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Monday, 06 April 2015


The modus operandi of a professional, whether it's a doctor, lawyer or photographer, is to provide the client (or yourself) with the best product/service you can. What most followers of this blog are searching for is excellence. We need not be ashamed of that but we need to guard on being elitist about our equipment.

"No one should feel defensive if they find phonephotos completely satisfactory, and nobody should be telling them otherwise. But no one should feel defensive for feeling the need to move to a higher level, either."

This is part of the problem here when we begin to discuss "defensiveness." The use of the words "higher level."

There are many different formats for photography. They differ only in format, not in some "level." Is there a governing body of photography that establishes the relevant levels? Of course not. That's a subjective call by whoever feels they have to be at some "level" relative to others.

Format is only relevant insofar as it serves one's vision, and everyone has a different vision.

"That's what I've seen with phonephotos. They are good, technically. Better, frankly than my quality 35mm point-and-shoot could produce, in all size enlargements. But that still doesn't make them (yet!) the match of a dedicated camera..."

Wha? What on earth does this mean? So it's good as a camera but still not good as a camera?

This is completely a problem with the attitude of the photographer in my opinion. If you don't treat the tool seriously, even if it meets great technical specs, then that requires an adjustment of the photographer not the gear. The technical level of the camera is really a very minor consideration in getting a great picture. Unless the image is about the technical requirements, which, it occasionally but rarely is, than yes, but how often does that make a difference? Very, very seldom. Mike wants the iphone to fail, so it does. Over the last few years he has made numerous, frequently completely absurd objections to this device as a camera, a blogging tool, and even as a phone! It's about the photographer's attitude, nothing to do with the machine. And this is from someone that doesn't even do much digital.

Perfectly said, I think.
To be sure there are folks for whom the output of phones is completely satisfying, and every once in a while I'm one of them-- but mostly I'm not---as you say 'yet'.
I am sometimes astounded by what my iPhone 6+ can deliver and think "are camera companies REALLY looking at how fast these guys are gaining on them?"
I even keep a box of prints- 4x6 or so on 8 1/2 x 11 paper, which are nice, but I always end up thinking " I'm glad I got this, but wish I'd used a better camera"

My feelings about 35mm and medium format parallel Ctein's, with even more music —I'd have called it "magic," but I think we're talking about the same thing— from my infrequent forays with a 4x5 view camera.

I wonder if part of the difference in formats is that the larger you go the greater the struggle to get what you're after in the image? In larger formats you have to work harder and concentrate more intensely on the process. Perhaps it's not the size of the film or sensor that makes the difference, but the attitude and effort of the photographer.

>>no one should feel defensive for feeling the need to move to a higher level

I agree, though I would also take this a step further: There's no need to be defensive for not feeling the need to move to a higher level (whatever "higher level" means). In other words, just because some photographers fervently believe that a full-frame 24MP DSLR with a Zeiss Otus lens is the minimum they would feel comfortable with using doesn't mean you should feel the same way. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but as I recall, Ctein is quite happy shooting with an Olympus M43 system.

I have 2 weeks ago gotten a Google Nexus 6 and am using the App Manual Camera and capturing DNG. In the best light (no pun intended) the images are acceptable, but noticeably inferior to by Micro 4/3. They both have 16 MP sensors, but the Nexus images very quickly become noisy at moderate light levels.
I expect the images I will capture will be a variant of ‘Lost Opportunity’. My purpose of having a marginal camera on my person is to train myself to Look. Unless I have a camera with me, I find I am mostly oblivious to my soundings and when I do have a camera, even in familiar places, find difficulty finding a Picture. I hope to use this device to continuously exercise my seeing abilities.

I've missed your voice, Ctein.

A couple or three years ago, I swore off 35mm completely. My "go to" camera for black and white is a 6x7 and I've converted to digital for color.

Then I went on a photo safari (mostly for the trip) and wanted to travel light, so I took the 35mm body that used the same lenses as the digital body, and a Fuji 645. It's hard to tell the difference - almost impossible - in the 35mm and the 645 prints.

About 6 months ago, I exhibited 6 prints in a group show - 3 were 35mm.

Don't know what this means other than I have not, obviously, given up 35mm. They're all tools, and each of us have to use them to suit ourselves.

“Better, frankly than my quality 35mm point-and-shoot could produce, in all size enlargements.“

Ctein, honestly I don't understand that, are you talking about resolution only, and was the lens on the point-and-shoot so bad?

I still have to laugh about this "problem". Ask any woodworker how many varieties of each tool they have - 8 saws, 53 chisels, 18 planes...

For each job, the trick is to pull the proper tools from my workshop for the specific job. My primary concerns in photography are the lighting (camera/lens), accessibility (weight), and how close I can get to the subject (tele/wide angle). So, best tool set for the job. (In both fields, a big new job usually requires some new tool.)

However, I too feel much better using a D800 - it isn't just the pixels, it's how I can configure the tool for such a wide variety of needs. Phones physically can't compete - but dang that D800, 3 lenses, and tripod get heavy.... It's nice to have options - except for the wallet.

Dear Ctein:
I must say your statement that the gap between 35mm and medium format is similar to the one between the iPhone and a decent digital camera sounded a tad outrageous to me. I'm not saying you're wrong, of course, but I wonder to what extent the fact of having used a "35mm point-and-shoot" influenced this judgment.
This is not to say 35mm doesn't lag behind medium format film; it does, and by a margin that's not insignificant. Yet it should be noted that high image quality can be extracted from 35mm film. The fact that Jane Bown used Olympus OM cameras didn't stop her portraits of Samuel Beckett and Orson Welles to achieve greatness. And W. Eugene Smith, who could never be blamed for being negligent about image quality - his marathons in the darkroom were something of a legend -, got fired from 'Newsweek' for refusing to use a medium format film camera.
I can't argue with you on these matters - at least not without embarrassing myself in front of millions of cybernauts -, but I can't help thinking whether you'd find the aforementioned gaps to be similar if the term of comparison for film involved some seriously good glass.
As you can see, the "defensiveness" came from where you less expected!

And what is your opinion on digital MF vs the smaller "35" format and smaller sensors??

There's also the matter of suitability. If your thing is majestic landscapes printed large, you're less likely to be satisfied with the iphone than if your thing is, say, gritty, moody urban 'noir' for your blog.

In following this site, Ctein has been very satisfied with M4/3 and Mike with Fuji. Does this column suggest that to sing along with the choir at least full frame is the minimum? Where should the line be drawn between "good enough" and "significantly better?" assuming the stars have aligned with content and technical competence? I ask this because I am struggling with deciding amongst full frame, APS, and micro four third. Whether I have the talent to sing with the best is another matter, but is there in fact a minimum level of gear to go beyond merely chatting?

On Easter Sunday we went out on the porch to photograph the various family groups. I grabbed my EM-5, and everyone else used their iPhones. My nieces and nephews sat across the top step and were nicely framed with my 25mm lens in the m4/3 format.

I watched the iPhonographers step further and further back until the horizontal group of people fit nicely across their vertically held phone screens. All of their videos are vertical too. Drives me nuts.

And is film still the mainstay of your photography? I seem to remember that you had at least one digital print sale. I look at this from a hobby point of view and I am becoming more and more deflated by the perfection of digital and all its supporting technology.
In some ways I see it like cars. Modern cars are perfect so much so that I would like to buy an old car that needs some mechanical restoration; where one does not have a computer running everything in the car but you need a brain, knowledge and ability to adjust carburretor, distributor, fuel pumps. I'd have to add though that I cannot wait for the iPhone equivalent of a car that can drive itself securely, safely and comfortably.

As always, I think, to each their own. I am not sure image quality is a deciding factor per se, superdeep DOF can have its merits at times. Of course, sometimes there is no match for an f1.4 lens!
To me, the deciding factor is handling. I just don't feel 'home' with a phone the way I do with a camera that I safely hold with both hands, as opposed to a slippery flimsy shaky fingertip grasp. And poking a screen to shoot (yes I know, the volume button too, but...) is no match to slowly pressing a proper two-stop shutter release...
But then again, you can't compare hammer and scalpel, it all depends on the job...

The "envelope usage" of a smartphone compared to a dedicated camera is obviously smaller: if you learn to work within it, probably you can make photos that satisfy your "vision" or your "needs", without resorting to more complicated hardware. But sometimes, that just don't cut it, so you have to use other means...

We spent weeks, months, maybe years without hearing from Ctein. Eventually one precious dose comes our way and it's the size of a comment. You can do better than that. Give us more. Please.

[Actually, it WAS a comment. I pressed it into service as a post because I was leaving for the airport early yesterday morning and running late. So my fault, not Ctein's. --Mike]

It was not until after reading Mike's post "The Psychology of Camera Anxiety, Part I" that I felt the need to comment on this post.
I love my iPhone and use its camera regularly. (I also love my brand new Fujifilm X100T, but that's a different subject). I thought Ctein's post was simple, clear and well written! Whether or not I agree with him is irrelevant; he was explaining his opinion and did it well!
I was disappointed that some readers of T.O.P. would take (and give) offense over this post. Ctein (and Mike): please ignore the critics and maintain course!

[We like critics. Keeps things interesting. [g] --Mike]

I know exactly what Ctein is talking about. I mostly shot 4x5 from the 1980s until around 2000, and I had a good friend who was a dedicated Leica fan. He could talk for hours about Leica cameras and lenses, and how superior they were to anything else. But on one occasion, I actually heard myself saying, "How good can they be? They're only 35mm." To say the least, it caused quite the explosion. But once I was used to shooting 4x5, other formats really didn't do it for me. It didn't mean that I couldn't and can't appreciate other people work in other formats, but for me, I really couldn't stand to shoot in anything smaller than that, if I was intending to make a print to exhibit. But this was all about how I responded to my own work, not other people's work.

And I did have small cameras that I used for travel and snapshots (a Rollei 35, for one), but those were never used for anything serious. Ironically, I now use a 35mm sized Canon 5D mark II for my "serious" work and am even working with a GX7 and am enjoying it quite a bit.

If anything, I think this issue that Ctein brings up only speaks to the matter of personal preference, and ultimately isn't all that different from stating your preference for chocolate ice cream over other kinds of ice cream. Is it really a condemnation of everybody else's preferences? I don't think so. At least, it doesn't have to be, and I don't think Ctein intended it to be that.

"Can't we all just get along?" As someone else said a while ago.

I think it may be the lens. Got a new omd2 Abd using ibis, many differents lens. They are all different - 67 lens transparency, Hessey c lens color, nikon leica mount era lens sharpness, old leica lens smoothness, olympus macro cleanses, Panasonic lens 2.8 purple , nikon 2.8 lens ... All different, same walk. In fact the metabones plus nikon 80-400 vr2 get my sharpest forest thrush bird i ever toke - even manual focusing is needed.

And the format matter. Still waiting for the 4x5 travel camera. Just lens may affect a lot.

I think people may be over-reading Mike and Ctein a bit. For one thing, they're not going anywhere close to laying out minimum quality standards for photos, they're talking about their own personal preferences, largely for their own work.

Furthermore, they're saying that the small cameras (different ones) were adequate most of the time; they just got frustrated when they had a chance at a photo that needed more, and had only the little camera with them.

If this concept that some of your photos have different technical and artistic requirements than others (for whatever reason) is strange to you, then you're pretty strange to me :-) .

I see it as compromises all the way down.

4x5 can produce large non-grainy prints—so long as the subjects are static enough that you can set up the 4x5 in just the right place without both the subject and the photographer losing all spontaneity (this is one advantage of landscapes, because while the lighting and sky will change, at least the landscape doesn't get bored waiting for you!).

Some portrait photographers, especially working in their own studios and with assistants, can get enough of the setup done in advance, and keep the subject engaged long enough, to produce fantastic portraits in 4x5 as well, but that requires special extra skills to compensate for costs of working with such slow cameras. To compensate, they can produce beautiful huge prints; some subjects want that.

I'm not aware of anybody who uses 4x5 (or larger) for actual sports action today. It was in the past, up through the early 1950s at least, but those pictures were limited and rather static, and got fairly quickly pushed out of the market by what people learned to do with 35mm gear and films. (Big Bertha cameras shooting 5x7 sheet film, with 40" or even 60" lenses!).

Mike has talked, several times, about finding large format too slow; it sounds like he gets bored with the picture he's working on before he can actually get it taken.

Ctein didn't have that problem with his Pentax 6x7 (which is rather faster to work with then large format), but note that he was using that Pentax and not a 4x5.

I also suspect some people shoot nearly entirely one thing, but that others shoot widely. It is, at least, common for professionals to take three different kinds of photos—paid work for clients, personal artistic work, and personal snapshots (nearly everybody wants pictures of their family occasions!).

I've certainly been aware of tradeoffs in my gear from very early on. We had a Yashica D I could borrow in highschool, and it of course could make pretty much grainless 8x10 prints. 35mm basically couldn't (some super-careful workers using exotic materials and processes could get that result for some kinds of subjects sometimes—I'm talking 1970 here). But I could frame and capture an image faster with 35mm gear, so I didn't have to be mentally as far out in front of events to get pictures. I've owned at least 3 medium-format cameras and I still own a 4x5, but they've never accounted for a lot of my photos.

It's all tradeoffs. All the way down.

Dear folks,

A broad comment.

I'm sufficiently astonished at the blowback and some people's need to defend their position in the face of a non-attack, that I'm somewhat at a loss for how to address it.

All that I can imagine that is behind it is that you're giving me way too much credit and power.

Back when I decided to give up film photography and wrote a column about it, one of the readers took me to task for abandoning the industry that had made my career and by writing this kind of stuff hastening its demise. My mental (and unwritten) reaction was along the lines of “Dude, you flatter me! (I think… well maybe) I am not that important, and the universe does not revolve around me nor bend to my will in even minor ways. (Dammit!) My influence and import are not what you think.”

And that's kind of the hit I'm getting off of the comments. Maybe it's not what the writers are intending, but I feel like they are feeling that The Great and Terrible Oz has condemned to their precious and the import of his personal (explicitly so-stated) preferences is so mighty they must rise to defend it.

To which I have to respond, “Dudes (and Dudettes), uh, no Oz. Not even an attempt at one by some guy behind a curtain pecking away at a keyboard. Really!”

And finally, reread paragraphs 3 and 5. Because some of you clearly skipped over. If that doesn't calm you down, I've gotta shrug and move on, because I don't think I could say it better.

There is no Oz. I am not even a pretender to the throne. Not even pretending to be a pretender.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training!
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

Yep, we need more from that Ctein bloke. Words wot makes me think, articles wot need to be read more than once to make sure I'm gettin' it.

I certainly understand the analogy. Obviously one can appreciate the iphone users or 35mm film point and shoot users out there who still manage to make them sing. I gave up on my 35mm Olympus Stylus, as nice as it was. Just couldn't figure out how to control exposure. No external iso dial even. More auto than any digital camera made, pretty much. But some people, if you look on Flickr, can make them sing. I guess at some point we are talking about the world's greatest kazoo player and it's all a novelty act, but there's a lot of room before you get there.

Ctein, that's pretty much the case for my work too.

For what I want to do, which is travel / street photography, I'm wanting to down-size. So my current choice of format is 35mm FF, but I've dabbled and oh so envied to downsize to a compact. But it has never, ever happened. I've always somehow gravitated back to the Leica.

Now and then, the stars align, and I hit it out of the park -- I love it when I get great results from my Canon S95 and Pentax Q. Anyway, this week, I'll drop the Leica to see if I can make my compacts sing ...


There is always fit for purpose and weakest link. If you display 600px wide online prints, it really does not matter what camera you use as long as you can capture the image at the right moment. There is absolutely no differnce in that size screen image whether the original was made on MF digital or on a small point and shoot with a 8x10mm sensor, or indeed a phone camera. The weakest link in the chain is the final display at 400x600 pixels jpeg with limited number of colours. If you go to the trouble to make large dye transfer prints you do not want the weakest link to be your 35mm negative.
I had a 'similar' problem. I have a good medium format film scanner. The biggest print I sold was 4m wide (13ft) made from medium format film and scanned on that Minolta film scanner. I do not have a good scanner for 4x5. I could never get as good prints from 4x5 as I did from MF because I had to use an Epson flatbed to scan the large format film. I probably would if I had used drum scanner. But it would have been too much trouble and money for me. So I peaked at 6x7 and made my workflow so that there was no clearly weaker link in that flow to make the rest superfluous.

As a digital native and a dumb phone owner, all of these is way above my head. That said, I find it intuitive that a camera with larger sensor (or film format) ought to yield a higher level of performance (IQ), all other things (optics, user ability, etc.) equal. IMHO, image quality is a matter of physics (or chemistry). Whether or not the picture is better is another matter.

(Larger picture)
Comparative film format sizes. From Our Favorite Cameras.
N.B. The area (in mm sq.) of 67 film format is 3752 vs. 864 for 135 film (35mm 'full-frame').

(Larger picture)
Comparative sensor sizes. Photo credit: wikimedia.org
N.B. The Iphone sensor size is 1/2.3" or 15.50 vs. 370 (APS-C) vs. 864 ("full-frame").

My problem with phone photography (Sony now, hate Apple this year) is that I personally am not skilled enough as a general photographer to make very good images with my phone on a regular basis.

Having the same problem with my A7R to be honest.

I managed fairly well with my Canon SLRs & DSLRs through various iterations, and my Zeiss Ikon and Fuji X100.

But currently I'm stuck with an A7R that I can hardly get anything decent out of an a phone that just requires way too much of me.

By looking at other peoples' photos I know that it's not the equipment that is the problem. It's me. This is quite depressing and I'm not taking many photos at the moment as a result. I have chosen the wrong cameras and am short of budget to rectify the situation by going back to cameras that match my skills.


I make no claims about any of this applying to anyone else of course.

Craig Arnold

[Craig, I've done the same thing too in the past. More than once actually...ended up with a perfectly nice "dream camera" that didn't actually suit me at all. It's all part of the learning process, methinks. --Mike]

Re: a higher level:

I shot a bunch of test shots with a 5DSR in the lab. I was thinking: "50 megapixels! That's just silly. Nobody needs that many."

Then I saw the pictures, and said "I want to take this outside, down by the creek, with my good lens and big tripod."

I WANT to shoot it. This decidedly higher level makes me WANT to shoot it. After 90 thousand test shots in the lab at work, I still want to shoot at a higher level, and that's a good thing.

No worthwhile comment is ever uncontentious, particularly when it is entirely uncontentious.

Truth only hurts when you are kidding yourself.

There's a different feeling to looking through a prism or on a ground glass than looking at a phone. The phone is great as a recording tool, sketchbook, whatever. It doesn't give me pleasure to use it. I am putzing with an app called "theodolite", snaps a photo and labels over it the compass direction and azimuth,as well as the usual timestamp. Snap a phone photo to get the data, then take a photo with my preferred camera at the same vantage point (to remind myself why I would like to return there when there is better light). I now have all the data I need to plan a golden/blue hour or night starscape photo using one of my other apps (The Photographers Ephemeris, Sky Safari).

BTW, Luke, I am encouraged to hear about the Canon 50 MP camera in the wild.

I'm not a fisherman, but I believe there's some sort of contest to catch the biggest fish on the lightest tackle. They actually award prizes for this.

I like any camera that lets me make the photos I want to make. :-)

iPhone 4S plus Impossible Instant Lab: https://flic.kr/p/s1RpQe

I thought Ctein had been abducted by aliens or perhaps abducted and replaced by some evil AI simulation (this based on the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the comments). Hopefully his absence hasn't been due to a health challenge we don't know about. In which case, I hope you are better.

By the by, wasn't there to be a review of a new epson printer some where in the misty future.

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