Big Bubbles (no troubles)

What sucks, who sucks and you suck

The Digital EM Is Here?

I wasn’t planning to buy a new camera any time soon. And then suddenly, I was looking at reviews and catalogues and product specs. Funny how that happens.

Well yes, OK, my Galaxy S2 with Vignette takes amazingly good photos - many of which featured in my favourite shots of last year - but using a phone to take pictures is actually a pretty poor simulacrum of using a proper camera. The ergonomics are all wrong: you hold it gingerly at arms length, praying you don’t fumble and drop it while stabbing hopefully at the right bit of the screen (causing the whole device to shake), wait to see if the press has registered and when it’s going to take the shot, review, wait for the review to clear… And pretty soon, your “viewfinder” is fogged with fingerprints.

Anyway, my Nikon D50 is getting somewhat long in the tooth. Not just a last generation DSLR, but the generation before the generation before the current generation. So any recent DSLR ought to be noticeably better, and the current Nikon D7000 ought to be really, really good. I don’t actually need more megapixels, but higher ISOs would be welcome for the amount of indoor shots in poor light that I take. And the ability to mount and meter with my older AI lenses, even if their equivalent focal lengths are less exciting, would be just dandy.

Trouble is, the D7000 is a heck of a large camera and costs a correspondingly heck large wodge of cash (although in relative terms, it’s probably a bargain for what it offers). At some level, I object to the idea of lugging around a boat anchor that costs almost four figures.

Rhossili Bay, Gower: one of my favourite shots from last year, taken with the D50. The D7000 would have been even better, but I suspect a mirrorless camera would have been just as good.

The other camera on my wishlist - I mean literally, although unsurprisingly I didn’t find any takers at xmas - was the new Panasonic GX1, one of the new breed of compact system “mirrorless” m4/3 devices. Which is half the price of the D7000, but would potentially require buying a new set of lenses. Even the one I’d primarily want (the 20mm f/1.7) adds half again to the price, pushing it up near D7000 territory.

So this comes down to: whadaya wanna do? Do you want the all-singing, all-dancing megaSLR that works with all your existing lenses but only comes out when you’re doing “proper” photography? Or do you want to make a complete switch and carry around a lighter camera that can do most things adequately and handles the most general case very well? I vacillated.

This piece by Trey Ratcliff crystallised some of my thoughts. I’ve spent years protesting that the Nikon EM was my ideal camera and all I ever wanted was the digital version. Well, it’s here. The 3rd gen/ICL/EVIL/mirrorless/whatever-you-call-em cameras match it for size, weight and capability, and exceed it with all the digital goodness (adjustable ISO, image review, etc). You can buy basic wide, moderate and long prime lenses for most of them (certainly the m4/3 system). What else do I need?

So this is what I’m going to do: I’m going to sell a couple of items of 35mm gear that I will likely never use again (the FE2 and the Bessa L with 15mm lens). They won’t fetch much, but it helps to clear the decks and defray the cost of new gear. And then I’m going to buy a secondhand Panasonic GF1 (which is effectively the predecessor of the GX1) and a new 20mm lens, and see what they can do. And if I like them, I’ll resell the GF1 and upgrade to the GX1 with an EVF, and maybe start building out my m4/3 lens selection (or keep the Nikkors and update the D50 to a secondhand D90). If I don’t, I’ll sell both - I don’t expect to take a big loss on these - and the D50, and stump up for the D7000, and then never buy another camera for at least ten years. But my bet is that there is no need to hang on to a legacy 35mm full frame world unless you already have a substantial investment there and you really need the highest quality.

This seems the rational path to me. I need to test the waters of the sans mirror world, and if it doesn’t fulfill my needs then I can upgrade my SLR to something adequate for the next decade.

Caveats: DSLRs could also improve markedly in this timeframe, chiefly by adopting full frame at the prosumer end and losing a lot of the weight and bulk (as the forthcoming D800 is rumoured to achieve). M4/3 might turn out to be a dead-end (although I’m sure something in that market segment will replace it).