By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
Although cellphone cameras are not particularly good, they’re convenient and essentially free with your phone. Better cellphone cameras can produce photos whose image quality is comparable to low-end, point-and-shoot cameras.
As a result, the low-end consumer camera market is stagnant at best, more likely dying. These cameras have been low-profit, or no-profit, items for most name-brand camera makers for the past few years. Olympus is merely the most recent major camera maker to announce plans to abandon the low-end consumer camera market.
Most major cameras makers are now openly reorienting their product lines toward superzoom cameras and higher-end models that offer greater flexibility and/or superior still and video image quality, not to mention superior profit per sale. As a result, we’ll see an increase in new high-end cameras reaching the market over the next several months. That shift toward higher quality is occurring, in part, because improved technology allows larger sensors with better image quality to be built into increasingly smaller camera bodies every year.
Photokina, the world’s largest photographic exhibition, is held in Cologne, Germany, every two years. During the few months preceding Photokina, most new camera models are introduced as vendors vie for favorable publicity. With Photokina 2012 now only three months away, new models are already reaching the market, some of which are major leaps forward in either design or technology.
Perhaps the most interesting new product lines are fixed-lens compact cameras that put the largest possible sensor into the smallest feasible body. These are not interchangeable-lens system cameras similar to Sony NEX or Olympus/Panasonic Micro Four-Thirds systems, but rather are upgraded compact cameras with unusually large sensors and fixed zoom lenses, usually with a 3.6- to 5-times zoom range.
A few months ago, Canon introduced the first such model, the $800 Powershot G1X, basically a large-sensor version of Canon’s G12 premium compact. The G1X even looks very much like a G12, but a G12 on steroids. It’s about two-thirds of an inch thicker than the G12 due to an unavoidable physical limitation: the G1X’s much larger sensor requires a physically larger lens.
For many, the best feature of the G1X is its optical viewfinder, admittedly a frequently criticized viewfinder, but an optical viewfinder all the same. Almost all other compact and midsize cameras omit a viewfinder to save manufacturing costs.
But, old-school photographers, myself included, like an optical viewfinder because such cameras can be held more stably when using a high-magnification telephoto lens and are much easier to use in bright outdoor light. The G1X uses a physically smaller, 14-megapixel version of the same sensor used in Canon’s midrange T3i and 7D digital SLR cameras, so it’s a quite competent sensor.
Sony’s also jumped into this lucrative new market niche with its $650 RX100, another fixed-lens compact camera with a large sensor. Although the 20-megapixel sensor included in the RX100 is physically smaller than the 14-megapixel sensor in Canon’s G1X, the Sony sensor seems to produce comparably good images, likely due to Sony’s excellent sensor technology.
In part because the RX100 has no optical viewfinder or even provision for one, it’s definitely a more compact camera — it’s barely larger than Canon’s tiny S100, until now the king of the compact camera hill in terms of image quality and versatility. Although the RX100 is certainly a major step forward in terms of compact design, I’m not so sure about its lens, always the make-or-break factor with a fixed-lens camera.
It’s a bit early to make a final judgment about the comparative merits of the Canon G1X or Sony’s RX100, or some other as-yet unannounced model. However, I did have the opportunity to compare several identical tests made with both cameras. (I nearly wrote “system” instead of “camera” just now, but that’s simply not so.
Neither of these fixed-lens cameras can objectively be considered a “system.”) My sense is that the Canon G1X’s lens is noticeably superior to the lens mounted on Sony’s RX100, the Canon being definitely sharper at the edges and corners, with better image contrast. Better optical quality would be the deciding factor for me.
Both of these cameras are first models of entirely new product lines. As a result, neither is a totally polished effort. Some small ergonomic and handling problems will undoubtedly be fixed in next year’s models. For now, though, they’re among the smallest cameras that provide big-sensor image quality. Over the next few months, I expect to see similar large-sensor cameras announced by Fujifilm, Olympus, and possibly Panasonic and Nikon.
The G1X is not much smaller, nor much less expensive, than Olympus’ excellent new prograde, interchangeable-lens system camera, the OM-D (E-M5). Serious users wanting maximum versatility and image quality may well consider the E-M5’s slightly higher bulk and cost to be a worthwhile tradeoff.
I recently had the opportunity to work a bit with an OM-D owned by local professional photographer Bill Heath, of Kenai. The OM-D is one of the most comfortable and versatile cameras that I’ve ever used. It’s a real pleasure to handle and produces excellently sharp images that have much improved dynamic range, always a very important, though overlooked, factor affecting the quality of any digital image. The OM-D simply felt good and responsive in my hands.
Despite its excellent electronic eye-level viewfinder, the OM-D is very small and light. The OM-D is available in a $999 body-only option, as a $1,099 kit with both body and a 14- to 42-mm kit lens, and as a $1,299 kit with body and 12- to 50-mm kit lens.
Although the optional Olympus 12- to 50-mm kit lens has been somewhat controversial, I found it to be quite sharp between its 12-mm ultrawide angle and the 35-mm short telephoto settings, at least when used at f 8. Edge sharpness decreased toward the highest magnification 50-mm telephoto setting but was still adequate. The zoom lens’s macro setting was more than adequate for most needs. The 12- to 50-mm lens is surprisingly compact as well as water and dust resistant. I did test my existing Olympus 14- to 42-mm II R kit lens on the same camera and subjects and found it to be comparably sharp.
If you decide to buy an OM-D with a kit lens, the real question is whether you are willing to trade off an extra $200 and a little more bulk for weather and dust sealing, a more versatile magnification range, and some macro capability. Personally, I think that it’s a good tradeoff, particularly the weather-sealed lens, and suggest the kit that includes the 12- to 50-mm zoom lens.
I recently mentioned my problems getting a sharp image using Panasonic’s 100- to 300-mm Micro Four-Thirds lens. Wondering whether I did something wrong on the first set of shots, I reviewed some photos made with the same lens. They were very sharp, indeed, except at the extreme telephoto setting.
Remember, used on Micro Four-Thirds cameras, this lens is equivalent to a 200- to 600-mm supertelephoto. Extreme magnification lenses like this can be very fickle, demanding the best possible technique, including stopping down to f 8, using a tripod and cable release, avoiding windy days, and turning off the camera’s in-body image-stabilization hardware in favor of the OIS hardware built into the lens.
- The Redoubt Reporter’s photo show is hanging at the Sterling Highway Kaladi Brothers through the end of June. The main store exhibit includes 14 of the best photos submitted to the Reporter by readers in our autumn 2011 and spring 2012 judged photo contests. Don’t forget to enter our summer 2012 reader photo contest. Details and themes will be published soon.
- Consider making your own photo prints. A good 13-by-19-inch, exhibition-grade photo printer is available for as little as $450 if you buy Canon’s Pixma Pro 9000 II from Amazon.com. For more information about exhibition-quality photo printing, check the Redoubt Report’s Feb. 22 and 29, 2012, and March 7, 2012, issues online at http://www.redoubtreporter.wordpress.com.
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 website, http://www.kashilaw.com.