Nuts & Bolts
Less is More
December 2008

by Bill Pierce

The Canon and Nikon SLRs, like many of us who have been involved in photojournalism for a few years, have gained weight.

The Canonflex and Nikon F were introduced in 1959. The Canon F-1 system became Canon's top-of-the-line system in 1971. By today's standards, they were small cameras. Most PJs carried two or more bodies and fixed focal length lenses from wide to tele without much effort.

Today one much larger, top-of-the-line Canon or Nikon body and high-speed zoom is a big load. When you're running and jumping (or even moving carefully) you have to support and steady the camera with your hands. Even a big strap is no longer enough. And when you are carrying two bodies with two different zooms, it's more than a little awkward. The old days of "let them dangle" are gone forever.

These large cameras are great tools in areas where the press and photography are welcome. However, where the press is not privileged, you may find that you attract more attention than you want, including some folks who ask, "Are you with the press?" in a way that establishes they don't admire the press.

So, while these large cameras are great tools in areas where the press and photography are welcome, they are not such great tools in some other areas.

That's why a large number of photojournalists are experimenting with smaller, less attention-getting cameras for professional work.

Great hope was held out for the Leica M8, the digital rangefinder whose film brethren had been one of the tools of photographers like Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Eddie Adams, Jim Marshall, Ralph Gibson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Sebastiao Salgado, Josef Koudelka, Gene Smith, Robert Frank and many others. But, perhaps because of the years when Paris-based Hermes had been a major stockholder and the Leica had become a conspicuous consumption item dressed in colored leather, the once small, quiet camera entered the digital world bigger, noisier and priced beyond the reach of the young journalist or documentary photographer.

After the initial bugs were worked out, it established itself as a camera that still maintained an outstanding ability to use high-speed normal and wide-angle lenses at large apertures and to focus accurately in dim, low-contrast situations. But that was not enough to reestablish its use among journalists.

Several of my friends have experimented with "bridge" cameras, which can be more compact than DSLRs because they eliminate the mirror and pentaprism finder in favor of an electronic, LCD viewfinder. Unfortunately, until recently, these "bridge" cameras grew in size (and cost) to the point where they were competing with DSLRs and losing the competition.

However, with the recent introduction of the Micro Four Thirds standard, these cameras have shrunk in size – but not sensor size, just body size. They have a lens flange to sensor distance of approximately 20mm, but a sensor nearly as big as the APS-C sensors in DSLRs with 1.5 and 1.6 focal length factors. The first of these cameras is just beginning to hit dealers' shelves. It's the Panasonic DMC-G1. I have yet to use one. So...

Let me refer you to the excellent Luminous Landscape site for an intelligent review:

As the site name indicates, Michael Reichmann's primary interest is in landscapes. If, as a news photog, you have skipped over his site, you are overlooking one of the most intelligent and useful sites. He faces many of the problems we do; his only real advantages are that his subjects don't move and are often better lit.

Almost every photographer I know has experimented with the small point-and-push, pocketable digitals. Slowly, the basic problems of shutter lag, slow frame advance and inferior image quality, especially at higher ISOs, are being reduced. While it's a little difficult to argue that these problems eliminate these cameras from serious news photography in a world where cell phone cameras are delivering important images, they are still most valuable because they are discreet, small and quiet. And they produce their highest quality images at low ISOs.

In decent light where you can use low ISOs, 200 or less, it's difficult to argue that reproduction on a newspaper or magazine page will be noticeably different from any other photography. Alex Majoli shot wars in Iraq and the Congo for Newsweek with point-and-pushes, and that was in 2003.

In low light, tiny cameras mean tiny sensors which mean lots of noise at higher ISOs and, sometimes, limited tonal range. Converting to black-and-white and working a few tricks in Photoshop can help, but most of the photographers that I know prefer to keep the ISO low. With slow zoom lenses that can mean very slow shutter speeds.

I recently saw some pictures that Janis Lewin was preparing to exhibit in California. One shot, taken in a dim New York subway station, was of a couple kissing. Taken with an early Canon Powershot, Lewin opted for the low ISO and the slow shutter speed. There's subject motion and a touch of camera motion. Esthetically, it works; it's the right choice for a good photograph, probably the wrong choice to show a news editor who wants a "sharp" photograph and doesn't care that the guy in the picture is going to punch you out if you use flash. Right now, the point-and-push is not a complete solution to the problems imposed by a big DSLR.

But, every few months a point-and-push comes out that raises the bar. They will probably never equal the quality of the larger DSLRs, which will also keep getting better. But they will become a better backstop when the big boys aren't appropriate. Two of the most recent in this huge field, and thus two of the most advanced, are the Canon G10 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, two very different cameras. Herewith, two very brief descriptions:

The Canon G10 is a pocket camera if the pocket is in your outdoor jacket, not in your tight jeans. It has a 14.7-megapixel sensor, the largest I am aware of in a camera of its type. Its lens is a 28 to 140mm equivalent with a max aperture of f/2.8 to 4.5 and effective image stabilization. While the megapixel count sounds a bit like overkill, overall image quality is very good. While I use it almost exclusively to produce raw images, it will produce raw and large jpeg images simultaneously for those who need a quick image for transmission. The buffer is large enough that you can pull off a second shot in less than a second. The optical finder is better than the one in the G9, but still a disappointment. And that's one of the only disappointments in this camera. Used carefully at its lowest speed, the results are exceptional. For anything that's going into reproduction, even full-page in a news magazine, I wouldn't hesitate to use ISO 400 if necessary.

The Panasonic Lumix is tiny, truly shirt-pocketable. Not a big deal normally until you realize that this is a camera you can ALWAYS have with you (please, no e-mail about nudists or pajamas). The price you pay for this is no optical viewfinder. It's a 10-megapixel image, shoots raw and jpeg, produces its best images at ISO 80 but is completely acceptable at 400 and will shoot different formats (16:9m 3:2 and 4:3). But, the real reason to use the camera is the 24 to 60mm equivalent zoom with an aperture range of f/2 to 2.8. And, by the way, it's a Vario-Summicron from LEITZ; so, the world of photojournalism does come full circle.

This month's "picture that has nothing to do with the column" is from a demonstration of lighting equipment at a long ago Photokina. Clearly, the reporter was more interested in interviewing the model than the photographer. But if you don't know the circumstance, it's just a weird picture.

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© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer

More of Bill Pierce's pictures can be seen on the Web at