Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A rant about sensor size and why you shouldn't care about it

Before I decided to get into photography I was, and still am, an avid paintballer.  My time on the field has been limited due to work and other side projects, but I still to try to make an effort to get out and play whenever I have a free weekend.  My brother first introduced the sport to me back in 1995 when fields were opened in the outskirts of Los Angeles.  Acres of empty land were transformed into simulated battlefields, all peppered with makeshift bunkers for players to hide behind. I never purchased my own gear or played on a regular basis as the financial barrier to entry was just too high at the time.  Fast forward 10 years - Smart Parts, formerly a powerhouse maker of professional paintball markers, released their first entry level, tournament grade gun called the Ion. It was the first gun, sub $300, to offer "professional" level features all in a lightweight plastic body. This was it.  This was the gun that I could finally afford to get into sport.  

An old shot from my days with Bolo Brigade. 

You couldn't separate me from the field. Every weekend you could find me either at Hollywood Sports Paintball Park or SC Village. Along the way, I was fortunate enough to make some amazing friends and eventually joined a team. As is typical with any group who share an interest in a sport, the conversation quickly devolved (and I mean to use "devolve") to gear . What was the best gun on the market? One would proclaim the Planet Eclipse Ego is the best on the market, while another would say the Bob Long Intimidater was the one to beat.  I'll be the first to admit that I fell victim to the trap of G.A.S - Gear Acquisition Syndrome.  I had to have the newest gun and I bought them all, justifying each purchase with the false notion that it would improve my game. Sadly it didn't. Everything but the gun made me a better player, from the endless drills our team performed to forcing myself to shoot with my off hand. Heck, having high quality paint was more important than having the top-of-the-line thousand dollar gun.  I look back at the money I spent on some of these guns and remember how lackluster some of my "upgrades" felt when compared to my first plastic fantastic Ion.  Firing at 13 balls per second is the same regardless of what gun you use and I found the "kick" was a lot smoother on my entry level marker.

My time with Check It Factory - we played with pump action markers.  No batteries,
no tournament level features, just a dated gun that can shoot 1 ball per second.  Technique
and teamwork were keys to success.  Proud to say we were season champs in 2010.

As I paint this elaborate picture for you, I am sure you are getting the hint that paintball can be somewhat similar to photography in that one can easily lose themselves in worrying too much about the gear and less about the technique and the fundamentals of creating a decent photograph.  I was hesitant to write about sensor size because it just doesn't matter today, as the current sensors out there are fully capable of producing wonderful pieces of art regardless of size. You can scour the internet about full frame versus micro four thirds and you will hear polarizing things. You will have those like me who think mirrorless is the future and that the DSLR is a cumbersome tool, and you will have others who think there is no comparison to the glorious look of full-frame. Despite my biases towards mirrorless I happen to fall in the same camp as Frederick Van Johnson in that I believe there is enough room for everyone at the party.  Would I ever recommend a photographer, who already has an array of premium glass and lighting equipment, to switch over? Most likely not. Would I recommend someone to supplement their SLR with some mirrorless gear if the weight is starting to bother them? I give a resounding "yes".  

My Sony A58 - a DSLR albeit an atypical one

So, what finally made me break my silence about the subject? 
Well,  I've been asked on numerous occasions "What camera should I buy?" As much as I would like to say "Trust me, buy anything Olympus", I simply will not do that.  I've witnessed several friends on Facebook post the same question and you will see many people push their love of their brand on to them - "If you want to be the best, you gotta buy the best, Canon 5D Mark III". This $3,000+ marvel was recommended to a friend who wanted to do a video blog and occasionally take a couple of snapshots.  Infuriating! How about the blogger who proclaims it's all about composition, but turns around and states they should buy XYZ camera because ABC camera has a smaller sensor and is more expensive. I guess what irks me most about all of this is that SOME people do not have others' best interest in mind nor do they care to push technique over gear.  I have yet to see someone follow up the question with the basic inquiry of: "What do you plan to do with your camera?" or "Why do you feel the need to upgrade?". I posed the following questions to a friend when he asked me what he should invest in (see his answers in RED).

  1. What is your budget? (Above all I think this is the most important question to ask.)
    -$700 - $1200
  2. Do you want a point & shoot or an interchangeable lens system?
    -Interchangeable lens system
  3. How much do you value portability/size? Do you want this to be pocket-able?
    -  Doesn't need to be pocket-able, but don’t want overly bulky
  4. What will you be shooting? Sports (fast moving subjects)? Portraits? Travel?
    Portraits, travel, landscapes, photo journalism
  5. Will you be shooting video and how much do you care about video quality?
    -Probably not…will use my Sony video cam
  6. Do you care about having wifi or NFC? Do you want the ability to immediately post your photos to Facebook or other social media?
    -  Not a big issue…don’t care that much
  7. Do you care about weather sealing (this will add to the cost)?
    I think it would be a good idea…would probably want this
  8. Do you have old glass you want to use or adapt to your future camera?
    Don’t really have any old lenses that are important to me
  9. Do you care about zoom lenses or do you like fixed focal length glass (prime lenses).  Generally speaking, prime lenses yield higher quality images.
    I don't care much about zoom, but would prefer a camera that accommodates it
In making my recommendation to purchase a mirrorless camera I asked myself, does that particular camera meet or exceed any of the aforementioned criteria and does it fall under budget? I wouldn't have my friend blow his entire budget on the body alone. Had my friend mentioned anything about shooting sports, I would have been more inclined to recommend a traditional DSLR from the Canon/Nikon realm since phase detect (a predictive focusing system) outperforms contract detect (focusing system found in most mirrorless cameras) for that particular application. However, I suspect the micro four thirds family will be quickly catching up in continuous focus, as the Olympus OMD E-M1 has a hybrid sensor with both contrast and phase detect AF points.  

An Olympus OMD E-M5 with grip and the 12-50mm zoom

Just in case you were curious, I recommended getting an Olympus OMD E-M5, followed by the GX7. For their current asking price, he could get a weather sealed zoom (Olympus 12-50mm - see my review of this super versatile lens HERE) and the Olympus 45mm, probably one of the best affordable primes lenses for the m43 system that performs marvelously for portraits.  My ultimate goal, at the end of the day, is to match his needs with the right photographic tools because that's all a camera really is - a tool. Whether he buys Canon, Nikon, Olympus, or Pentax it doesn't matter, since good glass and good quality light trumps gear choice...always. Kirk Tuck over at the Visual Science Lab said it best regarding cameras released in the last 2 years:
An image with great content, shot with a shitty camera, will always beat an image of your cat sleeping on the carpet shot with a medium format digital back and priceless German glass...What I am essentially trying to say here is that all of the cameras I've come across in the last two years, from the Nikon D800 to the Olympus EP-5 to the Fuji EX2 to the Sony  Nex-6 and Nex-7 and, yes, even the Pentax K-01, can deliver results that are nearly always better than the technique and capabilities  of the person holding them
Cognizant and welcoming of the fact that I shoot with a smaller-sensored camera I can say with confidence, it's not about the camera.

So say we all,

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