When I was in high school, I washed and waxed cars for a summer and saved enough money to buy a 4x5 Speed Graphic with a 127mm, f/4.7 Kodak Ektar. It, along with a Dormitzer strobe with its large wet cell battery case and a bag of 4x5 holders, became my camera of choice.
In my senior year, my father came back from Europe with a 35mm Contax IIIa equipped with a 50mm/1.5 Sonnar. The Sonnar had so much spherical aberration wide open that teenage girls who had said, "You can't take pictures in here without a flash" were delighted with their diffuse, halated portraits. I was delighted to not have to carry the Graphic and the Dormitzer with its wet cell pack made up of three motorcycle batteries all the time – even though the local AP photographer said, "What are you going to do with that camera, kid? Sneak pictures in courtrooms?"
Now, equipped with two full-frame DSLRs equipped with large zooms (or two or three full-frame DSLRs equipped with large, high-speed, fixed focal-length lenses), I realize I've returned to high school – great rig for some situations, too much equipment for others. And I've been looking for the digital equivalent to the Contax for street work or where I would like to blend into the background a little more even though the subjects know they are being photographed.
The first and obvious choice was the Leica M8. My first two M8s failed very early in their lives. And one of the things a journalist needs is dependability. Additionally, the frame lines for the normal lens are inaccurate at normal shooting distances and the shutter is noisy. While these problems are corrected in the M8.2 or with expensive upgrades to the M8, high ISO image quality still does not equal that of many DSLRs. Considering those limitations and cost effectiveness for an underpaid photojournalist, the search continued.
A lot of friends were using the digital point-and-push, the Canon G10. I had used the G9 and Leitz Digilux II and had been fairly impressed with the results at the lowest ISOs. My opinion of the G10 would be greatly influenced by its performance at higher ISOs.
Obviously, the small size and nearly silent operation were a huge plus. At higher ISOs – big surprise – the image quality was probably better than the pushed Super XX (ASA 100) that was the highest speed film for the Contax IIIa. But the quality was still lower than the C-size or full-frame sensor cameras of today. While it was hard to distinguish between prints from G10 and 5D Mark II files at lower ISOs shot out on the street, no such problem existed at higher ISOs when I descended into the Manhattan subway system.
My solution to the problem was to relax, convert the image to black-and-white and pretend the noise in the image was grain. My vicious little images of hapless subway riders probably aren't as sharp as if I shot them with a bigger, noisier camera. But, then again, no one is beating me up.
And anyone old enough to have shot Agfa Isopan Record or Kodak P3200 would be a little hypocritical to complain about "grain."
For me, the best balance between sharpness and noise with G10 images are raw images converted to TIFF with Canon's Digital Photo Professional software. Check this out for yourself; there are folks that favor Lightroom or Photoshop for the conversions. News shooters should take a look at the large JPEGS; they're quite good.
Although I look forward to the improved G11, G12 and the lucky G13, my problem with the G10, and cameras like it, is not the image quality, but the optical viewfinder. The image is tiny; the framing, inaccurate. Inevitably, if I am not using the LCD screen on the back of the camera, I'm using an auxiliary brightline finder from Leitz or Cosina-Voigtlander shoved into the accessory shoe of the G10. This means the format proportions are not correct and I have to match the fixed viewfinder frame with the focal length of the zoom lens. A pain in the butt, but I have always found that, as a photographer, it is somewhat important to be able to see what you are doing.
For an additional opinion, here is Edward Taylor's review of the G10 on The Online Photographer. Be sure to also look at readers' questions and his replies.
In the search for the "little camera" the next step I took was simply to replace the large zoom lenses on my DSLRs with small, relatively slow fixed focal-length lenses. I used the 50mm/1.8 Canon EOS lens, a $90 lens. Photographing a street fair, I attracted a lot less attention than a few other photographers using big, long zooms. (Although I'm sure that the guys with the big lenses noticed me and said, "What a loser.")
I ran some quick comparison tests with my $1,400 f/1.2. Guess what? At wider apertures the f/1.2 is sharper, especially away from the center of the image. And, for the photography that I was doing, it wasn't as great an advantage as working with a smaller camera/lens combination. Since then I've used the 35mm/2 EOS lens and a 50mm Summicron R adapted to the Canon with an adapter from Cameraquest. They all work. The Summicron is a manual focus lens, the smallest of the three and a little killer.
And, yes, I occasionally slip a Leitz or CV brightline finder into the accessory shoe of the Canon DSLR.
Well, none of these are perfect solutions in the search for the "little" camera. But soon (officially, this month) Sigma introduces a small, non-reflex body with a fixed focal-length lens (24.2mm, f2.8 35mm equivalent focal length: 41mm) and a C-size sensor.
I've not seen the camera. I've seen pictures from it, including ones at high ISOs. They're quite good.
The race continues. If any of you have thoughts on a "little camera" that is satisfactory for a news shooter, let the rest of us know.
As to this month's "picture that has nothing to do with the column," with the economy in the tank, I thought this might be appropriate.
More of Bill Pierce's photographs at http://www.billpiercepictures.com.