Plugged In: Smaller prices, bigger quality in camera upgrades

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Digital cameras surviving the onslaught of low-end cellphone cameras have, by necessity, moved upscale. They’ve survived by emphasizing features unavailable with cellphones — good low-light performance, robust weather-resistant construction and high-quality interchangeable lenses.

Speed Graphic . 4-by-5 press camera.

Speed Graphic . 4-by-5 press camera.

Throughout the 20th century, there has been a continuous movement from very large to increasingly smaller cameras, initially termed “miniature cameras.” The virtually immobile tripod-mounted view cameras prevalent through the 1930s, in turn, were replaced in the 1930s through the early 1950s by handheld press cameras using individual cut-sheet film whose negatives measured 4 inches by 5 inches, the legendary “4-by-5.” Today’s first illustration shows just how bulky those “4-by-5” handheld cameras really were, especially when using flash.

As films and lenses continued to improve through the 1960s, bulky “4-by-5” press cameras were no longer required to achieve acceptably good results. As a result, professionally oriented cameras became smaller. Even masters of the grand, highly detailed landscape, such as Ansel Adams, turned to 120 roll-film cameras made by Hasselblad, Rollei, Mamiya and Pentax. Hasselblad cameras went to the moon in 1969 with NASA’s Apollo program, something that would not have occurred if their image quality was deficient in any way. Highly compact, 35-mm rangefinder cameras made by Leica, Zeiss and Nikon were the choice of famous globetrotting Magnum and Life Magazine photographers, but were so expensive they made little impact outside professional ranks.

In the 1960s and later, single lens reflex (SLR) cameras using 35-mm film became affordable and thus dominant. Lowlight photography meant Kodak Tri-X black-and-white film “pushed” to ISO 800 by extended chemical development. The results usually weren’t pretty. You really had to like grainy, moody images to fully appreciate the “low-light” photography of the 1960s and 1970s.

Initially, those 35-mm SLR cameras were considered “miniature” cameras used only by amateurs. That changed when Nikon introduced its F series 35-mm film SLR camera lines that stayed in production for decades. They became the mainstay of professional photojournalists for 35 years.

By the end of the 1960s, 35-mm film cameras and low-ISO films like Kodachrome (ISO 25) and Panatomic-X (ISO 32) produced results good enough to make small, exhibition-grade prints if you were careful about your technique. It was unusual, though, to see 35-mm photos enlarged beyond 11-by-14, even at major exhibitions by famous photographers. The image quality of the optics and films of that era simply weren’t up to those stringent image quality requirements.

Forty years later, we routinely make decent 8-by-10 prints even from cellphone camera functions. By 2007 or 2008, upper-tier digital cameras could produce images whose quality exceeded that of the best traditional 35-mm film cameras. Files made by some current-model digital cameras are now capable of great enlargement, up to 20-by-30 or more, often in the sort of very low-light conditions that were unusable with film-based photography.

Photos courtesy of camerasize.com. Nikon full-frame D700 digital SLR compared to Olympus Micro Four-thirds OM-D .

Photos courtesy of camerasize.com. Nikon full-frame D700 digital SLR compared to Olympus Micro Four-thirds OM-D .

There remains a common misperception that cameras and lenses capable of professional-grade results have to be bulky and heavy. Although perhaps true some years ago, it’s nonsense now. Compare our second illustration today, the 12-megapixel, full-frame Nikon D700, and the 16-megapixel Olympus OM-D. As we’ve noted in earlier articles, a top-end compact system camera like the OM-D can produce images whose image quality, in all but the lowest light, is generally comparable to that of a full-frame camera. The difference in size and weight, though, is enormous, with the smaller, lighter camera providing a more versatile, pleasant and spontaneous experience.

That’s been a constant theme throughout the last 100 years of photographic history — using smaller and smaller cameras to produce larger and better prints while operating under worse lighting conditions. Just as film steadily improved, at least until digital cameras killed off Kodak and other major film manufacturers, the constant improvement of digital sensors allows us to get better photos from increasingly smaller cameras. As I suggested last week, though, there may be a practical limit to how small we can shrink serious cameras.

Given our current technology, I believe that Micro Four-thirds (M4/3) cameras are probably the best balance between image quality, compactness and features. All M4/3 cameras will mount and use any M4/3 lens from any manufacturer, a decided benefit, as well as many other lenses using adapters.

  • Starting at the lower end of the M4/3 spectrum, Olympus’ E-PM2 and Panasonic’s GF6 models are intended as relatively simple large-sensor, interchangeable-lens cameras for consumers upgrading from basic point-and-shoot cameras. Both, including kit zoom lens, retail in the mid-$400 range, not much more than a consumer would likely spend for a less-capable consumer camera. Of the two, the E-PM2 is preferable because it includes in-body image-stabilization hardware and the excellent 16-megapixel Sony sensor used in all current Olympus models.
  • Midrange M4/3 cameras tend to be somewhat more expensive. Olympus’ E-PL5 includes mostly metal construction, additional controls and features, along with the same digital sensor, in-body image-stabilization and kit zoom lens used in the top-end OM-D. The $550 retro-styled E-PL5 is a good choice for a moderately serious photographer, including high school and college students. Panasonic’s comparable midrange model, the $750 G6, is a useful camera that’s larger and styled like a curved and rounded dSLR camera, although it’s smaller than a traditional dSLR camera and doesn’t have a moving mirror.

Image quality for the E-PL5 and G6 seems similar through ISO 800, although the E-PL5 may resolve slightly more fine detail. The E-PL5 is somewhat smaller and less expensive than the G6 and has built-in stabilization, while the G6 has a built-in eyelevel viewfinder, though it’s a rather expensive option for the E-PL5. I believe the E-PL5’s excellent sensor and in-body stabilization tip the balance in its favor, at least for me, although I would certainly buy Olympus’ optional plug-in viewfinder, by which point the overall cost is about the same.

  • In the upper end of the M4/3 market, Olympus and Panasonic are now very evenly matched. Olympus’ 2012-model OM-D, also called the E-M5 ($900 body-only), produces excellent still images and passable video files. Its built-in eyelevel viewfinder is quite good, although no longer class-leading. Many professional photographers have switched to the OM-D for their commercial work. The OM-D’s image quality punches well above its weight class.
An Olympus OM-D compared to a Panasonic GH3.

An Olympus OM-D compared to a Panasonic GH3.

Panasonic’s GH3 ($1,300, body-only) is larger and heavier than the OM-D and produces similarly high-quality images. The GH3 is heavily optimized toward high-end video, with many audio and photographic features coveted by serious filmmakers. The GH3 includes an eyelevel viewfinder but not in-body image stabilization.

Choosing between these two cameras is relatively

straightforward. Get the Olympus OM-D if your work is mostly still images and you want something small and lightweight with in-body image stabilization. Buy Panasonic’s GH3 if your work consists mostly of video files and you don’t mind a larger, heavier body in that context. Remember, though, that the OM-D (E-M5 model) is 18 months old and likely to be revised and upgraded in the near future. It might make sense to wait for Olympus’ 2013 counterattack before deciding. Today’s third illustration compares the Olympus OM-D with the larger Panasonic GH3.

  • Until a few days ago, choosing a top-tier M4/3 rangefinder-styled camera was quite easy. The only new model on the market was Olympus’ new E-P5. The E-P5 ($1,000 body only) includes all of the best features of the OM-D, even the advanced magnetic in-body image-stabilization hardware, plus another year’s worth of improvements. It’s a lovely yet robust camera, very well constructed and exhibiting top-end image quality. Rangefinder styling in this case has resulted in a camera style that’s noticeably more compact than either the OM-D or the GH series. To me, the E-P5 feels like holding a late-model Leica, but at one-eighth the price.
Top view of the Olympus E-P5 compared to a Panasonic GX7.

Top view of the Olympus E-P5 compared to a Panasonic GX7.

Several days ago, Panasonic introduced its GX7, a compact rangefinder-styled camera that competes directly with the E-P5 and bests Olympus in at least one important area — the GX7 has a built-in eyelevel viewfinder. Olympus’ top-notch optional plug-in viewfinder is a $280 option.

The GX7 ($1,000 body-only) also took a page from Olympus’ playbook, incorporating in-body image stabilization, a first for Panasonic. On paper, the GX7 seems to compete very closely on features with the E-P5, but in a rather larger body. (Today’s fourth illustration compares the thickness of the E-P5 and GX7.) Kits for both models include good-quality, moderate wide-angle lenses, a 17-mm f/1.8 for Olympus and a 20-mm f/1.7 for Panasonic.

At this point, though, we don’t know whether Panasonic’s image stabilization will be as effective as Olympus’, nor how overall image quality will compare. My sense is that image quality will be similar but that Olympus’ image stabilization and JPEG rendering will prove superior. A GX7 package with lens is priced about the same as Olympus’ E-P5 with optional viewfinder and lens, so there’s little or no price difference.

Although the prices for some of these upper-tier M4/3 cameras may seem rather high, it’s worth recalling that you’re getting better image quality in these compact, $500 to $1,000 cameras than in the bulky, multithousand-dollar dSLR cameras sold only four or five years ago. You can often get really good deals on recently discontinued M4/3 cameras, particularly Olympus’ E-P3, E-PL3 and E-PL2, and Panasonic’s G5 and GF5.

That’s been technology’s trajectory for at least the last century — smaller, better and less expensive, from tripod-mounted view cameras through the digital revolution of the 21st century.

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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