Plugged In: Try photography for agile aging

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Mentally challenging activities like digital photography can slow the onset of age-related memory and cognition problems. Don’t believe us? Ask the University of Texas.

A recent scientific paper published in the journal Psychological Science by UT Distinguished Professor Dr. Denise Park found that learning complex skills, such as digital photography and quilting, slowed the diminishing mental functioning that we associate with aging brains. Participation in social clubs and “passive, easy activities,” like playing games of chance and listening to music at home, provided no measurable benefit.

Only activities that presented continuous and prolonged mental challenge benefited memory and other mental capabilities. As with physical exercise, “no pain, no gain,” so learn some photo skills rather than just setting your camera to full auto and pressing the shutter.

Another recent article, this time in The Atlantic, examined the “de-skilling” of modern society, where critical skills are fading because too many are willing to rely uncritically on automation. Among the examples given are reducing driving skills, atrophy of fundamental flying skills among commercial pilots, and loss of directional sense among Inupiat hunters who now rely upon GPS rather than understanding their environment.

Pack small with reliable punch

A highly knowledgeable reader asks about purchasing an appropriate compact camera for his spouse. That’s a good question this time of year. Small physical size no longer means small performance. There are several decent choices.

  • Canon’s S120 is the latest evolutionary model in the compact yet capable Powershot S series. It’s a capable performer with a good 1/1.7-inch sensor, a 24- to 120-mm equivalent zoom, and the ability to optionally save images in a high-quality RAW format. The S120 is little changed from the S100 that I’ve used for the past two years, but that’s OK because no fixes were needed. At $450, the S120 is not inexpensive but it’s the least-expensive top-end compact camera and remains very capable.
  • Sony put a substantially large 1-inch sensor into its RX100 body, a camera that’s scarcely larger than the S100 despite the larger sensor. Since the original RX100 (currently $598 at Amazon) first appeared about a year ago, Sony’s marketed the RX100II, which incorporates wireless connectivity, this year’s “must-have” feature, as well as an apparently improved sensor that claims a one-stop improvement in low-light conditions.

At a current Amazon price of $748, the RX100 II is more expensive than many Micro Four-Thirds cameras with substantially larger, better sensors and sharper, interchangeable lenses. It’s a judgment call whether the larger sensors in the RX100 series are worth the $150 to $300 premium over the similarly sized Canon S120.

When comparing camera sizes, it’s important to remember that fixed-lens compact cameras retract their lens into the body when not in use, greatly reducing overall size. Generally, interchangeable-lens cameras do not, resulting in greater bulk.

Photo courtesy of, The Canon PowerShot S120, left, compared to the Olympus PEN E-PM2.

Photo courtesy of, The Canon PowerShot S120, left, compared to the Olympus PEN E-PM2.

Our first illustration today shows the powered-down size of the Canon S120 compared to the very compact Olympus E-PM2, which uses interchangeable lenses and a larger, Micro Four-Thirds sensor. Expect to spend $400 to $500 for an E-PM2 with a 14- to 42-mm zoom lens. Although the width and height are similar, the Olympus’ larger lens results in greater bulk, even when retracted into its stowed position.

Panasonic, the other major M 4/3 manufacturer, has made several attempts to combine the smallest possible M 4/3 camera bodies with very compact zoom lenses. With their newly introduced GM1 and its 12- to 32-mm powered zoom lens, Panasonic seems to have finally hit the mark.

Image courtesy of Panasonic’s new GM1 compared to the top-end Panasonic GX7.

Image courtesy of Panasonic’s new GM1 compared to the top-end Panasonic GX7.

The GM1 uses the same sensor as Panasonic’s larger M 4/3 cameras and provides excellent image quality, even at higher ISO sensitivities. The GM1’s 12- to 32-mm zoom is perhaps the smallest large-sensor zoom on the market. This lens is decently sharp. Illustration two compares the size of Panasonic’s new GM1 and that company’s top-end model, the GX7, itself rather compact. It’s evident that the GM1 is a quite small camera even with its zoom lens attached.

If you’re a Leica fan and have nothing better to do with $2,850, then you can buy Leica’s new X Vario compact camera with its fixed-zoom lens and larger APS-C sensor. This is a nice camera with very good image quality. In a sense, it’s the Rolex of compact cameras.

Still, a digital Seiko watch is just as accurate, if not more so, than a mechanical Rolex, and it’s no different here. The Leica is noticeably larger than the otherwise comparable Olympus E-PL5, a value leader among less-expensive M 4/3 cameras. The Leica does not accept interchangeable lenses, unlike either the E-PL5 or the even-smaller Panasonic GM1, nor an optional eyelevel viewfinder like the E-PL5. The Leica’s image quality, on close comparison, is no better than the E-PL5 with a good lens.

Which to choose?

If the smallest possible size is critical, then I would choose either the Canon S120 or one of the Sony RX100 cameras. If you don’t need exceptional image quality or already have a decent, large-sensor outfit with good lenses, then I’d choose the less-expensive Canon. If this is to be your sole camera, then perhaps the extra cost of one of the RX100 models makes sense. Being somewhat frugal, I’d choose the less-expensive RX100 unless I knew that I would be doing a great deal of low-light photography, in which case the RX100 II’s more sensitive digital sensor might justify its $750 price.

Large-sensor M 4/3 cameras are compact but not quite small enough to fit comfortably in a purse, although Panasonic’s GM1 comes closest. When your primary need is excellent image quality and low-light capability in a small package, then either the GM1 or Olympus E-PL5 or E-PM2 does the job, at an affordable price.

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,


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