Friday, May 11, 2012

The Next Camera

E-PL1 Black body frontEarlier this year I wrote a number of posts about the not-yet-released OM-D E-M5. I had been following it with growing excitement as carefully crafted leaks began to appear on the web. When it was finally released I felt that this was the µ4/3rds camera I had been waiting for for at least two years. Here was a camera that embodied all the features I felt I wanted and needed. It was exciting. It still is.

In a rare move on my part I actually pre-ordered the camera. But while I was basking in the glow of this new camera's advertising, dreaming of all the fabulous photographs I would take with this not-quite-released E-M5, life came along as it tends to do and dumped a cold bucket of reality all over my warm dreamy plans. The money I had budgeted and committed to this new camera wound up being needed somewhere else. And so, as always, plans were changed, funds were shifted and the higher need was served.

But it just wasn't Olympus that was releasing new gear at that time. Canon and Nikon each released updates to all their flagship cameras, from Canon's 1D-X and 5Dmk3 to Nikon's D4 and D800/E. Fabulous cameras to be sure released at frighteningly high prices, starting at $3,000 and moving up to just south of a cool, cool $7,000 for just the bodies. My pre-ordered Olympus E-M5 plus M.Zuiko 12-50mm wasn't all that cheap; including the grip, the total was around $1,500. Certainly cheaper by far than the Canon's and Nikon's, but for a guy on a budget who isn't a full-blown pro, it was a chunk of change none-the-less.

Don't get me wrong; this isn't the first time I've shelled out that much money. I paid full price for the E-P2 kit (body + zoom + VF-2) when it was released. And even though I got my E-3 and 12-60mm 'kit' lens at a considerable discount in 2008, I still paid a fair amount of money. And that's the problem. All this is costing a fair amount of money, and it truly adds up over time.

I know what you're going to say. Nobody held a gun to my head and forced me to spend all this money. It's a hobby, like golf. For me, it's not a hobby, but a powerful creative tool. For me it's not about the new-camera smell or being one of the Cool Kids with the latest model. If it were I'd literally mortgage my life for a Canon or Nikon "full-frame" (35mm film sized) sensor camera and buy every upgrade that came out. I keep buying to pick up the latest features that make photography that much more convenient to help me be creative. I want the revolutionary/incremental upgrades to basic features that only come when you buy the latest body.

In addition to the evolutionary reasons I want a second µ4/3rds body to hold a second lens because that's the way I shoot. I "grew up" with a two-camera system, with a wide-angle lens on one body and a short telephoto on the other. And then I would use my eyes, my mind, my feet and one of the bodies to compose the shots. That's why I picked up the used E-1 (in mint condition) to use with my E-3. That, and the fact I wasn't in the market for another costly E-3 or E-5.

As I was getting ready to put in my order all over again for the E-M5 by the end of May to take advantage of the free weather-sealed MMF-3 deal, Leica released a $8,000 black and white M-9. And that's when I finally popped some tiny biological/mental circuit breaker deep in the folds of my mind, and I dug in my heals and put my wallet back in my hip pocket.

I have never owned Leica because I've never been rich enough to own one. I worked for a Leica camera store in Atlanta in the mid-70's by the name of Wallis Kamera Haus. Bill Wallis was a great guy, and I'm glad I had the job. But I never believed I'd ever make enough working for him to purchase a Leica, even a used one. As beautiful as those M3s and M4s were sitting on his shelves they were incredibly expensive to own, even in 1970 dollars. Instead I used a Minolta SR-T MC and a Minolta XE-7 that I'd picked up on employee discounts while working a second job at J.C. Penney (yes, Virginia, once upon a time J.C. Penney used to sell cameras, and had a very extensive and capable camera department). Both those cameras were a fraction of the price of the Leica's, even though the XE-7 was the basis for the Leica R3, which also cost dearly. Of all the cameras I've owned before and since, I still have the brassed body of my Minolta X-E7, although it's not working anymore. One day I will get it fixed - again. But I digress...

To add insult to injury (as it were) Leica announced a $7,200 2/50mm APO-Summicron-M. I just sat there in absolute amazement that Leica is deliberately pricing themselves into a market niche so high that they truly are, as Mike at The Online Photographer has said more than once, a Veblen good.

And then, as I kept looking and reading, I came across this photo of the Leica X2, the fixed lens APS-C 16MP camera that finally, finally has a VF-2 Leica-branded EVF.

That EVF looks familiar, don't it? I pulled out my VF-2 and compared the two most carefully. The lower half that attaches to the camera is identical. The upper half is different. And more than just a white "LEICA" printed on the front, but not much.

Why, if I'll never own a Leica, any Leica, would I carry on such a rant? Because it appears that everybody else in the camera business wants to follow in their footsteps, i.e. produce outrageously expensive Veblen camera goods. Canon and Nikon are certainly on their way, and Leica, with their M9 and even more astronomically priced S2 at a breath-taking $23,000 (again, body only) have produced cameras that only the very rich can afford. The 1% of the 1%. I don't care if you are one of the very few pros who have a business that can support the purchase of such equipment; that kind of pricing is nuts.

That's why I'm going out and, for a paltry $150 (or about 1/3 what the 6% sales tax would be on the Leica if I purchased one in Orlando), picking up a new Olympus E-PL1. I don't give a damn that it's not an OM-D. I don't give a damn it's not a Canon or Nikon or the latest Leica. I'm buying this little camera because it has a slightly weaker AA filter, and its autofocus is actually a little faster than the higher-end E-P2. Or at least that's what I've read. But more significantly I'm buying it with its minimal controls because it's the same 12 megapixel resolution that Nikon staunchly stood by with their D3 series and D700, higher than the 10MP resolution that was in the 1D Mk 3. Yes, I know, I'm an utter fool to compare any µ4/3rds camera to either Canon or Nikon high-end camera, or so the conventional wisdom goes.

But then the conventional wisdom that everybody likes to spout is that it's not the camera it's the photographer. I've heard that so many times, tumbling out of the mouths of all those ultra-high-end camera buyers, the same buyers looking for little more than bragging rights and forum fodder, that I'm truly sick of hearing it. I'm purchasing this camera, and I'm going to master it like no other and like nobody else. In the process I'm going to master myself.

I'm going to shoot until the shutter falls out of the body from use. And when it does I'm buying something equally cheap. I've been going through this ennui lately about photography, looking for "motivation." For whatever reason, all this conspicuous wealth has lit a fierce motivational fire, fueled in part by my deep streak of egalitarianism. No more $1,000 cameras from anybody. Instead I'm spending the rest of my time on this earth learning to produce the best photography I can possibly produce with the most utilitarian low-cost cameras I can find; leading edge photography with trailing edge gear.


  1. Well now *that's* the way a man speaketh, Bill - bravo for your decision, and for your plan. Since I've got that little E-PL1 (at an incredible price of 240€ together with its kit lens) for the only reason of being envious about that Panasonic Lumix 20mm lens (which sadly doesn't exist for regular FourThirds and their longer flange distances), I'm loving it more and more each day. Just got that VF-2 viewfinder for it, finally, so it will push itself into service as something like my 'main camera' even more.

    I see that little rig (as in as my "poor man's Leica", and next week I'll take it into the streets to take some photos of the "Blockupy Frankfurt" demo I'm going to attend to. Maybe all in black and white and square, but that will depend on the weather, the mood I'm in, and of course the subject matter.

    Again, bravo! Cannot wait to see some photos you'll take with that little gem of a camera.

  2. Great choice! I just received my second E-PL1 body so that I can have the 20mm on one and the 45mm on the other. The JPEG files coming off this sensor are quite amazing. I have a lot of cameras and normally feel compelled to shoot RAW with most of them. However, I have been pleased to avoid all the post production hoopla and simply revel in the JPEG files from this camera. Metering is on the money and I actually like the button layout better than my E-P1 where I had to deactivate the crazy scroll button that was constantly getting moved. Also, as a 56 year old man, I can actually READ the letters on these buttons and avoid "icon itus." Yeah, I will grab the D3s for fast moving objects and super low-light work. However, this camera provides images every bit as great within the limitations that you are already aware of. A true "gem" of a camera and a "no-brainer" at the price. And, your existing batteries, charger, viewfinder, etc. all work with this one...

  3. An outstanding decision! The E-PL1's, E-P2's and E-PL2's that are popping up on the big online retailers for bargain basement prices are the way to go. It seems the electronics in the E-PL1 are the exact same used by the E-5, so you are getting E-5 IQ in a tiny little package that's--no doubt--a lot more fun to use.

    Sadly, the same thing that has been happening with computers is taking place with photography, but what are today's cameras, if not just computers with lenses attached? You get two or three years out of your chose model, and then as soon as something better comes along, the old ones are cast away, and the new ones snatched up. Wasn't like that at all during the days of film, where a Leica 3 or 4 would last you ten or twenty years without a problem, maybe longer; and you could get a fair chunk of change for one if you should ever decide to sell it, unlike todays digitals, which are hardly worth even selling. Even used E-3's in excellent condition are going for a mere $500 to $550, that from a camera that originally listed for $1700 just a few years ago.

    There comes a time where one needs to stand back, see the endless upgrade cycle for what it really is, and just refuse to participate any longer.

    Enjoy that little E-PL1, I think you'll find it a wonderful camera.

  4. Wow it's almost as if I'm hearing my own echo here. While I am going to purchase the EM-5, it won't be until about November. I was on the fence on m4/3, but a few months ago found one of the bargain PENs for just crazy cheap. And I like it so much I might buy another.

    While the new Nikons were surely enticing for me, I really don't "need" another DSLR at this time. If one breaks, yes I'll have to buy one for work, but for the deliverables that I do, the Nikon D3 does fine and will continue to be so. And even if that breaks, I have more bodies. So the rush to have one to best the forum guys is just stupid.

    Back to the PEN - I'm now sold on m4/3 for my fun shooting, and just a couple of weeks ago got a Panasonic G10 that was converted to Full Spectrum. I am having SO much fun with this camera. The leaves are on the trees, and I am having a ball with the faux color infra red. So yeah I'm out a little money with the crazy purchases of the past few months (you just must get that Oly 45mm 1.8 if you shoot portraits!!), but I'm not out big DSLR money which basically stops me in my tracks for about a year with regards to spending.

    So now I have new toys, it's not been too hard on the wallet, and because I didn't pop for the D4, next year I just "might" be able to realize medium format. The medium format is a "me" thing - I don't care if I ever shoot a paid frame with it. I get to borrow one every now and again from a good friend and the results are just oh so incredible for what I like to shoot. And if things don't work out there, that's ok too. It's not an end all goal. It's just realizing a dream, sort of like getting that Ferrari. If I can make it happen I will, but if it doesn't I'm not going to sit here and cry about it.

    It's nice to hear an independent voice of sanity instead of just another camera review and more forum fodder. I hope you have a great time with that E-PL1. I love mine. It's really put the fun back into photography for me. -Libby


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