Rethinking cameras

posted by Jeff | Sunday, July 17, 2016, 11:05 PM | comments: 0

I've sunk a lot of money into Canon camera gear over the last dozen years or so. Well, technically I did before that as well, but it was for film gear, and the lenses I had then I have long since sold. But way back in the summer of 2002, I bought the D60 body, an "affordable" DSLR for the masses, and I was hooked. I traded up after that to a 10D (higher sensitivity), and eventually I scored a 5D, full-frame, in 2008. Along the way, I picked up some nice mid-range "L" lenses, including the 24-105mm f/4, 17-40mm f/4 and 70-200mm f/4. I also have a wonderful 50mm f/1.4. In 2009 I also bought a second body, a 7D, because it could record video.

The great news is that these things are still awesome, and unlike most technology, aren't really at risk of being obsolete. Sure, you can get more pixels, more stops, but these things get it done in most every situation. I even discovered last February that I could shoot portrait stuff if I really try. I've always liked photography, since my dad put his classic Nikon F (as in, no number designation) in my hands in 1990 so I could shoot for yearbook. It's a hobby that I often come back to, then forget, then go back to again.

But the honest truth is that sometimes I don't want to be the photographer, and I really don't want to carry the gear around on vacation. I thought a lot about this leading up to our Alaska trip. Capturing moments only works if you have the camera with you, and the truth is that an SLR is big and heavy. The results are often lovely, but you've gotta carry the goods. In my mind, I used to think as I did with video cameras: If it's not on your shoulder, it's not a "real" camera. For still photography, I felt that way about SLR's.

Still, I've had a series of small Canons with fixed lenses, the last of which was a wonderfully compact S90 that I bought in 2010 right after Simon was born. It had enough manual control to satisfy my control desires, it recorded raw format files and it easily fit in my pocket. Last year it was starting to bother me a little because of a stuck pixel, but a potentially awesome compromise came up last year.

Back in 2012, when I bought my AF100 video camera, there was excitement in the fact that I could put potentially any lens on it. The mount was for micro-4/3, but with an adapter I could also put my Canon EF lenses on it (with a significant field crop, mind you). However, for more journalistic, run-and-gun situations and docs (like my Holiday World mini-doc), I needed a lens that was compact and could do a range of things. While the cost was painful, the 12-35mm f/2.8 (24-70mm SLR equivalent) Lumix lens was perfect for this. It can do beautiful, soft depth of field, and it's super sharp when you need to fill the frame with something.

As it turns out, Panasonic was making cameras that use the same mount (Olympus, too), and they had a nice, relatively compact camera that could use the same lens. Mind you, this camera body was less than half the cost of the lens, but I could use this fantastic glass on a small camera! So that's what I did. The included lens is the same focal length range, but it's not a continuous f/2.8 throughout the zoom. It's perfectly adequate in outdoor light, if you're not trying to isolate a certain depth, though it gets kind of soft in the corners with full-frame shots of stuff. So marrying this body with the good lens isn't pocket-worthy, but it's still way smaller and lighter than the equivalent with one of my SLR's.

I've taken it with me on a two cruises now, including the Alaska trip, and I love it. It works reasonably well in low light, but you do have to be a little more careful about overexposure. I've captured some great portrait style shots of my kid (and his cousins), and it looks great using the wide angle as well. They also make a 35-100mm f/2.8 (70-200mm SLR equivalent), but I'm trying to resist buying that because it's a expensive and I don't think I'd use it enough.

You don't get something for nothing with the smaller camera, in terms of noise and such, but the idea that you could get image quality this good just a few years ago was not obvious. Unfortunately, history is repeating itself, so while micro-4/3 is a lens mount shared by a few manufacturers, Canon and Nikon are of course doing their own thing. I had the lens anyway, so this camera, which unfortunately they stopped making already, was a pretty good move. Physically bigger cameras aren't always necessary.


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