How big is the ideal chip?

Which do you prefer? Big, fat, crunchy chips, or crispy, delicate, skinny fries? Personally I go for either, so long as they’re cooked well and not dry and mealy.

Of course this is a clunky metaphor for the chips in digital cameras, a subject I’ve covered before, but this time I’m going to demonstrate the difference between a large chip on the Canon 5D (identical in size to a 35mm film negative) and the smaller chip in the Canon G11 compact camera and how this relates to depth of field in photography (how far behind and in front of the point of focus is also sharp). Now bear in mind I’m not talking about the pixel count, but the physical size of the chip.

Also, this isn’t a camera review. You can read dozens of those on sites such as dpreview.com which do a grand job of organising all the geeky info, doing bench tests and what-have-yous. I merely want to show the difference that chip size has on how pictures look.

So to continue the foodie theme, let’s get to the meat of the issue. Here you see two very similar photos. One taken with the Canon 5D (a full-frame SLR) and the other with the G11 compact camera.

commercial photo of electric scooter in sicily

Canon 5D background is softer.

Electric scooter in Sicily

G11: Background is clearer.

What you’ll notice is that the background in the shot taken with the 5D is much more out of focus than the shot taken with the G11. Factors which affect this depth of field are aperture, lens focal length and chip size.

The focal lengths aren’t massively dissimilar; 135mm on the 5D, 115mm on the G11, and the apertures are f5.6 and f4.5 respectively. But the biggest influence on making the bike “pop” out of the background is the effect of the chip size on depth of field, and this is where the D5 has more control. Not necessarily a bad thing that the G11 will always have a deeper depth of field. It means more of the bike can stay sharp, while the lens can use a larger aperture and gather more light to gain the same exposure.

Photographers will use a fine depth of field to emphasise certain elements of an image, but other tricks can be used when you have less control of depth of field, such as switching to a more dramatic lens angle and simplifying the background, which is what you see in the photo below.

electric scooter in sicily

G11: Change of angle + darker background = more drama.

I said this isn’t a camera review, but I have to say I was very impressed with the G11 once I’d learned how to squeeze every ounce of quality out of its tiny chip. It’s not as quick as an SLR, but if you can anticipate well it’ll give you results you’d find surprising. I love that I can trigger my portable studio lighting using wireless triggers on the G11’s hotshoe, and that I can fire flash at higher shutter speeds than are available in normal flash modes on the D5. The only downside is that pulling the image up to 100% on screen shows the quality difference between the G11 with its tightly packed 10 million pixels, and the D5 with 12.8 million with more room to breathe on a bigger chip, but for web images it’s stunning.

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12 comments

  • Gary Brindle July 2, 2010   Reply →

    Tim, you have backed up my long held idea that technique and composition can often make up for a lower spec camera. I started with a Zenith E SLR and got some results which surprised a few other phtographers.
    My latest purchase is a Canon 5d MK2 because I am now a full time pro and my customers deserve the best.

    • Glass Eye July 3, 2010   Reply →

      Love those old Zeniths – and didn’t they take Pentax lenses? Best in the world in their day. WHen I worked in camera retail, I loved opening the box on a brand new Zenith. The smell of fish-based glue was always a slightly unpleasant surprise!

      But I take your point about kit v skill. I’ve seen more horrid photos taken on Leicas than probably on any other kind of camera – maybe that’s just my impression, but why do people with more money than skill seem to own so many Leicas? It’d be like me buying a £2,000 Fender – much better leave it in the shop for a skilled musician to buy and play 😉

  • Alex July 6, 2010   Reply →

    Man i love those nice, fresh, crisp and clear photos. They look beautiful. Keep it up!

  • valerieevans July 6, 2010   Reply →

    Tim – informative and entertaining, as ever. I recently got a little Nikon Coolpix 3000 for my birthday, just to always have a camera in my pocket. I’m a better photographer now than I was the last time I used a compact in earnest, but I have still been very impressed with my photos so far. Knowing where the weaknesses are likely to be and accounting for them in the shooting is easy and I feel like a big kid when I’m running around with it. I love it!

    • Glass Eye July 6, 2010   Reply →

      Thank you Valerie, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m certainly having fun with my G11 and what’s interesting is finding the new things I can do with it that might otherwise be tricky with a full-blown SLR. Just keep experimenting with your Nikon too! 🙂

  • al Reiner July 11, 2010   Reply →

    I am Glad I followed the link from Peter, I am really impressed with the g11, I have convinced a few landscape pros to try and two bought it. On my face book page I posted a few shots with ISO as high as 800.
    I look forward to following you.

    • Glass Eye July 11, 2010   Reply →

      Thanks for your interest, Al, and I aim to blog more about the G11 as I use it more. I’m not yet sure I could use it for my main commercial clients, but it certainly has some advantages for certain kinds of work.

  • Peter Phun July 11, 2010   Reply →

    Hi Tim,
    So far I’m not too disappointed with my G11. I think far too many people have such high expectations for what little they pay. For $500 I think this camera is exactly what you pay for. Sure I’ve heard complaints about the video quality but I am a realist.

    I bought this as a replacement to my G3 which died recently. That camera had its limitations but I learned over time how to work around those as I will this one.

    The G11 actually performed very well recently when I used it to shoot fireworks. When I write about that, I’ll be sure to come back and add the URL on this post. Thanks for sharing Tim and Al

    • Glass Eye July 12, 2010   Reply →

      Hi Peter

      Thanks for your comment. I suspect some of the high expectations result from the hyperbole used in some reviews, which would make you think this camera was capable of Hasselblad quality which of course isn’t possible.

      For my part I bought it with slightly inflated expectations (I’d not owned a G before), was disappointed at first, but when I persevered I suddenly “got it”. This camera is incredible as you say for something this size and this price, and when you shoot carefully and treat the RAW files with respect, it is capable of surprising results.

      It’s good for certain kinds of picture, but it’s no speed freak. And as one reviewer put it, if you take snaps with it you’ll get snaps. Take a more considered approach and it really shines.

      Please do post your next link here, and I’ll be sure to cross-post my next blog featuring the G11 to you.

      TTFN

      Tim

  • Andrew September 1, 2010   Reply →

    I’ve got both the G10 and a 5D Mark II, and while it wouldn’t be fair to put the two up against each other in competition, the G10 often wins out just by virtue of getting the shot, since I don’t take the 5D with me unless I’m on a paid assignment.

    • Glass Eye September 1, 2010   Reply →

      I have to agree there. The G10 (I have the G11) is quite a step up from many compact cameras, and from what I’ve seen its image quality gives the micro four thirds cameras a run for their money despite their larger chips. I even bring the G11 on paid assignments since sometimes it can do things my D5 (or any other slr) can’t.

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