Now and then, I go into the field tasked with a photography assignment. Usually these are journalism related jaunts, requiring color work. In the old days — by which I mean about two years ago — I would still take the film cameras, usually loaded up with something like Fuji Provia 400F, and given the typical weather conditions not infrequently I was pushing that film one stop higher as well.
After a break from this sort of work, last November I found myself once more on assignment, and faced with a choice: what camera and format should I use? One option would be to stick with the familiar, to order some film from good old B&H, shoot it, develop it, then overnight ship the resulting images off to my editor. The expense of this would be rather high, however, and the margins in PJ work are typically not very fat. I contemplated renting a digital SLR, and a friend offered to lend me his Nikon d80 in exchange for borrowing my little digital gem, the Canon G9.
Then there was the last option: just use the G9.
The G9 is an odd little camera. As one of Canon’s G series, it is one of the few point-and-shoot digital cameras made that approaches the capabilities of an SLR. While it may look unassuming, it shoots 12 megapixels and in RAW format. I often think of it as the digital equivalent to the small but highly capable rangefinders of Mid-century, and like them it is particularly well suited to travel, street, and candid photography.
My assignment, however, involved making photographs of large and rapidly moving objects — Amtrak Cascades trains in fact — not exactly prime work for cameras with shutter lag. Would it be up to it? Well there was only one way to find out. Below are some things I learned.
Con: There’s no lenscap. Unlike an SLR, the G9 uses a built-in lens protector that deploys when the lens retracts into the body. If you’re positioning the tripod and camera while it’s extended, there’s nothing to prevent, say, rusty water from dripping onto the lens from an overhead bridge. Whoops.
Con: Eventually it will auto-retract the lens. While you can set this so it only does it when the camera goes into a power-save mode, and while this will save your lens from debris (see last comment,) it also means that any pre-selection of focal length will be lost. If you’re photographing anything that is both moving and slightly unpredictable, it isn’t going to help you much. Fortunately, Amtrak gives pretty decent arrival estimates via automated phone systems (as well as online) so I was able to be ready for each of my planned shots.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em: G9 at ISO 80 and with built-in ND filter. Tacoma, Washington, 2010.
Pro: If you can’t beat ‘em, you can join ‘em. Hitting a moving target is tough with a P&S camera, and even tougher if the weather (and related light) is poor. Thankfully, it is possible to fall back on the motion-blur option. The G9 can shoot an ISO as low as 80, and with a built-in neutral density filter, light can be cut even further, resulting in some dramatic streaking even in daylight.
Pro: Quick and light. A typical SLR rig (film or digital regardless) is no light thing. Cameras weigh quit a bit, and if you’re shifting positions a lot or setting up under a time constraint it can be a real pain. I have run with cameras slung on my back, flopping and banging and bruising my back or my thigh, not to mention risking damage to delicate lenses. The G9? Metal bodied, lenses retract, fits in a pocket in a pinch, and weighs very little. Mounted on a tripod, it adds almost no weight and absolutely no awkward bulk as one repositions under pressure.
Pro: quality. The camera can produce a RAW image at ISO 80 measuring 3000 x 4000 pixels. Even shooting in JPG format at ISO 400 can produce a file that looks spectacular at 16 x 20, far and above the size that any publication prints at.
Using the G9 for a high-pressure field shoot is without question a risk. You really do lose a considerable edge in that you have almost no margin for error in shutter timing. For an experienced photographer, it will pose a challenge but not an insurmountable one. For a newer photographer it could be extremely frustrating. It also limits the range of focal lengths available, especially at the wide end, where it tops out at a full-frame SLR equivalent of ~35mm. Overall, however, I was impressed that, when pushed beyond the limits of its comfort zone, the streetfighter G9 managed to distinguish itself. Really good things sometimes do come in really small packages.