Citius, Altius, Fortious Claims

So many claims about “more noisy” or “less noisy” or “better focus” or “worse focus” or just “better” versus “worse” emanate from naive or incorrect evaluative positions. Yet these statements are hawked constantly and everywhere on the Internet as the final word by the advocate of any said position. 

Camera X is Citius, Altius, Fortious! Faster, higher, stronger!  

Or is it?

Let me throw some sanity into this world of boastful claims:

  • When I examine most “camera is too noisy” claims in detail I often find one of two things: (1) the image was underexposed; or (2) the noise is mostly the randomness of photons. Technically #1 means that both problems are present. Put simply, in any short exposure you make in very low light, the randomness of photons will likely become the gating factor for noise, not the sensor. At least these days. In Ye Olden Dayes of Sensoring we had electronics with high read noise and high fixed position noise. So sure, what the camera was doing was a huge factor in low light back in 2004. Today, however, not so much.
  • When I closely examine most “poor focus” claims I tend to find that the person doing the focusing was either: (a) controlling focus points manually and not keeping up to the action, or (b) letting the camera do it “automagically.” In the former case, yes, the tools built into the camera may or may not help you do a better job, though it’s amazing to me how many Nikon DSLR shooters don’t actually move the focus sensor or look at the focus indicator at the bottom left of the viewfinder. In the latter case, more often than not I find that the person making the claim doesn’t know how to optimally use the autofocus system, let alone make changes to the controls pursuant to the situation at hand. Worse still, some of the AF Area modes are sensitive to not keeping the subject steady in the viewfinder, so camera/lens handling techniques make it so the camera can’t do its job. The initial—and still current in some circles—claims that the Nikon Z’s aren’t fast at focus and can’t follow action is simply not true. What’s true is that the person making that claim hasn’t figured out how to use the focus system. Or perhaps they’re expecting the Sony “I guess close to right most of the time” automagic, which is better than what they’re used to, because they weren’t learning and controlling their previous autofocus system.
  • When I examine most “another camera has better color” claims by actually looking at what they claim is wrong, I tend to find that the person making the claim is shooting JPEG and accepting the camera’s defaults and automatic adjustments. Or worse still, only looking at camera reviews done hastily using the camera defaults ;~). Even when they are shooting raw, they’re using raw converters where the converter isn't “perfect” at understanding that camera’s color nuances at its default settings, and they’re not following color references through their complete workflow chain. In particular, Adobe converters with Nikon NEF files tend to need manual help rather than just accepting Adobe’s choices. Sony cameras need a slightly different set of help in the Adobe converters.
  • When I examine the “I need more resolution” claims I often discover that the claimer doesn’t actually know what “resolution” is, but is making some sort of vaguer assessment of how sharp the edges are or how contrasty the result looks to them. Again, defaults often fall into play here, as Nikon DSLRs are notorious for using extremely low levels of sharpening in defaults, which leaves edge acuity a bit on the soft side. And then there’s this: are you printing larger than 20” on the long axis? If not, you probably don’t need more than 24mp. (The comeback is usually “but I need some cropping ability”. My comeback to the comeback is that if you’re cropping more than 10% of your image all the time, you’re simply using the wrong lens. Indeed, I’d argue that you should be trying to get your framing within 5% of final whenever you can.)

This is not to say that every Citius/Altius/Fortius claim made on the Internet is wrong. Rather, I think you have to take into account the claimer and what they’ve done to optimally capture and optimally render their images before you accept such claims. Years ago I remember one fellow telling me that Kodak film was “less sharp” than Fujifilm film. Turns out he was comparing his drugstore’s prints from Kodak negative film to Fujifilm slide film projected. Oops. 

So perhaps it’s time for me to split out each of these things and dedicate an article to “what’s optimal” for each thing we’re looking at. I’ll get cracking on that. 

Bonus: here’s the kicker, I wrote the first draft of this short article back in 2016. That got set aside as I had other things I thought more important to write about before I got round to doing a final edit on it here in 2020. Moreover, I’ve touched on this subject often, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to publish this as a short subject. Still, back in 2016 I wrote the same exact things that I present here. All I’ve done four years later is edit the article, and add a couple of comments.

We’re always going to have camera makers saying their cameras are “better.” And maybe they are in some way. But we’ve had extremely competent cameras for a decade now. What you should be chasing is better photography, not better cameras. I know quite a few pros still using D3’s, D4’s, D300’s, D700’s and D800’s, all doing great work their clients like. 

Here’s something you should ask yourself: which year did you stop saying “you know those photos in the magazines I subscribe to look like hell?” Right, you didn’t, because you never said that. As I’ve noted before, Sports Illustrated readers didn’t even notice the transition from film to digital, let alone from 2.5mp to 20mp. 

Don’t get me wrong: I always will take more. But the question is whether you actually need and can take advantage of more.

I haven’t done this for awhile, so sing along with me:

Don't be angry, don't be sad/
Don't sit crying talking 'bout the good pics you could have/
Well, there's a camera sitting right next to you/
And she's just waiting for something to do/

You’ve got to love the one you’re with...

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