The Camera We Want, Redux

Posted on January 12, 2013 by psu

We took a trip to Hong Kong and Singapore over Thanksgiving break. Ever since I did a trip to Hong Kong for work a few years ago this trip has been in the plans. If you have any interest in East Asian food, or any other sort of food for that matter, Hong Kong and Singapore must be on your list. But I’m not here to talk about food. You can find out about that anywhere. I’m here to talk about cameras.

For this trip I was excited to replace my old 24-85 Nikon zoom lens with a new-fangled one that promised to be bigger, and stronger. Not only does the new lens use new-fangled glass and coatings to make its images sharper, it also incorporates gyros and moving lens elements to stabilize the image if you have shaky hands. I was most excited about this latter feature, but it turned out that a subtle problem with the Nikon camera user interface made it tricky to use (see note at the end). I guess the lens was a bit sharper, and it certainly did not vignette as much as the old one. So I am not entirely unhappy with the lens. After all, I could do this:


I’ve been happy with my D700 for all of the few years that I’ve been using it. My only complaint was always that it was too large. For some reason everything about DSLRs is larger than their film counterparts even though you would think that removing all of the mechanical drive parts from a camera body should make it smaller. In the end my new kit just ended up being “larger.” It was still excellent in every way, but I’m getting old and weak enough that it actually makes me tired to hold the camera body and shoot pictures. I came home from the trip willing to investigate something smaller, even if it compromised “image quality.”

(Note: “image quality” is mostly bullshit anyway. By any objective measure (sharpness, sensitivity, color, grain) almost any of the current digital cameras, SLR or not, do better than you used to with ISO 50 Velvia. If you don’t believe me, scan some Velvia and look at it next to shots from a 3 year old point and shoot. The P&S will be better (at ISO 400)).

The other reason I was ready to look at smaller cameras was that I discovered a nice photo blog written by one Ming Thein. The guy takes good pictures and he does not write things that are stupid. He’s a bit of a gadfly with respect to equipment, but most people who shoot for a living are like that, so it’s fine.

His web site published a few articles about the new Olympus mirrorless equipment that seemed to indicate it was worth a try. I had seen other rumblings about this stuff from other sources but when I last looked into these bodes they all seemed a bit half baked.

The upsides of the 4/3rds cameras are easy to list:

  1. Small.

  1. Some great small lenses, especially the Olympus primes. Even the beefier zoom lenses are not that big.

  1. Small.

The downsides are also easy to list:

  1. Annoying handling, including things like no optical viewfinders.

  1. The small sensor does not compete with the huge Nikon sensors for sharpness and high ISO noise performance.

So, I waffled.

Returning home from Asia, fate intervened. I had reason to need to shoot video with a telephoto lens, and I had nothing in the house that could do it. To the Intertubes!

I picked up an Olympus E-PL5 along with the cheap kit lens and a fairly cheap telephoto zoom from Panasonic (a 45-200). The E-PL5 is a bit cheaper than the flagship E-M5 body, so I wasn’t making a huge commitment. And, I reasoned that if I didn’t like it I could return it or sell it on Amazon. And if I did like it the thing would serve well as a second body to carry when I get the E-M5 and a whole set of lenses.

The camera has pretty much met my expectations.

On the upside, the thing is super-small. Pictures on the Internet tend to make it look like a thin version of a regular DSLR, but really the body is sized more like a large point and shoot. Here is a comparison with the Panasonic LX-3 point and shoot (and my old D700):


The lenses that I got, while cheaply built, are also really small and light. The body, kit lens and long zoom weigh about the same as my D700 body alone or either one of the lenses I usually carry. This is nice. I imagine that carrying two bodies and 3 prime lenses will still not be as tiring as the D700 and the new 24-85 lens.

Olympus also has the most intriguing lens hack that I’ve seen in a while. They will sell you a slightly wide angle lens that is fixed at F8, has 2 focus stops and is the size of a body cap. This is brilliant for happy snaps in any kind of daylight. Check it out:


The body handles fairly well. My only real complaints are that the buttons on the left side of the body for Play and Delete are too small and are hard to press because they sit behind the stupid foldy screen. It would also be nice if Olympus implemented the “hit delete twice to delete” a picture. As it is you have to hit the tiny delete button then reach over to the other size of the camera to tell it you really mean it. Maybe this will make me chimp less.

The menu system for this camera is completely non-sensical. To make up for it the documentation for the menu system is the worst I’ve ever read. Luckily, there are only six or seven things you need to set and then you can generally just leave the camera alone. Still

One of the things I usually set on my Nikon is the “use the big button on the back of the camera to focus” setting. This lets you separate focus tracking from the shutter button, which is handy for focusing on something and then moving it around in the composition. Even if you can figure out how to make the E-PL5 do this (which you can, you just need to read this table for a couple of hours), the button on the back of the camera is too small to use for this purpose anyway.

Since continuous focus isn’t really usable on these cameras, I decided to just punt, and I’m happier for it.

The screen on the back is in a 16:9 aspect ratio, which is great except for the millions of people who will want to take 4:3 or 3:2 stills with this thing. For them the screen is mostly filled with useless black space. This is not the end of the world, but it’s sort of too bad.

The body-based image stabilizer gets a lot of hype. It seems to work OK for short lenses but is completely useless for telephoto lenses. The one in the E-M5 is supposed to be better.

The only other handling issue I’ve had is that all the rings are backwards from Nikon. So for example, to remove a lens you turn it the opposite way from what I’m used to. Boo. Dear camera companies: go back in time and make all your stuff turn the same way. Jesus.

Oh. So far my favorite handling issue is that the camera uses SD cards. I was really tired of those stupid CF cards and their readers. Yay.

Finally, the pictures are good. Pixel level sharpness is not as good as the D700, and neither is noise performance especially up around ISO 3200. But it’s certainly within the expected range of 1 to 2 stops worse. Since I’m likely to use faster lenses on the thing this is a wash. Here is an example:


Yes I could buy faster lenses for the Nikon, but they are all bigger and weigh more. The new Nikon 85/1.8 weighs three times as much as the Olympus 45/1.8 for the same FOV. This means that the lens by itself weighs more than the entire camera+lens combo. Only you can decide if this weight is worth the extra stop of high ISO (and marginally smaller depth of field).

For me the latest 4/3rds mirrorless cameras finally fulfill the promise of the small, fast, high quality digital camera that I’ve been asking for for five years. The only thing that is missing is the optical viewfinder, but that’s not a deal breaker for me.

Note on the Nikon AF/VR bug

This is simple and stupid. With the new VR lens I bought (I don’t remember having this problem with my other VR lens) if you focus from the back of the camera and then stab at the shutter to take a picture you will always get motion blur. “But this makes no sense!” you might say, “The whole point of the VR is to get rid of the shakes!”. Well, what happens is this. Hitting the focus button does not engage the VR. Hitting the shutter button later does engage the VR but it takes 1/2 a second or so to stabilize. So if you pop the picture right then the lens is still moving the image around, and you get crap. I must have shot for three days in Hong Kong before I realized that the camera was fucking me this way.

As I said, I never notice this behavior with my VR telephoto lens. So who knows. But the upshot is that if you want to shoot with VR on, move focus to the shutter button.