The roaring debate over small differences in digital sensor sizes masks the reality that we've lost powerful visual tools. Caution: Many Words.

Beautiful Person. Camera: Hasselblad. Lens: 150mm Zeiss Sonar.
Lighting by Kirk.

There's been a roaring debate on one of the popular professional forums about what kind of gear is "professional."  As I'm sure you know this kind of hysterical defense of whatever is most popularly aspirational in the gear catalog has been going of for the better part of a decade in the digital space and for the better part of 70 years in the film space. The argument goes in two directions. There are two traditional and strongly held beliefs on the bigger and more advanced is always better side. One says that a 'true' professional must always bring the highest quality equipment that is capable of the highest metrics of performance in order to fair and appropriate for clients.

Recently the advocates of this position found themselves arguing that even if one were only to be hired and paid to make images for the web they are duty bound to use something like a Nikon D800 so that their client will be future-proofed by the resultant images. The idea being that while this year your client may think they only need (and want to pay for) low resolution images to put on a website they may increase their marketing reach next year or ten years down the road and we, as true professional photographers, are duty bound to protect these poor client from their own lack of foresight and provide images that will best stand the test of time and the ever increasing resolution of all media. In other words, you'd better make sure you shoot huge raw files when you shoot for that one time, work for hire, giveaway job because that same client who spec'd the web job is almost certainly going to come back to you and have you making 40 by 60 inch posters of the same images a year down the road. Right.

If you've been working in the industry for any amount of time I think you have a good handle on what has historical legs and what doesn't and I'm here to tell you that the headshot of Vicki in accounting is never going to be a photo that will be used bigger than 640 by 480 no matter how hard you dream otherwise.

The second leg of the argument is that every client deserves a photographer with the best gear imaginable because it confirms the photographer's commitment to excellence and his commitment to craft. Hiding behind this argument is the fear that if the photographer making the argument shows up with anything that the client's mail room clerk or girlfriend can afford to shoot said client will realize that only gear matters and will give all future photo duties to the girlfriend of the mail room clerk.

If you are relatively young you'll think that this irrational worship of gear is an affectation of the digital age but nothing could be further from the truth. In the "oldest days" only a view camera with a bellows was considered pro. Then it was slowly displaced by medium format camera and then again those were displaced by 35mm film cameras. There has always been a progression in which the two conflicting parameters of image size and film quality shift and one medium can displace the other by dint of supplying a quality level commensurate with current industry standards.

When I first started shooting integrated circuit dies at high magnification my clients at Motorola insisted that the images be made on 4x5 inch transparencies. As the geometries of the dies got smaller and smaller the process required more specialized lenses and much greater bellows extensions. At some point I reached the point where we were trying to image 4 x 4 mm die squares onto 4x5 inch transparency film with two or more feet of bellow extension and so little space between the lens front element and the die that we had to invent new ways to pipe light to the surface of the die. Yikes.

The shoe dropped when we were confronted with a new line of integrated circuits whose geometry was 20% smaller. Our choice was to totally retool, with tens of thousands of dollars of spending to fulfill a handful of jobs per year. In desperation I called the president of our local ASMP chapter, Reagan Bradshaw and asked him if he had any secrets he could share.

He thought about it for about twenty seconds and then he advised me like this: "Get a micro lens for your 35mm camera that will fill the frame with the chip die. You might need a bellows. Fill the frame with the dies and shoot it on Kodachrome 25 film. Take the film to such and such a lab and have them dupe the image up to 4x5. Deliver the 4x5 and keep your mouth shut."

I did as advised and discovered that it was a much better way to shoot the tiny dies. There was more depth of field which was critical at those magnifications. The parallel planes were more accurate. It was easier to view and focus the images. We could cost effectively bracket and not have to worry about the focus drifting. And, because there was additional control in the duping process, we could deliver an image that was more technically perfect. The upshot? The clients loved the new and improved imaging.

The whole debate today seems to center around whether or not a professional must have and shoot with full frame cameras in order to be certifiably professional or whether one of the "lesser" formats can provide a workable solution.

We've been doing our research lately as regards various camera formats. The bottom line is that full frame 35mm style cameras with the latest sensors are marginally better than the next smaller sensors when all cameras are used under some sort of duress. By this I mean in situations where the camera must deliver the highest quality with no supplemental lighting in dark situations. Or, jobs that require massive enlargements of printed material that can be examined at unusually close viewing distances.

Most professional photographers, the vast, vast majority, are shooting with flashes in their studios and flashes on location. Part of their jobs is creating beautiful light. Good photographers are not just strict industrial documentarians who show up, meter wretchedly ugly light, set the correct settings on their cameras and then blaze away. Also, an amazing number of people are shooting in glorious, bright daylight.

The people who "can't imagine living without my 36 megapixel D800" are the same ones who once defended their APS-C, Nikon D2X cameras as "the best camera I will ever need." And the funny thing is that the final use targets for the images haven't really changed at all, it's just that the same photographers have spent the better part of a decade doing what their clients and audiences will likely never do: examining each digital frame at 100 or 200% on desktop computer monitors. If 150 mph capability is good in a car then 200 mph capability must be even better even though the speed limit is invariably 65 mph. This is probably why rational drivers buy Hondas and Buicks and Volkswagens and why generally only dissipated former rock stars, Justin Bieber and incredibly sociopathic hedge fund managers commute around town in Bugatti Veyrons.

So, in my research and in my forum reading the real conflict seems to be between people for whom good enough really is more than good enough and the people who must have the absolute best even if they are never in a position to use even half the capability of the best camera and even when the budgets for photographic assignments are static or declining.

The crux of the ongoing push and shove is the pervasive idea that professional metrics are all about things like weather proofing, size, indestructibility and impressive exteriors but the leading conflict is always about the size and the density or resolution of the sensors. The biggest contrast is between the folks who've jumped into small mirror less cameras versus those who hold steadfastly to the faux standard of the late 1990's, the 35mm "full framers."

Both camps are totally wrong. Absolutely, totally wrong. Once we crested the 12 megapixel mark I strongly suggest that just about everyone hit a sweet spot for resolution that works of most rational practitioners. I'll agree that people who routinely print and sell prints bigger than 20 by 30 inches have benefited from higher resolution cameras. But I'm also willing to bet that among all my professional friends and all of my advanced amateur friends I could count perhaps 5 who print larger than that on a regular basis.

I know that I've not printed anything bigger than 12 by 18 inches for a long time and I know that my clients aren't asking for large prints either (I shoot for commercial clients so if you shoot weddings or babies or big families you have different needs). Almost all of my clients are using the materials we generate to make ads on the web. Or they use the stills in television commercials. Large prints are largely an unfulfilled afterthought.

The real obvious but silent elephant in the room is the look of the photograph. People praise full frame because they can put stuff out of focus in the backgrounds more easily and at a slightly steeper ramp than can people using APS-C sensored cameras and those APS-C guys can do the same in comparison to m4:3 shooters who can now brag that they have less depth of field than the new 1 inch shooters. But of course it's all unadulterated bullshit because anyone who knows the history of photography can plainly see that if the gold standard metric is narrow depth of field and a quicker ramp from sharp to lusciously blurred then that visual effect can be much, much better achieved by shooting with a full 6x6 cm or 6x7 cm camera. And ultimately can be achieved at the very, very edge of diminishing returns with an 8x10 camera and a long lens (which matches the angles of view of the smaller formats).

If it's the look that is vital and not the technical gobble-dee-goop then all these people jockeying for ultimate pro status would logically reject then small format cameras (including FF) and make a bee line for the big stuff. Yes, big digital (as in medium format) is expensive but I just saw dozens of Hasselblad film cameras advertised on KEH.com for around $1000 each. A medium format image is just a scan away....  And I know my local dealer still carries bricks of medium format Tri-X so I know someone is still uncompromising with their aesthetics.

So to all the web experts who rise up and excoriate their professional brethren for shooting less than the holy grail of full ass 24x36mm I say "suck it up and get a bigger camera if your goals are imaging the way it was meant to be." And at the same time, by embracing the larger cameras they will ensure that their volatile clients will always have the actual, highest quality, future proofed formats at their disposals.

When I posted a blog two days ago about full frame cameras I was very clear about my particular expectations, I clearly stated that resolution or dynamic range were not a real consideration for me and that if I bought another full frame camera it would largely be to enjoy the "LOOK" of the format when compared to the smaller formats. There is no race here in my studio to see who can blow stuff up the biggest, the goal here is the LOOK. How does the focus slide off in the distance? How are the tonalities affected by the focal length AND the angle of view of the lenses we use? How do imagers respond to the out of focus areas.

If you are still measuring the success of a camera by how tightly the makers can pack pixels into a 24x36mm rectangle you may be missing the photographic art boat altogether.

In regard to pixel density and pixel size I've been reading some stuff from some more advanced photographers I follow who are interested in the visual effect and differentiated rendering of cameras with big sensors but small pixel counts. Cameras like the older Nikon D700 or the first Canon 1DS. They are seeing the imagers and lenses work together to create a different overall look than what they are able to achieve with the newer, denser cameras. The conversations started in response to some of Michael Reichmann's comments about the new Sony A7S camera with its "meager" 12 megapixels.

I don't know how to describe it all but I also read ATMTX's blog and I notice that he's picked up an ancient Olympus E-1 (not EM-1) camera and has been surprised and very pleased with it's very, very good color rendering. He notes that it does color and tone differently (and in some ways much more pleasingly) than current "state of the art" cameras. One famous fashion photographer recently wrote that he's buying a second copy of the original version of the Leica medium format digital camera because he sees such a profound difference in color rendering between the older CCD sensors in those cameras and the ubiquitous new CMOS chip that's infesting every new MF camera on the market.

To wrap this all up I'll end with two observations I've made many times. First is that until the advent of electronic viewfinders digital took away our choice of shooting formats (yes, I know you are a linear thinking, rational photo god who can crop in your head and you don't need guidelines or boundaries to see in a square or a 16:9 ratio......get over it). This robbed us, for at least ten years, of really easing back into the formats that worked for us individually and it was driven by the manufacturing need to homogenize the offerings and that, in turn worked hard to homogenize our collective use of formats as part of our art work.  Now the cameras with EVFs have given those back to us. Hopefully it will only be a matter of time until MF cameras and their signature looks are more widely available to photographers (financially).

The second observation is that faster lenses on smaller formats don't have the same focus fall off or reverse ramping that lenses with the same angle of view on different formats do and the leap between full frame 35mm style cameras and the beautiful 60 x 60mm cameras is a much more profound and visible leap than that between APS-C and full frame or that between m4:3 and APS-C. All three of those formats give you a rather constrained degree of variation. To get the real stuff requires making harder choices.

I'm happy to shoot with small cameras or large cameras but I do so (pun intended) with my eyes open. I know from experience what I gain and what I lose with each choice. If you've never used a medium format film or digital camera and you are busting someone's chops for choosing a one step smaller than full frame digital camera (APS-C) as being a profound difference in imaging I suggest that you: A.  Shut Up. B. Rent a bigger camera and shoot with it using lenses that match the ANGLE of VIEW of your favorite 35mm lenses and from the same distance to subject and then come back and tell us what you saw. It just might shift your visual sensibilities....

We tend to think these days, because of cost, that our only choices are between m4:3, APS-C and 24x36mm sensored cameras but that's just not true. The other variants are still out there. They exist in film cameras and they exist in ever less expensive medium format digital cameras. But the truth is that they take more sacrifice to buy and to use. And most of the self-proclaimed pros who "can't imagine not shooting with the best tools" and who don't take that plunge are being duplicitous. And perhaps duping themselves.

The bottom line is that the markets and the technology change all the time. The way I see the digital landscape today is that the m4:3 cameras ARE the 35mm cameras of our time. The APS-C cameras are the medium format cameras of today. The 35mm's are the bigger versions of the medium format cameras just as the Pentax 6x7 cm camera was the big daddy to the Pentax 645 cameras. And, finally, the best of the medium format cameras are the 4x5's and 8x10's of right now.

With the ever declining budgets and the ever diminishing use in print media you really have to ask yourself, as a business person, "do my clients really deserve THE BEST of all camera gear?" If we were in the pizza delivery business I think the analogy would be: Do my drivers need to be driving late model Porsches? The pizza could get there quicker and the customers would be most impressed.....