Plugged In: Focus on performance, portability in preference

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

A reader’s recent inquiry about the photo gear that I use personally turned my attention back to more technical matters.

Meeting a regular reader by chance between the lettuce and the cucumbers while shopping after work, I was asked whether I was still using a Pentax K-3, generally considered the premier semi-pro digital SLR using an APS-C sensor. While it’s true that I still own, and occasionally use, my Pentax cameras, I mentioned to our reader that I use smaller Olympus Micro Four-Thirds interchangeable-lens compact system cameras much more frequently. Why?

The Pentax theoretically has better image quality in low-light conditions and a significantly higher sensor resolution, 24 megapixels rather than the 16 megapixels that still the upper limit for M 4/3 cameras. Both camera systems use in-body image stabilization. Both use Sony sensors. Why, then, use a lower resolution camera system when I have a good set of lenses for my excellent Pentax cameras?

Even though the Pentax dSLR cameras are generally considered the most compact and lightweight prograde APS-C digital SLR cameras, they’re still noticeably larger and heavier than M 4/3 cameras. The difference is even more evident when an APS-C lens, particularly a zoom lens is mounted. There’s no way that any robustly built APS-C moving-mirror dSLR camera can approach the lightweight compactness of a comparably well-built M 4/3 mirrorless system camera.

Although everyone’s preference may vary, I’ve found that the lighter weight and much more compact size of M 4/3 cameras and lenses allow me to carry a relatively complete system with minimal fuss. That translates not only into greater versatility but also a system that’s fun to use rather than an encumbrance. In turn, that means I’m more likely to carry it, use it, and use it often.

M 4/3 cameras are made principally by Olympus and Panasonic, as well as a number of niche vendors like the new “Kodak” and the prograde Blackmagic specialty video cameras. Panasonic cameras tend to have better video features while Olympus models tend to produce better traditional still photos. Olympus’ current E-P5 Pen and top-end OM-D E-M1 and E-M5 models feature “five-axis” in-body image stabilization hardware that’s considered the most effective anti-shake hardware made by any camera manufacturer.

That means that any lens that physically mounted on a Pen or OM-D series camera is inherently stabilized. As a result, Panasonic lenses that are not stabilized on own-brand cameras are effectively stabilized against camera shake when used with Olympus cameras. That allows the use of a broad range of interesting and affordable optics, new and old. Sharp lenses are the heart of any high-quality camera system so that versatility is welcome.

Highly effective in-body image-stabilization also means that Olympus cameras can be hand-held at much slower shutter speeds, allowing the use of a lower ISO sensitivity and thus retaining better image quality. As an example, an Olympus E-M5 camera and lens combination that I could, with care, hand-hold steadily at 1/4 second at ISO 200 might require ISO 800 and a faster shutter speed if attempted with Nikon’s excellent D800 full-frame camera. That faster shutter speed and two-stop higher ISO required by the less-effectively-stabilized, heavier D800 largely negates the image quality benefits of the larger full-frame sensor in many circumstances when the subject is relatively static.

Olympus’ newest E-M5 Mark II camera ($1,100 body-only) uses its image-stabilization hardware in another very clever way: by taking and combining eight images into a single image file, shifting the sensor by only one-half to one pixel between each shot, the new E-M5 Mark II can produce JPEG files with a much higher 40 megapixel effective resolution. RAW images made in high-resolution mode have an effective resolution up to 64 megapixels, with color accuracy that’s potentially much better as well. With its new, high-resolution modes and exceptional image-stabilization hardware, the E-M5 Mark II in many ways outshines Olympus’ older, more expensive flagship E-M1 camera.

Although it’s a very clever way to produce extremely high-resolution images, there are some limitations with the high-resolution mode found in the first-generation E-M5 Mark II. In my limited experience, the E-M5 Mark II’s high-resolution mode requires extremely careful technique to produce sharp super-high resolution images. You must use a tripod and remote shutter release. The subject cannot have any motion at all for the one second required to make the overall high-resolution image, and that rules out portraits and any moving subject, even water. To process RAW images, you’ll need to download and install Olympus’ free Photoshop plugin, while Lightroom and DXO Optics 10 won’t support the high-resolution RAW files for another month or so. We’ll take a closer look at these new very high-resolution files after I’ve mastered making them.

Panasonic’s current GH4 flagship Micro Four-Thirds camera is rather bulky, more so than some full-frame models, but the GH4 is the digital video camera of choice for all but the most serious video professionals. It’s relatively affordable compared to other 4K video models. Panasonic’s GM series cameras are the most compact M 4/3 cameras available, and, when used with high-quality lenses, make excellent images. The kit zoom lenses designed for the GM cameras are exceptionally compact, surprisingly sharp given their relatively low cost, and usable on all M 4/3 camera bodies.

Both Olympus and Panasonic make less expensive M 4/3 cameras designed for more casual users, the entry-level Panasonic GF series and the stoutly built Olympus E-PL7, an intermediate-level compact model.

As I mentioned above, good optics are the heart of any camera system, and that’s where Micro Four-Thirds cameras stand out for the wide range of excellent, generally affordable lenses. We’ll take a tour of Micro Four-Thirds lenses next week, where we’ll find a surprising number of high-quality affordable lenses. The variety of excellent and affordable M 4/3 lenses is the real reason that I’ve largely shifted to using Micro Four-Thirds cameras.

  • If you happen to be in Homer this Friday, stop by the gallery at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kachemak Bay Campus at 6 p.m. for the closing reception of my solo photography show, “Veiled Mysteries,” and a talk about the low-light techniques used in making these unmanipulated night-time photographs.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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