size matters...kind of

On the opposite ends of my current photo gear spectrum are a 50 years old view camera with a custom digital back and a modern compact mirrorless camera. Looking at their group portrait you might be able to notice some difference in their sizes.

50 years old 4x5 Sinar P (the digital back is not shown) with 100 years old Wollensak lens vs modern Fuji X100s. It looks like Fuji is smaller than the front of the old timer lens.


When I added the X100s to my stable it was considered 'the new Leica' by many great shooters. And who was I to argue with them? It's small, weighs less than a pound, ready to shoot instantaneously and, being in right hands, is able to produce outstanding images. 

On the other hand don't even start asking me why I decided to shoot with such relic as Sinar P. I cannot provide you with a rational answer.  The system weighs about 20 lb and it takes several hours to assemble the camera and set the scene.  But it feels so good to operate its controls and look through its ground glass.

Apparently having both in my possession I was curious to find out who will win in their 'Whale vs Elephant' or rather 'David vs Goliath' face-off.  It's almost impossible to predict the outcome of such contest in advance by comparing their systems' specifications. There are two many parameters involved and none of them is the defining factor. Even the camera effective pixels count, the staple of all  advertising campaigns, is totally misleading.

So I concluded that the best way to satisfy my curiosity once and for all will be to shoot the same scene with two competitors, make a decent size prints of both images, and compare them. At that point my intention was not to perform a standard 'pixel-peeping' comparison but somewhat to compare images of the same scene on their artistic merits. 

Without further ado I cut a nice iris flower in our garden, put it in a matching blue vase and start to shoot a scene where the flower was the point of interest. Immediately  after the first shots a strange thing happened - I realized that something was wrong with the original idea: the camera choices forced me to set the scene differently to use the cameras at their best.

Right out of the camera images generated  by the 'old timer' had a delicate painterly Pictorialist look with a muted color gamut. They just begged to add more details to the background to make the image compositionally balanced.

Its rival images with their bright colors and highly defined details looked like Deco-inspired ones. The point of interest in these images grabs the viewers attention so strongly that they looked better against a plain monotone color background.

So I finally gave up on the idea to compare the images of an identical scene and ended up with comparing images with an identical point of interest - the iris flower in a blue vase.

And here are the finalists:


Irises,  Sinar/Wollensac system

Iris in a Blue Vase, Fuji X100s

Time for a poll. Please do not read further until you vote.

Which image do you prefer? *









You made your choice. Good job! Now, here is my story. I hesitated to prefer one to another while looking at them side-by-side on my monitor screen. However, in the 16" by 20" prints competition I gravitated toward recognizing the painterly Sinar image as the winner. A quick poll among my guests also demonstrated that it was a choice of 9 out of 10 participants.

Does this outcome indicates that one system performs better than another? I am not sure.

Despite of the facts that:

a) an image generated by Sinar system contains 20 times more pixels as one generated by the Fuji camera,

b) each Sinar system photosite area is four times larger than Fuji photosite area,

c) Sinar lens area is 7 times larger than Fuji one

both images when displayed on a 24" monitor screen or viewed as 16"x20" prints visually contain similar amount of details. 

It well might be that the reason of such preference is mainly psychological and has something to do with how a modern person of Western culture perceives images.  Due to enormous differences in lens/sensor sizes the Sinar images have much smoother tonal transitions. Also the hundred years old lens causes more image imperfections than the modern Fuji lens. IMHO both factors influence the viewers perception of Sinar images such that they are rated as more pleasing and artistically significant than Fuji ones.

In conclusion, my feeling is that size of a camera matters...kind of.

Does it mean that from now on I will use Sinar as my walk around camera? Not until I get my personal Sherpa. 


Postscript for technically inclined visitors

The Pictorialist image notes:

Camera used -  Sinar P 4x5 system

Lens - Wollensak Velostigmat Series II 12", lens diameter - 52 mm (The Series II Velostigmat 12in f/4.5 sold new in 1922 for $146.50. In 2015 dollars that’s $2,046.83; similar to what one pays for a Nikon or Canon professional lens.) 

Custom scanning digital back - based on Nikon D700 full frame body

Assembled system weight - around 19 lb

Due to digital back design limitations the actual 'sensor' size was approximately 3.5"x2.8" (6320 sq mm); it is smaller than the camera 4"x5" ground glass size, but it still has more than twice the area of a medium format image and 20 times larger than the Fuji sensor area (312 sq mm when cropped to fit 4:5 proportions).

Number of recorded pixels - approximately 260 MP

Sensor photosite (pixel) size - 8.45 microns

The Deco image notes:

Camera used -  Fuji X100s

Lens - Fujinon 23 mm f/2, lens diameter - 20 mm

Assembled system weight - 0.98 lb

Number of recorded pixels -  13 MP (when original sensor size is cropped to fit 4:5 proportions).

Sensor photosite (pixel) size -  4.8 microns