Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Using Cheap Gear On A Road Trip

A Lovely Fall Day - June Lake, Ca
This last weekend my family and I loaded up the car and headed up U.S. Highway 395 to see the eastern Sierras clothed in fall colors. This was a road trip that I've wanted to do for years, and finally the opportunity came.

I mentioned last week that I bought my wife a new camera: a Canon PowerShot N. It's a tiny 12 megapixel pocket point-and-shoot camera. Interestingly enough, I found myself using the PowerShot N on this trip far more than my DSLR. Maybe 15% of my photographs were captured using my much more expensive gear.

After I got home I had to ask myself why it was that I constantly chose to use my wife's camera instead of my own. Was it because it's new? Was I simply trying it out for an upcoming camera review? Was it because it's so small and lightweight (it easily and comfortably fits into a pocket)? Because it's fun to use? Because resolution is overrated?
Vintage Half Dome From Olmsted Point - Yosemite National Park, California
This trip is one that I've been eager to undertake for awhile now. I've thought about the images that I might capture. There are sights I've wanted to photograph--I've been planning this in my mind. It seems odd to me that, when the opportunity finally arrived, I reached for a cheap camera instead of my DSLR.

The PowerShot N has half the resolution of my Nikon D3300--even less than that after you factor in the anti-aliasing filter, which robs some of the resolution and isn't found on the Nikon. Dynamic range and high-ISO are superior on the DSLR. The PowerShot N is automatic while the D3300 allows the photographer to custom adjust everything to the scene. The lenses that I have available to attach to the DSLR are better glass than what's permanently on the Canon. What possible good reason could I have for choosing the point-and-shoot over the DSLR?

And I had to wonder if I blew it. I'm moving next year to Utah, and that makes it at least somewhat unlikely that I'll do this road trip again. Maybe I should have used my DSLR. Perhaps I squandered my opportunity to create great images of the eastern Sierra Nevada Range in the fall.
Sierra Nevada Range Behind Hill - Lone Pine, California
As I post-process the photographs from this trip I'm surprised at how good the Canon PowerShot N actually is. No, it's not as good as my DSLR, but it is better than many DSLRs from 10 years ago (and photographs captured with those camera hang on gallery walls). In some respects it produces better image quality than my first DSLR, the Pentax K-x. As long as you don't go crazy with cropping, there's enough resolution to make 16" x 20" prints.

I don't think that it was a mistake to use the pocket point-and-shoot instead of my DSLR. The camera handled the task just fine. It's not something that will blow "pixel peepers" away, but casual viewers won't have a clue that cheap gear captured the images.

None of this answers the "why" question above. Just because I could "get away with" using the PowerShot N doesn't explain why I chose it over my other gear.
Pine Tree Grove - Mono Canyon, California
I post-processed this image using Alien Skin Snap Art 4.
As I've thought about this, there seems to be several different facets to the answer. I don't think a simple canned response explains anything in this case.

First, the PowerShot N is small and lightweight. It easily fits into your pocket. It can be operated with one hand. When traveling, smaller is often better. When you're headed out on a hike the last thing you want is a bulky DSLR hanging around your neck (I know because I took my D3300--one of the smallest and lightest DSLRs ever made--with me on a four mile hike through the Tuolumne Meadows, and I wish that I hadn't). 

Next, the camera is fun to use. You don't think about exposure because the camera is automatic, and the camera gets the settings right most of the time. You literally point and shoot. This frees you up to think more about composition and vision and the truly important things.
Three Tree Reflection - Yosemite National Park, California
The camera has a "Creative Shot" mode that makes five alternative versions of the original image, edited in a randomly selected creative preset. You don't know what you're going to get, and sometimes the results are more interesting than what you would not have come up with on your own. Vintage Half Dome From Olmsted Point is one such image--I added some film grain in post-processing, but otherwise that's what came out of the camera. Pine Tree Grove is another example, although I did do a significant amount of editing to that image.

Another reason that I used the PowerShot N instead of my DSLR is because sometimes it's nice to not be the photographer. When you use expensive-looking gear, people make assumptions about you. There are expectations placed on you. People give you funny looks sometimes. Other photographers will make judgements about your gear.

If you are at an event (party, wedding, etc.), people might expect that you'll give them a copy of the images you've captured (without knowing what exactly has been captured). Everyone thinks that you're going to photograph them, and those that don't like being photographed will avoid you like the plague (which could be good or bad). If you are at the park, someone might assume you're a pedophile (this has happened to me). Whatever the situation, sometimes it feels better to be the "normal" person--the average Joe that's not a photographer--at least in the perceptions of others.
Lyell Fork - Yosemite National Park, California
I post-processed this image using Alien Skin Snap Art 4.
It's worth pointing out, as well, that resolution is overrated. 50 megapixels may soon be the standard, but Apple has clearly demonstrated that 8 megapixels are enough for full-page magazine ads and billboard displays. 12 megapixels are enough for medium-sized prints, and large prints with the help of software like Alien Skin's Blow Up. Unless I'm printing murals, that's plenty of resolution!

Your computer monitor is only capable of showing a few megapixels at a time. It has to down-sample a 12 megapixel file in order to display it. You'll only notice the difference if you zoom way in. The advantages of smaller resolution are a quicker workflow (your software handles the smaller files like a pro while it may sputter a little trying to handle the huge RAW files of high-resolution cameras) and less storage used.

And, finally, I wanted to use the point-and-shoot so that I could put it to the test for an up-coming camera review. You can't really review gear unless you use it--at least not for the type of hands-on reviews that I do here on this blog.
Autumn Yellow - Mono Canyon, California
That all adds up to picking up one camera and leaving the other in the camera bag. One camera was constantly being used and the other constantly neglected, taking up precious space in a crowded automobile.

This has me completely rethinking my gear. Before this trip I was considering "upgrading" my camera to gain a tiny amount of dynamic range. Now I'm thinking of doing the opposite. I've said before that less is more with gear, and I'm more and more understanding how true that is. The photograph is what matters, not the camera used to create it.

The images you see in this post are a small sampling of photographs that I captured using the Canon PowerShot N on the first day of the U.S. Highway 395 road trip from this last weekend. The full article on that trip will be posted in the coming days. 

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