Friday, 9 September 2011

Camera systems - limits desires and wishes

musing missive

Readers of my blog may know that (among other things) I've ruminated about wanting a full frame 35mm camera for some time. As a nearly disengaged Canon EOS user, I still keep an eye on the auction for the prices of a 5D (first version) and ponder about the benefits to me in my photography of the fuller frame size.

I have mainly organized my camera gear around the 4/3 format and have moved away form EOS (read sold my stuff) to facilitate that. For almost everything the 4/3 format seems to me to be the best compromise of:
  • light weight and compact
  • lower cost
  • high quality images
  • access to great optics outside the camera system
Since the majority of my photography benefits from this set, I've abandoned APS digital SLR and moved to 4/3. Perhaps part of this is that coming from 35mm I felt that the APS size was fraught with compromise. My lenses didn't look right on that format, wides and normals were no longer that (due to the 1.6 multiplier) and wide APS specific zooms were both bulky and expensive.

Recently someone posted a comment on my post about "shallow normals"
I have been thinking about full frame for a while for the same reason in part (also resolution). Unfortunately it means either ponying up boatloads of cash or switching systems to Canon and still ponying up lots of cash (though not as much). Of course, film still works well for me in my trusty film SLR, but I need a good scanner to really make it work. My flatbed is lackluster.

and it started me thinking again (not that I stop for long) about what I'm missing with my existing 4/3 camera system, and that is of course shallow depth of field with a "normal" lens.

If I want infinite depth of field I'll choose a compact digicam and just about every photo will have exactly that: everything in focus. Its a bit dis-interesting if you ask me. What makes some pictures jump out is that ability to focus on the subject. In fact its so important a concept we actually incorporate it into our language:

Bill, you have to focus on the job if you're going to get it right.

Just to recap on what it is which makes a shallow depth of field, it is in the main the ability to open up the aperture to a large diameter. It is not (as is commonly thought) just the F-Number. A normal lens for Full Frame is 50mm, and a typical aperture for shallow would be f2 or so on that system (f1.4 even better). So being able to open the lens aperture to 25mm wide or more will give a nice shallow field of focus. This is a diameter of half the focal length of the lens. Smaller formats make this difficult to achieve because (for example) on a 4/3 system a normal is about a 25mm. So such shallow normal would need to be 25mm in diameter, which makes for a lens diameter equal to that of the lens.

As it happens a shallow normal on full frame (or bigger) is as cheap as it gets, but on smaller formats becomes increasingly difficult and expensive to achieve.

Most of what I like to photograph is in the wide to normal area. In the ten or more years I've been using Digital I've waited for the time when digital can allow me to completely replace my 35mm film bodies and replace them with Digital. While it can do most of what I want to do, it doesn't do everything.

Its a little strange to me that in the twelve years after buying my first digital camera something which will more or less replace my 35mm camera has not emerged. What has happened however is; I get better telephoto than I've ever had (and for a much lower price), by using Digital I get better control over the process than I've ever had, get access to images quickly, and get in the main much better images than I did before.

I'm pretty clear in my mind now that smaller formats are better for telephoto, and larger formats are better for wide. The image below is a wide angle taken with 6x12 format on 120 roll film.

I just would not have been able to achieve that with a smaller format.

So when I'm thinking of using my longer lenses, 4/3 format is what I would reach for, but when it comes to "normal" to wide I struggle with the limits of the smaller format.

Clearly with telephoto getting shallow depth of focus is easy.

Hey, fellas, there's seeds here again!In fact it can be so shallow you can miss the target and get a useless image. If you look at that image of the Tit there the tail feather was already out of focus.

I would argue that had I used a small digi cam for this shot and had the background in focus that the shot would be far less interesting, you eye would not be drawn to the birds body (well ok, butthole) and the background would distract rather than enhance.

The same is true I wanted to use a normal lens (not tele, not wide), many images look better having shallow depth of field. For example in this image below which was taken with my 50mm f1.8 on my full frame camera when putting a family member to rest.

The focus is on the subject that really drives your attention to the matter and the background is not lost, it remains in the picture yet focus is not on it.

This is what can be done with a shallow normal and smaller formats just don't have access to this because it is a function of angle of view, capture format and aperture diameter (not f-stop).

Modern (read young or only "digital native") photographers are usually completely ignorant of this because they don't think in sensor size as commonly as film photographers thought of film format sizes. In fact if you think "full frame" is large (and you don't know much about large format) then I suggest you read this post.

For example, this is 35mm negative overlaid on 120 roll film in 6x9 format.

Kirk Tuck on his blog is currently re-discovering what the advantages are of shallow normal lenses in portraiture using 120 roll film cameras (which are the format in black and white in that above image). On his format a shallow normal still needs 20mm aperture diameter. His 80mm is a normal and f4 is a 20mm diameter.


So many things are about compromise, taking photographs can be too. So for me then, what holds me back from going for a 5D which would give me full frame and access to shallow normals?

I can summarize this as size, weight and money.

Despite selling most of my EOS and EF stuff I have kept the following:
  • EF24 f2.8
  • EF50 f1.8
  • two EOS film bodies (like really, wouldn't get anything for them)
For quite a while the twin pair of 24mm and 50mm were my main pair of lenses. Since going digital I have acquired the following:
  • Olympus 21mm f3.5 (gosh I love this lens on full frame)
  • Olympus 50mm f1.8
  • Olympus 100mm f2.8
  • a bunch of Canon FD stuff which I use on my 4/3 system
Essentially for me to go with a with an EOS 5D I'd need to add $1200 mostly what I'd gain would be shallow normal (and shallow wide). I could just use 35mm film for those specific shots and keep using my existing 35mm bodies (which would be 2 EOS film bodies as well as an OM body or two).

One thing that the 4/3 stuff has in its favor is low price. You can get a used G1 for peanuts and I could go buy a new G2 right now for less than $300.

The irony is that while the bodies are cheap in 4/3 the lenses are not. While a 50m f1.8 is under $200 for almost every full frame system, the equivalent in 4/3 is double that: around $400 (or more here in Australia).

The options of the 4/3 system has spoiled me in price expectations in some ways, as I struggle to feel that a used 5D (which is a 7 year old camera) is worth the extra $800

As well as the additional cost that I'd be lumbered with a blob of a camera. I've had 10D and 20D and trust me the micro 4/3 camera allowed me to breath a sigh of relief for carrying on hikes. This comparison of the G1 with the very useful 14-45 lens fitted to a 10D with a lightweight fixed focus lens like the 50mm f1.8 shows the difference in both bulk and weight (check the numbers on the scales)

And comparing the 10D and the 20D are about the same size an so when comparing them with the 5D we see that there is not much difference in size between all of them.

In some situations the size of a camera like these is not an issue, but in other situations it is. Hiking is one such situation as is attending a function. Just recently I've heard people suggesting that in street photography the bigger cameras are obtrusive and put people off, while smaller cameras are tolerated.

So size does matter, both camera and capture format. I've previously observed that the G1 and the older Olympus 35mm OM cameras are actually the same size. In these pictures the camera taking the shot does not change location, and the cameras are placed in exactly the same spot

the G1


and the an OM-10 35mm film SLR:


So if they can produce small phones with the electronics to power an 8 megapixel camera, then I'm quite sure that a camera the size of the G1 is entirely possible.

If I could get that then I would not hesitate at all. It would be ideal if we could have different sensor sizes available in the same body size so that we could have an excellent situation: we could extend what our lenses covered by just changing bodies.
  • my 21mm would be an excellent compact wide
  • my 50mm f1.8 would be both a great shallow normal (on FF) AND a portrait lens (on 4/3)
  • my 200mm f2.8 would be the great compact and light weight effective 400mm that it is
  • my 300mm f4 would be the great effective 600mm that it is
that would take the angst out of the decision for me.

So in the mean time I'm probably unlikely to move towards the Canon 5D despite the allure of the shallow normal in my photography. I'll leave you with one last shallow normal shot, to your health!


LensBubbles said...

I think now that the 5D classic has fallen in price (~$900 CAD), it's as cheap as you can get for a relatively modern full frame digital. For you, the EF 24mm and the OM 21mm would give you pretty wide angles you need and for normal view, there is the optically excellent EF50mm f1.8. Everything else you have the G1 to cover the long end. Come to think of it, I might also consider selling off a couple of my EF mount lenses and get a 5D classic too, but trading lenses for bodies is not what I really like to do.

Noons said...

Remind me to bring you the Nokton:
when I'm up there next.
Still trying to make it before November, hoping work insanity will die down a bit then. I reckon that one with your Pana will go peachy.

Charles Maclauchlan said...

forgive me if you've written about this in a previous post but will you address the manual focus capabilities of your 4/3 camera? I carried a Nikon F from new in 1970 'till my grand daughter's birth 9 years ago. While I will grudgingly admit that auto focus systems are crisper, they have an annoying habit of focusing where they see fit vs where I do. I keep going to smaller and smaller digital cameras but as you mention the enormous depth of field isn't always desired...and they focus where they see fit. So far I've been unable to actually commit to a 4/3 or an APS censored system.

obakesan said...


I haven't and I have been meaning to do that ... I'll do that soon.

But in summary I will say that when I used a 10D or 20D that I had back focus issues with critical subjects using camera AF. I absolutely NEVER get this on the Panasonic with AF lenses.

Further the manual focus with legacy lenses on the G series and GH series cameras (G10 excluded and not GF) is shit hot. It is a bigger and better view finder experience than *any* dslr I've used.

Further you do not have the issue of screen alignment with the focal plane because the image you see on the electronic viewfinder IS that captured by the sensor.

Given you can get a G1 body used for under $200 you can start using your Nikon 50mm lens for very little

obakesan said...

but anyway Charles, I thought you were sworn off chunky cameras?

Charles Maclauchlan said...

hahaha. You're correct. I seldom carry a chunky camera (well other than my xPan film camera I mean). I am intrigued however by your experiences putting manual focus lenses from other manufacturers onto your G1.

Also, even though the sun seldom shines here for very long, when it does a viewfinder is really needed.

It's a slippery slope though, I get to thinking about it for a while and then I note that the Nikon D700, (like the Canon 5D) is selling used for a song. Suddenly I'm considering a backpack for gear and then the entire idea just goes away. Your recent post has me thinking about new gear again. Thanks a lot!

obakesan said...


>Suddenly I'm considering a backpack for gear
>and then the entire idea just goes away. Your recent post has me thinking about new gear again

well that's why I'm still using the G1 (well I swapped it for a GH1 so I can get video but there essentially the same to look at).

Yesterday I was doing stuff with our staff day and I used the camera with just a small hip belt pouch that held one lens. I had with my an OM 100mm f2.8

In combination with the 14-45 the 100mm gave me that close head and shoulder stuff from a comfortable typical-room distance and the 14-45 for most everything else (especially the hand held video as the OIS makes it look like its on a steady cam)

So I get as useful camera as you could reasonably ask for, lens versatility for the situation and light weight with nearly nothing to carry.

Charles Maclauchlan said...

OK. Well I did some looking and found a G2 and also a 20mm pancake lens, each for under $250 so...guess I will be a 4/3 shooter next week. I notice that there is quite a difference in price for the adapters. The e-bay copy I ordered was about 1/10th the price of the "Brand Name" versions. I hope it works. At $200+ it makes little sense to me to use an adapter at all...

obakesan said...


my neighbour has just bought a G2 as they were run-out items. I'm sure you'll find the image quality interesting.

I concur entirely about the cheap adaptors, they are 99% of what the "name brand" ones are with the main difference being there are less middle men taking money out of the manufacturer's pockets.

I'll put up a blog post on setting up your G camera for use with adapted lenses.

Charles Maclauchlan said...

well "interesting" often has negative connotations but I'm hopeful. I did a quick review of the write ups on this camera and it came across as a slightly improved G-1. Perhaps not huh?

I figured that the 2 or 3 times a year when I kinda wish I had a telephoto makes this worth a try. Unless I damage it I don't see the lens losing any value so my investment is $249. The value of digital equipment evaporates but that's not a killer amount. Also I understand this system has a Damn Skippy 8mm fisheye and I am a fan of the fisheye look.