Confusion and Myths about Digital Cameras

The 2.1 pound or so Fujifilm X-S1 is one of the best bridge cameras ever released. Its sensor handily outperforms all the small sensors that are common in most point and shoot cameras, and also found in longer-zoom bridge cameras like the FZ-200 and SX-50. But, two pounds of camera, an extra battery or two, and a dedicated camera bag to contain its significant bulk may mean you won't enjoy the XS-1 by the end of the day. The 8 oz. class of camera, like the F900EXR shown beside it, may well be more fun for you to use. Yet, for overall build and image quality, the X-S1 shines.


An expert lady photographer friend remarked to me that image quality was the very last reason to select a digital camera. A comment like that is sure to evoke shrill cries of horror for those obsessed with pixels, yet . . . she was far more right than wrong. Here's why.


What good is a camera that is clumsy to use, has an LCD that you can't see, or an electronic viewfinder that is unusable? What good is a camera that is no fun to carry, too heavy, too bulky, or has controls and menu systems that are a real pantload to decipher, much less use?

We all have different hands and fingers, so there is no right or wrong. One camera in the bridge class of cameras, the 26 times zoom Fujifilm XS-1, is superbly built and offers better image quality than any small-sensor camera under demanding conditions. Who wouldn't want a better-built camera that produces better images? As it turns out, a lot of people. While the Fuji is built like a tank, it feels like you are dragging one around at the end of the day as it weighs over two pounds. This is as compared to the one pound FZ-60, for example, that produces very good, but lesser quality images. If you don't enjoy carrying a camera, you likely won't . . . and the camera you left at home or in your car takes no pictures at all.

I shot this December Iowa sunset with the "lowly" 8meg resolution (medium size) with a Fujifilm F850EXR. It made a stunning 8 x 10 print. Larger images may be better to a machine, but not necessarily to human eyes.


Less and less images are printed every year: it is no secret that print magazines and newspapers are in deep trouble. How often do you print 8 x 10s? Resolution isn't what we think, for the limitation is the human eye.

Most human eyes cannot tell the difference between dots above 250 pixels per inch at a normal viewing distance of 12 – 14 inches. It isn't that more dots isn't better, they are, but not for human eyes. A 250 ppi 8 x 10 image is 2000 x 2500 pixels. That is a small image, by many standards.

I enjoy using a Fujifilm F850EXR 20x zoom pocket camera at “Medium” or 8MB resolution. That captures images at 2448 x 3264 pixels. That is far more than can be utilized by the human eye in a printed 8 x 10: there is still ample room for cropping while retaining the requisite 250 pixels per inch. Blu-ray video is the best consumer format you can get, yet it is 1920 x 1080. Video and LCD monitor pixel size is a far lower threshold than color prints. The advantage of lower-resolution sensors is larger pixels (or photosites), that capture more light and have less cross-talk. Yet, we are led to believe that a 16 MB or 20 MB camera is “superior” to a lowly 6MB or 8MB camera, when the opposite may be true more often than not.

But what if you want to print a 16 x 20 poster, the equivalent of four 8 x 10s in one image? That's 4000 x 5000 for the best image the human eye can discern, if we looked at posters held between the hands fourteen inches away and not on the wall. The 12MB sensor on my Canon SX-50 produces superb 16 x 20 posters and 12MB is more than can be appreciated with something in a frame on your wall.

Giant blue herons aren't always easy to get close to or photograph. It wasn't the "best image quality camera" that took this, though. It was the one pound or so, small-sensored Panasonic FZ-60 that yields generally "very good plus" still images and video along with peppy shooting performance.


What good is a camera that can't focus properly, is excruciatingly slow to focus, takes too long to boot up, or makes you wait from shot-to-shot? What good is a camera that eats batteries, or has bad circuitry that shuts itself off after a few moments of video like the Canon SX280? An camera that isn't reliable or dependable is junk, as far as I'm concerned, even if a lab says it takes great pictures. Great pictures that don't exist aren't really so great after all: I find them extremely hard to share.


There is invariably a lot of discussion about "low-light," though that means different things to different people. The above shot of Bugsy's Bar in Las Vegas was taken with a Canon SX-230. To be sure, there are far better cameras for indoor shooting with no flash, like the LX-7. Though the Panasonic LX-7 is a superb little camera, its 3.8x optical zoom is a significant limitation for image composition. Only you can decide if that limitation is a severe factor for your uses, or not. At the birthday party, blowing out the candles, you'll propbably wish you had the LX-7. Outdoors, for hiking, hunting, and wildlife photography . . . you will likely regret having that same camera to rely upon.


These are some of the reasons that show that my lady friend was spot on in her observations. There are several reasons, as mentioned, why a particular camera may not at all be suitable for you and your uses, long before image quality is ever considered. Under excellent shooting conditions, it is really difficult to find a camera (or even a cell-phone) that won't take throughly enjoyable, usable, and shareable snapshots or images suitable for the web.

If all things were equal, of course you'd want the best hyper-critical image quality. I sure would. But things are never equal, humans aren't truly identical, and long before obsessing over pixels it is important to find a camera that doesn't carry like a drag-anchor, is thoroughly reliable, and is enjoyable for you to use. Far more important than pixel obsession in a photograph is the content and the story it tells. If a camera isn't with you, you can't tell the story or share the scene. The same goes with sluggish, sea-slug slow boot-up time cameras. The moment may well be long gone before you can actually use your camera.

Copyright 2013 by Randy Wakeman. All Rights Reserved.





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