The Latest Sensors are Always the Best, Sharpest and Happiest, Right?

I know it's the Holiday Season and as an American blogger I have almost a sacred duty to inflame your lust for a new camera, lens or costly accessory so you will order said unit and I will have a bit more cash in my Christmas stocking from Amazon.com via their affiliate program (which, incidentally, costs you nothing extra...) but---I'm just not in the mood to be mercantile right now because I'm not feeling that it's really that important to buy any of the new gear that's out there  today when there is so much surplus "last season" stuff out there that is almost as good as the new stuff....or maybe better. 

I'm going off on a tangent right now that has very little to do with science and perhaps more to do with the emotion of seeing instead of the quantification side of judging things. As an example it's pretty much a given that on most computer screens (where the vast majority of people ingest and enjoy photographs) a sharp image from a lower megapixel camera will look better than a massive and much higher resolution camera file. Try it yourself with any of the cameras you own and you'll find it's true. Now, if you are using the cameras to produce mondo sized printed posters you'll definitely decide that bigger is better so newer is better. But honestly, how many of us even get around to printing the majority of our images?  If you are truthful you'll admit that mostly you share your images at about 2000 pixels on the long side, right? So while those with a scientific bent can show us that the bigger, newer sensor is quantitatively much better and can equal the on-screen look of the less populated sensor through the process of downsampling or binning it's really just theoretical for our every day use.

Why am I hesitant to rush out and buy a newer, bigger, more specification-glorious camera right now? Well, maybe it's because I'm coming to realize that for my uses those cameras might not be the best choice. The reason I have a photo of the Kodak DCS 760 at the head of the blog today is to serve as a reminder that some of the most wonderful digital portraits I ever took were done with this camera and that I often reverted back to it long after having "upgraded" to cameras like the D2x, etc. because I LIKED THE LOOK OF THE FILES BETTER. I didn't measure anything or go to DXO to get their considered opinion, instead I used a very complex method I learned long ago: I looked at the images. The slow, noisy, CCD sensor in the DCS 760 ( a whopping six megs) made skin tones look wonderful and had a feeling of depth that I don't usually see in the cameras we rush to buy today. 

Several times in the last ten years I upgraded cameras NOT because I needed better image quality but because I needed other unrelated features to make my jobs out in the field more flexible and accurate. I traded up from one camera that had a small, low res, uncalibrated LCD screen on the back to one that had a much bigger screen because it was easier to see (an more accurately) what I might end up with when I brought the images back into the studio to post process them. I upgraded to prevent nasty surprises.

Early on I had a Nikon D100 camera. It was a very nicely done camera. In time Nikon came out with a camera that had more resolution and a better screen but the biggest reason I felt compelled to upgrade was the fact that the weakest point of the D100 had nothing to do with the quality of the files but with the paucity of the buffer. If you shot raw you would get four images and then you would need to pause while the camera processed the files and wrote to the card. It was tedious. I am a garrulous and promiscuous shooter and the small buffer really cramped my style. But in terms of image quality both my D100 and my D2H were better photograph making machines than the D200 ever was, no matter how quickly it was able to whip its mediocre constructs through its internal process. (Can you tell that I loathed that camera? God it was awful. A real example of checking off the marketing boxes with tedious engineering).

Recently I jumped down another silly rabbit hole. I had a client give me a job the parameters of which I thought would be outside the performance envelope of the micro four thirds cameras I was trying to press into service for nearly everything. I did some quick research on the sharpest, highest resolution cameras I could buy that would also be cost effective and have a system that would be (for a portrait photographer) relatively easy financially to slide into. For better or worse the Nikon D7100 was the choice I made. If you need very sharp, very high resolution files I can recommend the camera with very few caveats. It's actually my idea of the best APS-C working camera out there right now.

Well, since the Summer I have used it pretty extensively (but please note that I shoot a lot and also constantly rotate other cameras into the mix as well), so much so that I decided I should have a back up camera of those times when its feature set suggested its use out on a remote location. You gotta have a back up, right? So I went back to my research and after researching every recent Nikon camera body I settled on a used D7000 for my back up. The first one I tried had some massive back focus problems so I returned it, waited a while and then found another one at a decent price. I immediately tested it and then AF fine-tuned all the AF lenses I intended to use on it. Then I took it out for a series of walks to check out the overall performance of the machine. It was nice. It focused as quickly as all of my current cameras. It handled low light levels at least as well as all of my current cameras, including the three year newer D7100. I came to trust that camera as a working tool.

Recently I shot an evening event for the Texas Appleseed Foundation at the Four Seasons Hotel here in Austin. Most of the images would be used on the web and repurposed as five by seven inch prints for attendee/donor gifts. I decided to use the D7000 as my primary "grip and grin" camera for the event mostly because it's largest Jpeg file was just right. A good intersection of high image quality but not so much information as to bloat the files. I used it with flash and the flash was modified by a Rogue bounce apparatus. I stuck an 85mm lens on the D7100 and used it for about 20 % of the shots. When I started to compare the files in post production I found that I preferred the color and tonality of the portraits from the D7000 every single time. 

That led me to start using the D7000 as the primary camera and keeping the D7100 camera as the back up. And that interested me. Was there something about the ever increasing resolution and dynamic range of the ever newer sensors that, while measuring better, is aesthetically at odds at least with my perceptions of what is good? To discover more I called a friend who sometimes sits as a model for me and we made a bunch of tests. Same lens, same light. 

It's hard to quantify the actual differences but I'd say that the D7100 works sheer force. By that I mean it relies for its impressions of sharpness and quality on endless assemblages of endless dots. But it feels a bit muddier than the D7000. The files feel almost to thick for me. The D7000 feels more open and crisp. As I say, it's hard to put into logical words but the D7000 feels more like it's making images to me where the D7100 feels like a lot of the little dots are just wasted filler that ends up giving you more detail as you increase file size but also makes the files seem frizzly and less substantial as you increase on screen magnification. It may just be that my lenses aren't up to the challenge but..... it's all in the way the image looks not in the way it measures.

I also talked to a friend who is in the fashion industry and who shoots with a large assortment of cameras. He shot with Olympus EM-5 cameras among many others and, upon announcement he rushed out and bought an EM-1. He says the EM-1 is a much better handling camera but that he much prefers the colors and especially the handling of flesh tones from the sensor in the EM-5 cameras. I had wondered if my experience with the Nikons was nikon-limited until I heard from him. With this new information (and four EM-5's in the drawer) I decided to borrow an EM-1 and compare for myself. What I found tracked what I saw on the Nikons as well as on the Olympus cameras. The older model had a palette and overall rendering that I preferred. 

But now, in late 2014, the reasons I might have reflexively upgraded in years past are no longer nearly as valid. The finders aren't worlds better. (yes, the EM-1 has a much better EVF) they are better but not in a "make it or break it" way. The buffers are pretty much invisible to me on all four of the camera under discussion. So I have to ask myself, "is the upgrade actually to downgrade?"

In the same way many people thought that the Olympus e1 and a few other 4:3 cameras that used Kodak's CCD imagers rendered a much more pleasant image than the following generation of cameras that used CMOS sensors. Again, the newer cameras measured better  but whether the holistic image was superior is one of those subjective questions that can probably only be answered by the users.  There are non-camera analogies all over the place. The handling of mature generation rear wheel drive cars versus the early generations of front wheel drive cars. The look of finely tweaked tube computer monitors versus the first few generations of flat screens. Old Coke v. New Coke. But what I am seeing in comparing the Nikon cameras really has nothing to do with CCD versus CMOS because both cameras use CMOS imagers and both are imbued with the same color profiles by their makers. What I think we are seeing is an unintended artifact of a more highly populated sensor versus a more loosely populated sensor. And it may be that some people will prefer one over the other while others won't. And there will be a third contingent that sees no differences at all. But we don't care about that group...

So, where did I finally fall in on all of this? I decided that I liked shooting most stuff with the D7000 better than the D7100. I like the look of the files. 16 megapixels is more than enough resolution for everything I shoot and when I want to go over the top I can always trot out the D7100 and put it on a tripod and lock up the mirror. Smaller files means I am more often disposed to shoot raw files or, when already shooting raw files I am more likely to go "platinum level" and shoot them at 14bits instead of 12. I know I won't run out of card space nearly as quickly. 

I liked the D7000 so much I bought one more this week on Amazon. It was new in the box with free delivery for a whopping $525. While that's a bit beyond my "pocket change" category it's a minute price to pay for a back up camera that contains a sensor I like but which will almost certainly be discontinued in all new cameras. And what artists like most is choice. My wife is familiar with the way I think. My belief is that when you find something you really like you may as well buy a second copy because you can be certain that the more you enjoy whatever the product is the more likely it will be quickly and unceremoniously discontinued and replaced with some similar product that, for a myriad of reasons, you will like much less. This is why finding a shirt that looks fantastic and fits perfectly is a logical situation for duplication. If you don't feel that way about your current camera you may not be using the camera that's perfect for you. Or you may be one of those people who believe that all things just get better and better. Tell that to the owners of classic 1966 Lincoln Continental, complete with suicide doors. They'll laugh you out of the garage.

There are always trade-offs. You gain some things in a new camera and you lose stuff. Some of it is handling. Some of it is ephemeral and personal and some of it is subjectively aesthetic = the difference between accuracy and "pleasing" in the rendition of the files. This seems to be the year that I discovered cameras I loved just as they hit the sweetest part of the price curve which means in a few months they'll be gone forever and available only in the used market. Caveat Emptor. And, Be Prepared.

One little non-gear ad: It's for the Kindle version of the novel.