This article discusses some small sensor tips in terms of photographic technique and working in post with RAW files. The intent of this posting isn’t to suggest that people should sell their current camera gear and switch to a small sensor system. Every photographer should do their own research to determine what format, brand, and model of camera best suits their needs.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
Unfortunately there is a lot of misinformation that is perpetuated on the internet. Why some folks choose to do this is beyond me. There is no such thing as a perfect camera. Everything photographic comes with benefits and challenges. The key is to pick the camera equipment that best meets our individual needs while offering the least number of potential trade-offs.
Adjust Your Technique To Suit Your Camera Equipment.
It’s obvious that we can use a jig saw, circular saw or table saw to cut a piece of plywood. The technique that we use for each of these tools will vary based on the tool that we choose. The same concept holds true with camera gear. We need to understand how to adjust our technique to suit the camera gear in our hands.
Some of the criticisms levied on small sensor cameras like M4/3 can be directly linked to photographers using that camera gear format in exactly the same way they use larger sensor cameras like full frame… and expecting identical results. Technique needs to be adjusted depending on the camera format used and the creative outcome desired.
Sensor Size Does Not Directly Impact Depth-of-Field
It is quite common to read comments that state that it is ‘impossible’ to achieve shallow depth-of-field with a small sensor camera. This is simply misinformed and incorrect.
It would appear that folks who make this kind of erroneous statement do not understand how depth-of-field is impacted by lens focal length, aperture, distance to subject, and subject distance to background. When these factors are properly understood it becomes quite easy to achieve shallow depth-of-field with a small sensor camera. Even when using a Nikon 1 camera with its 1″ sensor.
Using a shorter focal length will always produce more depth-of-field than a longer focal length when shot under identical shooting parameters. This is true regardless of the size of the camera’s sensor. For example a full frame 28 mm lens will always have more depth-of-field than a full frame 90 mm lens when shot at the same aperture, and from the same physical location in terms of subject distance.
Subject Distance to Background
Regardless of the camera format that we may be using it is critical to consider subject distance to background when we want to achieve good subject separation. A poorly composed image will still be poorly composed regardless of the size of the sensor in the camera used. We need to remember to consider the backgrounds in our photographs, and how far away from our subjects those backgrounds are.
Get In Closer And Use a Longer Focal Length
A very simple technique to achieve shallow depth-of-field with a small sensor camera is to get in closer to our subject and use a longer focal length.
Lens Optical Properties Don’t Change.
Some confusion arises when photographers consider equivalent field-of-view… and forget that the optical properties of the lens that they are using don’t change. While a 150 mm lens on a M4/3 camera may have an equivalent field-of-view of 300 mm when compared to a full frame system… the actual optical properties don’t change. We’re still using a 150 mm lens.
As such it will produce more depth-of-field when compared to a 300 mm lens… all other factors remaining the same. If we examine the macro butterfly image above we see that it has a quite deep depth-of-field even though it was captured with an aperture of f/4.9. The key factor was that an 18 mm lens (efov 100 mm) was used to create the photograph.
Advantage of Shorter Focal Lengths
Sometimes photographers who use small sensor cameras forget to fully leverage the advantage of using shorter focal lengths. The photograph above is a good illustration. You can see the image has good depth-of-field even though it was captured using an aperture of f/3.5. The key is the focal length of 6.7 mm.
On a Nikon 1 camera this provides an equivalent field-of-view of 18 mm when compared to a full frame system… but the optical properties are still that of a 6.7 mm lens.
So, by moving in closer and using an auto-focusing point skewed to the foreground of the composition, I was able to achieve good depth-of-field while using an aperture of f/3.5. The wide angle of 6.7 mm allowed me to shoot handheld at 1/15 with ISO-3200.
By comparison a full frame camera user shooting from the same physical position with a full frame 18 mm focal length at 1/15 may have needed an aperture close to f/11 to create the same depth-of-field. This could have necessitated about 3 stops higher ISO, potentially putting it in the ISO-16000 to ISO-20000 range.
Using shorter focal lengths can allow us to get deep depth-of-field even when shooting handheld wide open at f/2.8 as we can see in the image above. Not having to stop down to f/8 or f/11 with landscape images can help us use base ISO-200 and utilize all of the dynamic range available to us with our small sensor camera.
Maximizing Available Dynamic Range
A full frame camera will often have more dynamic range than a M4/3 camera like the E-M1X or OM-1… so learning to maximize available dynamic range is important. I say ‘often’ because it is not always the case depending on the technology that is used.
Use Handheld Hi Res When Appropriate
When using the Handheld Hi Res (HHHR) technology found in the E-M1X and OM-1, the cameras will deliver dynamic range that is very competitive with full frame cameras at their base ISO values. As ISO values are pushed higher to ISO-6400 the E-M1X and OM-1 will outperform full frame cameras in terms of dynamic range. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just visit the photonstophotos website and check it out for yourself.
Take Advantage of IBIS Performance
Small sensor cameras from Olympus/OM Systems have outstanding IBIS performance. This can allow for very slow shutter speeds and the use of correspondingly low ISO values. In the photograph above we can see that a 4 second handheld exposure allowed this image to be captured at base ISO-200.
Use Open Apertures With In-Camera Focus Stacking
Utilizing in-camera focus stacking can also deliver beautiful results when fairly wide open apertures like f/2.8 to f/4 are used at base ISO-200. Not having to stop your lens down to f8, f/11 or more to get the desired depth-of-field can help retain dynamic range.
Use Base ISO-200 Whenever Possible
Under calm conditions shooting handheld at 4 seconds or more can help extend your photographic capabilities without the hassles of lugging a tripod around. Using longer handheld exposure times can allow a photographer to shoot at base ISO-200 on a more frequent basis, thus maximizing the available dynamic range of the camera.
‘Double Bump’ in Post
One of the techniques that I regularly use when processing my small sensor RAW files in post is to ‘double bump’ them. I make initial adjustments to highlights, midtones and shadows in DxO PhotoLab, then export a DNG file into PhotoShop and ‘bump’ those settings again in that software program.
Depending on the RAW file it is not uncommon for me to be quite aggressive with my second ‘bump’… often taking Highlights to -100 and Shadows to +100 when needed. By using these two software programs in post I’m able to make broader adjustments to highlights and shadows than would be possible if using only one program. This helps to stretch the available dynamic range in the RAW file.
Use DxO PhotoLab Smart Lighting Spot Adjustment
To achieve better overall exposure balance with my small sensor images I always use DxO’s Smart Lighting Spot Adjustment with each of my files. I’ll draw a sample box and move it around the photograph and sometimes change the size to achieve my desired appearance.
Use Black and White Sliders
Given the somewhat limited dynamic range with small sensor cameras it is critical to get our exposures right in camera. It can also be very important to pay special attention to adjustments made with black and white sliders. These two sliders can add depth to an image and help with edge acuity.
Pro Capture! Pro Capture! Pro Capture!
If you own an Olympus/OM System camera with Pro Capture. experiment with it and learn how you can apply it to your photography. I simply cannot imagine owning a camera that did not have Pro Capture technology. Using Pro Capture will enable you to consistently and confidently capture precise moments that will help set your work apart.
Don’t Be Afraid of Noise
Individual comfort levels with noise vary by photographer. As long as I can get a good, balanced exposure I never hesitate shooting my E-M1X up to ISO-6400 and will sometimes push my camera higher.
I use a ‘double-barrel’ noise reduction approach. I start with DxO DeepPRIME at the front end of my process… with a maximum value of 15. At the end of my process I use either Topaz Denoise AI or Topaz Sharpen AI to finish my images. The combination seems to work more effectively than any of the programs individually.
There are many benefits to use small sensor cameras like those from Olympus/OM Systems. Adjusting our shooting technique and using some small sensor tips can help us get the most out of our small sensor camera gear.
Choice of Many Professional Photographers
Unfortunately there are quite a few comments in photography chat rooms claiming that M4/3 cameras are not suitable for professional photographers. This is complete and utter nonsense.
Top, award winning, professional photographers like Jari Peltomaki, Andy Rouse, Petr Bambousek, Matt Suess, and David Tipling all use Olympus/OM System M4/3 camera gear. Most of these individuals used full frame gear at some point in their careers, and made the switch to M4/3 equipment. Pros would not risk their reputations using camera gear that doesn’t meet their demanding needs.
Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files or out-of-camera jpegs using my standard approach in post. Images were resized for web use. This is the 1,212 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.
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