Alaska through the lens of Panasonic’s Compact System Cameras

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I have been editing and processing the photos I shot two weeks ago on my ‘workshop/cruise’ through Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage. On that trip I took no Canon equipment; I only had the Lumix cameras that were loaned to me by Panasonic. Although I was impressed by their autofocus and the lack of shutter delay, it took me awhile to get used to viewing through the Electronic Viewfinder because the highlights appear to look blown out. I also needed to adjust to the ergonomics of the Panasonic bodies which differ from Canons. Eventually however the cameras started to feel good in my hands and I was able to have fun shooting photos from the ship and in the bouncing, Zodiac boats.

I had three Panasonic cameras with me: the GF2 which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, the GH2 and a prototype of the recently announced G3. One thing is certain – these cameras and their lenses are all very small, light and compact. I use the GF2 as a walk around camera with the 20mm f1.7 pancake lens. Many of the images I shot on this trip were with the longer zoom lenses, the 14-140, 45-200 and 100-300. Since the sensor on these cameras is half the size of a ‘full sized’ sensor, the focal lengths of the lenses can effectively be doubled. Consequently, I’m working with varied length optics that are much smaller than what I’m used to carrying. The downside is that the lenses are a bit slow, usually varying between f4-5.6, but still usable by boosting the ISO and keeping the stabilizers on.

The experience of working with any new cameras, whether going large to medium format ( as I did a couple of months ago) or going small with the Panasonics is like being a kid with new toys!. It’s exhilarating. Although the G3 is slightly larger than my “GF2 walk around camera” it acts like a grownup camera. It has the same sensor as the GH2 and is just as responsive and as fast. Panasonic addressed some of the issues I’ve had with the GH2 in the G3, specifically the inability to turn off the focus point on the LED screen so that it cannot change position if you accidentally touch it. The battery life in the G3 is much improved over the battery life in the GH2, even though it’s using the smaller battery found in the GF2.

The quality of the raw files from the GH2 and the GF2 cameras was beyond what I expected. I processed the files using Lightroom and used its fabulous noise reduction when I was working at above ISO 800. The raw files were running slightly red which was easily fixed. Unfortunately I can’t address the G3 raw files at this time. The camera is so new that neither my Adobe nor Capture 1 products will process them. I did get a disk with a new version of Panasonic’s raw processor but it currently only works on a windows platform, which is not in my Mac workflow. I shot full size JPEGS+ Raw on the G3 with the intention of processing the raw files in the immediate future. However the G3 jpegs looked very good, once I added some sharpening and clarity to them. As this was a prototype and I rarely shoot jpegs, I was at the whim of the camera’s processing algorithm.

Many of the photo enthusiasts on the ship were working with much larger Nikons and Canons and were intrigued by my new set of equipment and my initial fumbling through various buttons. They wanted to play with my “new toys”. By the second day I was handling the equipment like a pro.

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Panasonic’s GF-2: Small Camera Big Benefits

Beach Florida Keys 14mm lens ISO 200

I’ve been shooting for the past few months in various situations with the Panasonic Lumix GF-2 mirrorless DSLR and I’m very impressed with the camera. It is responsive, the autofocus is quick and accurate and the shutter lag is minimal. Its small size, definitely a plus has made it my ‘always have with me’ camera. Most of the time I’ve used it with the 14mm, 2.5 pancake lens (28mm equivalent) but a couple of weeks ago the folks at Panasonic sent me the 20mm, 1.7 lens (40mm equivalent) and a small, electronic viewfinder that slides into the camera’s hot shoe. This combination works well for my purposes, although it took some time for me to get accustomed to using an electronic viewfinder. I like shooting with a viewfinder because I can hold the camera steadier when I press it against my face as opposed to extending the camera away from me to look at the LCD. Although I usually shoot with a full frame 22 megapixel camera, the file quality on the GF-2’s half size 12 megapixel sensor looks very good and I feel comfortable at an ISO setting at 1200. And with the noise controls in the recent Photoshop and Lightroom raw converters, it’s possible to work with this camera at even higher ISO ‘s.

20mm lens at f/2 ISO 1000 mixed light

Crop of face. Some noise reduction added in Lightroom

My main concern with the GF-2 and the larger GH-2 model is that there is no way to lock the LCD touchscreen’s focus point. If you pick up the camera and touch the LCD while it’s active, there is a good chance that you will move the focus point. I’ve talked with Panasonic about this issue and hopefully the problem can be solved in a future firmware update. And the new Panasonic G3 prototype camera I’m currently testing does have a menu function that will lock the focus point.

Over the years I’ve carried many point and shoot cameras but with their tiny sensors and built in zoom lenses, they’ve never reached the quality level that is needed to publish large images in magazines. For a non professional camera, you can count on the GF-2 to produce a high quality image. I’ve made several nice 17×22 inch prints from this camera with files shot at ISO 800 but as with any camera, large print quality is dependent on many factors besides ISO, including using a tripod at slower shutter speeds and picking the sharpest f stop for your particular lens. Panasonic offers many interchangeable, zoom lenses for the GF-2 however some are larger than the camera. For my purposes of a ‘carry with you camera’ I prefer the 14mm or 20mm pancake lenses. An added plus of using this camera with the small lenses is that you don’t look like a professional and you can get into photographic situations where being a ‘pro’ may cause issues.

With Spring upon us the urge to grab your cameras and get out and shoot is great. On a recent morning while I walked to the gym, I passed by an unusually vibrant bed of tulips, not a typical site in my Manhattan neighborhood. I grabbed the GF-2 out of my pocket and though I had the 14mm lens on the camera, I was able to get in close to one of the flowers (yes these lenses focus close) and make a lovely image.

The camera with you is the best camera you have and the GF-2 is the best camera you can always have with you.

Tulip shoot with the 14mm Pancake lens ISO 100

Compact System Cameras, Mirrorless DSLR, Next Generation Cameras – Pick a Name these cameras are making their mark

Although I love my Canon S90 point and shoot, I decided to purchase a mirrorless DSLR. This small size camera with its larger sensor will give me better quality images than my point and shoot. I did my research and narrowed my choice down to the 14 megapixel Sony NEX-5 or the 12 megapixel Panasonic Lumix GF-1. Both are very good cameras and both come with pros and cons.

Sony NEX-5

The Sony NEX-5 does better at higher ISO’s, does sweep panoramas, has a tilt out LCD screen and has as internal stabilization that works for all lenses. I plan on using a pancake lens with my system to keep the package small. Sony has a 16mm lens that’s equivalent to a 24mm on a full frame camera. It’s a good lens but it may be too wide for my everyday use. For me, the down side of the Sony is that it doesn’t have a hot shoe or a built in flash. I like having a hot shoe because I can slide an optical viewfinder on the camera. The optical finder helps me to compose in bright sunlight when the LCD screen is difficult to read. The finder also is a plus when shooting at slower shutter speeds. It allows me to press the camera against my face for added stability. Although the Sony has no built in flash, there is a small add on unit, but it is a bit awkward and changes the camera’s profile.

Panasonic Lumix GF-1

The Panasonic GF-1 does have a small built in flash and a hot shoe. However the sensor is a little smaller than the Sony and the image quality at higher ISOs isn’t as good. The GF-1 is larger than the Sony but it fits my hands better. I like the physical exposure mode dial and the drive selection lever on the GF-1 in contrast to the Sony’s exposure and drive functions, which are buried in a menu on the LCD screen and are not as user friendly. As far as pancake lenses go, the GF-1 comes with a 20mm lens that is the equivalent of a 40mm on a full frame camera. This lens is too long for me and I would prefer something wider. That problem has been addressed by Panasonic with the addition of a14mm lens, equivalent to a 28mm on a full frame. This focal length works well for my purposes.

Yesterday, still undecided on which camera to buy I stopped at Fotocare my camera store in New York. I had the opportunity to play around with the new Panasonic Lumix GF-2, which will be available next month. What I had read about this camera didn’t impress me: the physical exposure mode dial and the drive selection lever had been eliminated and installed into the touch screen menu in order to make the camera smaller and more competitive with the Sony. I thought these changes would be a deal breaker and would force me to look around for the soon to be discontinued GF-1 if I decided to go the Panasonic Lumix route. I was pleasantly surprised, however when I found that these functions were extremely easy to access and would not be an issue. The newer Lumix GF-2 also has the ability to shoot almost 3 frames per second, a rate fast enough to capture changes in people’s expressions. It also has a new processor which I hope will make better images at the higher ISOs. For video users, the camera shoots 1080 hi definition video a feature the Sony also has.

There are some other good, small pocket sized mirrorless DSLR cameras on the market; the Olympus Pen EP-2, or the Samsung NX10 are two of the more popular ones. And all these cameras have a lot more features than I mentioned. My choice is based on how and what I shoot. You can find more detailed reviews and information on the web, a good starting point is the bythom website. As of this posting, however the GF-2 looks like the camera that will work for me. I hope to have one in my hands in the next few weeks to use in a real world test. I will post the results on the blog.

The way the digital camera market is changing, Sony may come out with a new camera by the time I return from my current trip to Abu Dhabi. Nikon plans to enter the marketplace in the near future and I’m sure Canon won’t be far behind. One thing is certain -though you can’t keep a head of technology, you still can keep taking pictures with the equipment you have.

Looking for a Point and Shoot for the Holidays?

Early Point and Shoot

Lately, the most asked question from my friends is the hardest to answer: “Which camera should I buy?” I can answer questions about pro DSLRs, but when it comes to point and shoot cameras the field is too crowded to come up with a definitive answer. Sony, Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and Samsung not only offer a great variety of cameras but also a wide price range. To complicate things even more, the era of mirrorless DSLRs has now entered the market place. These cameras have interchangeable lenses and bodies that are as small as many point and shoots. But keep in mind, their size does increase greatly when you add a zoom lens, which is often larger than the camera body itself. The main advantage over the point and shoot cameras is that these cameras have larger image sensors and therefore produce better quality files. Next week we’ll look at some of the choices available in mirrorless, DSLR cameras. But for now, I will discuss the point and shoots. Here’s what you should look for in a point and shoot:
Megapixels: For a while, camera manufacturers were promoting the concept that more megapixels meant a better image. However with sensors the size of a fingernail, too many tiny sensor sites create very noisy images, especially as you increase the ISO. Canon’s G10 camera had 14.7 megapixels, yet it’s successors, the G11 and G12 have only 10 megapixels. A camera with 8 to 10 megapixel sensors is optimum for a point and shoot.
Shutter Lag: This is the delay between when you ‘push the button’ and when the image is recorded. Sometimes the delay is caused by the autofocus or the camera calculating the correct exposure but whatever the cause, you miss the moment. Therefore you should look for a camera with minimal shutter lag.
Zoom Lens: Many people are looking for lenses that zoom into a really super telephoto. I rarely use the telephoto part of my point and shoot zoom; it’s usually not very sharp or crisp. My preference is for a zoom lens that starts wide angle and zooms to three to five times. I try to teach my students not to be lazy but to ‘zoom’ with their legs – walk up to your subject, walk around it and assess the best angle and light. If you must have a zoom lens that extends far, look at the optical zoom number instead of the digital zoom, which just crops into the sensor and makes the image noisy and fuzzy.
Camera Controls: Check out how easy or difficult it is to change the settings on the camera. Many cameras now use extensive menus on the LCD screen to make changes. As a result, you may have to spend a lot of time digging through submenus before you find what you need. And if you put your camera away and don’t use it until the next birthday party or vacation, you will have a lot of trouble remembering where various settings are hiding in the menu.
File Type: If you plan to work on your files in Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture or another program, you will need a camera that has the ability to shoot in the RAW format. If you typically just use JPEGs, this won’t be an issue.
Size: If you find a camera that you like but feel it’s too large, then go with something smaller. There are many cameras small enough to fit into your shirt pocket. Usually though, these smaller cameras don’t have as great a zoom and have less manual controls than the larger cameras. Many of the smaller cameras do not shoot in the RAW format and the files won’t look as good at the higher ISOs. That being said, I would rather have some kind of camera with me, whether large or small than a camera that is left behind in my home or hotel.
Video: Many of the point and shoots have a video mode built in. The type of camera you purchase should take into account the amount of video you plan on shooting along with the level of high definition you require.
I asked Robert French, an equipment specialist at FotoCare in New York City what advice he gives to customers concerning point and shoot cameras. According to Robert, the top end point and shoots are the Nikon P7000 and the Canon Powershot G12. It’s interesting that they not only look alike but also have 10 megapixel sensors. These cameras are full size point and shoot and will not fit in your shirt pocket. Robert told me the top end smaller camera is the Canon Powershot S95, which has the same sensor as the Canon G12. The G12 and P7000 are in the $500 price range and the S95 is about $400.
If you are looking to spend less money, Canon has the SD1400 and 4000. For his clients looking for a camera with a long zoom lens, Robert suggests the Powershot SX210, which has a 14x optical zoom and the Canon Powershot SD4500, which has a 10x optical zoom.
If you have decided to move out of point and shoot cameras and want to carry something around that has interchangeable lenses with a reflex viewfinder, the Nikon D7000 and the Canon Rebel T2i are the way to go. This time of year there are great rebates on many cameras, so it’s a good time to buy.
And what do I carry around with me when I’m not lugging my big professional cameras? I’ve had all the Canon G series cameras through the G11 and I used to carry them around for a week or two before finally coming to the realization that they were just too large for me. Now I have the Canon S90 (the predecessor to the S95), which fits in my pocket.
For those of you who want to take pictures but don’t want to carry anything extra you can always purchase a mobile phone with a decent built in camera. See what the New York Times recently said about point and shoot cameras versus cell phone cameras.