Right now camera tech is moving fast and it’s fun to work with, whether it’s your hobby or avocation or profession. The big deal, of course is the arrival of the first of the long-awaited DMD (Decisive Moment Digital) cameras. The desire that drives it all, mostly, is for cameras that do more with less; specifically, less light. We’re getting them, which is good, but I have one minor regret.

The DMD notion linked above was introduced years ago by Mike Johnston, who normally writes at The Online Photographer, my personal favorite blog in this space. It isn’t hard to understand: a camera that’s small and takes pictures quickly, and has enough pixels so that people who print can make big ones, and is sensitive enough that you don’t normally need a flash.

Tokyo meeting

Tokyo Meeting

Serious photographers or camera-tech geeks can stop here, the rest will be old hat. But I know that I follow this tech more closely than a lot of the readers here, so I suspect this will be useful for some people. And while we’re doing program notes: All the pictures in this piece were shot in natural light at f/2.0 or wider, mostly with the Sigma lens mentioned below.

On Flashes · Can’t stand ’em. Every photographer in the world hates the flat garish look you get from a flash stuck on top of your camera when you point it at someone from not too far away. There are two solutions to this, one of which is don’t use one; use the natural light that’s there. Alternatively, of course, you can become a lighting maven, and this is a vigorous and amusing sub-hobby of photography; for a taste of it, read Strobist. You can master all sorts of difficult and delicate new skills and hey, spend thousands more dollars on the gear.

Well, except for I’d rather not. When forced to flash I’ll hold a little piece of white paper up to bounce it off the ceiling, and occasionally I’ll get something that’s not awful, but you sure don’t get that decisive-moment feeling.

Lauren knitting

Lauren Knitting

Shots in the Dark · So it’s really a Very Good Thing when a camera can take the picture where you are right now with the light you have right now. The first few waves of digital cameras were typically really lousy at this, because:

  • The earliest didn’t have enough megapixels, so the manufacturers got into a more-is-better race, packing as many as possible onto the sensor at the heart of your camera. Except for, when you crowd ’em in like that, they become cramped, wimpy, and unhappy; fewer photons fall on each and your sensitivity suffers.

    This led to madness like Fuji, back in 2006, throwing away its primary competitive advantage so it could claim a bigger megapixel number.

  • An easy way to uncrowd the pixels and capture more light is to use a bigger sensor. It turns out that fitting one of those into a small camera body is a really hard engineering problem. Not just electronics either; positioning a lens on a small body so that it can illuminate a larger sensor is very tricky.

    Wikipedia has a handy graphical key to sensor sizes. Most pocket point-and-shoot cameras these days use 1/1.7" sensors. Which is very small.

  • It’s easier to capture more light with a fixed (“prime”) wide-angle lens, but consumers like the mechanical zoom lenses on point-and-shoot cameras, and for good reason: you can shoot things that are further away, and you can compose while standing still. But it’s very difficult to design a zoom that fits into a pocket camera, and works well, and lets in lots of light.

  • Finally, if you need more light, you can hold the shutter open longer and just wait for it to add up; assuming that what you’re shooting is holding still. Except for, at anything much less than a sixtieth of a second, without a tripod your natural shakiness will lead to blur.

Yellow Roses

A Dark Afternoon

Attacking On All Fronts · The camera makers, sometime a couple of years go, seemed to notice this whole DMD concept, and have been starting to ship products which attack all of these low-light problems at once.

First of all, the insane pursuit of pixel counts is over. The most obvious example of that is the recently-announced Canon G11, which has 10MP, down from 14.7 in its predecessor the G10.

Second, bigger sensors are being shoe-horned into small cameras. Leica is making heroic strides here, with a full-frame sensor in the little M9 rangefinder and an APS-C in the pocketable X1; with correspondingly heroic prices. But probably the big news is the Micro Four Thirds system, a standard created by two competitors, Olympic and Panasonic, which allows a pretty big sensor to fit into a pretty small body.

Geeks, conspiring

Geek Conspiracy

Third, lenses are getting brighter. We’re seeing fast prime wide angles, for example Panasonic’s nifty Lumix G 20mm F1.7 ASPH for the Micro Four Thirds cameras. But even the built-in zoom on the pocket-sized Canon S90 is advertised as going to f/2.0; now, that’s an engineering triumph.

And finally, built-in shake reduction is becoming ubiquitous, so you can use slower shutter speeds. This can be done either in the lens or the body. It seems a no-brainer that in-body is better, but the Canon/Nikon duopoly have both gone for in-lens. Hmph.

All this is working. Here are a bunch of links into DPReview; high-ISO shots from the S90, and comparo pages for the Canon G11, Panasonic GF1, and Leica X1.

Kent Beck

Kent Beck

This essay has so far focused on small cameras; but low-light performance is being pushed even harder in the big-dog space. Of the Nikon D3 and D700 series, and the recent Canon 5Ds, it’s been said that they can see in the dark probably better than you can.

But something that you need a backpack to carry and two hands to hold just isn’t a Decisive Moment camera.

Vancouver sunset

Vancouver Spring Sunset

Micro Four Thirds · That Canon S90 pushes the small-sensor envelope further than I thought was possible, so apparently there’s life in that format; but there’s no doubt that the photo tribe is mostly palpitating these days over the M4/3 cameras. They’re petite, they’re slick, they come with lovely fast primes and nifty little zooms, and they have pretty good low-light performance.

There are only a handful of them, so far. In particular, the Olympus E-P1 (and closely-related -P2) and the Panasonic GF1 have been eliciting fanboy swooning from normally grizzled/cynical camera writers. And then there’s GF1 Field Test by Craig Mod; possibly the single most compelling rave camera review in the history of the universe.

Sure makes me want one; but I’m not exactly shopping at the moment, and it is after all the GF1; there’ll be a GF2 along pretty soon now...

On Fast Lenses · One of the basic low-light techniques is using a “fast lens”, which is to say one that opens up wide; anything f/2.0 or below qualifies. Now, there are downsides; these lenses tend to be big and heavy (you need a lot of glass to gather all those photons), and, when wide open, have a brutally tiny depth-of-field.

Gordon Lewis wrote on the issues around this recently in The Risks and Rewards of Fast Lenses and The Risks and Rewards of Fast Lenses: Part II; and I have my own story to tell. In October I went to Oracle Open World, shooting mostly inside, in the Moscone center. Since then, the weather here in Vancouver has been almost uniformly terrible, and my one escape was to RubyConf, where I was doing more indoor shooting.

Fifth-grade basketball

Grade-five Basketball

Which is to say, I’ve been a low-light specialist, willy-nilly, for the last few months. And since my Pentax K20D has average (at best) low-light performance, I’ve spent that time photographing primarily through the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 prime. It’s acceptably — not brilliantly — sharp, weighs more than the camera body, and has laughable depth of field. It was particularly brutal at Oracle Open World; I lost tons of good pictures of interesting people because I wasn’t careful enough with the focus or exposure.

But suddenly I’ve noticed that when I go back to the lighter, sharper, smoother, Pentax lenses, I have far fewer blown bad-focus or bad-exposure shots than I used to. Which is to say, I think, that this has been a very valuable exercise. But I suppose in a few years every little camera will be able to see in the dark as well as I can, so there’ll be no need for anyone ever to repeat it.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: John Cowan (Dec 19 2009, at 01:02)

You write:

"At anything much less than a sixtieth of a second, without a tripod your natural shakiness will lead to blur."

Surely "more" rather than "less"? Or is this one of those things, where shorter intervals are greater than longer ones?


From: Mark Nottingham (Dec 19 2009, at 01:15)

The GF1 + 20mm 1.7 combination is AWESOME. I love my Nikons, and my various Nikkors even more, but this camera and lens, together, have changed how I approach photography -- paradoxically, although it's easier than ever to take a good shot, I'm finding myself spending more time on each one, making it more of a craft, which I haven't done seriously since I was shooting film in a pair of FM-2's.


From: Doug Ransom (Dec 19 2009, at 06:10)

I'd sure like to try a micro 4/3. I hope you keep writing or linking to interesting M4/3 content. I only read one other photography blog (which is mainly why I read ongoing).

I have been dragging around my very heavy Tamron zoom lens and using an external flash for low-light. It is a lot to drag around on vacations or even to a local event (like the out-of-school-care xmas paegent yesterday).


From: Tkil (Dec 19 2009, at 09:04)

"It seems a no-brainer that in-body is better, but the Canon/Nikon duopoly have both gone for in-lens."

I suspect that this was driven by legacy concerns; the huge number of film-only SLRs that they had out there when they first introduced image stabilization.

After that, putting IS into the body would then have their users screaming about paying for the tech twice. So it's a bit of a flag-day / chicken-and-egg problem -- and since it was much harder to do in-body IS when you have a whole roll of film in there...


From: Robert McCabe (Dec 19 2009, at 09:47)

Most of the current generation of flash units for DSR cameras have TTL mode where the camera feeds back to the flash the amount of light hitting the sensor (the flash sends out a few quick strobes before the main flash) and the flash adjusts the power accordingly.

This allows you to bounce the flash off walls and ceilings to soften the light and not have to worry much about exposure. Combine this with a initial shot with the ColorChecker Passport to get a initial color balance (to correct for non white paint) and you can get very 'natural' looking results.


From: MIke (Dec 19 2009, at 17:50)

There are more subtle ways of using flash, such as dialing down flash exposure compensation to half or a quarter and using it for fill, or doing synchro-sun with a second shutter curtain sync of the flash.

The problem with full-blown on-camera flash is not the flat look so much as the depth of flash problem: light fall off at the square of the distance.


From: David Magda (Dec 19 2009, at 22:27)

Another good candidate would be a Panasonic DMX-LX3:


It's over a year old now, but it's capabilities are pretty good:

. f/2 to f/2.8 zoom (24-60mm equiv.; 2.5x)

. 10 MP

. raw and JPEG

. decent video

. not too expensive

It's a bit long-in-tooth now, so there may be an update "soon".


From: Philip Storry (Dec 21 2009, at 04:54)

One comment on the quality of the photographs...

Don't be afraid of noise.

People who read photographic magazines and review websites get very hung up on noise. It's one of the "standard benchmarks", because it's visible and easy to throw out an opinion on.

But the effects of noise is often exaggerated in people's minds. People obsess over 100% crops of their photos, thinking it's terrible quality. As though the world will also be looking at tiny 100% crops...

Then they stick them on the web, where they resize them from 2000+ pixels in each direction to no more than 1024x768. And that pretty much eases the problem anyway.

Or, more rarely, they print them. And print is a very forgiving medium. Noise is much more noticeable on the transmissive medium of a CRT or LCD screen, but far less of an issue on the reflective medium of a print.

I've had photos that I've thought were far too noisy, but had a moment I really wanted to keep. And I was very pleased that they printed wonderfully at 12 by 16 inches.

(From about 5 to 6 megapixels, as you're asking. Yes, you don't need tens of megapixels to print big... But that's another discussion!)

Of course, very few people seem to print these days, so very few people get to know this.

Basically, unless you own a monitor which has a native screen size that's the same as the native size of your sensor, noise is something you should be fairly relaxed about. It has far less effect on the end result than you'd think.

Of course, if you do own a photo frame or TV that has the same native resolution as your nice big sensor... Can I borrow one of your Ferraris? The bus to work here seems to be getting later and later, and I'd bet you're not using the Ferrari anyway. Cheers!


From: David Magda (Dec 21 2009, at 13:12)

Another thing on noise: it's often chroma noise that's most noticeable:


If you change your pictures from colour to B&W via your photo software you can make it look pretty nice, even if you had to shoot at high ISO.


From: Derek K. Miller (Dec 21 2009, at 16:47)

Nikon and Canon argue that putting stabilization in the lens allows them to optimize the vibration reduction for that particular lens design. Whether that's true or simply spin (or "shake"?) is another question.

Stabilization of any sort is great for static subjects, but it only compensates for camera movement. At slow shutter speeds people's faces still blur if they turn their heads. A faster lens and reasonably clean high ISO performance do better for motion.

As for the noise issue, don't forget to try a black-and-white conversion. We often find noisy/grainy black-and-white images more pleasing than the same image in full colour.


From: Georg (Dec 22 2009, at 14:02)

Well, I have a GF1 and damn sure I love it - I had it with me on a trip to St. Petersburg a little bit ago and the turnout of pictures was amazing. I allready had a GF1 (bought that for my trip to Norway in summer where I needed a decent long lense) and that little GF1 is allmost perfect. Sure, there might be a GF2 one day, but it's allready very good as the GF1, so no point in waiting ;)

My neck definitely thanks me for ditching my Canon 10D and switching to Micro 4/3. The best camera is the one you have with you - and the GF1 is that camera far more often.


From: Andy K (Dec 22 2009, at 17:53)

My DMD was the Olympus Stylus Epic, back in the waning days of film. It was really just a point-n-shoot, but it had a big lens (2.0 iirc) and no zoom, so it took pictures in almost any light, and you could literally pull back the cover and push the shutter release and take a pic in about a second (rather costly in the days of film, but I got a lot more great shots too). After lugging around a metal body Minolta X700, I was happy to have a camera I could take backpacking.

I think the form factor of the gf1 would be my choice nowadays, if I were looking for a camera, but I wasnt too impressed with the overexposure issues mentiond in the review you linked. Personally, I'm waiting for the firmware based HDR in camera, it seems you could just extract all the info from the sensor for the varying densities it detects.


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