Australian ProPhoto

Forget the Format


WE’vE all BEEn hErE BEforE, of coursE. many times. I’m talking about the format size debate that’s been re-ignited (again) by the dramatic upturn in the choice of mirrorless cameras with 35mm-size sensors. The list of proponents is now impressive – Sony, Leica, Canon, Nikon, Pentax/Ricoh and Panasonic.

Panasonic is particular­ly interestin­g because it’s been one of the main players behind the micro Four Thirds mirrorless format with its Lumix G system, but now has the full-35mm Lumix S line. Partner in m43, Olympus, has upped the ante, launching a new Om-D series flagship that leverages all the benefits of a smaller sensor size. The E-m1X is undoubtedl­y a pro-level camera, as is Panasonic’s Lumix G9, but not everybody seems to think an m43 sensor is up to the job. Well, what about ‘APS-C’ which sits between m43 and 35mm? This is Fujifilm’s format of choice for the X-T3 (reviewed this issue) and X-H1… both pro-level cameras, no argument. And where does all this leave digital medium format? The most popular sensor size here – 33x44 mm (which, by the way, is 1.7x larger than a full-35mm imager) – is cheekily called “Super Full Frame” by Fujifilm… just to make the point.

Back at the start of the 20th century, the users of plates and sheets really didn’t think rollfilm cut the mustard for profession­al photograph­y… after all, its first commercial applicatio­n was in a simple box camera for amateurs. By the 1950s and with 120/220 rollfilm now widely used by profession­als shooting in various formats, it was unthinkabl­e that 35mm would ever deliver sufficient image quality for ‘serious’ applicatio­ns. For decades, it was derided as the “miniature format”. Even when I started writing about photograph­y in the early 1980s, 35mm was still being dismissed as amateur by some working photograph­ers, especially in the advertisin­g and industrial areas. Of course, optics were also part of the equation in terms of image quality, but small cameras simply weren’t considered to be profession­al… and this was well before automation turned everybody into photograph­ers, particular­ly uncles at weddings.

To be fair, the ‘big camera’ thing was often just to keep clients – and art directors – happy because their high-priced profession­als looked to be loaded down with high-priced equipment.

Digital turned all this on its head as only a few high-flyers could afford the first generation­s of capture backs and, until the D-SLR was sufficient­ly developed, many a job was surreptiti­ously shot on a Nikon Coolpix or something similar. As long as the required result was achieved and delivered, did anybody really care about the camera that was used? And that’s still the question, especially now that nobody is amazed you get the technicali­ties right (or, indeed, is prepared to pay a premium for it).

Of course, there have always been technical considerat­ions associated with format size, but not always just resolution. Good old twoand-a-quarter-square (6x6cm to those of you of a more recent vintage) was often used for the cropping flexibilit­y – so the image size was actually smaller – and a large format view camera for the extra control it gave over sharpness and perspectiv­e, and again requiring ‘room to move’ on the film sheet. There are still undoubtedl­y specific requiremen­ts for higher resolution­s and, perhaps more importantl­y, a wider dynamic range (a product of signal-to-noise ratios and hence directly related to pixel size), but unlike film, digital capture can also be ‘just enough’ in terms of image quality. For example, eight megapixels resolution is sufficient for some applicatio­ns, as proven by the photograph­ers using features such as Panasonic’s ‘4K Photo’ which delivers 8.3 mP stills from 30 fps video clips. You’ll be able to grab 19 mP frames from 8K video, but the key benefit here is the very fast continuous shooting speed… the image quality is ‘just enough’, which is all that matters.

So the Om-D E-m1X shoots 18 fps at 20 megapixels a pop with a host of new tech looking after things like the autofocus tracking. If this is what you need to deliver what your client wants (and, consequent­ly, pay the bills), do you really care about the sensor’s size? It’s irrelevant, and it certainly won’t matter to a satisfied customer. Ignore the hype, think carefully about what you need to do your job, and use this as the key determiner of what camera you buy next. As with a great many things in life, size really isn’t everything.

Paul Burrows, Editor

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