Mike J’s DOF Response

January 13, 2009 ·

Michael Reichmann

The following is Mike Johnston’s response tomy rebuttaltohis original article.
on the subject of the future of DSLRs.
These are, obviously, best read in order.

Of course I second what Michael R. says about the possibility of being wrong. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s likely. Predicting probable futures is a pretty inexact science, as any stock trader can attest.

I have to smile, though, about the contention that too much DOF is a bad thing. Eight years ago I published (inPhoto Techniquesmagazine) a trio of articles about "bokeh" that kinda got that topic rolling (Carl Weese was the one who originally clued me in to it), and I love the the aesthetic effect of out-of-focus areas in a picture. But it’s just a property. All properties in pictures are not requirements, not fulfillments of any static need, but simply accidents of technology. One could even argue that black-and-white is just a property, a result of photography’s early difficulties with recording color!

One thing we know from the history of photography is that, periodically, photographers have made attempts to come to terms with "selective focus." Most notably, P. H. Emerson in 1889 – and even he got slammed for it. Years ago I made a fairly extensive study of the history, not of photography, but of photography as a hobby. Several things stood out from this research; one was that practitioners of photography have, by and large,complainedabout selective focus more than anything. The constant striving, historically, has been for more and more depth of field. It was even the foundation of the modernist Group ƒ/64 that was inspired by Edward Weston. After all, the eye/brain does not consciously see with great swaths of reality blurred. Our perception is of "pan-focus" (sharpness front to back).

So now, even though they may certainly be sincere case-by-case, the general complaint against smaller sensors paired with shorter lenses as having "too much" depth of field certainly resonates with disingenuousness. As I say, it’s just a property. "Seeing" with selective focus as we do now is simply a pictorial convention. If the tools change, artists will adapt.

A second point I might raise is that I’m not necessarily predicting what will bebestfor photographers, because I know we seldom get that. Rather, I’m acutely aware of the ever-increasing tyranny of the market in determining what we get to work with. So I’m not necessarily saying that my predicted decline of the reflex mirror will be all for the best, in this best of all possible worlds; I simply think that as time passes, more and more of the mass market for cameras will migrate to cameras grafted into other electronic devices, perhaps similar to the pack-of-cigarette sized electronic gadgets that most people seem to carry around with them these days – cell phones, personal organizers, blueberries (I have no idea what a blueberry is, but I know that one lawyer friend sends alerts to one of my internet groups from one). It’s likely that what we now call digital "medium-format backs" will continue in some form, for commercial professionals. My "rash predictions" are simply thoughts about what might fall in the middle, between those two extremes.

I’ve never thought that the so-called "full-frame" (i.e., 35mm-sized) sensors are the wave of the future, and the reason is the same one I’ve always given. Ask any lensmaker what the #1 constraint of designing lenses is, and they’ll say "size." 35mm lenses will eventually be as impractical as medium-format lenses are now. When there’s no inherent absolute requirement for big, heavy, expensive lenses, they simply won’t stick around. I’ve made this comparison before, but just look at the Olympus 150mm ƒ/2 E Series lens (300mm equivalent), compared to the Canon 300mm ƒ/2.8 IS lens. With thesameangle of view, the Olympus lens, for the 4/3rds system, is:

1. One whole stop faster.

2. Four inches shorter (6 inches vs. 10 inches).

3. One inch less in diameter.

4. Much lighter (3.4 lb. vs. 6 lb.).

5. $1,700 less expensive.

And I’ll bet Michael a sushi dinner that the Olympus lens would test better in a direct comparison on the optical bench, too.

Those advantages will simply win out eventually, is all. It’s just inevitable. Note that I’m not necessarily saying anyone should go buy that specific Olympus lens, or that the 4/3rds system itself is the future, or that there aren’t advantages to the Canon lens, etc. All I’m saying is that this one case is an example, in a general sense, of why smaller sensors will be in all of our futures. I think that will be true even if the entire Olympus Corporation goes the way of Bronica. (But knock on wood as far as that’s concerned!)

I’m also assuming that sensor technology will continue to improve. If you look at the past decade’s improvements, it’s pretty tough to argue that sensor technology will stand still from now on.


One Part of the Future is Now

And now I’ll talk about something that Michael and I might agree on (but I’ll let him tell you). The next camera I buy, regardless of whether it’s a "digicam" or an SLR, will be native DNG. As a general observer of the photography scene, including the industry, the retail level, the profession, and the hobby, I think DNG is the single most crucial development in digital photography so far in this century. Well, maybe that’s hyperbole. But, to my mind, it’s critically, critically important that the industry as a whole moves away from the "Tower of Babel" approach in which we’re very rapidly getting mired.

Adobe is simply the perfect company to lead the way to a standard. Adobe controls the TIFF and PDF standards, and has done great things for the world’s technical culture by making those standards free and open. It has also, by those precedents, proven its trustworthiness with regard to its motives. It may not be widely known yet, but Adobe has even offered to turn over the DNG standard to an independent standards organization if need be.

DNG has far too many advantages for any of us to be anything but traitors to our love of photography if we fail to support it. (Possible hyperbole alert again.) We will, on the one hand, reap numerous direct rewards: just to list a few, new cameras will be immediately adaptable to our existing workflows; software companies will be free to innovate; cameras will be cheaper because camera manufacturers won’t have to do double-duty as software developers; and pro cameras won’t have to waste valuable CPU power on processing – they can simply be designed to create small JPEGs for LCD display and rough editing, and otherwise just shunt a DNG as quickly as possible directly to storage. And no, you can’t do that with proprietary raw standards because you can’t count on everybody being able to handle proprietary raw! If every program made can handle DNG, on the other hand, it becomes possible. For consumers, DNG will mean the return of viable commercial photo processing (even if it’s kiosks).

The long-term indirect advantages are compelling, too. Greater accessibility for files; more robust development of the standard; improved viability for smaller, less dominant camera makers; the list goes on.

Personally, everything I shoot will be DNG from now on. And as I say, I will not be buying another digital camera that doesn’t write directly to raw using DNG. I am even, as of now, throwing away the proprietary raw files of my pictures, and keeping only the DNG files. Silly? Maybe. Call it a "photopolitical commitment"…to the future.

– Mike Johnston


Subscribe to Mike’s "The 37th Frame" atwww.37thframe/subscribe.htm.
Yes, issue #8 really will be published soon.

And on that note, I’ll let the subject rest – Michael R

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Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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