Sunday, April 03, 2016

5 Important Criteria of Camera To Consider Besides High ISO and Megapixel Count

The two main criteria that have been rigorously pushed by most camera manufacturers these days, and worshiped by camera users are surely megapixels count and high ISO performance of the camera. I do acknowledge the importance of advancing camera technologies and that mainly revolves around getting higher pixel count as well as cleaner low light shooting with high ISO sensitives, but in all seriousness, are these two the only two concerns which most people are considering, sidelining many other crucial factors of camera capabilities? I have mentioned this again and again, when it comes to real life shooting, photography in the field is practical, and in this blog entry I shall discuss these practical importance from my own experience. 

If you somehow need to produce images with high pixel count (professional photography job requirements, eg commercial shoots), or if your photography assignment require you to shoot a black cat in the dark, unlit alley, then go ahead and get the right tool for the right job. However, 95% or more of the consumers in the market buying digital cameras are NOT professional photographers, that is the truth, and these end users purchase cameras to be used for pursuing their hobby in photography. For most situations, any entry level cameras in the market (yes, I am talking about any brands now, Canon, Nikon, Samsung, Panasonic, Sony, Fuji, feel free to add in any brand of your choice) can deliver more than sufficient image quality to produce beautiful large prints, and surely stunning images viewed on any electronic screen, provided that the camera user knows what he or she is doing with the camera. There is NO bad camera these days. And if you have more cash to spend on mid-level camera, or high end professional grade cameras, with better lenses, I do not see how any cameras or lenses cannot deliver high image quality.

The main question to ask now, to decide which camera to buy: how confident are you to nail the critical shot with the camera of choice? That confidence factor is what separates a camera that can deliver. 

1) Fast, Accurate and Reliable Autofocus
To me, autofocus performance sits very high on the priority list of camera considerations. Imagine, a rare, beautiful moment is about to happen in front of you. Your camera is in your hands, it is already turned on, you have set the settings, ready to pounce on your subject. Now, you raise the camera to your eye level (viewfinder), or you may also choose to use the Live View on the LCD display. As you compose your subject in the frame, you half press the shutter button to lock focus. How confident are you that you will nail that shot perfectly? Even if you have that slightest hesitation that your camera/lens will hunt, or miss, then it is just not good enough, because the best photography opportunities happen at the least expected moments, as much as you have prepared for the shots, there are these times when things just decide to happen out of a sudden and you need the camera to be able to grab the shot without failing you. Speed is just one thing, as the camera locks focus, and you press the shutter button to capture the frame, how reliable is the focusing system? Is it accurate? Is it always, always accurate? What is the percentage of hit rate? 50%? 70%? Assuming that you did not do any mistake, your execution was perfect, will the camera decide to back focus or show some other erratic behavior? You see the importance of fast and reliable focus: it does not matter how many megapixels you have in your camera, it does not matter how clean your ISO 1 million image is. I would rather have a 5 Megapixels image with high ISO noise all over the image but have successfully captured the image as I have visualized it, than a 100 Megapixels image with clean ISO 1 million but an out of focus mess, and entirely missed moment. 

2) Image Stabilization
Many people may not consider this to be an important factor when purchasing a camera, but trust me, once you have used some newer cameras with latest image stabilization capabilities, there is just no turning back. The question remains the same: when you shoot with your camera hand-held, how confident are you that you do not suffer any softness or blur of image due to camera shake? Yes, maybe you have super steady hands and you can hold your camera steady, but can you do that consistently, again and again? Many people have asked me how I get my images so sharp in my blog, the FIRST and MOST important thing to do: make sure you are free of any camera shake! Some people may argue that tripods and monopods will help, that is true, if you are shooting a planned event, or a session with nothing fast changing or dynamic. Landscape shooters, or studio work with use of tripod is common. However, out of the general mass camera users, how many actually shoot in a studio, and how many would want to lug around tripods or monopods just to gain the confidence of completely getting rid of camera shake? It all comes down to how sure you are to get the shot, when you use your camera, and a powerful image stabilization adds so much more confidence into that. Being able to hand-hold the camera at slow shutter speed also opens up a whole load of advantages: a) you can shoot at lower ISO numbers, producing cleaner images. Eg using a 50mm lens, instead of shooting at 1/50sec with ISO1600, I can choose to shoot at 1/10sec at ISO400. b) you can do creative shots, like panning or capturing motion in the images without the need of using a tripod. 

All images were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II and M.Zuiko 25mm F1.8 and 45mm F1.8 lenses

Love for Mr Bean
This kid was rather camera shy, and would always look away when a camera was pointed at his direction. Knowing that, I remained by his side for a few minutes, and when he let his guard down, I immediately pointed my camera at him and snapped this shot, so fast that the frame was fired before he had a chance to react to me. This is the best example to describe the need for super fast and reliable Autofocus to nail the shot at critical moments. I knew with full confidence the camera won't fail me, I just needed the opportunity to present itself and I pounced on it. 

Brotherly Love


Elvis Presley

Blue Vs Yellow


Unwanted Leaves

Portrait of a Stranger

Yellow Noodles

3) Mobility
Mirrorless revolution in digital photography has resulted in newer cameras and lenses to be smaller and lighter, and much easier to carry around, which is a great thing. If you have an absolute need to use a larger camera systems (for your professional work, etc) then I will not give you further comments, but you know well enough my blog is written to mostly photography enthusiasts who shoot mostly for hobby, and more appropriately put: for fun. Then if you are a hobbyist and a passionate photography enthusiast, what is the fun in bringing out a super large and heavy cameras, weighing so much that by the end of the day you suffer from shoulder pains, neck aches and possible long term back problems? I have friends who have used DSLR system for so long that they now have permanent complications on their backs, and also another friend who hand-held a long, large lens on a professional grade full frame camera which resulted in broken wrist! If you do not need to deliver to clients or do photography for a living, then why pay for such consequences? The joy of freedom is in carrying much smaller and far lighter systems. Have I not mentioned that best photography opportunities happen at least expected situations, and if your camera is so large and heavy, high chances are you won't be bringing it out most of the time! After all, we all know that the best camera is the one you have with you at all times. 

4) Image Quality Straight Out of Camera
Most people would refer to the pure RAW headroom when it comes to image quality of any camera: how much details can be squeezed out of the RAW file, how much highlight retention or shadow recovery possible? While I do agree that the RAW capability is the ultimate judge of how good the image quality of the camera is, that is not actually practical for every day camera users. Say, you go for a family trip to Bali Indonesia for a week. You went trigger happy because so many beautiful subjects and moment came to you, you shot an average of about 800-1000 images a day. You come home from that holiday with about what... almost 10,000 images in total? Will you seriously post-process all the files? No, to me, as important as the RAW image quality is, I also highly value the quality of in camera JPEG processing. How good are the images straight out of camera? Is the white balance good enough, are the colors balanced and look pleasing without the need to do much adjustment? Are the technical flaws being corrected? Chromatic aberration, high ISO noise control, and barrel distortion correction? Don't you think it would make your life sooooooo much better if your camera takes camera of all these corrections inside the camera, and you get optimized, ready to go, beautiful images straight out of camera? Why spend so much time in front of your computer doing post-processing just to correct for these flaws, while you can spend more time to go out and shoot? To me, 90% of the fun in photography is being out there, on the ground, hunting for new images!

5) Camera Ergonomics & Handling
Some would argue that this is the most important point, and I shall not disagree. If you are going to spend money on a camera system which you will use most of the time, you have to ask yourself: how good does the camera/lens feel in your hand? Is it comfortable? Does it feel balanced in your hand? If you are going to use the camera for long hours, will you be tired from hand-holding it? These are extremely crucial points, after all comfort and user experience are half of the fun of using the camera. No body wants a joyless camera! How are the button placements, do they make sense, are the dials easily reachable, are the important settings of the camera quickly accessible? You may think that you are using the best camera (seriously, there is such a thing?) and the most expensive lens, but what is the point of that when you feel tired of using that combo within 5 minutes of hand-holding, and all the controls and settings were messy and not practically set up? This is why I always, always advice new camera purchasers to find the camera that they want to buy (see a friend who has the camera) and try it in their own hands! Or at least visit the camera shop and try the camera first, make sure the camera feels alright, after all, if it feels wrong, it will always be wrong no matter how you trick your mind to believe otherwise. If you have been following my own camera reviews here in this blog, you must also remember that I have made my own complains on certain aspects on some cameras that I dislike.

Red vs Black&White


Morning News

Hanging Out


Father & Daughter




To me, a camera is a the photographer's tool to realize his vision, and to create a photograph, there is a lot more than just megapixels and high ISO. If I were to draw a parallel to a samurai choosing his katana (sword), surely he is not looking for ultimate sharpness of the blade only. There are considerations of how durable the blade is, how heavy, or light the blade should be, and how comfortable the hilt/hand-gripping area is. Even the size of the katana of choice affects the fighting style of the samurai. 

Do you agree with my list of considerations? There is no perfect camera that has and can do everything, in every camera choice, there is compromise in one or more area, and we just have to decide what works best for what we shoot, and which suits our photography approach best. 

My Shutter Therapy gear this weekend. 
Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II, M.Zuiko 25mm F1.8 and 45mm F1.8
Seen in photo but not used, 9mm F8 Fisheye Body Cap Lens

This was my first shutter therapy since.... 3 weeks ago. Gosh, I have not had a good street shooting session for 3 long weeks! Work has been terribly busy, and was I glad to be able to roam on the streets again. Location was Petaling Street and KL Sentral area. 

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  1. The one I can relate the most is Number 5.
    There feeling of Changing Settings without lifting my eye of the EVF is an amazing feeling.
    It Feels I am one with the camera, I can hear each click of the dial, and see the changes reflected on the Clear EVF.
    Half Pressing the Shutter and hearing the AF confirmation Beep, Gentle and reassuring.
    Then the Shutter Fires which i can Hear and feel thru my hands, Thru my brow pressed Against the eyepiece.
    I can even Feel the warmth of the Flash bouncing off the cieling, "Thump" it says.
    It is a Zen Moment, as the preview of the resecent shot shows up in the EVF. And the capacitor of the flash Screeming as it charges.
    it is a Zen Moment.

    1. I think the electronic viewfinder is definitely the future of photography, you can do so much more with an EVf!

  2. Camera manufacturers and sellers like to use quantitative selling points because they are so easy to understand. Even if the buyer doesn’t have the slightest notion: Bigger sounds better. Larger sensors, more megapixels, longer zoom ranges, higher ISO values…

    And don’t forget the price. Most people would probably be a lot happier with a high quality all-in-one compact, but entrance level DSLR’s often are much cheaper. More bang for the buck.

    I like your list of criteria. The other day I made such a list for a friend who wanted to buy a discounted camera. A good camera, but with a lousy kit lens and mediocre JPEG. If you are choosing a system camera you should also find out what you want and what the complete system has to offer. Have a good look at the quality of the other lenses, at their size and how expensive they are.

    About the out of camera image quality I told my friend to have a good look at the standard color output. Probably this is the biggest noticeable difference between one camera or another, but most reviewers are not paying much attention to this. Some say that this is just a matter of taste. Or lack of taste I would say. No camera produces 100% accurate colors, and for a lot of subjects it does not matter. Skin tones however are most important and critical. We want real people and not warmed up corpses.

    1. Very true, marketing messages need numbers and measurable differences to justify the product superiority. However, there are many subjective qualities of the camera that are also extremely important for the user experience and overall process of shooting.
      I agree with you, the color balance of the camera is super critical especially for beginners. As well as the quality of kit lens. In my head I wanted to write a blog entry on considerations for a first advanced system camera (either mirrorless or DSLR) and on top of that list is the quality of the kit lens! You can do so much more with a better kit lens to start with!

  3. In the pass, I will disagree with you. But now, after successful trials with new generation of "small sensor" cameras (i.e., 1 inch, m43), I totally agree with all of your points. Cameras today are so amazing.

    The set of images here is also really nice. I love the way you use the geometry, lines and color. Good job, Robin!

    1. Thanks for the kind words Nguyen! I try my best to improve, bit by bit in every shooting sessions.

  4. You always have interesting images and thoughts. Every day, it seems you think a good way and use good methods.

    1) I never used auto focus much, but with micro Four-Thirds and the tiny lenses, it’s become important.

    The E-M1 does very well most of the time. The GH4 does better with video AF than with still photo AF. The other day, the GH4 focused on my car in the parking lot instead of the person in front of me. The face detection of the E-M1 would have got that right.

    2) Last night, I took out the D7200 and fisheye lens, no stabilization available and I was mostly fine in the dark, especially with the balance between body and lens. With the smallest lenses and bodies, I think IS is even more important, but I wonder if IBIS induces blurriness in lighter equipment.

    3) I don’t want ultra heavy equipment. The Olympus E-5 and Nikon D7200 are about the heaviest I like. However, the Olympus E-M5 and Panasonic GX7 are too small for me.

    It’s almost funny, but my micro Four-Thirds bag is heavy with three bodies and six lenses, and worse with the computer.

    4) Few SOOC images are truly bad any longer, especially out of interchangeable lens cameras on the current market.

    5) I have two camera bodies that feel good and don’t require a lot of thinking: Olympus E-1 and Panasonic GH4. While the E-5 and E-M1 are not intuitive for me, the Super Control Panel helps quite a lot. The Nikon D7200 is my least intuitive camera body. I feel like hitting myself in the head with it, hoping to shake loose a solution.

    I used to use the E-1 and 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 for sports tournaments, working 14 hour days. It was so light but even around the 10th hour, I was feeling the strain.

    1. I do miss the 50-200mm F2.8-3.5 and I wish we have a similar version for Micro 4/3. We have 40-150mm F2.8, which is great, but imagine if it was made into F2.8-3.5, and having a smaller, lighter lens construction! Also a lower price tag. Oh that would be a huge welcome!

    2. You're right. There are some lenses that just cry for integration into micro Four-Thirds. The 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5 was another that I bought with the E-1 that has rarely left my hands.

      When I got the Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 (with the GH3), I was severely disappointed, especially since I'd been using the Olympus 35-100mm f/2.0 for indoor sports. The E-5 seemed to be just as good at ISO 1600 as the GH3 was at ISO 3200 but the color of the photos was off.

      I don't think 72mm filter size is terrible--your 11-22mm f/2.8-3.5 was that big--but if you put the 40-150mm f/2.8 on the E-PL7, it isn't balanced. It'll be fine on the GH4, though.

  5. Great post and I agree 100%. For the past few years, I've been mainly using the various Sony A7 full frame cameras due to their smaller size and budget friendly prices (on the used market). While the image quality has been great after post processing, points 1, 4, and 5 you made were lacking for me. I was lucky enough to score good prices recently on a used E-M5 mark II and Fuji X-T10 and fell in love with both of them. The image straight out of the camera for both cameras are so lovely. The Fuji only excels at points 4 and 5, but I use it for more methodical shooting while the E-M5 II is the one I can use in any situation. I thought the Fuji would be vastly superior to the E-M5II in high ISO, but I'm finding I like the Olympus handling of high ISO files a touch better. The point being is that I feel a big difference in the shooting experience. I can focus more on the framing, observing, and desired end result and less struggling with the camera. Time will tell where this goes, but having fun again!

  6. A thought-provoking post, and superbly illustrated as always! I would comment that your criteria reflect to some extent your particular style of photography. A photographer who makes a specialty of landscapes say, would come up with a different list which would not include fast autofocus, and maybe not mobility. The other point which only comes out in the comments is that no camera is better than its lens. What I mean is that the image-capturing system consists of a camera and a lens, and success depends as much on the lens as on the camera body. Yet how often do we see people with a two hundred dollar lens on a thousand dollar camera? The combination may even work in benign conditions, but when you push it the cracks begin to show. Several of your criteria (autofocus, mobility, handling) depend critically on the lens as well as the camera.

  7. Robin, your photos always leave me feeling like either I'm doing something wrong, something's wrong with my E-M5 II, or I just plain suck at digital photography. I used to be pretty decent back in the film days with a manual SLR but since I recently bought the E-M5 II and have tried to get back into photography I feel I often miss focus and my photos never really have the pop that yours do. Can you tell me what the secret is to get such great focus and vivid colors, I'm about to get rid of my Olympus and get a DSLR or just give up completely. Thanks!

  8. Hi there. I have followed your blog for quite a long time. Being an olympus user myself (started with E510, then E30, E-PL5 and now E-P5) your experience and advice is usually essential for my decisions on new lenses and gear. Still, I am as a bad photographer as a human being can be... I have a question though, I love the sharpness you get in your images without loosing a natural look. How do you process images? Do you have a standard setting/trick for sharpness?

  9. Rich, Fernando, here is some information about Robin's process for this blog.

    That is not the same process as one would use for printing or publishing in newspapers or magazines. Personally I am already very pleased with the JPEG’s that my Olympus produces and 98% of them go straight out of the camera via Apple Foto’s into the cloud. I admit I am a bit lazy. However, I am also very critical. But hey, it is 2016 so I think we can expect from camera manufacturers that OOC images don’t need a lot of post processing, unless it it for professional purposes.

  10. In addition: here is a nice article on quality from The Online Photographer.

  11. "(The) Unwanted leaves" ... nice pun in that photo! Not sure if it was intentional though.