Monday, March 02, 2009

Catching up...

Wow, it's really been a few months since I last posted here. A different year, even! No worries - I'm still taking photographs. I've just been too busy to write about it. What better to do with a sick day than to catch up a little bit on what's going on in my world of photography...

A few months ago, I started searching for a new carry-with-me-everywhere camera. Of course, I did this very same thing about a year ago -- for a camera to keep in the CAR with me, and decided upon the Panasonic FZ-10. Dang, a quick search of the archives tells me that I didn't even write about my mental process behind THAT camera search. I've really neglected this place!

So it sounds like I need to go back a little further than I originally thought when I grabbed the last cup of coffee on the pot and popped in some Simon & Garfunkel on the iTunes.

The original story of what I wanted, ironically enough, was originally posted in the off-topic section of a baseball forum I hang out on. Since you have to be a member, I believe, to view that section of the site, here's a snippet from that post just so I have it here (in case something happens to that site) that captures my thoughts on what I was looking for in such a camera originally:
Here's what I want:
  • Full control over the camera
  • Hotshoe to trigger external flash
  • Focus control on the lens itself
  • No shutter lag
  • A camera that doesn't frustrate me
  • Image Quality (good color & clarity, but I know noise will be an issue)
No, I'm not looking for a semi-dSLR. I'm looking for a smaller-ish camera that will at least fit in my coat pocket but doesn't have to be tiny, that gives me almost the same level of control as my dSLR. Basically, something that doesn't get in the way, and that I can take with me without having to lug 30 pounds of camera gear in my big, bulky bag. I want a camera with me at all times, and my cell phone camera doesn't count. There really are only two cameras that I've found that will meet these requirements.

1) Leica Digilux 1.
2) Canon G5.

As it turns out, what I ended up buying was a Panasonic FZ-10, about $50-100 dollars less than what I'd budgeted for. I was sacrificing a bit of pocketability (which, as it turns out, was too much of a sacrifice for me) for some massive zoom -- at f/2.8 throughout -- and SLR feel. It had everything I wanted - even the ergonomic-correctness of a manual-focus ring around the lens area (almost right where I'd reach for it on my SLRs!).

I shot with it for the better part of the year (I bought it in April, 2008), creating a set on Flickr for my better shots. I shot my first concert with it -- having both front-row tickets and f/2.8 throughout (combined with manual mode) really helped -- and fell in love with the camera, both for it's still and video quality.

My only problem, of course, was that the camera was just plain too big for me to really use it. I'd leave it in my wedding photography fanny pack in the car, rather than carry it with me everywhere, defeating the ultimate purpose of why I bought the camera in the first place. If I was going to carry a camera bag, I'd just as well take my D200 with a lens or two and a flash.

So, I went on another hunt. I wanted something even smaller but nearly as flexible. I also again set my budget around $150, since I didn't have a lot and didn't want to spend a lot.

I'd done some research and decided that ultimately I wanted either a Canon G10 or a Panasonic DMC-LX3 (or, heh, the Leica equivalent -- the D-Lux 4). But both of those cameras are well above my $150 budget (and the Leica was well-well-WELL above that!). I decided against the G6 (and previous models) because I didn't like the bodies as much as I liked the new body design starting with the G7.

As I'm wont to do relatively frequently, I stopped into the local pawn shop on my way home from picking up my son from school. It's right around the corner, so we do that a lot. He looks at movies and I look at cameras. It's become quite the ritual, really.

Looking in the camera case that particular visit, I noticed this camera:

A Kodak V1253 point-and-shoot, 12 megapixel camera. Two things instantly grabbed my attention. 1) The 16:9 shooting mode for both still AND video and 2) the HD video recording with stereo microphones! One thing that I LOOVED about my FZ-10 was the fact that I could record high-quality video with decent audio. This camera had that and more -- it allowed me to zoom while recording, 720p HD recording and built-in stereo microphones!

Since the store has a pretty decent return policy, I decided to spring for the camera and put it through the wringer over the weekend to see if it would work out for me. I mostly did a lot of video testing, which was fun and neat and all, but I wasn't buying a video camera - I wanted a still camera first, with the bonus of having video if I needed it.

I was having a little problem making decent, usable photos with the camera. After all, while it did have ISO 1600, it did NOT have Optical Image Stabilization. That's huuugely important in a camera, especially in one so tiny. One nice thing about the weight and bulk of a DSLR (and to a certain extent my FZ10) is that it allows you to provide some stability for taking slower-shutter-speed photos. A compact, point-and-shoot type camera exploits any sort of bad technique you have for pressing the shutter, giving you a better liklihood of blurry shots due to camera shake. Having OIS is a big help in allowing you to take sharper photos at slower shutter speeds.

With smaller sensors, too, compact point-and-shoot cameras don't really handle ISOs above 200 very well -- even newer-generation cameras, too (they use heavy noise-reduction to smear out the noise, at the cost of fine details and plasticy-looking images). While the Kodak did have an ISO 1600 mode, the image quality was very unusable. So, not only could I not bump up the shutter speed by increasing the ISO, I was stuck without having OIS to help me through those 1/5th shutter speeds.

When I was able to get decent shots, I fell in love instantly with the 16:9 composition framing. It's like stepping up from an older tube TV into an HD LCD or Plasma or something -- more room on the screen gives you more compositional elements to compose with. This is probably my favorite image I made with the Kodak:

Light Jazz in the Living Room, 2009

While that photo is relatively interesting and certainly started the ball rolling on a new direction w/composition in the 16:9 mode, I ultimately took the camera back since the photo quality was less-than-stellar. Yes, the HD video recording was very cool, especially in a compact size. Were video my main desire, I'd certainly give this camera another look. But it wasn't. The no-OIS thing combined with a sloooow lens (not much bigger than a pinhole, really) and very poor high-ISO performance was the kicker.

And back to the drawing board I went.

Looking further into cameras that would give me what I wanted in a compact size, I looked back a few generations at the Panasonic LX1. It wasn't quite the LX3 that I wanted, but it did have a lot of what I liked about the Kodak -- the 16:9 sensor. And I found one for the same price I paid for the Kodak. They're actually quite hard to come by on eBay, but wow I'm really glad I made this decision!

The LX1 is "only" 8.4 megapixels (vs. the 12 of the Kodak), but they're far more usable. It only goes to ISO 400 (and that's REALLY pushing it, especially in color), and is a little bit bigger than the Kodak was. But it's a much better fit for me. It's essentially the same camera as the Leica D-Lux 2, only with a different metal used for the body, a little extra grip that the Leica doesn't have (which I really like better) and missing the little red "Leica" badge. Sure, the Leica looks cooler (although I believe it only comes in silver, and I like the black of the LX1 MUCH better). But the Panasonic for all intents and purposes is exactly the same camera -- for less than half of the cost of the Leica version. I've created a set for the LX1 on my Flickr account.

Last weekend I re-visted my favorite waterfall in the Columbia Gorge -- LaTourelle Falls. While my dSLRs were in the car, I only took my Mamiya RB67 ProS (I know, I know, I didn't mention this camera either - long story for another day, I suppose) and my LX1. Ultimately, I might make some photo excursions with my RB in a bag and the LX1 on my belt. I know I'll still be able to get fantastic shots, even if I'm a little dysfunctional with the RB. This LX1 is an amazing camera in a tiny package.

Exactly what I was looking for.

LaTourelle Falls Black & White, 2009 #3

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