A few thoughts on cameras and where most of us may be heading

Written by Gary on February 15th, 2012

Let me state again for clarity, I am not a commercial photographer, I do not shoot weddings, sports, and I don’t print my images any larger than 20″ x 30″ and even then, I do these rarely.

I do however take my photography as very serious fun which has re-shaped the way I view the world.

In 2007, I had the opportunity to acquire two very different and thus complimentary dSLR camera systems with the relatively new Live View technology which I considered critical for digital photography, in particular, for accurate manual focus of tilt shift leneses, etc.

Olympus Four Thirds:

A budget, relatively compact, entry-level Four Thirds Olympus E510 dSLR which from memory gave 10mp images, up from my 7.5mp Olympus E330, and for the 1st time in a SLR of any type, had built-in image stabilisation in the camera which could also be used with legacy manual focus lenses.

This camera became my main camera due to its compact size and weight, and I was lucky enough to have superb Four Thirds lenses to match it – ZD 7-14mm, Leica-D 25mm f/1.4,  ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro (perhaps the sharpest mass produced lens to date) and the unique ZD 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD lens with EC-20 2x teleconverter. With these lenses and the kit lenses, I had 35mm equivalent coverage of 14-800mm field of view, plus macro plus portrait lens.

Canon 1D Mark III pro dSLR:

As fantastic as the Olympus kit was, it had some deficiencies which the 10mp Canon 1D Mark III would hopefully address – lower noise at high ISO, fast burst rate to 10fps, continuous AF, weatherproofed body, fast flash sync, and 1.3x crop sensor allowing better ability to blur the background and gain shallower depth of field with the Canon pro lenses.

To maximise the benefits of the Canon system for my needs whilst keeping the size down as much as possible, I decided against the big, heavy but almost mandatory 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens, and instead went for a mix as follows: 17mm, 45mm and 90mm tilt-shift lenses, 24-105mmL IS, 85mm f/1.8, 135mm f/2.0, 1.4x teleconverter.

What did I learn?

The prints from each system at low ISO were close enough to identical in terms of image quality (but obviously not depth of field and background blurring capability), and indeed, these sensors were all I really need in terms of sensor image quality as I rarely need to shoot at high ISO.

For portraits, the Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 lens or the Olympus ZD 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 lens gave adequate depth of field to ensure I get all I need in focus – such as ear to tip of nose. Wider aperture lenses are mainly for full length shots, and for this, the cheap manual focus Rokinon 85mm f/1.4 of a Four Thirds or Micro Four Thirds body could give almost identical imagery as the much bigger, heavier, and more expensive Canon 135mm f/2.0 lens on the Canon 1D Mark III.

Having a camera that shoots at 10fps does not mean each of those frames will be in accurate focus, far from it, and worse, the Canon 1D Mark and similar pro cameras really need to be used very frequently for continuous AF so that the user can learn the complexities of the function settings so that the AF system can be optimised for their subject matter. This is not a simple matter, particularly when shooting fast moving subjects with shallow depth of field lenses.

The Olympus flash system is far more intuitive to use than the Canon system but unfortunately there is much less 3rd party support for it t present such as Pocket Wizard radio remote TTL flash which currently is only available for either Canon 0r Nikon.

As long as you are using high quality wide aperture lenses, the potential down sides of a cropped sensor such as Four Thirds or Micro Four Thirds can be minimised, particularly if the body has built-in image stabilisation to help avoid the need for high ISO.

Technology has moved rapidly in the 4 years since 2007, and we can expect even more progression over the next decade, so that investing in a 2x cropped sensor system such as Micro Four Thirds is unlikely to be a risk, as it already gives adequate image quality and this can only get better.

Thus for the past 2 years, 90% of my photos have been taken with a Micro Four Thirds camera, the Panasonic GH-1 because I loved its even more compact size, its ability to take high quality HD video, flip out LCD screen, and the absence of the mirror means magnified live view manual focus with legacy lenses just becomes so much easier. The Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens combined with this camera is a fantastic walk about, indoors and party lens – just combine it with an Olympus FL-36 flash bounced off a wall or ceiling and you are in party photography heaven. No big intimidating dSLR system but fantastic quality easy portraits.

BUT there was one problem:

As good as this and the other early Micro Four Thirds cameras were (and ANY other contrast detect AF camera such as Sony NEX, or Samsung) they all suffered a major issue – relatively slow autofocus.

Panasonic and then Olympus addressed slow AF speed in their 3rd generation of cameras, most now also with touch screens, to the point the Olympus E-P3 was able to AF faster on a stationary subject than any other camera including pro dSLRs from Canon or Nikon when it was released – an amazing feat considering how immature contrast detect AF technology is compared to the old tried and true but inaccurate, phase contrast AF technology in dSLRs.

Enter the Olympus OM-D E-M5:

2011 would be a year Olympus corporate would rather forget, but 2012 was now a time to finally produce a camera worthy of the enthusiasts and semi-pros, and put all these wonderful new technologies together into one weathersealed, metal body for the first time – enter the exciting new Olympus OM-D E-M5.

I have written a post on the announcement and its features, but I will summarise again the features that make this a compelling camera to me over the other options such as dSLRs, Panasonic, Sony, Nikon or Samsung:

  • image quality of the sensor will be in excess of MY needs – see above – many will argue the fine details of which camera does better high ISO, but it is a mute point for most of us – it doesn’t matter 90% of the time!
  • designed for the enthusiast photographer who wants FULL control of the camera – customisable function buttons, large control dials, fast flash sync 1/250th sec
  • weatherproofed, compact, light metal robust body which looks good
  • superb range of compact, affordable, high quality lenses under $1000 including 12mm f/2.0, 20mm f/1.7, 25mm f/1.4, 45mm f/1.8, 45mm f/2.8 macro, 60mm f/2.8 macro, 75mm f/1.8, 100-300mm compact super telephoto, and many more – this, plus the 5EV 5-axis built-in image stabiliser is why Micro Four Thirds will be better than Sony or Samsung or Fuji for some time yet for most of us – versatility = fun.
  • 9fps burst rate or 4.2fps with AF is adequate for most of us, especially as the 10fps on my Canon 1D Mark III didn’t AF properly anyway.
  • very nice built-in electronic viewfinder which automatically switches between the lovely touch sensitive OLED tilt screen.
  • remote TTL flash via the bundled little flash unit (Panasonic do not support remote TTL flash)
  • Super-FP HSS flash at shutter speeds to 1/4000th sec.
  • high quality HD video that will be good enough for most of us photographers and for the 1st time, the in-built image stabiliser will be able to be used during movie mode which may help reduce the need for carrying large bulky stabilisers.
  • image stabiliser can be activated with half-press shutter to make it easier to manually focus a magnified view – now this should be brilliant for those of us who love our legacy lenses.
  • weatherproofed Four Thirds adapter so you can maintain weatherproof status when using those superb Four Thirds pro lenses.
  • optional fully functional grips will make it easier for portrait mode, particularly using large lenses, and the extra battery may help your movies ending prematurely.
  • 2x crop factor means the sensor is just large enough to allow adequate blurring of backgrounds and shallow depth of field when using wide aperture lenses
  • 2x crop factor also means lenses can be made smaller and with higher quality edge-to-edge of the frame.
  • the partnership with Panasonic adds much to the Micro Four Thirds system and significantly reduces risk.
  • tilt or shift adapters are available to turn legacy lenses such as Nikon lenses into tilt or shift lenses – a far cheaper option than on dSLRs.
  • it is expected Birger will produce an adapter that will allow aperture control and AF with Canon EF and EF-S lenses – presumably it will work with this camera as well as the Panasonic GH series.
  • underwater housing option available.

Summary:

The Olympus OM-D series is likely to be THE solution for many of us and makes a fantastic travel companion with just a few small lenses – no longer do we need to lug around heavy, large camera kits to get the shots we want on our travels.

If the OM-D series is too big for your occasion, then you could look at its smaller PEN series cameras such as the Olympus E-PL3 or E-PM1, particularly when used with the more compact pancake lenses.

Some of us will still want the benefits offered by a full frame sensor in pushing the boundaries of dynamic range, high ISO performance, megapixels, or shallow depth of field, and thus will put up with the cost, weight and size of full frame dSLR camera kits.

Professionals will increasingly head towards medium format digital cameras.

With the advent of the OM-D and the iPhone and the like, it seems there is little point in buying cropped sensor dSLRs or low image quality point and shoot cameras unless there was a specific need.

 

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