Plugged In: Camera technology heats up this summer

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Summer’s usually a slow time in the photo industry, with only a few minor new products announced. Manufacturers try to quietly sell off their remaining inventory of last year’s models before introducing the “latest and greatest” just in time for Christmas shopping.

Not so in 2015. Significant new products are being announced so frequently that it’s hard to keep pace. Many of those announced products won’t ship for a few months, though, leading me to believe it’s a sort of pre-announcement “arms race” where manufacturers try to attract consumer interest to their own not-yet-available products while deflecting interest away from their competitors. In a sense, then, when new products actually ship has not changed a great deal, only the marketing tactics.

Before plunging into the new gear announcements, though, Amazon Prime members should keep in mind Amazon’s 20th anniversary sale July 15 with flash sales occurring throughout the day. Amazon promises excellent deals on a variety of products, including photo and computer equipment.

  • Remember that you’ll get the best deals when buying recently discontinued products capable of professional-quality results, but also that Amazon is not always the best buy. For example, the excellent original Olympus E-M5 (not the current E-M5 Mark II) is on sale at highly reputable http://www.bhphotovideo.com for a mere $499, including a very good 14- to 42-mm kit zoom lens. B&H sells a new-in-box item with a full warranty, not a refurbished camera and lens kit, and it’s a phenomenally good deal. Amazon lists exactly the same product for $700 to $900 without any lens. I still use two of these original E-M5 compact-system cameras and they’re excellent for even highly demanding work when used properly.
  • Panasonic’s new G7 seems rather close to the E-M5 in size and overall capability except for Olympus’ better image-stabilization system. If you need a relatively inexpensive camera capable of 4K video, then the Panasonic G7 fits nicely and it’s a highly regarded product. Photographers who shoot mainly still images with occasional 1920-pixel HD video will find the earlier Olympus E-M5 a better buy, at least at B&H. Amazon does have some good deals on Olympus premium-grade, single-magnification prime lenses, though, particularly the highly regarded 25-mm/f/1.8 normal lens and the exceptional 45-mm/f/1.8 short telephoto lenses. Both currently sell for $299 each at Amazon.
  • Olympus’ PRO line 7- to 14-mm extremely wide-angle zoom lens and 8-mm fisheye are now shipping. Initial reports are that both are exceptionally sharp, comparable to the other prograde zoom lenses in Olympus’ PRO line, the 12- to 40-mm standard zoom and the 40- to 150-mm telephoto zoom. I’ve used both and they’re among the sharpest zooms in their respective classes, and priced accordingly.
  • Canon’s G3X superzoom camera seems to have nearly everything going for it — a good medium-sized sensor, robust construction and a reasonably sharp zoom lens with a 24- to 600-mm equivalent magnification range. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a built-in eye-level viewfinder, unlike the five superzoom cameras we discussed in this space a few weeks ago. Canon will sell you an optional plug-in electronic viewfinder for a few hundred dollars more, but that’s not very satisfactory. You really need a good built-in EVF when using any camera in bright sunshine or at high magnifications. It’s worth trying the Canon G3X against some of the other superzoom cameras, but the Panasonic FZ1000 will likely prove more generally useful, even though it’s larger and limited to a 400-mm equivalent telephoto magnification.
  • Sony’s new RX10 Mark II doesn’t pretend to be a superzoom camera capable of a gazillion-times magnification. Instead, the RX10 limits its zoom range to an equivalent range of 24- to 200-mm, emphasizing high image quality and 4K video recording. Unless you’re frequently photographing birds and wildlife, the 24- to 200-mm equivalent magnification is usually quite sufficient for most family, travel and art photographs. The RX10 series is well-regarded among professionals as an excellent second camera, and the Mark II model includes the newest Sony sensor technology.
  • Another new Sony, the pocketable RX100 Mark IV, also uses Sony’s new 1-inch sensor in a highly compact body that includes a popup, eye-level electronic viewfinder and a 24- to 70-mm-equivalent zoom lens, a magnification range that’s limited to reduce overall camera size. The Sony RX100 Mark IV may be physically small, but at nearly $1,000, its price is rather large, too large for most of us.
  • Canon’s G7X costs nearly $300 less while including a zoom lens that’s brighter and with greater maximum magnification. The G7X has no EVF, though, uses an older model sensor and sharpness allegedly suffers at the corners. While a pocketable camera with high image quality is enticing, I’ll pass on current models. Each is either too expensive or significantly compromised. Maybe next year.
  • Just when we thought that the megapixel war had stalemated with Nikon’s 36-megapixel D800 and D810 models, Canon introduced its 5DS and 5DS R full-frame models, each with a 50-megapixel sensor. Basically, both cameras are Canon 5D III bodies with a higher resolution sensor and a new image-processing chip. Initial reports suggest very high image quality, but with a few caveats. For best results, you’ll need to use a tripod and truly excellent (read, truly expensive) optics. Even most professionals have little need for that level of potential image quality. Unlike many full-frame models, the 5DS series doesn’t do particularly well at high-ISO sensitivities above ISO 6,400, due to the many small pixels packed onto the full-frame sensor.
  • Sony’s new A7 series cameras take a different path. The A7S limits its resolution to 12 megapixels, but these are very sensitive megapixels capable of good image quality, even good video quality, under very dark conditions. I’ve seen usable A7S video shot using nothing but moonlight. The higher-resolution Sony A7R Mark II uses a new 42-megapixel sensor that’s said to do very well under a wide variety of circumstances, including very dim light. We’ll take a deeper look at Sony’s innovative A7 series cameras down the road a bit.

Stay tuned next week. We discuss more new and interesting photo gear.

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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