General

My Favourite Camera of the Year?

Panasonic DMC-GF1

(though Olympus deserves credit for starting (micro as in E-P1) micro 4/3)

To Everybody,

Goodwill and Good Fortune for 2010!

[all photos with Panasonic GF1 / 40mm f1.7 (which was not the first micro 4/3, that honour goes to the G1)]

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Finding Views

The previous post reviewing the GF1’s EVF sparked quite a long discussion on DPreview.com and inspired a few talking points for me, notably that I need to write more clearly. Today’s post is going to be especially nerdy but bear with me. It’s about the various tools available to visualize your photograph. There are currently FOUR choices available for today’s enthusiast photographer:

  1. The Electronic View Finder (EVF), i.e. a small LCD with some magnification optics mounted in a little viewfinder enclosure that displays the sensor’s image + various information overlays.
  2. The rear LCD, i.e. a large LCD that displays the sensor’s image + various information overlays.
  3. The through-the-lens mirror or prism viewfinder, i.e. what you get on SLRs and DSLRs. Using a mirror or prism inside the camera, you get to look through the lens which is close to what you will see in your final image.
  4. The fixed optical viewfinder, i.e. a very simple lens with frame lines drawn in the glass that you look through. It shows what the view should roughly look like for a certain focal length.
  5. (quasi 5) The rangefinder viewfinder, which is somewhat similar to 4 but with a triangulating rangefinder mechanism.

I’ve used all of them and they all have their Pros and Cons (if anyone likes, I can list them some other day). When someone considers buying a camera, their viewfinder preferences are often make-or-break.

GF1’s EVF Revisited

To be clear, in this section when I say EVF, I am referring to the GF1’s EVF, not any other camera’s EVF.
What is the EVF useful for? In its current state, the EVF is useful in the following situations:

  1. When you need to use its tilting ability i.e. when the camera needs to be quite near a surface and you can’t angle yourself to see the LCD.
  2. Bright sunlight i.e. the LCD has too much glare.
  3. You just prefer to use a viewfinder.

In all other situations, the LCD seems to me a superior option.

In the interest of full disclosure, I also used to own a GX100 with the removable EVF two years ago. Given the (lack of) difference in performance between the two EVFs, it seems time moves very slowly in EVF-land. However, I have handled the G1 as well and that EVF is pretty good so the GF1 got the short end of the stick on this one.

LCD vs the World

I feel sorry for the LCD, I really do. There is an unfortunate stigma against using an LCD as your primary way of composing photographs because of its association with point & shoots, cellphone cameras and being some sort of hapless amateur. I actually used to hate it, too. Standing there, arms outstretched as if expecting a hug while balancing a small camera at your fingertips and feeling a bit daft. But after a while, I got used to it. For the last two years, I have mostly been using the Ricoh GRD II and recently the E-P1 and GF1 and I still got the results I wanted with minimal public ridicule. So why the hate?

In many ways the LCD is an incredibly elegant solution. You have a huge 3 inches to see your masterpiece on. You get all your exposure and histogram information overlaid. You get controllable guidelines. You get a level balance. The major downsides are it’s difficult to use in bright sunlight if you have a lot of glare and it can be quite disturbing to those around you if it’s dark. Other than that though. … why the hate?

There is a very distinct difference in the “feeling” you get when using any tunnel-like viewfinders vs the LCD. When you look through a viewfinder, you close one eye, press your other eye up against viewfinder cup and you are enveloped into a tiny black gallery admiring your postage stamp masterpieces. It’s a nice, heady feeling and sometimes a bit too nice. How many times has a photographer looked through the viewfinder, thought “holy wow, this is my greatest picture ever” and when later reviewing it on the computer or in print form, thinking “o, maybe not”. I find the LCD a little more honest. In the bright harsh glare of the sun, feeling like a hapless amateur, my crappy photo is displayed on the washed out electrified crystal and plastic and remains what it is, a crappy photo.

I’m not advocating the LCD as the be-all, end-all solution for all your photographic needs. After all, a big part of photography is the process and often times, using a nice viewfinder just makes taking photos a lot more pleasurable. However, I would like everyone to try and consider the LCD as a serious tool and spare a thought for the tool behind the LCD. The GF1’s EVF may not be as essential as I originally thought it was.

The Future!

Since my primary interest is in small cameras, the SLR viewfinder is out of the question, the mechanism takes up too much space. The Pentax K7 with a pancake lens is a wonderful combination but I consider the E-P1 and GF1 about the limit in size for this blog and really, my own uses. That leaves the EVF, LCD and optical viewfinder. I’m excited to see what will come next in EVF technology. If they can significantly improve resolution and up the size more, it could be the last word for tunnel-like viewfinders. For LCDs, maybe there will be some magical anti-glare coating to come along or at the very least, a stick-on sunshade. As for the optical viewfinder, well … it’s such an anachronistic device, I don’t think anyone wants it to change anyways.

[ all photos shot with an LCD ]


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Review of the Panasonic GF1’s Viewfinder LVF1

What a disappointment. There is no point beating around the bush on this one. Overpriced and underspecced. Let’s review:

Cons:

  • The screen is tiny. Imagine the smallest DSLR viewfinder you have ever used. Now reduce that.
  • Resolution is too low to check for focusing.
  • Major tunnel vision.
  • Colours seem less accurate than the LCD.
  • Awkward button positioning for switching from LVF to LCD.
  • Takes up the hotshoe.
  • Expensive.

Pros:

  • Tiltable. A really, really great feature. Useful for photographing from lower angles.
  • Has diopter adjustment.
  • Impervious to sunlight.
  • It’s a viewfinder.

Uff. A sad day indeed. The first thing that strikes you is just how small the screen is. Then, how far away the screen is (strong tunnel effect). I feel like I’m watching a movie in a Smurf cinema. If you are a glasses wearer, like I am, then it is especially awkward to use since you have to press your eye up quite close to the VF to be able to see the whole frame. The resolution is too low to do any sort of precise focus work. The colours seem a bit off, slightly bluish with a narrower gamut. Switching from LVF to LCD is a pain because the button for switching is up against the side of the VF and a bit hard to push. I think there is a bit of flickering, though I’m not sure because of the eyestrain I’m getting from looking through the damn thing.

There are positives though. I really like how it can be tilted. In bright sunlight, it may be more comfortable to use than the LCD. That’s about it I guess.

Smurf cinema. The end.

[all photos with Olympus E-P1 / 21mm f2.8]

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Messing with White Balance in RAW

One of the beautiful things about RAW is the flexibility you have with white balance. One of the reasons I hate photographing with JPG is that inevitably I will forget to set the correct WB and my photos will end up with all sorts of terrible colour casts to them. With RAW, not only can I rectify these mistakes later, I can also use WB to twist the way colour is presented.

[all photos with Panasonic GF1 / 40mm f1.7]

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ISO 800 to 3200

I’m always skeptical of claims of good ISO performance. I find it difficult to buy into the reasoning of sensors being more efficient thus lowering noise and increasing megapixel resolution. Seems to me, something’s got to give. That been said, my recent photographs at ISO 800 and above have turned out well so I guess I should try and find something new to complain about.

This photo below is not some random photo of a bush, it is actually a photo of fireflies in near pitch darkness in bushes along the a river in Malaysia. The light of the fireflies was quite bright though very fine, a mere speck. There was nearly no ambient light around me. I switched into manual focus and set it slightly out of focus to exaggerate their light. There’s a bit of motion blur as well since I was gliding along in a raft as I was taking the photo. I was pretty thankful I had the f1.7 lens on me instead of the f2.8. At ISO 3200 f1.7, 1/4s, you can still get a little bit of the feeling of the scene though perhaps not a razor sharp capture of reality.

[all photos with Panasonic GF1 / 40mm f1.7]

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Autofocus (Part 2) & Image Stabilization

While I previously whined extensively about the disadvantages of “square AF” (particularly on the E-P1), there is also a bright side to this new style of autofocus, which is that you can place your AF square anywhere you like on the frame. Of course, this is also possible on DSLRs with multiple focus points but it tends to be a higher end feature.

The E-P1 and GF1 were also designed with video recording in mind and both cameras continuous AF modes are quite capable. You can “set” a subject and have the camera automatically track it around the frame, it’s quite neat. I have yet to make much use of it though.

Anyway, moving on. There is a feature that I had underestimated on the E-P1 that keeps it in the running against its GF1 competitor and that is image stabilization. I have been using mostly the GF1 body with the 17mm and the 20mm these last few days and for about 30% of the lower shutter speed photos (i.e. 1/30 and less), there has been noticeable camera shake in the photos. On the E-P1, I only notice it about 5% of the time. Even at short focal lengths such as 17mm and 20mm, image stabilization can help. Apparently the mechanism adds a bit of weight to the camera but I think it’s a feature worth having.

[all photos with Panasonic GF1 / 20mm f1.7 / 17mm f2.8]

subject: Kent Wang, Purveyor of Fine Pocket Squares

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The Halcyon Days of … 2003, Canon SD10

There was a brief period back in the day, when men still wore frilly shirts and dueled each other with rapiers, Casio, then Sony, then Canon (and I think Nikon got involved too) released a slew of “mini-cameras”. They were, in effect, the netbook equivalent of the P&S at the time.

These cameras would have tiny, tiny screens of about 1 inch, a fixed length lens, moth-lifespan-like battery life but would also be really, really small and relatively cheap. I was enchanted by the little things and bought two. One was a Sony that reminded you of a big pill and delivered crap results, and the other was the subject of today’s post, the Canon SD10.

All things considered, the SD10 was not a bad camera. The lens was pretty good, 4 megapixels meant at low ISO, noise was pretty tolerable and although the battery life sucked, you could usually tease one more shot out of it by warming up the battery and turning it on again. It was small, no-nonsense and took pretty good pictures.

In the end, I’m not quite sure what happened to this fork of camera evolution. The Casio range turned into the under-appreciated Exilim range. Sony has those superthin cameras with touchscreens. Canon decided if they are going to make a small camera, it needed to be more capable, with zoom etc. I guess on top of that, we have modest cameras in our phones, iPods, laptops so the mini-camera has gone the way of the do-do. There is one direct descendant though, the little video-camera, but that’s too far out of my field.

Enjoy some photos of the SD10 and its somewhat distant great, great, great grand cousin, the Panasonic GF1. Appreciate that although we have made progress, they were built on the shoulders of really, really small giants.

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Autofocus and Lack Thereof (part 1)

For an experienced DSLR user, the E-P1 and GF1 autofocus systems are a little bit unsettling. I always set my DSLRs to use the autofocus point in the center of the frame, which usually gives you the the most sensitive, fastest autofocus point on the camera. I stress the word “point”, because that’s what it is. A single point. Using that point, I would try and catch focus on something with a bit of contrast.

On the E-P1 and the GF1, it is more like a “square”. And quite a large square at that (though more on that with the GF1 later in the post). The behaviour is the E-P1 will try and put whatever is filling up most of the square into focus. So far, I have had very little luck in trying to focus on something very small and only filling a small portion of the square. Focus will tend to be on whatever is behind the small object since it fills up more of the AF square.

On the GF1, the size of the AF square is adjustable, all the way down to a very, very small square. A point, almost. ;) Given that the camera will try and put into focus whatever fills up the suqare, precise autofocus on a small object is now in reach.

Kudos to Panasonic for improving on an E-P1 niggle.

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Shutter Noise

gf1-ep-1-shutter-noise

gf1-ep-1-shutter-noise.

In response to a reader’s request, I’ve recorded the two camera’s shutter noise. First set of noises is the GF1, second is the E-P1. Seems the E-P1 has a higher framerate. The GF1 is slightly louder and i find the noise more intrusive. I’d add the sound of a DSLR on as well but … I don’t have one anymore. This is a website about small cameras after all!

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Good Lookin’ Flash

It’s got quite a Johnny Five sort of appeal to it, no?

[all photos with Olympus E-P1 / 17mm f2.8]

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