Quality Trumps Size? Portability vs. Image Quality Obsession Revisited

Each job requires a different set of tools. A camera good enough for one job may be completely inadequate when shooting a more demanding job that requires better accuracy and more speed. It’s only normal to long for a jack-of-all-trades equipment that can do it all. Fact is, size still promises better performance. Today’s mirrorless cameras are not only convenient, if you’re not too much concerned with sensor size and its implications then mirrorless is a no-brainer. Still, compact cameras lack autofocus speed, focus tracking, high ISO performance, etc. It’s too early to say goodbye to the obnoxious reminiscences of the past called DSLR.

The old quantity vs. quality debate is photography's portability vs. quality debate. To what end? | ilfusion.com
The old quantity vs. quality debate is photography’s portability vs. quality debate. To what end? | ilfusion.com
While DSLRs give you ultimate control and performance, compact cameras weigh a fraction and can easily be the better camera because the more compact camera is more often with you — and there you go, you have a DSLR with big zoom and missed that shot because the camera is collecting dust back home. Who doesn’t prefer the camera that is mostly with you. I don’t know of a single photographer who always happily lugs around an obnoxious DSLR with zoom.

I’m not trying to sell “little” cameras. But we all want the very best image quality out of a system as portable and convenient as possible. Still, there’s a price to pay. Is it worth sacrificing weight and size for less performance? Or… does a more compact system still really stand for less performance?

Yes and no.

First of all, you’re already doomed if you’re obsessed with either portability or image quality. There is no one system. Take the smaller cam for social occasions, the bulkier, heavier, noisier and more intrusive one for paid or important jobs that really matter.

Be it gigs, sports, events, wildlife or weddings, a few jobs can pay for a whole camera system. So it’s hardly worth to sacrifice quality for the sake of convenience when it’s easier to monetize the bigger gear.

Think in terms of “high photo to lug ratio.” The higher the chances to capture a highly anticipated shot = the less speaks for more convenient, more compact gear.

A completely different beast are walking, travel, grandmas, scenics, fruit baskets and street shooting. And chances are the more and more you’re getting acquainted with the lighter gear the less and less you’ll long for the more powerful one.

Because, in the end, how noticeable are differences in image quality that no one notices — and if you’re not printing poster size?

Truth of the matter is, however, it’s still too early to drop the two-systems approach. For many a second system may be an overkill. For many not, and mirrorless doesn’t yet offer the magic bullet.

Many are in a dilemma, and it’s true that image quality is less and less dependent upon camera size. For many it makes more sense these days to opt for size and weight than for extra control and performance.

Still, nothing trumps a 5D Mark III or D800 paired with the right kind of glass. Nothing beats good speed and prime lenses, but boy what a package.

Quality may trump size in one or two years down the road, but as for now portability a.k.a. physics is still an issue. Otherwise we’d all be shooting medium format.

For others the portability vs. quality debate is not a debate about quality, but about the sacrifice in sensor size.

We’ll get there, as the groundbreaking RX1 suggests, a camera that defies the laws of physics. The future will be an even finer place to be a photographer as the line that separates ISO, speed and performance from portability is getting thinner and thinner.

On the other hand, some mirrorless cameras can be too small. A certain size has benefits.

If you’re a professional, then stay with size. A client might not even take you for real with a mirrorless. Forgive his ignorance, that’s just how the market works. I also don’t know of any photographer in war zones and conflict areas who works with a compact system.

If you are an amateur, don’t even think of the big toys. Micro Four Thirds, NEX and all the rest are more than capable. Looking at the images, most won’t be able to tell the difference.

I even find these latest high-end point-and-shoot cameras such as the Sony RX100 or Canon S110 astonishingly amazing.

Or go Leica rangefinder. But that’s a different story altogether.

  • My DSLR grew dust as I quit carrying it on my trips. (I’m a pilot and work a 7 on 7 off schedule and the aircraft I fly has a 6,500 mile range). I can be anywhere in the world while at work and found a mirrorless system to carry with me was the answer. The Ricoh GRD, then GXR-M with a Leica lens. Perfect for my travel needs. But then I lusted for the “real” thing and broke the bank and recently upgraded my kit to the M-E.

    I’m your example of this process and do not miss my DSLR. My problem now is I can’t get rid of it without giving it away! I don’t shoot moving objects any more nor do I do macro. I’ve relearned the old art of zone focusing etc. My “manual” photo equipment has required that I take a little more time in framing my pictures, where my DSLR acted more like a P&S.

  • jonathan__c

    I’ve moved from a full 5DMK2 kit with L lenses to a humble little Samsung EX-1. The quality isn’t even remotely approaching what the 5D could do, but for the things I need it for (mountain climbing, skiing, etc), it’s just the right combination of features and size, and the image quality isn’t half bad considering.