Friday, October 29, 2021

How to Select a Camera - Part 2


In my last post I explained why it still makes sense to buy a real camera, notwithstanding (and partly because of) the sophistication of smartphone cameras. I described the main types of modern models—the point-and-shoot, mirrorless, and DSLR (aka “sand-filled”) cameras, and concluded that most (hypothetical) albertnet readers should probably go with mirrorless. In this second and final installment I’ll quote two experts in describing the technical differences in features among two models, and what these differences mean.

Advice from the mavens

My friend John and my brother Bryan take great photos (but I won’t be sharing their albums here so you’ll just have to trust me). Bryan got a lot of photography lessons from our dad (perhaps using up our dad’s patience since I never even got a real camera, much less a lesson, but I’m not bitter). I emailed John and Bryan links to my two front-runners, the Olympus PEN E-PL10 and the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV, and this handy link to a comparison page on the B&H Photo website.

John advised, “I think for Lindsay, finding a camera that ‘speaks to her’ rather one with the best specs on paper is the thing. I’ll admit that I bought Sony cameras because I thought they looked cool. And I think the PEN cameras are super cool looking too (and they are well regarded).”

This is a good point, and freed me somewhat from worrying too much about the specs … though I’ll admit I can’t resist sifting through the minutiae.

My brother Bryan took some time to walk through some of the more salient feature differences. Here are his observations, with my reactions and some other commentary.

Bulb mode

Bryan explains:

Bulb mode is where the camera keeps the shutter open as long as you hold the shutter button down (or perhaps by some other mechanism?). One uses it for making long exposures, so if that’s something Lindsay would like to play with, this might be a benefit of the OM-D E-M10 Mark IV. When might she play with such a feature? One thing that comes to mind is that young people these days love to take pictures of star trails because they’re so cool.

I don’t know about this one. Bryan might overestimate how much kids, or other people, are into astronomy. (Or perhaps he’s being facetious?)

Sensor size (resolution)

Bryan expounds:

Sensor Resolution of 16.1 MP versus 23 MP – Obviously, the OMG camera [his jocular nickname for the Mark IV] has the bigger sensor, which means higher resolution pictures, which means better zooming and cropping possibilities. It also means that if you want to make prints of your photos, they will look much better. It’s like comparing your old VGA monitor to your modern tablet with its retinal display. On the down side, these bigger pictures take up more space on your computer’s hard drive and so on.

I have read in various places that simply looking for high megapixel count won’t help much. That number can be high due to pixel density, but sensor size is more important. Assuming these cameras have the same pixel density, the more expensive one really does have the superior sensor. I guess it comes down to the old adage: size does matter.

Image Stabilization

More analysis from Bryan:

3-Axis Sensor-Shift verses 5-Axis – When it comes to making sharp photos, it’s all about holding the sensor still while the light is exposing it. You can do this with a tripod, by holding really still like a sniper, by buying lenses with active elements that move to absorb some of your shaking, or, like Pentax did years ago and other companies are apparently doing now, actively moving the sensor around to compensate for your shaking. The more axes the better... I’m not sure which axes the PEN camera operate on, probably x, y and rotate? The irony of course is that it’s the PEN camera that needs more stabilization, since it’s the one you’ll be waving around at arm’s length while taking pictures.

This is one of the main reasons I kind of think the bigger, clunkier camera might be worth it. Lindsay holds the camera fairly still but not perfectly … I kind of cringe at how much the camera is still twitching. Maybe that’s just me being a dad, though…

Electronic Front Curtain Shutter

Bryan writes,

I had to research this... apparently there’s a phenomenon called “shutter shock” where the mechanical clanking of the shutter mechanism (the mechanical curtains that hide the sensor until it’s time to expose it to the light) can shake the camera enough to blur the image at certain camera settings. It can cause what would otherwise be a perfectly sharp picture to be blurry when zoomed in, even when the camera is otherwise stable, even on a tripod. There are actually two curtains involved in covering the sensor, the front curtain and the rear curtain. The front curtain slides out of the way at the beginning of the exposure, exposing the sensor. After the set amount of time has elapsed, the rear curtain slides over the sensor, hiding it from the light, and the exposure is complete. Only the front curtain can cause the blurring, since the rear curtain’s movement comes after the exposure is complete. The solution, then, is to move the front curtain out of the way early and begin the exposure electronically, by starting the sensor read at the beginning of the exposure. (There are things I don’t understand about this, but that’s for another time.) Here is a good article, with a link to a cool movie that shows the curtain in action. All this to say, if she ends up really pushing the envelope, this might be a cool feature to have and learn about.

Wow, this is kind of amazing! You know what it reminds me of? That second set of eyelids that Vulcans have, that saved Spock’s vision in the “Operation – Annihilate!” episode of Star Trek!

Diopter Adjustment

Bryan writes,

This is the adjustment on the viewfinder to correct the image so that you don’t have to wear your glasses while looking through the view finder. Obviously, this applies only to the camera with a view finder ... more on this later. If you weren’t wearing your glasses, you might not make as good pictures because you can’t see what you’re doing, either on the screen or the viewfinder.

I have this on my Lumix point-and-shoot camera and I totally dig it. At this point, though, Lindsay is not very keen on the viewfinder … when she borrows my camera, which is frequent these days, she always uses the big LCD. Man, kids these days…

Media/Memory Card Slot

Per Bryan:

I didn’t research it, but the PEN camera only supports UHS-I, whereas the OMG supports UHS-II. Obviously UHS-II has two I’s instead of one, so it must be better. Seriously, though, the higher standard probably means that you could buy a faster card to handle the higher data transfer rates of the fancier features. Maybe it just makes the camera faster overall.

Bryan’s synopsis

Bryan completes his comparison of the two cameras:

The more expensive, bigger OMG camera [shown at the top of this post] is better in every regard except for one: it looks kind of like a big DSLR camera, and some people just don’t want to look like a tourist. I think that Dad got to that point, which is strange when you think about it. It looks like the cameras are actually similar in dimensions, the OMG is just five millimeters wider, but 16 mm taller and 10mm thicker. But the PEN camera is designed to look very stylish, and I believe that it does, and that could be very important to a young lady. I agree with John on this one: if she is embarrassed about the looks of the camera, she may never bond with it properly and it may just end up in a drawer, and she will have lost the opportunity to learn all about photography and make beautiful art.

If, on the other hand, she doesn’t care about the stylish nature of the PEN camera and is more moved by the sexy pretend pentaprism hump on the top of the OMG camera and all that it represents, then by all means, it is the better way to go. I happen to be a firm believer in the viewfinder for many reasons, some of which I shall enumerate. First of all, if you hold the camera properly while peering through the viewfinder, you will get superior pictures because they won’t be blurry from motion-blur. A professional photographer taught me this. I frankly can’t understand how phone cameras manage to get such sharp pictures when their owners are waving them about like pom-poms while taking photos. There must be some incredible processing going on there... in any case, holding the camera up to your face allows you to pin your arms against your body, which, being quite large, doesn’t shake around as much as your extended arms. This effect will be less with Lindsay, but the principle is sound.

I agree 100% with this, and by the way the phrase “pretend pentaprism hump” does more to sway me toward the smaller camera than anything else I’ve read, because it’s just so cheesy to build a cosmetic hump there, and while I’m on the subject, wouldn’t “Pretend Pentaprism Hump” be a great name for a rock band?

More on the viewfinder

Bryan continues,

Another reason that the viewfinder is superior is that you can see better. With your eye up against the camera, it’s dark in there and you can see the screen clearly. This allows you to frame things better, focus better (if you’re into the manual focus thing or are telling the camera where to focus), set the exposure better, check out your depth of field better, and so on. Though I haven’t really used one, I understand that the modern EVF (Electronic View Finder) allows for all sorts of extra data to be displayed in interesting ways. Some of these data can be displayed on the screen, but probably in less detail.

Finally, when it comes to serious photography, you just don’t see real photographers waving their cameras around, shooting photos like an action hero shoots a gun, holding one in each hand, with the barrels pointing away from each other, alternating bullets from left to right. Boy, that sure looks cool, especially if they’ve just flown through a glass wall of a skyscraper and they’re shooting and shooting as they fall, but real gun people don’t shoot that way, they hold the gun very carefully with both hands, arms extended, and they sight down the barrel so that their bullet has a chance of actually hitting the bad guy. Photography is kind of like that. If you want crappy, blurry shots, go ahead, wave the camera around. John and Erin [his son and daughter-in-law] take a whole lot of photos, and really good ones at that, and they use the huge, sand-filled DLSR cameras and they almost always use the viewfinder. There are probably other reasons for using a viewfinder that I haven’t thought about, but this has gone on long enough.

OMG, I can totally picture that movie poster of Chuck Norris shooting in two different directions at once, with his eyes looking at you, the viewer of the poster, rather than at either of his ostensible targets.

I have to admit, when I take a photo, I mean a real photo and not just a snapshot of my cat (for which I emphasize quick set up, kind of stealing the shot so the cat doesn’t see what I’m up to and stop being so cute), I do like to pretend I’m a sniper actually shooting somebody, and not like the bullet-spewing action hero but like a real freaking sniper, and I happen to know a bit about this because I have two friends who are super talented sharpshooters, both ex-military and one of whom had a job sitting up in the guard tower and shooting would-be prison escape artists at the California Men’s Colony prison. (He was never presented with the opportunity to shoot anybody, but the stress of knowing he might have to eventually got to him and he quit.) Both sharpshooters assured me that you almost never fire more than one shot, because a) the guns are so accurate you don’t need to, and b) if you actually sprayed bullets like in the movies the heat would warp the barrel. Anyhow, I guess with modern cameras and the capacity of these memory cards it’s reasonable to just flail the camera around like you’re a human semaphore or something, clicking away all the time, knowing that among the several hundred shots you’ve taken, one or two will be amazing, but man, I just hate wading thru all of those unsuitable photos, giving myself arthritis deleting them, since it’s always my phone or camera that the flailer (i.e., my wife or daughter) used and they leave all that photographic detritus around like so many plates and forks after a dinner party. Heck, maybe I like the viewfinder simply because I’d rather be a sniper than a dishwasher. Maybe it’s an ego thing.

The camera mavens’ conclusions

Bryan summed up his analysis with this:

All that being said, buy the camera that she will actually use. If she really likes the PEN camera, good on her; if she really gets into it but finds that she’s being hampered by the camera, because it doesn’t have a viewfinder or is missing features or whatever, she can always sell that camera (or hand it up to someone) and buy something fancier. If she goes all in, she’ll probably want to buy a full sized DSLR or whatever anyway. You never know!

John agreed and added:

The more I look at photos, the more I think that the tech is less important. I have two Sony APS-C cameras: one is old and has less resolution and no image stabilization and usually has my older, slower, crappier lenses on it. But sometimes that is the camera that is in my hand, and I tell you: I am still impressed at the good images I can get with it. Sure, the newer one gives me better assurance that I will get a good image in one setting or another, but a good photograph rarely has much to do with how awesome your camera is.

My ultimate choice

Obviously I favor a camera with a viewfinder for myself, but after all these emails I was leaning toward the PEN. After all, Lindsay doesn’t use the viewfinder on my camera anyway, and this camera is for her, not me. And getting back to that (probably hollow) pretend pentaprism hump … it just turns me off. Is this a camera, or a prop?

What clinched the deal is that I was on the B&H website, grabbing links for this very post, and noticed that the price for the PEN E-PL10 body bundled with a M.Zuiko ED 14-42mm lens had somehow dropped by $100 since the last time I visited it. This was (oddly enough) $50 less than the camera body by itself, $100 less than the price on Amazon, and now a full $250 less than the E-M10 Mark IV, which is enough to put a stake in its heart.

Surprised by the price drop on the B&H site, and thinking the price might go back up, I spontaneously snapped up the PEN E-PL10. After going through the checkout process I tried to get back to the original product page for it, and discovered—to my great surprise—that B&H has now discontinued this model entirely. I got the very last one!

I hope my daughter likes it. If so, perhaps I’ll paste some of her photos into this post. And if she doesn’t like it … well, I may just keep it for myself. My point-and-shoot is looking pretty humble right about now…

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