Friday, October 15, 2010

Camera Musings

Havanna Pohjola
Havanna Pohjola, Helsinki, 2005

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 Thirds

Of 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 NEX

Sony 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 NX

Samsung 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.

Large-sensor compacts

I don't actually need a system camera. I'd be perfectly happy with the digital equivalent of a Konica Hexar AF—something with a sharp, bright, big viewfinder, a bright, high-quality normal-range prime, good usability, a compact form factor, and, preferably, hardware switches for the most critical shooting functions. Such cameras do not yet exist. The Sigma DP's aren't quite it; the lenses are a bit on the dark side, the usability leaves much to be desired, and I don't like working with Foveon X3F files. The Leica X1 is cute as a button, but focuses slowly, has no viewfinder, and is way overpriced. The Fuji X100 looks like it could be very close to my ideal compact, but it'll only be out some time next year. If it does deliver on its promise, I'm pretty sure I'll end up with one, either on its own or alongside a micro system camera.

The Plan

I'm not quite sure what I want to do yet. Perhaps I'll try to find a bargain on one of the Pannies and the 20/1.7. If I like it, I'll keep it; if not, I'll sell it and try something else; I should be able to do that without taking too big a loss. This type of camera is new, and there will be exciting stuff going on for a while. I don't want to start building a new system before I'm sure that I'm comfortable with the compromises it entails.


  1. How about the Ricoh GXR? Pricey, but the new 28mm equivalent f2.4 lens/sensor unit and the 50mm equiv look tempting. Only thing that concerns me is operational speed.

  2. There's no bright (f/2.0 or better) compact prime between 35 and 50 mm equivalent. That's my one fixed requirement, so it's not on my shortlist.

  3. Ah, fair enough. Something that may be worth bearing in mind is the relatively loud shutter sound of the Panasonic and Sony cameras, definite deal breaker for me. The Olympus models are a little better, but the Samsung and Ricoh A12 are apparently very quiet.

  4. I started to dabble in the m43 format, looking for something more portable than an SLR. At different times, I've owned the Olympus EP-1 and the Panasonic G1, GH1, and GF1.

    The EP-1 definitely won on style. But autofocus time on the was bad enough to return it. The Pannys were much faster. I ended up keeping the GF1 for the portability. Paired with the 20/1.7, it was a great camera that I always had with me.

    While the viewfinder was much better than the Olympus equivalents, it still had serious issues in low light. It would stutter and become almost unusable.

    So I'm back to my EOS with 50/1.4 for the time being. I've heard rumors of Canon producing a compact interchangeable lens system with optical viewfinder, but I'm not hold my breath.

  5. A Pentax Kx/Kr plus the Pentax pancakes (DA 21mm, DA 40mm, FA 43mm, DA 70mm) gives you a slightly larger combo compared to a Panasonic G2, and it's still a DSLR, so that might be worth looking into.

    There are two other compact lenses on Pentax's current line-up, the DA15mm and the DA 35mm macro, though they are not pancake lenses.

    I used to shoot Nikon, then I jumped on to Micro Four Thirds (with the Panasonic G1), and while I loved it, and was actually very pleasantly surprised with its overall speed and the quality of its EVF, I just found the lens selection still fairly lacking vs a DSLR system. So I jumped on to Pentax.

    Maybe once m43rds gets a ~24mm equivalent pancake, I might reconsider, but until them, I'm fairly happy with Pentax.

  6. For me had one option, the NX100.
    I sold my Nikon D300 with 4 lenses and bough the NX100 + 20mm f/2.8 and 30mm f/2.
    The NX100 came with the 20-50mm an usefull lens when you need more focal length with small size and weight.
    The flash SEF-20 is just enough for me, but I barely use it.
    I gain money with my Nikon and lenses and all the NX100 system with lens and flash was not more than $1100, so I am waiting for the announced 16mm f/2.8 and the Macro 60mm f/2.8 to complete my new system... well, I am looking for a compact P&S too...

  7. I read a rumour that Pentax would realease a mirrorless camera next year. Maybe weatherproof ?
    After sony's success with the nex-5, i believe nikon and canon also will jump on the bandwagon.
    I would wait until next year if i where you.

  8. Heh, there's always a better camera next year...

  9. (I posted above as 'mono no')Ended up buying a Nex 5 with the 18-55 and 16mm. Shutter is louder than I'd like, about the same as the m4/3rds cameras (decided to compromise on this as otherwise it's such a good deal), but otherwise very impressed. Sensor is excellent, speed of operation very good, ergonomics good, (particularly after updating the firmware). Even with the 18-55 lens it's still very compact and quite inconspicuous compared to a dslr, and with the 16mm almost pocketable. Used it extensively on a recent trip to Cairo, I'm more into street photography and found it an excellent camera for this purpose. Some resized images here (Cairo set)

  10. What place is there in that photo?

  11. That's from Helsinki, my home town. Aleksanterinkatu, to be precise.

  12. Petteri,
    I am curious to know what your current camera is and what are your thoughts on the Fujifilm x100 now that it's been out for some time and the recently announced Canon powershot g1 x.


  13. Yikes, something awful happened to the comment format. Gotta fix this.

    My thoughts? Very briefly:

    (1) I have placed a preorder for the Fuji X-Pro 1. I will probably end up buying it. It's sliiightly bigger than I'd like, but with the 35 or 18, still just within my comfort zone.
    (2) The X100 still has two "blocker" issues for me—the button lock-up during buffer flush, and the confused menu system. The X-Pro 1 has addressed both of these. If Fuji updates the X100, I may well end up buying one of them too.
    (3) My reaction to the Canon G1 X is "meh." Most of the low-light and DOF control headroom given by the big sensor is canceled out by the comparatively dark lens. Image quality from the better small sensors is already good enough, so I don't really see the point. A bright lens in front of a small sensor is a better trade-off than a dark one in front of a big one IMO.