Plugged In: Good cameras come in portable packages

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Canon’s new G7X and other 1-inch sensor cameras are not the only models packing big camera image quality into a highly portable package. With a bit of thought, you can fit Micro Four-Thirds image quality into a jacket pocket.

As readers may recall from last week’s article, it’s the depth of the projecting lens that primarily reduces a camera’s portability, not the width and height of an otherwise thin object. Thin depth is why large screen smartphones remain easily portable.

Interchangeable-lens cameras give you a different option. You can detach the lens, which is often fairly thin, and carry the camera and lens detached. When that’s done, many rangefinder-styled M 4/3 cameras become quite portable while providing image quality and versatility that’s a large step up from 1-inch sensor cameras. Even better, the Olympus interchangeable-lens models mentioned this week, including their standard kit zoom lens, are less expensive than new Canon and Sony fixed-lens models using smaller 1-inch sensors.

Illustration 1. From left, Canon G7X, Olympus E-PL7, Olympus E-PL5 and  Panasonic GM5.

Illustration 1. From left, Canon G7X, Olympus E-PL7, Olympus E-PL5 and Panasonic GM5.

Today’s Illustration 1 shows several potentially suitable compact camera bodies. On the left is Canon’s G7X, a 1-inch sensor camera shown here with its fixed lens retracted into the camera body. Next is Olympus’ new E-PL7, a sturdy, fully featured, interchangeable-lens M 4/3 camera body. Olympus’ E-PL5 is third from the right and, at the moment, is priced competitively for a large-sensor, M 4/3 body. It’s about $200 less than the newer E-PL7 but may soon be discontinued. On the right is Panasonic’s new GM5, one of the smallest M 4/3 cameras and the most camera in this comparison. Of these, only the Panasonic GM5 includes an eye-level electronic viewfinder, a nice feature that may justify much of the GM5’s higher price.

I recently tested the portability of an Olympus E-P3, a significantly larger, heavier M 4/3 camera, in a variety of cool-weather jackets. With a very small optional Olympus 14- to 42-mm EZ electric zoom lens detached and separately carried in my jacket’s other pocket, that larger E-P3 was scarcely noticeable, although it would be too bulky when carried with any lens attached. The smaller, lighter M 4/3 Pen Lite and GM series cameras shown in Illustration 1 would be less burdensome than the E-P3.

Reattaching the zoom lens to the camera takes about 20 seconds. The standard Olympus and Panasonic 14- to 42-mm kit zooms sold with many models in the U.S. are larger but still reasonably portable.

There are a few obvious cautions. Any separated camera and lens must both be fully capped, using all body and lens caps so that there are no exposed camera body openings or glass elements. It’s also wise to find small, thin cases that closely fit the camera and lens to minimize any bumps and cosmetic damage while being carried. I also put a clear plastic screen protector on the rear LCD to reduce permanent scratching.

The best portability and image quality won’t be found with standard kit zoom lenses. Instead, so-called “pancake” lenses here provide both more compact storage and better images. Olympus’ new 14- to 42-mm EZ electrically zoomed lens, sold separately, is both the smallest and the sharpest pancake zoom lens I’ve tested so far. Used with care, it’s capable of very good images. This lens relies on the in-body image-stabilization built into Olympus M 4/3 cameras, so it’s not stabilized when used with otherwise excellent Panasonic M 4/3 camera bodies.

Panasonic’s 12- to 32-mm zoom is almost as thin as the Olympus lens, but doesn’t include any manual focus ability. In my limited tests, Panasonic’s pancake zoom lens seemed slightly very less sharp but still quite good for such a small lens. It includes built-in optical image stabilization and is sold separately or included with the GM1 and GM5 cameras. Both the Olympus and Panasonic pancake zoom lenses are very compact, less than 1 inch thick and about 2 inches in diameter. Two excellent Panasonic single-magnification pancake prime lenses, their 1-4mm f/2.5 wide-angle and 20-mm f/1.7 standard lenses, are very sharp and similarly compact.

Illustration-2. Domke f-5xb compact-system bag.

Illustration-2. Domke f-5xb compact-system bag.

If you’re willing to pack a bit more weight or able to stow a compact camera kit in your car, then several other M 4/3 options become attractive and practical, particularly when you find just the right camera system bag that’s neither too large nor too restricted. Today’s Illustration 2 shows the size of a small Domke F-5XB camera bag compared to a standard hardbound book. After several false starts with other brands, I purchased Domke’s “Ruggedwear” version that’s made of the same heavy oiled canvas used for Carhartt work clothing. I now finally understand why pro photographers have favored Domke bags for the past three decades. They’re fast and convenient in use and just feel right.

Illustration 3 shows the complete M 4/3 compact camera system that fit inside that small F-5XB Domke bag. This is a complete, high-quality yet affordable go-anywhere system weighing a mere 5 pounds, half the weight, or less, of a comparable APS-C digital SLR camera system. My go-anywhere system is built around an Olympus OM-D E-M5 weather-sealed body that I bought used from http://www.lensrentals.com, and a similarly weather-sealed Olympus 12- to 50-mm kit zoom lens with usable video and macro capabilities.

Illustration 3. Olympus OM-D EM5 kit that fits inside a Domke bag.

Illustration 3. Olympus OM-D EM5 kit that fits inside a Domke bag.

Supplementing that 12- to 50-mm Olympus zoom are an Olympus 40- to 150-mm consumer-grade telephoto zoom lens and three sharper Sigma prime lenses for M 4/3 cameras. The Sigma 19-mm wide-angle, 30-mm standard and 60-mm “short telephoto Art” series optics each have a relatively bright f/2.8 maximum lens aperture and cost between $170 and $210 new. They’re the best deal on the market for sharp, well-constructed optics. Sigma’s 60-mm DN “Art” series lens is particularly sharp, with image quality of the 30-mm model trailing only slightly. The Sigma 19-mm wide-angle is decently sharp in the center of the image. If you’re feeling affluent, then Panasonic’s 14-mm f/2.5 and 20-mm f/1.7 pancake lenses would be noticeably sharper than the 19-mm Sigma, yet still fit in the same space.

Rounding out that compact traveling system are spare batteries and memory cards, good quality Pentax soft lens pouches for each lens, inexpensive, screw-in vented metal lens shades from Amazon, an Olympus 15-mm “body-cap” lens for fun effects, and Olympus’ small clip-on flash unit included with the OM-D E-M5 camera body. That’s a complete, and generally affordable, camera system capable of very high-quality images yet weighing only 5 pounds and fitting into a camera bag scarcely larger than a hardbound book.

The ultimate determinant of good photos is, of course, not your gear but your “shot discipline,” where personal skill and knowledge are central. That’s the subject of next week’s article.

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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