For almost year now I’ve been shooting with both a conventional DSLR system and a Micro Four Thirds camera. I need a system that is both serious and relatively compact; if I’m not leaving specifically to take photos, I don’t want to be encumbered by photographic gear. I also don’t want to be in the position of having to leave the house without a camera because it is too bulky.
When I owned a Nikon D300 and several lenses as well as a Panasonic LX3, I used both interchangeably. The LX3 was a good camera to have along on a daily basis. The Nikon was used for assignments shooting indoor events as well as on trips abroad. I did find the D300 too heavy on trips where I lugged it around the whole day, but image quality was very good. I continued to take it along on trips because the LX3’s small sensor didn’t provide me with the image quality I was after. There just isn’t as much latitude in post processing as with files from a larger sensor.
First Micro Four Thirds Camera
Things changed when I bought a Panasonic G1 almost a year ago. Without thinking about it, I always tended to use the G1. The LX3 was used rarely, only when I couldn’t take the larger camera bag with the G1 in it. The D300 saw no use except for three paid assignments. For most of my shooting, the G1’s image quality is sufficient and in my opinion the files are not that much inferior to those produced by the larger APS-C sensor in the Nikon D300.
The gap in image quality between the two cameras narrowed even further when I bought the excellent Lumix G 7-14 wide angle zoom. Contrast and sharpness of that lens are both superb. I began to wonder if I would ever use my DSLR for anything but paid assignments, as I couldn’t see myself leaving the house without the, by now much used, 7-14.
So my DSLR became essentially a system for the occasional assignment. I feel that overall lag times are still a little too high with Micro Four Thirds cameras to be used indoors under non-controlled conditions (not posed).
This summer, I sold the entire Nikon system. I replaced it once more with a DSLR, this time the Pentax K-7, thinking that perhaps a more compact DSLR would see more use in my private photography. I chose two primes, with equivalent focal lengths of 60 and 105mm, focal lengths which I tend to shoot with a lot on assignments. I’ll also mention briefly that both lenses needed to be painstakingly adjusted for back-focus, something which is of course not an issue with cameras that rely on contrast detect AF.
By now I had also replaced the G1 with the GH1, at first mostly because of its 28-280mm equivalent kit lens wasn’t available separately. But I grew to like this camera even more than the G1.
Last week I had an assignment shooting an indoor corporate event. I shot with the Pentax K-7, its two primes and the GH1 with its 14-140 kit lens. A flash was mounted on both cameras; a more serious full size flash on the Pentax and the diminutive Panasonic FL220 on the GH1. The indoor lighting was so poor, that most shots had to be taken with a flash. When it wasn't too hectic, I sometimes alternated between the cameras, using them for the same type of photo.
In terms of responsiveness, the Pentax sure feels faster, despite me having turned off post capture review on the Panasonic. The K-7 seemed like it was always ready to take another photo, with minimal lag in between. When a guest asked to see a photo, the Pentax would immediately be able to display an image, even after taking multiple shots in quick succession. The Panasonic wouldn't allow you to enter review mode while it was still writing files to the card. So guests had to wait a few moments.
Focus was hardly a fair contest with he much brighter primes on the K-7. The GH1 contrast detect AF struggled at times, but ended up having a high proportion of in-focus shots. Results with the GH1 were really good when/if the camera's face detection was able to detect a face. In that case, the camera's AF not only locked on the face, but exposure metering was dead on even with back lighting. Unfortunately, if the light was poor and/or the face turned sideways face detection wouldn't always work.
I see great potential for face detection technology. When that technology is developed further, it should be able to overcome focus and metering issues associated with conventional DSLR systems that do not meter and focus off the main sensor.
Although fast, the Pentax struggled with the back lighting, sometimes focusing incorrectly, even though I had chosen the AF point manually. The lights behind the bar also tended to fool the K-7 metering more easily, and I had to compensate manually.
The viewfinders both have their advantages; an optical one has no lag and allows you to see nuances of expression. But the EVF's amplified image was also helpful at times, as was the ability to judge exposure before the photo was taken. The GH1's articulated screen allowed me to take some shots without the subjects really being aware that I was about to take a photo.
In the end, the GH1 did reasonably well. I suspect that the GH1 would be able to lock onto subjects better in dim lighting with a brighter lens. There’s also no reason why contrast detect AF speed and accuracy won’t be improved in future Micro Four Thirds models, nor why lag times can’t be reduced.
Image quality certainly wasn’t an issue at all; the GH1 performed very well compared to the K-7. While the K-7’s files appear to have more dynamic range, ISO performance seems similar at any given exposure, aperture and shutter speed (there is a more than 1 stop difference in the two camera’s stated ISOs). These are subjective conclusions based on processing a lot of similar RAW files, and not on accurate testing.
In the end, I feel that micro Four Thirds is quite good as it is and shows a lot of potential for further improvement in the future. Good enough for my needs that I don’t need a second system camera. For those rare times that I do, I can borrow or loan a DSLR.
So my Pentax K-7 and its lenses are being sold as I write this article. I’ll use part of the money to purchase a GF1 + 20/1.7 kit to replace the LX3 as well. The result will be a single system with body and lens combinations that range from quite compact (GF1 + 20/1.7) to very versatile but larger (GH1 + 7-14 + 14-140)…and everything in between.
Originally published on the old Serious Compacts blog. Older comments can be found here: The End of an Era