Three New Quality Cameras for Spring

‘Tis the season for some new $500+ plus cameras, one from Sony, one from Panasonic, and, at about twice the price, one rumored for upcoming release from Olympus.

Panasonic LF1kPanasonic’s newcomer DMC-FL1 is sleek, black, and conveniently sized. It  comes with a 7x optical zoom and a fast 2.0 lens (at the widest angle setting). The 12 megapixel camera includes a built-in EVF (electronic viewfinder), a far better way to compose images than the LED panel found at the back of every digital camera. It’s the kind of camera that any serious photographer ought to keep in a pocket or shoulder bag, and, for convenience, it’s possible to use WiFi to export images.

For a more detailed rundown, click on the picture of the camera and read the Digital Photography Review preview of the camera.

Once again, Digital Photography Review is the best source of info about new cameras. Click on the photo to read their feature on the Sony HX50V.

Once again, Digital Photography Review is the best source of info about new cameras. Click on the photo to read their feature on the Sony HX50V.

For the same price, Sony’s newest entry in this category, model HX5oV includes a 30x digital zoom–an idea that I’ve never loved because I’d rather the camera do the optical work and that the digital magnification be done on the computer, where greater control is possible.  This camera records JPG images, but not RAW images. Taken together, the digital zoom and the lack of RAW images suggest that this camera is intended for a more of an amateur photographer who simply wants to shoot handsome images without spending much time perfecting them on a computer.

There is no electronic viewfinder, another indication of its super-amateur status. Still, this is a 20 megapixel camera that includes both WiFi image transfer and GPS. And, there’s image stabilization. On the downside, you can’t record RAW images with this camera, only JPG.

Both cameras offer some level of exposure control, and both shoot HD video. On just about any sort of a journey, either camera would be a superior companion.

Olympus_ep5_zps5b4bee21As for my personal choice, I remain a big fan of Olympus interchange lens cameras in the micro-four thirds format, and for the next month or two, the buzz in that world will be about the upcoming EP-5. It’s a retro design reminiscent of the much-loved Olympus PEN film cameras, and an update of the popular EP-3. If the rumors are accurate (and we’ll know that within the next two weeks), this will be a 16MP version with the same sensor found in Olympus’s equally well-regarded EM-5. No electronic viewfinder included as part of this model, but a new add-on viewfinder is, apparently, coming, too. Here, my favorite source of things to come is 43 Rumors (the 43 refers to the micro four thirds format, an image sensor size that’s generally now fairly common for cameras in the $500-$1,000 range). For more, and for updates on these intriguing rumors, click on the Olympus EP-5 camera from the 43 Rumors site.

Easy-to-Use Audio Studio-to-Go

The Zoom H4n has become one of my favorite tools, but most people have never heard of it, or seen it, or even know that such a thing exists.

Zoom makes portable audio recorders–pocket sized recording studios about the size of Sony’s original Walkman, but so much more versatile. This is the ideal companion for a digital camera or camcorder–with far better sound, and far more control over the recording process. It’s ideal for recording of music rehearsals, recitals, and performances. It’s handy for audio interviews, and for the recording of meetings. With proper cabling and a phono pre-amp, you can digitize your vinyl LPs. It’s a useful four track audio recorder, so you can use it to make a record. And, of course, you can use it to listen to music, speeches, podcasts, any audio recording with remarkable fidelity because everything is digital.

Let’s take it from the top…and the bottom.

On top, there is an X-Y (crisscrossed) pair of small microphones. The quality is good, the sound is clean, and they can each be adjusted to cover either a 90-degree pickup area (for more intimate situations or to reduce unwanted noise), or a 120-pickup pattern (to pick up a wider area). Or, plug one or two professional microphones into the bottom (1/4 inch phono plugs or XLR connectors). Or, plug an 1/8 inch mini stereo cable into the mic jack on the back). Control the input level by watching digital VU meter on the small golden screen (backlit when necessary) and adjusting the rocker switch with one finger during the record session.

Here’s a closer look at the screen. No, it’s not iPhone quality, but yes, it’s functional. Time code runs on top, file number next, then sound levels. Buttons below allow track selection, and in another mode, allow selection of files and formats. Buttons are small, screen is small, but everything works fine in the field.

You can choose to record in either .wav (high quality) or .mp3 (low quality, but smaller file sizes) at various sample rates. In multitrack mode, you can record on each of up to four tracks, or play back on up to three of them. Buttons are small, but overdubbing is within the capabilities of this little machine, and that’s useful if you are recording your own tracks for a music demo, for example, because you can listen to your primary vocal while laying down a harmony track, for example, or listen to the drum track while playing your saxophone).

For more sophisticated work–and an easier time–use the Zoom H4n as the interface between, say, your microphones and a more robust Digital Audio Workstation (such as Logic Pro, Garage Band and Samplitude), but, sadly, not ProTools, which requires only M-Audio devices.

Need a metronome or a guitar tuner? They’re built-in, too.

You will record on an SD card. Power comes from either an AC cable or handy AA batteries. You can plug the Zoom H4n into your computer via a USB micro connector. If you need more battery time, flip into “stamina mode” which shuts down some features and dramatically increases recording time (6 hours in normal mode, 11 in stamina mode).

 The Zoom H4n is all so well thought out! I wish every product was as thoughtfully designed!

Recently, I used the Zoom to record audio interviews while recording video interviews on the Olympus PEN EP-3 digital (still) camera. I placed the Zoom just out of frame, and later, in editing, matched the audio track from the Zoom with the EP-3′s video and audio tracks (once synchronized, the Olympus audio track was muted, and subsequently, replaced). Under the right circumstances, this is a better solution than a wired external microphone or a finicky wireless microphone. What’s more, the Zoom provides broadcast-quality results. The sound quality is fabulous. And because the Zoom is small, it fits into my small shoulder bag alongside the small micro four thirds Olympus PEN EP-3. This is a complete HD quality remote shooting rig that I can easily carry in a shoulder bag with plenty of available space for an iPad, wallet, cell phone, ear buds, and (much) more. Add a 32GB SD card, and I can carry hundreds of record albums with me, just in case I feel like listening, not recording.

There is so much more. If you’re intrigued, simply download the instruction manual.

The Zoom H4n price: under $300. And, for $199, you can enjoy a similar device with reduced features with an H2n (seems less sturdy to me, though). And if that’s still too much, Zoom offers a $99 alternative, model H1.

A Quality Camera You Won’t Leave at Home (2 of 4)

I took this picture with an Olympus PEN camera because it was small enough to tote on a day in NYC. I left my bigger camera at home. Somehow, I always do.

For most photographers trained in the 20th century, the universal standard was 35mm film. The size of the negative: about 35mm wide, and about 24mm high, or, about 1 inch by 1.4 inches. Serious professional photographers preferred larger negatives, and the 120 film format remained (and remains) popular: here, the negative is 2 1/4 inches square, or wider, several times larger than the 35mm film popular with consumers. Larger negatives offer superior image quality, but they also require larger and more costly cameras and lenses.

Digital Image Sensors

So film is old-school, Kodak is gasping for survival, and everyone’s shooting snapshots with their iPhones using a 5 megapixel sensor that’s the size of a your smallest fingernail. And, for most purposes, including posting pictures on Facebook and printing snapshots, the image quality is adequate–as long as you’re shooting in place that has enough light, and not too much contrast.

What’s a sensor? It’s a flat surface filled with a great many small light-sensitive receptors. There are two popular designs: CMOS and CCD. The difference between them is complicated, and explained here.

ISO and Sensitivity

In the film days, 400 ISO (or, if you’re older, ASA) film was four times as sensitive as 100 ISO film. In other words, using 400 ISO film instead of 100 ISO film offered benefits similar to using a lens with a large maximum aperture, perhaps an f/1.4 lens in place of an f3.6 lens.

The comparison is not a perfect one, though. Increased sensitivity often comes with increased grain, reduced detail, and lesser color quality / color clarity. Cameras that cost more than a few hundred dollars are fine up to about 800 ISO, but then, the image degrades. Newer sensors do a far better job in the 800, 1600 and even 3200 ISO range than older models. This is the push: buy a camera with better “low light sensitivity”–that is, with improved image rendition in the higher ISO ranges–and your 2012-vintage 16 MP camera will produce better images than my 2010-vintage 12 MP camera with its ancient two-year-old sensor design.

Megapixels and Sensor Size

Although camera marketers have latched onto megapixels as a way to justify different camera prices (a 10 MP camera costs more than a 5 MP camera), the number of megapixels on the image sensor should not guide you, at least not from the start.

Instead, focus on the size of the sensor. A “full-frame” sensor is the size of 35mm film–and requires a large, professional-quality body and accompanying lenses. For example the new Canon EOS 5D Mark III is a $3,500 camera that weighs about two pounds and occupies about 90 cubic inches, without a lens.

By comparison, an Olympus E-P3 uses a micro four thirds sensor that’s about 40% of the size, but it costs less than $1,000, weighs 11 ounces, and occupies less than 20 cubic inches, also without a lens.

In the real world of my life, I will not carry five pounds of camera, lenses and accessories with me everywhere, but I will carry a pound. If the image quality is acceptable.

Nikon, Sony, Fuji, and the Rest

In fact, several different sensor designs are becoming popular.

You’ve probably seen commercials and print ads for the Nikon 1 system, for example. It’s based upon a CX sensor format that’s about a quarter of the full 35mm frame. Image quality is good–and with the small sensor, Nikon has been able to manufacture small bodies (as small as reasonable ergonomics allow), and small lenses.

Sony’s small system is called the NEX, and they’ve already been through several generations their APC-S sensor system. The sensor size is somewhat larger than the micro four thirds standard, but somehow, this has resulted in an awkward combination of slightly larger lenses and slightly smaller bodies. The standard zoom, priced at $299, weighs about 7 ounces, but it’s about 2 1/2 inches wide and tall. This is a reasonable size for the lens, but the body is about 25% too small to balance the whole contraption. Fact is, APC-S requires a slightly larger body–16 cubic inches isn’t enough. Samsung, with its NX200, offers a seemingly more bulky body for an APS-C sensor, but, alas, there is no APC-S collective for that format, so Sony lenses are not compatible with Samsung lenses.

Fuji’s upcoming X-Pro 1 also uses a proprietary APS-C sensor for a wonderful new interchangeable lens system, but again, the larger sensor is associated with serious weight – the camera weighs a pound, occupies nearly 30 cubic inches without a lens, and operates (at a very high level) with (for now) just three proprietary lenses.

Panasonic and Olympus

Neither Panasonic nor Olympus are among the very largest camera makers, but they have benefitted from working together. By year end, there will be about 18 lenses in their micro four thirds format, each of them fully operable with significant advances in their micro four thirds sensor technology.

In fact, Olympus got off to a very good start with its earliest PEN cameras. Early on, the company’s engineers and management understood the importance of rendering accurate flesh tones, as well as a neutral, pleasing color palette. (Fujifilm and Nikon have also excelled in this quest.) By combining this special feature with the small size made possible by the micro four thirds format, PEN cameras quickly became a popular choice for serious photographers.

At this moment in 2012, Panasonic offers an extraordinary little micro four thirds camera, the GX1 ($699) that weighs just 11 ounces, occupies less than 20 cubic inches, and offers very impressive image quality with a 16 MB sensor. It’s filled with nifty features that will be addressed in the next article). This camera’s small size and wide array of available lenses and accessories makes it very appealing.

And yet, many photographers seem to prefer the slightly older Olympus E-P3, the current top-of-the-line PEN camera. It costs more ($899), and offers only a 12MB sensor, but the images are consistently excellent. This is not due to the number of megapixels, but instead, it is due to the right combination of engineering, aesthetic decisions during the design process (incorporating both lens and sensor design), and a corporate culture (a culture that has apparently remained intact despite gargantuan financial issues at the Board level).

This moment in 2012 (I am writing on the day after St. Patrick’s Day) is about to change.  Olympus is reading its small 16 MP camera, the E-M5, and a new Panasonic GF-5 is also on its way.

The Whole Package

Of course, it’s not just the sensor and it’s not just the lenses that make a camera or camera system. It’s the overall design philosophy, most often captured in the design of the camera body. That’s what’s coming up next.

Part 1: Lens

Part 3: Body

Part 4: Video

A Quality Camera You Won’t Leave at Home (1 of 4)

It's not about cameras, it's about making pictures. And you can't make a picture if the camera is too heavy or too cumbersome to bring along with you. On a recent visit to NYC's MOMA, I took pictures of objects and paintings that I wanted to know better. With PEN in shoulder bag, I took pictures in one of the world's great museums--something I would never have done with a heavier camera because that camera would have remained at home.

For most of photography’s history, there have been two types of cameras: snapshot cameras and serious creative tools. The digital revolution has obscured the boundary line with an immense number of features and over 500 different digital camera models, but three fundamentals remain.

First, you need a good lens to take a good picture.

Second, you need a camera whose construction won’t let you down.

Third, you need the best possible surface to record the image.

For me, there’s a fourth. I need a camera that isn’t too large or too heavy for me to carry almost everywhere I go.

And for you, there may be a fifth. How good are the camera’s video capabilities?

In this article, and several to follow, I’ll look at each of the fundamentals and, hopefully, encourage you to buy the best possible camera for your unique personal needs. Much of the information in these articles will focus on a system designed by Olympus cameras, but I will cover other systems, too.

Buying a Lens

Whether a lens is bought as part of the camera (common on point-and-shoot cameras), or removable (as on DSLR cameras), your first decision is whether that lens ought to be a zoom lens.

Certainly, a zoom lens is convenient and versatile. Often, a zoom lens is inexpensive. And, more often, you simply have no choice because the camera and the lens are permanently attached to one another.

Let’s use the Olympus PEN system as our example. Each of the PEN bodies is offered with an inexpensive “kit” lens as part of a discounted package: in this case, a 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 lens. The PEN system is based upon small cameras and small lenses–an advantage we’ll discuss later on–in the land of 35mm cameras, this lens would be a 28-84mm lens, covering wide angle, normal and telephoto focal lengths. That’s useful, and typical of kit lenses. So, too, is the aperture: a lens with a 3.5-5.6 maximum aperture is not designed to shoot in dim or low light situations. This is a typical disadvantage for kit zoom lenses–and it’s a show-stopper for me. Here’s why:

Given the choice of a lens with a wide opening–designed to shoot in low light–or an accessory flash that adds bulk, requires batteries, and smoothly illuminates only a limited area–I’ll choose the lens every time.

And, I’ll make it a prime lens, not a zoom. Why?

Three reasons. First, I must think about the image, my position, the framing, the composition, and the appropriate tool to create the image. Second, the maximum aperture is likely to be larger. Third, the image quality is likely to be better: sharper, clearer, with better color rendition and far less distortion.

So let’s have a look at some Olympus PEN lenses. There are eleven in the current product line, with several more coming this spring, and there is full compatibility with a dozen more in the Panasonic catalog, all related to a new-ish photographic standard called Micro Four Thirds that will be explained later in these posts.

Remember: the kit lens is 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 lens, and if you bought it outside of the kit, it would cost $299. Instead, I would buy one wide angle and one telephoto lens.

The subject was 164 meters away from me. The image was shot with a short telephoto lens (see below), the Olympus 45mm (a 90mm equivalent).

Although the image is not absolutely perfect, I was impressed by the detail on the horse blanket, the horse's muscles, the water falling off the hoof, and the overall clarity of the color. Remember: this was shot from quite a distance. This is a crop from the above photo. Yes, there's a bit of fringe distortion around the yellow, but remember you're looking at an enlargement of over 500%--the equivalent of a 4x6 inch print blown up to 20x 30 inches. Not perfect, but impressive.

Short Telephoto

The Olympus 45mm lens for micro four thirds is only about 2 inches wide and high.

Instead, I would spend a little more for OIympus’s 45mm 1.8 lens, a 90mm equivalent designed for portraits (a shorter lens distorts facial features), and to pull in landscapes that are a bit far off. It costs $399.

I’ve read a lot of test reports about this lens (you should, too, before you buy any lens). This one is typical.

 The Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 45mm f/1.8 is a lens that makes sense because it’s small, useful, and excellent. The important center resolution is already on a very good level straight from wide open aperture and only the corners are somewhat softer here. The quality is very high across the image field when stopping down to f/4. Vignetting, lateral chromatic aberrations as well as distortions are all well controlled and not relevant in field conditions.

Short Wide Angle

I’ve been using OIympus 17mm f/2.8 wide angle lens quite successfully, and, generally, I find it to be excellent. In doing my research, I’ve found web reviews with grades in the B or B- range. Panasonic’s 20mm f/1.7 may be a better choice but it costs a bit more and it’s closer to a normal lens (50mm lens in 35mm camera lingo) than a wide angle. The Olympus 17mm lens costs $299, and the Panasonic 20mm lens costs $399. Both are “pancake” lenses–less than an inch thick. In fact, the Olympus 45mm lens is less than 2 inches thick.

Shorter, and Longer

Here's an E-P3 with a longer zoom lens--it maxes out at 150mm, or, in 35mm lingo, 300mm (long enough for wildlife, not long enough for baseball).

For most people–that is, most people who are serious about photography–these two lenses will serve just about any purpose. You can go wider with Olympus’s 12mm 2.0 lens, but it costs $799. You cannot go deeper with a prime lens; instead, you’ll need either Olympus’s remarkable 75-300 f/4.8-6.7 for $899, and if you do, you’ll be thankful for the PEN system’s built-in image stabilization feature, again discussed later on. Take a moment here: that’s a lens that, in 35mm terms, gets up to 600mm, remarkable reach for a lens that weighs less than a pound and is less than 5 inches long. Here are some sample images.

Speed and Weight

At the risk of repeating myself, I consider speed and weight to be critical factors for my lenses.

Speed matters–that is, the largest available aperture matters–because I can shoot in a wider range of lighting situations with a faster lens. I much prefer a 1.8 lens to a 3.5 lens because a 1.8 lens allows me to shoot with HALF as much available light (3.5 divided by 1.8 is, roughly, 2).

Weight matters, and so does size. I’m not a professional photographer, but I do like to carry a camera with me. Olympus’s 45mm lens weighs 116 grams, or about 4 ounces, and their 17mm weighs 71 grams, or about 2.5 ounces. For less than 7 ounces, I’m carrying a relatively complete photographic kit, one that offers high quality images, solid and reliable design, and almost no strain on my shoulder or neck. In theory and in practice, this turns out to be a very good idea.

Other Options

As we’ll explore in the next post, the Olympus-Panasonic effort in micro four thirds technology is paralleled in a Sony system called NEX, a Nikon system called Nikon 1, Fuji with its X system, and several others. Each is based upon a particular image sensor design, and that begins our next chapter, which covers not body design (as you might expect) but instead, the 21st century equivalent of photographic film. Stay tuned.


Part 2:  Sensor

Part 3: Body

Part 4: Video


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