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.

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.

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.

Sometimes, a firmware update is in order

After a recent trip to Oxford, I have started to mull over adding a longer lens (could make more distant architectural detail photos a possibility) to complement my trusty Sigma 18-125mm f/3.8-5.6 DC HSM zoom lens that now is entering approaching its third year in my hands. While I have made no decision about the acquisition of another lens, there are some tempting bargains out there, it seems. However, the real draw on my attention is the lack of autofocus with the aforementioned Sigma and I now find it hard to believe that I was blaming the manufacturer for no keeping up with Pentax when it really was the other way around. A bit of poking around on the web revealed that all that I needed to do was download a firmware update from the Pentax website. While being slowed down by the lack of autofocus cannot have done bad things for my photography, I still wonder at why I didn’t try updating the camera for as long as I have.

In the file for updating my K10D, there was a README file containing the instructions for carrying out the update with the included binary file that was set to take the camera from version 1.00 to 1.30 (hold down the Menu button while starting the camera to see what you have). In summary, both files were copied onto an SD card that was inserted into the camera and it turned off. The next step was to power up the camera with the menu button held down to start the update. To stop erroneous updates, there is an “Are you sure?” style Yes/No menu popped up before anything else happens. Selecting Yes sets things into motion and you have to wait until the word “COMPLETE” appears in the bottom left corner before turning the camera and removing the card. Now that I think of it, I should have checked the battery before doing anything because the consequences of losing power in the middle of what I was doing would have been annoying, especially with my liking the photographic results produced by the camera.

Risk taking aside, the process was worth its while with HSM now working as it should have done all this time. It seems quiet and responsive too from my limited tests to date. Even better, the autofocus doesn’t hunt anywhere near as much as the 18-55 mm Pentax kit lens that came with the camera. The next decision is whether to stick  with my manual focussing ways or lapse into trusting autofocus from now on though my better reason is to stick with the slower approach unless the subjects are fast. Now that I think of it, train and bus photos for my transport website have become a whole lot easier as have any wildlife photos that I care to capture. Speaking of the latter brings me back to that telephoto quandary that I mentioned at the beginning. Well, there’s a tempting Sigma 50-200 mm that has caught my eye…

No autofocus?

Sigma 18-125mm f/3.8-5.6 DC HSM zoom lens

I recently treated myself to a Sigma 18-125mm f/3.8-5.6 DC HSM zoom lens for my Pentax K10D. There was a wait for the item to appear and I then found that the lens’ autofocus facility wasn’t compatible with the body. Standard wisdom would have it that I sent the thing back and ask for a replacement or a refund. Perhaps inexplicably, I did neither. In fact, I came to the conclusion, that since I make photos of landscapes anyway, that been slowed down by the lack of autofocus was no bad thing except perhaps when appealing light makes fleeting appearances. It is true to say that a used Pentax manual focus lens would have been cheaper but I did what I did. The camera’s autofocus indicator still works and the 18-55 mm zoom that came with the camera wasn’t impressive anyway so taking matters into my own hands was something that happened a lot. I now have better quality glass in front of the sensor and with a metal mount and longer range too. The lens comes with a petal hood too, though I keep that for when I really need it rather than keeping it on the lens and stopping myself focussing the thing. Speaking of zooming and focussing, the controls work well and smoothly without being at all loose. The AF setting gets used to lock the focus and the zoom can be locked at the wide end so that the lens doesn’t get into the habit of zooming under the influence of gravity, not a bad thing. For future lens purchases, I might be more inclined to ask about compatibility next time around (I may have been spoiled by the Canons that I used to use) but I remain content for now. All in all, it feels like a quality item and it’s a pity that Pentax saw fit to make the changes that they made or that Sigma didn’t seem to have kept up with them. Saying that, my photographic subjects usually don’t run off so being slowed down is no bad thing at all, especially if it makes me create better photos.