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 display of brand loyalty

Since 2007, my main camera has been a Pentax K10D DSLR and it has gone on many journeys with me. In fact, more than 15,000 images have been captured with it and I have classed it as an unfailing servant. The autofocus may not be the fastest but my subjects tend to be stationary: landscapes, architecture, flora and transport. Even any bus and train photos have included parked vehicles rather than moving ones so there never have been issues. The hint of underexposure in any photos always can be sorted because DNG files are what I create, with all the raw capture information that is possible to retain. In fact, it has been hard to justify buying another SLR because the K10D has done so well for me.

In recent months, I have looking at processed photos and asking myself if time has moved along for what is not far from being a six year old camera. At various times, I have been looking at higher members of the Pentax while wondering if an upgrade would be a good idea. First, there was the K7 and then the K5 before the K5 II got launched. Even though its predecessor is still to be found on sale, it was the newer model that became my choice.

Pentax K5-II

My move to Pentax in 2007 was a case of brand disloyalty since I had been a Canon user from when I acquired my first SLR, an EOS 300. Even now, I still have a Powershot G11 that finds itself slipped into a pocket on many a time. Nevertheless, I find that Canon images feel a little washed out prior to post processing and that hasn’t been the case with the K10D. In fact, I have been hearing good things about Nikon cameras delivering punchy results so one of them would be a contender were it not for how well the Pentax performed.

So, what has my new K5 II body gained me that I didn’t have before? For one thing, the autofocus is a major improvement on that in the K10D. It may not stop me persevering with manual focusing for most of the time but there are occasions the option of solid autofocus is good to have. Other advances include a 16.3 megapixel sensor with a much larger ISO range. The advances in sensor technology since when the K10D appeared may give me better quality photos and noise is something that my eyes may have begun to detect in K10D photos even at my usual ISO of 400.

There have been innovations that I don’t need too. Live View is something that I use heavily with the Powershot G11 because it has such a pitiful optical viewfinder. The K5 II has a very bright and sharp one so that function lays dormant, especially when I witnessed dodgy autofocus performance with it in use; manual focusing should be OK, I reckon. By default too, the screen stays on all the time and that’s a nuisance for an optical viewfinder user like me so I looked through the manual and the menus to switch off the thing. My brief flirtation with the image level display met an end for much the same reason though it’s good that it’s there. There is some horizon auto-correction available as a feature and this is left on to see what it offers since there have been a multitude of times when I needed to sort out crooked horizons caused by my handholding the camera.

The K5 II may have a 3″ screen on its back but it has done nothing to increase the size of the camera. If anything, it is smaller that the K10D and that usefully means that I am not on the lookout for a new camera holster. Not having a bigger body also means there is little change in how the much camera feels in the hand compared with the older one.

In many ways, the K5 II works very like the K10D once I took control over settings that didn’t suit me. Both have Shake Reduction in their camera bodies though the setting has been moved into the settings menu in the new camera when the older one had a separate switch on its body. Since I’d be inclined to leave it on all the time and prefer not to have it knocked off accidentally, this is not an issue.  Otherwise, many of the various switches are in the same places so it’s not that hard to find my way around them.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other changes like the addition of a lock to the mode dial but I have used Canon EOS camera bodies with that feature so I do not consider it a step backwards. The exposure compensation button has been moved to the top of the camera where I found it very easily and have been using perhaps more than on the K10D; it’s also something that I use on the G11 so the experimentation is being brought across to the K5 II now as well. Beside it, there’s a new ISO button so further experimentation can be attempted with that to see how it does.

If I have any criticism, it’s about the clutter of the menus on the K5 II. The long lists through you scrolled on the K10D have been replaced with a series of extra tabs so that on-screen scrolling is not needed as before. However, I reckon that this breaks up things too much and makes working through the settings look more foreboding to anyone who is not so technical in mindset. Nevertheless, settings such as the the type of file to capture are there and I continue to use RAW DNG files as is usual for me though JPEG and Pentax’s own RAW format also are there. For a while, I forgot to set the date, soon found out what I did and the situation was remedied. The same sort of thing applied to storing files in different folders according to the capture date. For my own reasons, I turned this off to put everything into a single PENTX directory to suit my own workflow. My latest discovery among the menus was the ability to add photographer and copyright holder information to the EXIF metadata attached to the image files created by the camera. With legislative proposals that dilute the automatic rights of copyright holders going through the U.K. parliament, this seems a very timely inclusion even if most would prefer that there was no change to copyright law.

Of course, the worth of any camera is in the images that it produces and I have been happy with what I have been getting so far. The bigger files mean less images fit on a memory card as before. Thankfully, SDHC card capacities have grown even if I don’t wish to machine gun my photography altogether. While out and about, I was surprised to apertures like F/14 and F/18 when I was more accustomed to a progression like F/11, F/13, F/16, F/19, F/22, etc. Most of those older values still are there though so there hasn’t been a complete break with convention. The same comment applies to shutter speeds where ones like 1/100 and 1/160 made there appearance where I might have expected just ones like 1/90, 1/125, 1/250 and so on. The extra possibilities, and that is what they are, do allow more flexibility I suppose and may even make it easier to make correct exposures though any judgement of correctness has to be in the eye of a photographer and not what a computer algorithm in a camera determines. For much of the time until now, I have stuck with an ISO of 400 apart from a little testing in a woodland area of an evening soon after the camera arrived.

Since the K5 II came my way a few months ago, I have been meaning to collect my thoughts on here and there has been a delay while I brought mu thinking to a sensible close.At one point, it felt like there was so much to say that the piece became larger in my mind that even what you have been reading now. After all, there are other things that I can adjust to see how the resulting images look and white balance is but one of these.The K10D isn’t beyond experimentation either, especially since I discovered that shake reduction was switched off and it has me asking if that lacking in quality that I mentioned earlier has another explanation. Of course, actually making use of my tripod would be another good suggestion so it’s safe to say that yet more photographic explorations await.

Three gone…

As of today, Jessops no longer continues to trade. It is but a third specialist purveyor of photographic equipment to go this way. Jacobs, another Leicester headquartered competitor, met the same fate as did the Wildings chain in the northwest of England. These were smaller operations than Jessops who may have overreached itself during the boom years and certainly had their share of financial troubles in recent times, the latest of which putting an end from the operation.

Many are pondering what is happening and the temptation is to blame the rise of the e-commerce and the economic situation for all of this. In addition, I have seen poor service blamed. However, where are we going to go now after this? Has photography become such a specialised market that you need a diversified business to stick with it? After all, independent retailers have been taking a hammering too and some have gone out of business like the chains that I have mentioned here.

It does raise the question as to where folk engaging in a photographic purchase are going to go for advice now; is the web sufficiently beginner friendly? There seemingly are going to be less bricks and mortar shops out there now so coming across one-to-one advice as once would have been the case is looking harder than it once was. Photographic magazines will help and the web has a big role to play too. It certainly informed some of my previous purchases but I have been that little bit more serious about my photography for a while now.

It might be that photography is becoming more specialist again after a period when the advent of digital cameras caused an explosion in interest. Cameras on mobile phones are becoming ever more capable and cannibalising the compact camera market for those only interested in point and shoot machinery. Maybe that is where things are going in that mass market photography doesn’t offer the future that it once might have done given the speed of technological advance. The future and present undoubtedly are about as interesting as they have become utterly uncertain.

Thinking over the last ten years or so, there has been a lot of change and that seems set to continue even if I am left wondering if photography has shot its bolt by now. My first SLR came from a Stockport branch of Jessops and was a film camera, a Canon EOS SLR. It certainly got me going and was exchanged for a Canon EOS 30 from Ffordes, an internet transaction during which the phone system around Manchester and Cheshire went on the blink. That outage may have exposed a frailty of our networked world but there has been no fire to melt cables in a tunnel since then. Further items from Jessops came via the same channel such as a Manfrotto 055 tripod and my Pentax K10D. A Canon-fit 28-135 mm Sigma came from Jessops’ then Manchester Deansgate store and another Canon-fit Sigma lens, a 70-300 mm telephoto affair, came from another branch of the chain, although not the Macclesfield branch since that had yet to be established and there’s no photographic store left in the town now after the Jessops and Wildings closures.

Those purchases have become history just like the photographic retail chain from which they were sourced. These days, I am more than comfortable in making dealings over the web but that concern about those starting out that I expressed earlier now remains. Seeing how that would work is set to become interesting. Might it limit the take up of photography on a more serious basis? That is a question that could get a very interesting answer as we continue into ever more uncertain times.

Dispensing with temptation

The compact system camera arena is a burgeoning one with many manufacturers having followed Olympus into the fray. In latter months of last year, Nikon finally took the plunge though Canon have yet to do the same. Seeing offers on Olympus E-PL1 kits with a 14-42 mm zoom lens had me tempted, particularly with a price tag of the order of £250. In fact, I even got to looking into the competition too and a shortlist emerged. This also featured the Samsung NX-11 and the Sony NEX-C3 as well as the big brother of the latter, the NEX-5N.

What eventually countered the allure of shiny objects was the question as to why I needed such an item. After all, I already possess a Pentax K10D DSLR and a Canon Powershot G11 and these have been satisfying my photographic needs for a while now. The DSLR may date from 2007 but it is still working well for me and, if it ever needed replacing, I’d be going for another Pentax with the K-5 being a strong contender. The Canon is doing what’s asked of it so the recent launching of the G1 X isn’t so tempting either.

The whole dalliance has me wondering about how photographic equipment changeovers come about. After all, it was around a decade ago with the DSLR revolution was in the offing if not in progress. Until then, film photography was predominant but it looks as if it got as far as it could from a technological point of view when I look back at what happened. The digital photography area was new and untapped so moving there offered new possibilities and purchases more easily justified. The end result is that very few film cameras are being made nowadays. Ironically, it’s film photography that now is untrammelled terrain for many and it is holding its own too in an era when digital photography predominates.

The same sort of newness that came with digital photography also applies to CSC‘s to a certain extent. From the heritage of half-frame 35 mm film photography, Olympus has fashioned a different type of digital camera: essentially a compact with interchangeable lenses. Was it the fact that I have no CSC that caused me to be tempted and has it happened to others too? Also, is that what got digital photography going in the first place?

It almost feels as if camera manufacturers have to keep bringing to market new models and new types of camera in order to stay in business. After all, Minolta had to sell its camera division to Sony when they failed to get going in the DSLR market quickly enough. The same thing might have happened to Pentax too with the marque passing to first to Hoya, and then to Ricoh after the firm lost its independence.

What doesn’t help is the lack of longevity of camera models. The coming of digital photography has exacerbated this situated with models being launched at a frenetic rate. In the days of film photography, a model could last on the market for a few years and there was once a time when a twenty year lifetime wouldn’t have looked so ridiculous though there were incremental improvements made over that time too. For instance, a Pentax K1000 wouldn’t be exactly the same at the end of its production run as it was at the start though the model number may be the same. That world is gone.

Camera types have done better with the SLR design lasting around 50 years so far. However, mirror-less camera technology is adding pressure like never before. Even compact cameras allow live TTL type viewing and Olympus dug into its film camera heritage to add an interchangeable lens mount to give us the first E-P1. The original PEN cameras were half-frame 35 mm affairs and, appropriately enough, their descendants have small sensors in the micro four thirds mould. Then, there’s Sony’s efforts with translucent mirrors that do not move like their SLR counterparts. Canon tried this in the 1980’s with film cameras but never pursued the genre. After that, there are mirror-less SLR-style cameras from Samsung and Panasonic that make you wonder if a full size equivalent is in the offing with live viewing and an electronic viewfinder. Olympus is doing a teaser advertising campaign at the moment and it has some wondering if an OM-D is in the offing.

In parallel with all this, Sony is making a good impression with their CSC’s, the NEX series. These have APS-C sized sensors like many DSLR’s and in compact bodies as well. However, the feel very much is that of a compact camera and some have complained of a like of buttons on them though the photographic quality is very good. Samsung have gone for the same sensor size in their NX-11 thought they have gone for SLR styling. That may be more suitable for some than having to find settings buried in menus.

In summary, we are in an exciting if unnerving time in camera technology at the moment. On one hand, we are seeing a great deal of miniaturisation and what formerly were still cameras can do movie making as well. The latter may not be an interest of mine and it looks like a time-consuming hobby too. A lot is in flux right now and a recent court case reminded us of the difficulties in doing original work these days with image processing in Photoshop forming the basis of a victorious copyright claim. Because the number of images that are getting created everywhere, it could be hard for some to avoid this one and that could be exacerbated if the government changes the law so that intellectual property claims can be processed in the small claims courts. That sort of thing makes film photography seem attractive and it does seem that it isn’t disappearing either, even if Kodak has its financial problems. Novelty seems to change photographic tastes and it seems that film photography is novel again. It’s a changing world and who knows where it take us. Maybe a new DSLR body might make a good purchase in case CSC’s usurp their place entirely. Photographic technology is interesting yet again.

All that was needed was a trip to a local shop

In the end, I did take the plunge and acquired a Sigma 50-200 mm f4-5.6 DC OS HSM lens to fit my ever faithful Pentax K10D. After surveying a few online retailers, I plumped for Park Cameras where the total cost, including delivery, came to something to around £125. This was around £50 less than what others were quoting for the same lens with delivery costs yet to be added. Though the price was good at Park Cameras, I was wondering still about how they could manage to do that sort of deal when others don’t. Interestingly, it appears that the original price of the lens was around £300 but that may have been at launch and prices do seem to tumble after that point in the life of many products of an electrical or electronic nature.

Unlike the last lens that I bought from them around two years ago, delivery of this item was a prompt affair with dispatch coming the day after my order and delivery on the morning after that. All in all, that’s the kind of service that I like to get. On opening the box, I was surprised to find that the lens came with a hood but without a cap. However, that was dislodged slightly from my mind when I remembered that I neglected to order a UV or skylight filter to screw into the 55 mm front of it. In the event, it was the lack of a lens cap needed sorting more than the lack of a filter. The result was that I popped in the local branch of Wildings where I found the requisite lens cap for £3.99 and asked about a filter while I was at it. Much to my satisfaction, there was a UV filter that matched my needs in stock though it was that cheap at £18.99 and was made by a company of which I hadn’t heard before, Massa. This was another example of good service when the shop attendant juggled two customers, a gentleman looking at buying a DSLR and myself. While I would not have wanted to disturb another sales interaction, I suppose that my wanting to complete a relatively quick purchase was what got me the attention while the other customer was left to look over a camera, something that I am sure he would have wanted to do anyway. After all, who wouldn’t?

With the extras acquired, I attached them to the front of the lens and carried out a short test (with the cap removed, of course). When it was pointed at an easy subject, the autofocus worked quickly and quietly. A misty hillside had the lens hunting so much that turning to manual focussing was needed a few times to work around something understandable. Like the 18-125 mm Sigma lens that I already had, the manual focussing ring is generously proportioned with a hyperfocal scale on it though some might think the action a little loose. In my experience though, it seems no worse than the 18-125 mm so I can live with it. Both lenses share something else in common in the form of the zoom lens having a stiffer action than the focus ring. However, the zoom lock of the 18-125 mm is replaced by an OS (Optical Stabilisation) one on the 50-200 mm and the latter has no macro facility either, another feature of the shorter lens though it remains one that I cannot ever remember using. In summary, first impressions are good but I plan to continue appraising it. Maybe an outing somewhere tomorrow might offer a good opportunity for using it a little more to get more of a feeling for its performance.