Plugged In: Newest not always best buy in equipment

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote that, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” So, if this week’s discussion seems somewhat inconsistent with other recent musings, then let’s charitably chalk it up to avoiding “foolish” consistency.

In recent articles, I’ve noted that recent, upper-tier cameras all have image quality that’s usually good enough for almost everyone’s needs except, possibly, working professional photographers. Even then, top models are closer in quality to each other than you might realize, depending on an individual camera’s design, features and usage.

A stark example of functional equality is to compare one of the top, full-frame cameras on the market, Nikon’s 36-megapixel D800e, with one of the best smaller compact-system cameras now offered, Olympus’ 16-megapixel OM-D. The full-frame D800e has a sensor that’s four times larger than the OM-D, and so one would expect that D800e to perform significantly better in normal use. That’s not necessarily true. Here’s why.

Unlike the OM-D’s state-of-the-art image-stabilization hardware, Nikon’s D800e does not include in-body image-stabilization, yet many of the sharpest lenses for the Nikon mount are not themselves image stabilized. Moreover, in order to get equivalent depth of field, you’ll need to stop down by an additional two aperture stops compared to Micro Four-Thirds, using an f/11 lens aperture, rather than f/5.6, as an example. That means the D800e usually requires a higher ISO setting, on the order of ISO 800, in order to obtain the fast shutter speeds needed to achieve its full potential sharpness and to get depth-of-field equivalent to the OM-D at f/5.6 at its ISO 200 base sensitivity.

I compared identical RAW format images made with a full-frame Nikon D800e set to ISO 800 against images made with a Micro Four-Thirds OM-D at its ISO 200 base sensitivity. Rather to my surprise, the OM-D’s ISO 200 image quality was virtually identical, if not a bit better, than the D800’s ISO 800 image file.

The moral? Under the right circumstances, virtually any top-tier camera produces comparably good results.

But aren’t expensive, full-frame cameras noticeably superior in very low-light conditions? Yes, but it’s uncommon that you’ll need to use sensitivities in excess of ISO 3,200 if your camera has decent image-stabilization hardware. Several far less-expensive, 16-megapixel cameras, like the Pentax K30 and K-5 II, Olympus OM-D and Nikon D5100 (but not the over-megapixeled Nikon D5200), do very well through ISO 3,200 when you use their RAW file format option and good software like Adobe Lightroom. In my own experience, the Pentax K-5 series seems to have a slight edge over the other models mentioned in both general handling and low-light situations.

There’s a general belief that fast lenses, with maximum apertures in the f/1.4 through f/2 range, are necessary when taking photos under very low-light conditions. Although fast lenses do help, that’s not the optimum way to increase your low-light capabilities. Wide-aperture lenses are larger, fairly expensive and, at their widest apertures, typically not very sharp. At wide apertures, depth of field is significantly reduced while misfocus is more common.

If you’re interested in low-light work, then it’s less expensive and more versatile to get a modern APS-C or Micro Four-Thirds camera body that works well at ISO 3,200 under low light. Consider, instead, an array of less expensive but still sharp medium-aperture lenses, usually with an F/2 through f/2.8 maximum aperture. Among APS-C camera bodies, my low-light preference, based on quality and affordability, remains the current models made by Pentax and Olympus.

I’ve compared identical test images made with the Pentax K-5 II and K-30, as well as the Olympus E-PL5 and OM-D, against the directly competing Canon, Sony and Panasonic bodies. Those Pentax, Olympus and 16-megapixel Nikon D5100 bodies work noticeably better in high ISO conditions. Expect to spend between $550 and $650 for a new K-30, E-PL5 or D5100 and decent kit lens. All current Olympus Micro Four-Thirds cameras have roughly the same excellent low-light capability, as well as an array of affordable lenses with wide apertures in the f/1.8 to f/2 range.

So, if you’re on a tight budget and routinely make photographs in low-light conditions, your first stop should be one of these midlevel APS-C or Micro Four-Thirds camera bodies that work well under very low-light conditions. You may even save enough to buy a fast lens.

On the subject of lenses, several manufacturers deserve some mention. Nikon, surprisingly, makes some good yet fairly priced APS-C lenses in its G series, particularly the Nikkor 40-mm f/2.8 G macro lens, which usually sells for less than $300. Olympus and Panasonic both offer a range of very sharp Micro Four-Thirds lenses with f/1.4 through f/2 maximum apertures for under $500. Particularly good bargains include the Panasonic 14mm, 20mm and 25mm lenses and the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 telephoto, all of which work perfectly well on Olympus cameras and are image-stabilized as well when used on Olympus M4/3 bodies.

Several independent lens makers produce increasingly high-quality products optically as good as the brand names but for half to two-thirds the price. Tamron’s 17- to 50-mm f/2.8 non-VC zoom is the among the best fast zooms for Pentax and Sony cameras, both of which inherently stabilize that $400 lens. Both Tamron and Sigma make exceptionally sharp 70- to 200-mm telephoto zooms for most camera mounts for under $800. Choose the VC version for Canon and Nikon and the less-expensive non-VC version for Sony and Pentax.

Sigma is making a major effort to break into the front rank of optical manufacturers after a history of making lenses that were adequate at best. Many Sigma lenses offer top-tier performance at middle-level prices. I would seriously consider newer Sigma lenses, but only after carefully checking objective reviews for that particular model. Sigma’s model naming tends to be confusing, with a jumble of letters denoting both top-grade new models and fair-to-middling older lenses.

Another up-and-coming lens maker is Korea’s Samyang, whose lenses are also confusingly sold under other brand names, like Rokinon, Bower and Vivitar. Samyang lenses are manual focus and manual exposure only, but their usually high optical quality and relatively low prices typically result in good image quality at excellent values. Be sure, though, that you check the lens reviews and test each model as soon as you’ve received it to ensure that it’s properly assembled and centered. Check our Feb. 27 article for a detailed discussion about how to check out new lenses.

My Olympus OM-D has become my camera of choice. It includes nearly every useful feature in a very small, light, prograde body that’s weather-resistant, has a very quiet shutter and is capable of shooting as fast as 10 frames per second. Image quality is excellent through ISO 3,200. In fact, image quality is better than many larger, costly APS-C cameras, such as Canon’s 7D. What’s not to like?

  • While on small cameras, it’s become clear that Panasonic’s LX-7 is currently the premium compact of choice. Its Leica-designed f/1.4 zoom lens is noticeably sharper than most of the competition.
  • When used at base ISO sensitivity, though, many premium-compact cameras will provide excellent image quality. I recently made some photos on the Homer beach using my pocketable Canon S100 and was quite pleased with the quality, particularly the lack of internal camera flare when taking photos of very bright, high-contrast scenes with intensely bright reflections.
  • I’ve been tempted to trade in my backup M4/3 camera, a 12-megapixel Olympus E-P3, for one of the newer models using Sony’s renowned 16-megapixel sensor. After reviewing some images made with that camera and lens, though, I’ve decided that my E-P3 is definitely a keeper. Perhaps I simply got a kit zoom lens that’s perfectly assembled, but images made with that E-P3 are more than sharp enough for me, sharp enough, in fact, to make excellent, 17-by-25-inch gallery-quality enlargements. So even if the newest models are beguiling, really work with your existing equipment to see whether it’s good enough. You might be surprised. I was.

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.

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