A Look at a Compact System Camera

During August, I acquired an Olympus Pen E-PL5 and it is an item to which I still am becoming accustomed and it looks as if that is set to continue. The main reason that it appealed to me was the idea of having a camera with much of the functionality of an SLR but with many of the dimensions of a compact camera. In that way, it was a step up from my Canon PowerShot G11 without carrying around something that was too bulky.

Olympus Pen E-PL5

Before I settled on the E-PL5, I had been looking at Canon’s EOS M and got to hear about its sluggish autofocus. That it had no mode dial on its top plate was another consideration though it does pack in an APS-C sized sensor (with Canon’s tendency to overexpose finding a little favour with me too on inspection of images from an well aged Canon EOS 10D) at a not so unappealing price of around £399. A sighting of a group of it and similar cameras in Practical Photography was enough to land that particular issue into my possession and they liked the similarly priced Olympus Pen E-PM2 more than the Canon. Though it was a Panasonic that won top honours in that test, I was intrigued enough by the Olympus option that I had a further look. Unlike the E-PM2 and the EOS M, the E-PL5 does have a mode dial on its top plate and an extra grip so that got my vote even it meant paying a little extra for it. There was a time when Olympus Pen models attracted my attention before now due to sale prices but this investment goes beyond that opportunism.

The E-PL5 comes in three colours: black, silver and white. Though I have a tendency to go for black when buying cameras, it was the silver option that took my fancy this time around for the sake of a spot of variety. The body itself is a very compact affair so it is the lens that takes up the most of the bulk. The standard 14-42 mm zoom ensures that this is not a camera for a shirt pocket and I got a black Lowepro Apex 100 AW case for it; the case fits snugly around the camera, so much so that I was left wondering if I should have gone for a bigger one but it’s been working out fine anyway. The other accessory that I added was a 37 mm Hoya HMC UV filter so that the lens doesn’t get too knocked about while I have the camera with me on an outing of one sort or another, especially when its plastic construction protrudes a lot further than I was expecting and doesn’t retract fully into its housing like some Sigma lenses that I use.

When I first gave the camera a test run, I had to work out how best to hold it. After all, the powered zoom and autofocus on my Canon PowerShot G11 made that camera more intuitive to hold and it has been similar for any SLR that I have used. Having to work a zoom lens while holding a dinky body was fiddly at first until I worked out how to use my right thumb to keep the body steady (the thumb grip on the back of the camera is curved to hold a thumb in a vertical position) while the left hand adjusted the lens freely. Having an electronic viewfinder instead of using the screen would have made life a little easier but they are not cheap and I already had spent enough money.

The next task after working out how to hold the camera was to acclimatise myself to the exposure characteristics of the camera. In my experience so far, it appears to err on the side of overexposure. Because I had set it to store images as raw (ORF) files, this could be sorted later but I prefer to have a greater sense of control while at the photo capture stage. Until now, I have not found a spot or partial metering button like what I would have on an SLR or my G11. That has meant either using exposure compensation to go along with my preferred choice of aperture priority mode or go with fully manual exposure. Other modes are available and they should be familiar to any SLR user (shutter priority, program, automatic, etc.). Currently, I am using bracketing while finding my feet after setting the ISO setting to 400, increasing the brightness of the screen and adding histograms to the playback views. With my hold on the camera growing more secure, using the dial to change exposure settings such as aperture (f/16 remains a favourite of mine in spite what others may think given the size of a micro four thirds sensor) and compensation while keeping the scene exactly the same to test out what the response to any changes might be.

While I still am finding my feet, I am seeing some pleasing results so far that encourage me to keep going; some remind me of my Pentax K10D. The E-PL5 certainly is slower to use than the G11 but that often can be a good thing when it comes to photography. That it forces a little relaxation in this often hectic world is another advantage. The G11 is having a quieter time at the moment and any episodes of sunshine offer useful opportunities for further experimentation and acclimatisation too. So far, my entry in the world of compact system cameras has revealed them to be of a very different form to those of compact fixed lens cameras or SLR’s. Neither truly get replaced and another type of camera has emerged.

A tendency for overexposure?

A recent trip to Sweden saw my Canon PowerShot G11 being put to rather more use than was expected. If I had known what might have been coming my way, I may even have eschewed the principle of lightweight packing to bring along my Pentax DSLR. Nevertheless, the little Canon did what ever was asked of it when light was plentiful.

Once thing that I have noticed in comparison with the Pentax is the Canon’s tendency to overexpose a scene. To a point, this can be explained by the former having proper spot-metering and the latter having the less specific partial metering. In fact, that might explain why a Canon EOS 10D SLR in my possession has the same tendency. Maybe it’s time to make more use of the Sekonic light meter that I have but that adds bulk that doesn’t fit in with the idea of carrying a compact camera around with you.

That leaves getting more practice with exposure corrections at processing time (I do capture all my photos in raw format). Going further, I am finding that the same consideration appears to apply to image sharpening too. It’s almost as if you need to develop a feeling for the results produced by a camera before satisfaction with any acquired photos will follow. Having decent lighting at capture time and not having muck on the sensor helps too as I have discovered with the photos made used my Pentax K10D on a recent visit to Arran and Argyll. The state of the sensor needs sorting (even if it has an anti-dust system on board) but I sometimes wonder if my judgement of lighting is what it used to be or whether my aspirations have gone too high. Maybe I need to slow down a little so as to set aside time for working on getting better results and with the right light, a quantity that should come with autumn and winter. In the meantime, I’ll stick with making the best of the British summer.

A new acquisition

Back in the early days of this blog, I mulled over the idea of having a high-end digital compact camera to complement a DSLR that then was delivering very dusty images; that Canon EOS 10D was cleaned since then and comes in for occasional use to this day. That was nearly three years ago and a first generation Ricoh GR Digital was the item that then was catching my eye. At the time, I failed to justify spending that much money on such a thing and ended up acquiring a new Pentax K10D DSLR instead. The question that rattled about my head was this: what was the point of spending DSLR money on a compact camera? Its one that never really went away and comes to mind when you see the prices of interchangeable lens compacts like Olympus’ Pen and equivalent offerings from Panasonic and Ricoh (there, it’s interchangeable lens units rather than actual lenses).

The strongest counterpoint to the cost conundrum is the little matter of size. SLR (film or digital) cameras are sizeable things and there is a place for having something that drops into a pocket. It is that which has propelled me into taking delivery of a Canon PowerShot G11. It may need a good-sized pocket but, unless you are going out with no jacket, it shouldn’t be a problem most of the time. For those shorter sorties when I don’t fancy bringing an SLR out, it well-built and looks the business though some acclimatisation is in order to make the best of the knobs, buttons and menus. Nevertheless, the included manual will help with this process (there’s a paper quick start guide and more detailed documentation on CD).

Canon PowerShot G11

The camera hasn’t seen extensive use just yet so here are a few early impressions. Firstly, there’s the matter of size: it’s even smaller than the first camera that I ever bought (more than fifteen years ago) and that was a Ricoh 35 mm compact film camera. That comparison is even more striking when you consider the feature sets. The Ricoh was a fixed 35 mm lens affair with things like date and time stamping, ISO choice and a nod towards scenic mode selection. In contrast, the much newer Canon is loaded with the sorts of things that normally are found almost exclusively on SLR’s, starting with its effective 28-140 mm focal length range.

Exposure modes such as manual, aperture priority and shutter priority complement scene-based modes and another for movies (not a concern of mine, it has to be said). As if that weren’t enough, there’s exposure compensation too. It came as a surprise to me to find a form of manual focussing included though it is not as convenient as turning a focussing ring on a lens. You can see the inbuilt flash above but there’s also a hotshoe and a place to attach a tripod too. Settings like white balance and file format are accessed using the Function/Set button with the lever underneath the shutter release button controlling the focal length of the lens. In addition, there’s also image stabilisation and that’s important when you’re using live view to compose a photo. Spot metering and focal point selection are other things that find their way into the package. Some may be excited by other things but exposure and focussing are essential for any photographic efforts.

An optical viewfinder is included and it has dioptre settings too but my first impressions are that live view though the rear screen trumps it and I see no need for such things on SLR’s. That also flips out from the camera body and can be rotated either for self-portraiture or for folding back in on the camera body for use like a non-articulated screen. Another use is with those occasions when the subject means holding the camera in positions that would be impossible with a conventional screen; holding the camera over your head or down low on the ground are the sorts of situations that come to mind.

Of course, there’s more there than those features that I have listed and the specifications on the Canon website are as good a place to start as any. So far, my only testing has been of the cursory checks variety and to make sure that the thing works properly. Still, this has given me more of a feel for the camera and how it operates. As you’d expect, high ISO settings are noisy but a bigger surprise was that the smallest aperture setting is f/8. Being used to SLR’s, I was expecting to get f/16 and its like on there but a spot of internet investigation showed that I should have been taking the size of the sensor into account with my expectations. Any trials so far have been in dull weather so I’d need to use it in a wider variety of conditions before giving it the sort of wider appraisal that you’d find in the likes Outdoor Photography (who liked it, it has to be said). For what it’s worth, I have found no major criticism so far though I cannot see it usurping my SLR’s but that never was the intention anyway.

Temptations, temptations…

Pentax K-7

The last time that I went out and bought a new camera was over two years ago and I am minded not to make another purchase for a while. Apart from damage to the battery cover arising from a fall, my Pentax K10D has survived so far without a problem and I admit to being satisfied with the photos that it makes. Following a professional sensor clean, my Canon EOS 10D has been pressed into service over the past few months too. In the meantime, 6 and 10 megapixel sensors generate nowhere near the attention that might have been case a few years back but that’s by the by. In fact, the megapixel race seems to have stalled with features like video being added to stills cameras over the last year and live screens coming to prominence also. Neither would make me rush out to buy a new DSLR anyway, perhaps because having things the old way suits me just fine and megapixel counts never ever moved me in the first place either.

That’s never to say that the likes of Pentax’s K-7 or Canon’s EOS 50D and 5D Mark II don’t capture my attention with their promises of better quality. However, with things the way that they are in the world, I am more likely to hold onto my cash or maybe invest in new photo processing software for making the most of what I already have. Ideas for photography projects creep into my head when I get to looking over my online photo gallery and realise that not have my tastes changed but my photographic eye has developed too. That seeing of things in a new light may mean that old subjects get revisited and I don’t need a new camera to do that.

Olympus E-P1

High end compact cameras such as Canon’s G11 and Ricoh’s GR Digital III do detain attention for a while but a quick look at their prices proves that you really got to need the portability and I never can justify the outlay when a DSLR will do all that I want from it, and perhaps even for less money. While I admit to pondering the purchase of a GR Digital to cover for the EOS 10D while it was away for cleaning, the Pentax came to be acquired when I realised that the versatility of a DSLR was too much to lose, even for a while. Olympus’ E-P1 may have bridged the gap but the old question of going miniature for the price of a full sized article recurs.

All in all, I am going to stick with what I have right now. We are coming to a time of year when things appear more golden and that combination of lighting and colour are what really matters, not how many megapixels is in you camera sensor unless you are making large prints or supplying stock libraries. As long as my cameras continue to deliver pleasing results, I’ll stick with improving my skills and taking my time over that task, even with all the announcements of new cameras at various exhibitions and shows.

Camera tales

Anyone that has ever been on HennessyBlog will know that I enjoy walking in the countryside and that I always have a camera with me when I do. Like many digital SLR owners, I am beginning to see the tell tale spots in my photos that are caused by a dirty sensor. And it isn’t that I am always changing lenses either: I rarely remove the Sigma 18-50 mm DC zoom lens that I use with the camera. Rather than trusting myself with the cleaning (I have had a go already without much success), I am giving serious consideration to letting the professionals take care of my Canon EOS 10D, my only digital camera. I have already been quoted something of the order of £35 by a Canon service centre not far from me and am seriously considering taking them up on the offer.

Of course, sending it away to them means that I will have to forego the ability to include photos with posts on HennessyBlog describing my walks in the kind of timescale to which I have become accustomed; of course, this is where digital really scores. I will still have a camera with me as film remains my mainstay, even in this digital age. The camera in question is another Canon, an EOS 30 that I acquired used from Ffordes Photographic. While taking a recent peek at their website, I have just spied a used EOS 1V going for £399, a song for what remains Canon’s top of the range film SLR. Yes, I am tempted but I must stay real. In fact, I did not pay full price for my EOS 10D. That was part of the run-out stock that 7dayshop.com were selling off at next to half of the EOS 10D’s original asking price in the wake of its being superseded by the EOS 20D (itself since replaced by the EOS 30D: digital is a fast moving world).

Sending a camera away for attention is not new to me as I also acquired a used Minolta X-700 manual focus SLR, again obtained from Ffordes, and that needed a spot of maintenance after a year in my possession. There was a problem with the shutter that cost me £75 to get Minolta to fix. Now that Minolta as a camera maker is no more, I was wondering who would attend to it in the future. That question was answered by a recent look on the web: in the UK it is JP Service Solutions, a division of John’s Phototopia. Konica Minolta retain this information on their website. Konica Minolta’s failure to capitalise effectively on the digital revolution in its early days, particularly in the SLR area where they gifted their competitors a massive head start, cost them their future in the photographic business and now Sony continues the mantle, a sad end to one of camera manufacturing’s great innovators.

Returning to my digital-less dilemma, I suppose that I could get another digital for backup duty; I have to admit that a DSLR is a bulky contraption to be carrying in airline luggage. The camera that has made it onto my wish list is Ricoh’s GR Digital, a highly regarded offering that follows in the great tradition of its film forbears, the GR 1 and GR 21. Given that my first 35 mm camera was a Ricoh, and I have it still, this would be a case of returning to roots. Of course, having it on a wish list is very different from having it in the to do list and finances will certainly dictate whether or not the purchase is made, though a finance deal offered by Warehouse Express does make it more accessible. Maybe some day…

Ricoh GR Digital