Written By: Grant
A couple years ago, when I asked Kristen if there was anything specific that she wanted, brand or feature-wise, in her ‘fancy camera’, her response was along the lines of “no, get whatever you think is best, you always manage to find great things when it comes to technology”.(Editor’s Note: Its true, because I can be very impatient and Grant is a research wizard.) My first consideration, which I treated as a ‘baseline’, was a Canon Rebel kit that would inevitably be available at Costco. It hits the high points of being reasonably priced, looking the part of a proper DSLR, and, presumably, backing up the performance as its a Canon, and everyone knows Canon. It’s an option, and, probably not a terrible one, I’m sure there are thousands of people with that exact setup and it probably works just fine for them. However, as a bit of a technophile, and someone who doesn’t like throwing money at something without some research and making sure I know what I’m getting into, I couldn’t just stop at that.
I personally like to do a bit of reading up on a subject and collect opinions from a few different sources, preferably none of which who have any stake or interest in me purchasing anything today, tomorrow, or ever; I like to read some information and thoughts/opinions from one source, mull over it in my head, and find another source and see what common themes I find. This is not to say that I don’t like a good brick and mortar store, there are actually a couple different excellent photography stores in Columbus that I really like, but I don’t want to go into somewhere without a pretty good idea of what I’m interested in (at least in terms of features, of not a specific product).
My search began with looking for what some of the best, and best value cameras of the time were. As it turns out, cameras are expensive, so the focus quickly turned to the value end of that searching. One topic that came up was what the best type of camera was, I went in assuming that we wanted a DSLR, but then I read about a ‘mirrorless’ camera, which seemed at the time to not necessarily be “better” than a DSLR, but maybe co-equal with some advantages and disadvantages such as generally being more compact but generally having worse battery life and many electronic viewfinders being worse than their optical equivalents, but importantly using the same sensor, so image quality would be equivalent. Somewhere along the way, I also ran into the quote that “the best camera, is the one you have with you”, which really spoke to me, remembering the giant DSLRs I’d seen hanging around the necks of tourists and enthusiasts. With that in mind, the search for a good mirrorless camera was underway. The one that really jumped out at me was the Olympus OMD E-M10 mark ii, it seemed like Olympus had a different approach than some of the other brands. Instead of offering an entry level camera stripped of most of its features to get you into the door, waiting for you to be ready to upgrade, it seemed like Olympus (focusing on their OMD line, as it looked more the proper SLR or single lens reflex style and having a pretty good EVF or electronic view finder) basically offered 3 cameras, and included some nice features even in the cheapest of them, like in-camera image stabilization, then added weather sealing to the same sensor for the mid camera, and kept a superior higher-resolution sensor for the flagship camera. Instead of an entry level/intermediate/flagship arrangement, it seemed like Olympus just cut out the entry level part, and made the intermediate camera affordable. Other benefits were that Olympus seemed to be well respected for their JPEG engine for those unsure of or afraid of ‘RAW’ files (or just not wanting to have to deal with them), also because of using whatever the micro 4/3 lens mount is (more on this later), it’s a more compact option than most other cameras. On top of all of that, having some solid vintage styling was not a strong deciding factor, but a nice bonus nonetheless, and one got ordered promptly, even springing for the more expensive pancake version of the kit lens to double down on the compact theme, plus the available and cheap (great value!) telephoto zoom lens to have another option.
I was then able to inform Kristen that her “surprise” birthday present had been ordered, and that she could even receive it a few months early if she wanted. Kristen says she likes surprises, but what she likes even more than surprises is instant gratification, so she was quite eager to know just what I had decided on and gotten. Cleverly, the only hint I gave her was that the brand contained an ‘O’ in the name. On a side-note, its surprising how many camera brands have an ‘O’ in their name…. Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, Canon, Nikon, Kodak… Basically it eliminated Fuji and Pentax (although technically they are Ricoh, so an argument could be made there, but, I didn’t know that at the time), in addition to other brands far too expensive and that I didn’t actually know anything about such as Leica and Hasselblad… Somehow Kristen didn’t find this revelation as amusing as I did, but she got over it a few days later when the camera arrived. (Editor’s Note: I think he gets secret enjoyment out of tormenting me with surprises I don’t get to have right away.)
After having and using our camera for awhile, in addition to continued research, reflection, and talking to other folks, I’ve come to the opinion that it is exceptionally difficult to be sufficiently educated when making a decision on what camera to purchase. Cameras are complicated and there are a lot of variables that should be considered, I didn’t even touch on (or, honestly, consider) sensor size, or the implications of it above (turns out that’s where the micro 4/3 part comes in, as it’s a physically smaller sensor, which allows for more compact lenses with the tradeoffs of worse performance in low light, and making it harder to get highly blurred backgrounds in your images). There’s also the question of what you actually want to take pictures of, and the availability/cost of lenses that will work with your camera, and what your options are if/when you want to get more serious and upgrade. To be completely honest, if I *actually* understood all of the things I was reading about, I would have 100% gone with a full frame Sony mirrorless (A7 or A7 ii) for all of the technical superiorities it offers. While I still wouldn’t mind one as a second system for some situations (or more preferably, blow even more money on an even less-needed Fuji medium format mirrorless which somehow is a larger sensor than full frame, because sensor naming has a weird history), this would have absolutely been a mistake, and I am extremely happy with the setup I ignorantly stumbled into.
The point I want to make here isn’t that micro 4/3 is the best camera system, as it isn’t, at least not for everyone. Every system will have strengths and weaknesses, and unless you are already rather familiar with cameras and photography, you likely don’t understand what these are, and how important each is for you. If you do already know what these things mean, and what will be the best fit for you, you are probably already “invested” in a brand or mount, which makes it more difficult to change if what you have isn’t necessarily the best fit for you (I already have some Canon lenses…).
As to the equipment we have (all focal lengths will be listed in full frame equivalent numbers for field of view), after the initial purchase, our next acquisition was a Rokinon manual wide angle lens (24mm) and a Panasonic-Leica ‘nifty-50’ with a fast f1.4 aperture. Later, we got a good price on a Panasonic 70-200 f2.8 zoom lens which is fantastic. After this, I found myself wanting a silly and unnecessary lens, and eventually picked up a super telephoto zoom to cover the 200-800mm range. The last lens that we have acquired is a hefty and all manual Voigtlander 85mm equivalent length lens with a super fast f0.95 aperture which goes a decent way towards addressing the low light and background blur weaknesses of the smaller sensor, as well as being a pleasant to use manual focus lens. We also recently picked up a second body, a Panasonic G9 as a bit larger and more capable option. These lenses were all reasonably priced for what they are (and most purchased second-hand), but the thing I like most about our setup is how compact and flexible it is; it’s no problem to walk around on a hike with an 800mm focal length lens, or load everything into a backpack and have an option on hand, regardless of what we find to take a picture of.
Regardless of what camera I chose, the bottleneck to creating good images would have remained the same: me. The best advice I could give to anyone looking at getting their first camera, would be to start by taking a long time to honestly consider what they actually want to take pictures of, and then work backwards from there, maybe you wind up deciding a pro level Canon or Nikon DSLR or mirrorless is what you will want to grow into, maybe an Olympus/Panasonic micro 4/3 camera would be a nice fit, or maybe a bridge camera or point and shoot would check off all the items on your ‘want’ list, at a lot less cost and/or size. Talk to someone, whether its a friend/coworker with some camera gear, or go to a local camera store when its not busy and try to find a friendly and knowledgeable worker to talk to, but don’t get all of your information from one source, and don’t assume what is best for someone else will be best for you. Finally, whatever you get, use it.