Comparison images provided by CameraSize.com
Comparison images provided by CameraSize.com
This is the fourth in my series of articles on "How to Get Small" in assembling a professional photography kit. I've always enjoyed the challenge of doing more with less, and it's been particularly on my mind in recent years as I've spent a lot of time in faraway places, flying with laughably small luggage allowances, encountering unexpected gear-intensive photo opportunities, and exploring on foot or in crowded vehicles.
I've been a fan of Canon's big professional DSLR cameras since I traded in all my medium-format film equipment for a first-generation 1Ds back in 2004. They've always had great image quality and ergonomics, and the heft and price to match. After the 1Ds, I dallied with a pair of Canon's smaller cameras, but I went back to the big boys for the superior handling and autofocus, investing next in the MkII and then the MkIII versions. After a while, though, their size and weight had me wishing for a smaller camera for travel and hiking. Last year for an extended trip abroad I picked up a couple of small Micro Four Thirds (MFT) format cameras that take interchangeable lenses, figuring I'd use them for travel & landscapes and keep the Canons for my "real" work - events and portraits - back at home.
Then, a funny thing happened. I liked using the MFTs so much that I when I got home didn't want to go back to my bigger cameras. One reason was size and weight. I often work with one camera on each shoulder, and on a 14-hour day I'd really feel the weight. Also, a day trek through the woods used to involve carrying at least 15 pounds of gear in a backpack. If I wanted to use my long lens in the late afternoon light or under the canopy, I'd also need a suitably sturdy tripod weighing about eight more pounds. At the end of the day, I'd be tired and my feet and shoulders would be sore. My 3-lens walkabout MFT kit, on the other hand, weighs about four pounds and fits in a small shoulder bag. And, if I need a tripod, I can get by with a compact 3-pounder made for travel. With this kit, I can mosey all day without discomfort or fatigue.
All of this...
Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8
Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8
Panasonic 20mm f1.7
...fits in this...
Tamrac Rally 4
And, this bag is too small to hold an iPad.
So, great for travel, but not really up to the demands of professional use, right? Well, while I was abroad my MFT kit was put to the test when I was unexpectedly asked to shoot a 4-day conference, a wedding, an embassy party, an NGO party, the annual Marine's Ball for the US Embassy, and several portrait sessions. And, it did great. The electronic viewfinders give me a real-time preview of my exposure and allow me to see in the dark. The AF locks on anywhere in the frame, not just in the middle. The shutter is quiet, with a silent mode available. Image quality is comparable to my 1Ds MkII (an $8,000 camera just a few years ago), with plenty of detail for fine art prints at 16"x21" and even larger. And, digital noise (think "film grain") is minimal up to ISO 1600 and very acceptable at 3200. This is about one stop less than my big DSLRs, but it's all I need.
For the past year I've been shooting exclusively with a Panasonic G6 and GX7, using very high quality zoom & prime lenses that are a fraction of the size and weight of my old DSLR glass and just as sharp. At a week-long annual conference, including an all-day portrait session, my new kit produced great results, and at the end of it I wasn't achy and exhausted as I was in past years. My clients are as happy as they've ever been with my photos, and the only comment I've received about my smaller cameras has been appreciation for the total silence when working in close quarters.
Aside from size & weight, there are a host of other advantages with these small mirrorless cameras, including silent shutter, greater depth of focus, touch selection of AF points, selectable aspect ratios, freedom from front- and back-focus problems, face detection AF, customizable menus and function buttons, instant in-finder review of the image just shot, and affordable high quality lenses. In coming blog posts, I'll have more to say about each of these, as well as other strategies and gear choices that are slimming down my kit and making my work more fun and productive.
A reader asked how I arrived at MFT rather than one of the other mirrorless systems. Here's part of my reply.
It all started with me looking for a high-spec travel & landscape camera, as my Canon 1-series were just too heavy to lug on long walks, treks and journeys, and I was planning a lot of travel. So, I wasn't looking for a replacement, but a complement. As such, I wasn't ready to invest a whole lot of money. I wanted to assemble a kit for $1,000. This was about 18 months ago. Fuji and Sony mirrorless looked interesting, especially the NEX-7, but they were pricey for my intended use, and the lens selections were pretty limited. Also, the lenses tended to be bigger than MFT lenses, making a full kit with several lenses much bigger than I wanted. In addition, the cheaper Sony lenses were getting pretty mediocre reviews, and the Zeiss glass was out of my budget.
It was really the small size, high quality, and reasonable pricing of MFT lenses that caught my attention. I had owned LX3, LX5 and LX7 compacts, and I really liked the UI and customizable buttons, so that pulled me toward Panasonic. I picked up a GX1, 14-45 and 45-200. I received a 7-14 as a gift. Then, I added a used G3 as a backup body.
I took this kit abroad for 5 months last summer and shot lots of travel & landscape stuff. Mostly for personal enjoyment, potential stock, and occasional exhibition & print sales. Gotta say, I really liked it. The three zooms and a body fit nicely in a shoulder bag that looks more like a purse than a camera bag and that I could carry all day on my 8-mile hikes in the hills. Image quality was really good. As good as my previous Canon 1Ds Mark II, which I'd always considered as good as I'd ever need, given that my largest prints come out of my Epson 4000 at 16"x24". The lenses were great, with better corner & edge sharpness than my Canon L zooms. Except for the 45-200, which got a bit soft beyond 150mm. Anyway, looking like a tourist instead of a pro, I could shoot in public places without attracting undue attention.
Well, I unexpectedly ended up shooting a number of paid gigs during my stay, and I started to believe that MFT could do everything I'd need. On return to the US, I shot for my usual clients with the Canons and Panasonics side-by-side and found I was right. In addition, I could work very long hours without ruining my body. Hallelujah! I was sold. Bought a GX7, G6, 12-35, 35-100, 20 and 45 and sold my old MFT bodies, the 14-45, and all my Canon gear.