Nuts & Bolts
Some Heavy Thoughts
February/March 2010

by Bill Pierce

We worry about the weight America's young people are putting on, but nobody worries about their DSLRs. Come on, folks, these cameras have a serious weight problem too.

My Canon 5D Mark II with the 24-105mm/f4 zoom weighs in at just over 3-3/4 pounds. That's almost as much as my old Speed Graphic which I remember was about 4 pounds. And I didn't carry two Speed Graphics, one with a short zoom and one with a longer zoom.

There can be no argument: there is no camera that packs more versatility and image quality and is more suitable for a working photojournalist than the full-frame, high-end DSLR. But, there are times when a lighter, smaller, quieter camera is a blessing. A camera that doesn't call attention to you is not only a benefit in candid work but in any work where you just want the subject to go about their tasks without the constant reminder that they are being photographed.

Hugely important to me, and maybe important to you, is a small camera that I can keep in my pocket, under my jacket or, better yet, in my hand and ready to shoot as I walk about my world.

In the film years, that was a rangefinder camera. There was much hope that the digital Leica would be that special-purpose camera. But Leitz chose to make a camera with no anti-aliasing filter and limited high-ISO capabilities – in essence a "Panatomic-X and Kodachrome" camera rather than a "Tri-X and high-speed color negative" camera. That, and its high price for a lensless body, pretty much took it out of the running for many photojournalists in spite of the technical excellence of the images coming out of a relatively small body.

What I see in the hands of my friends and hear them talk about is the later generations of small sensor cameras like the Canon S90 and G10 with their built-in zooms, and the Panasonic GF1 with the 20mm/f1.7 lens. These cameras have the relatively small sensor sizes of 1/1.7" and Micro Four Thirds, respectively.

All other things being equal, the smaller the sensor (really, the smaller the pixels), the more the image is degraded by noise at higher ISOs. That is the reason the Canon G11 has fewer pixels than the G10. (The same sensor is in the S90.) Nonetheless, most of the folks I know don't hesitate to use the S90 and G11 at E.I. 400 or 800 and the slightly larger sensored Panasonic at 1600.

While bigger sensors can mean better high-ISO performance, they also mean physically bigger lenses for the same effective focal length. This, and lens speed, can bulk up a camera body quicker than having to house a larger-format sensor. So, how big that small camera becomes depends a great deal on how much you want it to have an effective 85mm/f1.8 or a 70-200mm zoom. In all probability the answer is to build a camera with interchangeable lenses so you are not stuck with long, fast and big unless you need it. In that respect, the GF1, with its choice of interchangeable 20mm/f1.7 and 14-45mm/f3.5-5.6 zoom, may be a precursor of things to come, especially if sensor size increases.

If you look at photographs of old newspaper photographers with their Speed Graphics, you see that they are never using the small optical finder, or the ground glass (the LCD of the past); they are always using the wireframe "sports finder." Everything, near and far, was sharp, and they could see outside the frame of the picture. That's right. The wireframe "sports finder" was the bright-line finder of yesteryear.

I don't see news photographers using the LCD on the back of their small cameras in situations where they have to be as aware of their surroundings and what may happen as what's just in the camera frame. Here's where the fixed focal length lenses have an advantage. You can use an accessory bright-line finder originally meant for a rangefinder camera. I've mentioned in this column that very early in the game I started using the bright-line accessory finders from my rangefinder cameras in the accessory shoes of my SLRs. At first I did it in riots and demonstrations. Then I graduated to even nastier conflicts. And then I found out it was an advantage in the most peaceful of situations.

(1) One of the most important and biggest advantages of the rangefinder system is the bright-line finder. (2) One of the most important and biggest advantages of the single-lens reflex is that ground glass picture preview with its shallow depth-of-field surrounded by darkness. Pop a bright-line finder in the accessory shoe of your SLR and have the best of both worlds in a single camera.

And, yes, I use my old rangefinder bright-line finders on my little digitals even though the rectangle ratio is different (and I have to use an accessory shoe attachment that screws into the tripod socket of the S90 and forces me to use the camera held upside down).

The Panasonic has an external live viewfinder that can be used with zoom lenses. At this point I find it not as good or useful as the single focal length bright-line finders that are optical.

When it comes to that small camera that supplements my DSLR, I have a dream that probably only interests other relics that grew up on HP5, TX and P3200.

I want a small digital camera that shoots only black-and-white. Remember, that means that a given sensor has, effectively, three times as many pixels as its color brethren. Whether you use it to make a sensor with bigger pixels for better high-ISO performance or more pixels for better high magnification enlargements or a tasty blend of both, it's got to be a hell of a camera for its size.

Will it ever happen? Two years ago I was talking to an employee of one of the major camera companies and brought this up. He said he thought his company had had some discussions about a similar camera. I asked if he thought they would ever market such a camera. He sighed. I sighed.

If black-and-white is looking backwards, the motion picture video is looking forward. And on this the manufacturers and I are in agreement. As news publications move from paper to the Web, more and more mini movies are displayed where stills used to be. Everyone knows that the Canon 5D Mark II and 7D broke ground. But, I know of two major news sites that have produced significant videos with the Canon G10. Old dudes, the world is changing. You must learn to hold down the shutter button for longer lengths of time.

So, I have this Domke bag with two DSLRs and a lot of really nice high-speed glass. In one of the little side pockets are two little, small-sensor cameras. I should buy them their own little bag, but I just put one or both of them in pockets. Since they can't take pictures from a pocket, if a hand is free, it's usually holding one of the cameras. I'm amazed at the quality of the images. But cruel and heartless manufacturers keep introducing cameras with even better image quality. I try to remind myself that if I don't buy the next half-dozen or dozen minis that catch my fancy, I can buy another "professional" camera.

This issue's "picture that has nothing to do with the column" is actually breaking tradition and has something to do with the column. It was taken with the Canon S90, physically the smallest camera I own – but one with a big heart.

© 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

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