Great Expectations

Great expectations. Dickens’ title, if not plot was brought to my mind by a recent discussion with a photographer who wanted to video his children running around and playing indoors. Not only that but he wanted continuous auto-focus that would do the job. His G7 Panasonic wasn’t up to it. Would an upgrade to a Panasonic GH5 or Olympus E-M1 Mk2 – or even the upcoming G9 – be the best answer?

If you read some the marketing on any of the new or flagship cameras, you might justifiably think it would. They will give you the pin sharp professional results, the ultimate in quality with auto-focus in 0.05 seconds, DfD/ PDAF upgraded, more computing power and more focus points.

The awful truth is that these great expectations are just that, expectations. Modern auto-focus system are a real technological achievement and mostly get razor sharp results. It’s in the ‘mostly’ that the devil resides. Some situations are too fast moving, too dimly lit and too ambiguous for computing power to cope with. That leads to an uncomfortable truth. If you want to photograph your children running around a Christmas tree and the room in normal room lighting, there is no AF system that will do it reliably. Your Panasonic G7 or Olympus Pen F won’t. Unfortunately, neither will your G9 or Olympus E-M1 Mkll.

Under the given circumstances given, the best way and the professional way to get satisfactory video results is to set Manual Focus and a focus point on the lens somewhere around the distance you expect the action to be. Now stop the lens down as far as you reasonably can without needing an extreme ISO setting and shoot away. stills are different indoors and may have to accept very high ISO to keep the shutter speed to a minimum 1/250th or use flash. That’s it. The ideal for professional results and to retain room atmosphere would be some supplementary overall lighting. Replace 60w bulbs with 250w, that sort of thing. So, professional results would be obtained by compromising on sharpness, accepting sharp enough all the time for sometimes in focus, sometimes out, sometimes the hunting of the AF system.

The belief that technology conquers all is an article of faith to the digital age. Many photographers have only ever known digital cameras, whose development between the turn of this century and up to five or so years ago has been in leaps and bounds. From 2Mp sensors to 40Mp, clunky, coarse stepped autofocus to razor accurate almost instant lock-on, from 3fps bursts to 60fps bursts it has marched on. If there was something you wanted to photograph but found you couldn’t, just hang in there and wait until the boffins work out how to do it. I think that phase is over. The great leaps have been made and development for the foreseeable future will be incremental. Many great expectations are going to be dashed.

It’s not as depressing as it seems. Professionals have long lived with the idea that if you want to do something and can’t, practice and compromise are the answer. If you can’t get it perfect, how good can you make it? Maybe the inherent interest or action in an image can overcome any technical imperfections? Certainly in my field of editorial photography if that wasn’t so, not much money would be made. When covering riots, for example, it is standard practise to set a 35mm (36×24) lens to f/5.6, focus to between 2 and 3 metres and just shoot away. At all normal viewing levels the action images so obtained will look sharp. They may not stand up to pixel peeping but who, other than a photographer, does that?

With the video of children running around the Christmas tree, even a professional using the most advanced cameras built without regard to cost will set manual focus appropriately and shoot away. It will take many tries and a many failures but ultimately success is the sum of all the failures. It’s a thought against the current way of looking at things but sometimes great expectations are best met not by buying a new camera but taking a step backwards.

And not taking the marketer’s hype at face value!

10 thoughts on “Great Expectations

  1. Peter Hitchcock

    Ah Yes for the simple life. I’m pondering shooting a indie feature drama with GH5’s and perhaps an eva 1 in 4k. DCI . Though I love the look of the Arri’s but I want to move fast. – Lookup the movie ‘Once’ financial success. It’s the idea and the talent.. yes my friends the Simple life might just be the answere.

    1. Post author

      Good thought, Peter. The idea and the talent – and the work put in – are what count. As a young photographer, I obsessed over a Leica M and how it would improve my work. It didn’t.

    1. Post author

      My main experience of very cold conditions has been in mountains. All the press guys would keep motor drive batteries under their clothes in their armpit for when the batteries in the drive gave out due to the cold. I can see why you’d use a phone – a lot more comfortable than toting a G85 and lens under your clothes. It is just mind blowingly beautiful, where you are, isn’t it? You can feel the cold in your pix but soak in the beauty, too. I read a blog of some academics in (I think) Toronto who used to pride themselves on cycling to the University whatever the weather. They had learned to ride in ruts in the snow and what chain oils to use that wouldn’t freeze up. And what clothes to wear so that you could maintain a reasonable body temperature while still flexible enough to allow you to pedal and use the brakes. What with that and photography like yours, you’re a tough bunch, you Canadians!

  2. Ziontrain

    I agree with your points, that these are very good products in general and the performance of digital cameras overall is very high.

    Also true that some photographers are not from the manual generation. In fact that huge wave of “digicam natives” is what drives sales. But then this is where the sellers responsibility comes in. If we give the manufacturers credit for their great products when reviewing, then……we also need to be very careful to say very directly that the manufacturers are guilty of engaging in over-promising and overselling. And in so doing, are creating their own customer satisfaction problem.

    The industry is not short on buyers. But there are probably too many models out there, in an attempt to “micro-segment” and this often leads to reaching for claims about the products.

    I would rather that they had more discipline in their product management and marketing ethics. This would solve most of the problem here.

    1. Post author

      Yes, I agree with what you say and the customer satisfaction problem.To get the best possible auto-focus you probably need to go to a Nikon D5 with a price multiples of consumer equipment. Yet even with that camera skilled photographers will often be using manual focus in the knowledge that misbehaving auto-focus can yield massive mistakes where well judged manual focus will always be acceptable, even if never perfect.

      The Panasonic GH5 probably does focus a faster than the GX80 and the AF-C probably is better, say but I personally find the difference between them theoretical, incremental in nature and of no significance in my normal photography. I guess if you specialise in birds in flight there might be a small increase in usable frames but nothing like you’d get from knowing your subject’s flight mode and behaviour.

  3. Wolfgang Lonien

    A good line of thought David, explained so that one can understand it, and maybe a bit late for this year’s Christmas season 😉
    For Christmas trees and stills around it, my E-M10 (mark 1) with a Leica DG Summilux 25mm/1.4 is perfectly fine, but for video? Hmmm I don’t know. But I guess even when looking at Andrew Reid’s EOSHD sites or the likes, there is no technological answer other than yours to come up with. Except maybe when talking about gear like Arri, Red, or the likes – which isn’t really for amateurs chasing their kids around Christmas trees 😉 And even with that kind of professional gear, your points are still valid.
    So thanks again for grounding us.
    Have a nice Christmas, and all the best for you and for your family.

    1. Post author

      Happy Christmas to you and yours too, Wolfgang. I must say the idea of chasing round a Christmas tree with an Arriflex does seem a bit bizarre. I wonder what a skilled professional news cameraman would do in that case? My guess is that he/she would use a decent mirrorless camera just the same as we would. A case where more depth of field from an Micro Four Thirds camera is welcome.

  4. Tim Frakes

    I’m a videographer using a Panasonic GH4. I shoot documentaries for broadcast and some corporate. Mostly, I use manual, legacy prime lenses. I prefer Nikkor or Rokkor primes. I have a few digital lenses. When I do go digital it’s typically the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 9-18mm f/4-5.6 Lens for b-role shots. Even then, I shoot with manual focus. I do not trust auto focus. Ever.

    BTW love your blog. Great stuff. You helped me fix the wobbly door on my GH3. God save the Queen!

    1. Post author

      Dammit, Tim, when you end with that phrase, being English I have to stand up and salute, most inconvenient 🙂 Glad the wobbly door fix was ok. That’s on the limit of how far I’d with taking a camera apart, I must say.

      I note that all professional videographers use manual focus. It shows that in situations where there is time and money invested in being in location and situation, you want to eliminate as much uncertainty as you can. Manual focus is a frightening thing for photographers of the digital age. Photographing the royals skiing duirng a snow fall in Switzerland one year, a fellow newspaperman was swearing that his camera kept focusing on the snow flakes in front of the skiing royals. I said, sarcastically, that if he reached to front of his 300mm, there was a big round ring and if he turned it in the right direction he could focus anywhere he wanted in spite of the falling snow. My sarcasm was completely wasted. This was a digital camera and it wasn’t working properly as far as he was concerned. Manual focus was for people frightened of new technology!


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