Plugged In: Smaller is better, but some more than others

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

In our prior article, we discussed some of the most important factors to consider when purchasing a new camera as a Christmas present, buying a higher-end system to supplement an easily pocketed Canon S90.

The most important major factors are, I believe, that it be compact, light and easily portable, cost not more than $700 and provide very high-quality images. Balancing these factors tends to rule out very large, full-frame cameras and the larger digital SLR cameras using APS-C sensors. That leaves small d-SLR cameras, compact-system cameras incorporating large sensors, and some higher-end compact cameras.

The illustrations in this week’s article make a series of progressive comparisons that depict the quite large variation in size and weight from the smallest suitable camera, the S120, through Nikon’s D600, one of the smallest full-frame, interchangeable-lens dSLR cameras. All illustrations are courtesy of http://www.camerasize.com. Remember that larger cameras require larger lenses, as well, which magnifies the comparative bulk.

Compact cameras using fixed lenses

Canon S120 vs. Olympus E-PL5 front view.

Canon S120 vs. Olympus E-PL5 front view.

Most of these cameras are consumer-grade models. To be suitable for serious use, you should use a camera that has the option of saving its image files in some RAW format that’s supported by standard Adobe software. A very few fixed-zoom lens compact cameras using small, 1/1.7-inch sensors are suitable, at least in decent light, but lack the versatility and higher image quality typical of interchangeable-lens cameras using larger sensors.

I’ve found Canon’s S100, S110 and current S120 models to be both pocketable and adequate under good conditions. Similarly, Canon’s G12, 14, 15 and current G16 models are larger but more fully featured and include an eye-level optical viewfinder lacking in nearly all other models in this range. I personally use a Canon S100 when I need a highly portable camera that slips into any pocket.

S120 vs E-PL5 top view without E-PL5 lens.

S120 vs E-PL5 top view without E-PL5 lens.

Panasonic’s LX7, Pentax’s MX-1 and Olympus’ XZ-2 similarly produce high-quality images in good lighting conditions. Sony’s RX100 is roughly the same size and design as the Canon S series but with a larger, 1-inch sensor. Although many professional photographers now carry one of the RX100 models, I’ve refrained. Even the basic RX100 model is more expensive than a midrange interchangeable-lens Micro Four-Thirds camera that uses a larger, better sensor and better lenses.

Several vendors now sell compact cameras with a large sensor and a fixed, single-magnification lens, usually a wide-angle lens. Some of the best models include Ricoh’s new GR, Nikon’s Coolpix A and Fujitsu’s X100s. All of these cameras, while generally compact, can produce high-quality images, but they’re both too expensive for our Christmas gift/second camera criteria, usually costing more than $1,000, and not sufficiently versatile due to their fixed lens.

Compact-system cameras

E-PL5 vs. K-30, front view.

E-PL5 vs. K-30, front view.

In this sector, I prefer Olympus’ M 4/3 cameras for several significant reasons. As a general rule, compact-system cameras built around the somewhat larger APS-C sensors require significantly larger lenses, which increases bulk and rather defeats the notion of a compact system that goes anywhere as needed.

As noted in earlier articles, Sony’s NEX compact-system cameras, using a larger APS-C sensor, are themselves both small and excellent but generally suffer optically in comparison to the wide range of excellent, affordable lenses for M 4/3 cameras. Fujitsu X-series cameras are also excellent, especially in low-light conditions, but the range of affordable lenses remains fairly limited. Each interchangeable Fujitsu lens will cost between $450 and $900 and will not be stabilized.

All current Olympus M 4/3 cameras use Sony’s excellent, 16-megapixel sensor, which has very high sharpness and dynamic range, good low-light/high ISO performance, and lower noise. Many Panasonic models, especially lower-end systems, use a sensor that doesn’t have quite the same performance. In addition, all Olympus M 4/3 cameras use image-stabilization hardware built directly into the camera body, rather than foregoing image-stabilization entirely, as does Fujitsu, or building that hardware into some, but not all, lenses.

Of Olympus’ M 4/3 cameras, the E-PM2 is the smallest and least expensive large-sensor, interchangeable-lens model, often selling for $400 to $450 with a decent, 14- to 42-mm kit lens. This model is intended as the first serious camera for people with little or no photo experience, so has fewer user settings and manual controls.

Olympus’ E-PL5 features the same kit zoom lens as the E-PM2 but a higher-end, mostly metal body with a nice range of features and user controls. It provides what one professional review site termed “astounding quality” relative to its $550 typical selling price. A number of excellent, inexpensive interchangeable lenses, as well as more expensive professional-grade lenses, fit the E-PL5. Olympus’ OM-D E-M5 is an excellent professional-quality camera with great versatility in a compact package, but somewhat larger and more expensive than the E-PL5, though that’s partly due to its very good built-in electronic viewfinder and weather-sealed body.

Sigma’s 19-mm, 30-mm and 60-mm DN lenses are currently the best buy among decent optics for both M 4/3 and Sony NEX cameras.

DSLR cameras

E-PL5 vs. K-30 top view.

E-PL5 vs. K-30 top view.

Most dSLR cameras built around relatively large, APS-C sensors don’t really fit in the highly portable category, particularly because they tend to require noticeably larger lenses compared to compact-system cameras, but despite that, there are some very good buys if you’re willing to use a larger and heavier system.

In terms of “bang for the buck” among relatively small yet rugged and weather-sealed bodies, I prefer Pentax cameras. Both the current K-50 model and its predecessor, the K-30, are relatively small for dSLR cameras yet highly capable in all operational regards. All Pentax dSLR cameras include in-body image-stabilization hardware that automatically stabilizes any of the more than 40 million K-mount lenses in circulation. (Note that no camera system is adequately weather-resistant unless both the camera body and the lens are independently sealed against moisture and dust.)

The K-30 is the better bargain at the moment because it’s being slowly closed out, yet its image quality and overall utility does not suffer in comparison to the newer model. Pentax’s earlier K-5 professional model is the smallest prograde APS-C camera on the market. It, too, is being closed out in favor of the slightly upgraded current K-5 II model. Expect to spend about $560 for a K-30 with the basic 18- to 55-mm kit zoom lens, and $780 for the earlier K-5 with the same kit zoom lens.

K-30 vs Nikon D7000.

K-30 vs Nikon D7000.

Even though the K-5 is small for its quality and class, it’s definitely larger than an Olympus M 4/3 model. That might disqualify it for you but, if it doesn’t then the K-5 is a best buy. At this time, the upgrade lens of choice for Pentax cameras is Tamron’s 17- to 50-mm f/2.8 zoom. This lens costs about $400 and is generally excellent, although not weather sealed.

Several excellent Nikon dSLR cameras are rather equivalent to the Pentax situation. Nikon’s D5100 uses the same 16-megapixel sensor as the Pentax K-30, although the Nikon body is not weather sealed. Nikon’s D7000 likewise uses the same sensor but in a more professionally oriented body. Both of these cameras are being discontinued in favor of the more recent D5200 and D7100 models that incorporate a 24-megapixel sensor that might not be an unalloyed benefit.

K-30 vs. Nikon D600 top view.

K-30 vs. Nikon D600 top view.

Currently, the D5100 is a really good deal, with a retail price of $480, including 18- to 55-mm kit zoom lens, as contrasted with the nearly $800 price for the newer, though not necessarily better, D5200. Similarly, the older D7000 sells for just under $1,000, including a very fine Nikon 18- to 105-mm kit zoom lens, while the newer D7100 with the same lens will cost nearly $1,500. All of the Nikon cameras are somewhat larger than their Pentax equivalents, so that might be a factor in your decision.

My best-buy gift/second camera recommendations:

  • Compact camera: Canon S100, S110, or S120, or Panasonic LX7.
  • Upgrading to a larger-sensor compact-system camera: Olympus E-PL5.
  • DSLR: Nikon D5100 or Pentax K-30 or K-5.

Personally, I use a combination of cameras, depending on the image quality and versatility needed relative to the portability desired in a particular situation. When extreme compactness and portability are desired more than maximum image quality, I’ll use a Canon S100 compact. At the other end of the spectrum, when image quality is the most crucial factor, I’ll use a Pentax K-5. For most situations, an M 4/3 compact-system camera might be the best overall choice. Of these, the Olympus E-PL5 is probably the best blend of cost, size, image quality and usefulness for a new purchaser, although the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is a compelling package for the knowledgeable user.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

Hanging Around Town

  • Reader photos recognized in Redoubt Reporter photography contests from 2011-2013 are on display at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center through the end of October.
  • The Gary L. Freeburg Gallery at Kenai Peninsula College hosts Richard Eissler’s photography exhibit, “Thirteen + One.”
  • As part of its “Every Friday” series of art and cultural programs, the Kenai Fine Arts Center’s Sept. 27 event features, “The Written Word” — creative writing by a variety of central peninsula authors. Good writing, particularly epigrams, haiku and other very short and incisive written works, are often an excellent complement to fine photos. All “Every Friday” events start at 6 p.m. at the center in Old Town Kenai.
  • Through the end of September, the Peninsula Photographers Guild monthly show can be viewed Monday to Friday during normal business hours on the second floor of the Cottonwood Clinic in Soldotna.
  • The public is invited to attend the Kenai Fine Arts Center’s annual “Harvest Art Auction” on Sept. 28, with music, refreshments and beverages. This event includes both outcry and silent auctions for donated art of all media by local artists, flight-seeing tours and other items. Advance ticket purchase is required. Donated art is already on display and available for silent auction bidding at the Kenai Fine Arts Center between noon and 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays. These are always fun events, even if you don’t take anything home. For more information, call 283-7040 during the center’s open hours or email Shauna Thornton at shaunat@gci.net.

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