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.

An avalanche of innovation?

It seems that, almost in spite of the uncertain times or maybe because of them, it feels like an era of change on the technology front. Computing is the domain of many of the postings on this blog and a hell of a lot seems to be going mobile at the moment. For a good while, I managed to stay clear of the attractions of smartphones until a change of job convinced me that having a BlackBerry was a good idea. Though the small size of the thing really places limitations on the sort of web surfing experience that you can have with it, you can keep an eye on the weather, news, traffic, bus and train times so long as the website in question is built for mobile browsing. Otherwise, it’s more of a nuisance than a patchy phone network (in the U.K., T-Mobile could do better on this score as I have discovered for myself; thankfully, a merger with the Orange network is coming next month).

Speaking of mobile websites, it almost feels as if a free for all has recurred for web designers. Just when the desktop or laptop computing situation had more or less stabilised, along come a whole pile of mobile phone platforms to make things interesting again. Familiar names like Opera, Safari, Firefox and even Internet Explorer are to be found popping up on handheld devices these days along with less familiar ones like Web ‘n’ Walk or BOLT. The operating system choices vary too with iOS, Android, Symbian, Windows and others all competing for attention. It is the sort of flowering of innovation that makes one wonder if a time will come when things begin to consolidate but it doesn’t look like that at the moment.

The transformation of mobile phones into handheld computers isn’t the only big change in computing with the traditional formats of desktop and laptop PC’s being flexed in all sorts of ways. First, there’s the appearance of netbooks and I have succumbed to the idea of owning an Asus Eee. Though you realise that these are not full size laptops, it still didn’t hit me how small these were until I owned one.  They are undeniably portable and tablets look even more interesting in the aftermath of Apple’s iPad. You may call them over-sized mobile photos but the idea of making a touchscreen do the work for you has made the concept fly for many. Even so, I cannot say that I’m overly tempted though I have said that before about other things.

Another area of interest for me is photography and it is around this time of year that all sorts of innovations are revealed to the public. It’s a long way from what we thought was the digital photography revolution when digital imaging sensors started to take the place of camera film in otherwise conventional compact and SLR cameras, making the former far more versatile than they used to be. Now, we have SLD cameras from Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony that eschew the reflex mirror and prism arrangement of an SLR using digital sensor and electronic viewfinders while offering the possibility of lens interchangeability and better quality than might be expected from such small cameras. In recent months, Sony has offered SLR-style cameras with translucent mirror technology instead of the conventional mirror that is flipped out of the way when a photographic image is captured.  Change doesn’t end there with movie making capabilities being part of the toolset of many a newly launch  compact, SLD and SLR camera. The pixel race also seems to have ended though increases still happen as with the Pentax K-5 and Canon EOS 60D (both otherwise conventional offerings that have caught my eye though so much comes on the market at this time of year that waiting is better for the bank balance).

The mention of digital photography brings to mind the subject of digital image processing and Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 is just announced after Photoshop CS5 appeared earlier this year. It almost feels as if a new version of Photoshop or its consumer cousin are released every year, causing me to skip releases when I don’t see the point. Elements 6 and 8 were such versions for me and I’ll be in no hurry to upgrade to 9 yet either though the prospect of using content aware filling to eradicate unwanted objects from images is tempting. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t stop anyone trying to exclude them in the first place. In fact, I may need to reduce the overall number of images that I collect in favour of bringing away only good ones. The outstanding question on this is can I slow down and calm my eagerness to bring at least one good image away from an outing by capturing anything that seems promising at the time. Some experimentation but being a little more choosy can  save work later on.

While back on the subject of software, I’ll voyage in to the world of the web before bringing these meanderings to a close. It almost feels as if there is web-based application following web-based application these days when Twitter and Facebook nearly have become household names and cloud computing is a phrase that turns up all over the place.  In fact, the former seems to have encouraged a whole swathe of applications all of itself. Applications written using technologies well used on the web must stuff many a mobile phone app store too and that brings me full circle for it is these that put so much functionality on our handsets with Java seemingly powering those I use on my BlackBerry. Them there’s spat between Apple and Adobe regarding the former’s support for Flash.

To close this mental amble, there may be technologies that didn’t come to mind while I was pondering this piece but they doubtless enliven the technological landscape too. However, what I have described is enough to take me back more than ten years ago when desktop computing and the world of the web were a lot more nascent than is the case today. Then, the changes that were ongoing felt a little exciting now that I look back on them and it does feel as if the same sort of thing is recurring though with things like phones creating the interest in place of new developments in desktop computing such as a new version of Window (though 7 was anticipated after Vista). Web designers may complain about a lack of standardisation and they’re not wrong but this may be an ear of technological change that in time may be remembered with its own fondness too.