Small cameras are yielding big results.

April 08, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

If you're wondering whether today's small cameras are "good enough", the answer is "It depends." I'm keeping my big pro cameras for my event & commercial work, mainly because they handle fast action lickety-split and let me shoot in cave-like conditions. But I'm having a ton of fun with small cameras these days. For a while now, I've been shooting landscapes with a tiny pocket camera. Given the choice between my heavy pro cameras and my featherweight Panasonic DMC-LX7 when going out on excursions, more often than not I took the latter because it was more fun and I knew I could still make fine prints up to 16"x24". But, I wanted more image quality in a small package. Since I liked my little LX7 so much, I looked at its big brothers from Panasonic. At first, I wasn't sure they'd be up to the task. But, National Geographic photographer Ira Block helped make up my mind when he said at a seminar that he was very happy with the quality of prints as big as five feet.

So now I'm shooting landscapes, and occasionally portraits, with a pair of Micro Four Thirds format cameras, a DMC-GX1 and DMC-G3 from Panasonic. These take interchangeable lenses and fit into a tiny shoulder bag I can easily carry all day while walking for miles. In good light, their image quality is comparable to the $8,000 Canon 1Ds Mark II that was my workhorse just two years ago. Photographer Jordan Steel recently posted a side-by-side comparison that pretty much puts the question to rest. These little cameras are capable of amazing detail. Here's an example:

And, here's a 100% view of the same image sharpened to make a print at 16"x24":

This is remarkable performance. Is it as good as my pro cameras? Not quite, but it's surprisingly close, and the camera you have with you is always better than the camera you leave at home. The Pannies go everywhere with me. And, more to the point, they're proving to be extremely capable of doing what I want - making beautiful landscape and portrait images that can be blown up huge. 

Since some folks have asked how I arrived at my choice, here's a brief rundown. I wanted something small and affordable with at least 16 good megapixels and a lens range from ultra-wide to long telephoto. This ruled out a number of high-end enthusiast cameras, leaving the NEX range of cameras from Sony and the highly regarded OM-D E-M5 from Olympus as the closest competitors. Both of those were more expensive than the Panasonics. And, while they had advantages, these were not relevant enough to my intended use to justify the higher cost or outweigh other disadvantages. For me, the NEX system's lower image noise and - with the pricey NEX-7 - higher resolution was outweighed by its larger and heavier lenses, more limited lens range, and lack of buttons. Thanks to Panasonic's well-placed and programmable buttons, I can quickly change settings without even taking the camera away from my eye. I'm old-school, and this is important to me. That left the E-M5. This was a tougher call because it shares the same MFT lens lineup and is, in some ways, a more capable camera. It has marginally better resolution and noise, a faster frame rate, weather sealing, and image stabilization built into the body. However, it costs four times more than a G3, and in the end it's advantages weren't relevant enough to my intended use to justify the price difference. I don't shoot landscapes in low light much, and when I do I use a tripod. I don't need to rattle off umpteen frames per second. The weather sealing would be nice, but again, this wasn't worth 4x the price to me. I've taken my G3 out on a snowy day, and it survived just fine. In the end, the G3 and GX1 offered a set of capabilities that exactly met my requirements at a price I simply could not resist. I'm using them with a trio of zooms from Panasonic: the super-wide 7-14mm, excellent 14-45mm, and very good and super-handy 45-200mm.

Update, October 21, 2014:

I've upgraded my Micro Four Thirds kit to a G6 & GX7 and added four new lenses.

  • Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8
  • Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8
  • Panasonic 20mm f1.7
  • Olympus 45mm f1.8

I now shoot all my professional work with this kit. And, I've sold off all my old Canon gear.

Radical. More about this in an upcoming article.


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