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The right kit for the job

Whenever I go on a job I always take at least two camera bodies – just in case. The nightmare of having a camera body fail on a job hasn’t happened to me yet, but in case it does, I want to be prepared. I did have a camera fail on me once a good few years ago, but I wasn’t on a commission or anything, just shooting for stock. It was freezing cold and snowing almost horizontally. I squeezed the shutter and nothing happened. Despite frantic efforts to restart it, it had failed and no, it wasn’t to do with the battery, but the damp. I won’t say whose the make was, but it wasn’t a Nikon and I guess someone has had a failure with a Nikon at some point.

Sometimes, particularly if shooting sports or wildlife, a task requiring quick response, it can be handy having one body with one lens, say 70-200, and another with a wide angle or a standard zoom to cover a large spectrum of angles of view. In fact, for my sailing photography I take three bodies: one with a 300mm; one with a 70-200mm and one with a 16-35mm and I have a 24-70 lens tucked in the bilge of my camera bag.

You’ll note that I haven’t mentioned which sensor size I use. There has always been a great debate as to which is best. In film, it was a choice of 35mm, medium or large format. Nowadays, it seems as if everyone yearns for full frame. The argument is, and it is true, that full frame will always be better at dealing with noise issues as the photo sites - the buckets that capture the light signals on the sensor - can be larger. With ever increasing pixels crammed onto the smaller sensors, the photo sites are smaller, which effectively means that the information is not as clean in lay man’s terms, and the resultant image is noisier.

However, nowadays, whilst generally the statement is true, the advances in sensor design and how the cameras deal with the information mean in real practical terms, for the majority of us, that noise is not an issue to stop us displaying an image. Even the really small micro four thirds sensors supply images that are the equal in noise terms as a pro camera of just a few years ago. Do some comparisons on DXO Mark is you don’t trust me on this.

Of greater concern to me however is the dynamic range. That is, the ability of a sensor to record many different tones at one time. Film such as Velvia, had a range of around 5-6 EV or exposure values. Early digital had about 6-8 EV with most CSC or DSLR cameras nowadays having a minimum of 10 EV with advances coming along all the time. My Nikon D800E is recorded as having a range of in excess of 14 EV! I’ve mentioned in previous Blogs how blown away I have been in this regard, its performance here is truly staggering, especially when theoretically compared against the excellent Canon 5d Mk111 camera, which is measured at just 11.7 EV. These levels are getting close to healthy human eyesight which, (although there is some conjecture about this,) is said to be around 15 EV. So, cameras are getting close to human eyesight in this regard. Even cropped sensors are recording high 13 EV nowadays.

There is another advantage of cropped sensors, and that is their in built resultant effect on depth of field and focal length. Both are effectively extended. Thus, whilst retaining perspective, the depth of field for a given aperture is going to be longer for a cropped sensor than that a full frame sensor. The full frame camera will have to be around a stop + smaller aperture to attain the same DoF, meaning slower speeds for the same exposure value. Also, a 200mm focal length lens on a cropped sensor gives an effective focal length of 300mm or 400mm on a micro four thirds. The benefit of this is smaller and light lenses which, if you have to hold a long lens all day bouncing around on a RIB as I do, helps immensely. It means that instead of propping up and gripping a 400-500mm lens, you can use a 300mm on a cropped sensor and have the effective focal length of 450mm, then combine in the cost saving as well and it’s a win win.

There is another aspect that comes into play now that noise is not such an issue and that is the number of pixels. I have some big prints out there on display, some up to six foot wide and as such, more clean pixels give me more opportunity in this regard. Note that I said ‘clean’ pixels. That means clear and sharp and only good glass can do justice here. Whilst it’s fair to say that there are no bad lenses nowadays, the pixel count is ever increasing and demands good quality expensive lenses to make the most of those expensive pixels. One note here, I am taking about real world prints here. Not ‘prints’ on a computer or tablet screen and not pixel peepers either.

Today’s cameras are good, very good indeed at recording information. Ensuring you have the right camera and lens for a job has always been a pre-requisite and remains so. However, always remember that it is you that sees and creates the picture, not a computer boffin in Japan or indeed the camera itself, but you.

Keep practising
I am.