Part 7: Conclusions From My Signage Project (What is the Best Camera?)

Earlier this year I embarked on a personal photography project which entailed shooting retro-styled signage around Oklahoma City with three different cameras (iPhone 4, DSLR, Medium Format Film). In six previous posts, I shared images from that project and explained various lessons learned.

In this Series-Wrap-Up, my goal is to answer today’s most frequently asked photography question: What Is The Best Camera? Or, closely related, do you have to have a good camera to make a good photo?

Aspect Ratio

Some consumer-level cameras allow users to toggle between normal and panoramic views, but generally speaking, professional-level cameras have a fixed aspect. This then limits the choices a photographer can make with composition, especially when using a camera such as my Rolleicord that has no zoom mechanism.

The best aspect ratio depends on your subject: do you want a square, oblong, or rectangular crop? Know your camera’s limitations.

Color Fidelity

  • Rolleicord:  In post-production on this project, I made the fewest adjustments to color with the film images. (This will not surprise the old-school film shooters.)
  • D700:  Every DLSR has it’s own weird nuances with color; mine tends to create greens with too much yellow, and have too much luminance in blues and yellows. While this can be corrected easily in Lightroom, each such change can add noise or otherwise degrade the file.
  • iPhone 4:  Horrible, just horrible color performance in my opinion. The Before/After post in this series is a great example. (Specifically, there is way too much purple in the blues. Among other grossness.) If you really compare the iPhone to the same image from a DLSR or film camera on this point, the lack of  color quality in the iPhone becomes glaringly obvious.

Distortion

  • Rolleicord:  Minimal vertical distortion, if any.
  • D700:  I shot this project with my 24-70mm which by nature will have some distortion (at least, at the wider angles). While distortion can be almost 100% corrected in Lightroom (Lens Correction presets and additionally with Manual Vertical/Horizontal adjustments), you risk losing valuable information around the edges in doing so. This makes on-location camera position/height/angle and framing extremely important.
  • iPhone 4:  Less vertical distortion than the D700.

Dynamic Range

  • Rolleicord:  Far and away the best dynamic range – if you know how to expose. Film provides a much smaller margin for error than other formats. Properly exposed 120 film images rarely if ever have blown highlights or shadows without detail. Sometimes this is good, and sometimes, it makes images look flat.
  • D700:  As long as you meter on the subject you want to expose properly, the full-frame D700 captures a huge amount of data, and blown highlights or clipped blacks can be recovered easily in post.
  • iPhone 4:  Terrible shadow detail, and performs terribly in high-contrast situations.

Noise

  • Rolleicord:  More noise/grain than the D700, which is normal for film.
  • D700:
  • iPhone 4:  Tons of noise and grain, and the more you try to remove it, the worse the sharpness gets.

Sharpness

  • Rolleicord:  Amazing sharpness at all depths if your hand is steady at f/11. Enlargements are somewhat limited though; much bigger than a 12×12 and you’ll experience diminished print quality.
  • D700:  Beautifully sharp. Avoid over-sharpening in post, which causes weird ghosting and looks gross. Major advantage of the DSLR in this area – because of the full-frame sensor, you can make huge enlargements without losing sharpness in detail areas.
  • iPhone 4:  Images in general are very soft, and get even worse when noise-reduction is applied.

White Balance

  • Rolleicord:  Excellent. Film is just smart!
  • D700:  The white balance presets on my D700 are rarely dead-on, so I’ve started using the Custom-Kelvin settings more and more. The inaccuracy of the auto-white-balance is frustrating, but on the flip-side, the ability to customize WB is a major advantage of the DSLR. It’s just taking me a lot of trial-and-error and practice to master. My D700 tends to look cooler on the LCD screen that it looks on my desktop, so I have to be careful about not shooting to warm.
  • iPhone 4:  Generally speaking, too pink.

Misc Pros / Cons

  • Rolleicord:  Hard to find, and film and processing are expensive.
  • D700:  Expensive, bulky, no video, “only” 12mpx.
  • iPhone 4:  Will never have a full-frame sensor, but is the least expensive option of these three choices, the most mobile, the easiest to use, and the new iPhone 4s has 8mpx camera.

Photography Apps

  • Pocket Light Meter: Tended to over-expose my film images. I wouldn’t trust it again with film.
  • Camera+:  I really liked this app and recommend it. It allows you to pick your focal and exposure points, which was really helpful in the high-contrast situations I was shooting in for this project. It also has a feature that delays shutter release until your hand is steady.
  • Instagram:  I absolutely love this app from a social standpoint and am rather addicted. However, the photos it produces have serious technical limitations, including the fact that you can’t straighten images, and that it significantly degrades image quality. Instagram photos have like 3 pixels.

Previous Posts in This Series

  1. Part 1:  Goals, Equipment, and Process
  2. Part 2:  iPhone 4 vs. D700 vs. Medium Format Cameras
  3. Part 3:  Before and After Image Comparison Using Three Cameras
  4. Part 4:  Vintage Restaurant Signs in OKC
  5. Part 5:  Dynamic Range Tutorial
  6. Part 6:  Is a Camera’s Aspect Ratio Important?

Conclusion

So, which camera is best? Overall, the D700 and Medium Format camera seem to tie for first place in my experiment. But in the end, if I could only have one, the D700 would win easily, because it saves time, reduces environmental waste, saves money and time on film processing, and provides the most flexibility in post-production.

Bottom line: I think the quality of your gear matters a lot, but only to the extent that you know how to use it, and leverage it’s potential. And only to the extent that you want to enlarge, print, exhibit, or publish your work. Members of the general public don’t need a D700 or D3s. And beginning photographers don’t have the resources (yet) to buy top-line gear. So, start somewhere, and master photography fundamentals, so when you have enough money in the bank, you can upgrade to the best gear – and be blown away by the results.

I am very curious what you think! Post your thoughts in the comments below!

– HBA

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About Mosaic Collective, LLC

I am Holly Baumann Ambuehl, founding member of Mosaic Collective, LLC, which was founded in early 2017 and is based in Central Illinois. I own and operate Mosaic Collective with my partner in business and life, my husband, Nathan. Mosaic Collective, LLC houses our rental property, my consulting contracts (with the nonprofit and public sectors on various work), and also my commercial and portrait photography business, which has been doing business as Holly Baumann Photography since 2008 long before the formation of our LLC. My blog posts feature client work, but I just love to write, so I also write about owning a business, food and drink, travel, and sometimes, my personal life! I am always honored when clients trust me to capture their vision, and equally so when my readers converse with me about what I've photographed or expressed here. I hope we'll have an opportunity to collaborate professionally and/or become friends. I'd love to hear what you think! - Holly
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