ILC / “3rd Gen” cameras

Trey Ratcliff seems to have opened a can of worms with his Stuck In Customs post about 3rd Gen cameras. And Scott Bourne – who’s broadly endorsed it – has taken some stick as well.

FWIW, I actually don’t have a problem with the content. I’ve worked with smaller sensor cameras (my four-Thirds kit uses the same sensor size) and I’ve been happy with them in that context. I also don’t feel dissatisfied if there isn’t a mirror going “clunk”.
I actually only moved from a C5050Z compact (underwater) to a DSLR because Olympus crippled its successors (slower lenses, no write buffering) and the competition didn’t allow RAW.

I am a big believer in “horses for courses”, however. There are areas where these systems can offer advantages, and others where larger formats can be more helpful.

Just to demonstrate what I mean – I had an opportunity to play with a Hasselblad recently, and was stunned by the quality. But it ain’t a “carry around” tool by any means. And I’ve a Mamiya 645 (film) camera that delivers lovely results, when I’ve the time to use it properly. Each of these has its place.

So – back to the ILCs – we need to analyse these products between the temporary drawbacks (which are a matter of the current product offerings) and their qualities (which are a matter of the laws of physics), and how to make best use of them.

Now, there are a variety of sensor sizes available from the Four/Thirds (2.0x crop factor) found in Olympus and Panasonic, the APS size in Sony’s NEX range and the smaller still sizes in the Nikon and Pentax offerings. I’m going to be writing about the 2.0x crop as an average.

Of course, there’s still a big gorilla – Canon – that hasn’t tried to squeeze into the room yet. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.
Nikon’s “1” format seems to have tried to avoid a cannibalising either of its DSLR ranges. I suspect that the sensor may be too small, but – as I posted before – there’s a possibility that it’s only really there to kick some of the competition off the shelves.

Lens availability

IMHO, the biggest problem with the ILC formats has been the choice quality of lenses available. They haven’t really been fast enough, and they haven’t really offered the quality.
And yes, you can use your legacy glass, but that kinda defeats the object (small and portable) even if the autofocus and aperture controls still work.
I’m sure this’ll change, though, and we’re now seeing fast, quality primes starting to emerge.

The other big shortfall at the moment is in long lenses (300mm+ focal length). Now, the smaller sensor formats should mean that you don’t need as long a lens to “fill” the sensor. And the smaller image area should mean that you don’t need the lenses to have the same diameter. Smaller focal lengths should mean that the construction is less complex.
But for wildlife and action photographers, the quality is still necessary.

Olympus had a good crack at this with the Four/Thirds lenses (the 50-200mm zoom, and the 250mm prime, by all accounts, were high-performance lenses), but we’ve yet to see equivalents in the new format cameras.
(In case you hadn’t guessed, I regret the demise of the Four/Thirds format, just as sensor performance could have crossed into professional quality. There’s another post on the way …)

Build quality

It’s probably a fair comment that the build quality isn’t a “pro” standard, but – again – that’s something that could change over time. Anyway, if you’re a pro, these things are so cheap, and are developing so quickly, that you can just buy a new one (or maybe carry a lower spec model as a backup).

Size and Weight

The big advantage of the mirrorless cameras is their size – without the depth required by a mirror, lenses can be smaller, and the bodies are smaller.

This means you can fit it in your pocket, but also means that large legacy lenses aren’t going to balance up too well …

I actually don’t mind carrying a large camera around (most of the time). It does matter that I can get to the controls (big fingers) – so tiny wee cameras don’t have much appeal. And it is important that I can use a dioptre-adjusted viewfinder – I don’t tend to use liveview that often (that’s an age thing). If EVFs are fast enough, though, I don’t have a problem.

My experience with underwater (yup, fairly specialised, I know) is big cameras tend to intimidate critters (although that’s often down to the strobes bolted on the sides).
A smaller camera can get into more crevices, and creates less drag when you’re pushing it around (which means your air use is more economical).

Look like a professional …

My experience of working at events is that a big camera (preferably with a Metz hammerhead bolted on the side, and a battery pack add-on) sends a “This is a Professional” message.
Yes, of course it’s BS, and the end result may be indistinguishable, but people DO AS THEY’RE TOLD. And you do seem to have less problems with jobsworths (only a lunatic would carry all that junk around if he wasn’t getting paid for it).

Angle of View and Lens Properties

One of the interesting things about the new ILC camera ranges is where to pitch the advertising. Manufacturers don’t like to confuse customers (or shop sales staff). So is easier to explain a 50mm lens on a camera with a 2x crop factor is “100mm equivalent” – in terms of a 35mm camera.

But this equivalence only applies to the angle of view – effectively the amount of stuff that you can fit into a picture at the same distance from the subject. (There’s a post on Cambridge In Colour that explains all this really well).

But there are other lens properties that alter with focal length.
Depth of Field is the obvious one.
In general, the shorter the focal length (i.e. the wider the angle) the greater the depth of field.
So the D-o-F of a 100mm lens on a full-frame camera will be shallower than on a 50mm lens on a 2x crop camera at the same subject distance and aperture setting. So you need to stop down the aperture, or add light, increase ISO to get the same results.
But you don’t always want a lot of D-o-F, sometimes you want to isolate the subject – in which case a smaller sensor may make it more difficult (unless it’s achieved artificially).

The other thing that changes with the focal length of the lens is the foreshortening effect that you get with longer focal lengths (quite flattering for portraits) – and the corresponding exaggeration – with wide-angle lenses – of features close to the lens.

The smaller the sensor size, the more these factors are likely to come into play.

These don’t change. And (as far as I’m concerned) there’s no solution that fits every solution – but I’d rather keep the choice.

Wildlife and Action

There are some activities where you can’t get close. The bird’s in the air, or up a tree. You’re not allowed on a basketball court. You may want a mirror for that. You may also want a (slightly) cropped sensor camera, so you get pixels full of bird, rather than air.
If only Canon and Nikon made “Pro” lenses for their cropped formats (they’d be smaller and maybe even cheaper) …

For macro work, a cropped sensor can mean a smaller, lighter, more maneuverable, less intrusive rig and more depth of field. Other things being equal, you may feel that’s worthwhile…

Fitting it all in

The focal length / angle of view has another impact with wide angle shots – such as large groups or architectural photos, and that’s barrel distortion. A larger sensor (or film) area means that you can fit more into a shot, without it distorting.
This isn’t usually an issue for “normal” portraits, but there are some areas of photography more suited to full-frame.
And sometimes you might want that effect …

Summing up …

  • Mostly, a mirror doesn’t – in itself – matter, if EVF response s OK.
  • Smaller sensors will tend to yield greater depth of field; larger formats give a nice “drop off”.
  • Larger sensors (generally) tend to generate less noise in low-light.
  • Larger formats tend to produce less barrel distortion at wide focal lengths.
  • Sensor performance will improve at all format sizes. So will sensitivity.
  • There are some areas where larger formats will be needed. and others where smaller cameras yield better results.

So those are the technical things.

But there’s one other point to consider, and that’s the subliminal effect of focal lengths. And I haven’t bothered to find if there’s any research on this, but it makes sense to me …
What I mean by this is that our subconscious is likely to have been conditioned by experience.
So people my age – brought up consuming 35mm film proportions – may find other formats/perspectives can “jar”, whereas generations brought up on iPhones and compacts will “see” things differently.

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