Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Holy Grail of cameras

Some people get invited to weddings in Mexico during the winter, while others get invited to weddings to Baltimore. Guess which group I belong to?
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Since this was supposed to be a non-working vacation, there was a big debate about bringing the full body DSLR with the F2.8 zooms and F1.4 primes vs the smaller DSLR with the single 18-200mm lens or just bringing a compact camera. Then I remembered that I recently got my hands on an E-P1 with the 14-42 kit lens and the flash but have not really had a chance to put it through its paces. Added was the fact that carry-on luggage restrictions to the US are in a flux for foreigners right now, the Olympus E-P1 got the call of duty. I substituted the Olympus mini-flash for an old SB-24 I have from my film days – it gives me the option of bouncing the light.
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The holy grail of cameras – the smallest possible size for the greatest amount of image quality and the most flexible framing options. Is the Olympus E-P1 up to the challenge?
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Here are my experiences over the 4 days and 3 nights of use with the E-P1.

Size:
Smaller than a Nikon D50 but larger than the Panasonic LX3. Not really pocketable in a pant pocket – but doable in a winter jacket.
Verdict – I can carry a LX3 in a belt pouch but I need a small should bag or big coat pocket to carry the E-P1 with 14-42 kit lens in the collapse mode. E-P1 wins but not a big win over the D50 or the newer smaller DSLR bodies because it is still bigger than most pant pockets.

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Focus:
The E-P1 can be smaller in size because it uses a contrast detection system instead of phase detection focusing system. No need for a large reflex mirror for the viewfinder. There are 11 point AF zones to choose from. Choosing them is very difficult and must be done via the menu system. I don’t think it was designed for manual focus selection like a DSLR, seems you are supposed to let the system chose for you automatically – like a compact camera. Focus speed is slow – just like a compact camera. It caused me delays in image captures – press the shutter and wait for the camera to acquire focus before the image is captured. There is a continuous focus mode on the E-P1 – in a DSLR, continuous focus is used for tracking moving subjects, the continuous focus model on the E-P1 just causes the lenses to hunt full time and just wastes battery power. Not recommended, the continuous focus model is next to useless.

Verdict – Focus system performance is same as a compact camera focus system, no match for even an entry level DSLR focus system.
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Battery life:
The E-P1 uses a 1150ma battery, in my 4 days of shooting – the battery never lasted the full day. With no viewfinder, the LCD is on full time draining the battery.
Verdict – Battery life performance for me was about the same as the LX3 (and the LX3 was no Fuji F30). No match for an entry level DSLR battery life.

Frame rate:
The E-P1 has a 3 fps sequential shooting mode. However, there were 2 problems I encountered.
1) Blackout time between frames is so long that I cannot see what I am photographing after the first shutter release. The LCD cannot refresh fast enough to show the image after each shot in the sequential shooting mode.
2) Continuous AF mode cannot be used with sequential shooting mode.

Verdict: Slow focus acquisition and lack of reliable continuous focus mode makes the sequential shooting mode fairly useless. No match for an entry level DSLR.
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Image quality:
The E-P1 has a 12 MP 4/3 sized sensor – a lot bigger size than the compacts but a little smaller than the AP-C sized sensors of most entry level DSLRs. All things being equal, a larger sensor generally gives you larger dynamic range, and better quality as you ramp up the ISO setting. At base ISO, I think you would be hard pressed to notice differences between a compact, the E-P1 or the D50 in image quality. The jpg output from the E-P1 is very nice and you can get by without any post processing out of the camera. As you move the up the ISO scale – 800 to 1000 is the highest I would go on it, unless I had no choice. The meter on the E-P1 is biased to the right, great if you are shooting RAW, blown highlights if you are shooting jpg.

Verdict: E-P1 is great at base ISO and the jpg engine gives please colours straight out of the camera. Greater usable ISO range than a compact camera – all things being equal and not far behind the entry level DSLRs.
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Len options:
The E-P1 is an interchange lens camera so you are not stuck with just the kit lens, for indoor work – there is the Panasonic pancake 20mm F1.7 lens. Its about 2 to 4 stops faster than the kit lens and a little shorter but there is no zoom. There is also the Panasonic wide angle 7-14mm F4 lens which sells for approx. $1600 CAD. Ironic that the lenses I want are all made by Panasonic and not Olympus. Both of the Panasonic lenses are not stabilized but that is alright since the E-P1 is sensor stabilized. I think these are the only lenses that Panasonic makes that do not have built in stabilization.

Verdict: Some great opinions for lenses but they come at a premium price. One of the claimed benefits of the m4/3 format was the smaller size of camera and lenses but this savings in materials has not translated to savings in price. Still limited in lens choices but better than a compact.

Overall impression:
From reading other people’s impression of the E-P1 and the other M4/3 format cameras, I wanted to be like them and free myself of the chains of the big body DSLR. People were saying that M4/3 cameras allowed them to sell all their DSLR gear and moved totally into the M4/3 camp.

For me, the E-P1 will be kept as a second system or third system. There are too many limitations with the focus system for me to leave the DSLR camp. If all I even shot was static subjects than I guess I could sell all my other gear and move into the M4/3 camp but at this point, I like to shoot moving subjects and E-P1 is not suited for that type of photography.
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The size of the cameras are just a little too big to fit in a belt pouch, which means I need a small camera bag, once I move into the bag department, I may as well bring my small body DSLR (in my case a D50, but the newer D3000/D5000 bodies are even smaller). Yes, the E-P1 lenses are smaller but they are also more expensive for the similar focal ranges and apertures. If the prices of the M4/3 system were similar to the entry level DSLR – I would invest more in the lens range.

As the E-P1 gives similar image quality to the entry DSLR without matching focus performance, it is really disappointing that it is currently priced in the mid-level DSLR range.

Overall, the E-P1 has good image quality, especially in jpgs but with a hot meter. Size is small but not as small as the large compacts (Canon G11, S90, Panasonic LX3) but the real disappointment is the focus system. It really is only a compact level focus system, which limits the kind of photography you can do. For the money, I could not recommend this camera as a primary system – maybe as a secondary system. The E-P1 is not the Holy Grain of cameras and my quest continues.

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