Can Small sensors take a decent picture?


























Back in 2008 Michael Reichmann at Luminous Landscape created a stir by comparing the results of a Hasselblad H2 and P45+ back and a Canon G10 compact. Heres the link - Kidding
He claimed that at a certain print size it was difficult to tell the difference between the two. Charlie Waite said in an article relating to his new DVD Travelling Light that he could print images from the compact cameras that he used, including the Panasonic LX3, up to A3.

If these are true, then what's the point of a larger sensor, if you're not concerned about low light / high ISO performance?

Having had unsatisfactory experiences with compact cameras and their small sensors in the past I wondered if I was missing something. My last small sensor compact camera was a Leica D-Lux 3. I actually thought this was pretty awful. The images, even from raw, were soft. There was a "processed" look to the images and the dynamic range was, well, not very dynamic!! Every picture I took, even in flat light seemed to have burnt-out highlights. So, as far as I was concerned it was 10MP of not very much at all.

My first serious digital camera was an Olympus E-10 bought back in 2001. This had a 2/3" sensor and 4MP (considered really impressive at the time) At the time I loved it. It let me take pictures like this:-

dover

1/160th sec at f11 at ISO 80. As a landscape photographer I was amazed by the depth of field I was able to produce, at a fast shutter speed, small aperture and low ISO.

I used this camera both for landscape and travel work and for the studio work I was doing at the time, which was shooting portfolio images for performing artists.

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Shooting at its base ISO it produced pretty good images, in many ways superior to those I have seen shot on current small sensors cameras and I still sell the images I shot with it over and over again, often printed to A4 in magazines. As has been stated many times the constant loading up of MP's onto these sensors often detracts from image quality rather than add to it. 

The E-10 is still around, sitting unused on the shelf of a family member. I may charge it up and give a try again, just to see what its like.

However, back to the original point. That poppy image has always lingered in mind. I would love to be able to replicate it. With that in mind I looked again at the current crop of of top end compacts. The Samsung EX1/TL500 ticked lots of boxes for me. Fast wide-angle 5.2mm lens, articulated screen. I certainly like my NX-10 very much. So I looked at lots of samples. Again I was underwhelmed. Burnt-out highlights, general low level of detail resolution and something that I can only describe as a "processed" look. Its a somewhat unnatural, non-photographic, harsh look that I find quite unpleasant. 

Charlie Waite used an LX3, so I had a look at some samples from that camera, including raw files. Same thing. I really didn't like them. Likewise with Canon G10 and G11.

Since 2001 I would have thought that it would have been possible to produce a small sensor that performed as well as my Olympus E-10 with a few more pixels in it. If it exists, I can't find it. 

I use m4/3 and after some work and experimentation have found a way to deal with what I see as the only really significant drawback for me which is the limited dynamic range. I get the size advantage, as the cameras are easily small and light enough for me. But what I could achieve with E-10 continually haunts me, and I'm even considering the possibility of shooting multi-image stitched panoramas with it, for situations where I would like that extraordinary depth of field.

Many people seem happy with the results from these small sensor cameras, and as indicated, people whose views are widely published and have a certain gravitas within the photographic community are indicating their admiration of their virtues. So why am I so unimpressed? Am I expecting too much? Is what I want to achieve not possible other than with a camera I bought 9 years ago?

I'm beginning to think that might be the case.