Monday, October 14, 2013

Fresh start: Into what camera system would I buy today?

A lot of time has passed since my first film SLR and it seems in the digital era, that an equal amount of technology time has passed since 2004.

As a stills photographer, I'm wondering what I would buy fresh in 2013 without any old equipment to have an influence on my decision.

In 2004, it came down to Olympus (my long term brand), Pentax (the odd but sometimes great brand), Nikon (the brand of legacy), and Canon (the ergonomically-backwards brand), although there was Minolta but Minolta never did anything great in my view so it wasn't worth consideration.

Pentax had the *ist that didn't work well.  Nikon had the D100 but its image quality didn't really impress me.  Equally, the Canon 10D didn't impress.  The lower level siblings from Nikon and Canon were getting attention but they weren't as good.  I bet on the Olympus E-1 after a glowing review from What Digital Camera, a magazine I trusted to tell me what was wrong with any equipment.  93% was quite good.

Today, finding something that stands out like that is more difficult to find.  Technology has changed and the major brands all have camera bodies that impress, so I'm (mostly) back to judging by lenses.

In the same US$1000 to US$2000 range with a normal zoom lens, there are a few choices:

  • Pentax K-3
  • Nikon D7100
  • Canon 70D
  • Olympus E-M1
  • Panasonic GH3
  • Sony NEX-7

Nine years ago, I'd never considered something from an electronics company as my camera of choice but Panasonic has proven itself and Sony took horrible Minolta and made it something above average.

I need weather-resistant equipment.  How else do you shoot outdoors in the rain or snow, use an umbrella?  That eliminates the Canon 70D and the Sony NEX-7, as far as I know.  While Pentax and Nikon make it difficult to understand, they have enough weather-sealed lenses to make a go of it.  Olympus and Panasonic have almost no native weather-sealed micro Four-Thirds lenses except for the Olympus 12-50mm, 60mm macro, Panasonic 12-35mm, and 35-100mm.  Soon to be available is the Olympus 12-40mm, and in 2014, the 40-150mm.  That's not much but the Four-Thirds High Grade and Super High Grade lenses work and they're all weather-sealed.

For stills alone, I'd likely choose this order:

  1. Pentax K-3
  2. Olympus E-M1
  3. Nikon D7100
  4. Panasonic GH3

For stills, I'd love to consider the Nikon D7100 but it has too small a frame buffer to use for raw files in burst mode, something the K-3 fixes.  If Nikon really is replacing the D300/D300s with the D7100, they should have given it a better buffer.  Perhaps, a D7200 will fix that.  Like the K-3, the Olympus E-M1 has the stills capabilities and large frame buffer.  The GH3 is okay with stills photography but it sometimes feels like an add-on to the video capabilities.

If video is the priority:

  1. Panasonic GH3
  2. Pentax K-3
  3. Olympus E-M1
  4. Nikon D7100

The Panasonic GH3 has quite a bit more video capabilities than anything else short of US$3000.  The Pentax K-3 has been introduced with better than average capabilities.  Without a number of reviews, it is only supposition that the Pentax K-3 is not terminally flawed.  I'm hoping that Ricoh has injected new life into Pentax.  I like Pentax, but their Q series mirror-less cameras haven't helped Pentax' stream-of-consciousness decision making, and the K-01 was high on the odd scale.  The E-M1 and D7100 are only good if you're a stills photographer who needs to add a bit of video.

It would seem that I'm choosing the Pentax K-3.  I believe it has quite a bit to offer.  The odd focal lengths of the lenses may require more purchases to cover everything.  However, Nikon doesn't cover a range much more easily.  Neither company started from scratch going to digital technology.  One thing that I would clearly want to know is that each lens I would buy would have to be made for digital, not made for film and okay for digital.  Also, the lenses should be weather-sealed.  You can shoot in the rain and just hope that your U$2500 lens is safe.

The Olympus E-M1 is both the hopeful contender and a more stable choice, should Pentax continue its odd ways.  It has image quality and flexibility to outdo the others.  Remember that the K-3 and D7100 are at a high pixel density, as are the E-M1 and GH3.  However, Olympus and Panasonic have been dealing with the tight density for a while now.

 The Panasonic GH3 really gets my attention for video.  It's a good stills camera, but it is much more limited than the E-M1 or K-3.  Like the E-M1, it can use Olympus' fine Four-Thirds lenses, but if you need auto focus, it's slow.  Also, the high ISO capabilities are not as good as the E-M1.  If the GH3 arrives with the same sensor used in the E-M1, this will likely be much different.  Of course, the Venus HD engine really needs to be revised to work as well as Olympus' TruePIC VII (or is it 7 now?) engine.

The Nikon D7100 is such a good shooter, but the ability to buffer raw photos is on the slim side.  If a D400 had been released, I wouldn't have such a reservation.  I don't believe that Nikon would have crippled a more expensive camera body, especially when the D300s has the bigger frame buffer but for a lower resolution.  They're likely just concerned about a D400 making the D610 less appealing, and without the D400, they're pushing people toward the D800 for sports.

In the end:

  1. Pentax K-3
  2. Olympus E-M1
  3. Panasonic GH3
  4. Nikon D7100

Update 2014.01.21: FujiFilm is hinting at a 1970s-style mirror-less camera body resembling the ST801.  If they can fix their raw file handling and provide a great body, I'd be willing to re-think everything for their system.

Update 2014.01.28: May I change my mind?  That FujiFilm X-T1 seems quite good, at first glance.  It's in the same category I want, and there are weather-sealed lenses (such as a 75-210mm f/2.8 equivalent) that will be in the correct zoom ranges for me, plus there is a wide zoom, 10-24mm f/4.0 (15-36mm 135 format equivalent), that fits my need for ultra wide.

Update 2014.02.17: I've been thinking how the Panasonic GH4 interrupts these thoughts.  However, if still photography is my goal, these two will likely still be better choices.  I viewed a video today by Guilio Sciorio, a Panasonic Lumix Luminary, and he commented that the GH4 is a much better shooter than the GH3.  It's good that you can pull an 8 MP image out of a video file.  I've also see Panasonic marketing materials saying that the image quality is better than many other bodies, but it didn't specify stills or video.  The video quality is a given, but stills quality?  I'm not so sure.

Update 2014.03.17: Obviously, the GH4 with a kit lens barely makes it into the price range.  It's a bit out of this league at $1699.99, much like my Olympus E-5 would have been in 2011 after it had been introduced.  Having bought the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 lens for my GH3, I have newfound respect for the GH3.  The color is finally great, as is the clarity.  I sent the Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 lens to be repaired but I was told that there was no flaw.  The GH3 is still no match for the Olympus E-M1 for stills quality but it's a lot closer with a proper lens.  Therefore, I suspect, with a proper lens, that the GH4 will equal the E-M1 and X-T1 in stills quality, but it may only come close.

Update 2014.12.16: Isn't it amazing how a year has changed things? The K-3 didn't overcome its Pentax and Ricoh weirdness, nor did it overcome its video shortcomings. Pentax is relevant, but only just.  As well, the GH3 didn't overcome its still photography shortcomings, though firmware has helped.  Being able to focus at EV-4 is an advantage that firmware has added.  Firmware couldn't fix the EVF problems.  That took a total redesign that found its way into the GH4.

The GH4 has certainly become a great successor, and with a Metabones SpeedBooster (reverse teleconverter), the ability to use Canon- or Nikon-compatible lenses has become even more relevant.

I'm sad for the 70D but the 7D Mk II seems a happier compromise but has it outgunned the Nikon D7100?  The D7100 does so many things right for still photography.

Also, the Sony a7 II has made a credible entry into this list, for still photography.  It certainly pushes the K-3 and 70D further down the list, especially with a Olympus-workalike 5 axis image stabilizer.

Of course, the Sony a7 II with a 135 Format sized sensor presents the easiest ability to work in lower light, although FujiFilm has done well with the X-T1 and its sensor, though you can't go past ISO 6400 with FujiFilm's raw file capabilities.

The Canon 6D and Nikon D610 have often been seen in this same territory but they're really just visitors.  They're more than acceptable casual camera bodies and have agreeable sensors, but the rest of each isn't all that great.  If you have time to futz with them, you should enjoy what you get from them.  However, with Sony's a7 II, you probably should dismiss both of them.


  1. It seems like a bit of this is theoretical, so I thought I'd enquire to see if you've gotten your hands on things, maybe formed a more solid (or revised opinion).

    My current direction is toward video, coming from a background in still photography. I'm generally satisfied with a Canon M41, which led me to look seriously at their XF100. Audio is largely solved, as I rely heavily on the Zoom H4n and find that it syncs wonderfully through post via Final Cut Pro X.

    Then (darn it!), I had a 70D thrust into my hands and got to thinking about sensor size all over again. The focus-technology is very impressive. But, as the ever-annoying lead-editor at c|net points out, the image quality is not there. (The way she says it, almost as afterthought, I guess her audience doesn't buy cameras to actually take pictures?)

    Then came the Panasonic GH3, and on its heals, your helpful comparison here. So I "get" that it tromps the Canon 70D (correct?). But it seems that the Pentax K-3 is what you favor overall viz the GH3? and the GH3 only "slightly" over the K-3 for video?

    Is this right? I got the impression that the Pentax K-3 was sorely lacking in video performance. Any thoughts here or in a new post would be appreciated.

    1. As a stills photographer, I would choose the K-3 above all others. I do a little video and the K-3 has some flexibility in video over the D7100 or the E-M1. The GH3 is so far above the rest, that I feel it should only really be compared to the 5DMkIII for video, mostly because of file formats and bit rates, but also because of performance. It's a good stills camera but wouldn't be my choice for stills, if I was starting fresh.

      Lori Grunin from c|net apparently knows very little about cameras and makes some ridiculous statements most every review. Her reviews have become closer to reality, but I think she aggregates what she reads to help with her accuracy.

      Traditionally, Canon tends to put all their good stuff at US$3000 and above, which is why I wouldn't suggest a 70D to anyone but current Canon users. For stills, the D7100 seems to be better, even with the higher pixel density, and the GH3 is better for video but I'm not everyone.

      I do some aggregation of what I've read in reviews, comments, and more, along with person experience.

    2. Isn't it amazing how a year has changed things? The K-3 didn't overcome its Pentax and Ricoh weirdness. It didn't overcome its video shortcomings. As well, the GH3 didn't overcome its still photography shortcomings, though firmware has helped.

      However, the GH4 has certainly become a great successor, and with a Metabones SpeedBooster (reverse teleconverter), the ability to use Canon or Nikon lenses has become even more relevant.

      I'm sad for the 70D but the 7D Mk II seems a happier compromise but has it outgunned the Nikon D7100?

  2. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)