No-one asked for this, but I will provide some bird/wildlife photography gear suggestions below, anyways. This is only focused on the Canon options, because that is where I have my personal experience. (Canon is the leading camera manufacturer, but many other probably have somewhat similar options.) The use-case and price are major factors, so I have estimated those (quoted prices are something that I could find currently here in Finland). Any comments are welcome! 😊
Canon EOS R50 / M50 Mark II & Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6,3 DG OS HSM Contemporary
Price: 1748 euros = 669 euros (M50m2) + 1079 euros (Sigma150-600) (Note: the new R50 will be priced here at c. 879 euros)
Pros: over 24 megapixels, APS-C (with 1.6x crop) brings wildlife closer; Dual Pixel autofocus is generally good and pretty fast. Simple and easy to use.
Cons: these entry-level cameras are pretty small, ergonomics is not good, there is no wheel or joystick control, one must use the touch screen to move fast the AF area while taking photos; the Sigma lens provides good reach (225-960mm in full-frame terms), but it needs an EF-adapter, and it is slower and more uncertain to focus than a true, modern Canon RF-mount lens. And frankly, these cameras are optimized for taking photos of people rather than birds or wildlife, but they can be stretched for it, too. (This is where I started when I moved from more general photography to bird-focused nature photography, three years ago.)
Travelling, and weekend nature photographer’s suggested option:
Pros: R7 is a very lightweight, yet capable camera – it has 33-megapixel APS-C sensor, the new Digic X processor, a blazingly fast 30 fps electronic shutter, two SDXC UHS-II card slots, IBIS (image stabilization), Dual Pixel AF II with animal eye-focus, and even some weather sealing.
Cons: the 651 AF focus points is good, but not pro-level; the camera will every now and then fail to lock focus. The sensor read speed is slow, leading to noticeable “rolling shutter” distortion effects, relating to camera movement during shooting. One needs to shoot more frames, to get some that are distortion-free. There is also only one control wheel, set in “non-standard” position around the joystick. RF100-400 lens is a really nice “walkaround lens” for R7 (it is 160-640mm in full-frame terms). But if the reach is the key priority rather than mobility, then one could consider a heavier option, like the Sigma 150-600mm above.
Enthusiast / advanced hobbyist option:
Canon EOS R5 & RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1 L IS USM
Price: 6939 euros = 3700 euros (R5, a campaign price right now) + 3239 euros (RF100-500)
Pros: R5 is already a more pro-level tool; it is weather sealed, has a 45-megapixel sensor, Digic X, 20 fps, IBIS, animal eye-focus with 5940 focus points, dual slots (CFexpress Type B, & SD/SDHC/SDXC), etc.
Cons: this combination is much heavier to carry around than the above, R7 one (738+1365g vs. 612+635g). There will probably be a “Mark II” of R5 coming within a year or so (the AF system and some features are already “old generation” as compared to R3 / R7). The combination of full-frame sensor and max 500mm focal length means that far-away targets will be rather small in the viewfinder; the 45-megapixel sensor will provide considerable room for cropping in editing, though.
Pros: new generation back-illuminated, stacked sensor (24 megapixels), max 30 fps, max ISO 204800, Digic X, new generation eye-controlled AF, enhanced subject tracking, 4779 selectable AF points, etc.
Cons: R3 is the current “flagship” of Canon mirrorless systems, but in terms of pixel count, it is behind R5. Some professionals prefer the speed and more advanced autofocus system of R3, while some use R5 because it allows more sharp pixels / room for cropping in the editing phase. The key element here is the (monstrously sized) professional 600mm f/4 prime lens. The image quality and subject separation is beyond anything that the more reasonably priced lenses can offer. The downside is that these kinds of lenses are huge, require mounting them on a tripod pretty much always when you shoot, and the price, of course, puts these out of question for most amateur nature photographers. (Note: as a colleague commented, these large lenses can also be found used sometimes, for much cheaper, if one is lucky.)
With my focus on nature and bird photography, I have long preferred APS-C format cameras, due to the better “reach” (narrower field-of-view, with the same optics) that is important for photographing shy, far-away birds and animals particularly. Said that, several producers, Canon included, have put most of their research and development efforts into the full frame camera systems. I discussed the Canon EOS R System earlier in this blog (in February 2020), and while at that point I was committed with the EOS M line of APS-C cameras and lenses, I was also growing frustrated at the bad ergonomics and other limitations of EOS M cameras. However, there were also several downsides as well as possible long-term benefits in the more “professional” full frame EOS R System that left me hesitant at what to do in the long run. This summer, after rather lengthy consideration and research, I finally made the leap into the new, “full-frame era”. Or, more appropriately (as will explained below), I just decided to add one more tool into my toolkit.
When EOS R5 camera was introduced in summer 2020, much of the attention was focused on its amazing 8K video capabilities. However, as I am not a cinematographer, my interest was at the side of still image photography. The main “sales points” of R5 in this area include a 45 megapixel, full-frame sensor, up to 20 fps speed in continuous shooting (electronic shutter, and up to 12 fps mechanical), a built-in image stabiliser (up to 8 stops, with some selected modern lenses), and – perhaps most importantly for me – a really good autofocus system trained with machine-learning to pick up the shapes and even the eyes of animals and humans alike. There are additional benefits when moving from smaller, APS-C cameras, such as a really nice, deep grip to hold on (with M50 only two or three of my fingers, in addition to thumb, can touch the small body while carrying it), the full set of three rotary dials (enough for setting dedicated controls for both ISO, aperture and shutter speed, each with a dedicated physical control), longer-working batteries, better weatherproofing, dual card slots, less noise in low light, etc., etc. It is also worth noting that R5 uses the same processor (DIGIC X) as the more expensive, professional flagship DSLR camera EOS-1D X Mark II.
There are also significant downsides in a full-frame camera system, when compared to APS-C ones. The financial one is the most obvious: this is a much more expensive camera than any I have owned before. It is also worth noticing the camera body is just the first part of the investment, as the new, R system lenses are also generally expensive. They are robust, of high optical and physical quality, large and heavy. Going to a casual camera walk or run around a new city while on tourist mode, I will definitely rather prefer carrying the compact EOS M50 (387 g), coupled with e.g. the small and light EF-M 55-200 mm (260 g), rather than R5 (738 g) and RF 70-200 mm F2.8L IS (1070 g); there is also several thousands of euros/dollars price difference. Not to discuss the price and weight of any full-frame glass which reaches into the 400-600 mm area, which is where the true bird and wildlife photography generally tends to start. Thus, to sum up, I will not give up my EOS M camera and lenses anytime soon. There are uses and needs for both the large and the compact system. A serious R Series camera and lens setup is something that you would particularly take out when you are working for some particular, photographic goal or project. (This is why some people are actually paid to use these things. That is what “professional” means, after all.) The small system is good for those long walks.
In the actual bird photography, comparing ASP-C and R5/full-frame in the field, there are similarly plusses and minuses. The main strength (and one of the key reasons why I made this investment in the first place) of R5 is that the large, 45-megapixel sensor coupled with the image stabilisation and powerful AF system allows taking more, and more sharply focused images to start with. With very fast-moving objects like flying and bush-jumping birds, only a small fraction of photos is generally usable. A fast-shooting, fast-focusing camera-and-lens system makes a great difference in an actual wildlife photography situation. There is a “crop mode” in R5, which will narrow down the field of view into the same as the APS-C camera (applying Canon’s 1.6x crop factor, in-camera). But the full-frame image of R5, when cropped so that it would represent the same field of view as my old M50 APS-C camera is “only” 17.3 megapixels (my much cheaper M50 has 24.1 with that same field of view). However, the experience of shooting birds and wildlife with R5 is indeed better than M50: it is much easier to keep e.g. a flying falcon or swallow within the large image frame of R5, and the powerful AF system does a really good job in keeping the bird sharp in the image – as long as the photographer is capable of taking care of the targeting and composition at somewhat decent level.
In the 45-megapixel images there is room for cropping in many different ways. The optical quality does not magically change, of course, with the upgrade of camera body if one is still using same lenses as before; though, the reduction of noise and better low-light capabilities mean that it is possible to shoot birds with even pretty “slow” lenses (like my Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 C DG OS HSM), while going rather high ISO sensitivity values, and still come up with frames that can be used, particularly if software tools like Topaz DeNoise AI and Sharpen AI are applied in the postproduction. The main benefits of this upgrade from a crop-camera to a full-frame one in the end come from multiple areas, mostly ones related to the art and craft of composing and creating images, while it needs to be emphasised that the baseline optical image quality remains at the domain of lenses used.
There is apparently an interesting learning curve that comes with the transition from Canon’s entry-level into a full-frame/professional cameras. After couple of weeks, my automated procedures and reactions are still largely coming from the APS-C world, and, for example, I even still occasionally try to find the power switch from the old location (at top right; in R5 the switch is at top left). There are no pre-programmed “easy” photography modes such as the sports, macro, or portrait modes in the EOS R5 (there is the fully automatic, “smart” A+ mode, however). The idea seems to be that a photographer who wants to use a “pro” camera must understand the underlying logic of photography technique enough, and be able to set up different aperture, exposure etc. priorities according to the subject matter, scene, and desired effects.
The full user’s manual for R5 is 921 pages, and I have the feeling I have only just scratched the surface of what this camera can do, and how it should be set up. But I have at least started personalising the main settings, such as customising three back buttons for quick access into my three key wildlife focusing modes: animal-eye autofocus, spot AF, and single-point AF. The logic here is that when I can see the animal/bird relatively clearly (or, e.g., when I try to photograph a flying bird), I use back-button AF technique first with the AF-ON button set for “Eye Detection AF”. Secondly my asterisk (AE lock) button is now set for spot AF mode, and the last (AF point selection) button for single-point AF. These two are normally used when the focused subject is half-hidden, hiding among branches as is often the case; after the initial AF lock, the system usually is able to follow by tracking, so the focus stays locked, when the target has initially been pointed and identified. For this initial selection, there is both a joystick and a large LCD touchscreen that can be used for moving the focus point around. Currently, I find myself using the touchscreen more.
There is more learning to be done, and I expect the possibilities opened up by the new system to challenge me for several years to come, in search for both better – or just more interesting – pictures and more improved photographic techniques and new ways of photographic thinking. However, my old cameras and lenses still remain in my toolkit, and they also have their times, places, and uses.
I wanted to revisit my old gear tonight, so I dug up my trusty EOS 550D, coupled with the BG-E8 battery grip and the classic, Canon 70-200mm f4L USM lens. The Friendly Cat provided again the modelling services.
I was immediately reminded by the obvious strengths of this older, bigger camera body: the ergonomics are just so much better when you can really hold the camera comfortably and steadily in your hand, and have large, mechanical control knobs that you can quickly and effortlessly experiment with.
On the other hand, the limitations were again also immediately obvious; in particular, the mirrorless digital camera (EOS M50) that I am mostly using these days allows one seamlessly move from using the viewfinder to the live view in the rear display, while making the composition. 550D also has rear display live view, but you need to specifically switch it on, and it is slow and imprecise, and the autofocus in particular is just terrible when shooting with it.
The optical viewfinder, on the other hand, is excellent, and the very limited nine (9) AF points do their job just well enough for this kind of slow “portrait” work. The low maximum ISO of 6400 also does not matter when taking pictures under the bright evening sun, and sharpness of that old Canon L lens fits nicely the 18-megapixel image sensor’s resolution capabilities.
Thus, if I would think about a “perfect camera” for my use, I would be happy with current M50 image sensor resolution (24,1 megapixels), but I would be really happy for a bit more capable autofocus system, and for more low-light performance in particular. The single most beneficial upgrade could however be a body with larger physical dimensions, with better/larger mechanical controls for selecting the program mode, aperture, and making the other key adjustments.
While the new EOS R series Canon cameras provide exactly that, the issue for me is that those are full frame cameras; and I am very happy in taking my photos with APS-C (the “crop sensor”). Full frame lenses, and new Canon RF lenses in particular, tend to be both large and expensive to a degree that does not make much sense for my kind of “Sunday photographer”.
There are alternatives like Fujifilm, with their excellent APS-C camera bodies (X-T30, X-T4, for example), and their sharp and relatively compact and affordable lenses. But I am deeply invested in the Canon ecosystem – it would be so much easier if Canon would come up with a well-designed camera like Canon 7D Mark II, but updated and upgraded into current, mirrorless sensors’ and image processors’ capabilities. One can always make wishes? Happy weekend, everyone!
I have long been in Canon camp in terms of my DSLR equipment, and it was interesting to notice that they announced last week a new, improved full frame mirrorless camera body: EOS R5 (link to official short annoucement). While Canon was left behind competitors such as Sony in entering the mirrorless era, this time the camera giant appears to be serious. This new flagship is promised to feature in-body image stabilization that “will work in combination with the lens stabilization system” – first in Canon cameras. Also, while the implementations of 4k video in Canon DSLRs have left professionals critical in past, this camera is promised to feature 8k video. The leaks (featured in sites like Canon Rumors) have been discussing further features such as a 45mp full frame sensor, 12/20fps continuous shooting, and Canon also verified a new, “Image.Canon” cloud platform, which will be used to stream photos for further editing live, while shooting.
But does one really need a system like that? Aren’t cameras already good enough, with comparable image quality available at fraction of the cost (EOS R5 might be in 3500-4000 euros range, body only).
In some sense such critique might be true. I have not named the equipment I have used for shooting the photos featured in this blog post, for example – some are taken with my mirrorless systems camera, some are coming from a smartphone camera. For online publishing and hobbyist use, many contemporary camera systems are “good enough”, and can be flexibly utilized for different kinds of purposes. And the lens is today way more important element than the camera body, or the sensor.
Said that, there are some elements where a professional, full frame camera is indeed stronger than a consumer model with an APS-C (crop) sensor, for example. It can capture more light into the larger sensor and thus deliver somewhat wider dynamic range and less noise under similar conditions. Thus, one might be able to use higher ISO values and get noise-free, professional looking and sharp images in lower light conditions.
On the other hand, the larger sensor optically means more narrow depth of field – this is something that a portrait photographer working in studio might love, but it might actually be a limitation for a landscape photographer. I do actually like using my smartphone for most everyday event photography and some landscape photos, too, as the small lens and sensor is good for such uses (if you understand the limitations, too). A modern, mirrorless APS-C camera is actually a really flexible tool for many purposes, but ideally one has a selection of good quality lenses to suit the mount and smaller format camera. For Canon, there is striking difference in R&D investments Canon have made in recent years into the full frame, mirrorless RF mount lenses, as compared to the “consumer line” M mount lenses. This is based on business thinking, of course: the casual photographers are changing into using smartphones more and more, and there is smaller market and much tighter competition left in the high-end, professional and serious enthusiast lenses and cameras, where Canon (and Nikon, and many others) are hoping to make their profits in the future.
Thus: more expensive professional full frame optimised lenses, and only few for APS-C systems? We’ll see, but it might indeed be that smaller budget hobbyists (like myself) will need to turn towards third-party developers for filling in the gaps left by Canon.
One downside of the more compact, cheaper APS-C cameras (like Canon M mount systems) is that while they are much nicer to carry around, they do not have as good ergonomics and weather proofing as more pro-grade, full frame alternatives. This is aggravated in winter conditions. It is sometimes close to impossible to get your cold, gloved fingers to strike the right buttons and dials when they are as small as in my EOS M50. The cheaper camera bodies and lenses are also missing the silicone seals and gaskets that are typically an element that secures all connectors, couplings and buttons in a pro system. Thus, I get a bit nervous when outside with my budget-friendly system in a weather like today. But, after some time spent in careful wiping and cleaning, everything seems to continue working just fine.
Absolute number one lesson I have learned in these years of photography, is that the main limitation of getting great photos is rarely in equipment. There are more and less optimal, or innovative, ways of using same setup, and with careful study and experimentation it is possible to learn ways of working around technical limitations. The top-of-the-line, full frame professional camera and lenses system might have wider “opportunity space” for someone who has learned how to use it. But with additional complexity, heavy and expensive elements, those systems also have their inevitable downsides. – Happy photography, everyone!
I was just reading reviews of the new, Leica M10 Monochrom – a rangefinder style (“retro”) camera by the venerable German company (with history going back to 1914, and even further), which is designed to shoot only black-and-white. There are certain benefits to making dedicated b&w cameras, most importantly in the fact that all image sensors actually are black-and-white ones, with just different techniques such as applying “Bayer filter” on top of the b&w photosensors. This means that there is a grid of RGB colour filters on top of the sensor, so that some pixels in the final image are produced with only the red, green, or blue wavelenghts of light. This then needs to be further processed, with a demosaicing (or “debayering”) algorithms to construct the colour image out of (filtered) b&w information coming from the different parts of the image sensor.
And then, when this kind of colour digital camera is used for taking black-and-white photos, there needs to be further processing, as the colour values are removed to get back into a monocrome image.
A dedicated monocrome digital camera has the dual benefits of getting more light to the sensor, since there is no coloured filter layer on top of the sensor. This means that it can have perhaps 1 to 1.5 EV stop better light sensitivity. And also, there is usually slightly better dynamic range than in (filtered) colour sensors – e.g. in scientific equipment non-filtered monochrome sensors are often used, as they can capture higher range of wavelenghts, and operate better in low-light conditions.
The monochrom digital camera body by Leica has price tag of over 8000 dollars, and a good lens on top of that is perhaps 2000+ dollars more, so we are talking about 10 000+ dollars/euros investment. Also, the retro style ergonomics, old-school focusing system and lack of many features that are common in today’s digital cameras means that this camera is not for everyone. I would say that the main point of this kind of device is in producing social and cultural class divisions (relaying Bourdieu here). That M10 Monochrom surely would look nice on top of the dashboard of your Classic Porsche 911…
It is also true that at some point camera tech is like Hi-Fi audio tech: you can pay more and more, and at some point the final gains are so minor, that only those who are true believers are capable of noticing anything. (There are, after all, cameras like Phase One XF IQ3 100MP Achromatic, where the digital back alone costs over 50 000 dollars/euros.)
In my style of amateur photography, such factors as ease of use and flexible camera controls mean more than Hi-Fi sensor quality, so for my purposes even my Canon EOS M50 is capable of delivering “good enough” quality in b&w, particularly when shooting RAW. Here, below, are some early hour experiments from today, my Sunday morning walk.
It is obvious that as the proper winter seems to be largely gone, as another sad side effect of global climate change, the outdoor conditions here in wintertime are more like an “eternal November”. The low-light capabilities certainly matter now for a photographer, as do sharp and wide-aperture lenses. But I am personally hunting for certain mood and feeling, and thus I am not so concerned about blur or softness – it can even positively play a part in the artistic style I am looking for.
Sports and wildlife photographers in particular are famous (or notorious) for investing in and carrying around lenses that are often just huge: large, long, and heavy. Is it possible to take great photos with small, compact lenses, or is an expensive and large lens the only option for a hobbysist photographer who’d want to reach better results?
I am by no means an authority in optics or lens design, but I think certain key principles are important to take into consideration.
Perhaps one of the first ones is the style of photography one is engaged with. Are you shooting portrait photos indoors, or even in a studio? Or, are you tripping outdoors, trying to get closeup photos of elusive birds and animals? Or, are you rather a landscape photographer? Or, a street photographer?
Sometimes the intended use of photos is also a factor to consider. Are these party photos, or something that you’ll aim to share mostly among your friends in social media? Or, is this that important photo art project that you aim output into large-format prints, and hang to your walls – or, in to a gallery even?
These days, digital camera sensors are “sharp” enough for pretty much any purpose – one of my smartphones, Huawei Mate 20 Pro, for example, has a 40 megapixel main photo sensor, with 7296 × 5472 native resolution. That is more than what you need for a large poster print (depending on viewing distances and PPI settings, a 4000 x 6000 pixels, or even 2000 x 3000 pixels might be enough for a poster print). There are many professional photographers who took their commercial photos for years with cameras that had only 6 or 8 megapixel sensors. And many of those photos were reproduced in large posters, or in covers of glossy magazines, and no-one complained.
The lens and quality of optics are more of a bottleneck: if the lens is “soft”, meaning that it is not capable of focusing all rays of light in consistent, sharp manner, there is no way of achieving very clear looking images with that. But truth be told, in perhaps 90 % of cases with blurry photos, I blame myself rather than my equipment these days. There are badly focused photos, I had a wrong aperture setting or too long exposure time (and was not using a tripod but shooting handheld) and all that contributes to getting a lot of blurry looking photos.
But it is also true, that if one is trying to achieve very high quality results in terms of optical quality, using a more expensive lens is usually something that many people will do. But actually there are “mainstream” photography situations where a cheap lens will produce results that are just – good enough. It is particularly the more extreme situations, where one is for example trying to get a really lot of light into the lens, to capture really detailed scenes in a very consistent manner, where large, heavy and expensive lenses come to play a role. This is also true of portraiture, where a high-quality lens is also used to deliver good separation of person from the background, and the glass elements, their positioning and the aperture blades are designed to produce particularly nice looking “bokeh” effect (the out-of-focus highlights are blurred in an aesthetically pleasing manner). And of course those bird and wildlife photographers value their well-designed, long telephoto range lenses that also capture a lot of light, thereby enabling the photographer to use short enough exposure times and get sharp images of even moving targets.
In many cases it is actually other characteristics rather than the optical image quality that makes a particular lens expensive. It might be the mechanical build quality, weather-proofing, or the manner the focusing, zooming and aperture mechanisms, and how control rings are implemented that are something a professional photographer might be willing to pay for, in one of their main tools.
In street photography, for example, there are completely different kind of priorities as compared to wildlife photography, or studio portraiture, where using a solid tripod is common. In a street, one is constantly moving, and also trying not to be very conspicuous while taking photos. A compact camera with a compact lens is good for those kinds of reasons. Also, if the targets are people and views on city streets, a “normal range” lens is usually preferable. A long-range telephoto lens, or very wide-angle lens will produce very different kinds of effects as compared to the visual feel and visual experiences that people usually experience as “normal images”. In a 35 mm film camera, or “full-frame” digital camera, a 50 mm lens is usually considered a normal lens, whereas with a camera equipped with a (Canon) “crop” sensor (APS-C, 22.2 x 14.8 mm sensor size) would require c. 30 mm lens to produce similar field of view for the image as a 50 mm in a full-frame camera. Lenses with this kinds of short focal ranges can be designed to be physically smaller, and can deliver very good image quality for their intended purposes, even while being nicely budget-priced. There are these days many such excellent “prime” lenses (as contrasted to more complex “zoom” lenses) available from many manufacturers.
One should note here that in case of smartphone photography, everything is of course even much more compact. A typical modern smartphone camera might have a sensor of only few millimeters in size (e.g. in popular 1/3″ type, the sensor is 4.8 x 3.6 mm), so actual focal length of the (fixed) lens may be perhaps 4.25 mm, but that translates into a 26 mm equivalent lens field-of-view, in a full-frame camera. This is thus effectively a wide-angle lens that is good for many indoor photography situations. Many smartphones feature a “2x” (or even “5x”) sensor-lens combinations, that can deliver a normal range (50 mm equivalent in full-frame) or even telephoto ranges, with their small mechanical and optical constructions. This is an impressive achievement – it is much more comfortable to put a camera capable of high-quality photography into your back pocket, rather than lug it around in a dedicate backbag, for example.
Perhaps the main limitation of smartphone cameras for artistic purposes is that they do not have adjustable apertures. There is always the same, rather small hole where rays of light will enter the lens and finally focus on the image sensor. It is difficult to control the “zone of acceptable sharpness” (or, “depth of field”) with a lens where you cannot adjust aperture size. In fact, it is easy to achieve “hyperfocal” images with very small-sensor cameras: everything in image will be sharp, from very close to infinity. But the more recent smartphones have already slighly larger sensors, and there have already even been experiments to implement adjustable aperture system inside these tiny lenses (Nokia N86 and Samsung Galaxy S9 at least have advertised adjustable apertures). Some manufacturers resort to using algorithmic background blurring to create full-frame camera looking, soft background while still using optically small lenses that naturally have much wider depth of field. When you take a look at the results of such “computational photography” in a large and sharp monitor, the results are usually not as good as with a real, optical system. But, if the main use scenario for such photos is to look at them from small-screen, mobile devices, then – again – the lens and augmentation system together may be “good enough”.
All the photos attached into this blog post are taken with either a compact kit lens, or with a smartphone camera (apart from that single bird photo above). Looking at them from a very high resolution computer monitor, I can find blurriness and all kinds of other optical issues. But personally, I can live with those. My use case in this case did not involve printing these out in poster sizes, and I just enjoyed having a winter-day walk, and taking photos while not carrying too heavy setup. I will also be posting the photos online, so the typical viewing size and situation for them pretty much obfuscates maybe 80 % of the optical issues. So: compact cameras, compact lenses – great photos? I am not sure. But: good enough.
As holidays are traditionally time to be lazy and just rest, I have not undertaken any major photography projects either. One thing that I have been wondering though, has been the distinction between “soft” and “sharp” photos. There are actually many things intermingling here. In old times, the lenses I used were not capable of delivering optically sharp images, and due to long exposure times, unsensitive film (later: sensors), the images were also often blurry: I had not got the subject in focus and/or there was blur caused by movement (of target and/or the camera shaking). Sometimes the blurry outcomes were visually or artistically interesting, but this was mostly due to pure luck, rather than any skill and planning.
Later, it became feasible to get images that were technically controlled and good-looking according to the standard measurements of image quality. Particularly the smartphone photos have changed the situation in major ways. It should be noted that the small sensor and small lenses in early mobile phone cameras did not even need to have any sort of focus mechanisms – they were called ‘hyperfocal lenses’, meaning that everything from very close distance to infinity would always be “in focus” (at least theoretically). As long as you’d have enough light and not too much movement in the image, you would get “sharp” photos.
However, sharpness in this sense is not always what a photographer wants. Yes, you might want to have your main subject to be sharp (have a lot of details, and be in perfect focus), but if everything in the image background shows such detail and focus as well, that might be distracting, and aesthetically displeasing.
Thus, the expensive professional cameras and lenses (full frame bodies, and “fast”, wide-aperture lenses) are actually particularly good in producing “soft” rather than “sharp” images. Or, to put it slightly better, they will provide the photographer larger creative space: those systems can be used to produce both sharp and soft looking effects, and the photographer has better control on where both will appear in the image. The smartphone manufacturers have also added algorithmic techniques that are used to make the uniformly-sharp mobile photos softer, or blurry, in selected areas (typically e.g. in the background areas of portrait photos).
Sharpness in photos is both a question of information, and how it is visually expressed. For example, a camera with very low resolution sensor cannot be used to produce large, sharp images, as there is not enough information to start with. A small-size version of the same photo might look acceptably sharp, though. On the other hand, a camera with massively high-resolution sensor does not automatically procude sharp looking images. There are multiple other factors in play, and the visual acuity and contrast are perhaps the most crucial ones. The ray of light that comes through the lens and falls on the sensor produces what is called a “circle of confusion”, and a single spot of the subject should ideally be focused on so small spot in the sensor that it would look like a nice, sharp spot also in the finished image (note that this is also dependent on the visual acuity, the eyes of the person looking at it – meaning that discussions of “sharpness” are also in certain ways always subjective). Good quality optics have little diffraction effects that would optically produce visual blur to the photo.
Similarly, the sharp and soft images may be affected by “visual noise”, which generally is created in the image sensor. In film days, the “grain” of photography was due to the actual small grains of the photosensitive particles that were used to capture the light and dark areas in the image. There were “low ISO” (less light-sensitive) film materials that had very fine-grained particles, and “high ISO” (highly light-sensitive) films that had larger and coarser particles. Thus, it was possible to take photos in low-light conditions (or e.g. with fast shutter speeds) with the sensitive film, but the downside was that there was more grain (i.e. less sharp details, and more visual noise) in the final developed and enlarged photographs. The same physical principles apply also today, in the case of photosensitive, semiconductive camera sensors: when the amplification of light signal is boosted, the ISO values go up, faster shots or images in darker conditions can be captured, but there will be more visual noise in the finished photos. Thus, the perfectly sharp, noise-free image cannot always be achieved.
But like many photographers seek for the soft “bokeh” effect into the backgrounds (or foregrounds) of their carefully composed photos, some photographers do not shy away from the grainy effects of visual noise, or high ISO values. Similar to the control of sharpness and softness in focus, the use of grain is also a question of control and planning: if all and everything one can produce has noise and grain, there is no real creative choice. Understanding the limitations of photographic equipment (with a lot of training and experimentation) will eventually allow one to utilize also visual “imperfections” to achieve desired atmospheres and artistic effects.
I have long been thinking about a longer, telephoto range zoom lens, as this is perhaps the main technical bottleneck in my topic selection currently. After finding a nice offer, I made the jump and invested into Sigma 150-600mm/5.0-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens for Canon. It is not a true “professional” level wildlife lens (those are in 10 000+ euros/dollars price range in this focal length). But his has got some nice reviews on its image quality and portability. Though, by my standards this is a pretty heavy piece of glass (1,930 g).
The 150-600 mm focal range is in itself highly useful, but when you add this into a “crop sensor” body as I do (Canon has 1.6x crop multiplier), the effective focal range becomes 240-960mm, which is even more into the long end of telephoto lenses. The question is, whether there is still enough light left in the cropped setting at the sensor to allow autofocus to work reliably, and to let me shoot with apertures that allow using pretty noise-free ISO sensitivity settings.
I have only made one photo walk with my new setup yet, but my feelings are clearly at the positive side at this point. I could get decent images with my old 550D DSLR body with this lens, even in a dark, cloudy winter’s day. The situation improved yet lightly when I attached the Sigma into a Viltrox EF-M Speed Booster adapter and EOS M50 body. In this setup I lost the crop multiplier (speedboosters effectively operate as inverted teleconverters), but gained 1.4x multiplier in larger aperture. In a dark day more light was more important than getting that extra crop multiplier. There is nevertheless clear vignetting when Sigma 150-600 mm is used with Viltrox speedbooster. As I was typically cropping this kind of telephoto images in Lightroom in any case, that was not an issue for me.
The ergonomics of using the tiny M50 with a heavy lens are not that good, of course, but I am using a lens this heavy with a monopod or tripod (attached into the tripod collar/handle), in any case. The small body can just comfortably “hang about”, while one concentrates on handling the big lens and monopod/tripod.
In daylight, the autofocus operation was good, both with 550D and M50 bodies. Neither is a really solid wildlife camera, though, so the slow speed of setting the scene and focusing on a moving subject is somewhat of a challenge. I probably need to study the camera behaviour and optimal settings still a bit more, and also actually start learning the art of “wildlife photography”, if I intend to use this lens into its full potential.
There has been these endless discussions among photography enthusiasts on the strengths and weaknesses of various camera manufacturers for decades. It has been interesting to note that as the history-awareness has increased, some of this discussion has moved into a sort of meta-level: rather than talking about the suitablity of certain camera equipment for (certain kinds of) photography, the discussion has partly moved to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of entire philosophy or product-line strategy of various manufacturers.
Canon is an example that I am interested here, particularly as this is the manufacturer whose products I have been mostly using for the past two decades or more. The dominant criticism of Canon today seems to be that they (as late adopters of mirrorless systems camera technologies) are now spreading their efforts into too many directions, and thereby making it hard to provide anything really strong and credible for anyone. The history of Canon is great, of course, and I think that they still have the best user interface for their digital cameras, for example, and the back catalogue of Canon lenses is impressive. The problem today nevertheless is that it is difficult to see if Canon is still committed to continuing the DSLR camera and lens development in professional and enthusiast levels long into the future (as their recent releases of EOS 90D and 1D X Mark III DSLR bodies seems to suggest), or if anyone with an eye towards the future should invest into the RF mount lenses and EOS R series full-frame mirrorless cameras instead. (RF system is the most recent Canon camera family, it was announced in September 2018; Canon’s full-frame DSLR cameras have used the EF mount lenses since from 1987.) And what is the destiny of APS-C (“crop frame”) cameras, and the EF-M mount system (introduced in 2012) in all of this?
I have long used crop frame system cameras and either EF or EF-S (yet another Canon lens family) lenses, due to the nice balance that this combination provides in terms of versatility, compact sizes, image quality and price – which is always an important concern for a hobbyist photographer. Few months ago I made the move into the “mirrorless era”, deciding to invest into the most affordable of these alternative systems, the Canon EF-M mount family (my choice of camera body was the tiny, yet powerful EOS M50).
The initial experiences (as I have reported in this blog already earlier) have been mostly positive – it is easy to take a good photo with this system and some decent, native EF-M lens. And it is nice that I can use an adapter to attach my older, EF mount lenses into the new, EF-M mount body, even while the autofocus might not be as fast that way. But the fact is that most of the new Canon lenses now appear to be coming out to the other, mirrorless Canon system: the full-frame RF mount cameras. And it is particularly the “serious enthusiast” or advanced hobbyist category that seems to be left in the middle. Some, more sports and wildlife oriented Canon lenses and cameras that would suit them are being published in the DSLR (EF mount) ecosystem. Some of the most advanced lenses are coming out in RF system, but the prices of many of those are more in the professional, multiple-thousands of euros/dollars category per lens. But the R system bodies seem to be missing many of the features that true professionals would need from their camera systems, so that is not really working so well, either. And those amateur photographers (like myself) who have opted for Canon EF-M mirrorless mount system are mostly provided with compact lenses that do not have the image quality or aperture values that more advanced photography would profit from. And investing into a heavy EF lens, and then adding adapter to get it to work with the EF-M body does not make particularly good sense. That lens is not designed for a mirrorless system to start with, and the combination of ultra-compact camera body and heavy, full-frame DSLR lens is not a balanced one.
So, the advanced hobbyist / enthusiast crowd is sort of asking: Quo Vadis, Canon?
Some people have already voted with their feet, sold their Canon cameras and lenses and bought into a Sony or Fujifilm ecosystems instead. Those competing manufacturers have the benefit of simpler and more clear mirrorless (and APS-C) camera and lens strategies. They do not have so many millions of existing users with legacy camera and lens equipment to support, of course.
I am currently just trying to make the best out of my existing cameras and lenses. My lakeside camera walk today involved mostly using the Canon L-series 70-200 mm f/4 EF lens with the old APS-C, DSLR body (550D), which has better grip for handling a larger lens. And the landscape photos and detailed close-ups I shot with the new M50 and the sharp 22mm f/2 EF-M lens.
Maybe the third-party manufacturers will provide some help in strengthening the EF-M ecosystem in the future. For example, SIGMA has announced that it will soon port three of its good quality prime lenses into EF-M system: Sigma 16mm, 30mm, and 56mm F1.4 DC DN Contemporary. Hopefully there will be more of such quality glass coming up – also from Canon itself. Producing good quality lenses that are also physically small enough to make sense when attached into an EF-M camera, and which have also affordable enough price, is not trivial achievement, it looks like.
While learning to take better photos with within the opportunities and limitations provided by whatever camera technology offers, it is also interesting now and then to stop to reflect on how things are evolving.
This weekend, I took some time to study rainy tones of Autumn, and also to hunt for the “perfect blues” of the Blue Hour – the time both some time before sunrise and after the sunset, when indirect sunlight coming from the sky is dominated by short, blue wavelenghts.
After a few attempts I think I got into the right spot at the right time (see the above photo, taken tonight at the beach of Hervantajärvi lake). At the time of this photo it was already so dark that I actually had trouble finding my gear and changing lenses.
I made the simple experiment of taking an evening, low-light photo with the same lens (Canon EF 50 mm f/1.8 STM) with two of my camera bodies – both the old, Canon EOS 550D (DSLR) and new EOS M50 (mirrorless). I tried to use the exact same settings for both photos, taking them only moments apart from the same spot, using a tripod. Below are two cropped details that I tried to frame into same area of the photos.
I am not an expert in signal processing or camera electronics, but it is interesting to see how much more detail there is in the lower, M50 version. I thought that the main differences might be in how much noise there is in the low-light photo, but the differences appear to go deeper.
The cameras are generations apart from each other: the processor of 550D is DIGIC 4, while M50 has the new DIGIC 8. That sure has a effect, but I think that the sensor might play even larger role in this experiment. There are some information available from the sensors of both cameras – see the links below:
While the physical sizes of the sensors are exactly the same (22.3 x 14.9 mm), the pixel counts are different (18 megapixels vs. 24.1 megapixels). Also, the pixel density differs: 5.43 MP/cm² vs. 7.27 MP/cm², which just verifies that these two cameras, launched almost a decade apart, have very different imaging technology under the hood.
I like using both of them, but it is important to understand their strengths and limitations. I like using the old DSLR in daylight and particularly when trying to photograph birds or other fast moving targets. The large grip and good-sized physical controls make a DSLR like EOS 550D very easy and comfortable to handle.
On the other hand, when really sharp images are needed, I now rely on the mirrorless M50. Since it is a mirrorless camera, it is easy to see the final outcome of applied settings directly from the electronic viewfinder. M50 also has an articulated, rotating LCD screen, which is really excellent feature when I need to reach very low, or very high, to get a nice shot. On the other hand, the buttons and the grip are just physically a bit too small to be comfortable. I never seem to hit the right switch when trying to react in a hurry, missing some nice opportunities. But when it is a still-life composition, I have good time to consult the tiny controls of M50.
To conclude: things are changing, good (and bad) photos can be taken, with all kinds of technology. And there is no one perfect camera, just different cameras that are best suited for slightly different uses and purposes.
You must be logged in to post a comment.