Advisory: this is a long, words-only post that won’t be of interest to everyone. Or maybe not to anyone. It is a prelude to future posts in that it contains certain references which will recur at later times.
Part I: Categories of photography and what they need.
In the past I have mentioned the Camera Decision website with its fine database of info on many (but obviously not all) digital cameras. They also have comparison tools to weigh one against another, and evaluations of individual units based on five types of photography: Portrait, Street, Sports, Daily, and Landscape.
These categories, in my opinion, fall short by three, and in any case the evaluations are somewhat subjective (as are all such reviews, including my own). The site has, shall we say, a certain techno-glitz bias that is unbecoming and unhelpful. For example; wireless technology may be fun to play with, but it does not really add to the camera’s ability to take a good picture. As for touch-screens – they rather do the opposite. I’ve seen the smartphone fanatics swearing at their marvelous devices as they struggle to get the things to perform a function with the flick of a finger that a simple button press would have done in half the time with none of the frustration.
But I digress. In fact certain camera functions are more helpful to some types of photography than they are to others. For instance a very high shutter speed is conducive to grabbing that perfect sports shot, but not so necessary when taking a picture of a mountain that is going to be sitting quite still in the same location for another few million years anyway. Camera Decision doesn’t always see things this way. As in their tendency to believe wireless connectivity and RAW file format are boons to all types of photography. I don’t know for a fact, but after reading many of their reviews I’ve come to believe they are written by AI algorithm rather than a human being; there is a sort of set form with ‘fill-in-the-blanks’ style to it.
So let this ol’ film photographer with his mere 50+ years experience using hundreds of different cameras have his say. I’m going to whether you read this or not. I’ll look at the categories and comment on what functions I think enhance performance for them, then I’ll explain my three ‘additional’ categories. Also we are not talking about video functions here, as I don’t do video. In fact that would start even more arguments, so let’s leave it alone.
Portrait. Let’s take this to mean an in-studio (or perhaps impromptu studio) picture of a person. You have the advantage of being able to control the situation almost entirely, so high-speed capture and amazing automatic functions are not key here. It’s all about the image rendering. To my thinking, the ideal camera for this function would be a full-frame (as in 35mm film size) or larger CCD sensor of 20+ MP. That camera does not exist, as far as I know. But the principal is sound: a large, high resolution sensor because you need plenty of detail and you may be doing a lot more fine-tuning of the final shot than you would with more casual type photography. Manual focusing is advantageous, as is manual exposure (although you may choose not to use either), and a large hi-resolution LCD screen. Yes, that’s right: the big can’t-be-seen-in-daylight thing that essentially mimics a view camera. Squinting through an eye-level finder when you’re trying to compose a portrait is not the easiest thing to do; you can miss fine details of composition. Oh and external flash sync is nice because sometimes that’s the kind of light you want. Also this is one of two categories where the ability to save files in RAW is advantageous, as post-processing is more likely to be used here than in other categories.
Footnote on flash lighting: no flash function is more helpful than fill-in. Believe me, that can save many an outdoor shot that would otherwise be lost to strong shadows. Not all cameras have this, whether they have built-in flash or not.
Street. This would be classified mostly as candid camera work, where you’re taking shots of life as it happens. Certainly some architectural elements may be involved, but a lot of it is catching the moment of human interaction with the environment. Thus you want to be as unobtrusive as possible. I have a friend who does a lot of car-spotting photos and he has become a bit paranoid after too many instances of harassment and threats, sometimes by the police. Even though the legal standing in most free societies is that there is no privacy in a public place, and you only need a model release if the image is used for financial gain (a legally vague term). In the case of “news-worthy” pictures even that last item does not always apply. So stealth is the main characteristic for good street photography. Even with willing subjects, you get a ‘more realistic’ picture if they don’t know they’re being photographed. This makes the subjective function of “ergonomics” key to this category. In other words, a big camera that makes you highly noticeable is not what you want here. Pretty much any DSLR is going to stick out like a sore thumb, as will any compact you have to hold in front of you at “half arm’s length” to see the view. An LCD that can go horizontal like a waste-level finder is helpful (oh how I miss real waste-level finders!), but failing that a compact with eye-level finder will do the job. (Trivia: in the early days of photography there was a camera made which took pictures perpendicular to the direction it appeared to be aimed.) The other key factors here would be well-functioning automatic everything; you do not want to be mucking about setting settings. Let the camera pick the focus, exposure, et cetera – and it had better be good at it. Image stabilization, although not vital, can be helpful here as well.
Sports. Lights, camera, action! Sports photography kind of assumes there is going to be high-speed motion – and unpredictability. Here is where not just auto-focus but fast and accurate auto-focus is a godsend. This may mean the need for many focus points or a variety of AF types (there are several) so you can pick the one that works best for you. Also the ability to shoot at a fairly high frames-per-second rate so that you can follow that action and get that one-shot-out-of-many that is the “perfect moment” frozen in time. Since you’re often shooting at telephoto lengths and quickly, image stabilization is almost a ‘must’. Needless to say, good auto-exposure helps too because as with Street photography you’re not going to have a lot of time to play with settings. In the old days, btw, we used to “pre-set” the camera for focus & aperture to try and get a wide range of sharpness in the image via depth-of-field. This coupled with the highest possible shutter speed to stop motion and ‘stabilize’ the image. It even worked sometimes. Otherwise this category also wants a light and easy to handle camera – an entirely subjective description which depends on what the particular photographer is comfortable with. And before you grumble about new cameras too much, pick up a Speed Graphic and carry it around awhile; that’s the way it used to be done.
Daily. The best way to describe daily photography would be “average pictures”. These are the average shots we take daily, get it? So how average is the camera? Not how well can it handle extreme situations, but how well can it handle typical situations. This category is why smartphones are displacing point-and-shoot cameras. Probably more pictures by more people can be described as “daily” than by any other category. It is why there is the huge number of mediocre-specification compact cameras. You know: average MP, average zoom range, average … everything. Now here’s the surprise: in the end it all comes down to image quality. This is the tricky part because the important specifications for this don’t show up in the brochure. You want a good glass lens that is sharp (high lens resolution numbers have been displaced by high sensor resolution numbers, and they are not the same thing), an accurate daylight exposure capability, a decent built-in flash for the evening and shadow shots (remember the comment about fill-in flash), and a processor capable of making an acceptable final image – without a lot of “post-processing”. Also a certain degree of ergonomics is involved, as who wants to use a camera they are uncomfortable using? Unfortunately you never really know how a camera will handle this category until you try it. It seems like it would be so easy to get right, and yet …
Landscape. This is Portrait taken outdoors. Or rather portraits of the outdoors. You have an advantage in that the landscape doesn’t change much in the short time it takes to snap a picture. Also you don’t have to apply makeup to scenery, and it never objects to how it looks in the final image. Curiously the best camera for this would be the same as for Portrait, with the exception of needing a black cloth over your head (and the camera) to see the big LCD in bright light – or else going for the eye-level viewer. You’ll also may want a tripod under it. This is take-your-time photography, in contrast to Sports or Street. What matters here most is manual control of focus and exposure (or at least having that option), and of course that excellent large sensor to produce the amazing final scene. Let’s face it: a 1/1.7 or even 4/3 size sensor is not the best choice here. This is of course the other category where RAW files can be an asset. Also the only one where GPS may be of some benefit.
Now about those other categories that Camera Review doesn’t use …
Wildlife. I do a lot of this. The key to wildlife photography is not getting too close to the subject. This means you need a lot of focal length most of the time, even when taking macro shots of butterflies. As such the ‘super-zoom’ cameras are a favourite for photographers on a budget. They lack the higher definition of larger sensor size (the use of a small sensor is how they get the large focal length range) which means resolution is noticeably lower, and unfortunately that works against the shot. Yes you can use a full-frame DSLR with a really long telephoto lens; that is what pros do. The pros who have lots of money to spend that is, because the camera body costs lots of money and the so does each lens. You aren’t going to get great wildlife pictures with a compact camera or a smartphone. What else should a camera for this category have? Quiet, fast shutter. Sometimes the wildlife moves. Wildlife photography is often like Sports, for example; fast and unpredictable. Spotting a bird in flight, tracking it, and snapping at just the right moment is not the easiest thing to do. So you want that quick and accurate autofocus too. You probably won’t have time to fiddle with settings, although often you get to choose aperture over shutter priority or vice-versa, depending on whether you want to control depth-of-field or motion blur. It’s a guessing game because you never quite know what you will find out there.
Nighttime/low-light. We could call this ‘astro’ as well. Pictures of the stars or the night scenes where light is low and a flash is not going to make up the difference. Obviously this is where the needs turn to ‘fast’ lenses, manual focus (auto tends not to work in low light), and the ability to manage long exposures. Tripods and shutters that will time in seconds (use the self-timer to trigger it without risking camera shake from your finger – or in this one rare exception a wireless connection to a remote trigger device), and even image stabilization can help keep the slower speeds from blurring. Incidentally, don’t be fooled by high ISO ratings: they basically increase noise rather than actual light sensitivity. The only way for a sensor to be better at gathering light is to be physically larger. And then you get the paradox where fewer pixels will work better for the same size sensor as each individual one is larger and therefor can grab more light for itself. Of course the final image is smaller, because everything is a trade-off. It may also interest you to know that pros take pictures at high ISO ratings with the lens covered to create an image of the sensor noise which can be used to create a mask to block that noise from the actual image. I don’t do this myself, but the basic process is turning the tiny coloured noise lights into black dots which then block the same noise in the final image when sandwiched with the scene shot.
Artistic. This is Daily inverted. Whereas that category is all about how average a camera can be, this is all about how exceptional it can be. Note that “exceptional” does not mean “biggest numbers from the advertising department”. Sometimes what makes a camera exceptional is how it doesn’t follow trends. People who are devotees of Lomography understand this. While manufacturers engage in a kind of ‘bidding war’ over ever-higher megapixel ratings, the artistic camera looks for the best sensor for rendering the image regardless of dots or size. When they try to sell you on a 50MP full-frame sensor, be happy instead with a 5MP 1″ one because it’s a CCD (which renders greater tonal range) not a CMOS (which tends to have higher contrast). The viewed picture will probably be under 2MP anyway. Truly miniatures is an art form in itself. (This is why I do “professional snapshots” at 640 x 480/427 resolution.) When the salesman boasts of ISO 51200, laugh and ask if it will go down to ISO 50. Sure f1.4 is nice, but does the lens stop down to f64? Sometimes the limitations of a camera force artistic interpretation upon us, other times not having those limitations is what creates artistic flow. What is not artistic is a dozen built-in special effects functions like “Toy Camera”. When it comes to such ‘presets’ draw the line at anything beyond, say, three colour and two monochrome choices. I know a lot of people like to use various “film simulations” but getting stuck shooting every one of 12/24/36 pictures on one type of stock was considered a problem in the film days. Carrying multiple camera bodies loaded with different films was the only way around this, and it wasn’t fun. The digital advantage of being able to shoot a shot ‘normal’ and then post-process to various film effects, whether simple desaturation to monochrome or something more complex, is a godsend.
Notice how things like wireless connections and touch screens did not show up a lot as advantages in any of those categories?
Part II: Evaluating the Nikon P610; Camera Decision vs. Me. (A hint at what is to come.)
Here is how my favourite camera rates on the five categories at Camera Decision, and how I feel it does in those same areas.
Portrait: Average. I think they are being generous. This is not a camera I’d pick for doing portraits. The sensor really is too small, the manual focus is terrible to use, and the resolution is low. They decry the lack of RAW shooting and external flash, and in this category those points are valid.
Street: Good. I agree. Although not the best choice, it is certainly capable in this area. Oddly we disagree on the why/why not: they like the (terrible) manual focus and dislike the small sensor and lack of RAW file. I like its versatility but think it’s basically too large and doesn’t fit well with the ‘stealthy’ requirements.
Sports: Average. More like poor. This is a case of “sounds good until you try it”. The P610 appears to have good specs for doing Sports photography, but in practice it is slow and inaccurate in its responses (such as focus lock) – this evaluation made before it started to fail, mind you. Funnily enough they commend its wireless abilities here (as if they matter) and again complain about “no RAW”. Maybe they could get therapy for that fixation.
Daily: Average. No, “Good”. This is my daily camera and it handles a multitude of tasks easily, especially the everyday ones, with good results. Oh sure the Fuji F80 has become my ‘take everywhere’ device, but mainly because it is smaller and therefor easier to bring along. Camera Decision whines about the small sensor, and again about the lack of RAW file! Would they like to lug a Pentax 645Z around all day maybe?
Landscape: Poor. I’m inclined to agree. If I did a lot of landscape photography, it would not be with this. The sensor is small, the resolution is not that high, and for once the lack of RAW is a valid complaint. Notice again how Portrait and Landscape requirements tend to align. Do you also see they are the two orientation descriptions of rectangular formats? 😉
Now what about how the P610 does in my own three categories?
Wildlife: Good. This is why I bought a camera with 60X zoom. The sensor shortcomings are made up for by the zoom capacity which allows me to shift from near to far subjects fairly quickly and without changing lenses. I’ve taken a lot of great bird, bear, and butterfly photos with this camera. The proof is in the pictures, right? The Nikon consistently delivers what I want in this category.
Nighttime: Poor. It takes good moon shots due to its telescope-like lens. Beyond that the small sensor, bad manual focus, and less-than-ideal aperture/shutter settings makes it impossible to take pictures of stars. I’ve taken lots of moon photos with it, though. When you can practically fill the whole frame with 1/6 daytime-level light, it works well.
Artistic: Good. There’s a lot of flexibility to this camera, and that can work to advantage. It is not as good as my Canon T100 (which Camera Decision doesn’t list, so you are spared that evaluation comparison) because it lacks the latter’s big advantage of interchangeable lenses. But it has created some great artistic shots over the years. When it comes to art, the key is the photographer moreso than the camera.
In future I plan to reference Camera Review’s evaluations when discussing a particular camera, if relevant. I also plan to reference the photographic categories as they apply. Furthermore I’m planning on addressing various features as well as specifications (they are not the same thing) to possibly give some insight into … well probably nothing more than my own opinions as a long-time film photographer now working with digital equipment. Whether there will be any images in these future posts remains to be seen.
This is what happens when I get bored.