Monday, 30 January 2012

Why buy a system camera, and why buy a compact camera?

If you're looking for a small camera, there are basically two choices. You can go for a small, interchangeable lens camera, for example based on the Micro Four Thirds standard. Or from one of the competitors, like the Nikon 1 system, Sony NEX, and so on. The other choice is to buy a compact camera without interchangeable lenses.

The main difference between these two camera types is the sensor size. Interchangeable lens cameras tend to have larger sensors than compact cameras. There are some exceptions to this rule, though, for example the Pentax Q system, which has a small sensor in a camera body with changeable lenses, and the Canon G1X, which has a large sensor in a fixed lens camera body.

I recently acquired the Olympus TG-310, a compact, rugged camera with a small sensor, for use when swimming, skiing, and so on. And I was interested in seeing what the real world difference between this camera and my Panasonic GH2 is. The two cameras are shown below, with the Olympus TG-310 to the right:


As mentioned, system cameras and compact fixed lens cameras tend to have different sized sensors. To illustrate that, here is a comparison of the relative sensor sizes of the Four Thirds sensor and the 1/2.3' sensor in the Olympus TG-310 compact camera:


The smaller sensor means that the camera manufacturer can cram more features into the lens more easily. So while the Lumix G 14-42mm kit lens seen on the GH2 above only has a 3x zoom and no macro mode, compact cameras tend to have much a larger zoom ratio, and a macro mode to boot. I write about this difference in the introduction to my Micro Four Thirds lens buying guide.

The specific compact camera still has fairly unimpressive optical features, though. This is because it is a rugged compact, designed to be waterproof, shockproof and freezeproof. Because of this design choice, it has a relatively small lens assembly, to keep the size and weight down. This dictates employing only a 4x zoom ratio.

I bought the camera very cheaply, since it has recently been obsoleted by the newer Olympus TG-320. It appears to share some components with similar cameras from Panasonic, most notably the Lumix DMC-TS10.

Looking at some of the specifications of the two cameras used in this test, we see that they are not altogether that different:

System
GH2 + Lumix G 14-42mm
Olympus TG-310
Effective Megapixels16.114.0
ISO range160-1280080-1600
Focal length range (equiv)28-84 (3x)28-102 (3.6x)
Aperture rangef/3.5-5.6f/3.5-5.9
Minimum focus (normal)0.3m0.6m
Minimum focus (macro)N.A.0.03m
Image stabilizationOpticalSensor shift

But these are just the specifications. Let's see what the difference is in terms of image quality.

Landscape photo

I started with taking a basic landscape photo. I set both cameras to full auto, which is probably what a newbie would do. The zooms were both set to the widest setting. The cameras were handheld. Here are the two images, scaled down a bit, click to enlarge:



GH2, ISO 160, f/4.0, 1/160s
TG-310, ISO80, f/3.5, 1/60s

To compare them better, here are some 100% crops from the images:


While the scaled down images look fairly similar in terms of image quality, it is very clear from the 100% crops that the GH2 in fact has a huge advantage in terms of resolution.

Indoor photo with flash

To further look at the image quality differences, let's look at some images taken indoor with the built-in flash. The subject here is the LEGO Technic 9392 model. Again, I used full auto on both cameras.



GH2, ISO 160, f/5.2, 1/60s, f=33mm
TG-310, ISO100, f/4.7, 1/60s, f=11.8mm

We don't need to look at any crops here, we immediately see that the GH2 image is vastly better. One thing to note, though, is that more of the model is in focus from the Olympus TG-310. It has a deeper depth of focus. This is due to the smaller sensor, which keeps more of the subject in focus. This effect can be both positive or negative, depending on what you want.

Night photo

Finally, I have tried to take night exposures with both cameras. I put them on a tripod, and still left them in full auto, at the widest setting. Here are the results:



GH2, ISO 160, f/5.6, 6s
TG-310, ISO100, f/3.5, 1/30s

In this case, the GH2 noticed that it was on a tripod, and gave me a long exposure of 6 seconds, straight from the full auto mode. This surprised me positively, I had guessed it would push the ISO up to expose it as much as possible during a short shutter time. It also stopped down the aperture to f/5.6, for better depth of focus, and set base ISO. Well done! Just what I would have done myself.

The Olympus TG-310, on the other hand, illuminated the scene with the flash, which gives a pretty good exposure of the handrail in the foreground. But the rest is pitch black.

For the sake of fairness, I gave it another chance, and turned off the flash, while still using full auto. Here is the result, at ISO320, f/3.5, 1/4s:


This image is barely usable, but still much worse than the results from the Panasonic GH2.

Conclusion

A compact camera can be small, cheap, and sport an impressive zoom and macro range. But the image quality tends to be much worse than an interchangeable lens camera with a larger sensor. Of course, there are enthusiast compact cameras too, with a somewhat bigger sensor than basic compact cameras, better and faster optics, and better image processing. But in demanding situations, they still cannot compete with larger sensor cameras.

Another item to point out is the ergonomics. The GH2 is a fairly small interchangeable lens camera, and some complain that the buttons are difficult to operate, being so tiny. But the Olympus TG-310 has even smaller buttons, and requires more dexterity to be operated. It also has fewer buttons, and requires more menu access to change common settings.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Camera bag for Micro Four Thirds: Lowepro Munich 100

For a long time, I have tried to find a camera bag which is suitable for carrying the Panasonic GH2 with one small lens mounted. However, I have not found such a bag. I even tried to make my own bag, but it was not very successful, honestly.

But I think I have found a suitable bag now. It is the Lowepro Munich 100:


The bag comes with a slim strap, and a segment with velcro, which can be used to divide it into sections. If using the bag for the Panasonic GH2, or a similarly sized camera, there is no space for extra sections in the bag, though.

And that is exactly what makes this bag good for my use: My camera fits very snugly into the bag. It is probably the smallest bag which can accommodate it with a prime lens. The bag can be seen below, with a Panasonic GH1 and the Lumix G 20mm pancake lens:


But not only a pancake lens fits into the bag. The camera with an Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 also fits well, as does the Lumix G 8mm fisheye lens. But the Lumix G 14-42mm is too large. And it is difficult to bring more than one lens in the bag, together with the camera.

The bag is fine also for other Micro Four Thirds cameras with built in viewfinders, e.g., the Panasonic G3, or the Olympus OM-D E-M5. Even though the GH3 is bigger, it still fits in the bag with one of the pancake lenses, but not with the fisheye or the Olympus 45mm.

The bag comes with a slim strap, and I don't like it very much. I prefer a sling type strap, to wear the bag diagonally on the back, and easily be able to pull it to my chest for access. I plan to retrofit such a strap, which should be an easy task.



One could ask: If I only plan to bring one lens with the camera, why use a bag at all? I find that a bag is good to have for protection. If it starts raining, the bag will save the camera and lens. And in my area, it is generally below 0°C during winter. The camera is not harmed by this temperature. But the problem is when you bring the camera indoors after it has been exposed to freezing temperature. Moisture will condensate on the outside and inside of the camera and lens, which will, of course, damage it. So leaving the camera in the bag until it has reached a warmer temperature is a good protection when going from outdoors to indoors during winter.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Camera sales statistics from Japan

BCN Ranking produce camera sales statistics from Japan of many kinds. The most interesting, from my point of view, is the category "interchangeable lens cameras". This includes DSLR cameras, typically sold as kits, and mirrorless cameras, including Micro Four Thirds, Sony NEX, Samsung NX, and so on.

Here are the yearly statistics of the 20 most sold models in this category, with 2011 to the right:


To make the statistics more useful, I have compiled it into categories, given by the lens mount. Keep in mind that the percentages are taken from the 20 most selling models only (for 2008-2011):


There is a lot to comment about these statistics. Regarding the big two, Canon and Nikon, Nikon had a smash hit with the D40 in 2006. But since that time, Canon has taken over the leading role.

Pentax were also rather large with the K10D in 2006, offering good features at a reasonable price, but has not been able to retain the same market share since. Their newer models have not had the same combination of value for money and features, in my opinion.

Sony launched their DSLR series aggressively in 2008, and got a very healthy initial market share. Two years later, they repeated the same strategy with the mirrorless Sony NEX system, getting pretty much the same market share.

Micro Four Thirds, of course, has grown quite well in Japan, and are now quite close to Nikon in terms of market share. M4/3 is much more successful than Four Thirds ever was. Olympus has three models on the top twenty list in 2008, but their DSLR models have never since made any significant market impression.

The Panasonic G10 was probably intended to be a volume model, with a low retail cost. Perhaps Panasonic hoped to get a Nikon D40 like hit with it. However, we see that it did not reach the to 20 list at all, and that may be why it was discontinued rather soon.

Also worth noting is that Canon have had two models on the list for three consecutive years: The Canon EOS 5D Mark II and the Canon EOS 7D. This shows that Canon have been able to design camera models that stay relevant and desireable for a long time, however, I anticipate that both are due for a replacement in 2012.