Bigger vs Better

Most of us would’ve encountered the situation where, in a group of trigger-happy camera-toting enthusiasts, someone whips out a larg-ish lens mounted on a larg-ish DSLR body, and the typical reaction was: “He/she must surely be a serious photographer”!

The truth is that having a more expensive (or larger) camera or lens makes you no better a photographer than buying a bigger piano makes you a better pianist. In fact, most intelligent folks do not make this extrapolation in any other vocation or profession, except in photography.

All that gear comes at a price, of course. And I don’t mean just the monetary kind. Once you have the stuff, you need a place to store it, the means to carry it, the time to maintain it, etc. etc. etc. As this writeup will explain in great detail, for many wannabe photographers, the path is quite well laid out. They keep adding to their gear until, one day (and only if they’re lucky), they realize that those with more basic equipment are making better pictures than them!

Now, some of you may not know this, but DSLRs evolved from SLRs (yes, the film kind!). And the folks at Canon and Nikon who were responsible for decades of investments in the technologies involved, were less inclined to start from scratch and reinvent the wheel. As a result, some of the most revolutionary advancements in this space were born out of research & design by players like Panasonic and Olympus. If you’ve been following the action, you would have encountered terms like “mirrorless”, “EVIL” and “Micro Four Thirds” and the likes.

I’d been watching this space for a while now, and recently concluded that the third-generation of camera technology has finally evolved to a level that poses a serious threat to the world of DSLRs (at least for amateurs and hobbyists like myself). But, like most people who have been practising the art, I already had a Nikon D90, a Nikon F75 and 3-4 Nikon-mount lenses that would not work with these new formats (with some exceptions).

So I sold every thing!

Yes, that’s right. I ditched my DSLR and started from scratch. Then came the tens of manhours of research to find out the best solution for my specific needs. I was looking for something that would be much smaller and lighter than a mid-level DSLR, but would offer comparable image quality. Having reaped the benefits of a “platform”, I was also keen on making a beginning with a platform that would keep up with my evolving needs. HD quality video would just be an added bonus. Finally, I wanted to keep the overall spends to under $900 (or INR 50,000).

I loved the retro styling of Fuji’s X100 and the range & affordability of Fuji’s X10, but they came with fixed lenses. I liked the small body of Sony’s NEX series, but its choice of APS-C sized sensor made its lenses extra large. To be fair, I also evaluated Nikon’s recent attempts with the V1 and J1, but it’s still early days for them. After extensive research, I settled on the Micro Four Third platform as the answer to my needs. Finally, I took the plunge and went for the Olympus E-P3, built on the legendary PEN platform.

The newest PEN series range of cameras from Olympus offers significant advancements over older models, notably in the area of autofocus response and image processing. I specifically chose the E-P3 since it was the biggest of the three models (I have large hands) with more advanced features (like OLED touchscreen, manual zoom ring, etc.) than the others. The image sensor was about 40% smaller than APS-C, but 5-7 times larger than compact cameras, making the body+lens combination much smaller and lighter than traditional DSLRs. Finally, the Micro Four Third platform (jointly developed by Panasonic & Olympus) would also offer me an array of more than 40 interchangeable lenses for all my needs. Yes, the Olympus menu system is nowhere near Nikon’s, in terms of ease-of-use, but the design is so customizable that you don’t need to dig into menu levels to get to your often-used functions, once you’ve set it up.

With the E-P3, I got every thing I was looking for in a camera that is less than half the bulk and weight of its DSLR counterparts, and I couldn’t be happier. You have a choice too – Do you wanna be the guy who “looks” like a photographer, or do you want to shoot more photographs?

The fact of the matter is, sometimes, bigger does not equal better.

Update: Oct 2015

After 3 years of working exclusively with the mirrorless Olympus E-P3 platform, I switched back to a Nikon D3300

The mirrorless platform was a great experience, but given my large hands, I missed the grip of holding a larger camera in my hand. Also, while the size of my E-P3 was considerably smaller than DSLRs, the weight was not much less. Finally, over the past few years, DSLRs have also evolved quite a bit, offering ISOs of upto 12,800 in even entry-level models. I now look forward to using the trusty old DSLR format in exciting ways, leveraging its capabilities to the extent possible!

Update: June 2018

After two and half years of shooting with the Nikon D3300 and a host of mobile phones, I took the opportunity to compare some pictures shot in the same place and at the same time, between the two platforms. My analysis confirmed the suspicion that mobile phone cameras have significantly improved over the years, and that comparable pictures shot on a DSLR vs a capable camera phone are virtually indistinguishable. In fact, in some cases, the camera phone performed even better!

Sure, there are situations in which a DSLR (or full frame) with the right lens will vastly outperform anything small and mobile. Some examples that come to mind include ultra-wide, ultra-fast, ultra-zoom or very low light. Since I don’t do too much of that kind of photography, I sold off all my Nikon gear, and now intend to continue shooting with the camera that is almost always in my pocket – an appropriate ending for a post on how Bigger does not always mean Better, don’t you think?!  

How To Take Better Photos

This post is meant for newbie photographers who want to experiment with a little creative control.

So, you’ve bought a shiny new ultra-compact, or the latest DSLR you could afford.  And, you just can’t wait to start shooting every thing that comes your way, eager to show off your photography skills to your friends and family.  But…

When you start using that fancy new camera, you begin to wonder if it was all marketing hype.  Surely, modern technology can’t get that bad?!  Surely all those $$$ you spent on your latest toy couldn’t have been a waste?!

It happens to many of us.  Sometimes, it can get quite intimidating for newbies to get good results from their new tool.  Yes, modern cameras make it very easy to get “technically” good results – provided you let your camera do the thinking.  That means turning the dial to the Green / Auto / Idiot mode and getting predictable, boring results.  But, if you venture into the Program/Aperture/Shutter/Manual modes, or start fiddling around with the 257+ menu items built into your camera, you may soon discover that the results are far from ideal.

If you still want to get more juice out of your camera, and don’t mind learning just a couple of things to begin with, there is still hope.

Here’s a simple 4-Step guide to get you started:

Step 1: Turn the dial to P for Program mode (Use A for Aperture if you’re shooting portraits instead)

Step 2: Compose your frame, Shoot the pic, and review on your LCD screen

Step 3 a: If happy with the result, go to Step 2 to shoot some more!

Step 3 b: If unhappy, find the [+/-] button on your camera, and change the setting to brighter/darker, and then go to Step 2

If your camera offers the option, review the “Histogram” for the pic, and tweak the Exposure settings till you get a well-spaced graph; It is the simplest way to ensure that you have got the required details in the frame, irrespective of the quality/size of your LCD screen.

Step 4: Rinse and repeat from Step 2, for each new frame.

Bottom line : If there’s one thing you need to master to get better results from your camera, it would have to be the Exposure Compensation.  Remember, all cameras “meter” (read the light) differently, and the [+/-] compensation you will need for every frame will vary.  So, learn to use that feature well.  Happy clicking!

Bonus Tip: If you are aiming for “accurate color rendition” in your photos, you will need to get comfy with the White Balance setting on your digital camera.  Again, there is no such thing as the ‘right’ setting – it’s a matter of personal taste.  But, it helps to know what Shade / Tungsten / Flourescent can do for each shot that is not taken in direct sunlight…

See Also : Understanding Histograms

Being a Photographer

I’m beginning to fall in love with lists. 

Here’s a fascinating one on 100 Things Completely Right about being a photographer… (I’m just including a few items from it that I loved the most!)

02. Seeing something that no one else sees.
06. Traveling to weird unheard of places to shoot unheard of things.
28. Giving back.
29. Finding a patch of light to call your own.
31. Seeing a story develop.
43. Curiosity.
49. Having more expensive toys than your kids.
55. Forgetting where your flash is…since 2001.
68. Learning something new.
85. Leaving the suit and tie on a hanger in the back of a closet.
88. Dropping that last image in the FTP folder.

Needless to add, read the entire list… you never know what develops!

Tools of the Trade

After a long time, I’ve encountered a post on Photography that I just had to share with you. 

Now, I fully realize that the world is divided among those who love Ken Rockwell and those who think  he’s simply over-the-top and downright crazy.  I’ve always found that, just like with any other writing, if you’re willing to make up your own mind on the subject, after weighing in all the info, you will find that Ken makes a lot of sense on the things he writes about. 

This recent post entitled ‘The Pen and the Signature‘ is just one example.  Plus, it concerns a subject that always comes up in conversation when a newbie photographer encounters a more experienced one : “So, what camera do you use?”

If I gave you my pen, would you have my signature? Of course not.  So if I gave you my camera, would you take pictures that look like mine? Of course not.  Why would anyone think otherwise?

Camera makers don’t want you to know is that it’s you that makes a picture, not the camera. A picture is as unique to the taker of that picture as is his signature…

All images are reflections of the photographer who created them. Good photographers are artists who have their own style. Crappy photographers are crappy precisely because they show no style of their own, or spend their time trying to copy the style of others, or simply shoot away without thinking…

Purchasing the world’s finest camera and carefully leveling it on the world’s most stable tripod and carefully color profiling everything and working everything over in raw in Photoshop for six hours afterwards is the best way to make completely forgettable images. Being yourself and showing us your own way of seeing things is the way to make remarkable images.

No one else sees with your eyes. Vision is not a team sport. You have to see for yourself, and show us yourself in your images.

Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?!

Going Classic

The first photograph I ever shot was on my father’s twin-lens-reflex Ross Ensign Ful-Vue Super.  The camera was from the 1950s, the roll was a black & white 120 format, and I was hooked for life!  I’m not sure if the prohibitive cost of photography at the time played any role in making it inaccessible, and therefore, more desirable.  All I knew is that it was magic to be able to press a button and get a detailed image of that memory, once you came home and got the roll developed and printed.

Many years later, through most of my school and college days, all I could afford was to read up on photography.  So read, I did.  I would borrow books from friends and from the library, and would read up every thing about mastering the skill, even though I couldn’t really afford a serious camera to practise with!  It was only through the generosity of friends that I began experiencing the joys of using a real SLR, first with the K1000 and then with the Zenit XP12.

As so often happens in Life, over the years my disposable income increased but the time available to spend it kept decreasing… I could now afford to buy all the “gear” I wanted, but could not make the time for a passion that had gripped my interest as a young boy.  Sure, I kept upgrading the aim-and-shoot cameras in the house, and embraced the digital format, and shot a thousand family photos.  But, it wasn’t quite the same.

So, in 2008, when I got back in touch with Photography, it was with a vengeance.  I started reading extensively on it, and participating actively in forums, and shooting as much as I could to focus on improving my skills.  I also managed to upgrade some of my hardware, by taking a long, hard look at what was really relevant to my interests.  Finally, I launched a photoblog to save and share some of my favourite photographs.

All through this time, I longed to go back to my roots in old-school Photography.  The first step was to get a modern-day film-based SLR, and having a bag of Nikon lenses by then, I settled on the excellent Nikon F75.  But, I also wanted a completely manual, mechanical and metal kit (MMM).  Many months of searching yielded an excellent Super Takumar 35mm lens, and then weeks later, the legendary Pentax Spotmatic.

The Pentax Spotmatic comprises a range of 35mm single-lens reflex cameras manufactured by the Asahi Optical Co. Ltd., later known as Pentax Corporation, between 1964 and 1976. The original 1964 Spotmatic was one of the first SLRs to offer a through-the-lens (TTL) exposure metering system, initially using average metering and later center-weighting. Despite the name, the camera did not use spot metering, although it had this feature in an early prototype.

Now, only a rangefinder was needed to complete my quest.  I’m happy to write that, as of last week, I was able to acquire a classic Petri 7s rangefinder from an enthusiast who had lovingly maintained it all these years.

The Petri 7s was introduced by Petri in 1963 as a variant of the Petri 7 which was introduced in 1961. The main difference being an improved film advance lever and frame counter. It took 35mm film, had a coupled rangefinder, and an around-the-lens selenium cell light meter. Production ended in 1973. The 7s was available with either a 45mm f1.8 or f2.8 lens. The shutter had speeds up to 1/500, and the viewfinder used Petri’s Green-o-Matic system.

I’ve shot many a film roll on the F75 as well as on the Spottie;  The joy of handling a machine that was built to perfection decades ago, and still runs without a whimper, is not comparable to most things in Life.  Not to mention the fact that there’s no better way to learn the ropes than going back to the basics when you had to know something about the Art to make a photograph happen!

I’m just glad I now have a piece of history in my camera bag!

Read More:
Massive Guide to TLR Cameras
Wikipedia : Rangefinder Cameras
Butkus: Vintage Camera Manuals