By Joseph Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
Here’s a post-Christmas self-help guide for those of you who were naughty and didn’t have someone else put any cool photo equipment under your tree. You, and your credit card balance, are on your own.
I suspect that my kid Rachel must have convinced her aunt that she was really nice in 2009 because Rachel’s Christmas included a Canon S90 under the tree. Rachel was kind enough to let me make some test photos with it and I’ll discuss the seriously cool S90 this week. (Well, actually, Rachel holds on to her S90 fiercely. I managed to take a few comparison photos when her vigilance slipped momentarily.)
Top new cameras of 2009
Several major photo equipment sites have nominated their top new cameras introduced and in ready supply during 2009. That’s a great idea — unfortunately, these lists will be obsolete within two months. Nearly all vendors will introduce new models during January and February at the annual consumer electronics and professional photo exhibitions.
Aside from that minor problem, here are the most common nominations for the top cameras of 2009, and they’re all quite good.
- Pentax K-7, which proves that bulkier and heavier isn’t always better. The K-7 is a professional-grade camera that packs good image quality and lots of cool features into a really compact but rugged metal body retailing for about $1,000, body only.
- Canon 7D. This 18-megapixel APS-C camera is Canon’s first upper midrange semipro rival to the Nikon D300 and Pentax K-7. Resolution and noise are excellent and the average retail price for this very capable camera, usually around $1,500 body only, is fairly reasonable.
- Canon S90. The S90 is a really compact, but high-end, point-and-shoot camera with very good image quality and optional full manual control. This is the best truly compact camera on the market, and its optional RAW file capability just increases its all-around usefulness. Sensor quality up to ISO 800 is surprisingly good for a small sensor.
The S90’s optical quality is good but somewhat uneven — its 28- to 105mm (equivalent) lens is very sharp over the center two-thirds of the frame but a bit soft at the edges. The S90’s dynamic range — the ability to capture detail in both dark shadows and bright highlights — is excellent, better than many large-sensor dSLR cameras.
Using such a small camera is inevitably more difficult and Canon should have provided at least some front mechanical grip surface or some rubberized material. You really need to use your wrist strap with this $400 camera. I nearly dropped ours several times. On the other hand, the unique programmable adjustment ring around the lens is a novel but excellent all-around control.
If you want a high-quality, versatile, really compact camera, then the S90 is your top choice. From my perspective, I would spend another $40 or $50 for Canon’s somewhat larger G11. The G11’s 28- to 140-mm (equivalent) lens is sharper edge to edge. The G11 uses the same excellent sensor as the S90.
- Olympus E-P1 and E-P2. The E-P1 was the first highly compact camera to feature interchangeable lenses, a dSLR-sized 4/3 sensor, and in-body image stabilization that works with any mounted lens. The E-P1 lists for $799 but often retails for around $650 with collapsible 14- to 42-mm zoom lens. This is a decent lens that’s equivalent to a 28- to 84-mm wide-angle to slight telephoto zoom lens.
The Micro 4/3 format E-P1 feels somewhat like a preproduction prototype that still needs a few tweaks, but it is a quality camera that’s capable of capturing extremely sharp images when used with top-end lenses like the Olympus 50 mm f 2 macro lens. (All regular 4/3 lenses require a spacing adapter to work on thinner Micro 4/3 bodies.)
The E-P2, which lists for $1,100 with the collapsible 14- to 42-mm zoom, corrects some of the E-P1’s initial gaps and adds a detachable, eye-level electronic viewfinder that most people rave about. Otherwise, its specifications, exterior appearance and image quality are identical to the E-P1.
- Panasonic GF1. The $899 GF1 is the other compact Micro 4/3 body introduced in 2009. Panasonic’s GF1 avoids many of the gaps that leave the Olympus E-P1 a somewhat unpolished jewel and, in fact, several professional camera reviewers mentioned that they bought a GF1 after returning the review copy. The GF1 focuses very quickly and has a modern professional appearance. Its minuscule 20mm f 1.7 lens is widely admired and very sharp.
Despite these major virtues, I think that Panasonic should have followed Olympus’ example and used in-body image stabilization, thus allowing the stabilized use of high quality, third-party lenses. Panasonic’s lenses are excellent, but other manufacturers also make comparably good or better 4/3 lenses. Olympus provides comprehensive support for using third-party lenses on the E-P series but Panasonic does not support any lenses except its own, even though other vendor’s lenses meet the 4/3 specifications. Personally, I think that I’ll wait a bit longer before deciding upon a large-sensor compact camera system.
- Sony Alpha A850. The 24-MP Alpha A850 is the only full-frame digital SLR camera body whose list price is in the $2,000 range, $700 less than comparable 21-MP Canon 5D Mark II. Full-frame cameras are pro-grade cameras that have noticeably better image quality than dSLR cameras using smaller APS-C sensors, but have been priced out of reach until the introduction of the A850. The A850 is still a bit rich for my blood, but it’s a harbinger of a more affordable, high-end future.
- Pentax K-X: The 12 MP K-X was the entry-level dSLR sensation of 2009. Its current retail price is around $550 with basic 18- to 55-mm zoom lens or $675 including body, basic 18- to 55-mm zoom and the better 55- to 300-mm zoom lens. For that price, you get a surprisingly sturdy but compact body that includes many of the advanced features of the Pentax K-7.
The K-X includes high-definition video and class-leading image quality, particularly at higher ISO sensitivities. Unlike the K-7 and earlier K20d models, the K-X is not weather resistant. It does, however, use four readily available Lithium or rechargeable AA batteries and comes in several body colors for anyone who cares about that sort of thing.
Weather proofing your gear
’Tis the season for rain, snow, sleet and hail to damage your camera gear unless you’re protected. One traditional approach to protecting photo gear is to put a large, clear plastic trash bag over your head, arms and camera, cutting a hole just large enough for the end of your camera lens. Although not very elegant or permanent, trash bags are cheap and do work.
There are better commercial solutions, though, and you can find discussions of several at http://www.imaging-resource.com/IRNEWS. Another approach, rather more expensive, is to acquire a weather-resistant camera. Among compact cameras, the Pentax W80 and the Canon D10 are well-regarded. It’s harder to find sealed dSLR cameras. The least expensive are made by Pentax: The K200d, K20d and K-7 are all weather-sealed but you’ll need to buy a weather-resistant lens, as well. The Pentax WR series are the least expensive, but these are entry-level optics that can’t match the high performance of $700 sealed pro lenses.
Current photo shows
Two month-long photo shows are opening this week. I had an advance peek at both because I printed them for the exhibitors.
The first, by Zirrus “Marty” VanDevere of Soldotna’s Art Works gallery, opens with a reception at the Funky Monkey in Kenai between 6 and 8 p.m. Thursday. As an arts columnist for this paper, Marty is not able to praise her own show, so I thought that I’d do that instead.
Marty’s show consists of a series of related, very large prints that appear to be abstract images but are actually roof surfaces, banks of electrical conduits and the like. I wasn’t quite sure about these photos at first because of the intentional lack of detail in some of them. However, stepping back from her photos, both literally and figuratively, allowed me to appreciate the strong, almost abstract compositional elements in them and their tonal subtlety.
The compositional elements in Marty’s new photos grew on me over time, always a good sign. The weathered, long-used surfaces in these photos have an almost ghostly, transient sense about them.
This exhibit is out of the ordinary, at least for the central peninsula. It’s an excellent reminder that photographs do not need to be utterly sharp and technically perfect to function well as an artistic concept. I recommend it, especially for photographers who are interested in other points of view.
The second exhibit is a bit closer to home and heart — it’s my own kid Rachel Lee’s first solo show. Although she’s only a freshman at Soldotna High School, Rachel has been accepted into the three most recent statewide Rarified Light juried fine art photography shows and has shared a number of gallery shows here and in Anchorage, which is something of an accomplishment for a 15-year-old.
This solo show is sponsored by the local Artists Without Borders cooperative.
Rachel’s solo show also opens with a reception on Thursday between 5 and 7 p.m. in the upstairs conference room at the Four-D Interiors building at the corner of Kenai Spur Highway and Marydale Street in Soldotna. Refreshments and non-alcoholic beverages will be served.
For the past two years, Rachel has been consciously developing her own way of seeing and taking photographs, experimenting with unusual camera angles and lighting. She uses a series of decent but not spectacular Kodak compact cameras.
There are 27 separate images in this show, mostly of objects and scenes around our home. Some are visually quite compelling and strongly show that good images are everywhere if you have a good eye and an open mind.
Overall, this exhibit would be a good show for an adult artist using expensive, high-end photo gear, let alone a teen using a pocket Kodak camera. All of the images are Rachel’s. Adult intervention was limited to helping her select, print and mount her photos for this show.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, http://www.kashilaw.com.