Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What do you really want?

In Repose
The eyes of Ruby Tuesday are upon you.
Back in days of old, when I was a high school teenager, I would occasionally get so passionately involved with something, and as a consequence, so tightly wrapped around the axle over it, that my father would stop me and ask these Five Important Words:

"What do you really want?"

My father could have easily told me what to do. But to do so would have introduced a longer term problem: I would not have learned how to solve my own problem and I would not have been as motivated to follow through because it wasn't mine, but my dad's.

So I would think about the problem, decide what was really important based on what I really wanted, and come up with a reasonably acceptable solution. It might not have been perfect, but that was part of the learning process too. Each time I went through this, the process became more refined and the results more satisfactory.

So here I am, some 40 years later, passionately involved with photography again (digital instead of film) and once more wrapped around another axle. And the question once again is, "What do you really want?"

This current problem got started back in December when I purchased my E-P2. It was a little darling in a number of quarters, and was lauded about the blogosphere with many a glowing review (such as mine). And it is indeed quite the fun little camera. It wound up becoming my carry-everywhere camera. The body, with a lens attached, fit into a Domke F6 bag with four other lenses and various paraphanalia. The overall size and weight come in to less than half what my Kata bag with its E-3, 12-60mm, and 50-200mm weights. It wasn't environment proof, but it was inertia resilient; it was so easy to reach in and grab the E-P2 when the opportunity presented itself. The E-3, by comparison, became the camera you had to think about using.

What's more, I noticed I liked the images coming out of the E-P2. They appeared to have more detail at the same resolution. I can honestly tell the difference. That's not to say that the photos coming out of the E-3 are bad, but that the photos coming out of the E-P2 were just a might noticeably better. I never warmed up to the art filters; I certainly tried them, but after trying them I've come to ignore them. I even shot some video, and continue to do so occasionally. But the primary use of the E-P2 in my hands is as a still camera, and I've started to shoot RAW (ORF) completely. I've discovered I like how Lightroom 3 handles my raw files, both from the E-3 and the E-P2.

And then I started to fall under the sway of primes. Right now I have four; a ZD 50mm f/2, a Sigma 30mm f/1.4, an M.Zuiko 17mm f/2.8, and an OM 50mm f/1.4 (I actually have two OM copies, but only use one). And I started to hang around sites like Steve Huff's, where "wide-open prime" photography (usually on a Leica such as the M4 or M9) reign supreme, with spectacular results.

On Steve's site (and others of a similar nature) I came to notice that the photos I really took a liking to shared these similar features:
  1. They were shot wide open (or one stop down), with a dramatic fall-off in field of focus. What was in focus was spectacularly sharp. And I'm not talking bokeh.
  2. There was plenty of exquisite detail and long smooth tonality in every photography. The tonality can be a product of post production, and I'm aware of that. But the detail has to be there to begin with.
I'm fully aware that a lot of those images were taken with Leica bodies (such as the M9) and M-series lenses (some Leica, some not). But I've also noticed the same features with other 35mm-sized sensor cameras, such as Canon's and Nikon's. And it reminds me of when I shot film, and how I was able to achieve similar results with fast primes (notably 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4 and 100mm f/2.8). And I want that look back. And I'm not achieving it to the level I want with my current crop of lenses on either body.

I could spend more money and buy a Sigma 24mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/1.4 (both having a native 4/3rds mount and autofocus). Or I could buy the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 for my E-P2. In other words, I could throw more money around and not be fully satisfied. The question comes back around to;

"What do you really want?"

Here's a list of what I believe I really want in a camera. It may change over time, where I add or remove features.
  1. I want a sensor with more detail than I can currently get with either the E-3 or the E-P2. And by more I mean noticeably more, that you can see without post-processing tricks or pixel peeping.
  2. I want a sensor that can provide more dynamic range than I'm currently getting, by at least 1 full stop.
  3. I want a sensor that can produce excellent (low noise/grain) results up to ISO 6400.
  4. I want a camera body with a shutter that is very, very quiet. In fact it would be ideal if the shutter was totally silent.
  5. I want a large bright viewfinder that makes manual focusing a snap, as with an OM 4T's optical finder and screen. And if autofocus is enabled, I want it to be fast and accurate.
  6. And I want it all in a camera body that's reasonably sized and environmentally resistant.
All (or most) of my wanted features might be satisfied with a future replacement for the E-3, or it might be satisfied with another brand and a larger sensor. The key blocker is cost. My budget is no where near large enough to afford the luxury of a Leica M9, Nikon D3, or Canon 1D. Facts are facts, and the economy combined with my other adult responsibilities precludes me from indulging in the personal fantasy of owning one of the high end elites.

I could invest in a Nikon D700 or a Canon 5D Mk II. Their cost is down to more moderate levels, relatively speaking, and either could satisfy my six requirements listed above. Unfortunately their $2,500 price tag still gives one to pause and think. I could even consider the Nikon D300 or the newer Canon 7D (not the 60D). They use an APS-C sensor, which is 20% larger than the 4/3rds sensor. Canon has pushed the resolution of their APS-C sensor to 18MP, which gives a pixel pitch nearly identical to the E-P2's 12MP 4/3rds sensor.

And then there's Photokina 2010 coming up the end of September.

I still have a lot to think about. I also have more work to do with regards to achieving that look I'm after. In particular I could save a whole lot of money by investigating and investing in the Panasonic 20mm. Although it currently costs $380 most places, it's a pittance compared to the cost of a new system and lenses. And I can certainly continue to hone my skills with my current equipment and post processing software.

I know I've barely scratched the surface on how to use Lightroom 3. But there's a point of diminishing returns in that route, both in loss of information as images are over-manipulated as well as the time invested. And I have little of both to waste.

Now that I have my list, I think it's time to sit back and chill out, waiting for the announcements that are certain to come between now and the end of Photokina. I'll know a lot more in four weeks. Perhaps I'll have an answer.

Equipment Used
Olympus E-P2 with M.Zuiko 17mm wide open at f/2.8

Subject
Ruby Tuesday asking me "What do you really want?"

4 comments:

  1. It's funny that I have categorized your blog under "Linux Stuff" in my Google Reader. I know it has been a while since you ranted something on Linux, but I still go through your blog entries because, well, you write really well :).

    I liked how you started this post. "I would think about the problem, decide what was really important based on what I really wanted, and come up with a reasonably acceptable solution".

    ReplyDelete
  2. Your entire essay deserves a more thoughtful response, but this is the internet, so here's what I can reply to quickly:

    "I could invest in a Nikon D700 or a Canon 5D Mk II. Their cost is down to more moderate levels, relatively speaking, and either could satisfy my six requirements listed above."

    By my math, a D700 will answer points 2, 3, 6; possibly 1 as well. 5 can be done with a third-party split screen with no penalty beyond an extra hundred dollars. Number 4 is impossible - for a simulation, set up five spring-loaded mousetraps and set them all off in a single second. Perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's significantly louder than my E-3.

    The 5Dmk2 will do 1, 2, and 3; 5 will also need a replacement screen, but Canon makes one; for #4 it's perhaps a little more subtle than the D700, but nowhere near silent, and it's less weather-resistant than the D700. Note that sealed lenses are few and far between for either brand, but with Nikon they start at a lower price point.

    Your entire message deserves more thinking and more time, so I may have a more thoughtful response in a couple of days.

    ReplyDelete
  3. One of the things that I try to remember is that when I don't like the answer, an option that I have is to ask a different question.

    Looking at your list, I can't come up with any current camera that matches all six points. But if you give up the high-ISO requirements and embrace grain, a medium format camera can meet every other one. A decent kit, used, will cost about one-fifth of what a full-frame digital set would run and give you better results as well.

    Something that I took away from Roger & Frances' How Many Cameras Do You Need article is that it's better to have two very different formats than to simply exchange similar cameras. So perhaps it's time for something really different, that can come out for certain projects or special occasions?

    The other thing I need to remember is the acronym LINAC - 'Like I Need Another Camera.' Life's a barter.

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  4. Your comment about medium format reminds me of my 20's, when I shot Minoltas for 35mm and a Mamiya 330 pro F for 6x6 medium format. My dad found it for sale where he worked (Delta), and he passed it on to me. It was great; it came with three interchangeable lenses (a 50mm, and 80mm and a 135mm, which was medium wide, normal and portrait for that format). It was built like a tank, but still portable enough for field use. I sold it when I crashed trying to make a living as a photographer. Biggest mistake I ever made.

    I guess it's about time to embrace the used market, especially for medium format. We'll see what the cost is and go from there. In the mean time it's cheaper for me to invest time and energy into learning to overcome my current equipment's "perceived" limitations.

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