On Choosing a Camera… My Process

So normally I don’t write much for this blog. I like to keep it simple and sophisticated, at least in my head. But given that this is my photography blog, and given that my new camera arrives tomorrow and I’m sure I’ll then disappear into a camera-induced coma for the next few days, emerging only once I’ve worked my way through the 120 page manual (yeah, I’m that one person who reads THE WHOLE THING), I thought I’d share my decision-making process here now.

I like research. Really, I like learning. If I’m learning something… about anything… then I’m okay with the hard work. When I decided that my point-and-shoot had reached the limit of what I could do with it, I began the long process of researching what to get next.

The first questions is: what about a DSLR? Doesn’t everyone upgrade to DSLRs? Well, it’s true: DSLRs are the standard upgrade in the digital camera world. They have large light sensors, fast processing speeds, image stabilizers, interchangeable lenses and can shoot pictures (and often video) in multiple formats, including something called “RAW,” which is essentially a giant file of pure information that needs to be adjusted in a digital darkroom before it’s a photograph, but that allows the photographer complete control. Anyway, the disadvantage to DSLRs is that they are ENORMOUS.  Nikon’s D7000, which is one of their top of the line DSLRs, weighs 1.5lbs, without any lenses. Given my hand/wrist problems, I was nervous about investing in a camera I didn’t feel I could comfortably hold. I can’t carry a camera around my neck, either (I can’t even wear little necklaces without pain!). So I kept putting this purchase off.

About a year ago, I read an article in the New York Times (which I read cover-to-cover nearly every day) about a new type of camera that was very light, but could take DSLR-quality photos. My brain filed this tidbit of information away, and when it came time to buy a new camera, conveniently produced a “didn’t I read somewhere about something to do with lighter cameras?” response. Fortunately, I remembered it was in the Times, and dug into the search function. Once I’d located the first article, and read it, I discovered multiple articles on this new type of camera. They are called “mirrorless” cameras, and are made by multiple manufacturers.

Basically, these cameras eliminate the mirrors necessary to use a true optical viewfinder (in other words: a viewfinder one looks into to literally see what the camera’s lens sees). Since I have not used a camera with a viewfinder in over ten years, this wasn’t a concern (and there are excellent electronic viewfinders that I can buy later, should I wish). They also use different types of processors, so they can’t take take the impressive bursts of shots of a sprinter running the track, for example, that a DSLR can (though that’s changing with the newer versions). They do have huge light sensors, and use interchangeable lenses, and they shoot in RAW or JPEG format, just like the DSLRs. They also weigh less than half as much.

There are six manufacturers making this type of mirrorless camera (that I know of) right now: Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Nikon and Fuji. There are other brands getting into the market soon, including Pentax. They can be roughly divided up into two “aesthetic” categories: “vintage-style” and “mini-DSLR/point-and-shoot-style,” and can be also roughly divided into two “function” categories: cameras for folks who want to adjust things themselves, and cameras for folks who don’t. Some of the brands make both types of the latter category, and some brands just stick to heavily automated cameras. I knew I wanted to get a camera that would allow easy manual adjustments.

As I did my research, I quickly eliminated three of the brands: Samsung, Nikon and Fuji. Samsung’s camera has not been well-received, and so it doesn’t have much support within the industry. Perhaps not a good buy, then. Fuji’s new mirrorless camera is really expensive and won’t be out for another couple months. Nikon’s the same way, and didn’t inspire any love from me, visually.

That left three camera brands: Olympus, Panasonic and Sony.

Sony’s mirrorless cameras are called the NEX system. The high-end NEX-7 was out of my price range from the start, but I could afford a NEX-5. Sony’s little cameras are… well… little.

They are almost exactly the size of a point-and-shoot camera, but with big, honkin’ lenses. They have the capability to do many interesting things, in camera. They can, for instance, do sweeping panoramas. Just hold down the shutter button, swing your arm, and the camera will take a series of pictures and then weave them together to deliver a single picture. Pretty cool! At least the new model can also take HDR photos inside the camera. They are said to take the best actual photos of all the mirrorless cameras, though that’s more at a micro pixel level. Yet I eliminated the Sony. Why? Well…

  1. It’s too small. The tiny size of the Sony’s body means it is widely reviewed as “unbalanced” in the hand. Mirrorless cameras may be half the weight of DSLRs, but they’re still significantly heavier than a point-and-shoot. This means they have to feel good in terms of how they are to hold. Also, the small size makes them look very silly with larger lenses:   
  2. To make the body so small, they eliminated the image stabilization within the camera. This means the the stabilization has to be in the lens. Most modern lenses have image stabilization in them. But most older lenses do not, so that makes it much harder to use this camera with an older lens.
  3. These cameras were designed to be more like ultimate point-and-shoots, where the camera does most of the work for the photographer. They have few buttons on the back and are mostly controlled through the menus. So if one wants to change settings, generally one has to dig into a menu to do it. While the buttons that are on the back can be set to do whatever one likes, the camera is really made to be used as a more automated machine.

So, the next set of cameras were the Panasonics. The first generation of Panasonic mirrorless cameras fell squarely into the mini-DSLR category in terms of looks: 

The next generation are more attractive, sort of styled like a point-and-shoot.

These are more to my liking, certainly. They are inexpensive, and have great features, just like all the other mirrorless cameras. The one reason I didn’t really like them was that they, too, eliminated the image stabilization feature in the camera. Once again, this would make it hard to use older lenses.

Now, I don’t own any older lenses. In fact, I don’t own any lenses at all. But “vintage glass” is really cheap on Craigslist, often running just $20-50, instead of the $400-800 new lenses tend to cost. With adapters, all three of the camera brands I ended up considering would take older glass. But why would I get one that then didn’t stabilize the image, when I could get one that did?

So I moved on to the Olympus Pen Series. Olympus Pens come in three styles: Mini, Lite and what I’m calling Standard. The Mini series are set up for people upgrading from point-and-shoot cameras. They have fewer buttons on the back, but more bells-and-whistles in the camera. The EPM-1 is an example of this camera. Next up is the L-series, the EPL-3, which is a bit bigger, and has features like a tiltable viewscreen. Finally, there’s the Standard series, like the EP-2, and EP-3, which has a touchscreen.

EPM-1 “mini”                                           EPL-3   “lite”                                   EP-2 “standard”

                     

The two smaller series cameras in this line are inexpensive (around $500) and come with lots of fun stuff, but I didn’t like the way they felt in my hand when I went in to hold them at a store. They felt like very heavy point-and-shoots, without grip space or balance. If I had a DSLR, and I needed a small camera for travel, I might consider one of these (and grips can be added to them), but in the end, I just didn’t like them very much when I held them.

What I did like, was the Standard series. Not only is the Standard series a very beautiful camera, but it’s the same size and shape as a vintage Rangefinder camera from the 1960’s. I like Rangefinders. The EP-1 (which is a slightly older model) was available at a local store, and I loved how it felt when I picked it up. The weight felt solid, rather than heavy. The grip allowed me to hold the camera steady. Because the EP-3 is out now, with its fancy-schmancy touchscreen, I could pick up an EP-2 refurbished, cheaply.

Both the Olympus and Panasonic cameras are built in what is called “micro 4/3rds” format, which means their lenses are interchangeable. Panasonic makes excellent lenses for both cameras, as does Olympus, meaning that there are many options available right off the bat, without going to “vintage” lenses. Even better, all three cameras have image stabilization built right into the camera, meaning that I can add any lens to the camera and have image stabilization, whether or not it’s an older lens.

The Standard series are designed for the “enthusiast” market, which means that there are more buttons on the back, and more options for easily adjusting things by hand, rather than having to dig into the menus. This will make it easier to set shutter speed, aperture, etc.

Finally, I just liked how pretty the camera is.

The camera arrives tomorrow, sporting its standard 14-42mm zoom lens. I also purchased a Panasonic 20mm lens with a f1.7 aperture, so I can take photos in very low light. Eventually, I’ll want to replace the standard zoom with a better one, get an Olympus 45mm lens for “action” shots, and buy lots of vintage glass to play with. But for now, the two lenses should allow me to happily shoot just about anything. I can learn to process RAW images, to get better contrast and control over light and shadow and color. In fact, there’s so much to learn with this new camera that I should be able to happily play around with it for months and months before I feel the need to upgrade anything with new lenses. The camera does NOT have a flash (though several of the other models do), but it has a port for one, should I want one. As I’m trying to do “natural light photography,” I have used my current flash maybe a dozen times in the last year, and always when things were simply too dark for my stock point-and-shoot lens. With a broader lens assortment, I figure I won’t miss a flash much, if at all. If I do want one, I can get it later.

The camera, refurbished, was just under $400.  The lens, also “used” (but just one where the box had been opened, then everything returned unused) was $300. Since a new bottom-of-the-line DSLR would run about that price, without other lenses, I didn’t spend too much. I also ordered a small camera bag, and will get an extra battery once the camera arrives (that’s the final downfall of the smaller cameras: smaller batteries! I can expect to get just a couple hundred photos per charge. Hence the need for several batteries). I’ll also probably pick up some UV filters for the lenses, and I’d like to make myself a DIY pretty wrist strap.

All very exciting. Stay tuned…

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5 thoughts on “On Choosing a Camera… My Process

  1. Have an Olympus Fl-40 electronic flash in excellent condition. Don’t know whether it would fit your camera but if it does you can have it free. Also I have an Olympus 1.4x 46mm tele conversion lenses that I’ll donate also if something you can use. No idea about applicability of either of these to your setup. Jim

    • Hi Jim, sorry it took so long to respond! I approved the comment, and then forgot I’d done so. Neither of those will work with the camera or my lenses, unfortunately. I’m really sorry, as those are great offers!

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