The choice of cameras is mind-blowing, so where do you begin? Your budget is the first consideration, your level of commitment to photography and how much weight you want to carry around with you all come into the equation. So let me take you through the journey I went through to choose and buy a camera.
The screen shot above will give you a big clue! There is a new standard for digital cameras called (Micro) Four Thirds. Now, before you switch off, in simple language its a range of cameras with interchangeable lenses, like single lens reflex cameras, but significantly smaller and, hopefully, less expensive, but with similar performance. It is an “open standard” and currently used by two major Japanese manufacturers – Olympus and Panasonic – along with several lens manufacturers. The screen shot is from the Four Thirds organisation. This is a very useful website for seeing all the cameras and lenses currently available, along with technical summaries.
So, with that in mind, and the three selection criteria of budget, commitment and weight, where do we start?
The sky is the limit when it comes to buying a camera, with many levels of performance and quality to choose from. At the top is probably Leica, with its minimalist designs, very much like Apple in its philosophy. And prices can rapidly get to £12,000, although there are much lower priced alternatives in their range, for relatively simple point and shoot rangefinder style cameras. (From now on I will use rangefinder and reflex to distinguish between the two main styles of camera body. There is a helpful comparison here.)
The mainstream camera manufacturers all offer both styles but interchangeable lenses are usually only provided on reflex style cameras. There are exceptions, but these are very much niche market cameras, with proprietary lenses which limits choice and keeps prices high.
With that in mind, the Four Thirds standard should be an interesting place to start because it is an open standard – anyone can use it – and lenses from any of the manufacturers are compatible with any of the cameras. So you can shop around.
And because of the choice, there should be a wide range of prices and performance to select from, to match any budget. In fact the lowest price I have seen for a camera in the rangefinder style without a lens is £199. This has to be investigated further bearing in mind that a point and shoot camera, also called a “bridge camera”, can be had for around £100 with a slow fixed lens (f/5.9), low shutter speed (1/1500 sec), small sensor (6×4 mm), weighing in at 600gm. I don’t have anything against these cameras – they are fine for casual photography – but fall short for a committed photographer with an aversion to carrying heavy loads!
So what can you buy in the price range of say £200 to £2000 that offers interchangeable lenses, rangefinder and reflex styles, from several manufacturers and are designed to an open standard so that you can mix and match lenses and cameras and which are relatively lightweight and compact?
What do I mean by committed photographer? It’s someone who takes a camera with them everywhere, or almost everywhere, and spends an hour at least every week taking photos, editing them, and reading about photography. If this isn’t you, what follows is probably going to be boring.
What does a committed photographer look for in a camera? Is is all – round performance, convenience, flexibility, dependability, creativity, excitement, form and function? All of these? Every photographer is different- some make a living from it – but most take photographs because they love looking at the end result and how they can tell a story in an instant. And being surprised and delighted at the image and “did I really take that photo?”
And that is what photography means to me – that elusive moment when something remarkable happened between the camera and the photographer, that froze an instant in time, leaving an image which tells a story in an exciting and pleasing way.
And this is possible from an inexpensive and basic camera, but is far more likely if the camera helps the photographer by providing extra control over exposure and focus.
Rangefinder cameras are generally lightweight compared with reflex cameras, because they don’t have through the lens metering and focusing – with all the added complexity of mirrors and mechanisms that this requires. The smallest rangefinder cameras weigh from 200gm without a primary lens at around 100gm. The smallest reflex cameras start at 400gm without a lens, which are typically 200gm and above. In a studio or static setting reflex cameras can be supported by tripods to avoid serious injury, but for street and landscape situations a rangefinder will always be more convenient.
Choosing a camera
If you already own a rangefinder or reflex camera the choice will be easy – go for the one you don’t have. If you have a point and shoot or bridge camera and want something a bit more demanding – and rewarding in terms of results – what should you choose? And should it be a proprietary standard that most camera manufacturers use, where their lenses are only use-able on their camera bodies (unless you can buy some type of adaptor which may only partially work) or should you look at an open standard like (Micro) Four Thirds?
Let’s assume you have chosen to investigate (Micro) Four Thirds, and see what that leads to!
Micro Four Thirds
The Micro Four Thirds standard, announced in 2008, is designed for digital cameras. Most reflex cameras are developed from film cameras and use film camera techniques and design considerations. This means they can use lenses from film cameras too, so that is a good thing. But they have the size and weight that film cameras had. Digital technology is an add-on, not its core.
Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras have no legacy design constraints – they are designed for the digital electronic era. What does that mean? It means they can be designed to be small, lightweight, and flexible for a wide range of uses in both reflex and rangefinder styles using high quality construction and engineering developed for computers and mobile phones.
MFT shares the original image sensor size and specification with the Four Thirds system, designed for DSLRs. Unlike Four Thirds, the MFT system design specification does not provide space for a mirror box and a pentaprism, leading to smaller body designs and lenses.
Initially Four Thirds was intended to provide designs for mirror and mirrorless cameras, but now has opted only to provide for mirrorless cameras in the Micro Four Thirds standard.
Using the MFT standard, Olympus has 7 reflex and 7 rangefinder style cameras, while Panasonic has 3 and 6 respectively, in each style using the MFT standard for interchangeable lenses.
In both cases the main method of viewing the image in the camera is by (touch) screen monitor, usually 3 inches (76mm) diagonal. Some cameras also have either an optical or electronic viewfinder. The monitor and electronic viewfinders provide a “live” view of what the camera sensor sees, so you can see how the picture will look when the camera shutter is opened. This is particularly useful for looking at depth of field.
To understand what cameras can and can’t do an interesting approach is to compare them. Take two cameras, and examine their features side by side. An excellent website for this is Imaging Resource. Here is the comparison between a Panasonic Lumix GM1 and an Olympus Pen F. Both cameras use the same MFT lenses, so their optical performance will be identical. And the GM1 uses the same electronics as the GFX7 which costs £350. The current street price for the GM1 camera body is £200 and £1000 for the Pen F. The question is, do the additional features of the Pen F add up to £800 of additional value?
The full reviews for the GM1 and Pen F are also available on the Imaging Resource website. There are also useful comments from users at the end of each review. So, apart from actually using the cameras, there is a wealth of information about them.
So what next? Could I live with the GM1 at £200 plus say, a 20mm f/1.7 fixed lens, or would I have to pay another £800 for the Pen F? Maybe I should buy the GM1 just to see how MFT cameras and lenses perform before buying the more expensive camera? Decisions, decisions…
So how do these cameras score on the budget, commitment and weight rating?
- GM1 £200, Pen F £1000 plus £200 for a basic fixed lens. I give the GM1 4 out of 5 points and the Pen F 1 out of 5.
- The GM1 does everything I want a rangefinder camera to do so I give it 5 out of 5 while the Pen F also only gets 5 out of 5 because it has too many features I will never use.
- In terms of weight the GM1 gets 5 out of 5 at 203gm, vs the Pen F at 427gm with a score of 2 out of 5.
So the Panasonic GM1 wins. Or does it? Let me think what I could miss not having…
Buying a camera
I live in a rural area so unless I travel to a city with many camera shops – are there any?- there is no choice but to buy on line. There is a Jessops in the nearby Sainsbury’s store but they don’t sell the whole range of available cameras, strangely only selling the very expensive models.
The first frustration about buying on line of course is that you cannot hold the camera and try it before you buy. That is a real worry. However, there are some informative videos on Youtube which give a very good impression of how these cameras work in the real world.
A review of the latest in the Olympus line-up, the Pen-F.
A review of the latest in the Panasonic line-up, the GX-8.
A review of the older Panasonic GX-7, now replaced by the GX-8.
A review of the older Olympus Pen EP5.
The second is that each seller offers a different package of camera and lens, very few if any offering just the camera body, so it’s impossible to compare like with like.
The third is that no one sells the complete range from a manufacturer and even the manufacturer’s own websites are out of date and the prices they offer are double the “normal” price.
So it is an uphill struggle to find what you want and impossible to try it before you buy.
So this is where I am…