Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Sep 04 2009

The middle camera

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.

posted by Poagao at 5:45 pm  


  1. The GF1 paired with the 7-14 appeals to me the most as a middle camera (though that lens is not cheap) and was happy to see it finally announced this week. But I’d really like to see Panasonic release a couple compact wide primes in the 8-12mm range. The lack of lens selection is what I feel currently hobbles the micro four thirds system the most, though being able to adapt legacy systems such as Leica M mount rangefinder lenses is interesting for normal to short telephoto solutions (i.e. the very compact and reasonably priced Voigtlander 40mm f/1.4 becomes a fast 80mm equivalent crop). But yes, I agree. The LX3 is borderline as a pocketable camera and a GF1 will only be worse in this regard. Will it be a worthwhile tradeoff for better image quality? I’m hoping to at least give it a try.

    Regarding the LX3 and it’s relatively slow AF: The workaround I found was to keep the camera set to manual focus and use the focus button beside the shutter release to prefocus at whatever distance I might anticipate to be appropriate. Because of the small sensor and immense depth of field there is quite some leeway with focus, especially at the wide end, and the LX3 becomes very responsive when set up this way. It’s similar to moving the AF function off the shutter release on a Canon DSLR and reassigning it to the * or AF ON button. If the S90 can be set up to do something similar with the ring around the lens (turn it into a manual focusing ring) then maybe it could be a better solution, but I know I would miss the 24mm equivalent and 720P capability of the LX3.

    Comment by Ron — September 6, 2009 @ 12:48 am

  2. Ron, I don’t really have much of a problem with the LX3’s focusing speed, and after using the EP1 I doubt it would be much of a problem for me either (and it is supposed to be improved with the new firmware). The 7-14 is a bit large, though, and I’d like to keep my middle camera out of DSLR-range in size; otherwise, what’s the point?

    Yesterday I decided to go walking around my neighborhood without my bag, and I took my LX3 on it’s lanyard around my neck, making me think that, at least in that case, the S90 would have been more pocketable and easier to use.

    I’ll probably just end up waiting for the reviews to come in. There’s nothing really wrong with my currrent setup, and it will take a mighty nice camera with few flaws to make me want to switch.

    Comment by Poagao — September 6, 2009 @ 8:11 am

  3. Oh, and the S90’s front right is supposed to be a “click ring” with stops, so I’m not sure how well that would work with focusing if your focus turns out to be in between clicks on the ring.

    And the LX3’s video, while in 720p, looks washed out and has those annoying vertical stripes that I hate whenever it sees a light source. I preferred the video from my old SD800IS, and I suspect I would like the S90’s output, color and saturation better as well. 640×480 is enough for the Youtube travel videos that I do; anything that requires more resolution I can use my DSLR for.

    Comment by Poagao — September 6, 2009 @ 8:15 am

  4. Yeah, I agree the LX3 video could be better. It doesn’t have a lush, vivid feel. It almost feels brittle in a certain way. The ring on the S90 is an interesting implementation and I see now that one of the functions is manual focusing. I don’t think there will be a problem with it being too imprecise, especially for normal working distances, where even wide open there should be a fair amount of depth of field at the wide end.

    BTW, I was in Taiwan in March and was surprised to see so many people using LX3s. I’m also curious, is it pretty easy to find the 7-14 Panasonic lens there? Supply seems to be near nonexistent in the US…

    Comment by Ron — September 19, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

  5. I haven’t really looked for that lens, so I don’t know. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if I really need a “middle camera” at all. Usually my phone camera is good enough for snapshots, and the rabbit isn’t too big with just the 50 1.8 on it.

    Comment by Poagao — September 23, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

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