Two great specials so close together?  Sometimes we get lucky!  Akulka and I have been corresponding on matters of photography for some time.  Envious of all the spectacular places he travels I’ve long suggested he upgrade his camera equipment from his lackluster digital superzoom compact, to something more capable.  I suggested that one day he would look back at his travels and regret not capturing the people and vistas with greater detail and quality.

When I first saw the announcement of the Micro 4/3’s system I knew it would fit his needs.  A cautious and careful person, he started looking into this and we both waited for the first reviews.  Evolution rarely skips a link, but somehow instinctively I felt the Canon 5d Mark II images would make him more pleased and be more enduring.  More, there is much you can do with a full frame DSLR that you can’t do with smaller format sensors.

Several others I know (one who recently submitted a great two part trip report on Africa) have similar but not the same needs.  This makes three.  All three are near the same age.  All three come from different countries.  All three have different levels of experience.

One, purchased an original full frame Canon 5d, 12-24mm Sigma wide-angle zoom, 24-105mm Canon IS L zoom, and a 70-300mm Canon IS DO lens.

Two, purchased a 1.6x APS-C crop frame Canon 40d, 24-105mm (38-168mm equiv) Canon IS L zoom, and a 70-300mm (112-480mm equiv) Canon IS DO lens.

Three, purchased a 2x crop frame Panasonic G1, a 14-45mm (28-90mm equiv), and a 45-200mm (90-400mm equiv) zoom lens.

I find these decisions (along with Tom Parson’s choices) very interesting.  There is no “one size fits all” camera.  Everyone must individually evaluate their needs and resources and make the best personal decision.  Will Akulka’s next step in evolution find him with a full frame DSLR?  I wouldn’t be at all surprised..

Because this piece helps those making such decisions, because the images are very good and the narrative excellent, this is definitely green star material once again!

______________________________________________________

Last week Tom Parsons wrote an excellent special detailing his decision making process when deciding whether to stay with the excellent film cameras from his past, or enter the modern digital world.  His journey and decision making, I’m certain, mirrored the same decisions many of you have reasoned over.

In response Akulka, a regular contributor to the weekly, saw an opportunity to pick up at the point of the evolution where Tom left off.  Akulka hadn’t journeyed from film cameras, but he did enter the hobby of photography at the digital compact point and shoot level, and from there evolved to the next logical level.  The Micro 4/3’s system.  Both Tom and Akulka have similar needs and interests concerning photography, but are at different points of the evolution.  This excellent special takes us along for the journey.  More thoughts, more reasoning, and more decisions.  I wonder how many of you reading this are at this point in the evolution?

Photography is an art.  And pardon the pun, but photography as an art develops over time.  It evolves.  Like any art we start out seeing basic shapes and colors.  Soon, the basic shapes and colors take on detail.  Detail evolves into composition.  The composition and all its many variables and detail emerge into presentation.  Presentation is colored by perception.  Such is art.  As it should be.

Where are you in the evolution of photography?  Still shooting your old film camera?  Are you happy with the basic shapes and colors of your digital compact?  Did you buy an entry level DSLR and start taking on detail?  Did you notice the limits of depth of field and image acuity (as it affects composition) of your entry level DSLR and decide you needed a full frame DSLR?  Or are you where I’m standing, you’ve learned the limits of your full frame DSLR and long for the image quality enhancements only currently available in the digital medium format back market?  Or have you reached those limits and discovered that only a large format film camera offers the ultimate image acuity?  We’ve gone full circle.  From a smaller format film camera, to the different formats of digital, to the larger formats of film.

It would be great if we could all afford to travel this circle.  If we always had the room in our luggage for any size camera.  The time necessary to set up the largest view cameras.  However, the reality is that photography, broken down, is nothing more than a subset of variables.  Our needs and finances determine our subset.  My personal needs will keep me equipped with a range of digital compacts and DSLRs.  I long for the perfect late afternoon, the perfect light, no worries and no hurries, and that large format film view camera on a solid hardwood tripod.  Where are you in the evolution?

Thank you Akulka!  Many will read this and it is my hope will be aided in their decision making through your experiences and knowledge.

Wonderful!

Steve

Introduction

Recently I read with much interest Tom Parson’s account of his time in the Philippines. Judging by what he wrote it’s quite obvious to me that this man has more than just a superficial understanding of photography and the experience to show for it to boot. His article spurred me to write my own short account. I too have only recently returned from the Philippines. It was my third trip to this archipelagic nation, raising the total amount of time I spent in the country over the past two years to almost three months. Many of Tom’s photos reminded me of the ones I took and the places I have been.

I too had repeatedly asked myself the question what camera to take on my most recent trip...

The Beginning

I absolutely agree with Tom that it is certainly possible to get reasonable quality out of a carefully chosen quality Point&Shoot (P&S) camera. For the longest time I carried P&S models of the kind that are often referred to as “super zooms”, or “bridge cameras”, on my journeys through Asia, Oceania, and Latin America and was generally quite pleased with the results they produced. Right below you can see some samples from the Philippines, taken in 2007 and 2008.

Oly1

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

However, the more knowledgeable and ambitious I became with my photography, the more annoyed I also became with those cameras’ shortcomings. While I very much appreciated their light weight and relatively compact size, as well as the extraordinary focal range they provided (appr. 35-630 mm equivalent), I began to hate their painfully slow response time and especially autofocus. The mediocre low light performance on the other hand didn’t bother me all that much as I was well aware of this weakness and took most photos during daylight hours anyway. Also, the “always on” depth of field didn’t bother me that much either, admittedly because I didn’t have much experience with it and therefore didn’t fully realize what I was missing out on. Having said that, knowing now what I’ve learned during the past few months of using more advanced equipment I can’t see myself returning to P&S cameras easily or being content using them in the long run.

Time for Change

Intent on upgrading from my Olympus SP-550UZ super zoom P&S to more sophisticated gear I carefully evaluated my options. Needless to say, getting a full-frame DSLR had lots of appeal. I had a close look at the new Canon 5dII and almost reached the point of buying it. In the end I didn’t. Despite Steve’s friendly encouragement I came to realize that despite its certainly outstanding imaging performance it would probably not suit me very well for a number of reasons.

Tom and I seem to have in common that we like to travel relatively light and like to use public buses, trains, or even walk to get to places. Add to that the fact that I usually spend significant time travelling on motorcycles, requiring me to go as light as anyhow possible for my personal comfort and also safety. If I had bought the 5dII body I would have also wanted to get proper lenses to go with it, like for example the 70-200mm F2.8 IS. Together with the 24-105mm kit lens this set would have weighed 2.5 kilograms, not yet considering spare batteries, external flash, tripod, or any other gadgets that would have made the package complete. In my mind not only its weight would have been a significant issue, but also its bulkiness, not to mention the fact that I would have probably not felt very comfortable lugging around $8,000 worth of photo equipment through dirt-poor and not always perfectly safe countries like Brazil, Fiji, or the Philippines. Last but not least, while I may be a relatively ambitious hobby photographer, I’m certainly not in need of producing literally picture-perfect images in always publishable quality. In short, I felt like finding a good balance between my ambitions and realistic requirements.

Decisions

At the same time I didn’t feel like losing the zoom capabilities I had come to appreciate so much with my old Olympus SP-550UZ, and before Sony H-1, bridge camera. I just love to take advantage of a strong zoom, sometimes spending hours sitting at a street corner randomly and unobtrusively snapping away. I too love hustle and bustle places like markets, transportation hubs, or just plain busy streets. Retaining adequate zoom capabilities without adding excessively much weight and/or bulkiness was therefore top priority.

This is when I learned more about Panasonic and Olympus’ newly devised Micro 4/3’s system.

(For those who are not familiar with it, Micro Four Thirds shares the image sensor size and specification with the established Four Thirds system, designed for digital single-lens reflex cameras. Unlike Four Thirds, Micro Four Thirds does not provide space for a mirror and a pentaprism, allowing smaller bodies to be designed. Its sensor area is 30–40% less than the APS-C sensors used in other manufacturers' DSLRs, yet is around 9 times larger than the 1/2.5" sensors typically used in compact digital cameras. The mirror and pentaprism/pentamirror viewfinder is gone, replaced by a live view-only system using either the newly-developed high resolution electronic viewfinder or the large articulated rear screen.)

A Solution

Panasonic first Micro Four Thirds camera is the Lumix G-1 that became available in November 2008. It’s not, by any means, a substitute for a full-frame DSLR. It is, however, a well designed, relatively rugged, and very innovative camera that is almost on par with the image quality of entry-level DSLRs the likes of Canon’s EOS 450D while being significantly smaller in size and lighter in weight. Panasonic's stated reasons for introducing Micro Four Thirds are simple; to produce smaller cameras that act more like compact P&S’s whilst offering the quality and versatility of a DSLR. Thus Panasonic’s G1 represents the first complete break with legacy SLR technology going back well over half a century.

Comparisons

My old Olympus SP-550UZ weighed about 400 grams.

The Canon 5dII including the kit lens and the 70-200mm zoom lens weighs 2500 grams.

The Panasonic G1, with its kit lens and the 45-200mm (90-400mm equivalent) zoom lens, weighs 1200 grams, less than half the 5dII’s weight yet providing twice the focal range.

Decision Made

Despite its obviously convenient compact size, what else were the main reasons I eventually decided to go with it...?

The G1 is relatively small and light, but bulky enough to easily keep it steady, both while taking pictures using its viewfinder or its excellent and very useful swivel LCD. The LCD’s resolution in excess of 400,000 pixels is great, producing a very bright and crisp image even in direct sunlight.

(If for any reason whatsoever I don’t feel like carrying the G1 I simply leave it in my room and take my spare camera instead. I own the small and very convenient Canon IXUS 80IS that I’ve found produces surprisingly good photos, indoors using its flash as well as in natural light.)

The electronic viewfinder is surprisingly good. Except indoors or in low light outdoors when occasionally some noise becomes apparent one hardly notices that one’s not looking at a mirror. Sure, the viewfinder is much smaller than with a full-frame DSLR, but in my opinion still so much better and more convenient than taking photos exclusively using the LCD, as mostly done with P&S’s. When using the LCD I’ve come to greatly appreciate its swivel functionality, allowing for interesting compositions and easy macro shots without much struggle.

Low-light performance is, not surprisingly, significantly better than with any of the P&S cameras I used in the past. Noise is hardly noticeable up to ISO400, and tolerable up to ISO800.

I can shoot RAW.

Tom’s idea that a picture should be fine the way it comes out of the camera strikes me as very old-fashioned and literally “pre-digital”, but each to his own. (STEVE:  This is understandable when you consider most film users truly believed in “getting it right” in the camera.  We didn’t have Photoshop and computers back then.  Most of us didn’t have the luxury of darkrooms.)  Admittedly, I invest more time than I’d like post-processing and keyword-tagging my pictures, since recently using Adobe’s excellent Lightroom software. Starting from next week I’ll also geo-tag my images, a topic I might share my experiences with in another weekly at a later time. (STEVE:  I can’t wait!)  My experience is that almost all pictures taken with P&S and DSLRs alike benefit quite significantly from even only basic “auto-toning” and sharpening.

Compromises?

So what are the downsides...?

Granted, there are very few lenses available so far. Of course one could always use an adapter to mount any other Four Thirds lens, but then the advantage of carrying a compact and lightweight camera body like the G1’s would mostly be gone. Furthermore, while the 14-45mm (28-90mm equivalent) produces very sharp pictures, the 45-200mm (90-400 equivalent) somewhat disappoints. Both lenses are quite “slow” which is not ideal but I can live with. The zoom lens however for some reason lacks the crisp sharpness of its little brother. (STEVE:  I’ll bet you dollars to donuts if you chuck both up in a quality tripod you’ll find them much closer in terms of sharpness.  It’s extremely difficult to hand hold, or even tripod mount (with anything less than a quality tripod) a longer focal range, especially with such a small lightweight system.  No image stabilization system is up to this challenge.) Nowadays I sadly find that I avoid using it as much as I’d like because more often than not I’m not perfectly happy with the results. Then again, its weaknesses really only show during low light  (STEVE:  Yes, very fast shutter speeds will help compensate for an unstable platform) and/or at 100% crop. Still, this admittedly bothers me.

Having to change lenses can be an issue. Then again, thinking back to my recent journey I don’t remember missing a whole lot of shots because of this. It’s an acceptable disadvantage compared to the very large “all-in-one” focal range of my old super zoom P&S.

I’m already curious about the 20mm (40mm equivalent) F1.7 lens that’s announced for late Spring. I expect it will complement my kit and zoom lens quite nicely.

Images from the Philippines

Here is a mixed selection of photos I took with the G1 while travelling the Philippines. All images have been more or less significantly post-processed using Adobe Lightroom.

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

These impressions are from the world-famous rice terraces of Banaue and Batad in Northern Luzon.

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

 

Angeles City

Basing myself in Angeles City, the “Pattaya of the Philippines”, I chartered this beautifully maintained, 60 year old, Ryan Navion airplane for a scenic flight over Mount Pinatubo. The following day I also trekked up to the crater lake itself.

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

 

The six pictures above were taken at Batanes, a tiny and very remote island province half-way between North Luzon and Taiwan, smack in the center of typhoon alley...

Camiguin Island

The following six pictures below mostly stem from Camiguin Island, off the coast of Mindanao in the far south of the country.

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Pana19

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

 

Siargao Island

Below are images taken on Siargao Island, off the north-east coast of Mindanao.

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

 

Manilla

Finally some impressions from Manila! I made a point in visiting some of the metropolis’ large cemeteries, namely the American Cemetery and the Northern Cemetery. The latter I had a particularly strong interest in after learning that a large number of squatters have made it their home. Unfortunately I was chased off the premises by city officials, allegedly for security reasons and not having an official permit issued by the city hall for taking photos in this area.

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

Panasonic G1

 

Conclusion

In conclusion I have to say that I’m pleased with my choice of going for the G1. To me it constitutes a good middle ground between P&S and full-frame, or at least an acceptable compromise if you will. Obviously there’s still lots of room for improvement!

If anyone happens to be interested in learning more about the Lumix G1 take a look at this excellent and in-depth review here.

Furthermore, there are three recent articles titled “Faces of the Philippines” in the readers' submission section of this website if you are interested in seeing more photos from my trip and / or reading about some of my big and small adventures in the PI...

Faces of the Phillippines -  Sleepless in Cebu

Faces of Panay – At Mr. Gumbo’s

Faces of Panay -  A 2008 Motorcycle Odyssey

Faces of the Philippines – Meet Samantha, the Inmates, and the Fools

Faces of the Philippines – Meet Randy Ramona, Shy Britney, Preaching Peter, and Curious Kamal

Faces of the Philippines – Meet Andy the Gourmet, Victor the German, Darlene the Receptionist, and Cebu Pacific’s Check-In Staff

Akulka

Akulka –

Thank you for such a generous contribution!  I’m sure many will find this helpful. 

Great work!

Steve