EOS M mount: interesting adapters

Attaching EF lenses to M mount camera requires an adapter – which adds a bit to the bulk of a small camera, but is also an interesting opportunity, since it is possible to fit new electronic or optical functionalities inside that middle piece.

I have both the official, Canon-made “EF-EOS M” mount adapter, which keeps the optical characteristics of the lens similar to what they would be if used on an EF-S mount camera (crop and all). The other adapter is “Viltrox EF-EOS M2 Lens Adapter 0.71x Speed Booster” (a real mouthful), which has the interesting capability of multiplying the focal length by factor of 0.71. This is a sort of “inverted teleconverter” as it reduces the image size that the lens produces, allowing more light to fit into the smaller (APS C) sensor, and almost eliminates the crop factor.

Most interestingly, as the booster collects more light into the sensor, this also has an effect of increasing the maximum aperture of my EF/EF-S lenses in an M mount camera. When I attach Viltrox into my 70-200 mm F4, it appears to my M50 camera as an F2.8 lens (with that constant aperture over the entire zoom range). The image quality that these “active speed booster adapters” produce is apparently a somewhat contested topic among camera enthusiasts. In my personal, initial tests, I have been pretty happy: the sharpness and corner vignetting also appear to be well controlled and the images produced of rather good quality – or good enough for me, at least.

When I put this into my 50 mm F2.8 portrait lens, this lens functions as having F1.2 maximum aperture. This is pretty cool, e.g. the capability to shoot in lower-light conditions is much better this way, and the narrow depth of field is similar to much more heavy and expensive, full frame camera system when using this adapter.

In my tests so far, all my Canon EF lenses have worked perfectly with Viltrox. However, when testing with the Tamron 16-300 mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD super-zoom lens, there are issues. The adapter focuses light in a wrong manner when using this lens, and the result is that the corners are cut away from images (see the picture below). So, your mileage may vary. I have written to Viltrox customer service and asked what they suggest in the Tamron case (I have updated the adapter into the most recent available firmware – this can be done very simply using a PC and the built-in micro-usb connector in the adapter).

You can read a bit more about this technology (in connection to the first, Metabones product) from here: https://www.newsshooter.com/2013/01/14/metabones-speed-booster-adapter-gives-lenses-an-extra-fstop-and-nearly-full-frame-focal-lengths-on-aps-c-sensors/

Going mirrorless (EOS M50)

I have today started to learn to take photos with an ultra-compact EOS M50, after using the much bigger SLR or DSLR cameras for decades. This is surely an interesting experience. Some of the fundamentals of photography are still the same, but some areas I clearly need to study more, and learn new approaches.

Canon EOS M50 (photo credit: Canon).

These involve particularly learning how to collaborate with the embedded computer (DIGIG 8 processor) better. It is fascinating to note how fast e.g. the automatic focusing system is – I can suddenly use an old lens like my trusty Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM to get in-flight photos of rather fast birds. The new system tracks moving targets much faster and in a more reliable manner. However, I am by no means a bird photographer, having mostly worked with still life, landscapes and portraits. Getting to handle the dual options of creating the photo either through the electronic viewfinder, or, the vari-angle touchscreen takes some getting used to.

Also, there are many ways to use this new system, and finding the right settings among many different menus (there must be hundreds of options in all) takes some time. Also, coming from much older EOS 550D, it was weird to realise that the entire screen is now filled with autofocus points, and that it is possible to slide the AF point with a thumb (using the touchscreen as a “mouse”) into the optimal spot, while simultaneously composing, focusing, zooming and shooting – 10 frames per second, maximum. I am filling up the memory card fast now.

My Canon EOS 550D and M50, side by side. Note that I am using a battery grip on 550D, which is rather small DSLR camera in itself.

It is easy to do many basic photo editing tasks in-camera now. It actually feels like there is small “Photoshop” built into the camera. However, there is a fundamental decision that needs to be made: of either using photos as they come, directly from camera, or after some post-processing in the computer. This is important since JPG or RAW based workflows are a bit different. These days, I am using quite a lot of mobile apps and tools, and the ability to wirelessly copy photos from the camera into a smartphone or tablet computer (via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth + NFC), in the field, is definitely something that I like doing. Currently thus the JPG options make most sense for me personally.

Chilies in the greenhouse

First flowers: chilies, 2019 season.

My first hydroponics chili pepper growing season has been bit of a mixed experience so far. On the one hand, the passive hydroponic setup that I installed (based on the AutoPot 4pot system, HydroCoco, and Canna Coco A+B) was a great success. The plats really grew fast.

So fast actually, that I was soon in trouble with them. My planting schedule was based on my earlier experiences with soil-based gardening, but the growth speed in hydroponics is much faster. I germinated the seeds in early February, moved selected seedlings into the AutoPot system in 25th February, and already in early April the plants were so tall they should had been moved to the greenhouse already. My LED plant light system was particularly a bottleneck – the fast-growing chili plants grew quickly up to the maximum height that I could adjust the LED strips into, and I needed to cut them down quite a bit. Even then, the plant growth would have needed better light, and real, strong sunlight that would had been coming from multiple angles, not just from those narrow LED strips.

But we got snow and “takatalvi” (cold spell & wintry weather) in April, and I could not move the plants into the greenhouse. I just kept growing them, cutting them down, growing more – and waiting for the weather to get warmer.

It was only in late May (18th May, to be exact), when the weather forecast told that further snow was now highly unlikely. I started moving the overgrown plants to the greenhouse, but lost maybe half of their branches. The weak, big plants were just not made for punishing physical handling. The hydroponics setup is not designed to be moved around, either.

Poor chilies, moved too late to the greenhouse.

But, I got the plants out, set up the AutoPot system again, this time into the greenhouse, filled it in with water and Canna Coco, and hoped for the best.

All four plants are still alive, which is nice. CAP 270 is in bloom, and is bearing the first fruit even now. But the plants are not that nice looking, as they lost much of their branches in the move, and the growth patterns are not that good, thinking about the future crop. The branches should be stronger, thicker and more symmetrical, to support decent amount of chili pods. Well, we’ll see what the final outcome will be.

The lesson? Maybe I need to carefully think about my cultivation schedules: the plants should be much smaller at the point when they still can safely be moved from indoors to the greenhouse. They should be pruned, so that the powerful growth can be controlled. But otherwise: hydroponic gardening seems like a really interesting option!

The first fruit (C. baccatum, “CAP 270”).

Pelillinen ja leikillinen kulttuuri

SKR Pirkanmaan rahasto, vuosijuhla 10.5.2019
Juhlapuhe, Frans Mäyrä

Mitä leikki on?

Googlen haku vastaa: leikki on lapsen työtä.

Toisaalta, ja ehkä mielenkiintoisemmin, hakuikkunaan täydentyy myös: ”Leikki on totta”, ja: ”Leikki on tutkimisen korkein muoto”. Nämä toisaalta Albert Einsteiniin, toisaalta leikkikasvatukseen viittaavat ilmaukset kertovat leikin suosiosta ja iäti säilyvistä, laajoista merkityksistä. Leikki liitetään arkiajattelussa erityisesti lapsiin, ja leikkikenttineen sekä leikkivälineineen leikin kulttuurinen paikka on erityisesti lasten luona. Lapselle leikki on totta – tai, lapsille leikin erityinen todellisuus on tuttua. Leikin asemaa laajemmin kulttuurin ja yhteiskunnan piirissä voi olla haastavampaa tunnistaa, mutta se ei merkitse sitä, että esimerkiksi aikuisten leikki olisi vähämerkityksellisempää.

”Ei tänne leikkimään olla tultu!”

Leikin arvostamisen vastapoolina kulttuurissa vaikuttavat leikkikielteiset näkemykset. Työ ja leikki asettuvat vastakohdiksi, ja aikuisuutta määrittää kasvu ulos leikki-iästä ja leikillisyydestä. Kypsää aikuisuutta on vakavuus, määrätietoisuus ja tavoiterationaalinen, tehokas toiminta. Tosin tutkijat ovat tuoneet esiin kuinka jopa ankarimman puritaanisen, työkeskeisen kulttuurin piiristä on aina ollut tunnistettavissa myös leikillisyyden, luovuuden ja hauskanpidon muotoja ja hetkiä. Kulttuurin pohjavirettä ovat kuitenkin yleensä verrattain hitaasti muuttuvat arvot, normit ja merkitykset. Länsimaisessa kulttuurielämässä hyödytön leikillisyys on liitetty synnillisyyteen, kun sen sijaan kurinalainen ja kieltäymykseen perustuva, lähes askeettinen työnteko on sävyttynyt eettisesti ja uskonnollisestikin aikuisen kansalaisen hyväksi ja oikeaksi elämänasenteeksi.

Perinteistä suomalaista kulttuuria usein luonnehditaan stereotyyppisin termein sangen jäyhäksi, jopa ilottomaksi. Onneksi meille on säilynyt runsaasti vastakkaista todistusaineistoa. Suosittelen kaikille perehtymistä esimerkiksi Kalevalaseuran vuosikirjaan 61: Pelit ja leikit.

Tämä vuonna 1981 julkaistu, kansanrunousarkiston johtajan Pekka Laaksosen toimittama antologia valottaa suomalaisen kansankulttuurin pelillistä ja leikillistä puolta. Niin säilyneet kirjalliset leikki- ja pelikuvaukset, kuin rikas kuvallinen aineistokin tarjoavat välähdyksiä niihin moniin eri tapoihin, joilla leikillisyys eri muodoissaan oli punoutunut osaksi niin aikuisten kuin lastenkin elämää – myös suomalaisten heimojen kansankulttuurissa. Piiritanssit ja rinkileikit, arvoitukset ja sanaleikit, laululeikit, perinteiset urheilumuodot ja voimannäytöt, ennustaminen ja vedonlyönti, vitsit ja kepposet, nuket, kaarnaveneet, pikkuautot, pallot ja kuulat – vaikuttaa siltä, että menneiden vuosisatojen ihmisten energiaa ja kekseliäisyyttä on riittänyt runsaasti pelkän hengissä selviämisen yli ja ulkopuolelle.

Leikki kulttuurin kulmakivenä

Nykyaikaisen peli- ja leikkikulttuuritutkimuksen uranuurtaja, hollantilainen kulttuurihistorioitsija Johan Huizinga esitti vuonna 1938 valmistuneessa Leikkivä ihminen (Homo Ludens) -teoksessaan että kaikessa kulttuurissa on syvälle ulottuva leikkielementti. Taide ja urheilu, teatteri ja uskonnolliset rituaalit ovat Huizingan tulkinnan mukaan leikki-impulssin läpitunkemia, itsetarkoituksellisia ja tietynlaisiin (usein implisiittisiin) sopimuksiin ja sääntöihin pohjaavia ilmiöitä. Peli ja leikki nostetaan erilleen arkisen puurtamisen ja ravinnonhankkimisen todellisuudesta, omaksi ”taikapiirin” tapaan rajatuksi vaihtoehtoiseksi maailmakseen. Pelissä tai leikissä vallitsevat toiset pelisäännöt kuin arkitodellisuudessa. Huizinga väitti, että leikki on ei-vakavaa toimintaa, mutta monet hänen esimerkkinsä osoittivat, että vaikkapa oikeuden istuntoa tai tiettyjä sotanäyttämön rituaalisia muotoja on myöskin mahdollista analysoida leikin tai pelin termein. Ja tällainen ”leikki” voi olla, ja usein onkin, kuoleman vakavaa. On myös esimerkiksi urheilulajeja, joissa toistuvasti tapahtuu jopa kuolemaan johtavia onnettomuuksia. Ne ovat kuitenkin asettuneet kulttuurin osaksi, ja tällaista ”leikkiä omalla hengellä” siis sallitaan.

Amerikkalainen leikkitutkija Brian Sutton-Smith kirjoitti leikin ristiriitaisesta monimielisyydestä, ambiguiteetista. Leikki ja peli voivat olla harmitonta ja rentouttavaa hauskanpitoa, tai äärimmäisen keskittynyttä ja kuolemanvakavaa kamppailua. Kilpailullinen peli voi pönkittää ryhmäidentiteettiä ja ylläpitää raja-aitoja vaikkapa eri kansallisuuksien välillä – ja yhteistoiminnallinen, luova leikki ja peli puolestaan voivat purkaa stressiä ja rohkaista kokeilemaan. Sutton-Smith kuvaa kuinka kulttuurien historiassa pelit ja leikit on puhe- ja ajattelutavoissa liitetty niin yhteisön suuntaa määrääviin kohtalon voimiin, valtapeleihin, sekä yksilön kasvuun ja kehitykseen – kuin toisaalta täysin naurettavaan turhuuteen. Nykypäivän digitaalisten pelien ja leikkien tutkijat ovat samaan tapaan tunnistaneet kuinka peleissä kukoistavat luovuus, energia ja huimat taidonnäytteet; mutta toisaalta digitaalinen pelaaminen voi olla pakonomaista, ilotonta ja jopa sisältää henkiseksi väkivallaksi asti yltyvää kiusantekoa.

Tietoyhteiskunta – vai peliyhteiskunta?

Elämme nykyään yhteiskunnassa, jota – hyvässä ja pahassa – sävyttävät digitaaliset informaatio- ja viestintäteknologiat. Tälle yhteiskunnalle annettiin erityisesti 1990-luvulla ja 2000-luvun alussa erilaisia teknologiakeskeisiä nimityksiä: tietoyhteiskunta, informaatioyhteiskunta, verkostoyhteiskunta. Vähitellen huomio on alkanut kääntyä teknologisesta murroksesta niihin sisällöllisiin ja merkityksellisiin muutoksiin, mitä ihmisten välisissä suhteissa, olemisen ja tietämisen muodoissa on tapahtumassa. Innostuksen jälkeen ovat esiin nousseet kriittiset ja pessimistiset äänenpainot. On siirrytty totuuden jälkeiseen aikaan, missä sosiaalisen median kuplat eristävät ihmisiä toisistaan sekä rohkaisevat vihaa ja tietämättömyyttä levittäviä joukkoliikkeitä. Globaali ympäristökatastrofi uhkaa, mutta eripuran ja valheiden kylvämisellä pakollisia toimia kehityksen suunnan muuttamiseksi jatkuvasti jarrutetaan ja pysäytetään. Vaihtoehtoiset ja optimistiset näkemykset yhteiskunnan tulevaisuudesta ovat harvassa.

Yksi tällainen optimistinen visio viime vuosilta on ajatus siirtymisestä pelilliseen kulttuuriin ja leikilliseen yhteiskuntaan. Tämän ajattelun kehittelijät ovat pelisuunnittelijoita, tutkijoita, taiteilijoita ja harrastajia, jotka ovat kiinnittäneet huomiota niihin myönteisiin mahdollisuuksiin ja voimavaroihin, joita pelillinen ja leikillinen käänne kulttuurissa voisi tuoda mukanaan. Yksi huomio kytkeytyy pelaamisen ja leikkimisen levittäytymiseen: pelejä alkaa olla lähes kaikkialla, ja lähes kaikki pelaavat ja leikkivät. Oman Pelaajabarometri-tutkimuksemme mukaan vähintään kerran kuukaudessa jotain peliä pelaa noin 88 prosenttia suomalaisista. Kun antropologian ja kansatieteen kartoittamat perinteiset pelimuodot voidaan ryhmitellä esimerkiksi onnen- ja taitopelien perusryhmiin, tai ulko-, piha-, kortti- tai lautapelaamisen tyyppisiin klassisiin muotoihin, on digitaalisen teknologian vapauttama pelillisyys kokenut valtaisan kehitysharppauksen. Perustavasti erilaisia pelimuotoja on laskentatavoista riippuen jo kymmeniä, tai satoja, julkaistuja pelejä satoja tuhansia. Suosituimpien pelien virtuaalimaailmoissa on eräiden laskelmien mukaan vietetty yhteensä jo kymmeniä miljardeja tunteja peliaikaa. Kaikki tämä jättää jälkensä: toimintamallit, kyvyt ja valmiudet muuttuvat, neurologisella tasolla tapahtuu muutosta, ihmisten vuorovaikutus ja päivittäinen toimintaympäristö muuttuvat.

Kohti pelillistyvää yhteiskuntaa

Amerikkalainen pelisuunnittelija ja -tutkija Eric Zimmerman on kirjoittanut ”Leikillisen vuosisadan manifestin” (Manifesto for a Ludic Century, 2013). Siinä hän kiinnittää huomiota itseilmaisun, vuorovaikutuksen ja kulttuurin muodoissa tapahtuvaan muutokseen. Hän nostaa esimerkkeinä esiin verkossa reaaliaikaisena liikkuvan kuvan, suurien data-aineistojen ja ohjelmoitavien toiminnallisuuksien kasvavan roolin kirjoitetun sanan ja klassisten teosmuotojen aiemmin hallitsemilla kulttuurin ja yhteiskunnan foorumeilla. ”Elämme systeemien, järjestelmien todellisuudessa”, Zimmerman julistaa. Pelit ovat dynaamisia järjestelmiä, ja monipuolinen ”pelilukutaitoisuus” (Ludic Literacy) on tehokas tapa oppia ymmärtämään monimutkaisten järjestelmien toimintaa. On eri asia vaikkapa lukea hiilen kiertokulusta, kuin osallistua pelilliseen simulaatioon, missä jokainen oma teko aiheuttaa välittömästi koettavia vaikutuksia ja muutoksia ilmakehässä ja luonnon tasapainossa.

Mutta pelilukutaito ei itsessään riitä. Meidän täytyy myös omaksua kirjoitustaidon uusi ulottuvuus: valmiudet suunnitella, muokata ja luoda pelillisiä järjestelmiä itse, ja yhdessä toisten kanssa. Monipuolinen pelianalyyttinen ja kriittiseen pelisuunnitteluun pohjautuva ymmärrys ja tietotaito voivat olla tehokas tapa kohdata ongelmia, kehittää ratkaisumalleja ja muuttaa todellisuutta. Tai kuten toinen pelitutkija-suunnittelija Jane McGonigal on julistanut: todellisuus on rikki – mutta käsittelemällä epäreilua, tehotonta tai tuhoon matkaavaa yhteiskunnallista todellisuutta viallisena pelinä, pystymme aiempaa tehokkaammin tunnistamaan ja muuttamaan sitä hallitsevia, vinoutuneita pelisääntöjä ja toiminnan logiikkoja.

Leikillisen kulttuurin ja pelillisen yhteiskunnan kasvatti on toimelias: hän ei jää kuuntelemaan auktoriteetteja, pänttäämään manuaaleja, vaan hän kokeilee itse. Hyvässä ja pahassa.

Leikki, taide ja kulttuuri

Leikillistyvää kulttuuria halkovat omanlaisensa, perustavat jännitteet. Kuten Sutton-Smith kirjoitti, leikkiä leimaa ambiguiteetti. Jos esimerkiksi palaa tarkastelemaan 1900-luvun modernin ja avantgardistisen taide-elämän leikkielementtejä, tavoittaa helposti vaikkapa dadan, surrealismin ja situationismin kokeilevat traditiot.

Dadaistiset kollaasitekniikat pyrkivät vapauttamaan mielikuvituksen luovia, vapaan assosiatiivisia potentiaaleja silppuamalla ja satunnaisesti yhdistelemällä. Samalla haastettiin auktoriteetteja, kumottiin konventioita ja tehtiin vallankumousta, ainakin ajatuksen tasolla. Dadan perimmäinen anti ja merkitys ei ehkä kuitenkaan kanna kovin kauas, ainakaan jokaisen ihmisen kohdalla. Anarkistinen leikki lakkaa, kun ei enää ole mitään raja-aitoja kaadettavana tai tabuja rikottavana.

Surrealistit myös leikittelivät satunnaisuutta hyödyntävillä ja kollektiivisilla taiteen tekemisen mekanismeilla. Esimerkiksi ketjukirjeen tapaan toteutettavat, ihmisruumiin ja taiteen konventioita haastavat exquisite corpse -kokeilut tai vaikkapa räjähdyksestä tai roiskeesta lähtevä luomistyö eivät ole kaukana nykypäivän algoritmeja ja koneoppimista hyödyntävistä taidesuuntauksista.

Situationistien perintöä tähän päivään voi puolestaan halutessaan seurata vaikkapa Pokémon GO -paikkatietopeliin asti.

Guy Debord ja kumppanit pyrkivät 1950-luvun lopulla taistelemaan kapitalistisen, kuvien ja spektaakkelin yhteiskunnan vieraannuttavia kehityskulkuja vastaan muun muassa ”psykogeografisen tutkimuksen” keinoin. Kaduilla satunnaisesti tai mielivaltaisten sääntöjen mukaan tapahtuva ”ajelehtiminen” (la dérive) tuotti yllättäviä kohtaamisia ja vaihtoehtoista ymmärrystä ihmisten, tilojen ja paikkojen vuorovaikutuksesta. Pokémon GO -peli on omien tutkimustemme mukaan kyennyt monien pelaajien kohdalla samaan tapaan rohkaisemaan peliä pelaavien ihmisten satunnaisia kohtaamisia toistensa, ja arkisen, lähes näkymättömäksi muuttuneen ympäristönsä kanssa.

Leikillisyys ja elämän voimavarat

Leikillinen ja pelillinen kulttuuri ei välttämättä rajaudu arjessamme vain viihteellisten pelien tai avantgardistisen taiteen piiriin. Kyse on laajimmin ymmärrettynä kehityskulusta, missä uudenlaisten pelien asettuminen kulttuurin ilmaisukieleen on yksi ulottuvuus, osallistuvuus, kokeilevuus ja erilaiset pelaamisen muodot toinen. Kulttuurin sisältöjen ja toimintamallien lisäksi kannattaa huomioida kuitenkin myös yleensä näkymättömiin jäävät muutokset arvopohjassa ja ajattelumalleissa. Ehkä leikillisyys, luovuus ja kokeilevuus olisi kaikkialle levittäytyvän pelillisyyden myötä saamassa hieman enemmän hyväksyntää – jopa arvostusta – osakseen? Oma lukunsa on sitten se, missä määrin pelillisyys ja leikillisyys oikeasti pystyvät muuttamaan esimerkiksi yhteiskunnan valtarakenteita, ansaintalogiikkaa, tai ihmisten kykyä sopeutua ja hyväksyä erilaisuutta.

Yksilön ja arjen tasolla persoonallisuuteen liittyvät piirteet ovat tässä suhteessa kiinnittäneet tutkijoiden huomiota. Eräiden määritelmien mukaan leikillisyys persoonallisuuden piirteenä tarkoittaa taipumusta osallistua leikillisiin ja pelillisiin toimintoihin, ja lisäksi kykyä kehystää erilaiset arjessa kohdatut ilmiöt tai tehtävät humoristisella ja luovalla otteella.

Erityisesti vastoinkäymisten ja kovien aikojen kohdalla tämä ulottuvuus leikillisyyttä on kullan arvoinen. Leikillisten taidemuotojen tai pelisuunnittelun mestarien lisäksi kannattaakin nostaa esiin ne kaikki tavalliset ihmiset, jotka jaksavat ylläpitää iloa ja luovuutta päivittäisen elämän pohjavireenä. Leikillisyyden harjoittamisen myötä kehittyy resilienssi – psyykkinen palautumiskyky, sisäinen voima ja taittumattoman sitkeä elämänilo.

Kaunista kevättä ja leikillisempää tulevaisuutta kaikille!

(Juhlapuheen teksti on aiemmin julkaistu Suomen kulttuurirahaston sivuilla: https://skr.fi/serve/pi-juhlapuhe-2019
Puheen kuvituskuvat: Creative Commons - Flickr.com, Wikipedia.)

Lens trumps the camera?

It is sort of interesting to think that maybe cameras have already got “good enough”? By this I mean that the capabilities of the camera body are no longer the real bottleneck in photography. Following the field, it is easy to find anecdotal stories about professional photographers relying on their 10-year-old, even much older equipment, with no need to update or upgrade. And this does not count in the “retro” photographers who for various reasons prefer the film cameras and vintage equipment.

As digital cameras include microprocessors, and the light-sensitive sensors are based on semiconductor technologies, the development of new cameras has gained a lot from the “Moore’s Law”, and quick progress in manufacturing faster and faster silicon chips. It is today particularly in the design and marketing of smartphones where this “speedrun” is obvious, with the next generation following the previous one in every six months or so. But even in smartphones, the sales are slowing down, and one reason appears to be that the existing phones are already – good enough.

The brains of a digital camera are its processor, the system chip. This is where sensor information gets processed, operations such as AF (automatic focus systems) are coming from, and where any in-camera postprocessing of photos takes place. I have been mostly following the evolution of DIGIC series of image processors by Canon, and it is obvious that many genuinely useful features for photographers have come from the new processor generations. In addition to being able to fit in data from lens and light sensors to produce more-or-less optimally exposed photos, the newer generations have e.g. introduced face-detection autofocus, which can automatically find faces in a group photo, and set the depth of field so that all of them are sharp. Mostly the new generation usually just provides incremental improvements in the some fundamental areas such as speed of image processing, noise reduction in low-light conditions, or speed and preciseness of autofocus.

It is nice to have a fast-shooting, fast-focusing camera that does all sorts of intelligent things like scene detection, and is able to apply many settings automatically. On the other hand, much of the art and craft of photography is in learning to think about the key dimensions of photographs, and about developing the ability to make use of technology to produce a certain kind of creation. The “smart” processor might be useful in removing the danger of technically failed shots, but it might also slow down a bit the ability to experiment, and learn from mistakes? I know from my own experience how easy it is just to give the “Program” (the ‘semi-auto’ mode in Canon) the reigns, and then end up living in somewhat smaller creative sandbox, as the result.

Putting over-emphasis on the latest features in cameras has also the danger of missing out other important dimensions of cameras as physical tools. The mechanical construction of a camera, the size and shape of it, how the physical dials and control buttons work – all of this have a very significant effect on the handling and ergonomics that matter a lot while taking photographs. Consider the latest smartphones, for example. In many cases the wide-angle and normal focal length photos can be shot with a smartphone with technically excellent results. However, most professionals still prefer to have a tool that is designed to be a camera also in ergonomic terms, while taking photographs all day long. The slippery smartphone with virtual, on-screen buttons just does not provide same kind of experience and sense of control.

Thus, in many cases one can actually save some money by settling for an older-generation model in the camera body, and investing into lenses instead. This can be a bit tricky, of course, as new camera and lens generations sometimes also come with new lens mounts; the autofocus and metering systems, for example, might rely on new pins for exchanging information between the lens and the body in new ways, or -as in the case of mirrorless cameras – the lenses are redesigned to take advantage from the smaller shape of mirrorless body (that is, moving the lenses physically closer to the image sensor). In many cases, however, the manufacturer standard lens mount still applies, or there is a perfectly working adapter available, to fit new lenses to older generation bodies, or the other way around.

Thus, one way for an enthusiast photographer to move forward in the actual image quality and range of photos one can achieve, is to stick with a bit older camera technology, but put the available savings into updating the lenses. In interchangeable lens cameras there are different basic options for the lens selection, and this relates to the style of photography one is working on. A street photographer, or one that mostly shoots people and events, can do nicely with a “normal” lens – or in portraiture with a short telephoto. In this lens range, the maximum aperture, sharpness and absence of various distortions what one is paying for, in a good quality (or “professional”) lens versions.

I think that I have pretty decent situation in wide angle and normal focal lenght photography at the moment, but there is much to improve in the longer telephoto lenses. Particularly my growing interest in nature photography translates into need for long-range, bit-aperture and sharp lenses. And unfortunately those things do not come cheap. Below are a couple of interesting alternatives for a Canon EF mount – I’d be interested to hear any comments or experiences you might have of these, or other EF mount telephoto lenses!

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM (Photo credit: Canon.)
Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | S. (Photo credit: Sigma.)

There is no perfect camera

One of the frustrating parts of upgrading one’s photography tools is the realisation that there indeed is no such thing as “perfect camera”. Truly, there are many good, very good and excellent cameras, lenses and other tools for photography (some also very expensive, some more moderately priced). But none of them is perfect for everything, and will found lacking, if evaluated with criteria that they were not designed to fulfil.

This is particularly important realisation at a point when one is both considering of changing one’s style or approach to photography, at the same time while upgrading one’s equipment. While a certain combination of camera and lens does not force you to photograph certain subject matter, or only in a certain style, there are important limitations in all alternatives, which make them less suitable for some approaches and uses, than others.

For example, if the light weight and ease of combining photo taking with a hurried everyday professional and busy family life is the primary criteria, then investing heavily into serious, professional or semi-professional/enthusiast level photography gear is perhaps not so smart move. The “full frame” (i.e. classic film frame sensor size: 36 x 24 mm) cameras that most professionals use are indeed excellent in capturing a lot of light and details – but these high-resolution camera bodies need to be combined with larger lenses that tend to be much more heavy (and expensive) than some alternatives.

On the other hand, a good smartphone camera might be the optimal solution for many people whose life context only allows taking photos in the middle of everything else – multitasking, or while moving from point A to point B. (E.g. the excellent Huawei P30 Pro is built around a small but high definition 1/1.7″ sized “SuperSensing”, 40 Mp main sensor.)

Another “generalist option” used to be so-called compact cameras, or point-and-shoot cameras, which are in pocket camera category by size. However, these cameras have pretty much lost the competition to smartphones, and there are rather minor advances that can be gained by upgrading from a really good modern smartphone camera to a upscale, 1-inch sensor compact camera, for example. While the lens and sensor of the best of such cameras are indeed better than those in smartphones, the led screens of pocket cameras cannot compete with the 6-inch OLED multitouch displays and UIs of top-of-the-line smartphones. It is much easier to compose interesting photos with these smartphones, and they also come with endless supply of interesting editing tools (apps) that can be installed and used for any need. The capabilities of pocket cameras are much more limited in such areas.

There is an interesting exception among the fixed lens cameras, however, that are still alive and kicking, and that is the “bridge camera” category. These are typically larger cameras that look and behave much like an interchangeable-lens system cameras, but have their single lens permanently attached into the camera. The sensor size in these cameras has traditionally been small, 1/1.7″ or even 1/2.3″ size. The small sensor size, however, allows manufacturers to build exceptionally versatile zoom lenses, that still translate into manageable sized cameras. A good example is the Nikon Coolpix P1000, which has 1/2.3″ sensor coupled with 125x optical zoom – that is, it provides similar field of view as a 24–3000 mm zoom lens would have in a full frame camera (physically P1000’s lenses have a 4.3–539 mm focal length). As a 300 mm is already considered a solid telephoto range, a 3000 mm field of view is insane – it is a telescope, rather than a regular camera lens. You need a tripod for shooting with that lens, and even with image stabilisation it must be difficult to keep any object that far in the shaking frame and compose decent shots. A small sensor and extreme lens system means that the image quality is not very high: according to reviews, particularly in low light conditions the small sensor size and “slow” (small aperture) lens of P1000 translates into noisy images that lack detail. But, to be fair, it is impossible to find a full frame equivalent system that would have a similar focal range (unless one combines a full frame camera body with a real telescope, I guess). This is something that you can use to shoot the craters in the Moon.

A compromise that many hobbyists are using, is getting a system camera body with an “APS-C” (in Canon: 22.2 x 14.8 mm) or “Four-Thirds” (17.3 × 13 mm) sized sensors. These also cannot gather as much light as a full frame cameras do, and thus also will have more noise at low-light conditions, plus their lenses cannot operate as well in large apertures, which translate to relative inability to achieve shallow “depth of field” – which is something that is desirable e.g. in some portrait photography situations. Also, sports and animal photographers need camera-lens combinations that are “fast”, meaning that even in low-light conditions one can take photos that show the fast-moving subject matter in focus and as sharp. The APS-C and Four-Thirds cameras are “good enough” compromises for many hobbyists, since particularly with the impressive progress that has been made in e.g. noise reduction and in automatic focus technologies, it is possible to produce photos with these camera-lens systems that are “good enough” for most purposes. And this can be achieved by equipment that is still relatively compact in size, light-weight, and (importantly), the price of lenses in APS-C and Four-Thirds camera systems is much lower than top-of-the-line professional lenses manufactured and sold to demanding professionals.

A point of comparison: a full-frame compatible 300 mm telephoto Canon lens that is meant for professionals (meaning that is has very solid construction, on top of glass elements that are designed to produce very sharp and bright images with large aperture values) is priced close to 7000 euros (check out “Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM”). In comparison, and from completely other end of options, one can find a much more versatile telephoto zoom lens for APS-C camera, with 70-300 mm focal range, which has price under 200 euros (check our e.g. “Sigma EOS 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG”). But the f-values here already tell that this lens is much “slower” (that is, it cannot achieve large aperture/small f-values, and therefore will not operate as nicely in low-light conditions – translating also to longer exposure times and/or necessity to use higher ISO settings, which add noise to the image).

But: what is important to notice is that the f-value is not the whole story about the optical and quality characteristics of lenses. And even if one is after that “professional looking” shallow depth of field (and wants to have a nice blurry background “boukeh” effect), it can be achieved with multiple techniques, including shooting with a longer focal range lens (telephoto focal ranges come with more shallow depth of fields) – or even using a smartphone that can apply the subject separation and blur effects with the help of algorithms (your mileage may vary).

And all this discussion has not yet touched the aesthetics. The “commercial / professional” photo aesthetics often dominate the discussion, but there are actually interesting artistic goals that might be achieved by using small-sensor cameras better, than with a full-frame. Some like to create images that are sharp from near to long distance, and smaller sensors suit perfectly for that. Also, there might be artistic reasons for hunting particular “grainy” qualities rather than the common, overly smooth aesthetics. A small sensor camera, or a smartphone might be a good tool for those situations.

One must also think that what is the use situation one is aiming at. In many cases it is no help owning a heavy system camera: if it is always left home, it will not be taking pictures. If the sheer size of the camera attracts attention, or confuses the people you were hoping to feature in the photos, it is no good for you.

Thus, there is no perfect camera that would suit all needs and all opportunities. The hard fact is that if one is planning to shoot “all kinds of images, in all kinds of situations”, then it is very difficult to say what kind of camera and lens are needed – for curious, experimental and exploring photographers it might be pretty impossible to make the “right choice” regarding the tools that would truly be useful for them. Every system will certainly facilitate many options, but every choice inevitably also removes some options from one’s repertoire.

One concrete way forward is of course budget. It is relatively easier with small budget to make advances in photographing mostly landscapes and still-life objects, as a smartphone or e.g. an entry-level APS-C system camera with a rather cheap lens can provide good enough tools for that. However, getting into photography of fast-moving subjects, children, animals – or fast-moving insects (butterflies) or birds, then some dedicated telephoto or macro capabilities are needed, and particularly if these topics are combined with low-light situations, or desire to have really sharp images that have minimal noise, then things can easily get expensive and/or the system becomes really cumbersome to operate and carry around. Professionals use this kinds of heavy and expensive equipment – and are paid to do so. Is it one’s idea of fun and good time as a hobbyist photographer to do similar things? It might be – or not, for some.

Personally, I still need to make up my mind where to go next in my decades-long photography journey. The more pro-style, full-frame world certainly has its certain interesting options, and new generation of mirrorless full-frame cameras are also bit more compact than the older generations of DSLR cameras. However, it is impossible to get away from the laws of physics and optics, and really “capable” full frame lenses tend to be large, heavy and expensive. The style of photography that is based on a selection of high-quality “prime” lenses (as contrasted to zooms) also means that almost every time one changes from taking photos of the landscape to some detail, or close-up/macro subject, one must also physically remove and change those lenses. For a systematic and goal oriented photographer that is not a problem, but I know my own style already, and I tend to be much more opportunistic: looking around, and jumping from subject and style to another all the time.

One needs to make some kinds of compromises. One option that I have been considering recently is that rather than stepping “up” from my current entry level Canon APS-C system, I could also go the other way. There is the interesting Sony bridge camera, Sony RX10 IV, which has a modern 1″ sensor and image processor that enables very fast, 315-point phase-detection autofocus system. The lens in this camera is the most interesting part, though: it is sharp, 24-600mm equivalent F2.4-4 zoom lens designed by Zeiss. This is a rather big camera, though, so like a system cameras, this is nothing you can put into your pocket and carry around daily. In use, if chosen, it would complement the wide-angle and street photography that I would be still doing with my smartphone cameras. This would be a camera that would be dedicated to those telephoto situations in particular. The UI is not perfect, and the touch screen implementation in particular is a bit clumsy. But the autofocus behaviour, and quality of images it creates in bright to medium light conditions is simply excellent. The 1″ sensor cannot compete with full frame systems in low-light conditions, though. There might be some interesting new generation mirrorless camera bodies and lenses coming out this year, which might change the camera landscape in somewhat interesting ways. So: the jury is still out!

Some links for further reading:

The right camera lens?

Currently in the Canon camp, my only item from their “Lexus” line – of the more high-quality professional L lenses – is the old Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM (pictured). The second picture, the nice crocus close-up, is however not coming from that long tube, but is shot using a smartphone (Huawei Mate 20 Pro). There are professional quality macro lenses that would definitely produce better results on a DSLR camera, but for a hobbyist photographer it is also a question of “good enough”. This is good enough for me.

The current generation of smartphone cameras and optics are definitely strong in the macro, wide angle to normal lens ranges (meaning in traditional terms the 10-70 mm lenses on full frame cameras). Going to telephoto territory (over 70 mm in full frame terms), a good DSLR lens is still the best option – though, the “periscope” lens systems that are currently developed for smartphone cameras suggest that the situation might change in that front also, for hobbyist and everyday photo needs. (See the Chinese Huawei P30 Pro and OPPO’s coming phones’ periscope cameras leading the way here.) The powerful processors and learning, AI algorithms are used in the future camera systems to combine data coming from multiple lenses and sensors for image-stabilized, long-range and macro photography needs – with very handy, seamless zoom experiences.

My old L telephoto lens is non-stabilized f/4 version, so while it is “fast” in terms of focus and zoom, it is not particularly “fast” in terms of aperture (i.e. not being able to shoot in short exposure times with very wide apertures, in low-light conditions). But in daytime, well-lighted conditions, it is a nice companion to the Huawei smartphone camera, even while the aging technology of Canon APS-C system camera is truly from completely different era, as compared to the fine-tuning, editing and wireless capabilities in the smartphone. I will probably next try to set up a wireless SD card & app system for streaming the telephoto images from the old Canon into the Huawei (or e.g. iPad Pro), so that both the wide-angle, macro, normal range and telephoto images could all, in more-or-less handy manner, meet in the same mobile-access photo roll or editing software. Let’s see how this goes!

(Below, also a Great Tit/talitiainen, shot using the Canon 70-200, as a reference. In an APS-C crop body, it gives same field of view as a 112-320 mm in a full frame, if I calculate this correctly.)

Talitiainen (shot with Canon EOS 550D, EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM lens).