I absolutely adore this video by Samsung. Take a look before you keep reading.
Putting the rangefinder into the SLR shell is just fantastic. People’s associations with “quality” are all about social capital: if you have a more expensive looking piece of equipment, you’re going to take better photos. While that social capital isn’t without merit historically, we’re seeing many reasons why we need to change our perceptions about digital cameras.
Why are SLRs considered better cameras?
When we use a camera, we can only focus correctly if we can see through the lens. Back when we shot film, the solution came in using a little mirror that takes the image from the lens, and reflects it up through an eye piece. That way you can put the camera up to your eye and see exactly the image that the film will be exposed to when the shutter goes off. Keep in mind that this was also before auto-focus: your camera needed to be focused manually by turning the lens and lining up your focus with a special focusing screen in your camera. The image your eye saw passed through this focusing screen before it reached your eye.
Trying to manually focus your camera without being able to see through the lens, was a very difficult challenge for many. You had to turn knob indicating how many feet you were away from the subject, frame your shot, and hope that it came out. Many models of Polaroids are great examples. The SX-70 came in an SLR and non-SLR version, allowing for better focus without making the device any bigger. The older land cameras had only a rangefinder, and you needed to adjust the bellows back and fourth until you thought it was in correct focus and then hope for the best. The mirror allowed you to make sure that your image wouldn’t come out fuzzy.
There were also more lenses available for SRL cameras, which meant that depending on what kind of shot you wanted – wide angle or telephoto – you could make it happen. You weren’t limited by the fixed view of the lens on your rangefineder that fit easily in your pocket – often 38 or 50mm. Those cameras often has a fixed – or later automatic – focus; shooting at a fixed aperture so that the subject would be in focus, but the glass was cheaper. While many higher end rangefinders had interchangeable lenses, the average consumer’s camera did not.
What’s different now?
With digital, there’s no longer film: we use a digital sensor to read the image from the lens and save it to a piece of electronic memory. This sensor can be activated even if it is not recording the image to memory, allowing us to see the image just as the lens sees it on a screen before we take the shot. This has been commonplace in consumer digital cameras for years now.
With consumer digital using a screen and professional digital using a mirror, the image was quickly burned into the mind of the public that a camera with a mirror was vastly superoir and of better quality.
Image quality, comes from 2 places: the sensor and the lens. While many high end SLRs are now using FX sensors that are the size of a 35mm film frame, most use an APS-C sized sensor. Those sensors are the same sized (and quality) as what you can find in a 4/3rds sized camera. Like SLRs, the 4/3rds cameras can also use interchangeable lenses. While the lens choice isn’t as impressive as in the SLR market, you still get a lot of options that are of great quality.
Seeing as now we no longer need the mirror to use high-quality sensors, the main advantage held by the SLRs is in using a viewfinder, which is a preference for many (even the best screens get hard to see in bright daylight). Not using the screen means better battery life.
The 4/3rd cameras hold the advantage that they are smaller, and much easier to carry around professionally. They’re also easier to use if you’re into street photography as they are much less intimidating than a DSLR, which makes you almost as obvious as humanly possible.
At the end of the day, while they lack the professional “look” of an SLR, the image quality can easily be just as good. They have the full professionally needed features and complete manual control.
That being said, don’t be surprised if you shoot a gig with a 4/3rds and your client isn’t satisfied with the results. Or you can pick up one of those Samsung SLR dummy bodies and try your luck there.
Sure the video was a commercial and not everybody responded the way the people on there did, but there’s a lot to be said about perception and quality. Especially in this business.
Background image courtesy of tiktonite on flickr.