On Photography, Sensor Size and Pixel Peeping

These days we see a lot of people on blogs and social networks talking about why their camera is best and why such other system is bad or that sensor is too small, etc ,etc. What these all invariably forget is that every photographer has different needs, different priorities, different values, different budgets. From my point of view, there is no best camera or best brand or best photographic system. There can only be what’s best for YOU. I also often see beginning and even intermediate photographers ask on social media: “what’s the best camera, or which of these two cameras is best?” Again, only you can really answer that question, as it all depends on your needs, shooting style, photographic genre, how important is video, etc.

The Teenager
The Teenager

But one of the too-often recurring themes, in my opinion, is that of image quality when pixel-peeping. Most photographers we see on social media these days are obsessed with pixel-peeping and how their files look at 200% on their computer screen at a gazillion ISO. But is that really the most important factor in your photography? Sure, some photographers who specialize in night photography or low-light photography really benefit from being able to get clean files at ISO 25,600. But for most of us, it is only rarely that we need that kind of high-ISO performance. Others specialize in photographing sports or birds in flight and really need to get top-notch C-AF tracking, but most of us rarely need that advanced capability. Same goes for high frames per second (FPS), super long battery life, etc. But I find a lot of photographers who only rarely need these things absolutely obsess with having the “best” camera. They spend so much time and money on the pursuit of one more stop of usable high-ISO or 10% better in-focus shot rate in C-AF or a couple FPS more, that they forgot what photography is about. Many spend hours comparing RAW files online at 200% to see which one has the lowest noise or best dynamic range, even though the differences on print are barely noticeable, if at all.

Going Home
Old Man Going Home

But is photography about gear or pixels or ISO or is it about art? Most of us will never need more than 24 Mpix and most of us, with a bit of technique and discipline, don’t need more than ISO 1600 or ISO 3200. And for most of our applications, i.e. web publishing or making small to medium prints, it doesn’t matter if there is a bit of noise in the file. So why not spend that time and money on improving your photography skills rather than your gear? Better gear isn’t the secret to better photography, as proven by some artists who do fantastic work with iPhones.

Photography is first and foremost about seeing. It is also about mastering the light, about composition, about story telling and about capturing “the decisive moment” as Henri Cartier-Bresson liked to say. Go to a photography museum or look online at the most iconic, most impactful and most revered photographs of the 20th century or the most expensive photographs ever sold, and you will find that most if not all pale in terms of “technical quality” compared to what most digital cameras can now do. So why not spend some of that time and money on photography books, on visiting museums and galleries, on getting some classical art classes, on a photography workshop or on a nice trip to a visually and culturally interesting location?

Pool Overlooking Caribbean Sea
Pool Overlooking Caribbean Sea

But lets go back to the gear and the system/sensor wars as this is what I really wanted to talk about in this post. Some guys like to write posts like this one that denigrate the M4/3 system because of its smaller sensor. But I think that kind of post is short-sighted and misleading because a camera is a lot more than just a box for a sensor and a photography system is a lot more than just a camera. A camera is first and foremost a tool to help you capture the images that your brain sees. It is a tool that not only generates pixels, but must also help you capture the light, the moment, the composition. It should be an extension of yourself, it should get out of your way. Secondary to this, it should also help you overcome the technical challenges that your type of photography brings.

There are no ideal or perfect camera out there, so when selecting a camera or a new photography system, you should really analyze your needs and priorities first. What are your photography genres?

  • Night photography,
  • Street Photography,
  • Landscape Photography,
  • Travel Photography,
  • Macro Photography,
  • Wedding Photography,
  • Sports Photography,
  • Portrait Photography,
  • Wildlife Photography,
  • Products Photography,
  • Fashion Photography,
  • Boudoir Photography,
  • Black & White Photography,
  • Scientific Photography,
  • Astrophotography,
  • Under-water Photography,
  • Concert Photography.

Most of us specialize in one or two maybe three of these although we may occasionally dabble in a few more. All of these domains of photography present different needs and challenges which also combine with your shooting style, like:

  • Accurate Continuous Focus tracking,
  • Rapid and Accurate Single Shot Focussing,
  • High-FPS,
  • Lots of automation,
  • Good manual controls,
  • Quick reaction time,
  • Discreetness,
  • Shallow depth-of-field,
  • Deep depth-of-field,
  • High Resolution,
  • Long exposures,
  • High Dynamic Range,
  • Low noise at High-ISO,
  • Hand-held shooting in low light,
  • Low-light focussing
  • Macro capability,
  • Good lens selection,
  • 4K Video,
  • Long Battery life,
  • Good viewfinder,
  • Articulated screen,
  • Remote flash system,
  • Ruggedness,
  • Weather proofing
  • Etc, etc.

Some other factors that can influence your choice of camera system:

  • Are you a pro, semi-pro or amateur?
  • If you are a pro, are your clients corporate or private?
  • What’s your budget for gear?
  • Do you easily learn complex systems and features or prefer to keep it simple?
  • Are you young and healthy or do you have physical limitations like a bad back or poor eyesight for example?
  • Do you normally bring an assistant or do you mostly work by yourself?
  • Do you work mostly in a studio or out in the street?
  • Do you mostly drive to your shooting locations or do you often walk or go on long hikes?
  • Do you sell prints? If so, what sizes?
  • Do you sell through a stock agency?
  • Do you publish mostly on the web/social media?
  • Do you like to always have your camera with you or only carry it for jobs or special trips?
  • Do you travel a lot with your photo gear?
  • And many more…

I personally do mostly landscape, street and travel photography (yes, the latter overlaps the first two). But I also occasionally do macro, product, wildlife and portrait photography. I never do sports or action photography and very rarely do night photography. I would never be caught dead doing wedding photography (nothing wrong with it, just not my thing). I have no interest in video except for the occasional souvenir clip. So for me High-ISO noise, low-light focussing, high FPS, C-AF tracking, 4K video and shallow depth-of-field are not all that important. I learned photography 40 years ago with no auto-focussing and with 25 and 64 ASA slide film, and occasionally some grainy 400 ASA B&W film. So for me when I got a 10 Mpix camera that could shoot at up to 800 ISO (Nikon D200) I was a happy camper. When I bought a full-frame Nikon D700 with 12 Mpix and excellent noise performance at up to ISO 3200 (which at the time was a breakthrough), I was in absolute heaven and didn’t think I would ever need more image quality and resolution than that! Incidentally, this was just 8 years ago and the latest M4/3 sensors have 20 Mpix and similar or better noise performance than my D700! So what was breakthrough resolution and High-ISO noise performance just a few years ago and has now been bettered by a sensor that is a quarter of the size is now being poo-pooed on by the pixel-peepers!

Just how far are we going to take this insanity? How much resolution is enough? How high of a clean ISO setting do you really need? Is all this really making your photography better? Are those really the most important factors in choosing a camera? I would venture to say that except for some pros with very specific needs, all this pixel-peeping and buying new gear every year or two is actually hurting your photography. Why not spend that money on a nice trip, a photo workshop, some better glass or a good printer? Why not spend all that pixel-peeping, worrying and comparison-shopping time on actually taking photographs? If you have 40 Mpix files are you really better off than with 20 or 24? What about all that extra space requirement and extra time in post-processing?

Do you really want to log-around that big full-frame DSLR with heavy and expensive f/2.8 pro glass? I didn’t and so my D700 stayed at home more often than not while I would bring my little Lumix LX5 instead. I didn’t enjoy photography anymore with all that big and heavy gear. And then I got myself a compact M4/3 mirrorless camera with great ergonomics, awesome IBIS, weather-sealing, a delicious little 25mm f/1.8 prime lens and images that are more than good enough at up to ISO 1600 (even 3200 is fine with some care) and with features that are unheard of on a DSLR. But with that IBIS and those tiny lenses that are usable wide-open and not much of a need to ever stop down for deeper depth-of-field, I find that I rarely have to go beyond ISO 1000 anyway. Speaking of IBIS, it has become indispensable for me, it is a great tool that does make my photography better and gives me more creative options. So now I’m in street and travel photography heaven. I am enjoying photography again and most importantly, while you guys are glued to your monitors pixel-peeping at 200%, I’ve always got my little jewel of a camera with me and I’m out shooting a whole lot more than before. When I go out on a photo trip I have a small gear bag with my camera, a couple of batteries and memory cards and three lightweight primes, the whole thing weighs less than 5 lbs. I can carry this bag all day without fatigue. The gear mostly gets out of my way, I’m more creative, I take advantage of more shooting opportunities and my old back is very thankful too! Don’t forget that it is more about the glass than the camera as Sony showed us that a FF sensor doesn’t mean a big camera, but it does mean big heavy lenses!

Mariana, taken with a cell phone

So for me, the small size and light weight of my system are features. They are some of the most important characteristics of my system. I almost went with a Fuji system for it’s better image quality and classic analog ergonomics, but in the end, the lenses are significantly larger, heavier and more expensive and the cameras don’t have IBIS. I looked at the Sony A6300 which offers awesome performance for the price, but in the end I hated the ergonomics and I found a lack of good quality small and affordable lenses (it does have some excellent pro full-frame optics, but that defeats the purpose of having a small camera!) The full-frame DSLRs are no longer for me, they just do not suit my needs, at all. So when some say “Camera X is too expensive for a M4/3 camera, for that price you can get a D500 or a D750!” they are really missing the point of the M4/3 system, at least they are missing the main advantage the M4/3 system brings to me. A camera like the E-M1 Mk II may be expensive, but it has a combination of feature set and performance that is unmatched by any other camera on the market at any price and all in a very compact system. That camera isn’t for me, I do not need all that speed and C-AF performance so I can’t justify the price, but I fully understand that for many people that camera is more than worth it and is a much better match to their needs than a D500 or D750. For now, instead of spending that much money on upgrading from my Mk-I to Mk-II, I’d rather buy a second, smaller body like a Pen-F or a GX85.

To each his own, but I advise you to look beyond these technical specifications and look at what would really help your photography…