Discussion points: An ideal format?

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Flexible? yes. Practical? Not exactly…

Today’s post will be the first in the experimental ‘discussions’ theme proposed a little while back.

We all know there is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ format or system – there are myriad considerations for selection, based on creative properties and technical ones – for example, depth of field, dynamic range, ‘graphic-ness’, color depth, shooting envelop, ability to deploy under certain conditions that might be weight restricted, system completeness for specialised lenses, camera movements etc. And this is before we even get into any thoughts around cost (for hobbyists) or return on investment (for pros). In most cases, we’re left either stuck with a single system that fills all needs but perhaps not perfectly, or multiple systems and formats and the inconvenience of both overlap and lack of it. For example – I love to create graphic images with a lot of compression and infinite depth of field, but this requires a narrow angle of view and thus longer equivalent focal length. I could do it with my H6D-100c, but the sensor on that is so large that I can clearly see a difference in focal plane at f8 and just 150mm-e, with a subject 100m away. Clearly, this is not workable – so I also have an E-M1.2 and Canon 100D with their respective telephotos for that kind of work. The graphic intent of the output means that limited dynamic range and crushed blacks aren’t so much a problem as desired most of the time.

But I suspect the reality is not that many people legitimately have as wide a range of requirements as a working pro; I might cover everything from portraits to documentary work to formal product or finished architecture on a single assignment, some of which might be shot from a moving platform like a boat or aircraft. Most formats (M4/3, APSC, FF, MF etc.) have matured to the point where it’s possible to actually find an optimum for what you do. And contrary to popular opinion – I don’t think bigger is necessarily always better.

Here’s the way I think when making hardware selection choices:

Smaller sensor (think M4/3) strengths:

  • Overall system size, weight and price
  • Stealth
  • Extended depth of field
  • Easier to get a ‘graphic’ look
  • DR limitations not that bad because most are EVF-based and exposure can be set very precisely
  • Fast lenses are more common (and more accessible) – somewhat offsetting the sensor size
  • Speed, ease of running and gunning
  • Stabilisation – less resolution and lower moving mass significantly increases effectiveness

Smaller sensor weaknesses:

  • Image quality – resolution, DR, color accuracy, noise
  • Limited DOF control and control over focal plane with camera movements etc.

Larger sensor (think 54×40 full 645) strengths:

  • Image quality – at least 1-1.5 stops better noise at the pixel level; up to 6.7x the pixels (15MP M4/3 vs 100MP 645), which means for a given print size, perceptual noise might be up to four stops better – and that’s before counting color accuracy (M4/3 is 12 bit; 645s are all 16 bit), dynamic range and sheer spatial resolution
  • Depth of field control through both aperture and camera movements

Larger sensor weaknesses:

  • Size
  • Weight
  • Cost
  • Limited fast lenses – mostly f2.8 or slower (with few exceptions)
  • Shot discipline required, overall deployment flexibility

Needless to say, quantity of points isn’t necessarily indicative of importance or individual photographer priorities.

And whilst you might complement a small format with a larger one and vice versa – I think you need to go up at least two ‘sizes’ in area before the difference justifies the added inconvenience; e.g. a favourite combination in the past was the 44x33mm 645Z and 24x16mm GR. There’s no point carrying APS-C and FF; most of the time you might as well just crop from FF since the lenses are going to be similar in size and weight, plus you won’t gain that much in other areas unless your needs are very specialised (e.g. D810 and D500).

I personally would like to carry just one format – especially if one of those is larger/ heavier, but my professional requirements make that largely impossible. If I could, it would probably be full 645, and as heretic as this sounds: a FF-sized crop is still 40MP, and I can always downsize ?

Here’s where you come in:

What do you think is the ideal compromise?

What do you think is best for your needs – and do you have it already/ are you sure? 

Discuss.

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