Okay, what can I say? I learned about a new camera and I can’t stop thinking about it. I thought I was over the adolescent-like lusting after equipment, but maybe we don’t ever get over that! Just to keep me grounded, I am throwing in a photo to start from when I was in Florida last month (this is also part of a new Skill Snack video course I did at Skillfeed.com on controlling perspective).
Seriously, I’m not yet ready to sell all of my gear right now and change brands, though I have done that in the past. I did think my “lustful feelings” about gear might be a good opportunity to talk a little bit about equipment and how we look at it. I feel that camera equipment is very important because it represents the tools that we use to create our images. I’ve found that in all of the discussion about gear that you see in magazines and on the Internet, very rarely do you see the background of why a pro has chosen the tools he or she is using. There is too much discussion on some arbitrary factors as if there were such a thing as a perfect camera for everyone that can be chosen purely by those factors (there isn't).
Years ago I first went to Olympus E-series Four Thirds format cameras (from being a Canon user) because Olympus made the first DSLR to have live view and a tilting LCD (the E-330). The tilting LCD is a big deal for me because it strongly affects my ability to take certain types of pictures. I also liked their compact size (including lenses) which made them more portable for field use.
Then came video in DSLRs. I shot video professionally during the 1980s and 1990s, so I was excited about the possibilities of DSLRs and video. Canon had much better video than anything Olympus had, so I went back to Canon for those capabilities. I really wasn’t crazy about going to a larger camera size, but good video combined with excellent still photography was important. I first had a 7D, but when the 60D came out, I immediately went to that because of the swivel live view LCD, even though theoretically the 60D is not as “good” a camera body as the 7D (the sensors are identical). Such an LCD is hugely versatile for nature photographers because it allows you to change the height of your camera and still see through the lens very easily and without doing contortions to see through the viewfinder. It also allows for better focusing, sharper photos (no mirror bounce) and easier visualization of how the camera is seeing the scene.
The Canon cameras were fine, but I wasn’t completely happy. One of the big things was gear size. As you can probably tell, I am not a big fan of the 35-full-frame cameras because the cameras are huge as well as the lenses that are required to use them. Image quality is not that much different to make them all that worthwhile for me as a tool.
I started seeing some interesting things with the Sony NEX cameras, and there seemed to be a lot of potential for the future in them. I loved the size and yet the sensor was nearly identical in size to my Canon cameras. These little cameras were a fraction the size of my Canon APS-C format cameras, yet they were also APS-C. They also had a tilting LCD – though I would have preferred a swivel LCD because the purely tilting LCD makes verticals harder to do.
When I got an NEX 5n and tried it out, I was really pleased. I felt image quality was as good or better than my Canon equipment, plus video was excellent (one would expect that from Sony). I added an NEX F3K for its really wide articulation of the LCD and for backup. I have to tell you that it was pretty amazing to add a camera body so that a combination of both my camera bodies were about the size of my Canon 60D and weighed less.
Now I have been shooting with the Sony NEX cameras for well over a year. I love the size and portability of my gear. Image quality and video is excellent. But I have been challenged by Sony’s lack of creating a true system for the NEX cameras. Flash capabilities are minimal, actual e-mount lenses are limited in selection, and not all of the e-mount lenses are as good as I would like them. You might remember a blog I did about shooting with the 16mm f/2.8 lens. I was really excited about that lens because its focal length is a really sweet spot for me and the lens was so small. But results were not at the level I expected. I was able to get image quality I wanted by using Nik Software Sharpener Pro, but I expected more from the lens.
I ended up getting a Zeiss 16-80mm lens that I adore (which is what I shot the opening image with on the NEX 5n), it is a beautiful lens, and is a big reason why I might not change camera gear in the future. But it is a larger lens designed for the Sony Alpha cameras and I need an adapter for it. In fact of my two most used lenses, the Zeiss and a Tokina 10-16mm fisheye (Canon mount) need adapters and neither is an e-mount lens (and neither can do autofocus). I do love the Sony 50mm f/1.8 e-mount lens, and the kit lens is not bad, but the 30mm macro is too short (which I why I use a Tamron 90mm macro) and the 50-200mm is okay, but could be better (which is why I use a beautiful old manual Nikkor lenses of 200mm with adapter).
Another challenge that I found with the NEX cameras is that like other cameras in this price range, they are not particularly well sealed against the weather or dust. I had some problems with this when I was recently in Florida, and it was raining, with the result being I had to have some repairs made. In addition, through a trusted source in the photo industry, I hear that Sony is putting their efforts toward professional level photography into their Alpha cameras and not into the NEX cameras. That is disappointing.
Enter the Panasonic Lumix GH3 – the camera that I seem to be lusting after. Well, I suppose that is better than lusting after some other things! This camera got my attention for a number of reasons, including some discussions I had with other photographers at NANPA last month and a recent serendipitous discussion with a friend. Let’s look at if my lust is justified based on the camera as a tool.
As you can tell, I am not afraid of changing brands. That’s another good thing about not investing in a big, heavy 35-full-frame camera. They are very expensive cameras because of the size of the sensor. All of that money used to purchase that camera is not because you’re getting a superbly better camera body. You’re putting much of that money into the camera because big sensors are expensive to produce. And frankly, camera manufacturers know they can charge a bit more for these cameras to make up for the reduced profit margins they have on the least expensive cameras. So I can actually afford to change cameras and lenses at less than the cost of a single 35-full-frame camera body.
But that is not something I can afford to do right now. Sometimes the universe acts in unusual ways, though. I was telling a good friend of mine in the photo industry about my interest in the GH3, and it so happened that he had just talked with a manager at Panasonic who worked with the GH3. They are going to send me a GH3 to work with for a few weeks later this spring, and I will be sure to tell you all about my experience with it. A nice perk of being in the industry for so long.
So why should I consider the GH3 and what can it do as a tool for me? First, obviously this is a very small camera using the Micro Four Thirds format. Micro Four Thirds and Four Thirds use identical sensor sizes for a format slightly smaller than APS-C. Micro Four Thirds is designed for the very compact digital single lens mirrorless (DSLM) cameras and has a different lens mount. Like all mirrorless cameras (including the NEX cameras), the GH3 can use adapters to use almost any lens that is available today.
The GH3 has a greater range of lenses than the NEX, and Panasonic seems to be making a commitment to work with Leica to gain higher quality from all of their lenses. You can see this right away from looking at the way Sony and Panasonic present their lenses on their web sites – Panasonic gives lots of details about each lens, including some performance charts. Sony basically gives a paragraph or so and little else – that is a clue to how these companies think. Combined with the ability to adapt other lenses to the system (including all of Olympus’s Micro Four Thirds lenses), this makes the GH3 a much better system camera.
The GH3 has a fully swiveling LCD rather than a tilting LCD. I have been noticing that I have been reluctant to shoot verticals with my NEX cameras of late, not necessarily a good thing. As I was working on my photo e-book, Reports from the Wild, I ended up having to crop horizontal pictures vertically to fit certain layouts that I wanted to do because I had never shot the verticals (I hope to have this book available by the end of March). A swivel LCD is a tool that makes verticals much easier to do.
One thing that is very impressive with the GH3 is that the body is designed to be rugged with a splash/dustproof design, something none of the NEX cameras have (or frankly, any low-priced DSLR). That makes this a tool that is pretty useful for the work that I do outdoors. Based on the specs, the body should easily match body quality of the Canon EOS 5D Mark III (again, you can’t go by price alone because the big 35mm-full-frame sensor is very expensive to produce and higher priced cameras have higher profit margins).
Image quality should be excellent. I remember shooting with my Olympus E-series cameras that had Four Thirds LMOS sensors originally designed by Panasonic, and I was always impressed by the color and tonal rendering of the cameras. The GH3 uses a 16 MP LMOS sensor (don’t ask me to explain LMOS – all I know is that they worked very well in the cameras I owned that used them).
Here’s a list of some additional things that look very favorable as tools that could help my work:
- Superb video quality with specs that beat the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, plus a 2x lossless “telextender” feature for video (this is possible for any DSLR, but few other manufacturers have done it)
- Full AF possible while shooting video, plus you can use touch screen zooming
- Special low-pass filter over sensor (this is becoming a big deal with a lot of manufacturers now because it affects ultimate sharpness of images, much more than pixel number or sensor size)
- Full-sensor autofocusing and pinpoint AF as needed
- Touch screen focusing (if you have never had this experience, it will blow you away)
- Built-in WiFi so you can set up your camera then move away with a smart phone or tablet and actually see what the lens is seeing through the camera and take the picture from your handheld device! (This seems to be a wave of the future for many manufacturers and could be a great tool for putting a camera in a location where you might scare off your subject yet you’ll be able to get the shot.)
- Wireless external flash capability
Finally, a little thing. This camera has a headphone jack. It might seem like a rather stupid little spec. But it tells you a lot about Panasonic’s attention to detail. One of the big problems of shooting audio when shooting video with a DSLR is that very few DSLRs include this cheap little jack. Being able to listen to the audio that your camera is recording, especially when you can plug in a good microphone to the camera, which you can with the GH3, has a huge impact on getting quality audio because you can place your mic more carefully to get the best sound.
I know that this is a bit of a unusual blog for me. But I also know that it is rare for people to hear all of the considerations that can go into a camera system choice based on the tools needed by a professional. And after doing this, I am a little concerned about having the chance to work with that GH3 for a few weeks. I’m afraid that I might be even more seriously thinking of changing camera brands once again!