Serious compact cameras

(This is one in a series of articles which covers a review of my equipment and detailed analysis of new equipment I’m adding to my camera bag. You can read the complete series through the tag newcam2011.)

The search for new camera equipment has taken in a wide range of potential new kit, from the lens I wrote about recently to a new flashgun and the potential decision to spend more time shooting with film cameras. In my search for new equipment, I have spent a lot of time researching and cross-checking compact cameras: the best of which would potentially be added to my kit as an alternative for when I want to shoot unobtrusively or when I don’t want to take my full-sized SLR with me.

As I wrote at the beginning of this series of articles, two of the main reasons I have for considering new camera equipment are that I want to improve my street photography, and gain better quality in low-light situations. The former led me to consider options for a more compact camera and my first thought was naturally for the brand which Henri Cartier-Bresson – the father of street photography – favoured: the Leica. Sadly, neither of the options for a modern Leica are feasible, as the newest digital M9 camera costs around Fr. 7,000 for the body alone; on top of this price is the cost of each lens, which also very high indeed. Even the consideration of a film-based Leica M was quickly out of the picture, as the same lens costs are involved and the issues which I wrote about in my previous film vs. digital article still apply. (I hasten to add that if I suddenly have Fr. 10,000 to spend on a new camera without consideration, my feet won’t touch the ground on the way to the Leica store!)

The Fuji X100

So; what was I looking for? A digital rangefinder camera with affordable interchangeable lenses and a raw digital image size upwards of 12 megapixels. In classic style, yet modern enough to ensure that the most recent technology was included. My first thoughts had been teased by the upcoming Fujifilm FinePix X100: a truly beautiful rangefinder camera and not too much different in outward style to my Olympus 35 RC; again, a film camera which I love the look and feel of. In truth, I realised when I saw this new Fuji advertised that it represented what I had been searching for; a modern digital version of the Olympus.

As in most cases when new products are launched, there are always negative aspects which mean that hopes of finding that perfect camera are dashed. In the case of the X100, it wasn’t the price: recently announced as $1,200 in the U.S. and likely to cost more than that in Europe, it’s certainly not a cheap compact. The problem is the fixed, moderate wide-angle lens; the equivalent of 35mm on a full frame SLR. All of the remaining technical specifications of the X100 meet the requirements I’d set out, but the fact that there’s no option to change to a wider angle or to a standard 50mm lens means that for me, there’s a big question mark next to the camera in my list. It’s probably the best looking digital camera I’ve seen, with a range of superb technical features such as the hybrid viewfinder, and even the finesse of shutter click sells the camera to me. (Watch the promotional video on the X100 website to hear what I mean.) The financial restraints I placed upon myself at the start of my search mean that for now, though, this camera isn’t yet a done deal.

Micro Four Thirds cameras

Once I’d reviewed the X100 amongst my list of potential new cameras, my search continued in the area of the new set of “Micro Four Thirds” cameras. These are effectively souped-up compact cameras, which have much larger sensors than the ones usually sold to amateur snappers in the highstreet stores and also allow the photographer to swap lenses. That said, the sensor size is still 50% smaller than the full frame SLR and so one must take this into account when considering low-light performance and lens choice. (For example, a “pancake” 17mm lens on these cameras equates to a 34mm lens on a full-frame SLR.) Update: It’s also worth noting that the resultant image is in the squarer 4:3 ratio, rather than the 3:2 format produced by 35mm film and digital SLR cameras.

The most well-known of the “Micro Four Thirds” cameras is the Olympus PEN series – the digital re-working of a great series of fixed-lens cameras between 1959 and 1980 – which had a high profile advertising campaign featuring Kevin Spacey when it was launched, speaking to the no-fuss serious amateur.

This was one of the things which most spoke to me when I considered using an alternative for street photography; being able to have a high quality camera with me which didn’t need to be big and clunky, but yet still felt like a “proper camera”. I bought a lightweight point-and-shoot camera back in 2007 and just didn’t get on with it at all: using it made me unsure of myself, and I just couldn’t get used to composing shots using the screen instead of a viewfinder. I read a fair bit about the leading high-end compact cameras and despite some disparaging comments – particularly in this CNET article, which made me hesitate – I whittled down a potential selection to two cameras: the Olympus PEN and the Panasonic Lumix GF1. These are the market leaders for interchangeable lens compact cameras and as such, both matched my requirements for such a camera; in comparing the PEN and the GF1 (without the opportunity to actually take either for a “test drive”), I couldn’t ascertain any noticeable difference between the two from playing with them in the camera shops, and the technical specs (PEN, GF1) seem all but identical. Of the two, the GF1 is my preference for purely aesthetic reasons: I just like the matte finish and feel slightly more than the PEN. If opting for an Olympus PEN, the E-PL1 would be my choice over the EP1 and EP2, due to the fact that it has a built-in flash (which was omitted from the other two models).

The professional touch

The only negative point to these cameras proved to be what made some users give these cameras the sarcastic moniker EVIL: the Electronic Viewfinder. This additional “accessory” – in itself an expensive addition to the camera – connects to the camera via the flash hotshoe and allows the photographer to use the camera at eye level, without resorting to the rear LCD screen and therefore making the camera feel a little more professional. During research for the cameras, I came across the following photo by Flickr user Nokton which shows the camera in a configuration which I’d been looking for; in this case with a non-standard, manual focus Summilux lens.)

The advantages of shooting using this additional viewfinder mean that it equates to the feeling of a “proper” rangefinder camera (such as the Leica or X100 mentioned above), however the reality of the digital screen in the viewfinder actually equates more to the feeling of using a video camera eyepiece; the digital viewfinder doesn’t capture the scene with sufficiently precise detail for me. On the positive side, the electronic viewfinder is made so as to allow the parallel use of zoom lenses, keeping the viewfinder view the same as the scene seen through the lens. Alternative glass viewfinders are pretty expensive but I have to say that for the serious or professional user, who is familiar with using cameras in manual mode, they may be the better option. For obvious reasons, though, these fixed focal length glass viewfinders would be unsuitable for use with zoom lenses, and one would require a separate viewfinder for each fixed focal length. If you’re going to shoot exclusively with the 17mm or 20mm fixed lenses, though, the equivalent Lumix glass viewfinder (such as the one illustrated below) or an equivalent by Voigtländer may be the better option.

In summary and in conclusion

In short, the result of this stage of my research and investigation is that there are two cameras of this type which I can consider buying to stand alongside my SLR equipment: the Fuji X100 and the Lumix GF1. However: either of these options will total between Fr. 1,000 and Fr. 1,500: although within my budget, a not inconsiderable sum. So, after a great deal of consideration and assessment of what direction my photography will be taking over the next 2-3 years, the final stage of my deliberations and research has been to review my current equipment and what I will need not just for the specific areas of candid and street photography, but also for the areas of portraiture, landscape, travel, timelapse and videography.

(This is one in a series of articles which covers a review of my equipment and detailed analysis of new equipment I’m adding to my camera bag. You can read the complete series through the tag newcam2011.)

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