short, there is still room to improve compact cameras for what they are supposed to be good at: family pictures. Whereas not liked by many photographers, and whereas I am still waiting for a Nikon mirrorless which I could use, you can understand the “raison d’être” of the Nikon 1 bodies: a fast autofocus and a much better sensor than compact can provide decent family pictures, which a high end compact camera like the S100 still cannot do really so often.