Stealth Photography: Why I'm Glad There's Always a Camera in My Pocket
By Jaclyn Paul
9 Dec 2007
I first purchased the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX9 for social reasons. Enamored with my Minolta X-570 SLR, I wasn't on the market for a machine that would churn out gallery-worthy images or afford me unlimited manual control. Priority number one: it needed to fit in my back pocket. A trip to Massachusetts and an appearance before a grant committee later, the Lumix had earned a small place in my camera bag as well. With a research grant I was able to put the Lumix to the test as a photographic tool for non-standard situations.
The Lumix went above and beyond in an unlikely place: the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. Located just outside Boston, Fore River was used to film several scenes in The Departed. This place was more bad-ass than any other I have had the pleasure to explore, with or without a camera in hand. A group of us were doing volunteer work organizing boxes in a nearby warehouse, and the Lumix was tucked in my pocket to take snapshots.
As our van entered the shipyard, the sight before my eyes made me giddy. Everything in the place was huge and majestic and falling apart. My mind was racing to find an opportunity to explore, and when we had a few spare minutes during our lunch break I knew it would be my only chance.
Not wanting to be missed, we were not out for long. My finger never left the shutter, as my companions just wanted to fool around and weren't ready to wait for me to investigate every detail of a scene. I barely paused for pictures, just snapped and ran and hoped for the best. Under no circumstances did I want to be left behind, but I was overwhelmed by a frantic need to document the fact that I had been there.
I don't know if photographers are typically allowed to wander around Fore River Shipyard, but our supervisor was none too happy about our unauthorized field trip during lunch hour. I was glad my camera was not visible when we returned.
Over dinner later in the week I showed the pictures to a good friend of mine, a cinematographer and lover of images who readily shared my joy as we looked into the Lumix's impressively sharp LCD. For those pictures, the grins we exchanged that night would be the first of many. Back home I was able to display the images for the first time on a bigger screen, and I was still just as impressed. A mentor and fellow photographer saw them a few days later and immediately took to them. There was a lot of good photographic work sitting on my memory card, and it was all thanks to a camera that could easily hide in my pocket.
From that crisp, bright March day in Quincy, my shipyard images grew to play a large role in the best portfolio of work from my college years. Thanks to a grant from my school's Undergraduate Research Committee, I was also able to make large prints and test the output of the Lumix in a real-life situation. It's one thing to look at the image on a computer screen, calculate the DPI at a given print size and hypothesize about how it might look on the wall, but I wanted to see it in action.
Armed with three framed prints at 11 x 14, 20 x 30, and 40 x 60 inches, I set out to conduct an experiment on my peers. Beginning from 20 feet away, I asked a class of photography studio students to approach each print gradually and make a note -- based on masking tape markers on the floor -- of where they began to see any jpeg noise or other indications that they were looking at a digital photo.
The key question I was trying to answer was, does the image ever deteriorate at a distance farther than the focal point of the image? To my surprise, the answer was no. The focal points --the distance at which the viewer experiences the least plane distortion -- for my prints were 1.21, 2.59, and 5.18 feet from the picture plane, respectively. On average, my test group reported seeing pixelation or artifacts at 0.067, 2.15, and 4.05 feet. Simply put, none of the images showed visible artifacts at a point farther than their ideal viewing distance.
Surprisingly, even though many people could pick out imperfections standing just over 4 feet from the framed image, the class overwhelmingly preferred the monstrous 40 x 60 print. Perhaps this is because they could stand at the ideal viewing distance of around 5 feet and still have the image fill a generous portion of their field of view. Huge prints have a certain authority and presence. They can pull the viewer into a scene and immerse him in detail, even without an up-close-and-personal inspection of the print. Perhaps this is why most people are willing to forgive a small loss of quality at close range.
The results of my project were somewhat unexpected. When I received the 40 x 60 print in a large cardboard tube I had a sinking fear that I would not even be able to frame what I saw. The calculations I had done to estimate the resolution of the printed image were frightening, but somehow between using a quality printer and the small but mighty power of the Lumix, the print I unrolled from that tube was not half bad.
All in all, I think the prints are at their best at 20 x 30. I can still put them behind a good-sized mat and the quality is much more solid than at larger sizes. Prints this size from the Lumix will look decent at any distance. Realistically, most of us are not printing 5-foot-wide images anyway. Yes, my Nikon D80 could do a lot better, but there are some situations where a pocket-sized camera is all we have. For those times, I want to make sure what I have in my pocket is powerful enough to yield professional-quality prints. After my experience in the shipyard, I have never doubted the Lumix. It is with me wherever I go.