By Kirk Tuck
My friends thought I was nuts when I went out and bought another compact mirrorless camera to add to the growing collection in drawer number three of my capacious Craftsmen rolling tool chest. But then, my friends had probably already made that diagnosis long before cameras became digital.
Let me back up and fill you in on my "progress." Like everyone else in the business I spent the early years of digital photography bouncing back and forth between Nikon and Canon and Olympus digital SLR cameras, looking for the "Holy Grail" of feature sets. When we first embarked on the brave journey of digital, the only way to get files that clients wanted to use was to bite the bullet and buy the big stuff.
If you are a Nikon shooter you probably progressed from the D1x to the D2 series and then on to the D3 and its variants. If you are still in the Nikon groove and you're a traditionalist, then you've probably salivating at this week's announcement of Nikon's latest super camera, the D4.
If you are a Canon photographer then chances are you got your feet wet with a 30D and then, satisfied that we weren't going to slide back to film, you started the slog through the 1D cameras with, perhaps, a side adventure with the 5D and the 5D Mark II. Now we're all waiting, breathless, for the new Canon 1DX.
But somewhere along the way I got sidetracked by a strange attraction to smaller cameras, and that led me to try the Olympus E series cameras. I really liked some aspects of the system but the smaller cameras didn't necessarily come bundled with smaller lenses—and though I liked the color I got from the cameras, the slightly smaller sizes didn't make much of a difference in handling.
I headed back over to the Canon side of the tracks and waited, like a good customer, for their next jelly-bean-puffy body to come out. I thought I'd be resigned to spending the rest of my time as a photographer anticipating nothing but a routine and unsatisfying increase in megapixels, coupled with a non-stop introduction or re-introduction of more zoom lenses.
And then Panasonic and Olympus busted out with their mirror-less Micro Four Thirds camera concepts. They had me at "accepts most legacy lenses." I hesitated through the first introduction but firmly committed once the Olympus Pen E-P2 camera hit the market. The accessory that put me into the system is the wonderful VF2 electronic viewfinder. Once you've used a really good electronic viewfinder you'll never go back to the dorky-ness of holding a camera out at arm's length and trying to compose something on an LCD screen. "Honey! Can you get me my reading glasses?"
I loved the E-P2 for so many reasons. I'm a proponent of electronic viewfinders in general, having been happily introduced to the benefits by the groundbreaking Sony R1 camera in 2004. I think it's wonderful that I can put a Leica 50mm Summicron on the front of a 12-megapixel digital camera for one kind of shooting and a 300mm ƒ/2.8 Nikon lens on the front of a different kind of shooting by simply changing out adapters. And, as a collector of Olympus Pen FT lenses, I'm very happy to be able to use them all on the new cameras, without a hitch.
I initially chose to buy into the Olympus camp because the cameras are beautifully designed and aesthetics are important to me. The E-P3 is an even more refined camera than the E-P2. And the major benefit of Olympus Pens, if you buy only one camera in the mirrorless space, is the built-into-the-body image stabilization. With any of my Olympus Pen bodies I get optimizable image stabilization with any optic I choose to use. From the lowly kit lens to a Leica R-series 90mm Summicron.
The trade off, right now, between Olympus and Panasonic bodies is in the sensors. The Olympus sensor seems stuck at 12 megapixels while Panasonic's newest cameras feature 16-megapixel sensors that are generally thought to be at least a full stop less noisy than the Olympus sensors at higher ISOs. The reviews of the Panasonic GH2 and the G3 hit the gland that generates camera acquisition hormones in my brain. I started looking in earnest. But the thing that finally drove me to add a GH2 to the inventory was straightforward usability.
The very feature that attracts me most to the Olympus cameras, after the cool way they look and handle, is the problem that vexes me with the system so much. I shoot using the EVF exclusively, but I also spend a lot of time in the studio, and when you put the EVF in the hot shoe you lose the ability to gracefully trigger studio flashes with the E-P3, and you lose the ability altogether with the E-P2. The finder takes up the only accessory slot on the camera. I can shoot in the studio with the E-P3 if I used the pop-up flash on manual and dial it down to 1/16th power. But the built-in pop-up flash is not always pointing in the right direction, and all the little workarounds seem silly and amateurish this late in the game.
Would it have killed the budget on the Pen project to have included a little sync port somewhere? Really?
For some reason that can only be explained by an in-depth psychological study, I had the idea that it might be fun to put my ideas about the future of still photography to the test and shoot all my work, for a period of time, with the mirrorless cameras on the market. The lack of a ready sync in the EVF-laden Olympuses was the fly in the ointment.
And there was my rationale for adding the Panasonic GH2 to the mix. It's like the racy Pen's staid, burgher cousin. The GH2 eschews the stylish lines and refined rangefinder references of the Pens. Its industrial designers opted instead for a total reference to the mainstream silhouette of the typical DSLR. Only much smaller.
With the GH2 I get true separation between the function of providing a great viewfinder and the usability of the camera's hot shoe. The EVF is built in and always available. Ditto for the hot shoe. With a small Flashwaves radio trigger in the shoe and my eye to the EVF we're ready, once again, for some studio flash business.
The GH2 also has a dedicated socket for using external microphones. Again, that means I get to use an external microphone and the EVF when shooting video.
The practical part of my brain says I should just slide into the Panasonic system and dump the Pens, but thankfully the practical part of my brain is well atrophied and the indecisive part of my brain wants both. One system for shooting legacy lenses with IS and the other for...full service. There's nothing remotely logical about the way I buy and use cameras. And I'm sure someone with a more "structured" approach to photography will just assume that one of the cameras has better image quality than the other and so is the logical choice.
When it comes to noise and resolution, I'm fairly certain that the Panasonic GH2 and its newer, tiny sibling, the G3, are ahead in that race. But I'm equally sure that the Olympus Pens generate much prettier everyday JPEG files and are a bit more fun to hold in my hands and shoot.
But, the beauty of this melange of cameras and companies is that we get to cherry pick from an ever expanding selection of cameras and also, lenses. As Michael has mentioned recently, Olympus really stepped up and delivered several interesting high performance lenses with their introduction of the 45mm ƒ/1.8 and the 12mm ƒ/2 lenses. You can use them on either camera line (Pens or Panas) but with the Olympus Pens is the IS. Given the success both lenses enjoy I'm certain that Olympus (if they survive their financial crisis intact) will follow up with many more prime lenses.
On the other side of the fence I find that Panasonic has a few lenses which will strongly appeal to anyone who fantasizes about making Micro 4/3 their primary camera system. I've used the 7–14mm ƒ/4 lens and love it. I'm currently playing with the 14–140mm lens on the GH2 and love the 10:1 zoom ratio and the smooth finder image I get with the lens-based IS. And then there's the Leica/Panasonic 25mm ƒ/1.4 which would look lovely on cameras from either side of the fence.
The GH2 is currently one of the best "video" DSLRs on the market. It gives the Canon 5D Mark II a real run for the money where video quality and function are concerned. And the ability to use so many older specialty lenses is a powerful benefit for film makers.
While the most expensive and extensive DSLRs from Canon, Nikon and Sony have an edge on image quality with their full frame sensors, does it really make a difference in handheld, day-to-day shooting for most people? Are there tradeoffs that make the smaller cameras equally valuable in day-to-day use? I'll say there are.
In full production advertising mode it's hard to make the case for walking away from the top tier of production cameras like the Nikon D3x and the Canon 1Ds Mark III. People are working on sets. The structure of the shoots is controlled. The use of the cameras is obvious. But how many of us spend our days doing traditional advertising?
I'd conjecture that the great percentage of users are interested in traveling light, being discreet, maintaining a low profile and still getting shots of very high quality, and I think that's where the new generation of smaller cameras takes us. I recently shot a PR job for a major computer company and I chose to shoot the entire project with a Nikon V1. It's small, stealthy, nearly silent (or completely silent if you don't need the aural feedback) and the image stabilization is amazing. But the real point was that, in a room full of non-professional subjects, the camera was a small distraction instead of a distraction with a capital "D." The camera and lens receded from peoples' attention in a quick and satisfying way and helped me get closer to the goal of being an invisible recorder. It was much different in tone and result than shoots I've done with traditional professional cameras.
While I use, and like, the Nikon V1, I find the Micro 4/3 system a much better resource since it's not a "closed system." The ability to have "ultimate lens flexibility" is a very powerful lure. And the cameras are reassuringly similar to cameras we've used in the past.
The world of photography is incredibly diverse. And it evolves (at least in the commercial space) much faster than ever before. Sometimes the tools mold the style and sometimes styles mold the tools. At least with the little Olympuses and Panasonics the entry prices are low enough to allow us to take a few chances and play more. Where photography is concerned maybe it's more important to look towards the future than to talk about the past. If a few of my "experiments" with small cameras fail, that's okay. At least it will be fun.
That’s my story for the people in accounting, and I'm sticking to it.
Photographer, photo book author, and photography blogger Kirk Tuck's monthly column on TOP is currently floating in terms of its scheduling...when it finally settles down on one regular date, we'll be sure to let you know.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.