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!