Plugged In: Good as new? Try good enough with old quality

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Most interchangeable-lens cameras made in the past two or three years are more than sufficient for serious and professional photography. Despite that, many photographers like to compare their existing gear with the newest models.

In an era of good-enough photo gear, though, improving your technique and aesthetics provides more benefit while costing little or nothing. Even so, there’s been a rash of photo gear newly and unexpectedly introduced over the past few months.

Panasonic’s been on a roll lately, introducing a wide variety of highly regarded new cameras and lenses, including the GX8 rangefinder-styled Micro Four-Thirds camera, and the FZ300, a revised, large-sensor, superzoom model. Panasonic has two major photographic rivals, Olympus within the Micro Four-Thirds arena, and Sony more generally.

It’s been said that Panasonic and Sony are major consumer electronics companies that make cameras as just one more flavor of consumer electronics. There’s a difference, though. Until recently, Sony approached digital photography like an electronics company, regularly introducing a wide variety of cameras laden with new electronic features and incompatible lens mounts but lacking an adequate range of quality optics. Despite its long-standing alliance with Zeiss, one of Germany’s top optical manufacturers, Sony traditionally lagged its competitors optically.

Panasonic, on the other hand, is a founding member of the Micro Four-Thirds consortium, whose member companies produce dozens of excellent, affordable lenses that work compatibly with all Micro Four-Thirds cameras. Panasonic “gets it” as a camera company, sticking with a single proven lens mount, assuring a wide variety of high-quality optics and avoiding the constant changes typical of consumer electronic companies chasing the latest fads. That careful, conservative approach is likely due to Panasonic’s tutelage by its decadelong partner, Germany’s legendary Leica camera company, for whom Panasonic makes cameras.

A sizable proportion of the better Micro Four-Thirds, single-magnification prime lenses now carry the Panasonic brand or the Panasonic-Leica brand. Sometimes, there’s virtually an embarrassment of riches. As an example, Panasonic makes three of the four excellent lenses in the 40- to 45-mm short telephoto/portrait range, each differing in price and intended use.

There’s my favorite, a compact and relatively inexpensive ($400) but supersharp 42.5-mm f/1.7 optic that focuses closely enough to double as a macro lens. At the upper end, carrying the Panasonic-Leica branding, are a 45-mm f/2.8 true macro lens and what’s described as a supremely sharp, 42.5-mm f/1.2 Leica-branded portrait lens. I’ve used the f/1.7 model and really like it. The others are too expensive relative to good-enough alternatives and provide no additional benefits, at least for my style of photography. Panasonic prime lenses that I personally know to be very sharp include its 20-mm f/1.7 optic and the 25-mm f/1.4 Leica-branded Summilux.

You’ll notice that I’ve confined my praise mostly to Panasonic’s single-magnification prime lenses. That’s because I’ve tried quite a number of midrange Panasonic telephoto zoom lenses but with results that were less than satisfying. One exception is Panasonic’s fairly recent 35- to 100-mm f/4-5.6 zoom, a very sharp, affordable and compact lens. Overall, Olympus seems to make better zoom lenses at a slightly lower retail price.

Sigma is another company that’s been on a roll over the past few years, and its newer lenses are worth very careful consideration. Once known as a manufacturer of inexpensive mediocre lenses for other camera brands, Sigma has transformed itself into one of the world’s premier optical manufacturers over the past five years.

Sigma’s top-end “Art” series lenses are now among the best lenses made for serious digital SLR camera users. Image quality and construction typically exceed comparable lenses made by the likes of Zeiss, Canon and Nikon, and at a lower price. Highly regarded Sigma prime lenses include the 24-mm f/1.4, 35-mm f/1.4 and 50-mm f/1.4 “Art” models for dSLR cameras, and the 60-mm f/2.8 DN “A” short telephoto for Micro Four-Thirds and Sony E-mount, APS-C cameras.

Among zoom lenses, Sigma’s standout “Art” series zoom lenses include the proven 18- to 35-mm f/1.8 zoom for APS-C dSLRs and the company’s new 24- to 35-mm f/2 wide-angle zoom for full-frame dSLR cameras. Both are among the fastest and sharpest zoom lenses generally available.

Another Sigma product line, the “Sport” series lenses, includes high-end telephoto zoom lenses intended for professional sports and wildlife photographers. These tend to be quite expensive but are considered a good value. A less-expensive Sigma series, the “Contemporary” series, is intended for general-purpose amateur use and performs well for its price. Sigma’s 150- to 600-mm “Contemporary” telephoto zoom, designed for full-frame cameras, provides optical quality that’s nearly as good as the more expensive “Sports” series, but at a much lower cost.

Over the past year, Sony seems to have finally found its footing in the interchangeable camera market. With the release of the second-generation A7 mirrorless, full-frame series, Sony’s generated a great deal of interest among serious photographers. The A7 series cameras are the most compact full-frame, interchangeable-lens cameras available and include Sony’s newest sensors. All A7 series cameras use the newly developed FE lens mount, for which Sony and its partner Zeiss are finally producing a reasonable variety of high-quality, positively reviewed lenses.

The 12-megapixel A7S is the current low-light champion, able to make decent quality video using only moonlight. The A7 Mark II is a fine all-around, full-frame dSLR, while the A7R Mark II, with its new Sony 42-megapixel sensor, has a nice balance of very high resolution combined with good high-ISO performance and dynamic range.

  • Remember to enter Soldotna’s two photo contests, with nearly $1,000 in cash prizes and publication in the Redoubt Reporter. For more information, visit http://www.artspaceak.org.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Hi columns are on his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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