Opinion: What camera should I buy?

This deeply controversial question was posed to me recently and I thought it was worth outlining the process of figuring out what camera someone should buy. The first step is to ask a few questions. The key ones are what do you want to shoot and what are you going to do with the pictures?

So, the questions were answered thus – “I want something that is easy to sling into a ruck sack whilst hiking, and I am looking to spend time photographing scenery, and weather! I have be come fascinated with ‘Atmospheric Art’ and want to capture that sort of thing on film. Lights on water, wave crashing over walls, sun showing through silhouetted trees, that sort of thing. Portability is the key with functionality set all against cost!” The seeker then goes on to say “To be used on computer mainly, might look to print off the occasional exceptional capture, if I make any!”

OK, this tells me that portability is paramount and pixel count isn’t an issue. Due to my personal preferences, I wouldn’t consider a camera that doesn’t shoot raw, which limits the point and shoot field considerably. The quest for portability will probably move the seeker away from the DSLR range as well, so the field is getting narrower.

More after the jump….

Right,  lets look at some options. DPReview is an excellent place to find out about camera specs and some amature reviews. We’ll start from the bottom up. As far as I care, there are 3 point and shoot cameras I would personally consider. The Canon G12, Nikon P7000 and the Lumix LX-5. These all have RAW capability, which is where I’ll start. As it happens, they have a very good comparative review of these cameras on the site. To cut to the chase, if this is what you want, get the G12. It’s a marvellous camera and shows the depth of experience Canon has in building this type of thing. Simple answer…well, maybe not. See, the problem is that while all three of these cameras are very good, for landscape work they are somewhat lacking. A camera for landscapes needs to be able to accomodate wide angle lenses. These 3 cameras are somewhat lacking, with the Lumix the best at 24mm, the other two at 28mm.

The next issue with these cameras a serious landscape tools are the lack of filter threads or methods to mount filters. There are a couple of tricks that can be used to work around the this, but I prefer more solid solutions. These are great backup cameras and I’d spend the money on the Canon in a heart beat, but if this was to be my primary camera, I’d soon become dissatisfied with the limitations.

Next option – 4/3 format. This is a relatively new format and I haven’t played with these cameras, but they have some impressive specs and just based on specs alone we can consider them. The contenders here are the Sony NEX-5, various Panasonic models (GF2, GH2, G2) and the Olympus E-P2 and E-PL2 models. Now, I admit I have no direct experience of these camera systems, and they are a system, so I’ve done some basic research on them. The upside over the P&S cameras is more lens flexability and bigger pixels for a given size – which equates to lower noise at higher effective sensitivites. These systems are smaller and lighter than the DSLR options, but do suffer some drawbacks. The main one is fast glass. Want a 50mm f1.4 equivalent? Forget it. Do you need it? Not for landscapes…so really, these systems may very well fit the bill.

The Sony is quite nice, but at present have a very limited lens base. For equivalent focal lengths to 35mm cameras, double the number. Today, Sony has lots of planned lenses, but only 3 available – 16mm, 18-55 and 18-200. Which is effectively 32mm at the widest – not good for landscapes. There is a bolt on adaptor to get you to a 18mm wide andgle, but thats a lousy solution. The will make more lenses, but I can garentte the one you want isn’t going to be released when you want it. The other major drawback that would stop me in my tracks is the size. I’ve got decent size hands and the body of the NEX-5 just doesn’t look like it would be comfortable for me to operate. This goes back to my original introductory post of getting your hands on the cameras and see what “fits”.

Lets consider the Panasonic GF2. This is the smallest bodied 4/3rds camera they make and it’s really quite nice. Panasonics system lenses include a 7-14mm(14-28mm equivalent) f4. Very nice for landscapes, but not cheap ($800). Well, compare that to an equivalent Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 at $1800 it’s not bad, but still a chunk of change, and thats just the lens. One drawback is that there doesn’t seem to be a remote shutter release and that’s a no-no.

Final camera for consideration in this catagory is the Olympus E-PL2. Just been announce (Jan 6th). When the original Pen digital camera came out they were a thing of lust….and still are. This is a comprehensive system and has all the goodies. It should be noted that the performance and results of all these cameras are broadly similar, so it’s down to price, handling and system. From what I’ve seen of the PL2, this just fits the bill nicely. good selection of lenses, external flash guns, remote releases. The lenses take filters (except the superwides, which is typical of the breed of lens) and have hoods.

The thing about the the 4/3rd system is that other manufacturers lenses “should” fit on the camera. Panasonics website agrees with that contention.This is a good thing as Olympus’s own version of the superwide 7-14mm is rather pricy at $1500. They do have a 9-18mm f4-5.6 lens that will do very nicely for landscapes and stuff that will take filters quite happily and it’s a paltry $600. You could also buy the Panasonic 7-14mm and use it – but I strongly recommend you try this configuration before you buy it. If that works, it’s a very nice combination for a reasonable outlay.

So after all this waffel, it comes down to two cameras. Canon G12 or Olympus E-PL2. It all depends on what you end up using it for. I’d be damn happy with either, although I’d go for the Olympus. I can get an adapter for it to take my Nikon lenses. If you think you’ll run with the hobby, the Olympus will be more satisfying in the long run.

Ideally, I’d go into a store that has the Sony, Panasonic, Olympus and Canon cameras in stock. I’d then line them up on the counter and play with them to see what fitted my hands best and then go from there.

More to come…

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