I sold my Canon EOS system. I am now without a "serious" camera for the first time since I bought a Canon T70 in Singapore in 1987. It feels weird, and I don't think this state of affairs will last very long.
I'm overall pretty happy with the Canon PowerShot S90 that I've been shooting with almost exclusively for the past year or so. However, I miss the snap of a really good lens, and the three-dimensionality a touch of depth-of-field control gives. However, I'm not ready to take on the inconvenience of carrying an SLR. I need something that I can slip into my shoulder bag.
I've been doing a bit of reading up on micro system cameras.
The big player in the micro system field is, of course, Micro Four Thirds, or µ4/3. Panasonic and Olympus have cameras in this system. Recently, Samsung and Sony have joined the fray, with the NX and NEX systems, respectively. None of them offer exactly what I'm looking for at this time.
Micro Four ThirdsOf the cameras currently on the market, I'm most drawn to µ4/3, especially Panasonic. The lens selection is already rather nice and growing fast. The pancakes are nice – optically excellent, bright, and very compact. I especially like the Panasonic 20/1.7, and the upcoming 25/1.4 sounds pretty interesting too. I could do just about all my photography with one of those plus perhaps the 14/2.8 pancake. There are also adapters for old manual-focus lenses in various mounts; I could even pop on my Summicron-C 40/2.0 and use it as a portrait lens if I wanted to.
I've missed Minolta. They were never afraid to push the technological envelope, but managed to do so while still keeping their eye on the ball. Their cameras never were the prettiest nor the best built, but they were designed to be used, and they brought in technological innovations that served that purpose. The Dimage 7i was one of the most fun cameras I've had, although it was built like a dog toy and looked like it was designed by Soviets. The Minolta ethos survived the Konica buy-out, and in fact some of the cameras that best embody it bear the Konica-Minolta brand. It did not survive the transition to Sony. Sony excels at design of consumer electronics, and that's what their digital cameras are—in both good and bad.
Now Panasonic has stepped into Minolta's shoes. They're technologically innovative. They take risks. They pay a lot of attention to how those technology innovations are supposed to be used. There are lots of hardware switches and dials for the critical functions, and their viewfinders and LCD's are best in class, as are other "shootability" functions that don't always make headlines, like auto-focus speed. I checked out the finder on the G2, and it's rather good by any standards—on static subjects, it's at least as big, bright, and crisp as a better-than-average reverse-Galilean finder on a compact camera, and of course it has 100% frame coverage and lots of info on it. It's too bad it still goes blurry on moving subjects and when panning, and it doesn't feel as immediate as an optical finder. Even so, it's certainly good enough for most things.
The Panasonics also share Minolta's faults. The build quality feels a bit dodgy—some of the switches seem a bit flaky, the fit and finish isn't quite as solid as it could be, and there have been reports of issues like the strap lugs breaking off in normal use. The sensors on most of them are a bit below par at high ISO, too.
However, while they're very good on their own terms, the Pannies available right now are not quite what I'm looking for. The G and GH series are SLR-like in design. This means that while they're quite small, they have lots of bulges and protrusions, which means that they're tricky to keep with you without a camera bag. The GF, on the other hand, doesn't have a built-in viewfinder, and it's a bit on the bulky side for a bare-bones compact box.
If money was no concern, of the models currently available or announced, my order of preference could be something like GH2 > GH1 > G2 > G1 > GF1 > > G10. The GH2 and GH1 are at the front of the queue because of their somewhat better sensors; the G10 is last because of its lower-spec viewfinder and fixed LCD, and the GF1 is in the middle because of its form factor.
I'm less thrilled about the Olympus Pens. The LCD's aren't great by current standards, and while the accessory viewfinder is (I hear) excellent, it turns them into similarly lumpy SLR-likes, only less robust and uglier. They also give a vibe of "form over function"—cute-looking, but not as ergonomical as the Pannies.
It seems the successor to the GF1 is due out in early 2011. If that has a built-in EVF and/or it's a bit more compact and a bit better built than the GF1, it's very close to what I'm looking for.
Sony NEXSony made a bit of a splash with their NEX-3 and NEX-5 when they arrived earlier this year. They're the polar opposite of the retro Olympus Pens in terms of design: slick, futuristic, minimalistic, with metal-bodied kit lenses that ooze quality, and an overall iCamera-like "stroke me" feel. They also have APS-C sized sensors, which is a definite plus, and indeed their "electronic" image quality is probably best in class.
The NEX user interface got a bit of flack when they were released, but by all accounts the just-released firmware revision smooths out most of the kinks there.
Personally, I have a strong preference for dedicated hardware buttons, dials, and switches over programmable "soft" buttons, over menus. I could learn to live with the the NEX usability design, but I probably couldn't learn to really like it. However, that's not the main thing stopping me from getting on board this system. It's the lenses. There are very few available at this time, and no bright normal-range pancake primes. The only pancake is a 24 mm equivalent f/2.8, which is too wide and too dark for primary use. So the NEXes are not on my short list. That could change as the lens system expands.
Samsung NXSamsung wants to be a player in the camera field. By the specs, their NX system should fit my needs well—a APS-C sized sensor, a very good bright normal-range prime (the 30/2.0), and a compact form factor (in the NX100). I have the same issues with the NX10 as with the Panasonic G's. The NX100 seems a good deal more interesting than the GF1, though—the high-resolution AMOLED screen ought to be good, and by all accounts it's rather nicely built, too.
What I don't like about the Samsungs is the sensor performance and the usability design that leans toward menus and soft buttons. I like the idea of controls on the lens—but the lens I'm most interested in, the 30/2.0, doesn't have the feature.
The main reason I don't feel inclined to go with either a Samsung or a Sony is simply that they're very new systems. It usually takes a while before kinks are ironed out. The µ4/3 system is getting there; Sony and Samsung are only just getting started.