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:

Life with Photography: Then and Now

I have kept a diary, too, but I think that the best record of life and times comes from the photographs taken over the years. Much of the last century (pre-2000s) photos of mine are collected in traditional photo albums: I used to love the craft of making photo collages, cutting and combining pieces of photographs, written text and various found materials, such as travel tickets or brochure pieces into travel photo albums. Some albums were more experimental: in pre-digital times it was difficult to know if a shot was technically successful or not, and as I have always mostly worked in colour rather than black-and-white, I used to order the film rolls developed and every frame printed, without seeing the final outcomes. With some out-of-focus, blurred or plain random, accidental shots included into every film spool, I had plenty of materials to build collages that were focused on play with colour, dynamics of composition or some visual motif. This was fun stuff, and while one certainly can do this (and more) e.g. with Photoshop with the digital photos, there is something in cutting and combining physical photos that is not the same as a digital collage.

The first camera of my own was Chinon CE-4, a budget-class Japanese film camera from the turn of 1970s/1980s. It served me well over many years, and with it’s manual and “semi-automatic” (Aperture Priority) exposure system and support for easy double exposures.

Chinon CE-4 (credit:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/pwiwe/463041799/in/pool-camerawiki/ ).

I started transitioning to digital photography first by scanning paper photos and slides into digital versions that could then be used for editing and publishing. Probably among my earliest actual digital cameras was HP PhotoSmart 318, a cheap and almost toy-like device with 2.4-megapixel resolution, 8 MB internal flash memory (plus supported CompactFlash cards), a fixed f/2.8 lens and TTL contrast detection autofocus. I think I was shooting occasionally with this camera already in 2001, at least.

Few years after that I started to use digital photography a bit more in travels at least. I remember getting my first Canon cameras for this purpose. I owned at least a Canon Digital IXUS v3 – this I was using at least already in the first DiGRA conference in Utrecht, in November 2003. Even while still clearly a “point-and-shoot” style (compact) camera, this Canon one was based on metal construction and the photos it produced were a clear step up above the plastic HP device. I started to convert into a believer: the future was in digital photography.

Canon Digital IXUS v3 (credit:
https://fi.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiedosto:Canon_Digital_Ixus_V3.jpg ).

After some saving, I finally invested into my first digital “system camera” (DSLR) in 2005. I remember taking photos in the warm Midsummer night that year with the new Canon EOS 350D, and how magical it felt. The 8.0-megapixel CMOS image sensor and DIGIC II signal processing and control unit (a single-chip system), coupled with some decent Canon lenses meant that it was possible to experiment with multiple shooting modes and get finely-detailed and nuanced night and nature photos with it. This was also time when I both built my own (HTML based) online and offline “digital photo albums”, but also joined the first digital photo community services, such as Flickr.

Canon EOS 550D (credit:
https://www.canon.fi/for_home/product_finder/cameras/digital_slr/eos_550d/ ).

It was five years later, when I again upgraded my Canon system, this time into EOS 550D (“Rebel T2i” in the US, “Kiss X4” in Japan). This again meant considerable leap both in the image quality and also in features that relate both to the speed, “intelligence” and convenience of shooting photos, as well as to the processing options that are available in-camera. The optical characteristics of cameras as such have not radically changed, and there are people who consider some vintage Zeiss, Nikkor or Leica camera lenses as works of art. The benefits of 550D over 350D for me were mostly related to the higher resolution sensor (18.0-megapixel this time) and the ways in which DIGIC 4 processor reduced noise, provided much higher speeds, and even 1080p video (with live view and external microphone input).

Today, in 2019, I am still taking Canon EOS 550D with me in any event or travel where I want to get the best quality photographs. This is mostly due to the lenses than the actual camera body, though. My two current smartphones – Huawei Mate 20 Pro and iPhone 8 Plus – both have cameras that come with both arguably better sensors and much more capable processors than this aging, entry-level “system camera”. iPhone has dual 12.0-megapixel sensors (f/1.8, 28mm/wide, with optical image stabilization; f/2.8, 57mm/telephoto) that both are accompanied by PDAF (a fast autofocus technology based on Phase Detection). The optics in Huawei are developed in collaboration with Leica and come as a seamless combination of three (!) cameras: the first has a very large 40.0-megapixel sensor (f/1.8, 27mm/wide), the second one has 20.0-megapixels (f/2.2, 16mm/ultrawide), and the third 8.0-megapixels (f/2.4, 80mm/telephoto). It is possible to use both optical and digital zoom capabilities in Huawei, make use of efficient optical image stabilization, plus a hybrid technology involving phase detection as well as laser autofocus (a tiny laser transmitter sends a beam into the subject, and with the received information the processor is capable of calculating and adjusting for the correct focus). Huawei also utilizes advanced AI algorithms and its powerful Kirin 980 processor (with two “Neural Processing Units, NPUs) to optimize the camera settings, and apply quickly some in-camera postprocessing to produce “desirable” outcomes. According to available information, Huawei Mate 20 Pro can process and recognize “4,500 images per minute and is able to differentiate between 5,000 different kinds of objects and 1,500 different photography scenarios across 25 categories” (whatever those are).

Huawei Mate 20 Pro, with it’s three cameras (credit: Frans Mäyrä).

But with all that computing power today’s smartphones are not capable (not yet, at least) to outplay the pure optical benefits available to system cameras. This is not so crucial when documenting a birthday party, for example, as the lenses in smartphones are perfectly capable for short distance and wide-angle situations. Proper portraits are somewhat borderline case today: a high-quality system camera lens is capable to “separate” the person from the background and blur the background (create the beautiful “bokeh” effect). But the powerful smartphones like iPhone and Huawei mentioned above come effectively with an AI-assisted Photoshop built into them, and can therefore detect the key object, separate it, and blur the background with algorithms. The results can be rather good (good enough, for many users and use cases), but at the same time it must be said that when a professional photographer aims for something that can be enlarged, printed out full-page in a magazine, or otherwise used in a demanding context, a good lens attached into a system camera will prevail. This relates to basic optical laws: the aperture (hole, where the light comes in) can be much larger in such camera lenses, providing more information for the image sensor, the focal length longer – and the sensor itself can also be much larger, meaning that e.g. fast-moving objects (sports, animal photography) and low-light conditions will benefit. With several small lenses and sensors, the future “smart cameras” can probably provide an ever-improving challenge to more traditional photography equipment, combining, processing data and filling-in such information that is derived from machine learning, but a good lens coupled with a system camera can help creating unique pictures in more traditional manner. Both are needed, and both have a future in photography cultures, I think.

The main everyday benefit of e.g. Huawei Mate 20 Pro vs old-school DSLR such as Canon EOS 550D is the portability. Few people go to school or work with a DSLR hanging in their neck, but a pocket-size camera can always travel with you – and be available when that unique situation, light condition or a rare bird/butterfly presents itself. With the camera technologies improving, the system cameras are also getting smaller and lighter, though. Many professionals still prefer rather large and heavy camera bodies, as the big “grip” and solid buttons/controls provide better ergonomics, and the heavy body is also a proper counterbalance for large and heavy telephoto lenses that many serious nature or sports photographers need for their work, for example. Said that, I am currently thinking that my next system camera will no longer probably be based on the traditional SLR (Single-Lens Reflex) architecture – which, btw, is already over three hundred years old, if the first reflex mirror “camera obscura” systems are taken into an account. The mirrorless interchangeable lens camera systems are maintaining the component-based architecture of body+lenses, but eliminate the moving mirror and reflective prisms of SLR systems, and use electronic viewfinders instead.

I have still my homework to do regarding the differences in how various mirrorless systems are being implemented, but it also looks to my eye that there has been a rather rapid period of technical R&D in this area recently, with Sony in particular leading the way, but the big camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon now following, releasing their own mirrorless solutions. There is not yet quite as much variety to choose for amateur, small-budget photographers such as myself, with many initial models released into the upper, serious-enthusiast/professionals price range of multiple-thousands. But I’d guess that the sensible budget models will also follow, next, and I am interested to see if it is possible to move into a new decade with a light, yet powerful system that would combine some of the best aspects from the history of photography with the opportunities opened by the new computing technologies.

Sony a6000, a small mirrorless system camera body announced in 2014 (credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sony_α6000#/media/File:Sony_Alpha_ILCE-6000_APS-C-frame_camera_no_body_cap-Crop.jpeg).

Sony RX100: pocket, meet camera

Photography is an interesting thing – many interesting things. Take cameras, for example. For some people, cameras and lenses appear to mean perhaps more than the actual photographs they are supposed to use those equipment for. The global growth of revenue from digital camera industry continues its upwards trend, and by some estimates is expected to reach $46 billion by 2017. There are cameras for multiple uses, and the strengths of one system in one context turn into weaknesses in another. Compare DSLR “systems camera” to a cameraphone (or smartphone), for example: the versatility provided by multiple, interchangeable lenses combined to large image sensor and powerful image processing is unbeatable when the pure technical side of photography as a form of expression is being considered. On the other hand, in everyday daily lives, few people go about hauling their professional DSLR system everywhere. Having a good camera integrated into the mobile phone is your best bet to have camera at hand when the spontaneus opportunity for an interesting photo presents itself. Though, the limitations of small lens and small image sensor inevitably set its limits to what one can achieve with a smartphone camera.

I am going to experiment next by acquiring a compact, “pocket camera” that hopefully would be small enough to actually be feasible to carry around daily in my overcoat pocket, while also having better optics and more versatile feature set than a smartphone camera.

My choice (balancing budget and wish list) concluded into Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 model. This is a compact camera that was introduced already in summer 2012, and there are already several more feature-rich, upgraded versions of RX100 available (Mark II, III, and now also IV, released in summer 2015). My priority here though was to focus on the essential aspects of solid optics combined with decent image sensor and build quality, and the original RX100 ranks high in that department, and the price is pretty competitive by now.

There are few things that smartphone cameras do really well, and extensive app ecosystem, strong computing power in compact form factor and excellent touch screen interfaces are among the key such elements. If the lens and sensor are priority in a compact camera, to get that high quality shot, and you are carrying a powerful smartphone also with you everywhere, it does not make sense to try to duplicate smartphone functions in the camera itself. It is enough to be able to get the photo from camera to the smartphone, and then do the post-processing and possible social media sharing, or archiving from there (or, via a cloud service and/or a PC, for that matter). RX100 does not have a built-in WiFi or other wireless functions, so I have now equipped my new Sony with the Eye-Fi Mobi Pro 32 GB SD memory card, which has the WiFi, and can connect to e.g. iPhone Eye-Fi Mobi app, where from you can take the editing and sharing business as far as you want.

I also invested to some other small add-ons: the official camera LCD screen protector (PCK-LM15) and the Sony AG-R2 Attachment Grip. The latter affects the slim, flat design of RX100 a bit, but is really good for getting reliable hold of the camera so that you can confidently work through multiple positions, without fear of dropping the camera.

RX100 is one of the most popular cameras in the relatively new “enthusiast compact” category, that I guess emerged out of Darwinian adaptation process, where mobile phones took over most of the “snapshot” market, and the compact camera manufacturers were forced to evolve and differentiate their offerings from the most basic and casual photography needs. The manual of RX100 is a rather thick volume, so it has fair number of various options and functions, and this camera has also a rather large, one-inch image sensor (of 20 megapixels), a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T lens (28-100mm equiv., f/1.8-4.9), image stabilization, automatic face recognition, customizable controls and the ability to shoot recording RAW images – something that the more professional (or nerdy) photo tweakers can value.

It is still too early to say whether the idea of having a daily pocket camera available actually makes any real sense, so that the extra 240 grams of weight in my jacket pocket really pays off. But I guess that in those conference trip breaks this would allow one to jump on and off the “tourist mode” with a bit more expressive range available than just a mobile phone camera would allow. We will see.