Plugged In: Last year’s gear makes current bargains

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

There’s a lot to cover this week, with a number of interesting new cameras, lenses and software reaching the market. In fact, there’s too much for a single article, so we’ll continue next week.

  • Adobe Lightroom 5 is now shipping, with upgrade versions costing a mere $79 from Amazon. This is a major upgrade that I highly recommend. Much of Adobe’s newest technology is included in this modestly priced program.

Features new to Lightroom 5 include:

  • Stronger Internet and social media integration.
  • “Upright,” one-click automatic straightening of tilted images.
  • A seriously cool radial gradient filter that allows you to selectively apply corrections to only those portions of an image outside or inside of user-selected elliptical areas.
  • Advanced black-and-white conversion processing for those times when the world, or at least its politics, seem black and white to you.
  • A much more powerful “healing brush” that allows you to easily eliminate unwanted objects.
  • Google recently bought Nik Software, maker of highly regarded add-in processing capabilities for Photoshop and Lightroom. Many pros use Nik products because they provide striking, easily used effects found nowhere else. After buying Nik, Google dropped the price radically, making these powerful digital photography tools much more affordable. Nik add-in modules include advanced black-and-white, color and high-dynamic range tools. You can now buy the complete Nik collection for a mere $149, and they’re compatible with most versions of Photoshop and Lightroom. Check it out at http://www.niksoftware.com.

Camera gear

  • Panasonic’s new LF1 premium compact camera recently created quite a stir because it  incorporates a small but usable electronic viewfinder, a now-rare but welcome feature. Unfortunately, the LF1’s lens isn’t very sharp compared to its competition. In comparing identical low-ISO test images, where all cameras are at their Sunday best, Panasonic’s LF1 showed good sharpness in the center but optical quality degraded rapidly toward the edges and corners.
  • Among similarly priced premium compact cameras, Canon’s G15, Pentax’s MX-1 and Panasonic’s own LX7 all show significantly better overall sharpness and image clarity. Any of the latter three premium compact cameras will provide better image quality at about the same price point as the Panasonic LF1. Maybe next year’s LF1 version II will hit the mark optically. Its compact eye-level electronic viewfinder is a nice feature that should prod other makers of higher-end digital cameras.
  • In the same vein, Sony’s much-lauded RX100 large-sensor pocket camera created quite a stir when first introduced in 2012, even receiving coverage in The New York Times. I thought that the RX100’s image quality was disappointing, though. Sony’s 1-inch sensor is excellent, arguably the best intermediate-size sensor currently deployed. Sadly, the RX100’s optical resolution was surprisingly soft, especially in the right half of the frame. That’s not something that you’d expect from a premium camera using a Zeiss-branded lens and costing more than many entry-level dSLR cameras.
  • Sony has just introduced a second RX model, the even more expensive RX100 II ($750), which includes an upgraded sensor and new features. The fixed-zoom lens, unfortunately, hasn’t improved and its relatively poor optical resolution undercuts any improvements in sensor quality. It’s really quite a mismatch, an excellent sensor paired with a relatively mediocre fixed-zoom lens, at a much higher price point than the competition. I’ve compared test images made with the RX100 and the RX100 II against the same images made with the Canon G15, Pentax MX-1 and Panasonic LX-7, three of the best premium compact cameras currently on the market. At least at lower ISO settings, all of these less-expensive, smaller-sensor cameras produced images that were noticeably crisper, with better fine detail than the Sony RX100 and RX100 II. That’s a surprising result for such an expensive camera with a blue-blood pedigree.
  • Pentax’s new MX-1 uses a smaller, 1/1.7-inch Sony sensor, yet MX-1 images seemed particularly sharp and crisp compared to those from Sony’s RX100 II, no doubt due to Pentax’s better lens. Panasonic’s LX-7 also produces excellent images at lower ISO settings through ISO 200, but its image quality quickly deteriorates by ISO 400 and higher. That’s likely due to Panasonic’s generally lagging sensor quality that just can’t keep up with its very sharp Panasonic-Leica zoom lens. Much as I want to like the RX100 series cameras, I just can’t justify spending $750 for a camera that produces softer images than cameras costing roughly half as much.
  • Canon’s not introduced a new consumer-grade sensor for several years, falling behind the competition’s image quality. However, its recently announced 70D dSLR model, aimed toward photo hobbyists and enthusiasts, may herald a new beginning. Inside the 70D we see, finally, an entirely new Canon sensor technology that embeds fast phase-detection focus capabilities directly into the sensor. That portends faster, more accurate autofocus, always a concern with dSLR cameras that can go out of adjustment and thus create subtly (in some cases, not-so-subtly) out-of-focus images. At this point, whether Canon’s hybrid sensor has better image quality is not known but Canon’s new autofocus technology is another step toward better, more-reliable digital photography.

More bargains

In addition to those mentioned in our last issue, many other good 2012 models are being closed out to make way for 2013 models. Below are some additional best buys.

  • Panasonic GX1 ($200, body only). This is a good camera but lags entry-level Olympus Micro Four-Thirds cameras, even the least expensive of which include a much better sensor and in-body image-stabilization hardware.
  • Canon 60D ($600, body only, or $900 with Canon’s quite good 18-to 135-mm zoom lens). This is another good camera but with somewhat outdated sensor technology. The lens is really quite good for the price and the 60D would be a nice entry into Canon photography. It’s definitely a step up from entry-level consumer cameras like the T4i, even though it uses the same 18-megapixel sensor.
  • Sony’s A65 ($650 with 18- to 55-mm kit zoom lens) is a solid camera with a very good sensor.
  • Pentax’s original K-5 (about $800 with 18-to 55-mm kit zoom lens) remains one of the best and most-capable APS-C cameras around. The more recent K-5 II version sensibly does not tinker with a compact and ergonomically excellent, weather-sealed metal camera body, nor with the original K-5’s top-grade sensor.
  • Nikon’s D7000 ($1,000 with an excellent 18- to 105-mm zoom lens) is Nikon’s close relative to the original K-5. Both use the same sensor in weather-sealed metal bodies. The D7000 remains an excellent entry into Nikon photography, even though superseded by the 24-megapixel D7100. Were I to go Nikon, I’d likely get this camera.
  • Nikon’s D5200 ($800 with 18- to 55-mm kit zoom) produces the same excellent 24-megapixel image quality as its more expensive D7100 sibling, but in a less-robust, mostly plastic body that’s not weather-sealed.
  • Canon’s T4i ($730 with 18-to 55-mm kit zoom) remains popular, but for nearly the same price I’d prefer either the K-5 or D5200.
  • Until recently, Panasonic’s GH2 ($750 with 14- to 42-mm X powered zoom lens) was Panasonic’s flagship Micro Four-thirds model and is renowned for its excellent video capabilities. It’s somewhat hampered by older sensor technology but remains one of the best dSLR-styled cameras if you’re a serious video maker. However, photographers who mostly take still photographs would do better with one of the Olympus Micro Four-thirds cameras, like the E-PL5, which has a significantly better sensor and costs a few hundred dollars less.
  • Sony’s NEX-6 ($750 with 16- to 50-mm powered kit zoom lens) has many admirers and few flaws. This is a highly regarded recent model, not a closeout special. In some ways, it’s a better camera than its more expensive sibling, Sony’s flagship NEX-7. Were I to switch from Olympus’ compact-system cameras to Sony’s line, this is the camera that I’d buy personally.
  • That leaves us with Olympus, whose 2012 model OM-D ($1,300 with weather-sealed 12- to 50-mm zoom lens), is so good that many professional camera review sites still list it as a best buy, even though it continues to sell briskly at its relatively high list price. This is the camera that I use for serious day-to-day photography, and its image quality and excellent lenses can’t be beaten among compact system cameras.

Recommended for kids and teens

  • Pentax’s WG-10 ($180) includes an 28- to 140-mm zoom lens, 720p HD video in a seriously waterproof, freeze-proof and tough camera body that allegedly can be dropped 5 feet without damage. The WG-10 includes lots of options, including close focusing and LED lights around the lens to make those macro shots easier.
  • Fujifilm’s Finepix XP60 is similar to the Pentax WG-10 but, at $200, is a bit more expensive. However, for the small additional price, you get sensor-shift in-body image-stabilization and higher resolution video.
  • Canon’s $130 SX160IS has always been a favorite of mine for older children. It includes a high-magnification zoom lens, manual exposure option and good image quality.

Photo show opening

  • If you’re in town on Friday evening, stop by the Kenai Fine Arts Center between 6 and 8 p.m. for the opening reception for my new photo show, “Shallow Art,” a collection of fun images that have few pretensions of depth and hidden meaning. Any depth or meaning that you perceive in these photographs is your own. As Freud once icily remarked when someone challenged him about the allegedly phallic nature of the cigar that Freud was then enjoying, “Sometimes a good cigar is just a good cigar.” There’s more, including, “Precious Cargo,” recent assemblages by K.E. Zerbe in Gallery Too, as well as three-dimensional work in the main gallery.

The public’s invited, it’s free, and refreshments and beverages will be provided.

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.

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