Monday, December 28, 2009

The Endless (and Futile?) Search for the Ideal Compact Digital Camera

I've bought and tried out a number of compact digital "point-and-shoot" cameras for taking photos of my children. Many of these photos take place indoors (especially during the winter) and many of them require fast auto-focusing in order to take the photo *before* my kids move or alternatively *while* they are moving; they seldom stay in one place for long!

I recently acquired the Canon S90, which has made vast improvements in low light performance. I had the Canon S60 whose images were unusably noisy at 400 ISO. With the S90, even the 3200 ISO images (if properly exposed) can be used to make small prints or reasonable web images! Another improvement: the S90 is much more pocketable than the S60; you really can get the S90 into a shirt or pant pocket, whereas the S60 needs a coat or jacket pocket. One last improvement: the largest maximum aperture of the S90 at the wide end (28mm) of the zoom range is f/2; the S60 only opened up to f/2.8 at 28mm.

However, that's where the improvements end, at least in terms of what's important to me. The lens quality and auto-focusing speed of the S90 seem no better than the S60.

I miss a *lot* of shots with these cameras that I routinely get with any of my digital SLR cameras because the former don't focus fast enough and can't focus on a moving target. Also, the lens quality and sensor size yield images that I would see if I were using the cheapest, crappiest third party lenses on my digital SLRs--really uninspiring.

I owned the Panasonic Lumix LX3 for a few months this past summer. Compared to the S90, the autofocus speed and lens quality on the LX3 were better, but the low light images on the S90 are much cleaner (i.e., less digital noise). One of the reasons I sold the LX3 was that it wasn't very compact...significantly less so than the S90.

Again, however, the auto-focus speed and image quality on the LX3 were nowhere near those of my digital SLRs...even my old 20D.

In a word, I'm disappointed in the S90's performance as I was in the LX3's. I'm inclined, instead, to either carry my old Canon 20D around more, even though it's obviously not as compact. Or get a cell phone with a better camera.

I currently have a Blackberry, and the camera on it is terrible...much worse than even the S60, for sure! I've heard all the buzz about the great camera on the iPhone (even though it's only 3 megapixels) and, I'll just say, I'm tempted! But I just bought the Blackberry and feel like I can't switch to a new cell phone just yet.

In any case, it's quite clear to me that I'm a SLR guy. To me, much of the magic in photography comes from capturing moments that exist for a split second in dynamic, changing situations.

The only exception to the "SLR rule" for me is using compact 35mm film cameras with high-quality fixed focal length lenses. They're not great for dark indoor shots (unless you don't mind flash photos) and not as flexible as digital (e.g., digital allows changing the ISO setting from shot to shot), but I find the results I get from using film and a high-quality lens makes it a worthwhile endeavor; many of my favorite shots of my family last summer were taken with film cameras! And a much higher percentage of my film shots were "keepers" compared to my digital captures. At the very least, the different look and feel of film photos compared to digital photos makes it worthwhile addition to my collection of family photos each year just because of the aesthetic variety it provides.

What's the purpose of this post? Mostly, I think, it's to tell photographers (including myself) who are endlessly searching for a pocketable, digital, point-and-shoot camera that can rival the performance and image quality of a digital SLR that it's a time-wasting "holy grail" that you'd/I'd be better off side-stepping in favor of either: 1) making peace with carrying around a digital SLR more often and making it as convenient as possible, or 2) going back to some 35mm film photography because the payoff can be so gratifying.

Sure, I'm aware of the in-between offerings of interchangeable lens, four-thirds sensor, digital cameras from Olympus and Panasonic; but they're just a compromise; their sensors are bigger than the digital point-and-shoot compacts, but smaller than even the APS-C size digital SLR sensors; and though their "form factor" is smaller than a digital SLR, they're still not as pocketable as a point-and-shoot compact. And none of them--including the upcoming Leica X1 (which actually has a APS-C size sensor)--can autofocus as fast as a digital SLR, period.

So, stop searching and get out there with your SLRs and 35mm film cameras and take some pictures!...:-)

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is:

Friday, December 18, 2009

Weddings, Existing Light, and Authenticity

So, I fell *way* behind in my 2009 wedding blog postings! I photographed many great weddings in 2009, so I thought I should finally put up some of my favorites from the 2009 wedding season...:-).

Before I do that, however, I wanted to mention that I'm really looking forward to the 2010 wedding season. Why? Well, I sold off a bunch of my camera equipment in order to purchase two new pieces of equipment for 2010:
  1. The new $5000 Canon 1D Mark IV digital SLR camera, which promises to be the best low-light professional digital camera Canon has *ever* made
  2. A Canon 35mm f/1.4L of the best quality, low light lenses Canon has ever made
You may be noticing a theme here: Michael is really interested in camera equipment that takes great photos in low lighting. Yes!

I've gotten *much* better at using flash photography than when I started photographing weddings 4 years ago. I've also gotten quite good at using remote flashes in dark reception halls. This is all well and good and as it should be for a professional wedding photographer. The thing is, I still prefer making photos in existing light when possible.

"Existing light" is the lighting the wedding participants are actually experiencing at the ceremony and reception. When I go and trigger a flash--either one attached to the camera or a remote flash not attached to the camera--I am altering the lighting and changing the ambience or "atmosphere", or whatever you want to call it. Also, those bright lights going off in people's faces is quite likely altering their behavior.

Here, I think, we encounter a philosophical question: Is the goal of wedding photography to capture things as "authentically" as possible? Or is the goal to make things as easily seen as possible? I should note that the goal of making the event and the people involved look as good as possible isn't exclusive to either of these. This latter goal may, in fact, require a mixed bag of lighting techniques, including simply using existing light.

To be totally honest, I'm usually trying for either authenticity or beauty, and am quite happy when I accomplish both simultaneously. With the exception of a short portrait session I sometimes do with the wedding couple on their wedding day, I very seldom go that extra step toward beauty (or "eye candy") over authenticity and stage a bunch of shots where I'm dictating poses, actions, and lighting. This is not the way of wedding photojournalism and I am, in fact, primarily photojournalistic in my approach.

A camera like the Canon 1D Mark IV combined with a lens like the Canon 35mm f/1.4L gives the photographer the ability to capture images regardless of lighting conditions or movement in the image. This is Canon's fastest focusing camera (the 1D series has always been a top-choice of sports photographers) with the highest light sensitivity of any camera made. Sure, I will still have a flash attached to it; but *using* that flash will become much more of an option than with any previous camera.

The light at the church or reception hall--or the lack thereof--will cease to be the overriding determinant of the lighting techniques I must use to capture photos. This camera plus the large aperture of the 35mm f/1.4L lens will keep lighting options open and let my sense of authenticity and/or artistry lead the way instead...:-).

Now for those 2009 Wedding Photos...

Okay, so I ended up with a *bunch* of choices from the first wedding I looked at from early in the year! I'll have to follow-up this post with a few more in order to cover more of my 2009 weddings...:p. By the way, thanks Rachel and Stephen...:-).

Monday, December 7, 2009

My Favorite 35mm Film Cameras for 2009

During the Summer of 2009, I went through a 35mm film camera buying frenzy. After testing/using them, I'm keeping the "winners" and selling the "less than winners" (I don't want to call them "losers", because they were quite nice too!).

So, which ones did I pick as the "winners"? And, what made them the winners? First, let me list the 35mm film cameras I bought:
  • Canon Canonet QL17 (lens: 40mm f/1.7)
  • Konica Hexar (lens: 35mm f/2)
  • Leica Mini II (lens: 35mm f/3.5)
  • Leica Mini III (lens: 32 mm f/3.2)
  • Ricoh GR1 (lens: 28mm f/2.8)
  • Ricoh GR1s (lens: 28mm f/2.8)
  • Yashica T4 with the 35mm f/3.5 lens
You may notice that all of these have fixed focal length (versus zoom) lenses. The best way to get a high quality lens in a "point-and-shoot" 35mm film camera is to get one with a fixed focal length lens.

Let me rank/order these cameras on a few different scales....

Physical Size (in order from largest to smallest)

  1. Konica Hexar (largest)
  2. Canonet QL17
  3. Leica Mini II and Leica Mini III
  4. Yashica T4
  5. Ricoh GR1 & GR1s (smallest & most pocketable)
My Cost (most to least expensive)
  1. Ricoh GR1s (most expensive: around $450)
  2. Ricoh GR1
  3. Konica Hexar
  4. Yashica T4
  5. Canonet QL17
  6. Leica Mini II
  7. Leica Mini III (least expensive: around $50)
Autofocus Performance (from fastest to slowest: *very* approximate!)
  1. Konica Hexar
  2. Leica Mini II
  3. Leica Mini III
  4. Yashica T4
  5. Ricoh GR1 and GR1s (note: there's a prefocused "snap focus" mode that is faster than any autofocus)
  6. Canonet QL17 (slowest: doesn't have autofocus)
General Observations

Even though I'm used to using zoom lenses on digital SLR cameras, I found I was able to become accustomed to having a fixed focal length quite quickly and could get awesome photos. Also, I found (more like "reminded myself") I really like the look of film.

I tended to like my results using B&W film better than using color film. However, I was quite pleased with the grain structure of some of the color negative photos. Color slide film was clearly best for capturing bright colors, but the cost of processing slide film versus negative film is significantly more.

Comparative Observations

The photos I got from the Ricoh GR1s, the Leica Mini II, and the Canonet QL17 stood out the most in my "experiments". They simply had some extra special "quality" that endeared me to the results. I should caution that this wasn't a well-controlled comparison (I was shooting with various types of film I had available in different settings); regardless, these three stood out for me.

I was disappointed in the Yashica T4 (I actually had two different copies of it), primarily because I missed a lot of shots with it. It turns out that pressing the shutter button halfway doesn't actually physically focus the lens; exposure readings are made and locked in, and maybe even the focus distance is locked in, but the lens doesn't actually move into focused position. When you finally press the shutter button the rest of the way down, it physically focuses the lens and takes the picture. It's amazing how easily you can miss shots of children and people due to their moving during this short delay! And even though the optical quality of the T4's 35 f/3.5 lens is quite nice (you'll hear many photographers touting it in Internet forums), I found it no better than the Leica Mini II--which also has a 35 f/3.5 lens--and the Mini II doesn't have the T4's pre-focus lag (i.e., it actually moves the lens into focused position when you press the shutter button down halfway).

I shot one roll with the GR1s, was blown away by the results, but then sold it because I had spent $450 on a used point-and-shoot film camera that I wasn't going to be using for photography income! Also, I found the autofocus somewhat slow and unpredictable. I've since discovered I could have make the autofocus a little more predictable by changing one of the camera's settings; but I think I would have still sold it because of the cost.

I ended up finding a cheaper GR1 which is *very* similar to the GR1s. Both are the most pocketable of all the film cameras I bought; so I'm holding onto the GR1 for now. I need to experiment with the snap focus mode to get past the reservations I have about its slow autofocusing.

Because I liked the Leica Mini II, I had high hopes for the Leica Mini III, which had a slightly wider and faster fixed lens...and which I also picked up for a *great* price. However, it focusses a little more slowly than the Mini II (it's not a *huge* difference, but there's definitely a difference), and the subjective quality of the photos isn't quite as nice as those I got with the Mini II. There's nothing wrong with the photos I got with the Mini III, they just weren't quite as rich or deep or...something like that!

Even though the Konica Hexar is kind of large for a point-and-shoot, it's solid and focuses faster than any of the rest of these cameras! I only ran one roll of film through it and got mixed results (the film didn't work well in the high constrast lighting conditions) . However, some of the photos were quite awesome, so I'm sticking with it for another few rolls...:-).

The last of the group I'm keeping is the manual focus Canonet QL17. It's not particularly small or light--and it doesn't autofocus--but:
  • it feels good/solid in your hands
  • having to manually focus it really keeps you "in the moment"
  • it's got the fastest lens of all of these cameras (f/1.7)
  • the images I shot on the one roll of B&W film I ran through it definitely had a special "quality" to them
So--for now--I'm keeping the Ricoh GR1, Leica Mini II, Canonet QL17, and the Konica Hexar. The rest have either been sold or are currently being sold by me at eBay.

If you've had experiences with any of these "point-and-shoot" 35mm film cameras--or some I haven't mentioned--please feel free to share your experiences in the comment section below...:-).

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is:

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Physical Fitness and Equipment Strategies for Wedding Photography

Photography, especially photojournalistic wedding photography, requires a significant amount of physical stamina and prowess.

This past wedding season, I was somewhat plagued with back problems. It was fairly evident that carrying 2-3 cameras--as I had been the previous season--was taking its toll on my back.

Why hadn't I had these back problems the previous wedding season? Of course, I was one year older and I could have blamed it on age. One more year added to my 40+ year old body, though, shouldn't have made *that* huge a difference!

I think the more likely cause was that early in 2009, my home workout equipment broke down and I didn't replace it. I still exercised *some*, but definitely at a reduced level.

The physical strength and stamina that had easily carried me through 8-10+ hour long wedding days was waning toward the end of weddings. I was experiencing physical and emotional/mental lows during receptions. And halfway through the wedding season, my lower back went out and made weddings even more physically grueling.

Instead of going right out and replacing my exercise equipment at that point (partially because I didn't attribute my physical problems to reduced physical stamina and strength), I tried taking one of the cameras off my shoulders and sticking it into a "holster" on my belt (I have this padded belt to which I can fasten pouches and cases to hold lenses).

Getting this weight off of my shoulders helped significantly. It worked great for the two weddings I did right after my back went out. At the very next wedding, however, I had problems with the camera falling out of the holster; it happened 3 times...once on the concrete right in front of the hotel where the bride was getting ready! Luckily, the camera and lenses survived the three falls.

Well, that was near the end of the wedding season and I never did find a good solution to having the second camera on my belt. (I've since heard of fellow wedding photographer in my area coming up with a novel solution to this problem which I hope to learn more about and perhaps report on in a future blog post.)

Even if I do find a good solution, having too much equipment hanging at your waist--even while much easier on the back--makes you "wider" and less able to get around crowded reception rooms without banging your camera or lenses into the wedding guests seated and standing around the reception room!

So, why don't I just eschew the 2-3 cameras and carry only one?! For the very reason I worked up to carrying 2-3 around in the first place!--to cover wide, normal, and telephoto ranges simultaneously with high-quality constant f/2.8 zoom lenses and prime lenses.

Ever notice that no high-quality constant f/2.8 zoom lens--or even a constant f/4 zoom lens--covers the whole gamut?? Sure, there are consumer grade zoom lenses with variable, smaller than f/2.8 maximum apertures that can cover the equivalent of 28 or 24mm to 200 or 300mm (35mm full-frame equivalent). But the combination of their lower quality optics, slower autofocusing, and smaller maximum apertures makes them inadequate for non-flash indoor wedding photography in those all-too-common dark churches and reception halls...and I *like* to photograph as much as I can without flash, or at least without direct flash.

Even the Canon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS, although professional "L" grade, doesn't engage full operation of Canon's higher end DSLR autofocusing systems...*that* is reserved for lenses with f/2.8 maximum apertures and larger. So, this lens may be okay for outdoor weddings; but you need all the help you can get for lowly lit indoor affairs!

Ultimately, then, you've got three choices as a professional wedding photographer:
  1. Photograph with more than one camera and put different lenses on them so you can simultaneously capture people and events happening from both a wide and close-up perspective as needed.
  2. Photograph with one camera and multiple available lenses and try to *anticipate* which lens you'll need to capture the key moments. And whenever you've got the wrong lens for the moment, shake it off and try to anticipate the best lens for the next key moment.
  3. Photograph with one camera and one lens--either per stage of the wedding or for the whole day--and totally commit to that one perspective and make the most of it.
I should note that, of course, it's easier to commit to a one camera and one lens strategy--or even a one camera + multiple lenses perspective--if you're working with a second photographer who is covering a different perspective with a different lens!

Regardless, let's look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of these strategies.

In the past, I have tended to go with the first strategy: photograph with multiple cameras and lenses simultaneously. This strategy is the "safest", but certainly comes with some potential problems:
  1. the weight can take a physical toll that may affect the quality of the photography and the photographer's emotional and physical well-being
  2. decreases photographer's mobility in a crowded space, which can lead to missed shots
  3. can lead to missed shots while changing between cameras that occasionally get tangled or whose settings get bumped and altered while not in use
The second strategy (photographing with one camera + multiple lenses) helps to ameliorate some of the negative aspects of the first strategy: especially in terms of physical toll, mobility, and missed shots due to tangled or altered settings on the camera not currently being used. However, you're still carrying around extra equipment (multiple lenses), which is still having some impact on physical energy, mobility, and missed shots while changing between those lenses.

To me, the third strategy (one camera, one lens) is the "holy grail" of a seasoned wedding photographer. I've heard some wedding photographers discuss how they photographed a whole wedding with a 24-70 f/2.8 zoom lens. That's not bad. However, a more impressive move would be to photograph a whole wedding with a single prime lens and do an awesome job of it!

At a more realistic level, one could "cheat" a little on the third strategy to take away some of the riskiness of it. First, instead of committing to one lens for the entire wedding day, you could commit to one lens per stage of the event (e.g,. one for getting ready, one for the ceremony, one for group formals, and one for the reception). I'm often in my car between stages where I could swap out my lens for the next stage. Second, carrying one other lens in a small camera bag on your back can help to hedge your bets and/or give you an appropriate lens for the next stage if you can't get back to your car,,,without limiting your mobility significantly or adding a significant amount of additional weight.

I'm still working my way from Strategy One (multiple cameras, multiple lenses) to Strategy Three (one camera, one lens), but I've still decided to finally replace my home workout equipment anyway...

...because, well, it's always good to hedge your bets, right?...;-).

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is: