Nuts & Bolts
November 2009

by Bill Pierce

In the last months, so many new toys, so little time ...

Whoops, so little money ...

Staff photographers are getting laid off. Freelancers are seeing less work. The Nikon D3x, the Canon 1DMk4 and Leica M9 are beginning to look a little pricey. Thus, this month's column is on the relatively cheap – oops – economical stuff.

Among the economical stuff, we are seeing more and more small, non-reflex digitals with sufficient quality to become the "always with me" camera to the DSLR user that the 35mm rangefinder camera was to the 4x5 Speed Graphic user a scant half-century ago. The comparison is surprisingly valid because, in the days of Super XX film, the small camera didn't produce the image quality of the big camera. Nor do little digitals of today produce the quality of big digitals.

The advantage of larger sensors over little ones is bigger pixels for the same megapixel count. And bigger pixels mean less noise at high ISOs. And, there's the rub. None of these small cameras are going to deliver high-ISO quality anywhere near that of a full-frame DSLR.

Among the newer "minis" the Olympus EP-1 and the Panasonic Lumix GF1 are equipped with micro four-thirds sensors. Cameras like the Canon S90 and G11 have a 1/1.7-inch sensor, ballpark 1/20 the size of a "full-frame" DSLR.

(Sigma, with the largest sensor among the current small cameras, might have higher ISO performance not too far from those of an APS -C sensor if we were comparing apples to apples. But, we are comparing apples to oranges: Sigma's Foveon sensor vs. the more universal Bayer sensor. At higher ISOs, Foveon color quality deteriorates more rapidly.)

How do we deal with the limitations of sensor size? Live with it. I was always amazed at the lengths some 35mm film photographers would go to challenge the image quality of larger formats. Tech Pan and other super slow films, camera on a tripod, careful metering, all the disadvantages imposed by a larger format followed by special processing and printing with the best enlarger and optics – all to not quite equal the quality of a view camera.

With the "mini" digitals, use the lowest ISO you can. If the chroma noise bugs you, print the image in black-and-white. The luminance noise will still be there. Tell everybody it's grain. If forced to, tell everybody that "gritty" look actually helps the picture.

What's the other big problem with little cameras? Slow focusing. Big DSLRs have separate autofocus sensors and use a faster focusing system than the slower system in the point-and-pushes. For the most part this is because there just isn't room for a separate system in the small cameras. We'll see if this holds true with cameras introduced in the future.

As to specific focusing speed, I have not used the GF1 or the Ricoh GR3 and only used the EP-1 briefly. The DP2 and S90 have seen a fair amount of usage. I'm going to presume the G11 is similar to my much used G10.

In the majority of situations the DP2 was the slowest and had the greatest difficulty focusing in dim light. I actually use manual focus, scale focusing or a pre-focus setting, not using the auto focus a great deal with this camera. And, it turns out, these are not bad ways to street shoot.

The Olympus was next in line. The Canons seemed the fastest. Guess what? None of them had auto focus fast enough to catch that split-second moment that makes some pictures, good pictures. And so, once again, we ask ourselves, what did those folks with the manually focusing Speed Graphics, the Rolleis, the Leica M3s and the Contax IIIa's do? They pre-focused.

For most of these little digitals, that simply means depressing the release button to its first position to focus and, when the moment occurs, pressing it further to take the picture. Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? Then why doesn't anybody do it? We do it with our more quickly responding DSLRs. I am at a loss for an answer. I think it's time to practice pre-focusing before a new school of photography called "Just After the Decisive Moment" establishes itself.

Of all these cameras, which one is my choice as "Best Self-Indulgent Treat During an Economic Downturn?"

A hint: It's the cheapest, about half the price of some of its competition. And, in literally fitting into a shirt pocket, it's the smallest and may be unique among your cameras. It could be the camera that is ready to go 24 hours a day if you put it on your bedside table when you go to sleep.

The BSI Treat award goes to …. the Canon Powershot S90.

It has the same sensor as its big brother, the G11. It produces a 10 MG raw file.

Three control dials make it possible to rapidly change the camera settings. There is the standard dial that lets you choose between program, aperture, shutter and manual exposure. Another allows you to choose menu and function items. A third can be preset to change focal length, white balance, manual focus, ISO, or exposure compensation. A function button will bring up any single item in the function menu. I have the camera set up so that I can instantly change ISO, focal length and exposure compensation without going to menu or function displays.

Those are the only controls I need when I am shooting. I don't have to activate any menu and scroll through it to select and set a function. And the rangefinder folks thought they had a lock on simple.

I'm sure there will be times when big dudes with big DSLRs will make fun of us with our toy cameras, but a bunch of us used to take that from the 4x5 sheet film guys all the time. We're tough. Or lazy. Take your choice.

As for "the picture that has nothing to do with the column" ... A long time ago, when I was applying for artist's certification from the local authorities where I lived, I submitted a number of pictures that were nothing more than the initial frames of film that were exposed when I wound off a few frames after loading but before starting to shoot. I did receive my certification.

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer

Bill Pierce's pictures have appeared in Time, Life, People, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times and many other publications and books here and abroad. He is a winner of the Leica Medal of Excellence, the World Press Budapest Award and the Overseas Press Olivier Rebbot Award for best photoreporting from abroad. His pictures are in the collections of major universities, museums and private collectors. More of his pictures can be seen at

blog comments powered by Disqus