Plugged In: Find the line of streamlined quality

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Compact mirrorless-system cameras tend to sell better in Japan and other tech-savvy parts of East Asia compared to consumer sales in the United States. It’s obscure why.

Compact-system cameras (CSC) often have a richer feature set and produce images whose quality is as good or better than the bulky entry-level and intermediate-grade digital SLR cameras still favored by American consumers. Initially, I thought that lower U.S. CSC sales might be due to a higher purchase price, but many good CSCs are less expensive than even the lowest-cost digital SLR. They’re smaller and lighter, as well.

My sense is that the reason dSLR cameras still outsell CSC cameras is a conservative mindset among American consumers that resists a move away from the large, black, dSLR cameras still equated with “quality” photography. At the same time, many professional photographers are openly using CSCs for their most critical commercial work. Although I’ll write this week mostly about the new high-end Olympus E-P5, much of this article is applicable to Olympus’ less-expensive current E-PM2 entry-level and E-PL5 intermediate-level models. The image quality of these less-expensive models is virtually identical but they don’t have the E-P5’s advanced magnetic image stabilization hardware and ability to take up to nine frames per second.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been using both the Olympus E-P5, the company’s top-end “Pen” rangefinder-styled CSC, and their slightly larger dSLR-styled OM-D (EM-5), along with a mix of prime and zoom lenses. Mostly due to the E-P5’s somewhat smaller size, I’ve found that I’m more likely to pick up and use the E-P5, carried in a small camera bag that includes a few small but high-quality Micro Four-Thirds prime lenses, like Sigma’s 30-mm f/2.8 DN and Olympus’ 17-mm f/1.8 and 45-mm f/1.8 optics.

Used with the smaller sensor found in Micro 4/3 cameras, those three lenses are optically equivalent to the classic Leica rangefinder kit of 35-mm wide-angle, normal lens, and 90-mm short telephoto/portrait lens. As the old saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

With the advent of the E-P5, Olympus’ “Pen” series has become very refined. The E-P5 operates and feels more like a seriously premium product than prior Pen models. It seems somewhat more spontaneous in routine use than the OM-D. The E-P5’s real competition, I think, will be the new and very similar Panasonic GX7, whose published specifications seem very interesting and competent, particularly now that Panasonic has finally adopted Olympus’ in-body image-stabilization approach. The GX7 kit with Panasonic’s excellent 20-mm f/1.7 prime lens costs within a few dollars of Olympus’ E-P5 kit that includes camera body, high-end VF-4 electronic viewfinder and 17-mm f/1.8 prime lens.

I initially thought that the lack of a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) would be a deal-breaker for me in terms of purchasing the E-P5, but I was wrong. Without the EVF in good light, the E-P5 definitely feels smaller than the E-M5 and in fact it is, about three-quarters inches less tall. As a result, the E-P5 stows easier in a very small bag. Comparing front-to-back size, the GX7’s EVF adds enough depth to make the GX7 body feel bulkier in some ways.

I can see why Olympus made this design trade-off by continuing to use an optional external viewfinder. When the VF-4 electronic viewfinder is not mounted, the camera’s reasonably compact but obviously very solid, being constructed almost entirely of high-grade magnesium alloy metal. When the EVF is mounted, its excellent and bright view is very easy and nice to use. In fact, the VF-4’s size and magnification are directly comparable to the expansive view through the mirror and pentaprism of Nikon’s prograde D800 full-frame dSLR. I doubt that it’s feasible to pack such a large viewfinder into the E-P5 body without significantly increasing the camera’s overall size.

Now that the VF-4 locks in place, it’s useful to be able to use it when needed in very bright light or when you need that third point of contact to stabilize high-magnification telephoto lenses. When you don’t need it, you can leave the EVF in the bag. For what it’s worth, Leica takes the same optional external EVF approach with most of their cameras, except the top-end M series rangefinder cameras.

There are some other features that I like about the E-P5. In good light that allows fast shutter speeds, it’s possible to shoot up to nine frames per second. To test how well the E-P5 compares to the fast upper-tier dSLR cameras used by professional photographers, I photographed the fast action at Oilers baseball games with a telephoto lens and a very fast shutter speed setting, and got those shots. Usually, CSCs can’t keep up with that fast action.

All of Olympus’ current Micro 4/3 cameras, including the lower-end E-PM2 and E-PL5 cameras, use the same acclaimed 16-megapixel sensor as the OM-D, so all of them, including the E-P5, do well in low-light conditions and at high ISO settings. The sensor’s quite sharp, with dynamic range that’s nearly as good as the best dSLR cameras using larger APS-C sensors. Lenses are quite compact and the better ones are both among the sharpest in their class and solidly made. Because the camera’s dynamic range is so good, it’s easier to avoid blown highlights that lack any detail and inky-black shadows. Autofocus for all current models is very fast.

The E-P5’s automatic exposure is quite good and the semiautomatic and manual exposure modes also work very well. In tricky lighting, it’s easy and useful to set up fast automatic exposure bracketing, where the camera takes the first image at the calculated exposure, and a darker exposure followed by a brighter one. At least one bracketed exposure is sure to be usable.

My kid Ray Lee particularly liked the articulating screen that can be angled up or down for comfortable low-level and high-angle shots. If you enable touch-screen operation, simply touching the screen focuses on any desired part of the frame and makes the exposure, all done with a single touch. That’s a feature I never thought I would use, but it’s convenient, fast and very accurate.

Based on early negative reviews, I was quite ready to dislike Olympus’ included 17-mm f/1.8 kit lens, but that lens cost only about $170 more when purchased as part of the kit. It’s actually a really nice default lens to mount on the E-P5 and equivalent to the classic 35-mm moderate wide-angle lens. Corner-to-corner image quality is very good to excellent by f/4 to f/5.6, with good contrast. The very bright f/1.8 aperture’s handy in dim light.

It’s certainly true that Sony’s comparable NEX-6 and NEX-7 cameras and Fujifilm’s X-E1 are excellent cameras, but in the end, a range of quality optics is the crux for any camera system with aspirations. That’s where Micro 4/3 systems remains far ahead of the others.

Next week, we’ll look at some of the better lenses for Micro 4/3 cameras and then move on.

  • The Peninsula Art Guild is calling for local artists to donate one or two of their own original artworks to the 2013 Harvest Exhibit and Auction in support of the Kenai Fine Arts Center. The last day to deliver artwork donations to the Kenai Fine Arts Center is Saturday, Aug. 24, at 5 pm. The center is open from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Call 283-7040 for more information.
  • The Kenai Fine Arts Center will hold a re-opening ceremony and closing reception for August exhibits by Erin Micciche, Marlene Pearson, Marilyn Johnson and Ralph Van Dusseldorp at 6 p.m. Aug. 30. For more information and updates on future events, visit www.kenaifinearts.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.

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