WARNING: Gear talk ahead.
Hard to believe that it’s September already. With most of my weekends gone to playing in clubs, time has really flown. Fall, however, has brought with it a plethora of new camera releases, which in turn represent a conundrum for me.
A while ago I wrote about my photography being divided into three levels of cameras, i.e. my big, heavy DSLR I take with me for dedicated photography trips, the compact camera I keep in my backpack all the time when I don’t feel like carrying the big camera and lenses with me, and the tiny camera on my mobile phone that I use when I don’t have the time or inclination to fetch either of my “real” cameras.
While my DSLR option is pretty much set in stone, as I am happy with the Invincible Rabbit, the compromises represented by the other level cameras make my wallet hand twitch when I see something that could improve the situation hit the market. A few cameras recently announced have had this effect:
The first one, of course, is Olympus’ EP1, a micro four-thirds camera somewhere between a compact point-and-shoot and a DSLR in both size and image quality. The stylin’ retro EP1 has no flash, which doesn’t bother me particularly, but the LCD is not particularly detailed, and since you have to rely on it for focusing, this is an important point to consider. Last week I attended a class on the EP1 just to check it out. It feels great in the hand, and the sound and feel of the shutter are wonderful. The EP1 also has in-body image stabilization, which is good for the low-light shots I love. For some reason, however, it kept focusing about a foot behind where it should have. The speed of the contrast-detect AF was about the same as my LX3, not bad, but not instantaneous.
Many of the percieved deficiencies of the EP1 might be fixable with new firmware, of course, but the focusing issues give me pause. The new Panasonic GF1, however, seems to have much quicker focusing, as well as a properly resolutioned LCD. The Panny, however, lacks in-body image stabilization and relies on lens-based systems. But with higher ISO shooting made possible by the larger sensors, it should still be better than the LX3 (theoretically).
One problem with the micr0-four-thirds format is that, if you want any kind of range, you have to use a bulky zoom lens like Oly’s 14-42 (which collapses) or Panny’s 14-45 (not sure if it collapses). In order for them to be truly compact, you have to use one of the pancake lenses with a single focal length. Is it worth giving up a decent range of focal lengths or portability for the extra image quality? This is the problem of the middle camera: exactly where in the middle should it be?
This brings me to the Canon S90, which would theoretically replace my Panasonic LX3. I have to admit I’ve always had a soft spot for Canon powershots, as one of the early models was my first digital camera, the SD100 back in 2001. Although the Lx3 is a fine camera for its size and does its job with more efficiency than any other compact I’ve had, it just isn’t as pocketable as my old powershots, and I have a hard time loving the output, especially after the brilliant images I got from the Sigma DP1. The DP1′s handling was heartbreakingly slow, however, and I was simply missing too many shots with it. The ones I did get, however, were wonderful. I’m under no illusion that the S90 would be much of an improvement over the LX3 as it has a similarly tiny sensor, adding only some useful telephoto range and a much slimmer, pocketable profile, and hopefully nicer colors.
Obviously, the easiest, cheapest option would to be to not buy anything new and keep the setup I have. Or I could replace the LX3 with either a GF1 or EP1 for better image quality, or with an S90 simply for better portability and range. I am also tempted to upgrade my phone to the iPhone 3GS just for the better camera, but I am tempted by the extra speed and compass functions as well. In that case the phone camera’s portability would make an S90 a little redundant.
I’m not forgetting that Leica is scheduled to unveil some new cameras on the 9th, aka 9/9/09 (full-frame M9 anyone?), but I’m sure that any digital camera they make that I could conceivably afford, I could also get for a third of the price from Panasonic, minus the little red dot.
None of the above cameras will be on shelves here for a matter of months, however, and a lot can happen in that time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this business, it’s that there is always a better camera just around the corner, and if you keep waiting for the “perfect” model, you’ll just be missing out on the pictures you could be taking in the here and now.