For 364 days this year, I didn’t buy a new camera.
It’s not that I didn’t want to. I misplaced my Canon S100, which I enjoyed using. And my other digital system is a Panasonic G1 with a small collection of Micro Four-Third lenses. I like the G1, but it’s over five years old, which may as well be fifty in digital sensor years. It’s time to move on.
However, for a variety of reasons, I’m having trouble deciding what should take its place. And because you can only learn so much from reading reviews online, I’ve been leaning on Lensrentals all year to get more hands-on experience with a wide variety of gear.
What follows are some brief impressions of all the toys I played with in 2013.
Before starting, I’ll fully own up to dilettantism here. A week or two is not nearly long enough to truly judge any camera or lens, particularly with how I was flitting about between brands and formats. And the smarter use of my time would be to just use the stuff I already own. But it can also be quite a bit of fun—even inspiring—to try something new or uncomfortable every now and then. And it (usually!) doesn’t hurt to know what else is out there.
This is also something of a fool’s errand as exciting new cameras are being released faster than I can try them all out without quitting my job or selling my dog.
Finally, Google overlords be damned, I’m not putting any hyphens in product names. I’ve had to look up where they go in “OM-D E-M5” or “X-Pro1” for more often than I'd prefer to admit. It’s gone too far. I’m tired of it. I’m fighting back.
Zeiss ZM C Sonnar 1.5/50
I’m having a bit of a love affair with 50mm at the moment, and this may be the most romantic 50mm lens you can buy.
I didn’t spend nearly enough time with this one.
(Although, in my heart of hearts, I think I might be more of a 2/50 Planar type of person.)
I went long about the G5 on this very site and concluded:
The G5 checks a lot of boxes but it does so without a lot of pizazz, like an above-average PowerPoint from the accounting department.
Michael Johnston recently called it “very capable but quite bland but very capable”, which is exactly right.
The newer G6 appears to address some of my nits with the G5: the EVF got an update, you can finally (I’m told) disable the toggle button on the command dial, and the camera’s updated look is snazzier – like a mini Leica S2 instead of Frankenstein’s camera. It doesn’t look so much like the bargain that it is.
If you want an EVF and the cost of an EM5, EM1, GH3, GX7 or EP5+VF4 is a bit dear, the G6 looks like a screaming deal.
The adulation this camera receives is mostly justified. It looks great, feels great, and the autofocus, menu system, and control layout are light years ahead of the original X100.
Image quality is astonishing. I spent a lot of time in Lightroom gobsmacked at the detail and lack of noise at ISO 6400. The 35mm equivalent f/2 lens is well matched to the sensor. It’s also more or less my ideal walk-around setup, but that’s maybe because I’ve been walking about with a Zeiss Ikon and the 2/35 Biogon for a few years.
The aperture ring has firm whole-stop clicks that feel much nicer than the mushy third-stop clicks on the 35mm XF lens I used.
As with the XPro1, fumbling between viewfinders is still a point of friction for me. I had more fun if I forced myself to use only one and lived with its limitations. I’m also certain that with more experience I’d better be able to predict when I’m about to brush up against those limitations.
I lusted after this camera so badly … right up until I tried a Ricoh GR.
Fujifilm XPro1 & Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4
I wrote a longer review of this pair. I'd call it tough but fair.
I would like to give the XE line a try; with only an electronic viewfinder my suspicion is that the XE will be slightly easier to use—if slightly less fun without the optical viewfinder, also.
Olympus OMD EM5
I understand why people adore this camera.
It’s a lot of camera packed into a tiny space. The pictures online can mislead you into thinking it’s the same size as any other DSLR, but hold one for yourself and you’ll probably be as astonished as I was.
The specs are great. The pictures are wonderful. The new stabilization system is a miracle worker. You can customize nearly every aspect of its operation. Everything is super responsive, with a “yessir!anythingyouwantsir!” zippiness. It’s built like a fine precision instrument: quality and choice of materials is top-notch everywhere.
Again, I totally understand why people love the little thing.
(here come the emails)
… together with our oversize brains, our hands have kept us humans on top of the food chain for two million years. So it is with some alarm that I report that our hands have a new enemy: the OMD EM5.
I could not get comfortable holding it. I don’t mean it like “well the corner pokes a little” (it does) but rather much worse: it outright hurts to hold it for longer than a minute. I didn’t find the textured area on the front sufficiently grippy, the thumb rest forces your hand into a cramped position, and it’s an awkward reach to both command dials, especially the rear one. The angles are just all wrong for my hands.
(Your mileage on this will vary, but I was relieved to find out that I’m not the only one that feels this way.)
The HLD6 add-on grip helps some. But if you determine that you’ll need the grip, you might as well buy an EM1. You’ll even get a bigger, more awesome viewfinder as a bonus.
All this to say: definitely spend a decent chunk of time holding an EM5 (or any camera!) before you drop a grand on one.
My initial impression is that this is the current Micro4/3 sweet spot in balancing handling, advanced features, customizability, performance, image quality, size, and price.
I still want to take the GH3, EM1, and maybe a G6 for a spin, but unless they really impress me I think the GX7 will be the next system camera I buy.
Pentax K5 & 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited
I wasn’t sure such a camera existed: the K5 has all the physical controls I want in exactly the place I want them.
This includes the Pentax-specific “Green”/“*” button, which powers the ridiculously named but seriously powerful Hyper-Program and Hyper-Manual modes. Lemme tell ya: every semi-serious photographer should take those modes for a spin. Hyper-Program is your basic Program mode but with instant access to Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, no mode dial required; Hyper-Manual gives you the stability and predictability of full Manual mode but with vastly less needle-chasing. Either might totally change how you shoot. I can’t believe other brands haven’t copied these.
The camera is solid, heavy, and reassuring for those times when you need a bigger dick to swing around. But it’s still a soft touch: the shutter and mirror are shockingly quiet for a DSLR.
As for the 35mm Macro, no one makes DSLR lenses like the Pentax Limiteds anymore. It backs up the forged good looks with excellent image quality and almost no flaws. It even has a built-in hood, which is handy. Shame it’s not weather-sealed to match the camera.
This mostly confirms my suspicion that Pentax makes the only APS-C DSLRs worth looking at.
Ricoh GV2 28mm viewfinder
It’s tiny! But I had difficulty seeing the entire frame with glasses on. So it’s not very fun.
Also you’re missing out on the toy-camera good looks of the larger GV1 viewfinder.
Matthew’s recent ongoing praise is not even a little out of line: The GR is the smartest, best thought-out digital camera I’ve ever used. It treats an advanced photographer with respect instead of ambivalence or (too often!) hostility. Because I haven't used any of the GR's predecessors, I'm so astonished at the design and usability that the huge image quality packed into a tiny box is almost the least impressive thing about it.
A major flaw is that I don’t think I see well with a 28mm-equivalent lens. I could learn.
In fact, I better: I ordered one for keeps on New Years Eve and it showed up yesterday.