First Plunge into Mirrorless

I’ve finally taken my first plunge into the great ocean of mirrorless cameras! It’s something of an historic moment for me, as after 15-odd years of using Nikon SLRs, I’m finally buying into another system (not including a host of compacts). After a lot of careful (some would say obsessive) research and window-shopping, I finally clicked the buy button, on an Olympus E-pl2. It’s kind of interesting, as my first cameras were Olymouses, compacts that looked easier to use than an SLR and full of the latest technologies, at least for that time. Today, unusually for a tech-lover like me, I went for something a generation behind in performance for the consistent retro-styling and a sense of being fun to use. I really love the EP-2/ EP-3 styling and the E-pl2 is the most recent scaled down version of this Olympus has made. In fact, I’ve had my eye on this camera ever since it was first announced and the fact that I can now buy it online for a mere ¥42,700 (I know, the price keeps changing), with a two-zoom kit pushed this shopper over the edge. That’s what I’d generally spend on just one DSLR lens, or a high-end compact. I’d really like the EP-3, a truly beautiful and fast camera but it comes at a much higher price and contains a lot of outdated technology when you compare it with the soon to be released EM-5, so any kind of big purchase like that is something I’d do in the future, or perhaps never do, with all my investment in Nikon gear. This way, I get to dip my feet in that great ocean without too much risk of drowning in it.

So with all the choices out there, why did I chose this? One big influence was this blog post by Jonathan Fleming, which shows what wonderful images you can get straight out of this unassuming camera. Another one was the peculiar price oscillation I saw for this on Amazon. Though according to CamelCamel.com the price has been gradually sinking over the past few months, it actually alternates every few days between 42,700 and 51,000 yen, so that’s a pretty decent saving for timing it right. For me, online shopping is a bit like hunting a wild animal, you need just the right amount of planning and cunning if you are to get the killer deal! Of course, there were many other possibilities and still are. Mirrorless certainly offers a lot of variety, but the good thing is that if you stay away from the latest and greatest,  they are generally priced so affordably that you could buy more than one if you really wanted. Still, no-one wants to waste their hard-earned money and I recently made a fairly exhaustive study of the options out there right now, in my post, A Mirrorless Ocean, which is probably too long for anyone to do more than glance at, but if you scroll down to my conclusion, you’ll see what I mean.

Other Options, Other Opinions

Small but massively heavy, more the first of the robo-cameras than the last rangefinder.

If you look at that post, you’ll see that initially my favourite was the Nikon 1 series, so why the second choice? Well, trying out the Nikon J1 and V1 in my hand basically put me off them. I realise they have excellent performance (in good light) and sharp little lenses, but they really feel like bars of molded soap. In the case of the feature-rich V1 though this is more like a smooth brick; at around 500kg, that thing is heavy and not exactly good-looking. The J1 loses a lot of its advantages, but it is lighter, though I had to wonder, do I really want to whip out something so toy-like and amateur-looking everywhere I go? This is all the more relevant in a walk-around, social camera, than one I’ll be relying on on photography-centric trips. Answer- resounding ‘no’. Then, at our camera show in Ginza, one of the members was taking photos with an elegant EP2 and asked me to take his photo. It felt so nice in the hand and after all, shouldn’t the things we use feel good? This is a published photographer, who used Contax rangefinders and medium format around the world. The fact he used only this EP2 on a month trip around Europe last summer was a pretty good advertisement. Style and performance in one- and the E-pl2 is a direct descendant of that model (which I’ll admit feels a lot nicer to use).

Maxi-LX5?

The nearest competition for me was the Panasonic G1X. With better movies and AF in a decent body, along with a newer 16mp sensor, it is an attractive option. Yet there were strikes against it, too. For one thing, it doesn’t have an affordable twin-zoom kit and I think I could well use these little cameras for their telephoto ability, which becomes very large on DX and simply massive on FX. I actually often use my Canon G9 in this role, with its generous 35-210mm lens and decent 1/1.7” sensor, sometimes with a 2x converter. Having something an order of magnitude better for this without too much extra size is very attractive. Yet buying lenses separately quickly becomes very expensive and I’d rather invest in my Nikons that way. More to the point, the G1X feels too serious for me, just too minimal and cold. Plus the menus are not only horrible to look at, but only in Japanese (here), for some bizarre reason. Small points, perhaps, but I want a camera I actually enjoy using. Picking it up, it feels solid and capable, but not really all that much fun, which I suppose is the idea of styling something as more tool than toy.

Mini-G1X?

From what I’ve seen, though, similarly to my LX5, the pictures from it come out dull and lifeless, so you have to PP to get them looking as vibrant as Olympus Jpegs. No problem if you use it in Raw, though it’ll probably take time to get them looking just right and I find with things like skies, Panasonic goes for some weird colours that are really hard to correct, though it may be possible. With Lightroom camera profiles you can shoot in raw and generally only need to adjust exposure or white balance a little, but Panasonic needs much more than that to look good enough. Aside from this, it really is an excellent little camera and it is a very hard choice between it and the E-pl2, it also having it’s own retro style and solid controls, being a bit like a scaled-up LX5. It has an attractive twin lens option at ¥51,000, with both the prime 14mm f/2.4 and a stabilised 14-42mm zoom and whilst  I like that set if only for the prime, I would much prefer the excellent 20mm f/1.7 Panasonic makes, which I’ll probably end up getting and using as my main lens. Yes, it’s that good, so much so that the set with the GF1 it first came out with has actually appreciated with time and is offered for a hefty 80,000 online! Panasonic’s original kit zoom 14-45mm is also reputedly the best in class, despite it’s size, so I may well get one of those some day. That’s the great thing about M4/3, the variety of good lenses, small and relatively affordable, something I’ve been waiting in vain for on Nikon DX mount.

Then we have the newer Pen models. The E-pl3 improves on this in so many ways. It brings a tilting LCD, faster AF and 1080p video, but it also brings a super-slim compact style body with no built-in flash. I just didn’t like the feel of it, especially with the kit lens on it, the same way I feel about the NEX models. It is elegant in its own way, but has few control and none of that retro, cool style I look for in a Pen. I can see why it exists and they made a great job with it, as similarly to a lot of Panasonic users it is aimed fairly and squarely at those upgrading from a compact who probably don’t really want to carry around a DSLR, though would like at least some of its performance. I’m certainly not dissing it as a camera, though at the end of the day, it costs quite a lot more for the same kit as I have (¥66,000 vs ¥43,000), yet it both loses the retro styling and doesn’t add a newer sensor. Essentially, a well-taken photo will be the same. I figure that the Pens are refreshed so frequently that soon there will be a nice model with all those and more features, especially the new 16mp sensor and 5-axis optical stabilisation of the E-M5, perhaps even with a new pancake lens improving on the current, dark 17mm f/2.8 Olympus makes. I prefer having various bodies with lenses than changing lenses and missing a shot, so having this in addition some day might be an option, though I’m tired of waiting for it to appear, as not only will it take a while to come out, but it will start off being around twice the price, which is more than this consumer wants to spend on such fast-changing technology.

You pays your money and you makes your choice.

So you pays your money and you makes your choice! I’m anticipating really loving the style and feel of this camera, though perhaps feeling a bit frustrated by its performance. Hopefully it’ll be enough, but we’ll have to see, as I’m generally shooting still things anyway. In a sense, though, the body’s being thrown in with the lenses, probably in the hope that I’ll buy more of each in the future. We’ll have to see about that, though I definitely have my eye on that Panasonic 20mm, which would make for a fantastic little set and probably all I’d want or need in many situations; yes, it sounds that good! A rangefinder for the new millennium. The zooms are really just for their convenience, though I do love their small size and smooth, fast, silent focussing, which will be great for video (even if this cam is a bit backward in that area, not a major concern for me as I won’t use it much). This has actually been a long time in the making, I’ve had my eye on a Pen for years now and really desired something like that, with built-in IBIS and a small lens to take around with me. Who knows, I might like the results so much it gets chosen instead of my Nikons. I’m really looking forward to playing around with it, taking some semi-macros and using the art filters, possibly in RAW+Jpeg mode, so I have a ‘regular’ photo as well. It’s certainly going to be a big just up from my compacts, my only other choice for really traveling light and one I was never completely satisfied with, with their tiny sensors and fixed lenses.

* Note, product photos were taken at the 2012 CP+ Show in Yokohama, Japan. No cameras were hurt in the making of this blog post.

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