Techniques, Reviews and Commentary

The Ultimate Snapshot Camera

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A DSLR can respond quickly but most people don't just carry one around on the off chance that something great will happen. The DSLR viewing system does not have the immediacy that is often needed since once the camera is at the eye you pretty much see only what is inside the finder frame.

At the other extreme an iPhone or any other smart phone has great potential, but they still take time to get into picture taking mode. Importantly to get consistently useable images you need to fire up a camera replacement app like ProCamera and take the time to nail the exposure so the small sensor doesn't clip highlights and/or perhaps shadows.  Ultimately you can crop your shots but there is no doubt the images from an iPhone don't crop near as well as those from a DSLR and as usual you have nil depth of field effects, everything is sharp always.

Compact cameras show a lot of promise but come with two clear deficits, most are slow to start up, many are slow in terms of shutter response and importantly you really don’t get any meaningful control over depth of field and the good ones are not all that compact anyway. Worst of all most compacts cannot take an auxiliary viewfinder and the screens are often very hard to see in bright sunlight.

Of course many would like to claim the Leica rangefinder is the perfect snap shooter but I feel M9s are somewhat limited in this roll as they are manual focus only, don’t have rock solid exposure systems and being full frame have depth of field that requires more than a little precision in terms of focus placement. The X2 may well be far better, but honestly it is way too expensive for what it is! This is not to say I have not seen brilliant street photography done with Leicas but none would not be my first choice even if I could justify the not inconsiderable expense.

The perfect tool is I believe to be found in the mirrorless camp, either the 4/3s or APSC. I have for a long time felt the little micro 4/3 Olympus and Panasonics over a very compelling package and the icing on the cake being the rather yummy lenses available for them. But I do not own a 4/3 camera, I do own an APSC Sony Nex 5N and I wondered how I could set it up as a rapid firing foolproof snap shooter for the modern digital age.

I think I have the solution and it seems to work brilliantly so with no further ado here is how it works.

I determined that auto focus was essential, although I could happily cope with zone focusing I needed a little more accuracy if I was to take into account the vagaries of the scene and keep things nicely sharp. I have plenty of manual focus lenses for the NEX so they were ruled out and that left the choice of the Sigma 19 and 30mm twins and the kit 18-55 OSS lens. I decided on the OSS because it had the bonus of image stabilization which would improve the strike rate for this rapid shooting approach.

I knew from testing the optimum focal length for the 18-55 was 26mm and the best apertures in the f5.6 to f7.1 range. Now as it happens 26mm is a pretty neat option, it is just wide enough to get a little more in, has enough DOF that focus is not super critical and not so wide as to have any obvious distortions. Even better 26mm is just magnified enough that if you go close at say an aperture of 5.6 you do get some obvious DOF effects.

I decided after some testing to use multi point auto focus, this may seem like an obvious choice but frankly many cameras mis-focus on this setting (are you listening Canon). The NEX 5N pretty much nails the focus accurately enough for this purpose almost all the time and I have not yet had any total disasters.

The camera is left in Aperture priority mode as the aperture is generally the most important item for my style of shooting and overall I find either 5.6 or 6.3 does the trick almost all the time. For this type of shooting I am not trying to play risky games with wide apertures that give too little wiggle room but the option is there is I want to take some extra time.

ISO setting? Well I settled on 400 ISO, it is high enough to give sensible shutter speeds under most circumstances at my chosen aperture but low enough to give noise free high quality images that can stand plenty of cropping.

And speaking of cropping, here is were modern digital is so convincing. With 16 very high quality megapixels to work with I can crop however I like which means I can use a fixed focal length with impunity, knowing I can easy crop into say a 50 mm equivalent without getting too worried, or I can crop to 16:9 and even thinner proportions to accentuate width.

Whilst the 18-55 is not super sharp right out to the edge at 26mm it is really only that last little bit of the frame corners that are suspect and most times these will be cropped off anyway. And that leads to the next little item, the optical viewfinder. I made my own using a donor disposable camera and an old LED torch with a few other bits, I feel it looks pretty funky but the great thing is that it shows around a 32 mm view, so the camera is actually capturing a little more than the eye sees through the finder, giving a nice amount of flexibility in framing and post capture aspect ratio options.

The great thing with an optical viewfinder is that it is bright under normal daylight and at night. Better still, because it sits above the camera you still see the scene in front of you with the other eye which improves your ability to time the shots with moving subjects and keep some contact with your subjects should you need too. Optical finders also have another neat side effect, mainly getting the viewfinder against the eye which is more stable and allows one to shoot either in lower light or with slower shutter speeds than the traditional arms length approach enables.

The camera is set onto the standard parameters mode but with contrast held back at -1 to keep the exposure range nicely controlled, this is augmented by having the DRO set to auto and the saturation on zero. Ultimately this provides jPEG files that do not clip and fall nicely within the print space of most commercial printing set ups.

I do not use auto white balance, it’s not bad but honestly I get better results by setting it to the appropriate option and fine tuning it, if the day turns cloudy or I go indoors its pretty easy to reset things and ultimately this approach makes for far less editing and in any case is not needing to be adjusted from shot to shot.

Review is turned off and the screen is set for black with shooting details, after all I am using the optical finder and relying on the system to get the technical stuff squared away.

I have no qualms about this, many years of experience in shooting high contrast slide and mono films has taught me to be very intuitive about exposure compensation and I find I can outsmart the cameras system most times. The control on the NEX 5N can be touch driven and this is perfect for this style of shooting.

An additional setting is the sleep mode which is set to put the camera to sleep after a minute, this is preferable to turing the camera on and off all the time and if I tough the shutter button as I lift the camera it is ready to fire by the time I get there.

The lens hood is a Leica style vented one, well I think it just looks cool but additionally it is perfect match for the chosen fixed focal length controlling lens flare perfectly, yet adds little weight and almost no bulk to the camera setup.

Finally I made a neat little “L” handle which is padded on the side and allows me to grip and balance the camera very effectively, but also acts as a support to hold the camera against walls or even turn the camera 90 degrees to place it on a flat horizontal support such as a table. This cost next to nothing to construct but in conjunction with the eye level finder helps make the Nexy a brilliant street shooter that when not up to the eye and in use is carried very comfortably and securely in my left hand.

I can’t emphasize enough just how much nicer the camera is to use with the grip, it makes it easy to shoot at slow shutter speeds and yet adds little to the weight of the whole rig and as a bonus it works a treat for shooting video making for far more stable footage.

Ultimately set up in this way the NEX 5N is a joy to use offering rock solid image quality, speed, sensible weight, moderate cost and I think it looks pretty neat as well, a 4/3s setup might be better still but then 4/3s offers less DOF control so maybe not. Check out the pic of the rig and see what you think.

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