Brian's Photo Blog — Article 119
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The Great Camera Quandary
Wednesday 27 June 2012   —   Category: Equipment
As I discovered on my hike at Silver Falls last week, my collection of nice camera equipment really weighs a lot! Allow me to quote from that article to refresh your memory:
I had my Sony α77 with vertical grip, a holster case, a lightweight Sirui carbon fiber tripod, and my collection of lenses: my versatile, general-purpose 24-​70​mm zoom, as well as a massive telephoto zoom, a wide angle zoom, and a macro, plus a 2x teleconverter. Add to that miscellaneous items like spare batteries and lens-cleaning equipment, plus the 8.4-pound weight of the backpack itself, and the total weight of all my camera equipment came to a hefty 25 pounds!
As I also recounted in the previous article, I’m simply not in good-enough shape to drag around 25 pounds of camera equipment on long all-day hikes. Truly, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak! But I’m NOT going to give up photo hikes, so the solution lies in finding lighter equipment to take along. This is what I have been pondering for the last week since my hike.

My current lens kit covers a wide range of focal lengths (in 35​mm equivalence) — from 15​mm wide angle through 1200​mm telephoto, plus separate macro capability. In total, I own six lenses which all together weigh more than 12 pounds, and if lined up end to end, measure more than 34 inches! That’s a LOT of heavy glass! But I guess other photographers have bigger lens problems than I do!

Even though each of these lenses works well for the focal lengths they were designed for, not one of them individually would give me the wide range of focal lengths that I would want while on a hike. If I took my wide-angle zoom lens only, then I would not have any telephoto capability at all. If I took only my telephoto zoom lens, I would not have any wide-angle capability. If I took only my mid-range zoom lens, I would not have any extreme-wide-angle or extreme-telephoto capability. If I don’t take my macro lens, then I can’t get any close-up shots. In order to cover ALL the photographic bases, I need to have ALL of my lenses with me on my hikes. What good does it do to own a particular lens, but then always leave it at home because it’s too heavy to carry around?!

During these past days of intensive research and pondering, I've resolved the various considerations into three possible solutions. Each one has its advantages, but also its own major drawbacks.
ONE — A “vacation” lens for my current camera
Rather than hauling around three or four lenses to cover a wide range of focal lengths, one possible solution would be to add yet another — but more versatile — lens to my existing lens kit. Mounting a so-called “va­ca­tion” lens — like the Sony DT 18-​250​mm f/3.5-​6.3 high zoom lens — might do the trick. This relatively-lightweight (15.5 oz / 440g) and compact (3.4 in. / 86mm long) lens has a 35mm-​equivalent focal length of 27​mm to 375​mm — not quite the 15​mm to 1200​mm range of all my lenses put together, but not bad for a single lens which is many times less bulky and heavy.

Unfortunately, as with most things in this world, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is! Seeing that a good lens can easily cost $2,000, the $650 price tag of the Sony 18-​250​mm already tells you a great deal about its quality — or lack thereof. In order to pack a 14x zoom into a single APS-C-format lens, a LOT of compromises have to be made. As documented in an review, this lens has noticeable problems with excessive chromatic aberration, vignetting and radial distortion, as well as issues with soft focus at the longer focal lengths.

These defects in lens performance are not limited to Sony’s lens — the Tamron 18-​250​mm, and the Sigma 18-250 both have similar problems. Even the “vacation” lenses from heavy-hitters Canon (their 18-200mm) and Nikon (their 18-200mm) exhibit the same performance issues. All of these lens manufacturers ultimately hit the same brick wall: physics, and more specifically, optics. Sometimes it’s not always possible to circumvent the immutable laws of nature.

This solution has the advantage of using my existing camera rather than buying a new one. Hiking with only one lens rather than five would definitely solve the weight problem. And it would eliminate the other problem of having to change lenses frequently. But could I live with the somewhat-limited focal length range, and the significantly-reduced image quality? I’m not so sure.
TWO — A new, fixed-lens, “superzoom” compact camera
Rather than adapting my current DSLR to solve the problem, I've also been toying with the idea of going back to a “superzoom” bridge camera. As I have recounted in Brian’s Photographic Journey, it was my purchase of a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 superzoom in late 2006 that started to rekindle my dormant passion for photography.

Last year I took the momentous step of selling my bridge camera and moving up to the vastly-improved quality of a Sony α55 DSLR. So it seems ironic — and kinda crazy — that I would even consider going back to a fixed-lens superzoom camera, with a tiny 1/2.3-​inch sensor. As this sensor-size illustration shows, the sensor in popular superzoom cameras are about 13 times smaller than the APS-C sensor in my Sony cameras (28 mm² vs. 367 mm²)! With the reduction in sensor sizes comes a significant reduction in image quality.

There are a few recent entries into the superzoom bridge camera arena: the Canon PowerShot SX40 HS, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX200V, as well as others from Nikon, Fujifilm, Olympus, and more. Even though there are a lot of similarities between these superzooms, each one has its own positive and negative aspects, making it very difficult to narrow it down to a single choice.

I want a camera that has it all, but, unfortunately, life does not work that way. The Panasonic is the only one of these three to offer RAW shooting. Only the Sony model has my cherished GPS capability. The Canon model offers neither of these features, but does have an incredible 35x zoom (24-​840​mm equivalent). My ideal superzoom would shoot RAW images, have a GPS, AND the awesome 35x zoom! And then I woke up!

I've been a bit intrigued by the Canon SX40, because some photography-loving computer programmers have evidently hacked the camera’s operating system so they can extend and enhance the capabilities of the camera! This is the first time I've ever heard of such a thing — and they have done the same thing with other Canon PowerShot cameras. This software — called the Canon Hack Development Kit (CHDK) — adds exciting new features to many PowerShot cameras, including RAW files, full manual control over exposure, zebra patterning, live histogram, grids, and more. As a computer geek myself, it sounds kinda cool to have a hacked camera with extended features, especially RAW images. Interesting....

Hiking with a lightweight camera that can shoot RAW and has a fixed 35x zoom len does seem quite appealing! But as we have seen before, you NEVER get something for nothing. In this case, the price to pay for such a great reduction in weight and bulk is an itsy-bitsy sensor and noticeably decreased image quality. As in the first scenario, I wonder if I would be happy with such limitations?
THREE — A new Micro Four Thirds camera and set of lenses
The third solution I have been mulling over is the Micro Four Thirds (µ4/3) option. Referring again to the sensor-size illustration, a Four Thirds (4/3) sensor is 40% smaller than an APS-C sensor (which is in my Sony α77 camera), but it is still 800% larger than the tiny sensors in superzoom bridge cameras. Therefore, it’s not too much of a compromise to take a step down to a Four Thirds sensor, and there is still a reasonable opportunity to get good image quality.

Most µ4/3 cameras have interchangeable lenses, just like the larger APS-C and full-frame sensor DSLRs. But because the 4/3 sensor’s reduced size, the lenses for these cameras can also be made much smaller. The 4/3 sensor has a focal length multiplier of 2x. So, for example, a 25mm lens on a µ4/3 camera would have a 35mm equivalence of 50mm. This allows µ4/3 cameras to achieve an angle of view using µ4/3-specific lenses which are smaller and lighter compared to 35mm lenses with the same angle of view.

The µ4/3 standard was created in 2008 by Panasonic and Olympus, which are still the only two man­u­fac­tur­ers of these type of cameras. As a result, there is not as much selection as there normally is with other types of photographic equipment. Although Panasonic has some interesting µ4/3 cameras in their Lumix G series, and Olympus has their PEN series, the hottest µ4/3 camera these days is the newly-released Olympus OM-D E-M5. Although, like any camera, it has its faults, it has been getting rave reviews, and it would not be too much of a step down from my Sony camera.

On the other hand, this solution would involve spending quite a bit of money on a new camera body, plus a whole new set of lenses to go with it. And I would still have the hassle of having to change lenses frequently when out taking pictures. But since the lenses are so much smaller and lighter than the equivalent 35mm lenses, it might be possible for me to carry them in some sort of smaller camera bag in front of me, instead of in my backpack. That way, I could access them easily without having to take my backpack off every time I want to change lenses.
For days now I have been going around and around in my mind, debating the pros and cons of these three possible solutions. Just when I think I have settled on one of them, I start to get doubts, and find new reasons why it’s not the best solution after all. Then my thoughts churn and swirl around again, until they eventually settle on one of the other solutions. Then the doubts come again, and it’s back to the confusion! There seems to be no obviously-good way out of my camera quandary — I can’t believe I’m having such a hard time analyzing the facts and making a sound decision!

Tomorrow I’m heading to Portland to spend some time at Pro Photo Supply. I've been there twice previously, looking for camera bags, and remember that they have a HUGE selection of cameras — perhaps the biggest in Oregon. I’m really hoping that if I can see and hold some of these cameras in person, and talk with the camera experts who work there, that it will help me to make a definite decision about which solution to pursue. If they can help me out of this pickle, I will be VERY grateful! Stay tuned for my report in my next article ....
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 119
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